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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » Looking back on what made Bolton legend Frank Worthington special

Looking back on what made Bolton legend Frank Worthington special

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Frank Worthington was the mercurial talent whose picture adorned the wall of a generation of Bolton Wanderers fans.

Though his light shone brightly but relatively briefly at Burnden Park, the swaggering striker embodied a talented team who made it cool to support the Super Whites once again in the late seventies.

The headband, the sideburns, the rolled-down socks, the laid-back gait, everything about Worthington on the pitch screamed front man of a guitar band rather than a centre-forward who should have won way more than a paltry eight caps for England.

The air of anti-establishment which followed him around from his early days with Huddersfield Town to Leicester City – via a twice-failed medical at Bill Shankly’s Liverpool – probably accounted for why he was overlooked by the stuffy blazers at the FA.

But by the time he reunited with his former boss Ian Greaves at Burnden to light a fire under a team which had been on the very edge of a return to the First Division, it quickly became clear that he was in exactly the right place at the right time.

Bolton mourns Worthington, who passed away yesterday at the age of 72, and supporters of a certain vintage mention his name in the same breath as other striking greats like Nat Lofthouse and John McGinlay.

Joining on loan in September 1977, a month before his 29th birthday, Worthington joined a club that had slowly been reinvented through the seventies by Jimmy Armfield and then his old Huddersfield mentor Greaves. And for folk in this part of Lancashire, the arrival of an international class player was indeed a big deal.

“We thought we were signing a superstar,” said former team-mate, Mike Walsh. “And to be honest, that is exactly what he was.

“The young players in that squad just used to idolise him and so did the fans. He couldn’t put a foot wrong in their eyes – he had the skills, he had the looks, he had the confidence.”

Thousands of Bolton fans trekked over the hill to Blackburn on April 26, 1978, to see if Greaves’s team could finally book their place in the First Division after an absence of 15 years.

Worthington’s goal at Ewood Park settled a nervy night and cemented his popularity – but it would be the following season in the top-flight where he would really achieve legendary status.

He scored twice at Burnden as Wanderers beat Manchester United 3-0, and then twice more as they completed the double at Old Trafford a few months later.

To cap off a season in which he would win the Golden Boot, he then scored a goal which has been replayed more than any other scored by a Bolton player.

The Big Match cameras were at Burnden for a game against high-flyers Ipswich Town when Worthington picked up a flick-on by Alan Gowling on the edge of the box, nonchalantly began doing kick-ups, and as the visiting defence pushed up, swivelled to push the ball over his head and then lash it into the net in one fluid motion.

It was a goal so good, even the referee applauded.

For one young lad behind the goal, pictured leaping with glee by the cameras, it was a gamechanger.

“Weirdly, I didn’t get a great look at it from where I was,” said Julian Darby, one of the matchday ball-boys and a lifelong Bolton fan who would go on to make more than 300 appearances for the club.

“You could see his back moving away from goal and then he chips it over and smack, it’s in the back of the net. But I have watched it back over the years hundreds of times, as I’ll bet anyone in Bolton has. I'll bet half the town has tried to copy it.

“We are still talking about it today because as a piece of skill, it is unbelievable. And you are knocking the ball over Terry Butcher – an England international – and making him look like he isn’t there.

“I used to go down to the ground early and stand in the Manchester Road Paddock to watch him warm-up. He was something else.

“The flicks, catching the ball on the back of his head, it was just brilliant to watch. There wasn’t a kid in Bolton that didn’t want to be able to do what Frank Worthington could do with a football.”

Wanderers finished comfortably above the relegation pack in their return to the big time but they struggled to evolve an ageing squad and were relegated the following year, Greaves sacked and his replacement Stan Anderson unable to right the sinking ship.

Worthington had played in the US for Philadelphia Fury during the summer and struggled for form on his return, scoring just once in an Anglo Italian Cup game against St Mirren.

His last game for Bolton was against Arsenal in mid-October 1979, after which he signed for Birmingham City for £150,000 – a reasonable return for the £80,000 he had cost in the first place, but a deal which broke the heart of many a Burnden regular.

The flurry of tributes given by Worthington’s team-mates at Burnden in the hours after his passing was officially confirmed by the family was a measure of the regard he was held as a player and as a person.

“It’s a very sad day,” said former Wanderer, Paul Jones. “Worthy was the best player I ever played alongside. He was a joy to be with on and off the pitch.

“He looked after me. Near the end of our careers when we were both playing non-league football, he would make sure I was okay, always had something to do.

Jones – often dubbed by Bolton’s supporters as the best centre-back never to be capped by England – believes his former team-mate was equally hard done by on the national stage.

“Frank had eight caps,” he said. “Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh, these are strikers who should have 50 caps for their country when you look at some of the robots you have playing today.

“The problem was that the managers used to hear rumours about what went on off the pitch and believe them. They didn’t understand that when you went on the pitch it was your job, it was work, and you didn’t let people down.

“Frank had an aura about him and for me, he was simply the best.”

After his playing days were through, Worthington hit the after-dinner circuit where he was once again able to take centre stage.

With a lifetime of anecdotes and a galaxy of footballing names to drop, he lit up rooms right around the country with a routine that became a finely tuned art.

“People say I have squandered a fortune on women and booze,” he would quip. “But it is better than wasting it.”

Worthington put some of his racier stories into print as part of his autobiography ‘One Hump or Two’ – but those who met him away from the microphone would speak very differently, of a humble man, a gentleman.

“We were matchball sponsors and had a table in the Platinum Suite for a Boxing Day game,” recalls Bolton fan Andrew Gallagher. “I took my six-month-old son Jake and Frank was the guest in the lounge.

“Frank being Frank just casually wandered over and made a beeline for us. After a chat and some photos he still had Jake in his arms and he just went off, chatting to people on the other tables and to Jake like he was his own son.

“He came back with a big beaming smile and Jake was laughing. I don’t know who was happier that he had done it.

“It shows what a true gentleman he was as well as a legend in the shirt.”

Worthington only gave up the after-dinner circuit after starting to develop issues with his memory. And although he publicly denied being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016 after a social media post from his daughter Kim was picked up by the national media, the family quickly rallied around him to ensure he did not suffer any undue pressure.

He continued to watch Huddersfield until his health faded and until the pandemic made it impossible, many of his former Bolton team-mates would continue to check on the family home regularly.

As part of his routine, Worthington would joke about having had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus, but self-depreciation aside, he played 15 seasons at the very top level, scoring 150 goals in 466 matches.

And Worthington ranked his Golden Boot winning season with Bolton as the best of the lot.

When Wanderers fans return to the University of Bolton Stadium, and they will, you can be sure the old chant will be fired up once again.

“Oh Frankie, Frankie…”

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