Glance at a photograph of George Petherbridge in his 1950s Bristol Rovers heyday and he appears old before his time. The expression is watchful, almost anxious, and when seen taking to the pitch in the flesh at Eastville – Rovers' much-missed former headquarters, now the site of a vast convenience furniture store – the 5ft 4in Devon-born winger might have seemed a vulnerable figure, especially in comparison to the full-backs charged with marking him, often muscular hulks who appeared capable of eating him alive.
But take a closer look and there is a twinkle in the eyes, a hint of combativeness that chimes with the Rovers' rousing nickname, the Pirates. The frame might be diminutive, but it is solid, too. Some of the supporters might know him as "Winky Pop" because he appears a tad more advanced in years than actually he is, but here, on reflection, is a character to be reckoned with.
Almost invariably, any doubt about that conclusion is dispelled when the game begins. The tiny man patrolling the touchline – usually on the right of his team's attack, occasionally on the left – is clearly a both a swashbuckler with more than a dash of flair, and an indomitable workhorse, ever-ready to chase back and harass opponents when the ball is lost.
Petherbridge had staying power, too, making nearly 500 senior appearances and scoring almost a century of goals for Rovers between 1946 and 1962. He starred in their Third Division (South) championship-winning line-up of 1952-53 and, alas, he was the last surviving member of their revered late-1950s forward line, which still trips off the tongue of the former Eastville faithful, and reads: Petherbridge, Alfie Biggs, Geoff Bradford, Dai Ward and Peter Hooper.
An adoptive Bristolian from the age of three, Petherbridge sparkled so brightly in junior football that he was awarded a trial with Arsenal in 1945, only to be rejected because he was too small. Disappointed but still determined to make his way in the game he went home, accepted an invitation from Rovers and never looked back.
He made his League debut in the autumn of 1946, and became a first- team fixture two years later, his dazzling footwork, an ability to drop crosses precisely on to the heads of spearheads Vic Lambden and Bradford, a shot of amazing velocity and a transparent dedication to the team ethic combining to mark him out as a favourite with the fans. Although he created far more scoring opportunities than he accepted himself, he had his moments as a marksman, notably at home to Torquay United in December 1951, when he stunned his fellow Devonians with a four-goal salvo.
As popular in the dressing room as on the terraces, Petherbridge was a modest, caring man who, as his own playing days were drawing to a close, took pains to tutor his callow long-term replacement, Harold Jarman. That might seem a natural thing to do, but there were plenty of gnarled professionals in the English game who resented the rising generation, viewing them selfishly as job-stealers rather than accepting their progress as logical and in their club's best interest.
Petherbridge deserved better than to be a part of a relegation side in his last campaign, but so it was, Bert Tann's team slipping out of the second tier in the spring of 1962. Thereafter he ran a pub then worked at Millfield as a groundsman, always ready to pass on tips to young footballers at the school in Street, Somerset. He also managed Glastonbury of the Western League and played cricket, his second great sporting passion, as frequently as possible. Later he became groundsman at Wells Cathedral School, also in Somerset, where he continued to be an uplifting role model for any young sportsperson with the wit to listen.
George Ernest Petherbridge, footballer and groundsman: born Devonport, Devon 19 May 1927; played for Bristol Rovers 1945-1962; married (two daughters, one son); died Shepton Mallet, Somerset 4 March 2013.