Neil Franklin was
arguably the finest centre-half the England football team ever had. After
losing his early prime to the Second World War, he became an automatic
choice for his country, only to scupper an apparently gilded career by one
disastrous, if understandable, decision.
When he walked out on Stoke City, turned his back on
England's first World Cup campaign, and flew to Bogota in the summer of
1950, Franklin believed he was heading for a pot of gold and securing his
family's financial future. No more would he be a slave to the English
game's iniquitous system which made players little more than appallingly
paid slaves to their clubs.
But the hoped-for El Dorado in Colombia - then
acrimoniously outside the jurisdiction of the Federation of International
Football Associations - proved to be a sorry illusion, and in less than
two months he was back home in the Potteries, chastened, largely
ostracised and destined for virtual oblivion for the rest of his time as a
Franklin's excellence was never in question from the
day in 1939 that he turned professional with the first division Stoke, his
home-town club. He didn't make his senior debut before the conflict but
was catapaulted to prominence by consistent magnificence in wartime
football, for City, for the RAF, and, eventually, in England's unofficial
When peacetime competition resumed in 1946,
Franklin's full international place was not in doubt, and he cemented it
with a then record 27 consecutive appearances over the next four years.
What made Neil Franklin different as a central
defender was his pure skill. Virtually all stoppers of his era were hunky
bustlers whose brawn and aggression were their paramount assets, but the
Stoke number five adopted a singularly subtle approach. Though firm in the
tackle and competitive in the air - indeed, impressively so for a man of
5ft 11in who weighed just 11 stone - he tended to master his adversaries
by shrewd positional sense and almost uncanny anticipation. Then, having
gained possession of the ball, he could stroke it with masterful accuracy
to which-ever colleague he chose. Invariably, Franklin appeared in command
of a situation, serenely composed, a born organiser, a delight to the eye.
When his decision to leave Stoke for Santa Fe of
Bogota to play in a so-called rebel league became public, bedlam broke out
across the soccer world. As he, together with his City team-mate George
Mountford, flew to South America to earn reportedly 10 times their English
wages, they were slated cruelly as "greedy traitors", some of their most
vociferous critics having a vested interest in the British game's
maintaining its unfair status quo.
Of course, there were sound football reasons why the
27-year-old Franklin should not place himself beyond the pale, and Walter
Winterbottom, the gentlemanly England manager, was among those who had
implored him not to go.
Sadly for the bold adventurer, his idyll did not last
long. Most of Santa Fe's other recruits were Argentinians, with whom the
Stoke pair found it difficult to play. There were also problems settling
in a strange country for Franklin's pregnant wife and his six-year-old son
and the pressure became too much for him to bear. Accordingly, he flew
home to England after less than two months, homesick and disillusioned,
leaving Bogota behind him for ever. Not surprisingly, he was not made
welcome. Suspended for four months by the football authorities and his
club, shunned by some of his erstwhile colleagues, the country's most
accomplished centre-half spent the winter of 1950-51 in a non-productive
limbo which was ended in February by a pounds 22,500 move to the second
division Hull City.
The extent of the widespread feeling against Franklin
could be judged by the fact that none of the major clubs tried to acquire
his proven talent, but that did not bother Hull's boss, Raich Carter. He
had long coveted his former England colleague and reckoned there was no
reason why the centre-half should not return to the international
reckoning at the same time as providing inspiration for the Tigers.
Unfortunately, neither ambition was achieved. Despite
obvious poverty in central defence England never picked Franklin again,
preferring to run through no less than a dozen inferior performers over
the next four years before shifting Billy Wright to fill the troublesome
position. As for his contribution to Hull, it was badly hampered by
injuries and promotion was not achieved.
Thereafter, Franklin's playing days petered out in
poignant anticlimax. There were brief lower-division interludes with Crewe
Alexandra and Stockport County before he moved into non-league circles,
serving the likes of Macclesfield and Wellington Town (whom he also
coached) before he retired in 1962.
However, Franklin was determined to remain in the
game and coached in Cyprus before accepting the manager's seat at the
third division Colchester United in November 1963. He could not prevent
their relegation the following season, but led them straight back up, only
for another demotion to bring about his dismissal in 1968.
In later years, Franklin ran a pub in Oswaldtwistle,
Lancaster. But for that one fateful decision to seek his fortune, there is
no telling what glorious tales of soccer achievement he might have had to
tell his regulars. - Ivan Ponting - The Independent Obituary