Obituary: Frank Worthington, famously maverick English striker

Frank Stewart Worthington, footballer. Born: 23 November 1948 in Halifax. Died: 22 March 2021 in Huddersfield, aged 72

Frank Worthington in his Leicester City strip in 1973 (Picture: PA)

Former Huddersfield, Leicester and Bolton striker Frank Worthington was one of English football’s fabled mavericks. Worthington was a ball-juggling entertainer who lived life in the fast lane during a colourful Football League career which spanned three decades until 1988.

His daughter, Kim Malou, announced on Facebook in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but Worthington issued a statement the following day denying that he had the condition.

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Showman, playboy, Elvis wannabe and dedicated follower of fashion, Worthington was unashamedly non-establishment and hit the headlines as much for his off-field exploits as he did for his rarefied talents on it.

Eight England caps were scant reward for a player once described by former Huddersfield and Bolton manager Ian Greaves as “the working man’s George Best”.

At all 11 of his Football League clubs, starting with Huddersfield, then Leicester, Bolton, Birmingham, Leeds, Sunderland, Southampton, Brighton, Tranmere, Preston and Stockport, Worthington became a cult hero.

Major honours eluded him, but despite a rock-and-roll lifestyle that cost him his dream move to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in 1972, he played in 22 consecutive Football League seasons from 1966-67, scoring 266 goals in 882 appearances in all competitions. In 14 of those seasons he played in the top flight, notching up 150 goals in 466 matches, and won the Golden Boot Award ahead of Kenny Dalglish and Frank Stapleton in 1978-79.

Worthington won promotion to the old First Division three times with different clubs – Huddersfield, Bolton and Birmingham – and helped Preston secure promotion to the old Third Division in the twilight of his career.

He scored a career-defining goal for Bolton against Ipswich in 1979 when, with his back to goal on the edge of the penalty area, he flicked the ball up over his head to evade a clutch of defenders and swivelled to plant a volley into the bottom corner.

It was a magical effort, replayed regularly for years after, while Worthington typically insisted he had scored plenty of better goals that had not been captured by the television cameras.

Worthington was born in the West Yorkshire village of Shelf, halfway between Bradford and Halifax, on 23 November 1948 and seemed destined to become a professional footballer. His father, Eric, was released by Manchester United before World War Two and went on to play for Halifax as an inside forward and his mother, Alice, turned out as a centre-forward for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Elder brothers Dave and Bob, both defenders, had long and successful Football League careers themselves, most notably with Grimsby and Notts County respectively. Worthington also had a sister, Julie.

Worthington started out at Halifax like his brothers, but bigger local rivals Huddersfield enticed him to sign schoolboy forms with them instead. He made his league debut aged 18 in 1967 and scored 19 goals for the Terriers during the 1969-70 season to help them win promotion to the old First Division.

Former Liverpool boss Shankly was ready to break his club’s record transfer fee to sign Worthington for £150,000 in 1972, but a failed medical due to high blood pressure scuppered the deal. Still determined to get his man, Shankly sent Worthington to Majorca for a relaxing holiday with the aim of trying again, but the 23-year-old succumbed to temptation on the island resort and continued to party instead.

He failed a second medical on his return to Anfield and later admitted in his aptly titled autobiography, One Hump or Two?, that it was the only regret of his career.

When Worthington received a late call-up by Sir Alf Ramsey for the England Under-23s squad in 1972 he greeted the World Cup-winning manager for the first time at Warsaw airport dressed in a green velvet jacket, floral shirt, leather trousers and cowboy boots. That was Worthington’s style. Leicester snapped him up after his Liverpool setback and, while the partying was never curtailed, he went on to make all eight of his senior England appearances during his time there.

Worthington also had spells as a player in the United States, with Philadelphia Furies in 1979 and Tampa Bay Rowdies two years later, plus a later stint in South Africa for Cape Town Spurs.

His time at Tranmere was as player-manager and he continued to play the game after he left his last Football League club, Stockport, in 1988. He turned out for Chorley, Galway United, Weymouth and Guiseley among others before finally hanging up his boots to focus on after-dinner speaking.

Worthington married first wife Birgitta, from Sweden, in 1973 soon after the birth of their son, Frank Jr, and their daughter, Kim Malou, was born in 1974. He is also survived by second wife Carol, daughter of former Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Noel Dwyer, whom he wed in 1986 following a long friendship.