GORDON WEST was a giant of a goalkeeper, with an even bigger personality.
An athletic, ebullient footballer with a bubbly demeanour – he was a hugely popular character at a time when football was sprinkled with larger than life personalities.
But beneath that flamboyant character lay a complex, sensitive man troubled by insecurities.
A chapter in his 1970 autobiography was headed “Nervous Torture”, whilst in the seminal documentary, The Golden Vision, he spoke of being physically sick before going out to play.
But Big Westy overcame those self doubts to establish himself as one of the greatest goalkeepers of his generation. And then, long after he’d hung up his goalkeeping gloves, he became an outstanding ambassador for the Everton Former Players’ Foundation, publicly baring his soul to promote the fine work of that charitable organisation.
It was during those nights that Big Westy revealed the generosity of spirit that his closest friends always knew he possessed.
Aided by the Foundation at a time when he needed support himself, he tirelessly publicised the body’s work and activities – and he showed the world that as well as having been a stunningly successful goalkeeper, he was a lovely, lovely man.
His dearest, closest friend was the iconic Brian Labone – and the duo formed Goodison’s very own Odd Couple – affectionately berating each other with mock banter. But each barb was always delivered with a glint in Brian’s eye and a wink from Gordon. The pair clearly adored each other.
Close friends say that Gordon never truly got over the death of his pal in 2006. They were team-mates for more than a decade, each other’s best men at their respective weddings and remained firm friends after they had retired from the game.
Gordon left Goodison in 1973 for Tranmere, 18 months after his dear friend’s career had been ended by injury – but he left behind a remarkable legacy.
More than 400 appearances, at a time when Everton boasted two of the finest teams the club had ever seen, two league championship medals, an FA Cup winner’s medal, an FA Cup runners up medal and England caps that would have numbered more than just three if he hadn’t chosen to sidestep the 1970 World Cup finals.
“I’m a family man and I want to be with my family,” he explained.
Fans respected that decision, but were left to wonder just what might have been had big Gordon been the man to replace Gordon Banks rather than Peter Bonetti in Leon against West Germany.
Signed from Blackpool in March 1962 for a then record transfer fee for a goalkeeper of £27,000, West’s emergence as a goalkeeper of international renown has its roots in a Boy’s Own story.
A schoolboy pal, Keith Rennie, had been invited for a trial at then top flight Blackpool and was told he could take a friend along.
He invited Gordon and asked “What position shall I tell them you play?”
“Tell them goalkeeper,” replied West, to the astonishment of his pal.
“I’d never played there,” West later recalled “But I’d always had a longing to.”
That impetuosity was a hallmark of his early career, but he ironed out those rushes of blood to become a commanding figure capable of astonishing feats of athleticism.
Former team-mate Alex Parker once recalled: “I looked for the ball in the back of the net knowing we were one down and struggling.
“It wasn’t there. Westy had not only stopped the shot, he had caught it in his arms and was yelling at the defence to move out. I could never decide whether it was a gamble or sheer instinct that sent him sprawling to make that incredible save.”
It says much for West’s talent that his gloves were never considered to be suitably filled until the legendary Neville Southall emerged more than a decade after West’s retirement.
And even then he retained much of that athleticism.
He was introduced at half-time of Mick Lyons’ testimonial at Goodison Park in 1978 on a stretcher covered by a blanket. He then proceeded to leap from the stretcher, replace George Wood in goal and made two stunning reflex saves while Wood went up the other end and scored four goals!
It showed off a rich sense of fun which never left him. The last recipient of the Liverpool Echo’s prestigious Dixie Dean Memorial award, in 2008 he was inducted as an Everton Giant – one of only 21 heroes to have received that honour.
“I must have been alright to have played 400 games,” West shrugged with typical mopdesty. “I did my bit for Everton put it that way. And I was proud to do it.”
Evertonians are proud to call Gordon West one of their own.
Gordon West RIP.