Joe Royle: I Am A Fairly Coolish Guy... But Goodison Overwhelmed Me Once

In an interview originally published in the Club’s matchday programme for Sunday's Premier League meeting with Chelsea, Everton Giant Joe Royle talks about his hard-nosed response to career-reducing injuries, temporarily losing the use of his legs, a Goodison Park opportunity he wrongly thought had passed him by, overseeing one of the great Everton performances, cutting short a holiday to sign an “awesome talent”, banging on the Goodison manager’s door aged 10… and a whole lot more.

Joe Royle rarely reached for dressing room histrionics as a managerial tool.

A slovenly first half from his Manchester City team at Blackburn Rovers, however, necessitated a departure from type.

“I was never a ranter and raver, but we had to get things going,” says Royle. City, losing 1-0, scored four unanswered second-half goals to confirm promotion to the Premier League.

That one instance of flying off the handle, then, was a calculated move. And Royle’s ability to keep his emotions in check survives today.

He is inscrutable, for example. when watching Everton in action.

“It doesn’t mean I don’t care, it’s just the way I am,” says Royle, the corners of his mouth subtly inching skywards.

“I think I am a fairly coolish guy, really.”

Royle was unequivocal when asked about a favoured location for an interview charting the career of, indisputably, one of the greatest living Evertonians.

“What, other than Goodison Park?” he shot back.

So here he is, sitting in a television studio nestled between the stadium’s steepling Main Stand and the one-deck Sir Philip Carter Park Stand, opened shortly before Royle was willingly railroaded into accepting the Everton manager’s job in November 1994.

Visits to this ground, where Royle began watching matches before he was out of short trousers and scored the opening two of 119 Everton goals in a 3-1 victory over Chelsea in April 1967, invariably stir heightened feelings.

Royle scored for Norwich City at Goodison three days after his 32nd birthday. It would be the final goal of a playing career cut awfully short by injury.

“I received a round of applause from the entire stadium,” says Royle.

“I’m not a big softie, not an emotional person.

“But I felt very emotional that day.”

Royle called on his phlegmatic temperament following a previous strike against Everton.

Joe Royle
I lost one-and-a-half stone and had to start again. If I am honest, I was never the same energetic, long-striding centre-forward.

He recognised “my game had changed” – not for the better – after two slipped discs in his back were discovered towards the end of 1972.

“How that happened, I still don’t know,” says Royle, who was originally admitted to hospital for treatment on long-standing sciatica.

“I was told surgery was my only hope of playing again. They operated the next day and, wonder of all wonders, I was up and walking.

“But I probably did too much. Things progressively worsened and I was briefly paralysed from the waist down.

“I lost one-and-a-half stone and had to start again.

“If I am honest, I was never the same energetic, long-striding centre-forward.”

Bob Latchford’s arrival from Birmingham City in February 1974 hastened Royle’s exit and he joined Manchester City on Christmas Eve of the same year.

Royle sounds a resounding ‘Yes’ when asked if he went to Maine Road with a point to prove.

Everton manager Billy Bingham “didn’t fancy” Royle, in the player’s view. When he struck in a 3-0 victory for City over his old club, then, “half of me was tugging me towards the dugout to celebrate, but the sensible half said, ‘Leave it’.

“My Everton career should have been longer,” adds Royle.

“I can’t blame Billy Bingham for selling me, but I can disagree with him over the way it happened.”

Royle’s memories stretch back to attending Ranworth Square Primary in Norris Green, specifically the school’s arrangement with Everton for free match tickets.

“The headmaster would send me on the bus and I’d knock on Mr Carey’s [manager, Johnny Carey] door, collect the tickets and take them back to school,” says Royle.

“I was standing over there more than 60 years ago, under the old clock,” he continues, levering that familiar frame, with its square shoulders and sturdy top half, to gesture towards the Paddock on the opposite side of the stadium.

Royle is proud as punch relating a much more recent episode.

Roughly one hour earlier he joined a presentation party, as son Lee’s structural insurance company handed over a cheque for a project associated with Everton in the Community, the Club’s official charity.

Family frequently features in Royle’s recollection of events, with Janet, the wife he plainly adores, never far from conversation.

Royle was one of four ever-presents in Everton’s 1969/70 championship-winning campaign. His 23-goal tally from 42 First Division matches was second only to Jeff Astle’s 25. Rather than feel slighted over an omission from England’s World Cup squad, however, Royle channelled his energy into weightier domestic arrangements.

“I was getting married and had a partner who was worried she’d have to change everything, so I wasn’t concerned about the World Cup,” says Royle.

Lee’s birth the following March coincided with the week that, as Royle has it, Harry Catterick’s Everton “died”.

Everton drew 0-0 with Panathinaikos in Greece to lose a European Cup quarter-final on away goals.

Manager Catterick fell ill on the return flight and was absent for the following Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final with Liverpool.

So when an Everton side leading 1-0 and “playing as well as we had for a long time” lost defender Brian Labone to injury, the leadership vacuum was fatal.

“Sandy Brown came on and wasn’t big enough to handle [striker] John Toshack,” says Royle.

“I’m pretty sure Harry would have put me at centre-half, to see if I could handle John. We lost 2-1 and that was the graveyard week.”

There is no trace of bitterness over the injury that inhibited Royle, albeit one related incident still evokes anger.

“A journalist called my wife and asked if it was true I had cancer,” says Royle. “She broke down.”

Royle’s attitude to the mental challenge of managing a reduction in his powers was characteristically stoic.

“The mentality side didn’t come into it,” he asserts.

“I had a wife and, by now, two children to support.

“Three weeks before going into hospital, I scored for England against Yugoslavia and was being called one of the best young strikers around.

“All of a sudden, I was fighting for a club career, never mind an international career.

“My later days at Everton weren’t memorable. I wouldn’t say I was stealing a living, I always gave everything I could.

“But I wasn’t the goalscorer or leader I had been.”

Arch-competitor Royle maintains he “scored in every round” of Manchester City’s 1976 League Cup success. His ‘goal’ in the final against Newcastle United was ruled out.

“I was given offside – but I was never quick enough to be offside,” says Royle.

“I am sure VAR would have helped me.”

Royle succumbed to a knee problem while playing for Norwich, following nearly three years at Bristol City, who he joined from Manchester City in 1977.

“I was spending more time by the ice machine than on the pitch,” says Royle, “so I wasn’t surprised when I was told, ‘Joe, it’s over’.”

Royle received a portion of Norwich’s insurance money but couldn’t afford to sit idle.

“I had a wife and three children (Royle has three sons) and a Labrador and needed to support them,” he shrugs.

Joe Royle
I was spending more time by the ice machine than on the pitch, so I wasn’t surprised when I was told, ‘Joe, it’s over’.

At the extraordinarily tender age of 33, Royle was presented with a heavily-caveated opportunity to manage Oldham Athletic.

“The chairman said, ‘We’d like to offer you a one-year contract for £15,000, we’re not car salesmen, you’ll need your own car, we’re not estate agents, you’ll have to find your own house, and, by the way, we’re skint, you’ll have to sell somebody, quickly’,” says Royle.

Prior to the Oldham post, Royle had “gone back to selling one or two cars (Royle and Howard Kendall joined forces with a panel beater and sold auction-bought vehicles to supplement their Everton playing incomes) to turnover a few bob for Mrs Royle to spend”.

His 12-year body of work with Oldham was astonishing. The club, which last week lost its 115-year-old Football League status, had a three-year top-division stay following promotion in 1991. They reached two FA Cup semi-finals and there was a League Cup final defeat by Nottingham Forest, which Royle recently rewatched for the umpteenth time.

“We’d already played 60-odd games and I thought we didn’t look right,” says Royle.

“Watching again, we were better than Forest on the day, but, boy, were we tired.”

Joe Royle
I learned from one manager who had great problems telling the truth that you might have to tell a player something he doesn’t like, but don’t lie to a footballer.

Royle has a simple explanation for what appeared an effortless flair for football management.

“I think I had a way with people,” he says.

“I learned from one manager who had great problems telling the truth that you might have to tell a player something he doesn’t like, but don’t lie to a footballer.

“When they are all together, they talk.

“When you get a reputation as a fibber…”

The passage of time has done nothing to alleviate Royle’s pain over excluding John Ebbrell from Everton’s 1995 FA Cup final squad.

Midfielder Ebbrell was suspended for the semi-final demolition of Tottenham Hotspur, which Royle calls “one of the best performances I’ve seen from an Everton side”.

Royle, who owns a lovely turn of phrase, colourfully noted the demise of a prematurely-hyped ‘Dream Final’ between Spurs and Manchester United. A popular Everton fanzine duly introduced a cartoon strip titled Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamquote and rarely wanted for material.

Royle thought “my chance had gone” when Everton appointed Mike Walker as boss in January 1994.

He had no issues with Peter Johnson, then, when the Chairman trumpeted the arrival of Everton’s new manager, as Royle, ostensibly at Goodison for talks over the position, unknowingly walked into a shareholders’ meeting in a stadium lounge.

He was a long way towards completing the primary task of securing Premier League safety – Royle took over after 14 games yielded eight points – when a lacklustre Everton trailed 1-0 midway through a game at QPR in March 1995. 

“I’d started with Brett Angell up front,” says Royle, “I took him off and, unfortunately, had to say, ‘Listen, son, our fans aren’t going to have you – we will do what we can to help you on your way’.

“Daniel Amokachi came on, he wasn’t fit, but did what he does and chased around. He was low and chunky and hard to play against.”

Everton won 3-2, further evidence of Royle steeling the “soft centre” he’d briskly identified.

“We perfected winning games without playing at our best,” says Royle.

“But at our best, we were exceptionally good.

“They talk now about high and low press, this press and that press, we were pressing before ‘em all.”

The Everton team that finished sixth in 1995/96, says Royle, “was the best I managed”; Andrei Kanchelskis, the formidable winger, “the most skilful player I managed”.

“He was an awesome talent, Andrei, I still don’t know why Manchester United let him go, I’ll ask Sir Alex [Ferguson, manager] one day,” says Royle.

He was alerted to Kanchelskis’ availability when the Russian’s translator, George Scanlan, called to alert Royle the player was set to join Middlesbrough.

“I was on holiday and left my wife and kids to meet Andrei at his house in Cheshire and, fortunately, we got him,” says Royle.

The story of Royle’s muddled departure on transfer deadline day in March 1997, amid an aborted move for Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo, is well told.

Here is Royle’s take.

“I wanted to sign Flo,” begins Royle, who attributes his team’s drop off to injuries and a “brittleness” beneath 14 senior players.

“Peter Johnson didn’t want to spend the money.

Joe Royle
We ended up parting by mutual consent. Or resignation. Take your pick. I felt completely empty. It was like a divorce and took a long time to get over.

“There would have been good profit in the player, by the way.

“I went to see Peter and all I wanted was to get matters straight, I felt things were strained.

“He thought I’d gone over to resign, which I hadn’t.

“But we ended up parting by mutual consent. Or resignation. Take your pick.

“I felt completely empty.

“It was like a divorce and took a long time to get over.”

Royle resurfaced with Manchester City and completed successive promotions in 2000 following that half-time blow-up at Blackburn.

City didn’t survive their first Premier League season, however.

“It is too long ago and bad memories,” says Royle, who managed Ipswich Town for nearly four years until 2006 and in 2014 returned to Everton for a position with the Club’s Under-23s.

He left for the final time in December 2017, nearly 52 years after a debut on a bitter January afternoon at Blackpool that is ordinarily recalled in the context of Everton’s youngest player, 16-year-old Royle, supplanting Club idol Alex Young.

“The fans were in uproar about Alex being dropped, rather than me playing,” says Royle.

“I got two buses to the ground with the supporters, they didn’t know who I was.”

The 13-year-old Royle was “agog” to find himself with a two-way choice over his football future.

Everton or Manchester United represented a substantial upgrade on previous plans.

Joe Royle
The Royle side of the family was from Manchester and my dad would have loved me to go to United. But it was Everton for me.

“My father,” starts Royle, “was a nightclub pianist, concert trained, a very talented man.

“He played jazz for a living. The morning after performing at a club in Wales, he said, ‘Joe, I spoke with the manager of Bethesda Athletic and they’d love to give you a trial’

“I thought, ‘Wow’. Until the following week, when I got home to my mum telling me there was an Everton scout in the front room and a scout from Manchester United in the back room.

“The Royle side of the family was from Manchester and my dad would have loved me to go to United.

“But it was Everton for me.”

What, then, would the schoolboy Joe Royle have said, if assured that more than six decades later, he’d be enshrined in Everton legend?

A league title-winning player, the Club’s fifth highest goalscorer, with 276 appearances, and the manager who won Everton’s fifth FA Cup.

Royle considers the question. A man who appreciates the power of words, he knows when very few are required.

“Thank you,” says Royle, the epitome of a fairly coolish guy.