Neil Franklin - Career Profile
The career of Neil Franklin can be considered as one of English footballs' saddest wastes, even though it provided the nation with arguably its' greatest ever centre half. His story certainly provides the most obvious example of the ridiculous nature of the maximum wage system that was in force in English football up to the beginning of the 1960's.
Cornelius Franklin was born in the Shelton district of Stoke-on-Trent in 1922 which meant that by the time he was signing professional terms with Stoke City in 1939 the country was on the verge of war and football about to disband for six years.
Franklin had made a big impression at schoolboy level playing at both inside and centre forward. In his quest to gain selection for the England Schoolboys side he was overlooked in favour of a young lad from Bradford by the name of Len Shackleton.
Although he had been refused a place on the Stoke City groundstaff as a fourteen year old, meaning he had to go out and get a "proper" job, Franklin did sign as an amatuer with the club before turning professional. The strapping youngster had been converted into a centre half almost immediately upon his arrival at the Victoria Ground.
Despite the outbreak of war Neil Franklin's footballing development continued apace. Having joined the Air Force and been stationed near Blackpool, Franklin joined the Tangerines although the abundance of talent available to the club at that time meant he was only selected for the Second XI, playing in the Lancashire Combination. He wasn't in bad company, however, as another youngster making a name for himself, Stanley Mortensen, was a regular colleague.
Franklin really came to prominence in the war years when selected in a series of representative games, playing for FA XI's before graduating to the unofficial England side in 1945. So although Franklin did not make his league debut until he was 24 Stoke City had a ready made star on their hands when he did.
When football resumed Franklin began to demonstrate to a wider audience the qualities which had already assured his standing within the game during the war. He won his first official England cap in the first international after the war, a 7-2 defeat of Northern Ireland in September 1946. His right to the England number five shirt was already undisputed.
Neil Franklin was a radically different centre half to those who had gone before him, to his contemporaries and to most of those that followed him. In a time when almost every team in England possessed a raw boned, battle hardened centre forward and an even more raw boned, battle hardened centre half to combat them Franklin was a gloriously refined exception. He was a stopper alright. He could match the best in the air and never shirked a challenge. It was what he was besides that made him special.
Franklin did not confine himself to looking after the centre forward. His anticipation and positioning was uncanny. He could intercept danger with so little fuss that most observers were probably unaware that any had existed.
On top of that, Franklin was an outstanding footballer. He viewed the hoofed clearance with disdain, except when strictly necessary, and believed the responsibility of "playing football" was as much his as anyone elses in the side. Therefore a dangerous centre into the Stoke City penalty area was as likely to lead to a counter attack as a chance on goal. Even under the severest pressure Franklin was loath to desert his principles.
His performances helped Stoke to challenge strongly in the first season after the war. They reached the 5th round of the FA Cup before losing at home to Sheffield United 1-0. It was their league form that was really exciting the Potteries, however.
The league programme was disrupted to an unparalleled extent as snow descended on England for the best part of four months solid but Stoke made good progress as and when they could get a game in and were obvious challengers from Christmas onwards. Franklin was the shining star of the defence while Stan Matthews was weaving his magic on the wing and another pre-war legend, Freddie Steele, was still finding the net with regularity.
Amidst all the confusion of postponements and the question of games in hand the final situation was that if Stoke won their last game of the season, away from home at Sheffield United in the middle of June, the championship would be theirs at Liverpools' expense.
Cruelly, after two weeks of waiting to play the game, Stoke fell to a 2-1 defeat and the Blades had killed their title hopes just as they had put paid to their FA Cup chances.
Despite enjoying a fantastic season it was evident that all was not rosy within the Stoke camp. Astonishingly Stan Matthews was allowed to leave for Blackpool with the championship still in the balance. There were rumours that he was not the most popular man in the dressing room, something Franklin as captain was quick to denounce, but even if he had been openly detested it would have been bizarre to sell the star player with a league championship within touching distance.
By the end of the following season Franklin himself would be seriously unsettled at the Victoria Ground.
Neil Franklin had continued to confirm his place in the England side during the 1947 summer tour of Europe which actually took place a full month before the end of the season because of the massive backlog of fixtures.
Whilst playing in a "B" international in Switzerland Franklin almost started a riot after a withering tackle on the home winger Hiegenthaler. Responding to some theatricals from the player a couple of beer bottles and an umbrella came flying down from the terraces in Franklin's general direction and a gathering mob looked likely to follow.
The situation was sorted as Frank Swift emerged from his goalmouth, armed himself with the brolly and warned the intruders, while smiling broadly, to "Get back before I have to do something with this!"
It was a rare moment of confrontation in the playing career of Franklin whose scrupulous honesty and sense of fair play was recognised and admired throughout the game.
Perhaps inevitably his methods had their detractors. Amazingly, however, one of them seemed to be the Stoke City manager Bob McGrory.
Stoke slipped to the lower reaches of the first division after their championship challenge of 1947 and Franklin often found his style of play coming under scrutiny in the local press, especially after a defeat.
The cultured defender was undoubtedly irritated by the sniping, especially as every time he pulled on an England shirt there was nothing but the highest praise for his performances. There were some great performances as well, both by Franklin and the team. He was there in Portugal when the side won 10-0 and was absolutely outstanding when they went to Italy and withstood a tremendous first half onslaught before running out 4-0 winners.
At club level, however, the situation deteriorated to the extent that Franklin put in a transfer request at the start of the 1948-49 season, a request that the club refused. Under the laws of the day there was nothing a player could do in such circumstances but carry on.
Unfortunately things did not improve and as the 1950 season drew to a close, Neil Franklin was at the end of his tether. He had been stalling on signing a new contract with Stoke. Unlike nowadays this would not have meant that Franklin was able to go and pick the club of his choice when his contract was up and make a pot of money into the bargain. Because his club had offered him a contract he would remain their property, in footballing terms at least. If he did not re-sign for Stoke he would not be able to play football at all. It gives an indication of his dissatisfaction at the club.
There was also the little matter of the 1950 World Cup finals in Brazil which were just around the corner. England had recently confirmed their passage to that tournament by beating Scotland at Hampden Park in the Home International match. It was England's 27th international since the war and Franklin had played in every one of them.
With his wife heavily pregnant Franklin informed the FA that he did not wish to be considered for the trip to Brazil. The FA agreed to this request.
When Franklin then headed off for Columbia having accepted a contract to play for the Santa Fe club in Bogota there was a sensation.
Hindsight is perhaps the greatest gift that man does not possess, except maybe flight, but I do not think I am being wise after the event to suggest Franklin was rash to set out in search of, what turned out to be, fools gold in South America.
His trip to Columbia was an unmitigated disaster from the start with arrangements not made and promises broken. Living conditions were completely different to those described to him and the football chaotic to the point of being a shambles.
It is easy to look dimly on Neil Franklin for his conduct in this matter yet this would surely be unfair. Other than his own discontent with his club his actions were motivated by a desire to provide security and a better standard of living for his wife and family. He knew what the repercussions of his actions would be in England yet still felt it was his best course of action.
Anybody who did resent his decisions would have been well satisfied with their consequences. Franklin played just six games for Santa Fe before bolting for home after yet more arrangements for his expectant wife were unfulfilled.
Back home the former England stalwart found himself in exile. Franklin was immediately suspended by the FA and later refused permission by his club to train with them. Eventually he would be free to play again at the end of January 1951 at which point Stoke granted him the transfer he had wanted all along.
The grimmest irony, and cause of regret to Franklin, must have been the suffering his wife, Vera, would have endured during those couple of months leading up to the birth of her second child. Virtually alone in a strange, uncomfortable country on the other side of the world, away from her family and friends at a time when she would have wanted them the most. It had been a professional and personal disaster.
The feeling that Franklin continued to be covertly ostracised within the English game could not be escaped. Although it took a world record fee for a defender, £22,500, to take him from Stoke it was a second division club, Hull City, handing over the money. It is incredible to think that every club in the country was not fighting for his signature.
Despite the fact that most observers quickly felt his performances had not suffered from his unhappy adventure there would be no England recall despite the fact that the centre half position would not be nearly adequately filled until 1954, and even then only by deploying Billy Wright, the countries finest wing half, in the position.
Franklin might have begun to suspect that some kind of divine retribution was being meted out to him as he began to be hampered by injury for the first time in his career. He missed the second half of the 1951-52 season with a serious knee injury. Franklin survived his first game back, against Everton and Dave Hickson, at the start of the following season but would only last a few more games before the knee went again and he had to spend another season on the sidelines.
On his return in 1953-54, again in time to lock horns with Hickson, Franklin stayed injury free but found himself unable to command a regular place in the Tigers first team. It is hard not to feel that his experiences as well as his injuries had robbed him of some of his former greatness and his performances were, in general, a shadow of what they had been in his prime.
Neil Franklin moved back to Stoke to accept the offer of running a pub, though still a Hull player, and now found himself snubbed by both Stoke City and Port Vale in his request to use their training facilities. Vale would at least relent eventually.
This move seemed to suit Franklin and his form in the 1954-55 season led to renewed calls for an international recall even though Hull found themselves struggling near the foot of the second division. These were cries in the wilderness, however.
As he entered his mid 30's Franklin's career fizzled out in dreary surroundings. He left Hull in February 1956 with the club on the brink of relegation to Division Three North and moved to Crewe who finished bottom of that division at the end of the season. They did so again the following season and were in the process of doing so for a third time when Franklin left to see out the remains of his playing career with Stockport County in 1957.
There would be no immediate call for his services as a manager from within the league either, although he did take up the post of player manager with Wellington Town. After five years managing around the non league circles Franklin would eventually be given his chance to manage in the Football League, although this was another modest calling as he took over at third division Colchester United.
Franklin had little chance of turning Colchester into a force and during his time in charge he presided over two relegations and one promotion.
In the end you were left with the feeling that Franklin's talents had been scarcely been used either as a player or manager.
So what should have been one of the greatest, most recognised careers in English football descended into a sad, shambling mess. It should never be forgotten that Franklin was a true great of English football, however.
Martin Peters was described as being ten years ahead of his time but we are still waiting for centre half play in this country to catch up with Franklin to see how far ahead of his time he was.
Bobby Moore had many of his attributes, his poise and ability on the ball, but Moore was essentially a half back and would have played alongside Franklin if they had been of the same generation. Franklin had those assets but was an imperious stopper as well.
Rio Ferdinand is probably the nearest example of a present day centre half to him but Franklin's concentration, positioning and venom in the tackle eclipse the United defenders'. They are also similar, I suppose, in having stalled on contract talks with their clubs. Without digging at the modern day player the story of Neil Franklin gives a shocking perspective on the so called golden age of English football.
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