In 1972 Frank Worthington was about to sign for Liverpool for £150,000 when the club doctor checked his blood pressure as a formality. As the dial shot up, Liverpool’s manager, Bill Shankly, stroked his chin. “Aye son, it’s just tension.” He thought Worthington was overwhelmed with excitement at joining the Reds and told him to take a holiday in Majorca and come back.
Over the next two weeks of his Balearic escapade, Worthington (who was dating Miss GB at the time) had an encounter with a woman he met on the flight, a threesome with a Swedish mother and daughter and a romp with a Belgian model. On his return to Liverpool the blood pressure dial shot up to maximum again.
The maverick Yorkshireman, who looked like David Niven, wore cowboy boots and drove a Ford Mustang, signed for Leicester City instead for a more modest fee. Some months later he lined up for Leicester at Chelsea, whose star guest that day was Raquel Welch. As Chelsea stars clamoured in vain for the Hollywood siren’s phone number after the match, Worthington sold them the sort of dummy he was famous for on the pitch and whisked Welch off to a nightclub. “She tried to kiss me on the dance floor,” recalled Worthington. “Happily, I didn’t have my moustache at the time. She wore the tightest jeans I have ever seen.”
Worthington was obsessed by Elvis but seldom lonesome on any night. He approached football as principally an entertainment business while abiding by a credo of three Bs: “birds, booze and the beautiful game”. As such, he belonged to an elite club of good-looking, shaggy-haired English footballers in the Seventies, including Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles and Alan Hudson, who graced the game with their skills but were largely left out of the national team as stories of their off-field antics preceded them.
Swaggering around the pitch with his socks round his ankles and no shin guards, Worthington was a target for football’s hardmen in the days when near assault would go unpunished by referees. He made fools of the likes of Tommy Smith of Liverpool and Johnny Giles of Leeds, despite their threats to o “break my f****** legs”.
Worthington was too good to be ignored by England in a decade when the national team was short of flair. He drew a rare expletive from England’s otherwise composed manager Alf Ramsey by turning up at Heathrow airport for an England under-23 game in 1973 in high-heeled cowboy boots, a red silk shirt and a lime velvet jacket.
He still won eight caps for his country in 1974. Before a match in Bulgaria he “cleaned up” in an all-night game of three-card brag with Kevin Keegan, Emlyn Hughes and Malcolm Macdonald; each hand being played for a week’s wages. He then scored in a 1-0 victory for England and celebrated by “getting together” with the principal ballerina of the New York State ballet, who was performing in Sofia.
When Don Revie took charge of England later that year, Worthington’s international career was over at the age of 25: “He wanted the yes-men. He didn’t like the individuals, the characters, the rebels.”
Thereafter Worthington’s career was punctuated by flashes of brilliance to remind fans that he was among the most gifted players of his generation. In April 1979, now playing for Bolton Wanderers, he received the ball with his back to goal in a game against Ipswich Town. He nonchalantly played “keepie uppy” before flicking the ball over his head, spinning past the flatfooted Ipswich defender Terry Butcher and volleying the ball into the net. Even the referee applauded. He then suggested to Butcher, a future England stalwart, that he would have had a better view of the goal in the stands.
Widely regarded as having the best left foot in the game, Worthington was inevitably compared to George Best. Yet while the Northern Irishman fell out of love for the game and walked away from it at 26 (to make several abortive comebacks), Worthington enjoyed the favours of film stars, Page 3 models, and hotel chambermaids alike while carrying on playing professionally until he was 39 — even as the clubs, crowds and pay cheques dwindled. He was still playing five-aside football in his sixties.
Worthington did, however, make concessions to rein in his social life. He toldThe Guardian after turning 30 in 1978: “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.”
Frank Stewart Worthington was born in Shelf, near Halifax, West Yorkshire to Eric and Alice Worthington in 1948. His father, who served as a paratrooper at Arnhem, was a professional footballer who had been on the books of Manchester United but had to be content with a career at Halifax Town. His elder brothers, Bob and Dave, would also play professionally. The young Frank developed his silky skills in family kickabouts to counteract the strength of his elder brothers.
He signed for second-division Huddersfield Town in 1966 and within a year was lining up against West Ham in a cup match. Before kick-off the teenager entered the West Ham dressing room that included the World Cup winners Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst. Throwing a ball to Moore he said, “sign that Mooro”. The England captain signed the ball and the cocky youngster proceeded to play superbly as Huddersfield stunned the London team.
Ian Greaves, his manager at Huddersfield, gave up trying to coach him after once trying to give Worthington a “bollocking”. “We stood there, looking at each other, eye to eye, 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. I thought, ‘How do you give him a telling-off when he’s doing that?’”
With Worthington terrorising defences, Huddersfield won promotion to the old First Division in 1970. He was then ill-advisedly asked to design Huddersfield’s matchday suits for the top flight in an eye-dazzling shade of blue. He signed for Leicester after Huddersfield’s relegation in 1972. Into his thirties he won the Golden Boot for top scoring in the First Division in 1979. In the Eighties the shoulder-length mane was replaced with an Elvis quiff as he played for Birmingham City, Leeds United and Southampton.
When he became player-manager of Tranmere Rovers in 1985, Simon Barnes, of The Times, was moved to observe: “Life and football cannot be all bad if Frank is still around.” In a playing career spanning three decades Worthington scored 266 goals in 882 appearances. He was still playing for Halifax reserves in his mid-forties.
Worthington divorced his Swedish first wife, Birgitta, with whom he had a son, Frank Jr, and a daughter, Kim-Malou. They survive him along with his second wife, Carol, née Dwyer.
In his later years he became a popular after-dinner speaker. His single regret was not seeing Elvis play live.
Frank Worthington, footballer, was born on November 23, 1948. He died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease on March 22, 2021, aged 72
Obituary The Times.