Frank Worthington: Not Your Typical Professional Footballer

by | Mar 23, 2021

On the 21st April 1979, Bolton Wanderers played a First Division match against Ipswich Town at Burnden Park. Bolton had been promoted at the end of the previous season as champions of the Second Division but were just about safe from the threat of relegation, whilst FA Cup holders Ipswich were chasing a place in the following year’s UEFA Cup. England manager Ron Greenwood was in attendance, with one eye on the forthcoming Home International championship.

The goal, when it came, was a moment of exquisite individual beauty. The score was still goalless when Alan Gowling flicked a throw in towards Frank Worthington, inside the Ipswich penalty area. With his back to goal he seemed to be going nowhere, but at the exact moment that it looked as though he was going to be hustled off the ball, Worthington flicked it up once, twice, thrice with his right foot. The final touch looped the ball over a very young Terry Butcher and into space. Worthington, quicker of mind than the defenders surrounding him, turned, and drilled a low, left-footed shot into the corner of the goal, past the Ipswich goalkeeper Paul Cooper. Even the referee applauded as Worthington ran away, arms risen, to take the adulation of the home supporters. Full highlights, as broadcast the following day by Granada TV’s The Kick Off Match, are here.

In a couple of respects, Worthington’s goal that day might be considered something of an allegory for his career. Asked by Granada TV’s Gerald Sinstadt after the match whether it was the best he’s ever scored, Worthington seemed somewhat non-plussed by it all: “I’m very well pleased with it, but I’ve scored one or two this season to equal that one, although probably it was a little bit special.” He also confirmed that he was just about decided to go play in Dallas in the NASL. He ended up playing for Tampa Bay Rowdies instead. More than forty years on, of course, it doesn’t matter that Ipswich won that game. But that was Frank Worthington all over. Football as entertainment, rather than the ruthless pursuit of success.

His career had begun 13 years earlier, at Huddersfield Town. Six years later, following Huddersfield’s relegation from the First Division, he was on his way to Leicester City, where he’d stay until Leicester were also relegated, in 1978. The end of the 1978/79 season – during which he scored 24 goals, ending the season as the top scorer in the First Division despite Bolton finishing in 17th place in the table – saw him leave for Birmingham City. He was thirty years old at the time of this move, but few would have guessed at the time that his career was far from starting to wind down.

In fact, though, when he left Birmingham in 1982, he still had a decade left in him, playing as a gun for hire throughout the 1980s at Leeds United, Sunderland, Southampton and more, eventually dropping down into the non-league game, as well as playing in the USA, Sweden, South Africa and Ireland. In total, he made 882 senior appearances and scored 260 goals, including eight appearances in six months for England during 1974, scoring twice. Unfortunately for him, though, 1974 was too turbulent a year for the national team for him to be able to forge an England career.

The one big chance that he had to build his career in the conventional sense ended in the sort of failure that would later sustain him on the after-dinner speaking circuit. When Huddersfield were relegated in 1972, Liverpool were on the verge of taking him to Anfield, only for him to fail his medical on account of high blood pressure. It was recommended that he take a short holiday and then return to retake it. Bad idea. What happened next was detailed by the Huddersfield Examiner in 2016:

A week later – after seven days of carousing, which involved two Swedish blondes, a night with Miss Great Britain, a casual encounter at the airport with a woman whose name he didn’t catch and a night with a young Belgian beauty – he retook the medical. His blood pressure was even higher. A bemused Bill Shankly cancelled the deal and sent his mother some flowers.

Liverpool won the First Division championship at the end of the 1972/73 season. Frank Worthington ended up at Leicester City, instead. “Their loss”, was his response to the collapsed transfer.

Frank Worthington’s playing career was not festooned with silverware. He played 22 consecutive seasons in the Football League, but had only one medal – a Second Division championship medal, won with Huddersfield Town in 1970 – to show for it. But to reduce the career of this particular player to trophies won and medals amassed is to miss the point. Frank Worthington as a footballer was about the aesthetic and the sensuous, a form of entertainment that can’t easily be quantified with numbers.

The language used when talking about him was always different to other players. Showman, playboy, dedicated follower of fashion, maverick. He was a huge fan of Elvis Presley, and everybody knew it. Interviewed by Shoot magazine for their “Focus On” section, he listed his most difficult opponent as “the taxman” and his “miscellaneous dislike” as “a certain dishonourable board of directors”. There is little question that his attitudes were very much of their time, but it’s still difficult not to warm to a player once described (by his manager at Bolton, Ian Greaves) as, “the working class George Best.”

And perhaps that’s the key to understanding Frank Worthington and his relationship with the fans. The level of glamour that he offered watching crowds was attainable. It wasn’t difficult for the fans of the day to be able to imagine themselves in his place, scoring these outrageously brilliant goals and then going out drinking afterwards. He never quite reached the superstar status of George Best, but he lived the life that he wanted to live, and lived it to its fullest. And more than forty years on, even those amongst us not quite old enough to be able to remember that goal know it intimately. Professional football has become a relentless race in the pursuit of perfection, but there was a time when we embraced its flaws. Some might say that we embraced its humanity. We definitely won’t see his like again.