Born in Southport in 1925, William “Bill” Eckersley was a diminutive but constructive, attacking fullback, who may have never played for Blackburn Rovers if they hadn’t been a man short for an “A” team game. Bill stood in, playing in borrowed boots with string for laces, and only two studs in each boot. Although lacking in height and weight, his tackling was keen and he had a tremendous amount of composure and style. He must have impressed during that game because he was offered a place with Rovers, initially as an amateur, later signing professional forms in 1948. This was at a time when most football clubs, including Blackburn, were struggling to re-establish themselves after WWII. It was the last game of the 1948-49 season which saw Bill make his debut for Blackburn Rovers and after quickly establishing himself in the first team over the next few seasons he matured into one of the Rovers outstanding players, and despite his size, he was a feared defender. Whenever Blackburn were playing Blackpool at Ewood Park in those days, I will always remember walking to the game with my Dad and he would say, “I bet Stanley Matthews doesn’t play today” and more often than not he was right and the great Matthews would cry off with an “injury”, coincidence or what? Who knows but certainly Matthews didn’t like playing against Bill because he could match the Blackpool man for pace over 10 yards and that was a big part of Stanley’s game. Bill also had a knack of making a player go the way he wanted them to, then, as they thought they were past him he would stick out his so-called “telescopic leg” and drag the ball back without fouling them. He had a great amount of composure and style and his distribution was first class. His dribbling skills were first class, especially so in a fullback, and he would often forage down the left wing, in fact he was a very good “wing back” well before this particular phrase was thought of. One of the finest goals I have ever seen at Ewood Park or anywhere else for that matter was scored by Bill. He got the ball in his own half in the left back positions, dribbled to the halfway line, and when he was two yards inside the opposition half, instead of passing, for some reason he let fly and the ball simply flew into the net, leaving the opposing goalkeeper with no chance. For a few seconds Ewood Park was stunned, then the crowd erupted as one to salute a fantastic goal. Due to his consistency and all round skills it wasn’t long before the England team came calling and Bill gained selection regularly as Alf Ramsey’s fullback partner, winning 17 caps between 1950 and 1953. He, perhaps, should have won more but it was not to be and his last game for England was the infamous defeat at Wembley by the legendary Hungarian team led by Ferenc Puskas who thrashed England 6-3. Other players as well as Bill didn’t play for England again following that defeat, including Alf Ramsey who of course went on to lead his country to World Cup success in 1966. Although Eckersley’s international career was successful club honours eluded him. The Rovers had two promotion near misses and two FA Cup semi-final appearances in the late 1950s but no honours. However, he was still with the Rovers when promotion to the top division was achieved in the 1958-59 season but he was coming to the end of his career and injuries prevented him from playing many games although team photographs from that season show Bill in the squad. When Blackburn finally reached the FA Cup Final in 1960 bill was again injured and his place at left back went to Dave Whelan, a promising up and coming young player. Rovers lost that game 3-0 with the unfortunate Whelan breaking his left leg just before half time forcing Rovers to play the final 50 minutes with 10 men. Whelan never fully recovered from that injury and his promising career as a footballer was cut short. However, he did go on to great things but that is another story.
Bill Eckersley’s last two seasons at Blackburn Rovers only produced a handful of appearances and eventually a knee injury brought an end to his career in 1961. His testimonial match at Ewood Park was played in front of 21,000 spectators, testament to Bill’s popularity at Blackburn. Bill was one of those players that come along every now and then in as much as he was modest, a good example on and off the field, a gifted footballer who handled the pressures of the game at the highest level. Like a lot of the players of his time Bill never went into management or coaching and basically had little to show money wise for his successful career. He retired to his small sweet shop near to Ewood Park where you could go into prior to a Rovers home game and Bill was always there to serve you. Due to financial problems in his last years Bill went full circle and became a lorry driver again. Can you imagine that happening today, a successful premiership and international player having to drive a wagon to make ends meet? I think not unless drinking or gambling was involved.
Bill Eckersley, like many players of his era was a one-club man, loyal and dependable and he was adored by the Ewood crowd and will be remembered not only by them but all lovers of the great game everywhere as one of the best and classiest fullbacks to grace the game of football.
Bill played for Blackburn Rovers 406 times, scoring 21 goals, 18 of which were penalties. He was an ice-cool penalty taker, played for England 17 times, earned 3 England “B” caps and played for the Football League side 6 times. He died in 1982 at the age of 57 and his ashes were scattered on his beloved Ewood Park, a fitting tribute to a great player who I personally remember as one of the best.
Back row (L-R)
Ray Barlow, Alf Ramsey, Derek Ufton, Ted Ditchburn, Gil Merrick, Jimmy Dickinson, Bill Eckersley, Jimmy Trotter (trainer)
Front row (L-R)
Jimmy Mullen, Stanley Matthews, Stan Mortensen, Billy Wright, Nat Lofthouse, Albert Quixall, Ron Allen