Len Boyd: Steely Birmingham City skipper

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The Independent Online

Len Boyd was the staunch and steely skipper of the most successful Birmingham City side in the club's 132-year history. Under his uplifting leadership the Blues won the Second Division championship in 1955, then a year later came sixth in the top flight – their highest ever League finish – and reached the FA Cup final.

As a footballer the tall, long-striding Londoner was a fiendishly industrious wing-half, passably skilful on the ball as might be expected of a former inside-forward, and courageously combative, too, capable of dishing out physical punishment implacably and taking it without a whimper. Indeed, he once played four games with what turned out to be a hairline fracture of the leg.

Yet for all his intrepid, sometimes frenetic efforts in the midfield trenches, there was an aura of composure about him, and perhaps the most abiding image of captain Boyd is of his majestic bearing as he ploughed forward in support of his attack like some stately galleon in full sail, waving imperiously to direct the men ahead of him, the very heartbeat of his team.

Despite playing in the same West Ham schools team as Ken Green, destined to become a comrade at Birmingham, Boyd was a late starter in the professional game. He was spotted playing for the Royal Navy in Malta as a 22-year-old in 1945, a Plymouth Argyle fan being sufficiently impressed to pass on his details to the Devon club.

A successful trial followed and Boyd enlisted at Home Park that December, but his progress as a Pilgrim was not rapid. For two years he was seen as a promising but not exceptional inside-forward, but when he was switched to right-half by the soon-to-depart manager Jack Tresadern it became clear that he had located his true niche.

Suddenly he looked a more confident performer, even in a side struggling to avoid relegation from the Second Division, and it was inevitable that he attracted attention from bigger clubs. In January 1949 Boyd became the first Plymouth player to be sold for a five-figure fee, joining Birmingham for £17,500. Understandably the Argyle supporters had been incensed at the mere suggestion that one of their favourites might be allowed to depart, so the transfer negotiations were kept secret until the deal could be revealed as a fait accompli.

Unfortunately for the newcomer at St Andrew's, City's hold on their tenure in the élite division was as tenuous as Plymouth's at their level, and when the 1949/50 campaign ended he found himself back in the second tier. However, under the enterprising management of Bob Brocklebank there was a marked improvement. Some proven players were signed, the youth system revamped and a steady renaissance began.

In 1950/51 the Blues finished fourth in the table and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Boyd, emerging as a natural leader, grew rapidly in influence, excelling as the side narrowly missed promotion in 1951/52, being pipped for promotion only on goal average (the absurdly complicated forerunner of goal difference) by Cardiff City.

His burgeoning stature was recognised by an appearance for England "B" against Holland, but he never received the full cap which most St Andrew's regulars reckoned was his due.

Brocklebank was replaced as Birmingham team boss by Arthur Turner in October 1954, and the new man led the Blues to the Second Division crown in his first term, this time goal average working in City's favour as they finished highest in a three-way tie on points.

There were critics who protested that the Midlanders lacked sufficient class to flourish in the higher grade, but they were to be comprehensively confounded. A solid combination built around the formidably flinty half-back line of Boyd, the young centre-half Trevor Smith and feisty left-half Roy Warhurst, and featuring the England goalkeeper Gil Merrick and full-back Jeff Hall finished sixth in the table, only four points adrift of runners-up Blackpool.

Better still, in an era when no club would have dreamed of treating the FA Cup with contempt by fielding a weakened team, they embarked on a glorious knockout campaign which took them all the way to Wembley without once playing on their home turf. The inspirational Boyd featured mightily in all six games, which included a stirring 3-1 triumph over Arsenal at Highbury at the quarter-final stage and a satisfying 3-0 drubbing of Sunderland at Hillsborough in the semi.

Alas for the Blues, the final against Manchester City produced dismal anti-climax. In a game best remembered for the fact that Manchester's German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann played on after breaking his neck, Birmingham never performed close to their full potential, losing 3-1.

In fairness, they had been weakened by the absence through injury of Warhurst. Boyd himself was not fully fit, amazing team-mates by the manner in which he defied severe back pain. By now the captain was in his 33rd year and after only one more appearance, he opted for retirement from the game, going on to make his living first as a publican in Birmingham, then as a traffic warden.

He didn't give up on football altogether, however, moving into non-League circles to serve Hinckley Athletic briefly as a player, then coaching and scouting for Redditch United between 1960 and 1965.

Ivan Ponting

Leonard Arthur Miller Boyd, footballer: born London 11 November 1923; played for Plymouth Argyle 1945-49, Birmingham City 1949-56; married (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire 14 February 2008.

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