IT IS more than 43 years since Frank Worthington scored a goal of such brilliance that people talk about it still. I’d be fibbing if I claimed to have been at Burnden Park that day but I saw it when Granada TV showed the highlights on Sunday afternoon, and ever since the memory of it has left me smiling.
Worthington, then 30, was playing for Bolton Wanderers against Ipswich Town in April 1979 when the ball began bobbing about on the edge of the penalty box. With his back to goal, he caught it on his head, juggled it twice with his left foot, then flicked it over future England defender Terry Butcher and volleyed it into the corner of the net. You can see it here. Bolton lost the match 3-2 but who cared? A magician had been at work.
Such was Frank’s extravagant skill that he should have won 100 England caps. Yet he played only eight times for his country after failing to impress the likes of Alf Ramsey and Don Revie, who were allergic to mavericks. Ramsey called him up for the Under-23 squad and was aghast when Worthington turned up in lime-green jacket, leather trousers, red floral silk shirt and cowboy boots. Frank reckoned he was ‘the first man in Britain to own a tank-top’ and admitted: ‘I suppose I have always been a bit of a peacock.’ Revie played him twice for a total of 87 minutes before losing patience with him. According to Frank, ‘he gave up on the skill and went for the workers’.
Between the reigns of Ramsey and Revie, Joe Mercer was England’s caretaker manager and he picked Worthington for six of his seven games in charge. ‘He is one of the best centre-forwards of all time, and he is a lovely man,’ said Joe. ‘He is a target, you can hit him and the ball sticks. He gives you time. He’s got confidence. You can build teams around him. But Revie and Ramsey never fancied him. I just couldn’t understand it.’
Frank Stewart Worthington was born on November 23, 1948 at Shelf, near Halifax, West Yorkshire. His parents were both footballers – father Eric was on Manchester United’s books before the war and after it played for Halifax Town at inside-forward. Mother Alice had been centre-forward for the WAAF’s team during the war.
At the age of 14 Frank signed for Huddersfield Town and four years later he made his first-team debut in the Second Division, now the Championship. It did not take long for his womanising to become legendary – the club fined him when several girls were apparently found in his hotel wardrobe before an away match.
Manager Ian Greaves tried in vain to instil discipline. Once when he tried to deliver a rollicking during training Worthington flicked the ball on to his head, neck or thigh 50 times while never taking his eyes off the boss, who complained: ‘How do you give him a telling-off when he’s doing that?’
In 1972 Bill Shankly offered Huddersfield £150,000 to take Frank to Liverpool. However, Worthington’s fondness for alcohol and late nights with the ladies caused him to fail a medical on the grounds of high blood pressure. Shankly sent him off to Majorca for a fortnight, telling him to take things easy.
True to form, Frank joined the Mile-High Club after pulling a bird on the plane out, and spent the next two weeks on the razzle with her. On his return the blood pressure was even higher and the transfer was off. Instead he went to Leicester City, where he scored 72 goals in 210 games despite his punishing lifestyle. He would later boast: ‘In my Leicester days, it wasn’t a night out unless you were in at six in the morning after a visit to the Playboy Club.’
In 1973 Worthington married Birgitta, a former Miss Sweden, and announced that he would teach their son Frank Junior to be ‘the greatest Casanova of all time’. The marriage did not last amid Frank’s claims to have squired Miss World Mary Stavin, Miss Barbados Lindy Field and Mandy Rice-Davies, notorious for the Profumo Affair. His exploits would be detailed in a 1994 autobiography, One Hump Or Two?
After Ian Greaves became manager of Bolton Wanderers he signed Frank despite the discipline problems, and the player’s obsession with Elvis Presley, whose extravagant sideburns he copied. On a tour to Germany, during which Worthington played a cassette of The King for nine hours straight, Greaves threw the tape out of the window.
Frank later thanked his boss for improving his focus and reducing his excesses after he turned 30. ‘I admit I used to get about a bit, but I am quieter these days,’ he said. ‘Instead of going out seven nights a week, I keep it to six.’
I well remember a TV interview with Worthington when he was asked who was the toughest opponent he had faced. ‘The ex-wife’, he replied. And invited to ‘talk us through’ his latest goal, he said: ‘The ball came across and I leapt like a salmon to bury a bullet header in the roof of the old onion bag.’
Can you imagine a modern-day footballer coming out with such a line? Harry Kane, for example?
Frank Worthington died on March 22, 2021, after a long illness. In a much earlier interview, he told the Mirror: ‘Sometimes my life’s been so full that it’s left me physically and mentally exhausted. But if I should drop down dead this minute no one could say I haven’t squeezed the maximum from my life. I’ve no regrets about anything.’
Who, of all of us, could say the same?
Old jokes’ home
How do you turn a duck into a soul singer? Put it in the oven till its Bill Withers.
A PS from PG
It has been well said that an author who expects results from a first novel is in a position similar to that of a man who drops a rose petal down the Grand Canyon of Arizona and listens for the echo.
PG Wodehouse: Cocktail Time