New Stoke City book would make great movie!

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Signed copies available [see link at bottom of review]

This isn’t the first book about the legendary Neil Franklin. Back in 1956 Neil (the former Stoke City & England star) wrote his own autobiography Soccer At Home & Abroad… and it was almost universally ignored.
At times it was a hard read – not because of its style, which is unnervingly breezy, but because Neil tried to justify his catastrophic decision in 1950 to deceive his club & country and take his family (including his pregnant wife) to hostile/volatile Columbia to (somehow) make his fortune.
Unsurprisingly, he crashed & burned. Even after trying to rebuild his life on his return to England you get the impression that he hadn’t really learned much from the experience.
Subsequently, many found it difficult to be sympathetic towards Neil, nor to want to put his book alongside similar and wiser biogs of the period such as George Eastham’s Determined To Win or Jimmy Hill’s Striking For Soccer.
When his 1956 autobiography appeared it sold poorly, partly as the country was gripped by a freezing winter and a print strike was on. By this time he was running a pub/hotel in Shelton whilst commuting and playing for Hull reserves.
Neil didn’t help matters in his book by awkwardly banging on about a host of subjects; like NOT introducing substitutions into the game, which he was very much against (If there was an injury, well, that’s tough, was his attitude.) However, he does reign in his haughtiness when he reveals that he had banged on for years about how penalties should NEVER be missed…only for him to eventually take one…and miss!
He then unintentionally relates his disobedience and disrespect towards Hull City, the only club prepared to hire him after his fall from grace. Some parts of his book you find yourself re-reading because you can’t quite believe what he’s admitting to (which puts it a little too close on the bookshelf to Jermaine Pennant’s Mental!).
Unsurprisingly, the press & public were still fairly unforgiving towards Neil, and his book reviews in 1956 were not encouraging. “A sad book” reckoned one national newspaper, whereas another described producing his autobiography as “a mistake”! going on to add: “No wonder Neil reflects ruefully that ‘Undoubtedly the happiest days of my career were those spent with Stoke City’.” He clearly just didn’t appreciate what he had. As such, his autobiography sold only a few copies.
But as someone who admired Neil and actually met him many years ago, it’s hard even for me to be tough on the guy as he was, well, so likeable – everybody said so!
So, the problem facing Alfie Potts Harmer, the author of a new biography of Neil Franklin, is: does he go all gooey-eyed over this likeable footballing genius and paint everyone else (clubs, managers & the FA) as the bad guys; or does he tear down the pretence of heroism, casting this truly gifted defender as an arrogant fool? It’s a tough call.
Thankfully the new biog of Franklin’s life sails a purposeful course through his career, shining light into the shadows to get a relatively balanced view that Franklin’s own book sadly lacked. And it’s such a fascinating yet unlikely yarn that it would be perfect for TV or celluloid.
It’s no surprise that Alfie’s book rightly bolsters up Franklin’s early career. Neil was on his way to being greater than Bobby Moore, deftly robbing strikers & carefully passing out of defence 20 years before Bob made it famous (& decades before it even became fashionable!). Up until then most defenders were little more than clumsy thugs who merely belted the ball clear.
Further, Neil was the first name on the England team-sheet for many years, when other more famous names (even Matthews & Finney!) were still being picked irregularly. At Stoke he was a key part of Bob McGrory’s post-war rebuilt team that so nearly won the FA Cup and the League.
So, Neil was on the cusp of being world famous like Moore would later be. It was thus ironic that he spurned playing in the 1950 World Cup, which would probably have been the platform to launched him into the fame stratosphere, in order to instead make some fast money in South America. When that fell apart, nobody wanted to know him.
No First Division club would touch him (Derby were tempted, but thought better of it), but worse, England fans turned on him for unpatriotically pulling out of the World Cup, which they would have undoubtedly done well in – England had been one of the real favourites to win…but instead crashed to part-timers USA 0-1 in the first great humiliation of England’s footballing history. The fans (fuelled by the Press) never let Neil forget this, particularly as it was felt that footballers earned a relatively decent living (despite Neil’s protestations) during the austerity & severe rationing of post-war Britain.
And even at 2nd Division Hull (who’d only signed him as old mate Raich Carter was manager) he didn’t play regularly. He’d cost them a fortune, but he wasn’t quite the same, those later injuries sustained from lower division football not withstanding.
Alfie tells how Neil went from the very top of the game to the very bottom within just a few weeks. It makes Cantona’s drop-kick episode or George Best’s sad decline look like a sideshow. The England side needed him in the years that followed, but unsurprisingly they never picked him again. The manner and conduct of his flight to Bogotá set him apart from the other Columbia-bound “bandits”.
After that, little worked for Neil.
Which brings us to the “if only” section. If only he hadn’t gone to Bogotá. More “happy times” at Stoke, World Cup coverage, record top-flight transfer, world fame…? Of course, this is just guesswork from hindsight.
Alfie’s new book is a must-read, really bringing this forgotten yarn to life. Whatever criticism people may have been levelled at Neil Franklin, he was an extraordinary man, and his story must be told.
If there are any points to be made about this new biog, it’s that Alfie seems quite hard on Stoke City & their manager Bob McGrory. In fact the club were very good to Neil, indulging their star defender for years, even speaking heartily in his defence at his disciplinary hearing (despite the contempt he’d shown to them), although they might have been talking him up for future transfer reasons.
As for McGrory, he looked to Franklin like his own son – Bob’s son was tragically killed in Italy in 1944 – giving Neil his chance at Stoke and nurturing him through to the first team (as he had done Matthews when Bob managed Mather’s reserve team in the early 1930s) and on to captaincy.
Sure, Bob could occasionally be critical of Neil’s style – Franklin cost Stoke the infamous Huddersfield game in the crucial 1947 season – but he never wanted to completely change Neil’s play (why would he?!) just vary and develop it. Similarly, Alf Ramsey would often grumble at Bobby Moore for very much the same reason. (Moore would arguably cost Alf his job in later years, but that’s another story!)
Often depicted as a hard emotionless Scotsman, McGrory was in fact distraught that his prodigy had run off to Bogotá, betraying those left behind, and Bob was never the same. It knocked the stuffing out of him and his heart wasn’t in the Stoke job after that; he stood down in 1952, dying just 2 years later.
England’s Greatest Defender is a great read, and is available at all good bookshops, Amazon, but also signed copies from https://englandsgreatestdefender.com/buy/
It’s a must for Xmas for football fans young and old. But most of all, I await the movie version!