The Mavericks

Frank Worthington: All shook up

February 9, 2012
By Robin Hackett
(Archive)

Described by his former manager Ian Greaves as "the working man's George Best", Frank Worthington made no secret of his taste for birds, booze and the beautiful game.

Frank Worthington
GettyImagesThe King's influence was clearly evident during Frank Worthington's time at Huddersfield

He was a self-confessed "individualist", though that much was apparent from his appearance, his sideburns and dress sense drawing clear influences from his Elvis Presley obsession. He once told the Daily Mail that "the way I played is more important than the team winning", and would speak out when frustrated by the lack of ability among his team-mates. "Some players' second touch is a sliding tackle," he once said. "Other players control the ball further than I can kick it."

He grew up into a football family, his father and two elder brothers all playing for Halifax Town, and it was the experience of playing against his more physically-developed siblings that meant Frank concentrated his efforts on developing the skill to counteract their strength. At 14, he was snapped up by fellow West Yorkshire side Huddersfield Town, then in the Second Division, and turned professional at 16.

It did not take long for the youngster to display his self-confidence in training. Manager Greaves, in an interview for the book The Mavericks, said he was forced to reprimand Worthington after he had tried to dictate the content of training sessions. "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?' That's Frank."

Worthington became a key player for Huddersfield, moving from midfield to attack and scoring 18 goals to help the club to the Second Division title in the 1969-70 season. The Terriers lasted only two seasons in the top-flight, though, and after relegation in 1972, he requested a transfer.

Despite the disappointments with his club, Worthington had done enough to catch Sir Alf Ramsey's eye, and was called into the England Under-23 squad that summer. He made a poor impression from the off: he arrived at Heathrow airport in high-heeled cowboy boots, a red silk shirt and a lime velvet jacket, prompting a shocked Ramsey to let fly an expletive. "I suppose I've always been a bit of a peacock," Worthington later explained. "It didn't really matter whether people accepted me or not."

Nonetheless, he did well on international duty, and Bill Shankly pressed ahead with a move to take the forward to Liverpool for a club record £150,000. However, Worthington failed the medical on account of high blood pressure - "My father had just died so I was probably suffering from some form of anxiety, but I was also enjoying the fruits of being young" - so was promptly sent on holiday to Majorca to relax. "I feel a bit run down, but I have no real worries," he told the press at the time, but the holiday did nothing to help the situation. He was dating Miss Great Britain at the time, but chatted up another woman on the plane to the Balearic Islands before having a threesome with a Swedish mother and daughter, and then another romp with a Belgian lady (he later titled his autobiography One Hump or Two?). He returned to Anfield for a second medical, and failed again, leading Liverpool to call the move off.

"Towards the end of my time at Huddersfield, I was really abusing my body, and it simply couldn't go on forever," Worthington later told The Guardian. "It was a warning from the fellow up there." Those abuses meant he had to settle for a move to Leicester, a more modest club but one with top-flight status. Huddersfield, meanwhile, had to settle for a more modest fee, variously reported to have been between £80,000 and £130,000. He would spend the next five years with Leicester, scoring 72 goals at average of one every three games, even if he had not quite heeded the warning from the Man Upstairs. His love for showmanship had not abated either. A month after his arrival, Leicester were leading Don Revie's Leeds United 1-0 at Elland Road when he produced a moment of magic. "I was down by the corner flag, hemmed in by Johnny Giles," he said. "I flipped the ball over my shoulder and over his head. He just turned to me and said, in a cold, calculating, matter-of-fact sort of way, 'If you ever take the piss out of me or Leeds United again, I'll break your legs'."

Joe Mercer, Frank Worthington
PA PhotosFrank Worthington felt he was carving out a "niche" in the England side led by Joe Mercer

It was while with Leicester that Worthington made his senior international breakthrough, though it had more to do with Joe Mercer's brief stint as England's caretaker manager than his own form. He featured for England as they were named joint winners of the 1974 British Home Championship with Scotland but, when Don Revie took over the national side later that summer, it was inevitable that the likes of Worthington would be eased out of the picture. "He wanted the yes-men," Worthington recalled. "He didn't like the individuals, the characters, the rebels." By the end of 1974, Worthington's international career - totalling eight caps - was over.

Further off-field problems followed. He was soon to divorce his Swedish wife, whom he'd impregnated during a holiday fling, and, allied to his taste for the high life and regular car crashes, the break-up would leave him low on funds (once asked in a Q&A to name his toughest opponent, he replied: "My ex-wife"). There were also evident frustrations with life at Leicester. In September 1976, after a 2-2 draw with QPR, he told the media: "People are always telling me there is a lot of skill in our side. You tell me where it is. There are one or two skilful players, and that's it. The rest are workers." He subsequently denied that the criticism was directed at his team-mates and said he had "no regrets" over his comments, but was fined and dropped by manager Jimmy Bloomfield.

He was to spend plenty of time on the transfer list that season and, though he committed to a new four-year deal in November, asked to leave in the summer when the directors refused him opportunity to take on a lucrative summer contract in South Africa. Ian Greaves, having left Huddersfield for Bolton in 1974, paid a club record £90,000 to take him to Burnden Park in the summer of 1977.

"Greavsie was different man," Worthington told author Rob Steen. "His whole philosophy had turned round. At Huddersfield, he was a fitness fanatic, a straight courageous man with a lot of iron beneath a calm exterior. Now all he wanted to talk about was skill." Even so, there were still tensions between the pair. On a pre-season tour of Germany shortly after Worthington's arrival, Greaves threw the forward's Elvis cassette out of the coach window after being subjected to nine hours of the King; Worthington refused to speak to him for a week. Things did improve. Greaves helped Worthington in terms of "sorting out my head and my marriage problems" and, as he told The Guardian in December 1978, he was toning down his social engagements after turning 30: "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."

Having helped Bolton to promotion in his first season, he won the Golden Shoe in the 1978-79 campaign. Among his 24 goals that year was the career-defining effort in a 3-2 defeat to Ipswich in April 1979, when he controlled the ball with his head, twice juggled the ball with his left foot, flicked it over his shoulder and then fired it into the net from the edge of the area.

Despite his success, he made a loan switch to Philadelphia Fury in the NASL that summer, having been persuaded to make the move when the negotiators spoke to Elvis' people "to get me one of those necklaces Elvis used to give to his friends". He fell out with the coach there after refusing to go on a sightseeing tour to a vineyard, but said he loved the American lifestyle. "I think I'd be king here in the right side," he told the Daily Mirror. He returned to Bolton for the start of the 1979-80 season but, after struggling for form, was offloaded to Second Division side Birmingham for £150,000 in November.

Frank Worthington
PA PhotosFrank Worthington during his three-year stint with Birmingham

He spent three years at St Andrew's, helping the club to promotion in his first year, but there was another loan stint in America, this time with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, while Brazilian club Sao Paulo had a bid rejected. In 1982, he left Birmingham for Leeds in a swap deal, but spent only eight months at Elland Road before short stints with Sunderland, Southampton and Brighton.

At 36, he surprisingly became player-manager at Fourth Division side Tranmere, and set about putting his mark on a game he felt lacking in beauty. "People like myself who are in charge of teams must make them play good football. We must put the artist ahead of the artisan," he said. "Players don't like biffbang stuff." He was sacked in February 1987, having spent less than two years in charge, as a result of financial problems. After taking on playing contracts with Preston and Stockport, he decided to retire from professional football seven months before his 40th birthday.

In 1991, at the age of 43, he made a comeback, finally following his father and brothers in signing for Halifax Town. The move did not work out, and Halifax were relegated from the Football League in 1993, but he continued to turn out for the reserve team purely for the joy of the game.

He had retired from the game without winning a major trophy, paying the cost for the excesses of his private life. The Manchester City winger Mike Summerbee once recalled seeing "this vagrant" walking along the harbour front in Torquay before realising it was Worthington and, taking him for a cup of tea in a local café, told him "he should have played 80 or 90 times for England, that he was the finest player I'd ever seen in his position. I told him he was the only player you could have taken from the league to Italy who would not have looked out of place. He never took a bit of notice".

Considering himself "the most positive person in the world", though, Worthington has always refused to dwell on the negatives. "I admit I have not been an angel, but nothing has ever come before football," he told the Daily Express in 1985. "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."