Author Lee Morris pays tribute to the Town legend Frank Worthington, who sadly passed away on 23rd March at the age of 72. He is survived by his wife Carol and daughter Kim Malou.
Frank Worthington was one of the most charismatic players of his generation and a true entertainer of English football. Off the pitch, he was a character, too, known for his snappy dress sense and love of Elvis Presley.
Frank was born in Shelf, West Yorkshire, on 23rd November 1948 to Eric and Alice. Eric had played for Manchester United as an inside-forward and Frank’s brothers Dave and Bob would also go on to have decent careers in the Football League. On top of this, Frank’s nephew Gary played for Huddersfield Town between 1986 and 1987.
After initially training with Halifax Town, Worthington was signed by Town in 1964 as a 15-year-old. Halifax’s former manager Harry Hooper had left The Shay to become Town’s chief scout and it was he who recommended Worthington to manager Eddie Boot. Boot resigned later that year and was replaced by Tom Johnston, who once told Worthington he would never make it as a professional footballer because he wasn’t quick enough. However, after turning professional in 1966, it was Johnston that handed him his debut in February 1967 against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
Worthington later became a regular in Johnston’s side during the 1967-68 season, memorably scoring his first goal in a League Cup tie against West Ham United in November 1967. At the time, West Ham were notable for their three World Cup winning players, Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst. Town beat them 2-0, going on to reach the semi-finals, with Worthington playing in every game from the fourth round onwards.
Tom Johnston departed the club at the end of the 1967-68 season. It was when Ian Greaves took over as manager that Worthington really came into his own—though he was barely involved for the majority of Greaves’ first season in charge, playing just 14 games, spending much of the season in the reserves working on his game and trying to build up his strength.
This seemed to work. Once the pre-season of the 1969-70 season arrived, he was firmly in the manager’s plans. In a season when Town won the Second Division championship, Worthington played all 42 games and scored 18 of Town’s 68 goals, firing Town to the First Division for the first time since 1956.
Worthington became renowned for his elegance on the ball as well as for not wearing shin pads and rolling his socks down, leading Greaves to say of him: “He’s the working man’s George Best.” He would also later say: “What you didn’t need were too many Frank Worthington’s in your side but what you did need was Frank Worthington.”
Town had a good season in 1970-71, finishing 15th in the league with Worthington once again being the club’s top scorer with 9 goal. He also played in all 42 games that season. Memorably, one of his goals (a penalty) came against Arsenal, where Town beat the eventual champions 2-1 at Leeds Road.
The following season was a disaster, with Town failing to win a game from November until the end of the season. But there was one saving grace. Town had a decent cup run, reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Town beat West Ham 4-2 in a tie at Leeds Road where they took Moore, Hurst and co to the cleaners. Worthington was involved in three of the goals before chipping in with the fourth himself. Commentator Keith Macklin was heard to utter the words, “Everything Worthington touches turns to gold. He’s in an ecstasy.”
However, the struggles continued in the league and relegation beckoned. Town eventually finished at the foot of the table, although they only dropped to 22nd after Nottingham Forest completed their fixtures.
At the end of the 1971-72 season, while still officially a Town player, Worthington was called up to the England Under-23 squad, winning two caps. It was after this that Bill Shankly came calling, wanting to sign him for Liverpool, with £150,000 on the table. The deal fell through, however. It had been put on hold as he’d failed a medical because of high blood pressure. Shankly instructed him to go away on holiday to Mallorca and complete the medical upon his return. Unfortunately, Worthington came back with even higher blood pressure—the deal was off!
Instead, he ended up signing for Leicester City in August 1972, with the club paying £80,000 to take him to Filbert Street. He soon found his way into their hearts by scoring on his debut in a 1-1 draw with Manchester United. He would go on to play every game in his first three years at the club, delighting the Leicester faithful with his classy performances. It was here that he earned eight England caps, which all came in 1974. He also scored 2 goals for the national side against Argentina and Bulgaria.
Worthington left Leicester in 1977, though he was still loved by fans, coming third in a poll of cult heroes in 2004. He joined up with his former manager Ian Greaves at Bolton Wanderers and was partnered up front with Alan Gowling, the former Town player who Greaves had originally intended as a partner for Worthington back at Town. He spent just two years at Burnden Park, but they were memorable. He arguably scored one of the best goals ever in April 1979, when he juggled the ball with his back to goal, turned and then drilled a shot into the bottom corner past Ipswich goalkeeper Paul Cooper. At the end of the season, he also won the Golden Boot, beating Kenny Dalglish, after scoring 24 goals.
Worthington then joined Birmingham City. Following his spell at St. Andrews, he played for Leeds United, Sunderland, Southampton (where he helped them finish runners-up in the First Division in 1983-84) and Brighton & Hove Albion before becoming player-manager at Tranmere Rovers in 1985. His spell in management was largely unsuccessful and he resumed his playing career in 1987 with Stockport County. He went on to play for a plethora of non-league clubs before working at Halifax Town as player-coach, often turning out for the reserves in the 1992-93 season.
Worthington was granted a testimonial in 1991, which was played at Leeds Road. It saw a number of footballing greats turn out, including Denis Law (who managed the all-stars side), Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Phil Thompson and Joe Corrigan. The game was attended by over 6,000 people and raised £30,000. He also appeared on the pitch at the final game at Leeds Road in 1994, taking penalties against Corrigan at half time.
Following his retirement from football, Worthington became a popular after-dinner speaker. His autobiography One Hump Or Two?, released in 1994, summed him up his sense of humour. Younger Town fans may also remember his cameo in the 2003 Survival Trust game, when he delighted the crowd with his silky skills. Despite being 54 years of age, he still had it!
Unfortunately, in later life, Worthington was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, which was announced by his daughter in 2016. He was still a classy dresser and towards the end of his life, Dean Hoyle extended an open invitation for him to attend Town games whenever he liked. Worthington took this offer up on many occasions and he could often be seen sat in the director’s box at the John Smith’s Stadium.
One thing is for certain—there’ll never be another footballer quite like Frank Worthington.