Ray King: Goalkeeper whose displays for Port Vale put him on the verge of selection for the England World Cup squad


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If ever a footballer enjoyed an annus mirabilis it was Ray King during the 1953-54 campaign, which culminated in his selection for England's provisional squad for the World Cup finals. Playing in goal for Port Vale he had kept 33 clean sheets in 53 matches as the Potteries club rewrote the record books in winning the Third Division (North) championship and reaching the FA Cup semi-finals.

Such achievements were all the more remarkable for the fact that King was in his 30th year and had spent the previous season in reserve football. He soon won an England B cap, and in 1956 toured South Africa as part of a Football Association representative squad which included the future England manager Bobby Robson.

King was also a wordsmith, writing two books, a blog and a newspaper column in later life. Born into poverty in north-east England, he also excelled at cricket, but his goalkeeping prowess attracted the interest of Newcastle United, for whom he made his debut, aged 17, in a wartime derby against Sunderland.

He played a further 30 matches for Newcastle, being paid £1/10s a game, and guested for Wolves and Chester while serving in the Army. Injuries, including synovitis in the knee and a repeatedly broken wrist, exacted a toll, but after the War, Leyton Orient took a chance on King. He conceded four goals in his only League outing, returning to his native Northumberland and playing centre-forward for a local side.

An invitation to play at Sunderland's Roker Park for Ashington, the team from the town that produced Jack and Bobby Charlton, rekindled his goalkeeping aspirations. In 1949, with Vale needing a keeper in a hurry, King's elder brother George, a forward with the club, recommended him. A year later, after Vale relocated to Burslem from Hanley, he played in a rain-lashed win over Newport which opened the new Vale Park stadium.

Now he enjoyed the high life: fish 'n' chip suppers on the bus back from away games and sharing a bed with a team-mate in digs (once a landlady slipped in between them, declaring "there must be more to life than washing up"). In 1953 he became first choice in the greatest season in Vale's history. Under former England player Freddie Steele, with a line-up comprised almost entirely of local lads, they swept all before them. Their defensive solidity led to the press dubbing them "the Steele Curtain", King conceding five goals in 23 home games.

The same indomitable spirit characterised their Cup run. They defeated Queen's Park Rangers and First Division Cardiff, both away, holders Blackpool at home and Orient away, preventing each from scoring. Blackpool included Stanley Matthews, facing his boyhood club, and King would recall how, after denying him a seemingly certain goal, "it was the only time I heard Stan swear".

The semi-final pitted Vale against West Bromwich Albion before 68,221 spectators at Villa Park. Leading 1-0 with 62 minutes played, they looked set to become the first third-tier team to reach Wembley. Albion then equalised, somewhat fortuitously, and eight minutes later, after Cheadle fouled George Lee outside the 18-yard area, the referee awarded a penalty. Ronnie Allen, Potteries-born and an ex-Vale colleague, converted it. The dream was over.

Two-footed, agile and commanding – he eschewed gloves, saying he "hugged the ball into my body as if I loved it and punched it as though I hated it" – King was included in the 40-man pool from which England's squad for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland would be picked. Three weeks before the tournament he represented England B alongside Allen – and Duncan Edwards of "Busby Babes" fame – against the Swiss. He did not make the cut for the finals, yet two years later his form was still sufficiently eye-catching for him to play eight times for the FA in South Africa.

In 1957 he became player-manager of non-League Boston United, going on to similar posts with Poole Town and Sittingbourne. He was a scout for Southampton, youth coach at Oxford United, physiotherapist at RAF Brize Norton and briefly John Lennon's private physio, providing a rich fund of anecdotes for his self-published autobiography, Hands, Feet and Balls. A second volume, To the End of the Road, followed, while King also blogged entertainingly about his life and times on The Ambler, a website for his one-time home village of Amble, Northumberland.

After the 2009 death of his wife of 60 years he moved to Thailand to live with his son Gary, an educator, and before long had a sports column in the Bangkok Post. He died from a heart attack following a fall, leaving just two survivors from Port Vale's class of '54.

Raymond King, footballer and writer: born Warkworth, Northumberland 24 August 1924; married Norma Jeanie Clapperton (deceased; one son); died Bangkok 19 July 2014.