From Birkenhead to El Ballet Azul: The Billy Higgins Story

Rob Sawyer   23/07/2021 5comments  |  Jump to last

Everton’s return to the USA for summer fixtures, after a gap of eight years, offers an intriguing link to the past. One of the Toffees’ opponents will be the Millonarios club of Bogotá, which, 71 years ago, was at the epicentre of a storm over footballers being lured from British clubs to a so-called ‘renegade league’. Everton was one of several clubs caught up in the affair, as players were sounded out about crossing the Atlantic in search of a more prosperous future.

Here is some context to the sensational turn of events. In the immediate post-war era, footballers with English Football League clubs were on a maximum wage of £12 per week. There with some moderate bonuses and long service was rewarded with periodic ‘benefit cheques’. Although well-paid, compared to the typical blue-collar worker, these men - at their playing peak - were far from rich and fully expected to be out of the game by their early 30s.

Enter on the scene two ambitious Bogotá teams: Independiente Sante Fe and Club Deportivo Los Millonarios. The owners of the city rivals were keen to expand their commercial reach, so set up a ten-club professional league called División Mayor del Fútbol Profesional Colombiano (abbreviated to DIMAYOR). In spite of civil unrest and political turmoil in the country, the new league kicked-off for the first time in May 1948. A dispute with the country’s football association, Adefutbol, saw the new competition fall outside of FIFA’s jurisdiction. This enabled the participants to embark on an international spending spree. The Bogotá clubs focussed on acquiring Argentine players - a task made easier by a player unrest in Argentina, at that time. One notable acquisition by Millonarios was River Plate’s highly promising forward, Alfredo di Stefano. Some other clubs turned to players from Uruguay and Peru.

Prising footballers from the British leagues would prove more troublesome but, undeterred, Millonarios and Sante Fe made their first approaches across the pond in 1949. The latter club used subterfuge coupled with impressive powers of persuasion to court Stoke City’s Neil Franklin, who was expected to lead the English national team at the 1950 World Cup, due to be staged in Brazil. The cultured half-back – not unlike Everton’s T.G. Jones in playing style – had been at odds with his employers for some time, so was open to persuasion. Along with teammate George Mountford, Franklin travelled to Colombia America via New York under a cloak of secrecy in May 1950. When word got out of the ‘elopement’, it caused a sensation in the British sports press.

Alfonso Quevedo, the man behind Millonarios, engaged the former Everton and Blackpool striker Jock Dodds as a middleman to negotiate with players in England and Scotland. The ever-entrepreneurial Dodds was acting in contravention of FA Rule 67, banning poaching of players by non-affiliated leagues, and was subsequently served with a ban from all football activity. Unsurprisingly, the Scot contacted several of his former Toffees teammates, promising monthly wages in the region of £100 and signing on fees of £4,000. Billy Higgins, Ted Buckle, Harry Catterick, Jack Hedley and Jack Humphreys were all approached. Buckle, Humphreys and Catterick turned down the offer (the latter after some reflection). Jack Hedley was more tempted and travelled to Millonarios for a week, ostensibly to take a closer look before committing. He returned, with Swansea’s Roy Paul, disillusioned. This precipitated the end of his Everton career and he joined Sunderland, in his native region. In the end, Billy Higgins was the only Toffee to make a go of it in Colombia. This is his story.

William Charles Higgins was born on 26 February, 1924 and raised with his two brothers at 35 Kingsley Street in Birkenhead. On leaving school he gained employment as a general labourer in a nearby soap & glycerin factory, but also signed amateur forms with Everton. The war swiftly curtailed his time at Goodison Park, and he enlisted with the Royal Navy – serving as a petty officer, primarily working on the Baltic convoys. Whilst stationed at Rosyth he met and courted Helen Monteith, who was in the ‘Land Army’. They’d subsequently marry, living with family in Rock Ferry after the war (on joining Everton, Billy got the keys to a club house in Huyton).

A teenage Billy Higgins with a Naval team

A teenage Billy with a Naval team


Billy Higgins serving with the Royal Navy during the Second World War

Billy serving with the Royal Navy during the Second World War

When back home on leave from the Navy, he’d turn out for Tranmere Rovers in war league and cup competitions. In March 1946, shortly after being de-mobbed, he had a try out in Everton’s reserves before signing professional forms and debuting in the semi-final of the Liverpool Senior Cup against, ironically, Tranmere. Switched during the match from inside-left to centre-forward, he bagged a hat-trick in a 3-3 draw. His last goal, a headed effort, drew comparisons with the recently departed Tommy Lawton. His reward was selection in a war league match against Hudderfield, in which he scored the deciding goal. The Daily Post reported: ‘Wainwright was particularly harshly dealt with, and Higgins took more bumps than was necessary. Yet it was he who produced the only goal of the match and kept Everton in the race for the championship. His was a heavy task, but he shouldered it bravely, and brought into his play ideas which promised well for his future career, I liked the way he slipped the ball back to his inside colleagues when he found his path barred.’

Billy’s Football League debut came in September of the same year at, of all places, Anfield. The match ended goalless but, although clearly anxious in his play, he did his future prospects no harm. In his third senior outing he netted the decisive goal in a home victory over Bolton Wanderers. It was described thus in the Evening Express: ‘Eglington’s centre was the acme of accuracy and Higgins accepted it gratefully, nodding the ball into the top right-hand corner of the net.’ According to the Football Echo, he also played a key role in the other goal: ‘The making of this goal is worth recording. Higgins drag centre left the Wanderers’ defence wide open and gave Stevenson his chance – and how he took it.’ 

Billy was clearly a popular squad member with a good sense of humour. When Ted Sagar was asked to name the best mimic and impressionist at the club, in over two decades there, he didn’t hesitate in giving Billy the accolade. The arrival of Jock Dodds in November 1946 limited the Wirral-born forward to just four more first team appearances that season. Much of the remainder of his Everton career would see him in the reserve team, standing-in for the first XI when required. The 1947/48 season saw him restricted to 14 outings – all of them on the left or right wing. The bit-part role continued in the following season but a brief run at centre-forward at the turn of the year produced his most memorable moment in an Everton shirt.

1946-47 Everton team (Billy Higgins third from left on first row sat on the bench)

This came at Maine Road in the 3rd round of the FA Cup on 8 January 1949. It was back to the wall stuff for the visitors, with Ted Sagar playing through the pain in goal and Jack Hedley dismissed with 20 minutes left on the clock. According to Pilot in the Evening Express: ‘Higgins was doing two men’s work’ Then, with the match goalless and just 30 second to play, Wally Fielding fed Alex Stevenson on the right wing. The diminutive Irishman accelerated and crossed the ball - inviting Billy to hurl himself past Joe Fagan and head it past Frank Swift and into the net. Everton supporters spilled on the pitch to mob the goal scorer before being ushered off by police officers. No sooner had the match restarted than the final whistle sounded. According to Pilot, ‘The crowd went delirious with excitement.’ The hero of the hour was immediately displaced by the fit-again Harry Catterick. All but one of his six appearances in the remainder of the season were at outside right.

The following (1949/50) season, with Dodds departed, Billy battled with Jimmy McIntosh and Harry Catterick for the number nine shirt, but most often found himself selected on either wing. He was first approached in November 1949 by a Bogotá -based businessman who originally hailed from Merseyside (he was never publicly identified). Billy declined the offer but had cause to reconsider when the proposed signing-on fee was upped to £8,000 (plus a wage of £135 per month) and he’d incurred the wrath of the Goodison crowd after a dismal 2-1 loss to West Bromwich Albion at the end of March. It was his final appearance in the Everton first team. By his own admission, feeling ‘down in the dumps’, he asked Cliff Britton to be placed on the transfer list. His final outing for the club came in an end of season match against the Liverpool Police Force, notable for one of the linesmen being a certain W.R. Dean (Dixie, presumably). He was on the score sheet in a 3-2 win.

Billy Higgins on a visit to Liverpool waterfront

Billy, flanked by Tommy Eglington and Gordon Watson, on a visit to Liverpool waterfront

Having accepted, in principle, the terms offered to join Millonarios, Billy prepared to fly from London to Bogotá, via New York, to join Mountford and Franklin. He had planned to travel out with the Potters duo, but on the advice of his confidante, ‘Ranger’ – the pen name of Liverpool Echo sports editor Bob Prole - he waited for confirmation that his passage would be paid for by the Bogotá club. Prole had done his best to dissuade the Everton man from leaving Merseyside at all. With no assurances forthcoming from the Colombian capital city, Billy elected to chance it. Just an hour before leaving home to catch the train to London, en route to London Airport, a letter outlining Everton’s fresh terms dropped through his letter box. But it was too late, Billy felt that he’d passed the point of no return. Years later, Billy’s son, Billy Jr. (now known as Bill), would ask his father why he went through with it: ‘I had a chat with him to ask why he did it. He was 26 and had a family to think of. The money he was offered was something he couldn’t turn down. It was something that he thought he had to do. In a way he regretted it – but it all worked out in the end.’

Shortly before boarding his train for London, Billy told Ranger: ‘I hope I shall make good over there. I know it is a big step, and much will depend on the conditions I find in Colombia. I shall do my best, and with the playing experience I have had here, plus coaching experience under the Lancashire and Cheshire FAs, I feel I can make the grade all right. In any case, I am only going to look around, and will not make up my mind until I get there.’

Everton, meanwhile, sought the views of the Football Association, but the Football League had already advised that nothing could be done to stop players such as Billy departing. Sanctions would follow, with all of the players receiving bans which they’d have to appeal on returning to Britain.

Billy arrived at Bogotá in torrential rain. He then had a stilted introduction to Colombian and Argentine teammates, who didn’t speak English – just as he spoke no Spanish. The family, Helen, Helen Jr. and Bill subsequently joined him in Colombia and were billeted at a pension. Bill, just four at the time of the Colombian adventure, has few memories of the Bogotá. The one striking flashback is of the smell of fumes from the congested city traffic, wafting into the family accommodation.

Billy Higgins watching a match in Bogota

Watching a match in Bogota

Billy attended Franklin and Mountford’s debut for Sante Fe and was shocked by the possession style of football, the fencing and ‘moat’ around the pitch and the melee of players, press and hangers-on in the changing rooms after the match. The culture shock continued at his first Millonarios training session, which appeared to lack any structure. The expat later told Ranger of the Echo: ‘It was actually the most comical thing I’ve seen of its kind. It would have broken the heart of Harry Cooke, the Everton trainer. There was nobody in charge, and the players did just as they liked. Half of them were lying on the ground in the sun, and the rest were either chin-wagging or shooting in, in the most aimless fashion imaginable.’

Remarkably, Billy had, at this point, still not signed a contract with Millonarios, and had not received any payment. He was tempted to throw in his lot with Mountford and Franklin at Sante Fe. In the end he negotiated an increased signing-on fee and wage with Millonarios but, discovered later that these were only an addendum to the main contract and were subject to various caveats – meaning that he never saw all of the money ‘promised.’ The high cost of living meant that much of the seemingly generous renumeration was largely swallowed by accommodation and living costs.

The expat striker acquitted himself as well as he could – scoring a hat-trick in one match – but the combination of the language barrier and suspicions from some Latin-American teammates that he was the first of a wave of Brits coming to take their places - made matters very difficult (he got on well with Di Stefano, it should be noted). The style of play, although not vicious, was slyer than he’d experienced in his homeland. Players ‘collapsing’ to eat up time when in a winning position was one well-used tactic. The rarefied atmosphere of the high-altitude venues was another factor to contend with. It must also have been a steep learning curve, also, for the five English referees who were employed by the League. When they tried to adopt a ‘British’ interpretation of the rules, they got short shrift from the crowds, so learned to make ‘regional’ allowances.

The travel involved to away matches was a novelty for Billy, who’d been used to travelling by coach or train with the Toffees. The distances involved, and the state of the highway infrastructure, necessitated the use of air travel. The nearest fixture, at Medellin, involved an hour’s flight whilst Cali and Barranquilla took two-and-a half hours to reach by air.

With the family unhappy in Colombia, Billy was keen to curtail his time with the Ballet Azul but doing so put the payments due to him in jeopardy. When, it became clear that the contract clauses would not be reviewed in his favour, he made a decision in mid-September 1950 to return to Merseyside. He played his final match for the Ballet Azul on 24 September - the Colombian Cup Final - before flying with his family to New York via Havana (to their credit, Millonarios did meet their travel costs). After a brief stay with friends in the Big Apple, they boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth on 4 October, bound for Southampton. Before setting sail, he spent much of his dwindling funds on a cowboy outfit for son Bill, a doll for daughter Helen and ‘nylons’ for his wife.

During the voyage it was reported in the British press that: ‘Higgins strolled among the luxury shops on board the liner Queen Elizabeth in New York today - but stayed outside.’ Ranger remained in close touch with Billy, having negotiated exclusive rights for the Echo to the story of the player’s Colombian experience (told over several installments, the tale, though conforming to some stereotypes of the time about life abroad, provides great insights).

The Cunard ship sailed up the Solent and into dock on 12 October, to be greeted by pressmen and a crew from Pathé News who filmed them disembarking – before grabbing an interview. Here’s an extract from it:

Reporter: ‘Why did you go to Bogota, Bill?’

Billy: ‘Well, I thought it would be a good move and security for my wife and my two children. The money looked good, and I didn’t see anything else at the time, so I just packed-up and went.’

Reporter: ‘What made you come back, Bill?’

Billy: ‘Well, it didn’t really turn out the way I expected, and I had to think of the wife and kids again…’

Reporter: ‘Have you any plans for the future?’

Billy: ‘I haven’t any other job besides soccer, so I think I will apply for reinstatement [and] see what the FA has to say about it.’

Helen was then asked for her thoughts on being a footballer’s wife in Colombia. She replied: ‘We went out to Bogotá to settle our future and we are right back where we started. We are hoping to find a home soon, but it’s good to be back in England.’

Helen and Billy Higgings dining on the Queen Elizabeth, 1950

Helen and Billy dining on the Queen Elizabeth on the voyage back to Britain in October 1950


Disembarking at Southampton (young Billy in his new cowboy outfit and young Helen with her new doll) and facing the press

Although ostensibly penniless, Billy had managed to wire some funds (£400) from Colombia to his brother Den, to help them get by on their return to Britain. Back on Merseyside, the Higgins family was given free lodgings by a kind-hearted person as the Everton club house had been surrendered. A pressing task was to write to the FA seeking reinstatement. Billy attended a Joint Commission hearing on 7 November (Everton manager Cliff Britton and the club chairman were also in attendance as the Toffees had a vested interest). The so-called ‘Bogotá Bandit’ was informed by the panel that his ban would be lifted at the end of that month, so he’d be free to start playing for a Football League club.

Out of contract and persona non-grata at Everton, he had his name circulated by the club. Expressions of interest were received from Racing Club de Paris, Luton Town, Port Vale and Sheffield United. Naturally, it was Ranger who got the scoop that Billy would eschew Football League clubs and sign for a Welsh club - later identified as Bangor City FC, which had just joined the Cheshire League (the Farrar Road outfit beat off competition from Rhyl). Bangor could offer a healthy wage and free lodgings, so Billy financial security for his family over a future in English football. Missing out on a transfer fee, Everton were non-plussed. Cliff Britton phoned Mr. Charnley of the Football League but was advised that there was nothing prevent players being ‘tempted from League football’. All Charnley could suggest was that Everton protest against the three-year contract given to Billy by the Gwynedd club.

The team sheet for Bangor City in March 1951, featuring three former Evertonians

The team sheet for Bangor City in March 1951, featuring three former Evertonians

Effectively a free agent from 1 December, having not been retained by Everton, Billy played his first match for the Citizens, at Runcorn, the very next day. He scored but his new team fell to defeat by the Linnets. He’d line-up alongside former Toffees Cecil Wyles, Peter Corr and Norman Greenhalgh in the Welsh city. Billy’s arrival helped steer the club, after a shaky start to the season, to a seventh-place finish. The Higgin’s family were accommodated above a jewellers shop on Bangor’s high street, owed by a club director. In July the following year, the licence of the White Lion pub in the city centre was transferred to Billy and the family moved in there. It was there that a third child, Sandra, was born. By now Billy was working for the football club in a player-coach role, as well as captaining the side, having gained his coaching qualifications in the immediate post-war years.

After two-and-a-half happy seasons at Bangor, Billy moved to Bideford Town of the Western League as player-manager in the summer of 1953. One North Wales newspaper report lamented: The departure of inside-forward Billy Higgins to Bideford Town as player-manager has robbed Bangor City of an outstanding personality.’ Bill recalls that the stay on the Devon coast was a fleeting one: ‘We stayed at Westward Ho! in a caravan for the first few months until they found us a club house. The next thing I knew we were upping sticks again and landed in Canterbury just before my eighth birthday.’

Canterbury would become Billy’s home for the rest of his life. He was player-manager of Canterbury City of the Kent League for several years and played a role in the design and delivery of their new stadium (since demolished). Bill recalls: ‘When Dad first came Canterbury City, it was full of cracking ex-pros from all over the country – coming to the end of their careers and having a swansong.’

Billy Higgins as player-manager for Canterbury City

Billy front and centre as player-manager for Canterbury City

A third daughter, Carol, was born in the club house provided to the family. Bill recalls: ‘Dad actually delivered the baby on the Saturday morning and played in the afternoon! That was a big thing in the local paper at the time.’ After a few years he took on Imperial Hotel in the town. He was well-suited to the job, according to his son: ‘He was a character and, typical of people from the Liverpool area, he had a quick sense of humour and one-liners. People went to see him at the pub rather than for a drink as he was the life and soul of the party.’

When Real Madrid came to Scotland to play Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup Final (a 7-3 win for Los Blancos), Billy sent a telegram to his old friend Alfredo Di Stefano at the team hotel, wishing him the best of luck for the match. He received one back from the Madrid star, thanking him for the kind wishes and returning the warm sentiments.’

Whilst running the Imperial Hotel, in his spare time Billy managed Brett Sports, a Kent amateur side, and still donned his boots, on occasion. His son, who also played for the team, reflects: ‘I was lucky enough to play with him on one or two swiftly occasions when he was in his late 30s. It was quite something. You’d just get one shout off him, and he’d knock it for 30 or 40 yards and land it on a pin head. And if I didn’t do anything with it that was my fault!’ On occasion, Billy returned to Canterbury City to assist, if they were between managers. He also gave football coaching sessions at local schools and youth clubs for a number of years.

Billy Higgings at a meeting of Kent football officials in the 1970s

Billy (front left) at a meeting of Kent football officials in the 1970s

Having lived several health conditions, Billy died at the Imperial on 23 March 1981, having suffered a heart attack. Helen, his widow, who is still with us and in her 90s, kept the pub on for a further 18 months before selling up. The family continue to reside in Kent but remain staunch Evertonians.

Footnote - What became of Millonarios?

The suspension of Colombia from FIFA in 1951 resulted in many expatriate players leaving DIMAYOR clubs. Alberto di Stefano moved on in February 1951 and, after seemingly agreeing to join Barcelona, pitched up at Real Madrid, where he gained legendary status. Millonarios participated in a ‘Small Club World Cup’ in 1952 and 1953, winning the tournament at the second attempt. The club entered a period of financial peril in recent years but was rescued by a 4,000-strong fan consortium called Azul y Blanco. Along with Racing Club de Lens and Calcio Padova, the club is now owned through an investment vehicle, linked to businessman Joseph Oughourlian.

‘Millos’ is one of only three clubs (along with Santa Fe and Atletico Nacional) to compete every year in the Colombian first division. The hotly-contested derby matches with Sante Fe, at their shared stadium (Estadio Nemesio Camacho El Campín), are dubbed El Clásico Capitalino.

Further reading:

Billy Higgins’ column in the Liverpool Echo from October 1950, transcribed on the Blue Correspondent website
Flight to Bogotá by John Leonard (Pitch Publishing)
Who Wants To Be A Millonario? | EFC Statto – by EFC Statto/Bradley Cates

Thanks and acknowledgements:

Bill Higgins
Billy Smith
Liverpool Echo
British Pathé 
Dafydd Islwyn

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Reader Comments (5)

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Peter Mills
1 Posted 23/07/2021 at 17:36:58
A great article, Rob. Billy must have been quite a character, his story would make a good movie.

I’ve never heard of the ‘Small Club World Cup’ before. I wonder if Rafa will set his sights on it?
John McFarlane Snr
2 Posted 23/07/2021 at 18:53:42
Hi Rob,

Another excellent submission. Although I was attending games in 1948, I must admit that I have no recollection of seeing Billy Higgins. I do however recall the furore caused by Billy Higgins, Jack Hedley, Neil Franklin, George Mountford, and Charlie Mitten leaving to play in Colombian football. The fact that the recently formed League was (as I understand it) not a recognised member of FIFA allowed them to do so. Once again, thanks for a stroll down 'Memory Lane'.

Phil Parker
3 Posted 24/07/2021 at 11:20:14
Fascinating Rob, great piece on strange times for footballers post-war, trying to better themselves in totally alien environments. An Evertonian good friends with Di Stefano. Brilliant. Thanks Rob.
Dave Abrahams
4 Posted 25/07/2021 at 20:41:50
Rob, are you sure the game in the cup versus Man City was at Maine Road? I'm sure I saw Billy Higgins score against Man City in the cup but at Goodison Park around the time you state it was at Maine Road.

Another story I remember reading about Billy was he was kidnapped by Liverpool students leading up to Christmas and they demanded a ransom be paid by Everton FC before he was released. Possibly it was a stunt created at the time.

David Peate
5 Posted 31/07/2021 at 13:31:05
I can recall one specific incident involving Billy Higgins. It was a Liverpool Senior Cup match at Goodison Park against Tranmere Rovers. The ball came across and the Rovers goalie came well out of his goal to challenge Billy. He was at full stretch with his hands high in the air. Billy outjumped him and headed the ball. I have never seen anyone rise so high to head a ball. It was a lasting memory of Billy Higgins before his departure.

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