Considering the amount of physical exertion that takes place on football pitches the length and breadth of the country each year, it is perhaps surprising that that there are so few deaths amongst those people that play the game each week. Indeed, we should be grateful for the fact that such deaths are so rare that the names of those that do die playing football live long in the memory. One of the saddest of all was the story of Tony Allden, a non-league centre-alf during the 1960s, but his sudden death during an FA Amateur Cup match in 1967 also brought the very best out of the game, including a tribute that would have been fitting for any footballer, whether professional or amateur.
Highgate United’s FA Amateur Cup run in the 1966/67 season had already raised eyebrows by the time that they reached the quarter-finals of the competition. Playing in the Worcester Combination league, the club from Shirley, just outside of Solihull in the West Midlands, had already excelled in reaching this stage of the competition, and their reward was a home match against Enfield, one of the giants of the tail end of the amateur era, and their Tythe Barn Lane ground was spruced up accordingly for the occasion with temporary stands being added to cater for the larger than average crowd of around 2,000 spectators.
The match kicked off on the 25th of February 1967 in pouring rain, and with a thunderstorm in the distance. Enfield took an early lead, but the real drama of the day occurred after twenty-seven minutes when a bolt of lightning struck the centre circle of the pitch. Several players and the referee were felled, but the Highgate United centre-half Tony Allden had been struck. The match was abandoned and Allden was taken to Solihull Hospital, but he never regained conciousness and died from his injuries at lunchtime the following day.
The match was scheduled to be replayed ten days later, but huge media interest in it – amongst other reasons – meant that Tythe Barn Lane wasn’t an appropriate venue be used and the match was switched to Villa Park. No-one fully expected that a crowd of over 31,000 would turn out for the replay, though – a remarkable tribute to a footballer that all bar a fraction of the crowd had surely never heard of – and Enfield won the replay 6-0. The result, however, was obviously not the most important aspect of the evening. Six weeks later, a testimonial match for him was played at Birmingham City’s St Andrews between a Midland All-Stars XI and an International XI. Enfield went on to win the FA Amateur Cup, beating Skelmersdale United 3-0 at Maine Road after a 0-0 draw at Wembley.
More than forty years on, Tony Allden’s name lives on in the form of the Tony Allden Memorial Cup. After his death, Highgate United donated a trophy to the Worcestershire Combination. The league changed its name in 1968 to the Midland Football Combination but the trophy has competed for every year since 1970 between the winners of the league’s Premier Division and the winners of its Challenge Cup. We should be grateful for the fact that deaths of this nature are so rare, and that those that do die on the pitch are honoured in this way. In a corner of the West Midlands, his name will not be forgotten.