Neil Franklin – The World’s First Modern Defender?

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Described as “incomparable” by Stanley Matthews, “the ideal centre-half” by Stan Mortensen, and “the best centre-back I ever played with or against” by Tom Finney, it seems appropriate to look back on the career and impact of Stoke City legend – Neil Franklin, on what would have been his 98th birthday. Franklin made 142 appearances for the Potters, 66 appearances for Crewe Alexandra and played 13 times for Macclesfield, and in his 22 year career he firmly established himself as one of the great defenders of his era.

Biography

Shelton-born Franklin signed his first Stoke contract in January 1939, aged only 15. Young and inexperienced, he may not have expected to get regular first-team football for some time, however the outbreak of war only a few months later gave him the opportunity to make his debut.

The Football League did not operate during the war, meaning that Franklin effectively lost the early years of his career – only playing friendlies until the resumption of the league in 1946. Nevertheless, during the wartime period Franklin was made club captain, and was still only 23 by the time he began to play regular competitive football.

Franklin’s Stoke career lasted until 1949, when then-manager Bob McGrory grew frustrated with his possession-based game and lack of physicality, and stripped him of the captaincy. A year later, a disillusioned Franklin rejected a place in the 1950 England squad and instead moved to Colombia for an ill-fated two-month stint with Santa Fe. Following this, issues with the FA and injury problems meant that Franklin’s star faded, and he moved around clubs such as Crewe, Macclesfield and Hull before retiring in 1961.

The First Modern Defender?

Modern day centre-backs are expected to play a very different role to the defenders of Franklin’s era. These days a centre-back is not simply judged on their physical presence and ability to defend, but also on their ability to move with the ball and find an accurate passes. They must embody both ‘thou shalt not pass’ as well as ‘thou shalt pass’ in equal measure. These are the qualities that have set many modern centre-backs, such as Sergio Ramos, Virgil Van Dijk and Mats Hummels aside from their counterparts.

The expectation of centre-backs in Franklin’s day was different. The widely-accepted ‘traditional’ role of a centre-back was simply to tackle the opposition and to get the ball as far away from the goal as possible. Franklin, however, seemed to break the mould. As previously mentioned, former Potters manager Bob McGrory recognized Franklin’s different playing style, and punished him for ‘holding possession for too long’.

Franklin’s unusual playing style also occasionally frustrated his teammates. His teammate and goalkeeper at Stoke, Dennis Herod stated:

“He was a great player, but so unpredictable. If he was under pressure he would shout to me Dennis, come on and I would come out expecting him to give me the ball. Nine times out of ten he would do a u-turn and trot off up the field. It was like playing in a minefield. He didn’t believe he could have a bad game and was the only one who didn’t suffer with nerves.”

Sir Stanley Matthews, who also played with Franklin at Stoke, lauded his footballing genius, saying:

“Neil won everything in the air, tackled with superb timing and when the ball was at his feet possessed the nous to pass it with all the guile and intelligence of the most cerebral of inside-forwards. An erect physique belied tremendous mobility and breathtaking speed over four or five yards.”

Despite each quote having different intent, it is clear from the accounts of McGrory, Herod and Matthews that Franklin’s ability on the ball was second-to-none – possessing an ability to not only defend like a traditional stopper, but also to find incisive passes and break the lines by confidently striding up the field.

Standing at 5’11 and weighing only 11 stone, Franklin had no right to achieve the elite level that he did in that particular era – an era where a tall, bulky frame and the ability to muscle an attacker off the ball were paramount. However, his competence in the air, precision in the tackle, and confidence made him a different beast of a centre-back – one that was even the subject of a world record £30,000 transfer bid from Hull City in 1949.

While his career and reputation may have been tarnished by his failed venture to Colombia, one fact remains clear about Neil Franklin. He made size and stature secondary to skill, and played his trade in an entirely transformative way. He was football’s ‘modern ball-playing centre back’ decades before that style came into fashion, and but for the decision to alienate himself from English football in 1950, it is entirely feasible that Franklin could have been the inspiration for the modern centre backs of today.

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