“The game will never see the like again” - Halifax Town historian Johnny Meynell on the career of Frank Worthington

Was there ever a greater example of the footballing maverick than Frank Worthington, whose death was announced on Tuesday morning?

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 3:19 pm
English footballer Frank Worthington of Leicester City FC, 7th August 1973. (Photo by Arthur Jones/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In an era of rutted and sodden pitches, tough tackling defenders and heavier balls which symbolised the game in the late sixties and early seventies, Frank was a breath of fresh air, lighting up games with silky skills and deft touches whilst managers and coaches were looking for something a tad more regimented.

Frank was, without doubt, Halifax’s most footballing son. Born in Shelf on 23 November 1948, Frank was part of a footballing family.

His father Eric had turned out for Halifax Town during the war, and older brothers Dave and Bob had followed the path to The Shay.

By the time Frank joined the club as a schoolboy in 1963, Dave was already a first teamer and Bob was knocking on the door.

Frank, hitherto a local league player with Lightcliffe and Ripponden United, turned out for the club’s youth team, evidently intent on living the dream with his hometown club, one he’d supported as a boy when he had been mesmerised by the mercurial talents of George Whitelaw, whose antics often had the crowd in stitches.

Frank wanted to be like him, and had the powers that be had more foresight, then Frank would have started his professional career with them rather than neighbouring Huddersfield Town.

Whisked from under their noses in April 1964 by former Shay boss Harry Hooper, then chief scout at Huddersfield, Frank turned professional in October 1966, and having progressed through the youth and reserve teams, made his League debut in a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace the following February.

He featured regularly the following term, developing into a centre-forward with a devilishly left foot, and in 1969-70 was one of seven ever-presents as the Terriers, under Ian Greaves, won the Second Division championship, when he was top scorer with 18 goals.

He helped the side consolidate in the top flight, but their stay lasted just two seasons, and following relegation in 1972, there was an exodus of players, Frank among them.

But his expected move to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool never materialised when he famously failed a medical – twice. After the first revealed high blood pressure, the result no doubt of his high living, Frank was told by the club doctor to take a holiday. Frank duly did, enjoying the excesses which life offered him, only to find that by the time of his second medical, his blood pressure was even higher! The deal was called off.

So it was that Frank joined First Division Leicester City, becoming part of the exciting side assembled Jimmy Bloomfield.

He was revered at Filbert Street and later voted by the fans as their favourite-ever player.

But though he never turned out for any of the recognised major forces, Frank did win international honours, and after making two appearances for the England Under 23 caps under Sir Alf Ramsey, progressed to the senior side, handed the first of eight full England caps by Joe Mercer, caretaker in the wake of Sir Alf’s sacking.

He scored twice, an instinctive back heel against Argentina at Wembley and a solo goal which was the winner against Bulgaria in Sofia on an end-of-season tour in 1974 after England had failed to qualify for that year’s World Cup Finals.

Frank’s hopes of helping England qualify for the next finals were dashed when he and fellow mavericks Tony Currie, Stan Bowles and Alan Hudson were jettisoned by new boss Don Revie.

He was England’s loss and Frank continued to entertain the crowds in domestic football, scoring some wonderful goals, none more so than the one he superbly executed when playing for Bolton Wanderers against Ipswich Town in April 1979, when he juggled the ball just outside the area, flicked it over an out-rushing defence, then ran through to volley the ball home with his sweet left foot.

That was a season in which Frank was leading goalscorer in the First Division, and there were whispers of an England recall under Ron Greenwood.

It never materialised, and after leaving Bolton, Frank continued to enjoy playing the game with a plethora of clubs up and down the country and abroad.

His next stop was Philadephia Fury in the North American Soccer League, whilst he played under former Halifax Town half-back Jim Smith at Birmingham City, helping them to promotion to the top flight in 1980 a year after relegation.

He then wowed the crowds at Leeds United and later served Sunderland, Southampton and Brighton & Hove Albion before sampling management with Tranmere Rovers, with the wily George Mulhall as his assistant. When the club went into administration in 1987, the pair left and Frank continued on his merry way with Preston North End, Stockport County and a succession of non-league clubs.

He finished it all where he started, back at The Shay, undertaking a coaching role under manager John McGrath during the relegation season of 1992-93, occasionally turning out for the reserve side.

Frank never lost his appetite for a game, and showed he still had tricks up his sleeve when playing in testimonial and charity matches, even after he’d turned 60.

He was still a joy to watch. He was also an entertaining after-dinner speaker, with tales aplenty from his time in the game which saw him make a total of 882 first class appearances and yielded 266 goals.

Major honours eluded him – he was an FA Cup semi-finalist with Leicester in 1974 and Southampton ten years later – but nobody could ever doubt his love for the game and the joy he brought to it.

Family excepted, if football was his first love, then his second was certainly Elvis (Presley), and Frank could often be heard impersonating him.

Then there was his fashion sense. Players recalled how, after being called up for the England Under 23s by Sir Alf in June 1972, Frank turned up wearing a green velvet jacket, a flowered shirt, leather trousers and cowboy boots. Some things never change.

In later life Frank went to fulfil an engagement at Harrogate Railway, and needing somewhere to slip into his gear, went to the home of a (balding) club official, whose lasting memory was of Frank stood on the landing wearing a chequered shirt and Stetson hat, shouting down and asking if he’d got a hairdryer.

Frank never lost his sense of humour and was engaging company, and it was tragic that he should succumb to the dreaded Alzheimer’s that has robbed so many former footballers of a longer life.

But he leaves a lasting legacy, a showman if ever there was one, but above all, fantastic football memories from a time when he was the idol of thousands.

The game will never see the like again.