OBITUARY:Neil Franklin

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The Independent Online
Neil Franklin was arguably the finest centre-half the England football team ever had. After losing his early prime to the Second World War, he became an automatic choice for his country, only to scupper an apparently gilded career by one disastrous, if understandable, decision.

When he walked out on Stoke City, turned his back on England's first World Cup campaign, and flew to Bogota in the summer of 1950, Franklin believed he was heading for a pot of gold and securing his family's financial future. No more would he be a slave to the English game's iniquitous system which made players little more than appallingly paid slaves to their clubs.

But the hoped-for El Dorado in Colombia - then acrimoniously outside the jurisdiction of the Federation of International Football Associations - proved to be a sorry illusion, and in less than two months he was back home in the Potteries, chastened, largely ostracised and destined for virtual oblivion for the rest of his time as a player.

Franklin's excellence was never in question from the day in 1939 that he turned professional with the first division Stoke, his home-town club. He didn't make his senior debut before the conflict but was catapaulted to prominence by consistent magnificence in wartime football, for City, for the RAF, and, eventually, in England's unofficial Victory matches.

When peacetime competition resumed in 1946, Franklin's full international place was not in doubt, and he cemented it with a then record 27 consecutive appearances over the next four years.

What made Neil Franklin different as a central defender was his pure skill. Virtually all stoppers of his era were hunky bustlers whose brawn and aggression were their paramount assets, but the Stoke number five adopted a singularly subtle approach. Though firm in the tackle and competitive in the air - indeed, impressively so for a man of 5ft 11in who weighed just 11 stone - he tended to master his adversaries by shrewd positional sense and almost uncanny anticipation. Then, having gained possession of the ball, he could stroke it with masterful accuracy to which-ever colleague he chose. Invariably, Franklin appeared in command of a situation, serenely composed, a born organiser, a delight to the eye.

When his decision to leave Stoke for Santa Fe of Bogota to play in a so-called rebel league became public, bedlam broke out across the soccer world. As he, together with his City team-mate George Mountford, flew to South America to earn reportedly 10 times their English wages, they were slated cruelly as "greedy traitors", some of their most vociferous critics having a vested interest in the British game's maintaining its unfair status quo.

Of course, there were sound football reasons why the 27-year-old Franklin should not place himself beyond the pale, and Walter Winterbottom, the gentlemanly England manager, was among those who had implored him not to go.

Sadly for the bold adventurer, his idyll did not last long. Most of Santa Fe's other recruits were Argentinians, with whom the Stoke pair found it difficult to play. There were also problems settling in a strange country for Franklin's pregnant wife and his six-year-old son and the pressure became too much for him to bear. Accordingly, he flew home to England after less than two months, homesick and disillusioned, leaving Bogota behind him for ever. Not surprisingly, he was not made welcome. Suspended for four months by the football authorities and his club, shunned by some of his erstwhile colleagues, the country's most accomplished centre-half spent the winter of 1950-51 in a non-productive limbo which was ended in February by a pounds 22,500 move to the second division Hull City.

The extent of the widespread feeling against Franklin could be judged by the fact that none of the major clubs tried to acquire his proven talent, but that did not bother Hull's boss, Raich Carter. He had long coveted his former England colleague and reckoned there was no reason why the centre-half should not return to the international reckoning at the same time as providing inspiration for the Tigers.

Unfortunately, neither ambition was achieved. Despite obvious poverty in central defence England never picked Franklin again, preferring to run through no less than a dozen inferior performers over the next four years before shifting Billy Wright to fill the troublesome position. As for his contribution to Hull, it was badly hampered by injuries and promotion was not achieved.

Thereafter, Franklin's playing days petered out in poignant anticlimax. There were brief lower-division interludes with Crewe Alexandra and Stockport County before he moved into non-league circles, serving the likes of Macclesfield and Wellington Town (whom he also coached) before he retired in 1962.

However, Franklin was determined to remain in the game and coached in Cyprus before accepting the manager's seat at the third division Colchester United in November 1963. He could not prevent their relegation the following season, but led them straight back up, only for another demotion to bring about his dismissal in 1968.

In later years, Franklin ran a pub in Oswaldtwistle, Lancaster. But for that one fateful decision to seek his fortune, there is no telling what glorious tales of soccer achievement he might have had to tell his regulars.

Ivan Ponting

Cornelius Franklin, footballer and manager: born Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent 24 January 1922; played for Stoke City 1939-50, Santa Fe of Bogota 1950, Hull City 1951-56, Crewe Alexandra 1956-57, Stockport County 1957-58; capped 27 times for England 1946-50; coached Apoel, Cyprus 1963; manager, Colchester United 1963-68; died Stone, Staffordshire 9 February 1996.