Jack Brownsword: Full-back named by Bill Shankly as the finest outside the top division
If ever one man embodied the history, the tradition, the very ethos of a football club, then it was Jack Brownsword at Scunthorpe United.
As a performer once described by no less acute a judge than the revered Liverpool manager Bill Shankly as the finest full-back operating outside the top division, he made nearly 600 League appearances for the Iron and scored 50 goals, all but one of them from the penalty spot.
As a character he was the very best kind of sporting hero, a modest fellow celebrated by his local community partly for his immense deeds on the field, but also because he was accessible, invariably referring to his job in engagingly matter-of-fact terms, as if he were about to clock on for a shift at the local steelworks. He was embraced, too, for an infectious sense of fun which enlivened the dressing room, for an unswervingly Corinthian approach which ensured that he was never booked, and for his loyalty when bigger clubs, such as Manchester City, expressed interest in plucking him away from the homely atmosphere of the Old Show Ground. Such hopeful head-hunters never quite grasped how deep was his bond with United, or that it was unbreakable.
In retrospect, though, it is easy to recognise. Brownsword signed for Scunthorpe three years before they entered the Football League in 1950, he was in his prime as they became the last champions of the Third Division (North) before it was amalgamated with its southern equivalent in 1958, and in 1962 he continued to excel when they finished fourth in the second tier, behind Shankly's newly rampant Anfield Reds, who romped away with the divisional title.
Brownsword soldiered on as a formidable flank defender into his forties, then became trainer at the Old Show Ground before cash-strapped Scunthorpe had no choice but to make him redundant during the 1970s. Still, he marched under the Iron's banner and two decades later was honoured as a vice-president. Now, having absorbed the shock of his death, fans and directors are debating the need for some lasting memorial to the man who became synonymous with their club.
After leaving school not long before the Second World War, Brownsword worked at a coal-mine in the Doncaster area and played his football for the Midland League side Frickley Colliery. In 1946 he joined Hull City, but after making only minimal impact in a handful of senior outings for the Tigers he returned to Frickley, his future in the professional game appearing decidedly precarious.
But a watershed in the wiry Yorkshireman's fortunes was imminent. In July 1947 he switched to Scunthorpe, then in the same league as Frickley, and he had become a bulwark of their rearguard by the time they graduated to the senior competition in 1950. At 27, Brownsword was a late starter on a Football League career, but he was fiercely determined to make up for lost seasons and was admirably equipped to do so. A brave and incisive tackler, he was pacy, an attacking overlapper ahead of his time and shrewd in the key art of positional play.
Then there was his trademark skill of dispatching penalties. Brownsword was a goalkeeper's nightmare because of his composure and his accuracy, his method being a smooth approach to the ball and a clinical left-foot finish low to the net-minder's right hand.
Opponents knew exactly what he was going to do, but still couldn't stop him, as Charlton Athletic's Willie Duff discovered to his cost during one tense confrontation. Seeking to force Brownsword into a change of plan, Duff stood much closer than normal to his right-hand post, believing that the Scunthorpe man would opt for the yawning gap thus created. Accordingly the cunning custodian plunged to his left, but the kicker was unfazed, simply slotting a slide-rule delivery along his customary trajectory fractionally inside the vacated upright.
As the 1950s wore on, Brownsword became recognised as one of the top talents in the League's lower reaches, being selected five times for the Third Division (North) side to face the southern section, though club commitments limited his appearances to three. He played a colossal part in lifting the Third Division (North) crown under manager Ron Suart in 1957-58, and, earlier in that momentous term, performed mightily as Newcastle United were evicted from the FA Cup on their own turf. Then commenced six years in the Second Division, the highlight of which was that fourth place in 1961-62, when the Iron were six points short of ascending to the top flight and might have made it but for the controversial sale of their prolific centre-forward Barrie Thomas at the turn of the year.
But for all that League enterprise, the majority of it during the management reign of Dick Duckworth, the contest which remains most vivid in the club's folklore is the 6-2 FA Cup thrashing of Blackpool in January 1961. That famous day at the Old Show Ground, Brownsword's direct opponent was the incomparable Stanley Matthews, who mesmerised most left-backs around the world but was humbled by Scunthorpe's finest, at one point even changing his boots in a vain attempt to make an impact.
However, the Iron's eminence would wane all too soon as the lifting of the players' maximum-wage regulation led to many small-town clubs struggling to stay afloat. Still the veteran Brownsword pulled his weight but could not prevent relegation in 1963-64, soon after which, aged 41, he retired as a player, staying on as first-team trainer through the second half of that decade and into the next until United's financial travails forced him to leave.
During his time as sponge-man he remained remarkably fit, prompting irreverent cries from the terraces that he was faster than the players he tended, though that was manifestly not true about one of his young charges, by the name of Kevin Keegan. Brown-sword had spotted the future England captain playing junior football in Doncaster, then mentored him as he shone with the Iron before tipping off Liverpool about his precocious emerging talent.
Fittingly, in 1989 Brownsword, who had ended his working life as a salesman for a window company, was the guest of honour when Scunthorpe played their last game at the Old Show Ground before moving to Glanford Park, their current home. In 2007, having been voted the all-time favourite of Iron fans, he was elected to the Professional Footballers' Association Hall of Fame.
Nathan John Brownsword, footballer; born Campsall, Yorkshire, 15 May 1923; played for Hull City 1946-47, Scunthorpe United 1947-64; married, one daughter; died Burton-upon-Stather, Lincolnshire 18 December 2009.
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