Dick Neal: Hard-grafting footballer who took on Barcelona

 

Dick Neal was a midfield dreadnought, a hard-grafting footballer both creative and combative, who shone for Birmingham City in both legs of a European final against Barcelona. The time was 1960, when the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – the forerunner of the modern Europa League – was in its infancy, a competition set up to promote trade, having no connection with clubs' league positions and played out over two seasons.

The Blues had begun this continental journey with a 2-2 draw in Cologne in October 1958 – Neal had supplied one of the goals – and ended it at the Nou Camp a little more than 18 months later. Having held the mighty Spanish side to a goalless draw at St Andrew's, they subsided 4-1 in Catalonia, but the dynamic England under-23 international and his team-mates had demonstrated that they could compete against world-class performers such as the fêted Hungarian inside-forwards Sandor Kocsis and Ladislav Kubala.

It came as no surprise that Yorkshireman Neal should make his living from the game, his father – also Dick – having served Blackpool, Derby County, Southampton, Bristol City and Accrington Stanley between the wars. The younger Neal was spotted in junior football by Wolverhampton Wanderers, then a leading power, and he was recruited to one of their feeder clubs, Wath Wanderers. He turned professional at Molineux in 1951, but in the face of ferocious competition from the formidable likes of Ron Flowers, Eddie Clamp and Bill Slater, he never made the grade in the Black Country, instead joining Second Division Lincoln City in July 1954.

Neal flourished at homely Sincil Bank, making more than a century of appearances as an attacking wing-half who could double as a clamlike marker, and winning his under-23 call-up before joining top-flight Birmingham for £18,000 plus the services of Bert Linnecor in April 1957. With the staunchly industrious Len Boyd having recently retired and the thrustful Roy Warhurst on his way to Manchester City, the Blues needed midfield steel and Neal provided just that.

He made his debut in a local derby against West Bromwich Albion, then held down a regular place for the next four seasons, usually at wing-half but sometimes at inside-forward, where his eye for goal became evident, never more effectively than at Highbury in October 1957, when he scored twice in a 3-1 victory over Arsenal.

Probably Neal played his best football in 1958-59, when he combined constructively with inside-forwards Johnny Gordon and Bernard "Bunny" Larkin and fellow wing-half Johnny Watts as City finished in the top half of the table. The next two seasons became something of a struggle with the team, managed first by Pat Beasley and then by Gil Merrick, avoiding relegation only narrowly both times. Neal was made captain for 1960-61, but in the following autumn, though still in his prime at 28 and having played nearly 200 games for the Blues, he lost his place to the exceptionally talented young Welshman Terry Hennessey.

Looking for first-team football, Neal joined second-tier Middlesbrough, only for niggling injuries to limit his contribution at Ayresome Park, and in August 1963 he returned to Lincoln City, now in the basement division, as captain.

After two more years as an Imp, he left the Football League for Rugby Town, then served as player-manager of Hednesford Town, Brierley Hill Alliance and Blakenall. An engaging, drily humorous individual, he became a pub landlord in the village of Penkridge, near Stafford.

Richard Marshall Neal, footballer; born Dinnington, Yorkshire 1 October 1933; played for Lincoln City 1954-57, Birmingham City 1957-61, Middlesbrough 1961-63, Lincoln City 1963-65; married (two sons, one daughter); died 21 February 2013.

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