Henry Cockburn

Diminutive Manchester United and England wing-half
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Henry Cockburn, footballer: born Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire 14 September 1923; played for Manchester United 1943-54, Bury 1954-56; capped 13 times by England 1946-51; died Mossley, Lancashire 2 February 2004.

There wasn't very much of Henry Cockburn, but it was difficult to remain unaware of his presence on a football pitch. If he wasn't tackling like a miniature tank, or sprinting at full tilt in pursuit of ball or opponent, then probably he was issuing instructions at the top of his voice. Indeed, so perpetual was Cockburn's motion, and so passionate was his fervour during his prime in the decade following the Second World War, that the Manchester United and England wing-half created the irresistible impression that he was engaged in all three activities at once.

The diminutive Lancastrian, who stood a mere 5ft 5in in his stockinged feet, operated in a defensive midfield role in the first of Matt Busby's three outstanding teams, the one which purveyed the most exhilarating football in the land as the game offered much-needed entertainment in the era of post-conflict austerity.

In many ways Cockburn was similar to Nobby Stiles, the tigerishly abrasive destroyer who played a key role as United piled up the honours throughout the 1960s and who was integral to England's World Cup triumph of 1966. Admittedly tactics were different in the Cockburn heyday, so usually he occupied a more advanced position than Stiles, who thrived in a withdrawn position alongside the stopper centre-half Bill Foulkes, but the two pocket battleships had plenty in common.

Eager, bright-eyed bundles of energy and enthusiasm, they were both combative and constructive, their boundless spirit, honesty and endeavour making up generously for their lack of inches. The pair of them were pacy, doggedly tenacious and unfailingly brave in the tackle, but also - and this was crucial to their success - they were instinctive readers of the game who were blessed with far more pure skill than many critics maintained.

Cockburn, a natural all-round sportsman who also excelled at cricket, made his first footballing impact as a teenager with Goslings, a local feeder to Manchester United, the Old Trafford club enlisting him as an amateur in September 1943. While continuing with his work as a mill- fitter, he impressed the Reds' coaching staff enough to earn a professional contract a year later and he made his first United appearance as a nippy, elusive forward during unofficial wartime competition, in which he had guested also for Accrington Stanley.

By 1945 Cockburn had been converted into a left-half, despite being right-footed, and he was awarded his senior début in an FA Cup meeting with his former Accrington team-mates in January 1946. Making light of ferocious competition for places, he made such prodigious progress that he was chosen along with eight other new caps - including Billy Wright of Wolves, Preston North End's Tom Finney and Frank Swift of Manchester City - to play for England in September 1946 after only seven First Division outings.

That afternoon at Windsor Park, Belfast, Cockburn shone as the first post-war successor to the majestic Joe Mercer, contributing massively to a 7-2 triumph over Northern Ireland and looking utterly at home on the international stage. He retained his berth for the next two games, which yielded victories over Wales and the Republic of Ireland, slotting in effectively alongside Wright and the stylish Neil Franklin, and it seemed that England had a settled half-back line for the foreseeable future.

However, Cockburn was ousted by Harry Johnston of Blackpool, and, although he extended his cap total to 13 over the next five years, he never cemented the regular place which most United fans reckoned to be his just deserts. Back on the club scene, though, the Cockburn career flourished royally. He was a crucial component of the side that finished as League title runners-up in each of the first three post-war campaigns, won the FA Cup by defeating Blackpool - Stanley Matthews et al - by four goals to two in a titanic Wembley clash in 1948, then finally claimed the championship crown in 1951/52.

Cockburn meshed splendidly with John Aston, being swift to cover when the adventurous left-back embarked on his characteristic forays into opposition territory, and with the left winger Charlie Mitten, who benefited constantly from the wing-half's crisp and canny distribution. Indeed, reminiscing during the late 1990s about Busby's breathtaking post-war creation, Mitten declared:

It was fabulous to play in front of Henry. When he got the ball I always knew that I would be the next to touch it. He was totally reliable, both as a player and as a comrade.

The manager agreed, frequently praising Cockburn's slick one-touch passing technique and lauding the little man for responding to a cherished Busby maxim with which he drilled his players religiously: the ball is round, so keep it rolling!

Unusually for one so short, Cockburn was magnificent aerially, too, being capable of leaping above much taller opponents from a standing start, thanks to a combination of exceptional athleticism and well-nigh perfect timing. Such was his fitness and consistency that the advent of his thirties seemed unlikely to signal the closure of his Old Trafford sojourn, but an accident in a friendly encounter with Kilmarnock in the autumn of 1953, staged to mark the installation of floodlights at Rugby Park, altered that perception.

As Cockburn climbed high to meet a ball, he was dazzled by the Killies' new lights and clashed heads with his marker. He was led away with a smashed jaw, a young leviathan named Duncan Edwards trotted on to take his place, and the No 6 shirt was never again his automatic preserve.

Still hardly a gnarled veteran at the age of 30, Cockburn was not content with life in United's reserves and in October 1954 he accepted a transfer to Second Division Bury, where he linked up once more with the former Red Devil Stan Pearson, the deliciously gifted inside-forward behind whom he had performed so superbly for so long. At Gigg Lane he added 39 League and FA Cup appearances to the 275 he had accumulated at Old Trafford, then switched to Peterborough United, at the time plying their trade in the Midland League, in the summer of 1956.

Cockburn adored playing football so much that he was eager to continue, even at lesser levels, later assisting Corby Town and Sankeys of Wellington before being attracted back to the Football League by another former United chum, the Oldham Athletic manager Jack Rowley, as a trainer at Boundary Park in February 1961. Three years later he signed for Huddersfield Town as assistant trainer, eventually working under yet another ex-Old Trafford colleague, Ian Greaves, as senior coach before bowing out of the professional game in 1975.

He was ideally suited to his role at Leeds Road, being especially adept at working with rookies, as he had proved in the twilight of his Manchester United days when his help to the emerging Busby Babes had been invaluable. Indeed, he played an important and selfless part in the development of that remarkable wave of fresh talent, making light of the inevitable circumstance that the precocious newcomers would soon be depriving him of employment.

It was tragically ironic that, when he was working part-time on a Peterborough newspaper in 1958, one of his duties was to write the posters which told of the Munich air disaster in which so many of his protégés had perished.

Ivan Ponting