This week brought the sad news that Frank Worthington had died at the age of 72. A lot of Sunderland fans of a certain generation and older will, as I did, have greeted the news with a certain amount of sadness. For although he was only with the club for a short spell, ‘Frankie’ was a firm crowd favourite.
I think it could be fair to say that, Frank being Frank, he was a crowd favourite wherever he went, whichever club he played for. And Frank Worthington did play for an awful lot of clubs. But the thing is you would call such a player a journeyman, and that word to me brings an image of a down at heel, honest player who without pulling up any trees, puts in a shift at a series of struggling clubs.
Although it is true that he never got to play for any of the more illustrious clubs of the time, Frank Worthington was nothing like a footballing journeyman.
Starting his career in the 60’s, in the 70’s he blossomed into one of the most skillful talents of his generation. He was part of a clutch of outstanding English players of that time such as Alan Hudson, Stan Bowles and Tony Currie - all of a similar age - who were never really trusted by the England management, and also never really by any of the bigger clubs.
He was a scorer of many goals, 267 in his whole career, and many of them were outstanding. The most audacious one caught on camera is in the clip below.
There are many Sunderland fans who know nothing of him, but if you want to see how special a talent he was, if you could take one moment that sums up Frank Worthington, take a look at the goal he scores here.
In Frank’s case, he even signed for Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in 1972, but agonisingly failed the medical due to high blood pressure, brought on he says from his other love - women. He then went on to play for a succession of clubs struggling in the then Division One or in the wilderness of Division Two.
It was from Division Two with Leeds that Alan Durban decided to take a punt to bring Worthington to a Sunderland side at the foot of the First Division in December 1982. Durban, a manager who very much loved to promote youth into his team, had decided that he needed a couple of old hands to bring experience to his side.
Enter Frank and winger Leighton James. He scored on his debut in 3-2 home defeat to Ipswich, but with the team also tightening up at the back there soon followed an impressive run of results over 14 games which took Sunderland clear of trouble.
It’s fair to say that by the time Frank came to join us at the age of 34, his best days were certainly behind him. He only scored two goals for Sunderland in the six months he was with us, but his influence cannot be underestimated.
A couple of years ago, Gary Rowell was asked who was the best strike partner he had in his time at Sunderland. His answer? Frank Worthington.
Gary Rowell played in the Sunderland first team for over eight years with a number of different strikers. Yet in the short time he played alongside Frank, he enjoyed, at least in the First Division, the most productive scoring spell of his Sunderland career - ten goals in that 14 game run which saved Sunderland from relegation.
Frank was still a class act on the pitch, full of flicks and tricks, outstanding vision, able to hold the ball up bringing his team mates into the attack, and still a real character, even during games. Especially during games.
Football was he believed, fun and meant to be enjoyed and the Sunderland fans took Frank to their hearts. He was a hero of the crowd, who would sing his name throughout a game - even when he returned the next season with his next club, Southampton.
Frank was a character, known as much for his exploits off the pitch as for his scoring on it. It is difficult to imagine a player today being able to get away with the headlines that followed him. Could you imagine a manager today making a grand entrance onto the main stand to watch his team play, with a stunning girlfriend on his arm? But he did as player-manager of Tranmere Rovers.
He was once asked by a journalist about his life off the pitch. Frank replied that it wasn’t true that he burned the candle at both ends seven nights a week, and that he only went out six! He still retained a mullet into his sixties that Spandau Ballet would have killed for and was still active, sharp-minded and quick-witted until Alzheimer’s Disease began to take a hold of him in the last few years of his life.
The world is a bit of a duller place with his passing, but what a character, what an entertainer... what a player.