Part seven of this series looks at a player who enjoyed the high life, just maybe a little too much. Frank Worthington never wore shin pads, wore his socks round his ankles, scored some amazing goals and entertained thousands during a career spanning 25 years and 24 clubs. He is a player whose big transfer broke down due to high blood pressure, he made no qualms about his adoration of women, alcohol and the beautiful game, and named his autobiography “One Hump or Two”.
For parts one to six please click on the links below. For criteria please see part one.
They Could Have Been One of Football’s Greatest: Frank Worthington
Born in 1948 in Halifax, West Yorkshire, Frank Worthington had football in his blood. His father played professionally and his mother and brothers were also involved in the game in one form or another. “I honed my football skills in the streets around our home. We had a make-shift goal in the street outside the house. My dad Eric would always encourage me to aim for the corner of the goal to make sure I beat the keeper.” (via Leeds United monthly).
Frank began his career at Huddersfield Town in 1966. In six years he played over 170 times, scoring over 40 goals, and it did not take him long to display his confidence. Worthington’s manager at Huddersfield had this to say when he had to reprimand him after Worthington had tried dictating training, “We stood there, looking at each other, eye to eye. He was talking to me and his eyes never left mine, but he must have flicked the ball up 47 times. He flicked it up and caught it behind him on his neck, down the back of his neck, hoofed it over his back and caught it on his foot, something I could never do if I played forever. I thought, ‘How do you give him a telling-off when he’s doing that?’” (via ESPN FC).
Throughout his time at Huddersfield, bigger clubs were taking notice of this talented forward and, in 1972, Liverpool came calling. A fee of £150,000 was agreed, but Frank failed his medical due to high blood pressure and put this down to the recent death of his father. Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, was determined to get his man and promptly sent Frank off to Majorca for a holiday to relax for a week. Due to alcohol and women, Frank did very little in the way of relaxing; he returned to Liverpool for a second medical, only to fail it once again, due to his blood pressure being higher than when he left. The Liverpool dream was dead, although Frank Worthington probably took it all in his stride, not giving it a second thought.
During this time he also caught the eye of the then England manager, Alf Ramsey, and was called up to the England Under 23 squad. However, the reaction he got from Ramsey when he turned up at Heathrow airport to join up with the rest of the squad, wearing high heeled cowboy boots, a silk shirt and lime velvet jacket was not a good one to say the least. Looking back, Worthington said, “It didn’t really matter whether people accepted me or not, I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a peacock”. (via ESPN FC).
After his proposed £150,000 move to Liverpool broke down, Frank signed for Leicester City for a fee believed to have been between £80,000 and £130,000. He spent the next five years at Filbert Street, becoming a hero in the process, and scored 72 goals in 210 appearances. He also earned his eight England caps while at Leicester. Eight caps for a man of Worthington’s talents seems very low, and the man himself agrees. Don Revie had taken over the national side in 1974 and Frank recalled, “He wanted the yes men. He didn’t like the individuals, the characters, the rebels.”
Former teammate, Alan Birchenall, recounts time spent with Worthington at Leicester City, “Under (Leicester boss) Jimmy Bloomfield, Elvis (as Frank was known) was magnificent, but a law unto himself. Most of the time, you just left him to do what he wanted. These days players are out on the pitch well in advance of kick-off, but Frank would often report to the ground at 2.00, then disappear for half an hour! More often than not he’d be signing autographs in the car park or grabbing the numbers of some admiring females!
I also remember times on the training ground when we would be getting a roasting while Frank would be at the other end, volleying in shots that one of the youth team players was setting up for him. The coach just left Frank to it!” (via The Huddersfield Daily Examiner website).
During the summer of 1977, his time at Leicester had come to an end; he signed for Bolton Wanderers, who paid a club record £90,000 to secure his services. It was while at Bolton that he won the Golden Shoe award for scoring 24 goals during the season of 1978-79. This term in particular saw him score one of the goals of the season and, in some eyes, the best goal ever. The goal came during a defeat to Ipswich in April 1979. He controlled the ball with his head, juggled the ball, flicked it over his head, taking several defenders out of the game and coolly volleying the ball past the keeper.
During this season, he famously told The Guardian newspaper, “I admit I used to get about a bit, but I am quieter these days. Instead of going out seven nights a week, I keep it to six.”
His time at Bolton only lasted two seasons, though. He then had stints in America and short stays at several clubs including Birmingham, Leeds and Sunderland. In 1983, at the age of 35, when looking back on his career he said, “It’s a wonderful way to make a living. I still think it’s a game to be enjoyed, a game where the individual can express himself and entertain the public.” (via Sunderland match programme, 1983).
Latterly, he wound up his career having had a spell as player-manager at Tranmere Rovers. He retired at the age of 39, however, he came out of retirement to sign for Halifax Town aged 43 – the team his father and brothers had played for. Although the move wasn’t a success, he still played for their reserves purely for the joy of the game. His career statistics when he finally retired read: 828 appearances, 260 goals; eight England caps, two goals.
Although brilliant in his day and probably second only to George Best, his career could – and maybe should – have included many more trophies, medals, plaudits and England caps than it did. He is a legend at several of the clubs he played for but his ‘playboy lifestyle’ ultimately contributed to him not being perceived one of the all-time greats.
Nobody can deny that Frank entertained and expressed himself throughout his career, but his footballing days could have been so much more if his transfer to Liverpool had been approved. He would have been in one of the most successful sides of all time and surely would have spearheaded England’s attack for many years. “I have no complaints about my life and my career so far and no regrets, apart from one thing. If only I had taken things a little easier early on, I would have gone to Liverpool and the sky would have been the limit, but I have never made excuses for anything because that is a weakness. I have always known what I was about and where I was going.” (via the Daily Express).
Maybe if he hadn’t have enjoyed the good life as much, he may have got far more than the eight England caps he received. But, if he had been an early to bed, great trainer type, then the man adored by many a fan wouldn’t have been Frank Worthington.
Main photo via Leicester City’s website.