Interview: Alex Young, Hearts and Everton legend

Alex Young who played football for both Hearts and Everton. Picture: Cate Gillon
Alex Young who played football for both Hearts and Everton. Picture: Cate Gillon
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THE man they still call The Golden Vision is pacing about in the driveway of his trim home when I arrive. Alex Young wants me to bring my car off the road where workmen’s lorries are constantly reversing and he’s absolutely insistent about this.

I’m soon thinking that his visionary powers must extend to potential scenes of vehicular conflict. After all, that is some nickname.

Gazza and Wazza, JT and Stevie G – how unromantic they are, the appellations of the stars of England’s top flight, present and recent past. The Golden Vision, on the other hand, sounds like a Marvel Comics superhero, fast friend of The Silver Surfer. Centre-forward Young glistened with Everton half a century ago, following some high-scoring dazzle with Hearts. Tynecastle admired him greatly but Goodison absolutely adored him. “I still get Evertonians coming up the road to see me,” he says. “One or two of them want to kiss my feet.”

I have not come to do this. Hearts play Everton’s great rivals Liverpool in a Europa League qualifier next week and that’s sufficient reason for me to want to look up Young in Penicuik, Midlothian, because I’ve long been fascinated by Ken Loach’s film about Everton in the 1960s and the player’s part in it, called naturally The Golden Vision. More of that later but when you delve a little deeper into his back-story you discover he’s well-qualified to talk about Anglo-Scottish contests, or as they used to be called when the gulf in quality wasn’t so great, Battles of Britain.

“I missed out on Europe at the start of my time at Everton but I remember the great games against Dunfermiline,” he says, as he settles into his favourite armchair beneath the monochrome memory of a steepling header while his wife Nancy fetches the tea. This was the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, 1962-63, and Everton lost.

“We won 1-0 at Goodison and it should have been more. In the second leg they were excellent. There was a big crowd inside East End Park and they were really jumping for Dunfermiline. They were a good, hard team, no messing, with a brilliant manager in Jock Stein so every man knew what he was about that night. They equalised early then went for the winner. As a Scot playing in England I hated losing to a Scottish side, and just about every other Scot I knew wanted to remind me of the score for some time after!”

Young would enjoy success two seasons later against Kilmarnock in the same competition. “We beat them easy,” he says of the 6-1 aggregate victory, with our man making his usual deft contribution to the scoreline. And sandwiched in between those ties, in the winter of 1963, there was the unofficial British Championship.

The champions of England and Scotland had competed for the title intermittently, with the contest at its keenest in the 1930s. Nevertheless, Young remembers “a fair bit of hype” about Everton’s double-header with Rangers, the last time the championship would be played home-and-away, with more than 100,000 watching the two games. “We won 3-1 at Ibrox, which was a great victory. We were toying with them by the end. Jim Baxter was in their team and you can imagine how much he didn’t enjoy that.” Young scored that night, along with his fellow Scot Alex Scott, and got Everton’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw on Merseyside to clinch a prize they technically still hold.

Young is 75 now, a great-grandfather, with the flaxen hair of his pomp having long since turned grey, and a few years ago he suffered a stroke. He says he sometimes loses his train of thought, and apologises in advance for this, but his recall seems pretty good to me. For instance, he well remembers the culture shock of another Euro tie, the only one he played for Hearts, against Benfica in the European Cup of ’60-’61, a few weeks before his £42,000 transfer to Everton. “4-4-2. We’d never experienced it before. They were so clever, playing the spaces. We just couldn’t handle them.” Hearts lost 5-1 on aggregate, Young getting their counter, and Benfica went on to lift the trophy, beginning their Eusebio-inspired golden era. “And by the time Everton played Dunfermline Stein had adopted the 4-4-2. The Big Man was aye keen to learn from the continentals.”

Young may have been bamboozled, along with the rest of the Hearts forward line, by Benfica’s modernity, but read the testimonies of those who saw him play – I was too young – and it would seem, especially for Everton, that he was ahead of his time. Although great in the air, he wasn’t your typical centre-forward of that era, a big lump. He liked to drop deep, “so the other team couldn’t get a hud of me”. This sounds like “playing the spaces” by another name and it’s no surprise to learn that he loves watching the current Barcelona side.

The Loach film, a drama-documentary made for the BBC as a Play for Today and first shown in 1968, preserves flickering glimpses of Young’s lovely dribbling for eternity. A fascinating piece of social history – collars and ties on the menfolk, hornrims on the women and Spam and Sunblest on the kitchen tables – it makes no mention of the city of Liverpool being the capital of the pop music universe because a large section of the local population only cared about football, half of which only cared about Everton. They’re seen skiving work, missing the births of their children, hitchhiking in furniture removal lorries and leaving their weddings early to ensure they’re always at the game – and most of the adulation is reserved for the No 9 who scored 22 goals in Everton’s 1962-63 championship-winning season (he also netted 20 and 23 respectively in Hearts’ last two title years, ’57-’58 and ’59-’60),

When Young talks to the cameras he comes across as a most reluctant hero, shy and almost haunted. But still the Evertonians sing: “Saint John’s body lies a mouldering in the grave and Alex Young goes marching on.” He was deified by the fans on the old half-moon terraces at Goodison, something which bemused and perturbed him. “I found the celebrity thing hard to handle, to be honest,” he says now. “Don’t get me wrong, I was hugely flattered and the Everton fans were wonderful to me but we had a right good team at that time and I don’t know why they made such a fuss of me. I knew I could play but I don’t think I was as good as what everyone was saying. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the film right the way through – there’s a copy upstairs but it’s still in the cellophane. And the Golden Vision is a heck of nickname. I mean, it’s just embarrassing – especially for a miner’s son from Loanhead.”

It was footballer-turned-journalist Danny Blanchflower who waxed lyrical for that moniker: “ ... The view every Saturday that we have of a more perfect world, a world that has got a pattern and is finite. And that’s Alex – The Golden Vision.” Everton manager Harry Catterick didn’t entirely concur. “No, he and I didn’t get on. There were quite a few Scots in the team, the likes of Jimmy Gabriel, Alex Parker, Sandy Brown and George Thomson who’d come down with me from Hearts, and he hated that.” Young only won eight caps for Scotland, and his five international goals suggests it should have been more. “That was a time when Anglos were shunned. But if a selector ever did show up at Goodison, the manager would tell him: ‘Don’t bother looking at Young.’ I just wasn’t Catterick’s kind of centre-forward – he liked them all rumbustious – and he was always right on top of me about something.” This was sacrilege to the faithful, of course, and once when Catterick dropped their idol the manager was jostled in the Blackpool car park.

Maybe this lack of love from the boss explains his demeanour in the film. Well, he was always shy, he says, but there’s a very good, and a very sad, reason for this. “I had an older brother, Peter, who died before I was born. He was playing on the pavement in Loanhead, just five years old, when someone pushed him and he was struck by a wee van and killed. So when I came along my poor mother wouldn’t let me out of her sight. She was always telling me the things I wasn’t allowed to do. If I was playing outside she’d stand at the door until it was time for me to come in. All of that will shape you, won’t it?”

Young grew up a Hibs fan, idolising Gordon Smith, and so was thrilled to become a team-mate following the wing legend’s shock switch across Edinburgh to Hearts. “Hibs just gave him away, I never understood that. He was a wonderful player, an inspiration to young guys like me, and kind of like a movie star, really. He drove a fancy Italian sports car with a big belt across the hood and he was the only person we knew who holidayed abroad.” On the first day of the 1960s at Easter Road, Hearts won the capital derby 5-1, Smith scoring one and Young being credited with a hat-trick although he’s still claiming the other goal, listed as an o.g. “We used to murder Hibs back then. I was quite fast and could usually outrun their centre-halves. John Harvey [Hearts’ assistant manager], who was another big encouragement to me, used to say; ‘When you get past them, son, shut the door.’”

Young declined an invitation to be at Hearts’ most recent 5-1 derby triumph, the Scottish Cup final in May. “It would have been too long a day for an old guy like me.” He doesn’t see much of the Jam Tarts, admits he can’t keep up with all the whims of the owner and the changes of manager, but would love them to beat Liverpool who were of course the other big rivals from his time in the game, their centre-halves presenting more of an obstruction than Hibs’. “They had Tommy Smith and Ron Yates, both hard, hard men. I was in the Royal Army Service Corps with Ron for two years and we were bosom buddies but in the Merseyside derby he used to batter right into me, elbows flying.”

Just a few additional aches and pains for The Golden Vision who after every game was sore from blisters on his feet. In yet another example of his remarkable fame, when his problem was mentioned in a newspaper match report, hundreds wrote in with their own remedies including cod liver oil, castor oil, coconut oil, paraffin, goose grease and alum. He laughs. “So tell me, why would anybody want to kiss my feet?” Then he shows me to the door, guides me out of his driveway, watches as I pass the lorries, and only after I’ve turned the corner and out of sight does he go back inside.