As most of the footballers who were plying their trade when I became a regular attendee are now in their seventies, the news of one passing away has become a sadly more frequent occurrence as the seasons pass. Today’s news was that Frank Worthington, one of the game’s great entertainers, had succumbed after a long illness, and it leaves football one real character poorer.
By the time Frank joined us in 1982, he was 34 and had already played for eight clubs. By the time he finally retired, he’d played for another fifteen, not hanging up his boots until he was well past forty. In the middle of that, he’d played as a guest for Man Utd on their tour of Australia in 1984. With two elder brothers, Dave and Bob, who’d begun their careers as fullbacks with their hometown of Halifax, Frank began his football journey down the road at Huddersfield in 1966. Moves to Leicester and Bolton (where he was a team mate of Peter Reid) followed, bringing with them a handful of England caps and “that” keepy-uppy goal for the Trotters against Ipswich in 1979 that will no doubt be shown numerous times in the next few days – even the referee applauded it. A move to Liverpool collapsed due to “high blood pressure” that some attributed to his lifestyle – the Reds’ loss and Leicester’s gain. Frank’s nephew Gary, son of Dave, later numbered Darlington amongst his clubs.
We paid Leeds £50,000 for Frank’s services in December 1982, in a bid to add experience to our attacking options and hopefully bring out the best in Ally McCoist, with specific instructions to ensure the young Scot was home early. True to his word, as he later revealed in his post-playing career on the after dinner speaking circuit, Frank had Ally home “by seven every morning.” His liking for the high life didn’t seem to affect his performance on the pitch – as evidenced by the length of his career – and he immediately endeared himself to the Roker faithful by scoring on his debut – as did Ian Atkins – against Ipswich, even if we did lose 2-3. Over the remainder of the season, Frank not only added the attacking experience that we’d been lacking and ultimately kept us in the first division, he still managed to inject numerous moments of magic to brighten up an otherwise moderate season. In a 1-1 draw at Roker towards the end of the campaign, he was up against Steve Foster, a “character” centre-half who sported a trademark headband to keep his bushy hair under control. As Foster organised his defence to repel a corner at the Fulwell and the ball was crossed, Frank pulled the headband down over Foster’s eyes. We laughed, the players laughed, and the ref wagged an admonishing finger and kept Franks’ name out of his notebook. We ended the season in sixteenth place, Frank’s job on Wearside was done, and he was off to Southampton for a year before joining Brighton as he set out on his tour of clubs the world over, including spells in the USA, South Africa, and Eire. His career brought 266 goals in 882 games, plus the England games: the sort of statistics that are beyond the wildest dreams of anyone entering the game and the envy of any who actually made it.
His love for Elvis Presley was displayed in his extravagant dress sense, and his regular performances on-stage at various night-spots in tribute to his showbiz hero. Once playing was over, a move to the sportsmen’s evening chat circuit was a natural progression, as he had more to tell stories than most - and the fact that he featured heavily in the stories told by other ex-professionals is testament to his character and career as, first and foremost, an entertainer. One story referred to the World Cup of Masters in South America, when a team-mate recalled that “after two minutes, one of our [Great Britain’s] players had put in a thunderous tackle, and Frank was, instead of being on the field to receive the ball, in the back row of the stand chatting up some female fans.”
He might only have played half a season and scored just the two goals for us, but he’s fondly remembered by Sunderland fans – and those of his other clubs. Before his time on Wearside, we might have sung “Oh, wanky wanky, wanky wanky wanky wanky Worthington” at him when he’d played against us, but we didn’t after he left. I suspect fans of his other clubs were of the same mind. You wanted him in your team, not the oppositions, and you simply enjoyed watching him play.
As he said himself, “football is a wonderful way to make a living – I still think it is a game to be enjoyed, and game where the individual can express himself and entertain the public.”