IF ART is the sincerest form of flattery, Tony Towner can count himself amongst the privileged few to be forever remembered on film.
That it was done by two of Rotherham United’s most ardent celebrity fans is neither here nor there – it’s not everyone who can say their prowess has been portrayed in an episode of Chucklevision.
Towner and fellow Millers hero Ronnie Moore were at the centre of a classic knockabout episode of the children’s TV series in which Rotherham supporters Paul and Barry Chuckle constantly get involved in slapstick scrapes.
In Football Heroes, made in 1996, the Chuckle Brothers meet Towner and Moore (actors playing them rather than the footballers themselves!) on their way to a game and accidentally end up with their invitation cards to play in a veterans match, leading to them ending up on the pitch.
It was Towner and Moore’s starring performances in the Rotherham side that won promotion from the old Division 3 as champions in 1980-81 that earned them cult status.
Over three seasons, Towner appeared over 100 times for the Millers and even all these years later is still remembered with affection.
Take, for example, comments made on the Millers Mad website a couple of years ago. Ivor Hardy said: “Tony (Tiger) Towner was one of the best and most talented footballers ever to play for us.
“He was instrumental in us winning the league in 80/81, along with doing the double over our near neighbours Sheffield United in the same season.
“We were lucky to get the services of Towner and Seasman from Millwall, and only did so because the Lions were in financial turmoil that season and had to get some money in fast. He will always be a legend with the older fans, along with team mates Seasman, Moore, Fern, Breckin, Mountford etc.
“Tiger gave us some great memories.”
Meanwhile, kevthemaltbymiller said: “Great player for us, very tricky winger with lightning pace. Happy memories.” And sawmiller added: “Tiger was a super player – good winger who created a real buzz in the crowd when he got the ball and ran at players.”
Brighton fans have similarly good memories of the local boy made good. Sussex youngsters making the grade with the Albion have been pretty few and far between over the years, but Towner and defender/midfielder Steve Piper were two who did it in the 1970s.
In Albion’s 1972-73 season in the second tier, Piper had already been blooded in the first team in the November. Towner signed professional on 29 December 1972 and, with Albion having been knocked out of the FA Cup by Chelsea in the third round, manager Pat Saward arranged a friendly against Stoke City on fourth round day, 3 February 1973 (Stoke had been beaten 3-2 by Man City) and gave Towner his first team debut in a 2-0 defeat at the Goldstone.
The following Saturday he made his league debut aged just 17 at home to Luton Town. Albion went into the game having suffered 14 defeats on the trot (12 in the league plus the games against Chelsea and Stoke) and, rooted to the bottom of the table, relegation was inevitable.
Saward gave the side a shake-up, dropping three established players – goalkeeper Brian Powney in favour of loan signing Tommy Hughes from Aston Villa, right back Graham Howell (to the bench), and experienced striker Barry Bridges.
Piper made only his sixth first team appearance and he was joined by winger Towner and forward Pat Hilton. It was Towner’s brilliant display on the wing that really caught the eye as Albion finally mustered a win, beating the Hatters 2-0.
Towner kept the shirt until the end of the season and it was the launchpad for a 15-year professional career in which he made over 400 appearances. After that Luton debut, he scored his first goal in a 2-1 home win against Huddersfield on 10 March.
One of the few survivors of the great Brian Clough cull of the playing staff in 1974, Towner was a speedy, skilful winger who could put in terrific crosses for his teammates. The fact he was a local lad endeared him greatly to the crowd.
In five years, he had plenty of challengers for his place. In the early days, Gerry Fell competed for the wide berth and later Eric Potts was a challenger, but Towner still managed 171 games (+ 12 as sub) for the Albion and scored 25 goals.
In John Vinicombe’s end of season assessment of Peter Taylor’s first season in sole charge (1974-75), he said: “It is with no disrespect to Taylor that I suggest that the three most consistent players were those he inherited – O’Sullivan, Towner and Piper.
“Towards the end, Towner tailed off a little but he struck up an intuitive partnership with Fred Binney.”
In fact Towner was third highest in the squad for appearances that season, playing 47 games in total plus four as sub and with 10 goals was second highest goalscorer behind Binney.
It was the arrival of Gerry Ryan from Derby in September 1978, which finally prompted his departure. George Petchey, who later joined Chris Cattlin’s backroom team at the Goldstone, took him to Millwall for £65,000.
Unfortunately, while Brighton won promotion to Division 1 in 1979, Millwall went the opposite way out of Division 2, and Towner found himself back in the third tier.
After 68 appearances for the Lions, in 1980 he was sold to Rotherham along with teammate John Seasman for a combined fee of £165,000.
Towner scored once for Rotherham’s near neighbours Sheffield United in a 10-game loan spell in 1983 and although he had missed out on Brighton’s eventual elevation to the top tier, he managed it with Wolves in 1983-84 having been signed by the Black Country side for £80,000.
He then joined Charlton Athletic but in the 1985-86 season was loaned to Rochdale where he once again linked up with his former Rotherham teammates, Moore and Seasman. He made five appearances for Rochdale and MikeMCSG on clarkechroniclersfootballers.blogspot.co.uk recalls: “He came on as sub in a home game and made an instantly good impression by beating the full back with his first touch.
“He went on to play a blinder in the draw at Halifax on Boxing Day. Unfortunately Tony didn’t want to uproot to the North and couldn’t be persuaded to make his stay permanent. When Cambridge came in with an offer he signed for them instead although he only made eight appearances for them in total.”
Towner’s final Albion appearance had been in a 4-1 defeat away to Leicester in September 1978 but his final appearance at the Goldstone came in a memorable FA Cup 3rd round tie on 4 January 1992.
Albion beat then Southern League Crawley 5-0 and Towner earned a rousing reception from the 18,031 packed into the Goldstone when, at the age of 36, he came on as a substitute for the visitors.
Since his playing days ended, Towner has had his own Brighton-based removals business and watches the Albion as a fan. In October 2015, Brian Owen interviewed him for an Argus piece ahead of a game against Cardiff when former Albion winger Craig Noone was in opposition.
Towner reckoned Albion made a mistake letting him go but added: “It’s good to see Brighton making good use of wingers.
“That’s the way I was brought up, using the wide men.
“It’s all right having midfield men or attack-minded full-backs. But what gets the crowd on its feet is a winger going past the full-back and crossing.
“You can have all the formations you like but, if you see a winger getting past his full-back, it excites people.”
Tony Towner certainly came into that category.
Pictures mainly shot by Evening Argus photographers and then reproduced in the Albion matchday programmes show a happy Towner congratulated by manager Pat Saward after his league debut, in familiar pose taking on a full back, getting in a trademark cross, in full flight on the wing, and finally on a Wolves album sticker.