Norman Curtis: Sheffield Wednesday full-back whose thunderous penalties won him a place in fans' hearts
Saturday 19 September 2009
They used to call him "Cannonball", and with good reason. When Norman Curtis took penalties for Sheffield Wednesday during the 1950s, a team-mate would place the ball on the spot and the combative left-back would start to charge from deep inside his own half, steadily at first but building fearsome momentum as he neared the opposition's box.
Then, without breaking stride, the energetic marksman would unleash a shot of pulverising velocity, and on 19 occasions out of 24 the strength of the goal net underwent a stringent examination. On the other five, it is said, the woodwork took the blow and shivered accordingly.
Inevitably, such a spectacular routine earned Curtis a timeless niche in Hillsborough folklore, but it should not be allowed to obscure his all-round competence at his primary function, that of defending to a consistently lofty standard throughout what was, for the Owls, an unnervingly chaotic decade. Indeed, three times they were relegated from the top flight, but on each occasion they bounced back immediately as Second Division champions, with the Yorkshireman integrally involved in his yo-yo club's every emotional extreme.
Curtis hailed from the small coal-mining town of Dinnington, where he started his working life as a butcher's boy and might have expected to make his living in the local pit but for his footballing ability. After the war, during which he served as a navigator with the Royal Navy's air fleet in the Far East, he became a part-timer with Gainsborough Trinity of the Midland League while working as an engineer in the town. He shone as Trinity won their league title in 1949, so brightly that in January 1950 he was sold to Sheffield Wednesday of the old First Division, the equivalent of the modern Premier League, for £1,250.
Come November he was plunged into regular top-flight action in a struggling side, and although he made a favourable impact there was nothing he could do to prevent demotion the following spring. During the 1951-52 season Curtis vied for the No 3 shirt with Vic Kenny and continued to perform reliably as the Owls lifted the Second Division crown, though understandably most of the headlines were hogged by the prodigiously prolific young centre-forward Derek Dooley, who struck 46 times in 30 outings.
Back among the elite in 1952-53, Curtis became ever more prominent, taking over the spot-kick duties in his own inimitable manner – he converted six that term, including two each in encounters with Portsmouth and Derby County – but also maturing as a full-back. Waspish in the tackle, quick to recover if beaten and versatile enough to switch to the right flank at need, he proved an abrasively tenacious marker who, as the decade progressed, coped admirably with the best right wingers in the business, including the great Stanley Matthews.
In a season marred by an horrendous injury to Dooley which resulted in the amputation of his right leg, Wednesday managed narrowly to preserve their new-found status, as they did again in 1953-54, a campaign in which Curtis demonstrated his courage and adaptability in characteristically enterprising fashion.
When the Owls' goalkeeper Dave McIntosh suffered a broken arm 10 minutes into a match at Preston, the sturdy left-back stepped up as emergency custodian – this was in the era before the use of substitutes was permitted – and although he conceded five of the goals in a 6-0 defeat, he managed to save two penalties, one by Tom Finney and the other by Jimmy Baxter. That season, too, Curtis featured in Wednesday's run to the semi-final of the FA Cup, turning out at right-back as they lost 2-0 to Preston at Maine Road, Manchester.
Alas, such a whiff of success was illusory as the Hillsborough side went down in 1954-55, but their long-term manager Eric Taylor led them back up as champions in 1955-56, only for them to take the plunge yet again two seasons later.
The rollercoaster ride continued in 1958-59, during which Curtis belied his near-veteran status by playing in every game as Wednesday, now guided by their new manager Harry Catterick, claimed the Second Division crown for the third time in eight seasons.
Back among the elite, the Cannonball continued to fire, converting what was to prove his last spot-kick for the Owls in a home victory over Luton Town shortly after his 35th birthday, but he then soon made way for a formidable young challenger, Don Megson.
When he left Sheffield in August 1960 to become player-manager of Fourth Division Doncaster Rovers, with a £1,000 transfer fee changing hands, Curtis had made 324 senior appearances and scored 21 goals for Wednesday and earned plaudits as one of their most loyal servants.
At Belle Vue he enjoyed one vigorous campaign, playing 40 times and shepherding his new charges to a safe mid-table position which was an improvement on the club's showing the previous season. However, though he was a quiet fellow away from the action, he was a strong- minded individual and after a bitter disagreement with the chairman over youth policy, he resigned in the summer of 1961.
After leaving Doncaster he spent four years as player-manager of non-League Buxton and continued to demonstrate his all-round prowess by playing Minor Counties cricket as a wicketkeeper-batsman for Lincolnshire.
He also ran a sports shop in Gainsborough and later he worked as a sales representative for Carlsberg.
William Norman Curtis, footballer and manager: born Dinnington, Yorkshire 10 September 1924; played for Sheffield Wednesday 1950-60, Doncaster Rovers 1960-61; managed Doncaster Rovers 1960-61; married (one son, one daughter); died York 7 September 2009.
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