FORMER manager Kevan Keelan has relived the short and unforgettable spell when Frank Worthington, one of the most charismatic footballers of his generation, played for Stalybridge Celtic.
Worthington, who has died aged 72 following a battle against dementia, was 40 years of age when he arrived at Bower Fold in the twilight of an illustrious career which saw him capped eight times by England.
It was through one of the Celtic director’s extensive contacts that Worthington came to sign for Celtic just as he had previously persuaded Liverpool legend Ron Yeats to turn out late in his playing days.
Keelan, 68, explained: “The directors came to me and said they were thinking of bringing in Frank. I was up for it as I knew it would bring in crowds and money for the club.
“It was the week before our Boxing Day derby against Hyde United in 1988 and I said let’s have a look at him in a couple of training sessions.
“He may have been aged 40 but was trim and unbelievable. He worked really hard and never shirked anything.
“He listened to me doing set-piece routines, had no edge and fitted in well with the lads.”
Keelan, one of Celtic’s greatest-ever players and all-time leading goalscorer, told the board he was happy for Worthington to play on Boxing Day and for them to promote his appearance in the big game against a Hyde side that included comedian John Bishop.
The publicity drive worked a treat as kick off had to be delayed as queues snaked through the car park and on to Mottram Road as fans were desperate to see Worthington, the star attraction, in the Northern Premier League fixture.
There was a crowd of 1,600 – non-league clubs can today only dream of such numbers – who witnessed Celtic’s 1-0 defeat in a game in which Worthington missed a penalty.
Keelan added as usual after the game the players adjourned to the Sportsman pub next to the ground.
He continued: “Frank came in and said he was gutted as he had messed up and he was putting all his wages – a reported £100 which was a sizeable sum more than 30 years ago – behind the bar, something I tried to dissuade him from doing that.
“He sat in the bar regaling stories from his career and my lasting image if of the lads being in awe.”
They had been joined by Keelan’s brother Michael, a former British weightlifting champion, and Michael’s brother-in-law the late Jim Quick, who had travelled back from Australia for a festive family visit.
Keelan, who played for Mossley during the most successful chapter in the club’s history under Bob Murphy, added after the game Celtic received fan mail for Worthington from all the world and one letter which was delivered to Bower Fold from Brazil was simply addressed ‘Frank Worthington England’.
“Frank was so famous that the letter got to him which was amazing,” he said.
After that one appearance, Worthington left with England veterans for a tour of South America but on his return in February 1989 played one further game for Celtic at 2-0 home defeat to Caernarfon Town.
Journalist Mike Pavasovic, who was working for the Stalybridge Reporter at the time, covered the game.
He recalled: ““When Celtic signed Frank Worthington, it was big news. He went to Bower Fold with his former Bolton team-mate Paul Jones.
“Jones held him in the highest esteem, commenting a few years ago ‘Frank Worthington would have put people like Ronaldo in the shade’. Praise indeed.”
Pavasovic added he has “fraying memories” of the match but recalled: “All four sides of the pitch were hemmed in by spectators with no gaps to be seen.
“I’m sure even the Hyde fans were hoping to see Frank weave the odd bit of magic to entertain them, so long as they didn’t lose.
“There was a collective sense of anticipation whenever he got the ball — an intake of breath, necks craning, eyes opening that little bit wider. There was just the odd spark here and there.
“After the game, in the Sportsman on Mottram Road (now an estate agent’s office), Bridge secretary Martyn Torr manoeuvred me through the packed pub to get a few words with the great man.
“Of course, being me, I did my best to fluff it. ‘How did you find Stalybridge Celtic?’ I blurted.
“Well I got on the M62 and headed west,” came the reply.
Pavasovic continued: “At the time, Frank would have been just 40, and with his lank hair and moustache he reminded me of a Wild West gunslinger. He looked more like Wild Bill Hickok than his hero Elvis. But I suppose a gunslinger is what he was. He was quick on the draw with his footballing skills rather than his Colt 45s.
“That Christmas afternoon at Bower Fold provided me with a special memory of a truly talented and special player,” he said.
The obituaries to Worthington, whose greatest playing years were spent at Huddersfield Town, Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers have been testimony to his standing in the game.
And he might have achieved even more greatness in the game after he signed for Liverpool only for the transfer to collapse when he failed a medical through high blood pressure.