This article covers the life of TL ‘Leslie’ Evans who was born in 1890 and died in 1945, and was written by Rob Sawyer, an amateur sports journalist/historian and member of the Everton Football Club Heritage Society. It was prompted after the society received an enquiry from Geoff Evans about the sporting exploits of his father, TL Evans, and, once written, sent on to Isle of Man Newspapers for publication.
A century ago, as the First World War broke out, the custodian of Stockport County’s goal was one of the most notable sportsmen to come from the Isle of Man: Thomas L. Evans – ‘Leslie’ to those that knew him well.
Leslie was born in Chester in 1890 into a family of wine merchants but his father relocated the family to the Isle of Man in 1903.
He developed into a talented sporting all-rounder: adept at running, swimming, badminton, tennis, golf, football and even billiards.
By the age of 22 he had won The Times Cup 200 yard race in the Manx Swimming Championship for the third consecutive year.
He would continue to swim in the sea in later life – even on Christmas Day – and was an organiser of the annual Ramsey Swimming Gala. His son, Geoff, recalled watching him in the 1930s: ‘He was like something else – effortless at the front crawl – like a torpedo through water.’
The Ramsey Courier recorded his athletic prowess in the 1910 Courier Marathon Race from Ramsey’s Market Place to Andreas in adverse weather conditions: ‘Evans was racing Karran. They had not left Regaby behind any distance before a heavy shower commenced, Evans sought the shelter of a hedge . . . when the rain took off Evans returned to the roadway and the couple ran shoulder to shoulder again.
‘Evans would outpace his rival to win in 28 minutes and 37 seconds.’
At 5ft 10in tall, Leslie became established as Ramsey Football Club’s goalkeeper and, in November 1912, he sailed to Merseyside to try and establish himself as a professional footballer.
As an amateur he made two reserve outings for Everton FC, against Glossop and Bradford.
Liverpool’s Evening Express newspaper reported on the Glossop match: ‘Everton, with a view to strengthening their reserve team, gave a trial to no less than four recruits in today’s game. Everton: Evans, goal, Simpson, and Williams backs, McCulloch A. Browell (captain), and Gosling, half-backs Chedgzoy, Robinson, Gaul, Wright and Lightfoot.
‘The Blues’ custodian easily accounted for a couple of long shots by the visitors’ centre. Nearing the interval Wright barely missed with a header, and at the other end Evans saved brilliantly from Bradley.’
Although Leslie impressed in the two fixtures, the Everton board chose not to offer him professional terms. Leslie was ‘thanked for his services’ but the board minutes of December 3, 1912, recorded that ‘the player’s application for an engagement was declined’.
Despite this knock-back Leslie remained with Everton on amateur forms for several months. In February 1913 the goalkeeper guested for Stockport County in a fundraising match against Stockport Police.
He had a ‘splendid game’ according to press reports and so impressed the Hatters’ manager Harry Lewis that the Stockport board moved to secure his release from Everton.
The next season, Leslie made his County debut in a 2-1 victory over Leeds City on September 13, 1913, whereupon he became a near-ever present in the first team for two seasons in the Second Division (County would finish 12th and 14th).
In April 1914, the Cheshire Football Echo’s ‘Half-Back’ columnist eulogised about the County goalkeeper:’ Since his promotion to the first team he has come on by leaps and bounds. I very much doubt there is a finer custodian in the Second Division.
‘A quiet, good living youth, he is one of those who should make his mark in the profession he has chosen. Two of Evans’ saves at Huddersfield on Saturday were as brilliant as I have yet seen any goalkeeper make.’
The press back home in the Isle of Man followed his progress with interest and the May 1, 1914, edition of the Ramsey Courier noted: ‘It is a source of much gratification to his many friends in Ramsey to hear of Leslie Evans’ success ... at no time has the ex-Ramsey custodian shown better form than lately.’
The Great War led to a hiatus in competitive football. Tommy, as he was known in Stockport circles, would never add to his peacetime tally of 1 FA Cup and 72 league appearances. He made his final competitive appearance in a 2-2 draw with Wolves in April 1915.
Having enlisted as a dispatch rider in the Army Service Corps, Leslie reached France in the autumn of 1915 and distributed messages from a signal centre to the front line at The Somme.
Speaking to the Ramsey Courier, he described the harsh realities of war service: ‘So far I like army life but shan’t [sic] be sorry when it is all over and I can get back to “footer” again. I will close as I have got a chance to get some sleep which I badly want as I have not had any for two nights.’
While en-route to Ramsey during a period of leave he made an appearance for Stockport on New Year’s Day 1917 – appropriately in a friendly fixture against his former team Everton at Goodison Park. The Merseyside club ran out 5-2 winners with Clennell hitting all five for ‘The Toffees’.
Despite the scoreline, press reports were fulsome in their praise for Leslie: ‘Goalkeeper Evans played a capital game and a full length save from Clennell gained him applause, as did also a save from Kirsopp.
‘It is worthy of mention that Evans is home on leave after a long spell in the trenches. Therefore his form was surprisingly good. Of course, he relished the muddy area in which he operated today.’
Leslie would turn out again the following Christmas Day as Stockport won 5-2 in a friendly match at home to Rochdale.
For reasons unclear, Leslie did not pursue his football career after the war – perhaps the events he had witnessed had changed his perspective on life.
He made a farewell appearance at Stockport’s Edgeley Park ground in a Wartime League, Lancashire Section, in a 3-0 defeat by Burnley on March 15, 1919.
Back in the Isle of Man Leslie went into business in 1920 – co-founding Martin and Evans Ltd (Haulage Contractors) in Ramsey.
The company offered charabanc tours of the island with Leslie often at the wheel. Out of the holiday season work focussed on haulage work for farms.
Sadly the business failed to flourish and was voluntarily wound-up early in 1923. Subsequently Leslie worked as a manager at Knowles’ Garage and then travelled the UK in a van promoting the island for the Manx Publicity Board. In his spare time he served as secretary of the Royal British Legion in Ramsey and as a town commissioner.
On the sporting front, Leslie would occasionally play in, and even referee, matches in the island. Stockport County had retained his professional registration resulting in a protest (eventually thrown out) by Wanderers when he turned out for Ramsey in an Isle of Man League match in 1921. Subsequently the English FA agreed to re-designate Leslie as an amateur.
Manx football could be uncompromising and Leslie was the victim of some tough tactics when playing as a left winger in a Northerners versus Easterners game in April 1921.
The Isle of Man Examiner reporter was there: ‘Leslie Evans fractured his nose in two places and had to leave the field. After being attended to, he returned but while heading a ball ... was again laid out. Again he was carried off but once more he returned and this time played valiantly to the end.’
In his later footballing years Leslie turned out for Braddan until injury forced his retirement. He also played cricket for Ramsey.
When hostilities broke out again in Europe, Leslie re-enlisted as a Lieutenant with the 30th Kings Regiment – this time remaining on the home front.
His son, Norman, would also enlist and served in the Middle East. Leslie aggravated an old hip injury when a Bren Gun carrier overturned, and was demobbed. Subsequently he was booked in for a hip operation at the Ministry of Pensions Hospital in Leeds. While waiting for the operation he did a spot of cricket umpiring at Headingley.
Tragically Leslie died in the hospital on October 23, 1945, after suffering a post-operation relapse.
His untimely passing, aged 55, was profoundly felt back in the Isle of Man where his sporting endeavours, sense of fair-play and community work had made him a popular, respected figure.
His body was returned to the island by steamer, whereupon a cortege took him to Ramsey via Laxey. The coffin was covered in the Union Flag and wreathes laid by the family.
Present were Leslie’s father, Fred, and his sons, Norman and Geoff. Sadly Leslie’s wife Nellie (nee Miller) had passed away in the early 1930s.
Tributes were paid with Ramsey FC describing him as ‘one of the most outstanding footballers and sportsmen the island had known in the last 50 years’.
Norman, like his father, was a multi-talented sportsman, who played in goal for Ramsey when they won the Isle of Man First Division championship in 1952. He is also believed to have been on Tranmere Rovers’ books at one stage and played for the RAF team during his national service. Away from football he also participated in water polo, diving and shooting.
Geoff would eventually settle in Marple and, although not a huge football fan, still makes occasional pilgrimages with his family to Edgeley Park – the scene of his father’s finest footballing honours.