Tributes from the world of football as Frank Worthington passes away
Tuesday, 23rd Mar 2021 22:27 by Tim Whelan
Another day, another former Leeds United player is no more. Unlike the four members of the Revie side we have lost during the last 12 months Frank Worthington didn’t earn his legendary status for his deeds at Elland Road, but he will be remembered as one of the game’s greatest ever characters.
He was a Yorkshire lad, born in Shelf, near Halifax in 1948. His two older brothers both played professional football for Halifax, but Frank started his career at nearby Huddersfield. He said later that he developed his great skill as he learned to evade some hefty challenges from his brothers when they played football together as they grew up.
But his career was never to hit the heights that it should have, given his great talent. In 1972 he nearly joined Liverpool for a then club-record fee of £150,000, but the medical revealed that his blood pressure was too high. Worthington later admitted that he’d been living the high life a bit and Bill Shankly was not impressed, quickly losing interest in the deal.
And his lifestyle did him no favours with England manager Alf Ramsey either, and he was to win all eight of his international caps in 1974, with no World Cup to enjoy as England had failed to qualify. Six of these were under temporary boss Joe Mercer, and Don Revie soon called time on his England career, along with those of several other of the more flamboyant players of the era.
By then Worthington had moved on to Leicester, being idolised by a very young Gary Lineker, who joined the club’s junior ranks during his time there. This was the start of a nomadic tour of a whole series of clubs in the lower half of what was then the first division, and he will be best remembered for a goal he scored for Bolton against Ipswich in 1979.
The ball came to him when he had his back to goal on the edge of the area. He first juggled with it, until he was able to flick it over his head, before he span round and volleyed it past Paul Cooper. By the start of 1982 he had found his way to Birmingham, and with Allan Clarke’s Leeds side in relegation trouble we signed him in a straight swap for Byron Stephenson, with no money changing hands.
In his autobiography ‘One Hump or Two?’ he said that coming to Leeds was joining “the right club at the wrong time”, as he felt that the quietly spoken Clarke kept asking everyone’s opinion but gave his team no direction. We didn’t have one of the worst three squads in the division, with Gray and Cherry still there and players like Brian Flynn and Peter Barnes, but something must have been wrong behind the scenes.
Leeds were desperately in need of inspiration and Worthington provided it, but couldn’t quite save us from relegation on his own. He scored 9 goals in 17 games towards the end of that season, but nobody other than Worthington was to score for Leeds between January 16th and April 13th! For some reason he didn’t play in the deciding final game at the Hawthorns, but I’ve yet to be able to find out why.
Leeds made a reasonable start to life in the second division in 1982/3, and Worthington scored twice in 3-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough in one of the first few games, in a then-rare appearance on Match of the Day. But he wasn’t happy outside the first division and was soon transferred to Sunderland, one of the mediocre sides who had scrambled to safety at our expense the previous May.
After his time at Roker Park he was to play for a further five League clubs, including a brief spell as player-manager at Tranmere Rovers. And such was his love of the game that he continued playing well into his 40s for a series of non-league clubs, including 20 games for Guisley which yielded 7 goals. Finally he got to his home-town club, ending his career as player-coach at Halifax.
After he hung up his boots he was a regular on the after-dinner circuit, though his finances suffered from his lavish spending and the costs of his divorce from his first wife. He was finally made bankrupt after one battle with the taxman, and he had of course played in an era when players earned a pittance compared to the top stars of today.
He was known for always being approachable, and the nearest I got to him was one day at the Football Show at the NEC. He noticed that I’d pointed him out to someone I was with and gave me a friendly wave. In his final years he had to fight a long battle with his worsening dementia, and this has finally claimed him at the age of 72.
Typical of the many tributes paid to him today was this one from Gary Lineker. "A beautiful footballer, a maverick and a wonderful character who was so kind to this young apprentice when he joined the club. RIP Frank [Elvis]." He was certainly one of the great entertainers in an era that wasn’t short of them, and he will be greatly missed.
Photo: Action Images
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