Les Green: Goalie who made his name at Derby County

Ivan Ponting
Friday 17 August 2012 21:55

Nimble and bold, if distinctly undersized by modern goalkeeping standards, Les Green played a key role in Brian Clough's Baseball Ground revolution, which transformed Derby County from perennial underachievers into one of the leading sides in the land.

Between May 1968, when he was recruited from Rochdale for a mere £7,000, and Boxing Day 1970, when he took much of the defensive blame for a 4-4 draw with Manchester United, the 5ft 8in Midlander made 129 consecutive appearances for the Rams.

Yet after his Old Trafford ordeal, Green never played English League football again, a remarkably abrupt fall from grace for the ebullient 29-year-old who had been the epitome of reliability as Derby had romped away with the Second Division championship in 1968/69, returning 19 clean sheets and rejoicing in the frequently irascible Clough's warm approbation.

Green was a magnificent shot-stopper, a superbly agile athlete, strong, supple, and blessed with hair-trigger reflexes. He possessed a finely honed positional sense – and once the ball was in his custody, he distributed it with rare assurance. However, his lack of inches compared to the 6ft-plus net-minders employed by most of Derby's top-flight rivals left him at a disadvantage when it came to claiming crosses, and that proved to be his undoing.

It was a situation foreseen by Arsenal manager George Swindin in the late 1950s when he had been impressed by the teenage Green's all-round game, but rejected him as being too small to make the grade at Highbury. Thus the boy signed for his local non-League club, Atherstone Town, determined to prove the Gunners boss wrong, and duly he moved up to Third Division Hull City in August 1960.

Green made little impact at Boothferry Park, playing only a handful of games before returning to non-League circles with Nuneaton Borough in 1962; but a June 1965 switch to Southern League Burton Albion turned out to be a career crossroads. The Burton boss was Peter Taylor, destined for serial glory as Clough's long-term working partner, and when the pair took over at Fourth Division Hartlepool United that autumn, they lost no time in recruiting Green.

The 24-year-old's stay at Victoria Park proved to be turbulent, disagreements with the management offsetting his footballing progress, and he was transferred to Rochdale in April 1967. However, a year later, when Clough and Taylor, by then at Derby's helm, were searching for a successor to veteran keeper Reg Matthews, it was to their former employee they turned.

Now, lining up behind the exceptional central defensive partnership of Roy McFarland and Dave Mackay, Green excelled and ended his first term as a Ram with a divisional title medal. In 1969/70 he remained on splendid form as Derby finished fourth in the top tier and reached the quarter-finals of the League Cup.

At the outset of 1970/71, Green appeared set for a lengthy tenure between County's posts, but then his star plummeted. Instead of keeping pace with Clough's rampant ambition, the team was in the wrong half of the table during the autumn, the keeper's consistency declined – and after conceding the four against United, he was replaced by the younger, less experienced, but taller Colin Boulton.

Boulton flourished immediately, then went on to shine throughout what remains the most glittering period in Derby's history, being the only man to be ever-present as they became champions in both 1971/72 and 1974/75.

Even before those twin peaks, Green, seeing no future for himself at the club, emigrated to South Africa in August 1971, signing for Durban City, with whom he won a league title in 1972. Soon, though, his luck ran out again as his career was ended by a broken leg.

Green, who married a South African, went on to become City's assistant boss before returning to England and Nuneaton Borough, initially as commercial manager, then team manager. Later he took the reins of several more clubs, including Hinckley Town, Bedford and Tamworth.

A popular character, he was renowned for his dressing-room banter and occasional practical jokes, such as hiding in a tree one night as the Derby players were returning to their hotel from a nearby pub, then leaping on to the back of Alan Hinton, giving the England winger the fright of his life.

Leslie Green, footballer: born Atherstone, Warwickshire 17 October 1941; played for Hull City 1960-62, Hartlepool United 1965-67, Rochdale 1967-68, Derby County 1968-70, Durban City; died Leicester 30 July 2012.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments