Jeff Astle

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The Independent Online

Jeffrey Astle, footballer: born Eastwood, Nottinghamshire 13 May 1942; played for Notts County 1959-64, West Bromwich Albion 1964-74; capped five times by England 1969-70; married (two daughters); died Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire 19 January 2002.

Jeff Astle was a monarch of Midlands football, more specifically the "King of the Hawthorns", who reigned imperiously as West Bromwich Albion's marksman-in-chief during one of the most productive decades in the Baggies' history.

True, England fans might view the strapping centre-forward in a less regal perspective, due to his horrible miss against Brazil during the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, but it would be monstrously mean if that aberration should stand as the principal epitaph to such a bountiful and accomplished career.

Astle was an archetypal muscular spearhead, awesomely commanding in the air, a ferociously powerful shooter and, while not exactly renowned for delicacy when the ball was at his feet, he could link neatly and effectively with his fellow attackers. Unfailingly courageous, he soaked up untold punishment from defenders frustrated by his commendable knack of shielding the ball and, as well as scoring prolifically himself, he laid on plenty of goals for other Albion predators such as Tony Brown and John Kaye.

A Nottinghamshire boy, Astle gravitated to Notts County from junior football, turning professional at Meadow Lane in 1959. By then, he had already received priceless instruction in the art of centre-forward play from arguably the finest of all England number nines, Tommy Lawton, who had managed County for a brief spell.

From the great man, acknowledged as the most brilliant header of a football the game has seen, Astle had learned to time his leaps so that he seemed to hang in the air, an ability he put to promising use when making his Third Division breakthrough in 1961/62. During the following term he struck up a potent partnership with Tony Hateley, but after the Magpies were relegated in 1963/64 he accepted a £25,000 transfer to top-flight West Bromwich Albion.

At the Hawthorns, Astle prospered apace, netting twice on his home début against local arch-rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers and eventually contributing 171 goals in 353 senior outings for the Baggies. Along the way he notched six hat-tricks, including two in three days, against the soon-to-be-crowned European champions Manchester United, and then West Ham United, in the spring of 1968.

In addition Astle starred in a succession of rousing knockout campaigns, featuring in four major cup finals in as many years. In 1966 he hit the target in the first leg of the League Cup Final against West Ham, a 2-1 defeat which was turned into a 5-3 aggregate triumph in the second leg at the Hawthorns.

A year later, after scoring in every previous round, he was in the side which sought to retain the trophy in the first League Cup Final staged at Wembley, only for Albion to squander a two-goal lead and lose to Third Division Queen's Park Rangers.

There was ample consolation in 1968, though, when Astle grabbed an extra-time winner to defeat favourites Everton in the FA Cup Final, bludgeoning home a savage left-footer after his original shot had been blocked. This time he achieved his ambition of striking in every round, and was duly elected Midlands Footballer of the Year.

Now moving into his pomp, Astle produced irresistible form in 1969/70, topping the First Division scoring charts with 25 goals, earning the first of his five full England caps and opening the scoring in yet another League Cup Final, only to see his side overhauled by Manchester City. That goal, though, made him the first man to register at Wembley in both major domestic finals.

In two games each for England "B" and the Football League he managed a total of eight goals, but failed to get on the scoresheet at full international level and it was his misfortune to squander his clearest opportunity in the highest-profile contest of his life.

That was near the end of a World Cup encounter with mighty Brazil in Guadalajara after rising from the bench to replace Francis Lee. With the South Americans clearly troubled by Astle's aerial prowess, they were struggling to protect their 1-0 lead when the ball fell to the Midlander some 10 yards out. Sadly, with only the goalkeeper, Felix, to beat, he pulled his shot narrowly wide and England lost. In terms of the tournament it was not decisive, as Sir Alf Ramsey's men went on to face West Germany in the quarter-finals, but it was a moment which, sadly, defined Astle's international experience.

Back on the club scene he suffered knee problems and Albion struggled, being relegated in 1972/73, and he made only a handful of Second Division appearances before leaving the professional game at the age of 32. Later he served non-League clubs Dunstable Town, Weymouth, Atherstone Town and Hillingdon Borough before putting aside his boots in 1977 to concentrate on his successful industrial-cleaning business based in Burton-on-Trent.

During the 1990s, the amiable Astle was returned to public attention by the comedian and Baggies fan Frank Skinner, who, with David Baddiel, recruited Astle as the resident crooner for their irreverent television show Fantasy Football League. Subsequently he ran his own "Jeff Astle Roadshow", in which he sang, told jokes and answered questions about his career.

But it is as a hero of the Hawthorns, where he rarely missed a match until he became ill some two years ago, that Jeff Astle will be recalled most vividly.

Ivan Ponting

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