John Fantham was to Sheffield Wednesday what Jimmy Greaves was to Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and England. Though not of the same blindingly brilliant calibre as the predatory Londoner – no English goal-poacher of his generation was – the prolific Yorkshireman was another dagger-through-the-heart type of hitman, a venomous roamer who popped up in all attacking areas to devastating effect.
In his 435 senior outings for the Owls between his debut as a teenager in 1958 and his departure at the end of the following decade, Fantham plundered 167 goals, a post-war club record, and created countless scoring opportunities for team-mates, peaking as Wednesday took up residence in the premier division’s top six during the first half of the 1960s.
Skilful, dynamic and unfailingly intelligent in the application of his talent, he might be deemed unfortunate to be granted only a solitary full cap, in an experimental England side which beat Luxembourg 4-1 at Highbury in 1961, but Greaves was a rare gem whom he was never going to out-shine.
Hailing from the Pitsmoor area of Sheffield which had already produced one Wednesday icon in Derek Dooley, Fantham was an exceptionally gifted all-round sportsman who played both football and cricket for Yorkshire Boys before emulating his father Jack – who served Rotherham United and other clubs between the wars – by making his living at the winter game. Sadly, Jack didn’t survive to enjoy the full extent of his son’s glory, collapsing and dying as he left a Sheffield derby game at Hillsborough in 1958.
By then Fantham had joined Wednesday as a 15-year-old amateur before turning professional two years later in October 1956, choosing his local club over a posse of eminent suitors, including then-mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Still five days short of his 19th birthday when he made his First Division entrance in February 1958, he was devastated as the Owls were relegated from the top flight in the spring, though he was barely implicated in their demise, having made only a handful of appearances.
Fantham came into his own in 1958-59 under the tough but inspirational tutelage of new manager Harry Catterick, earning a regular berth at inside-forward following England international Albert Quixall’s departure to Manchester United, and the rookie sparkled as Wednesday were crowned Second Division champions.
Strong and pacy, he was stocky yet sinuously athletic, fed ravenously off knockdowns from loftier comrades and was both brave and sometimes spectacularly adroit in aerial combat. He packed a fearsome shot, while able to find the net with subtlety as well as force; he was adept at quickfire passing interchanges with the likes of winger Alan Finney, spearhead Ron Shiner and fellow marksman Redfern Froggatt, and was versatile enough to excel in any forward role.
Having contributed a dozen strikes during the promotion campaign – the first of ten successive seasons in which his tally reached double figures – Fantham matured impressively among the elite as Wednesday emerged as a formidable power in the land, reaching fifth in the table in 1959-60, then second, before confirming their consistency with a hat-trick of sixth-place finishes.
Fantham was at his most potent in 1960-61, when he netted 23 times, and 1961-62, when his return of 24 goals included five in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the forerunner of the modern Europa League, in which the Owls reached the quarter-finals before bowing out to Barcelona, 4-3 on aggregate.
A personal reward was that sole senior appearance for his country, an honour to add to a single under-23 cap and three outings for the Football League, but hopes of attaining the pinnacle of the domestic game stalled after the club was rocked in 1964 by fall-out from a bribes scandal involving three of their players, Peter Swan, Tony Kay and David “Bronco” Layne.
Fantham was still an admirably punchy performer, though, and he starred in Wednesday’s progress to the 1966 FA Cup final, where they faced Everton, now bossed by his former mentor, Catterick. He shone at Wembley, being instrumental in putting the Owls two goals up after 57 minutes when he wriggled past three opponents, shot explosively from 20 yards, then watched as the ball was fumbled by Toffees keeper Gordon West, enabling David Ford to slip home the rebound. However, Everton fought back to win 3-2 and Fantham was never again so close to claiming a major prize.
As the decade grew old Wednesday’s fortunes declined and in the autumn of 1969 new boss Danny Williams, seeking unsuccessfully to rebuild an ailing side, sold the 30-year-old Fantham to third-tier Rotherham United for £5,000. He remained at Millmoor for two mid-table terms before departing to Macclesfield Town of the Northern Premier League in 1971.
A year later the enterprising Fantham, who had opened a hairdressing business during his Hillsborough days, retired as a player and started a machine-tool business, which thrived. He returned to the game in the 1980s as a coach for his local Sheffield team, Hallam.
John Fantham, footballer: born Sheffield, 6 February 1939; married 1964 Carole Adron (two daughters); died Sheffield 25 June 2014