Farewell Frank… part rock star, part footballer

IAN LADYMAN: Flamboyant Frank Worthington’s club-record move to Liverpool fell through in 1972 after Bill Shankly made the mistake of sending him to Majorca for ‘rest and relaxation’… He was part rock star, part footballer

  • Frank Worthington died aged 72 on Monday following dementia battle 
  • Worthington was beloved as one of the country’s most flamboyant players
  • He only played eight times for England but was mercurial and unpredictable 
  • Worthington once did 47 keep-ups while being subjected to a rollicking 

In a small terraced house just outside Huddersfield, one of football’s simply inimitable figures got to his feet and began to control an imaginary ball on his left foot.

‘I am juggling with it and juggling with it,’ Frank Worthington explained. ‘I am edging away from goal but suddenly I flick it over my head, spin past Terry Butcher and Russell Osman and… I hit it. Bang! Right in the corner.

‘I pointed to the Main Stand and said to Butcher, “You could have got a better view of that from over there”. He wasn’t impressed.’

Frank Worthington will be remembered for his rare attacking talent and showmanship  

The goal in question was scored for Bolton against Ipswich at Burnden Park in 1979. The telling of a simply unforgettable tale took place just five years ago. Worthington was in his lounge reflecting on the good old days, of which there were many.

‘It wasn’t even my best goal,’ he smiled. ‘Most of the good ones were not caught on camera.’

Worthington died at the age of 72 on Monday, another one of our most beloved players gripped at the end by the evil of dementia.

The stories he leaves behind are those of a rare and balletic attacking talent. He began at his beloved Huddersfield and played much of his domestic football for Leicester. Then came Bolton, Birmingham, Leeds and many others.

He was still at it further down the leagues beyond his 40th birthday.

He played for England but only eight times, his mercurial and unpredictable gifts not always fully appreciated. In this he was not alone. Between them Worthington, Alan Hudson, Peter Osgood, Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles and Charlie George played only 29 times for their country.

Worthington blamed manager Don Revie for his continued omission but a failed medical at Liverpool in 1972 played its part, too. A higher stage would surely have led to a higher calling.

Indeed, so certain was Bill Shankly that Worthington was about to move to Anfield for a club record £150,000 that Liverpool released photographs of his signing. 

But high blood pressure delayed the deal and after Shankly recommended a trip to Majorca for some rest and relaxation, Worthington returned to England to find his readings unchanged. ‘Bill sent me there to have a quiet time but unfortunately it was not so quiet,’ Worthington recalled. ‘That was the end of it. At Liverpool I would have been inspirational.’

Worthington won eight England caps and represented over 20 clubs in a long playing career

Flamboyant Frank Worthington dressed as Elvis Presley supported by the Grumbleweeds Group at the Bailey’s Club in Leicester in 1975

The former Huddersfield, Leicester, Bolton and England striker was a supreme talent

Coyness was never something Worthington embraced. His autobiography was entitled One Hump or Two? It was appropriate.

Worthington liked flamboyant women and it was a taste that extended through striking clothes and an obsession with Elvis Presley. It was also appropriate to his style of play.

Once describing himself as a ‘bit of a peacock’, Worthington memorably spent the entire duration of a rollicking from his Huddersfield manager Ian Greaves doing 47 keep-ups while never once taking his eyes off him.

Greaves loved him, though. He later took him to Bolton and called him ‘the working man’s George Best’.

Former Manchester City forward Mike Summerbee went further, describing him as ‘the best I ever saw in that position’.

Worthington joined Huddersfield Town in 1966 (above) and in a glittering career that saw him play at the top level and for England, he retired in 1991

As for those on the terraces of the North and the Midlands, they simply wanted to be him. In an age of crumbling stadiums and hooliganism, Worthington was an antidote to some of the misery — whoever you happened to support.

Nicknamed ‘The Cowboy’ on an England Under 23 trip, Worthington procured many of his outfits from a supplier in London favoured by Rod Stewart, Adam Faith and Bryan Ferry. His former Leicester team-mate Alan Birchenall once said Worthington wore ‘the tightest jeans of any man I knew’.

On the field Worthington won absolutely nothing but that did not tell his story.

The Leicester team he joined once the switch to Liverpool fell through contained players like Birchenall, Keith Weller and Peter Shilton. They were entertaining but never finished higher than seventh in Worthington’s five years at the club. His contribution was 72 goals in 210 games.

Worthington refused to wear shinpads, playing with only his socks covering his ankles

To lean, tall, languid Worthington, it always looked as though it came easy. It didn’t. Days of youth were spent in the car park outside Huddersfield’s Leeds Road ground banging balls repetitively against a numbered shooting board. Later, the elbows of Jack Charlton, Tommy Smith and Norman Hunter were sharp. ‘I could cope,’ smiled Worthington simply that day at his house five years ago.

Back then, in 2016, the modesty of his circumstances were notable. So too, though, was the humble air of a life well lived and a career well spent. 

On the sideboard of the house he shared with second wife Carol were two photos, both of his time with England. In one, taken before a game in Bulgaria, he was 26 and in his prime. Hair resting on his shoulders. Part footballer, part rock star.

It was some look and he was some player. The story about pointing Butcher to the stands is not backed up by the footage. One for the after dinner circuit, that one. But look again and you will see the referee applauding the goal. When did you ever see that happen?

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