Roy Hartle: Muscular full-back with a fearsome reputation whose toughness was tempered by his ability and intelligence

Hartle was a splendidly accurate passer whose positional play and reading of the action were outstanding

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Roy Hartle was one half of arguably the most fearsome full-back pairing to grace the top flight of English football in the 20th century. The muscular Midlander lined up on the right defensive flank of Bolton Wanderers pretty well non-stop from the early 1950s until 1966, for most of that spell partnering the pugnacious Tommy Banks, a left-back with an insatiable appetite for the fray.

Tales of their exploits are legion. Indeed, given their reputations it might be imagined that they kicked their opponents up in the air then spat them out and wiped their fangs on the corner flags. There is truth in the notion that they were forceful, ready to use psychological as well as physical intimidation, along the lines of Hartle shouting to Banks before kick-off: "Hey Tommy, when you've finished knocking the living daylights out of that fella, chip him over here and let me have a go!"

Known as "Chopper" when Ron Harris of Chelsea, who was to glory in that nickname in later years, was still at junior school, Hartle was a wide-shouldered six-footer with a kick like a mule and a habit of crashing into opponents before helping them up with a solicitous enquiry as to their health. Yet to dwell on frequently exaggerated yarns of comic-strip violence is to undersell outrageously his immense footballing ability and intelligence. In fact, he was a splendidly accurate passer whose positional play and reading of the action were outstanding.

Usually lining up behind an adventurous wing-half such as Johnny Wheeler or Derek Hennin, the burly right-back tended to find himself exposed, left responsible for wide areas of empty space into which the opposition could launch sudden counter-attacks. In such a situation, his instinct for sensing how a move was likely to unfold was crucial to the Trotters' cause.

Hartle first made an impact with his local club, Bromsgrove Rovers, with whom he was spotted by Bolton as a 16-year-old, and he turned professional at Burnden Park in 1951. A gifted and dedicated athlete, he progressed rapidly and made his top-flight entrance on New Year's Day 1953 in a home defeat to Charlton Athletic. So at ease was the rookie in the big league that he played in Bolton's next 23 games and felt himself horribly unlucky not to be picked for the FA Cup final, which was lost to Blackpool – Stanley Matthews et al – having featured in every previous round.

After spending the next two years on National Service, Hartle returned to work with a voracious appetite for success and immediately made himself indispensable to the plans of manager Bill Ridding, retaining the No 2 shirt for the next 11 seasons. With the rumbustious England centre-forward Nat Lofthouse as standard-bearer, Bolton emerged as one of the major footballing powers in the land throughout the second half of the 1950s, only once finishing outside the top half of the top division and coming fourth in 1958-59.

The highlight of that golden era for the Trotters was the 1958 FA Cup final triumph over Manchester United, with Hartle excelling, comfortably maintaining dominion over his direct opponent at Wembley, the Welsh international Colin Webster. In some quarters the victory, secured by two Lofthouse goals, was played down because it came only three months after the Munich air disaster in which eight of Matt Busby's players lost their lives and two more were maimed so badly that they never kicked another ball. However, Bolton fully deserved their win on a day when Hartle, Banks and the rest of the rearguard were at their most persuasive, as well as the renown they earned as the £110 team, each man having cost the club only his £10 signing-on fee.

Thereafter Ridding's Trotters remained a force to be reckoned with for several seasons, but an inevitable decline set in when the maximum wage rule was lifted in the early 1960s, enabling the bigger, richer clubs to corner most of the best footballers. Unmoved, Hartle continued on his combatively efficient way, maintaining an admirably high level of performance even after relegation in 1964. When he retired in 1966, having made exactly 500 senior appearances for his only professional club, he was described as one of the finest full-backs never to earn a full cap, the nearest he came being selection for the Football League in 1959.

Off the field, belying that blood-and-thunder image, Hartle was a gentle, quietly spoken individual. He was public spirited, too, serving on the Professional Footballers Association executive, and he later became a Tory member of Bolton Borough Council. His employment after his playing days included coaching New York Generals, scouting for Bury and managing a brewery.


Leslie Roy Hartle, footballer: born Catshill, Worcestershire 4 October 1931; played for Bolton Wanderers 1951-66; died Bolton 5 November 2014.