When the death was announced last week of Frank Worthington, it was the latest passing in a disconcerting recent run of former footballers who were more or less all gracing the field of play at the same time forty-fifty years ago. The fantastically flamboyant Worthington was one of the great entertainers of the game when football’s great entertainers were Nureyev on the pitch and Robin Askwith off it – a generation inspired to express their extrovert personalities by following the trail blazed by George Best, those for whom giving punters their money’s worth mattered more than winning at all costs. Perhaps not entirely unconnected to this attitude was the fact Worthington never played for a club challenging for honours; his best years were at Huddersfield Town, Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers in the 1970s, though he came within a whisker of signing for Shankly’s Liverpool. Perhaps his reluctance to moderate his appetite for extracurricular excesses cost him there, but Frank Worthington’s often-breathtaking skills at least earned him a small handful of England caps, even if he was one of those players for whom anecdotes in the bank rated higher than trophies in the cabinet.
Like most famous faces admired from afar and never listed in one’s own personal address book, I didn’t actually know Frank Worthington; I’ve a feeling I may have once asked for (and received) his autograph when he was playing for a struggling Leeds United side en route to relegation in the early 80s, but that would’ve been the closest I came to sharing his space. Otherwise, he and I occupied very different worlds. However, his death – coming so soon after the passing of other greats from the same footballing era such as Peter Lorimer and Colin Bell – nevertheless resonates beyond the online obituary or 30-second news headline followed by the weather forecast. Why? Well, he and they were Gods of youth, walking tall at a time when I was small. An impressionable kid saw these guys in the pages of ‘Shoot’, watched them exhibit their talents on TV, attempted to replicate those talents with jumpers for goalposts, and sometimes pinned their pictures to his wall. They were partners in a childhood contract that nobody who’s risen to prominence in the last 30 years could ever enter into.
Such glamorous luminaries were in their prime when eyes were wide and in need of an exciting alternative to adult role models whose austere authoritarianism hardly worked as a great PR campaign for the grownup world that kid would one day have no choice but to belong to. They had a head start over later members of the household name fraternity, in possession of a sentimental seniority that will always place them in a very special elite constellation of stars. They were pivotal to a period in which they were the key ambassadors of the future, representing a wholly positive and inspirational idea of the future as a land of limitless possibilities. Sometimes it’s often hard to recall a moment when the future wasn’t an ominous spectre hovering over the present, a malignant shadow suggesting more of the same but even worse; yet, the autumnal adult perspective hasn’t always been the sole viewpoint. It just feels that way. No, there was once another concept of tomorrow, one that every personality to drift into one’s nascent vision during formative years pointed the way towards.
As a child, you are quickly made aware you are not the finished article, that you will eventually be the same height (or even higher) than the parent towering over you, that you won’t be at school forever (thank God), and that – on paper, at least – you could become anything you want to; you just need someone somewhere to present you with a range of tantalising options. Yes, you too may one day juggle a ball like Frank Worthington or play guitar like Ziggy played guitar; you may climb Nelson’s Column without a harness like John Noakes or wander around quarries in Surrey, escaping alien life-forms with a mini-skirted sidekick and dressed in a velvet jacket-and-cape ensemble – like Jon Pertwee. These guys made you believe the future was worth waiting for as long as it was their future and not the dull, workmanlike future of the teacher or the parent or the priest, or whichever everyday adult figure dispensed discipline and attempted to indoctrinate the child with a dreary design for life that had no appeal at all. These colourful characters were vital as living, breathing, indisputable evidence that the adult world didn’t necessarily equate with mortgages and insurance policies and a dozen other fatal attractions. They planted a seed that we continue to carry around inside us even if we’re not always aware it’s there. Whatever destiny lay in wait for us once we graduate from the University of Life at which they were our tutors, the interior imprint they left behind remains a precious, indelible stamp reminding us who we once were when they were helping to mould us in the most benign of fashions.
Often I see the individual on his or her path through life as a giant Airfix kit in the process of being put together by a team of people over time; the team is an ever-changing unit – as one person leaves, they’re replaced by another; and whilst some drift in and contribute one piece to the kit before drifting out again, others stick to the job at hand for several years. And, of course, the kit is never finished; new bits are constantly being added and other bits that used to fit but no longer do are removed. Sometimes people can enter our lives, dramatically reshape it, and are then gone in a blink; yet they have often altered us far deeper than someone who studiously stuck around much longer. Similarly, those we never met and simply observed from a distance can exert a significant influence by hovering over us for decades, with their point of entry enhanced for life if it came early enough in proceedings.
I think this is why we occasionally feel deeply affected when a person of note we never personally knew passes away, especially if they’ve been an omnipotent fixture that has always been there and always should be. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the passing of a huge pop cultural figure whose influence was undeniable – a David Bowie, for example; sometimes we’re caught by surprise when it’s somebody we didn’t even realise meant something to us; sometimes it can be a minor character we never imagined was as intrinsic to that tapestry as the characters dominating the foreground – an actor, a TV presenter, a comedian, and even a politician. As long as they were present at our birth or in the room as we began to explore it, they count, whether we know it or not; indeed, we often only know it when we hear they’ve gone, because when they’ve gone that little piece of them inside us is gone too – and that was part of us.
It’s bad enough watching those who are still around get old. We don’t want them to age; we want them to always be at the peak of their powers; we want to them to remain frozen in their prime, even if that means we’ll gradually catch up with them and eventually overtake them. Their dismaying deterioration acts as an uncomfortable mirror on our own and their fate serves as a depressing premonition; if they didn’t wrinkle and wither, maybe we wouldn’t either. I don’t want Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger or Keith Richards or Bob Dylan to be pushing 80; it just doesn’t seem right. And when a character like Frank Worthington leaves the pitch, the childhood XI loses another irreplaceable player at a time when the sub’s bench is noticeably empty. I dunno. I guess the best we can hope for is extra-time – and maybe a replay. It’s a game of two halves, after all.
© The Editor