Frank Upton: Versatile and hard-tackling footballer known as 'Frank the Tank'
Tuesday 16 August 2011
When fans of Derby County were regaled with lurid tales of tough nuts at rival clubs in the late 1950s, they would grin knowingly. To them there were plenty of common or garden hard men scattered through the four divisions of the Football League – and then there was Frank Upton. Not for nothing was the tall, angular Midlander, who later helped Chelsea to earn promotion to the top flight and to lift the League Cup, known as "Frank the Tank".
Whether operating in his customary role as a defensive wing-half,or slotting in at full-back or even asan emergency centre-forward, Upton relished a tackle, to put it mildly, his bone-crunching style beloved ofregulars at the Baseball Ground and then at Stamford Bridge, not quite so popular among opposition supporters. Not that the Tank, who also packed a howitzer of a shot, was a dirty player; rather he was fair and fearless and utterly committed to the cause. Subtle he was not, however, his passes often delivered with such sharp velocity that his other nickname, "Stroker", was wickedly ironic.
Whatever else, Upton was an endlessly enthusiastic worker, who in his early days as a part-timer with Derby toiled also in a blacksmith's shop, getting up at 5am, making an arduous journey to his anvil by foot and by bus, then knocking off at the end of a demanding shift before bussing it to the Baseball Ground for training two nights a week. It was a routine which left him, he recalled, "a bit shattered" although fundamentally he enjoyed it, and his opinion on Fabio Capello's lament about his England stars' summer fatigue after their recent lacklustre display against Switzerland would surely have been both trenchant and entertaining.
After leaving school, Upton featured for non-League Nuneaton Borough before signing for Northampton Town of the old Third Division South in March 1953. That spring the 18-year-old rookie played in the last four games of the campaign as the Cobblers missed out on promotion only on goal average, the absurdly complicated precursor to goal difference as a means of separating clubs level on points.
A few more promising appearances during the following season preceded a move to second-flight Derby County in June 1954, but although he missed only the final match of the season Upton couldn't save the Rams from relegation as bottom club, well adrift of he pack. Soon, under the strict butexpert tutelage of manager Harry Storer, Upton matured into a redoubtable and consistent performer, but after missing out narrowly on promotion in 1955-56, thanks to National Service he made only nine appearances during 1956-57 as Derby won the Third Division North title.
Thereafter he shone as Storer's side consolidated in the Second Division, his flinty endeavours almost securing a move to Liverpool at the end of the decade. At that point Bill Shankly had just assumed the Anfield reins and was seeking to stiffen the resolve of a team which had failed repeatedly to regain its berth in the top tier. The inspirational Scot saw in Upton exactly the steel he required, but an illness in his family made the player reluctant to move so he remained at the Baseball Ground until a £15,000 transfer to Chelsea in August 1961.
Bought by Ted Drake, who was soon to be replaced as Stamford Bridge manager by Tommy Docherty, Upton once again suffered demotion with a new employer as the Pensioners ended that season at the foot of the First Division. However, after taking time to pin down a specific role, Frank the Tank emerged as a key factor as Chelsea bounced back at the first attempt, runners-up to an enterprising Stoke City side for which Stanley Matthews was enjoying a remarkable Indian summer.
Playing at left-half, Upton proved a steadying influence in a precocious young side featuring the likes of Peter Bonetti, Terry Venables and Bobby Tambling, his experience effectively tempering the gleeful impetuosity of the talented boys around him. The west Londoners soared to fifth in the First Division in 1963-64, but he had fallen behind a more youthful hardcase in the muscular person of Ron Harris. He managed only three games in the next campaign, during which Chelsea pushed Manchester United for the League championship, finishing third.
There was compensation, though, as Docherty called him into the side for the second leg of the League Cup final against Leicester City at Filbert Street, with Harris moving to right-half in place of the indisposed John Hollins and Upton donning his customary No 6 shirt. Having prevailed 3-2 in the first leg, Chelsea took the trophy with a goalless draw and Upton bagged his only senior medal.
He returned to Derby in September 1965, spending a year in the Second Division and extending his Rams record to 272 games before joining Notts County for a brief stint in the Fourth. There followed six months with Worcester City before he re-entered the Football League as player-manager of Workington in January 1968.
It proved to be a difficult task at Borough Park, and when the side finished second from bottom of the Fourth Division, being forced to apply (successfully) for re-election, Upton was sacked. Still dedicated to the game, and particularly accomplished when working with young players, he went on to a long and varied career as a coach, during which he served fleetingly as caretaker manager of Chelsea following Ken Shellito's departure in 1978.
His other billets included Northampton, Aston Villa, Randers Freja ofDenmark, Dundee, El-Arabi of Kuwait, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bedworth United (manager), Coventry City, Keflavik of Iceland, Burton Albion, Northwich Victoria, Cheltenham, Derby and Leicester. There were also stints in Borneo and Malaysia, and he ran a sports injury clinic in Derby during the 1990s.
Frank Upton, footballer and manager: born Atherstone, Warwickshire 18 October 1934; played for Northampton Town 1953-54, Derby County 1954-61 and 1965-66, Chelsea 1961-65, Notts County 1966-67, Workington 1968; died Findern, Derbyshire 16 May 2011.
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