What a footballer Frank Worthington was.
A brilliant striker, streamlined, classy, and a master of the football with a left foot to die for. A 26 year career with a multitude of clubs, and sadly, not a major trophy in sight.
It could have all been so different after signing for Liverpool in 1972. The Anfield Reds were about to embark on their most dominant period and Worthington would have been there at the outset, but he failed the medical. Some say he went for his check-up ‘under the influence’, but the official reason given was high blood pressure.
He joined Leicester City instead, where he made 210 league appearances, scoring 72 goals.
Worthington won two Second Division titles, and was top scorer in the First Division in 1978/79 with unfashionable Bolton Wanderers, the season he scored that magnificent Goal of the Season against Ipswich. Worthington juggled the ball moving away from the goal, then kicked it backwards over his head, turned, and placed a controlled volley past a despairing Paul Cooper from 18 yards.
It was a thing of beauty. Pure class, Theatre, precision, inventiveness and perfect execution all rolled into one. Firmly stored in my catalogue of favourite goals of all time, only Frank could score one like that.
In an age when gifted English players with flair tended not to be trusted he won only 8 caps, all in 1974; six under caretaker Joe Mercer, two under Mercer’s successor, Don Revie. He scored in friendlies against Argentina and the winner in Sofia against Bulgaria.
Frank first came to my attention as part of the Huddersfield Town promotion side of 1969/70. I looked out for Huddersfield knowing Northern Ireland’s Jimmy Nicholson was a player there, and both Frank and Jimmy were two of an amazing tally of seven Town players who played in all 42 leagues games that season. You could never imagine such a scenario these days.
Worthington, never compromised his ideals on how the game should be played; with an abundance of flair and great showmanship. He may not have won much silverware, but his legion of admirers will be glad he played the game the way he did.
He was once labelled, ‘the working man’s George Best,’ by his former manager at Bolton, Ian Greaves. Worthington was flamboyant and led a colourful lifestyle both on and off the pitch. There were certain similarities with the Belfast Boy, a silkiness of touch borne from wonderful natural ability and a liking for the high life.
This endearing combination and an innate sense of humour ensured a successful few years on the after-dinner circuit after his playing career had ended. In a SHOOT magazine Focus feature Frank described his most difficult opponent as ‘the tax man’.
He was a huge Elvis fan and at one time sported the same outrageous sideburns espoused by his idol. When player-manager of Tranmere Rovers, a position he was probably not exactly cut-out for, he kept a framed photo of ‘The King’ on his desk.
Former England and Barcelona striker Gary Lineker was one young player who looked up to Worthington as a hero. Himself an ex-Leicester striker, Lineker tweeted, “Profoundly saddened to hear that Frank Worthington has died. He was my boyhood hero when he was at LCFC.
“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].”
I was lucky enough on one completely random occasion to see the great Frank in action. Unfortunately it wasn’t on the pitch, but in a packed-full, busy Idols bar in Newcastle city centre. I was there for drinks before a Manchester United game at St James’ Park.
There was that annoying muffled sound quality in the venue, poor acoustics, dodgy equipment and the gaggle from a crowd already ‘half in the bag’. The compere kept mentioning the arrival of a special guest that sounded to me like ‘Frank Worthington’, but dismissively I continued on with my pint and chatting with my friend.
Couldn’t be Frank Worthington, or else it’s some local pub-legend with the same name. I thought my ears had simply picked it up wrongly, understandable under the circumstances. There was no connection to Newcastle or any particular reason why Frank Worthington would be there that afternoon.
And when the moment arrived and the music went on, in walked... Frank Worthington. THE Frank Worthington!
Well I suppose you can take the man out of Halifax, but not Halifax away from the man. Like the working class hero he was, Frank mounted the stage, the cheering continued, he accepted a beer from an eager punter and raised his glass to the patrons, prompting a multitude of amber pint-pots being raised back in response.
His job was to participate in a hot curry eating contest with someone from the crowd.
His opponent won hands down. Frank took two fork-fulls screwed up his face (he wasn’t enjoying this part) and swiftly handed the plate back to the man with the mike.
This sense of fun and liking for the limelight I’m sure never left him. He remained well-loved by the fans, even those hardened Newcastle men in the bar, for whose club he never played. In fact he played for Sunderland, their great rival, but was still afforded great admiration and respect that afternoon.
In May 2016, his daughter Kim Malou said that Worthington had Alzheimer’s disease for several years, a claim Worthington denied the next day.
He died aged 72, on 22 March 2021 following a lengthy illness.
Farewell Frank, the archetypal maverick footballer, one of the greats of the seventies and eighties, and for many a true working class hero.
Frank Worthington - Born Halifax, England, 23 November 1948. Died Huddersfield, England, 21 March 2021.