Eddie Hopkinson

Daring goalkeeper for England and Bolton Wanderers
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Even in an era before goalkeepers tended routinely to be giants, Eddie Hopkinson was one of the shortest among Football League net-minders, but lack of stature did not prevent the thickset north-easterner from becoming England's finest for a spell during the late 1950s.

Edward Hopkinson, footballer: born Wheatley Hill, Co Durham 29 October 1935; played for Oldham Athletic 1951-52, Bolton Wanderers 1952-69; capped by England 14 times 1957-59; married (one son, one daughter); died Royton, Lancashire 25 April 2004.

Even in an era before goalkeepers tended routinely to be giants, Eddie Hopkinson was one of the shortest among Football League net-minders, but lack of stature did not prevent the thickset north-easterner from becoming England's finest for a spell during the late 1950s.

While still in his early twenties, the 5ft 9in Hopkinson collected 14 caps for his country and excelled as Bolton Wanderers beat Manchester United in the 1958 FA Cup Final. After that, although he slipped from the international reckoning, he maintained a resilient, ultra-competitive presence between the club's posts for another decade, making nearly 600 senior appearances, more than any other Trotter before or since.

Born in Co Durham, he moved to Royton, Lancashire, with his family as a boy, and showed early promise as a wing-half for his school team. One day the team's goalkeeper failed to show up for training, Hopkinson was pressed into duty as an emergency custodian and he displayed such natural ability in his new role that within two years he had signed amateur forms with Oldham Athletic.

That was in June 1951 and, during the following season, still only 16, he made three appearances for the Latics in the former Third Division South, conceding a total of 10 goals, but revealing immense potential. Now he faced a choice: take a part-time job outside the game while continuing with Oldham, or seek his fortune at a higher level. Hopkinson opted to raise his eyes, enlisting with First Division Bolton as an amateur in August 1952 and turning professional three months later.

Thereafter he settled down at Burnden Park to hone his craft, but, after finishing his National Service with the RAF in February 1956, still he languished in a lengthy queue of goalkeeping hopefuls and might have been excused for ruing his decision to gamble on a future in the game.

Suddenly, however, his fortunes were transformed, as the long-serving Stan Hanson retired and Ken Grieves, his Australian replacement, remained on cricketing duty for Lancashire as the 1956/57 football season commenced. Thus Hopkinson was brought in for his Bolton début in a local derby with Blackpool, and impressed so comprehensively that he achieved the rare distinction of being ever-present throughout his first top-flight campaign.

The meteoric rise was emphasised by his call-up to the England under-23 squad within six weeks of making his club entrance, and then confirmed when he was awarded his first full cap in a 4-0 victory over Wales at Ninian Park, Cardiff, in October 1957.

It was a time of opportunity for young goalkeepers, with the England selectors unable to decide on a regular number one, and now Hopkinson vied for the berth with Alan Hodgkinson of Sheffield United and Colin McDonald of Burnley, who unseated the Bolton man for the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden.

However, McDonald's career was ended by a broken leg and Hopkinson was recalled, only to lose his place in 1959 to Ron Springett of Sheffield Wednesday, who became England's first regular custodian since Gil Merrick back in mid-decade. Considering the subsequent rise of the brilliant Gordon Banks, it was unsurprising that Hopkinson never played for England again, though he featured twice for the Football League and at club level he continued to thrive.

At Wembley in May 1958 he was a key figure as Bolton overcame Manchester United, who had reached the FA Cup Final despite losing the majority of their first team, dead and injured in the Munich air disaster only three months earlier. Riding on a wave of emotional nationwide support, the Red Devils were unusually taxing opponents, but Bolton coped coolly and professionally with the pressure, with Hopkinson making several key saves.

Over the next two seasons, as the Wanderers finished fourth and sixth in the élite division, the keeper remained in magnificent form behind one of the League's most fearsomely physical rearguards, in which the full-backs Roy Hartle and Tommy Banks, and stopper John Higgins were prominent.

Hopkinson was elastically agile and unfailingly brave, nothing loath to plunge head-first amid the flailing feet of marauding attackers, and his daring style was complemented by a priceless positional sense which compensated amply for lack of height and reach.

A speciality was in dealing with one-on-one situations; as a forward bore down on him, he would stand up until the last feasible moment, then spread himself as the shot was released or his opponent attempted to dribble around him, and it was rare that he was bested in such confrontations.

Crucially, too, he was almost metronomically consistent, colossally determined, and spikily ready to stand up for himself, never being short of a spirited rebuke to forwards whom he felt might have exceeded the limits of fair play.

In the early 1960s, when the abolition of the footballers' maximum-wage agreement signalled a massive reduction in the power of small-town clubs, Bolton's star began to wane and in 1963/64 they were relegated to the Second Division.

Hopkinson remained loyal, though, and his standard of performance did not drop at the lower level. With the likes of Francis Lee and Freddie Hill shining, the Trotters almost returned to the top grade at the first attempt, finishing third in 1964/65, but thereafter they fell away to struggle towards decade's end.

Throughout this anti- climactic process, Hopkinson continued to repel all attempts by younger men to supplant him until injury forced him to yield to Alan Boswell and retire as a player, aged 34, in November 1969.

After that he coached the club's reserves and youngsters until 1974, when he began a stint as assistant manager of Stockport County. There followed a return to Burnden Park as a goalkeeping coach in 1979, then he left the game to become a representative for a chemical company.

Still Hopkinson, whose son Paul kept goal for Stockport during the mid-1970s, retained close connections with Bolton Wanderers, becoming an inaugural member of the club's hall of fame and working as a corporate hospitality host on match days.

Ivan Ponting