Head injuries brought premature end to the career of Wolves and Brighton ‘keeper Geoff Sidebottom

GEOFF Sidebottom, who played in the European Cup for Wolverhampton Wanderers and the very first League Cup Final for Aston Villa, kept goal for Brighton & Hove Albion when I first started watching them.

Brighton were the third club manager Freddie Goodwin had brought him to and he vied for the no. 1 jersey with local lad Brian Powney.

However, a game he revelled in, that I have referred to in the post about Eddie Spearritt, came in September 1969 when he faced his old club in a League Cup third round tie in front of a packed house at the Goldstone.

In John Vinicombe’s Argus preview of the big game, Sidebottom told him: “It is always nice to play against your old club and I know what his draw means to our supporters. They don’t come much bigger than the Wolves – wherever they play the crowds flock to see them.”

I came across the programme for the game only the other day, annotated by my dad with the team changes, and, in the annals of Albion history over the years, it stands out as one of the great nights.

I was only 11 at the time and had just started high school so it was probably a big deal to skip homework that evening and head over to Hove from home in Shoreham.

Up to then I had only ever seen a handful of ‘daylight’ games (played Saturday afternoons or bank holidays) so it was my first ever game under the floodlights (I’d not been to the games in the previous two rounds, when Albion had beaten Portsmouth and Birmingham, at the time both one division higher).

At a time when the average crowd for league games was around the 12,000 mark, 32,539 packed in to the Goldstone to see if Albion could pull off a remarkable hat-trick of results. No thoughts of a weakened team for Albion but, even back then Wolves didn’t put out their big guns, neither captain Mike Bailey, who would later become Albion manager, nor fearsome centre forward Derek Dougan played. Dougan had been a teammate of Sidebottom’s at Villa.

The size of the crowd certainly wouldn’t have fazed Sidebottom. He had made his Wolves debut 11 years earlier in the Black Country derby against West Brom in front of 48,898 at The Hawthorns.

Although goals from Alan Gilliver and Spearritt had Brighton 2-1 up at half-time, Wolves ultimately showed their superiority in the second half when Scottish international Hugh Curran got the ball past Sidebottom twice in eight second half minutes to clinch the tie.

It was during another cup match two months later, a marathon FA Cup second round tie with Walsall, that Sidebottom sustained the first worrying head injury that would ultimately lead to his forced retirement from the game.

In those days cup games weren’t decided on the lottery of penalties so they just kept having replays until there was a conclusive result.

It required three replays before the Saddlers finally prevailed 2-1, and it was during the first of the four games when a concussed Sidebottom was stretchered off on 65 minutes, outfield player Spearritt taking over in goal (in the days before substitute goalkeepers) and Albion hung on for a 1-1 draw.

At 5’10”, Sidebottom wasn’t the tallest ‘keeper around but no-one doubted his courage.

He missed the following nine games but played another nine times before the end of the season. After Goodwin departed for Birmingham, his successor, Pat Saward, preferred Powney and Sidebottom played only a handful of games in 1970-71, his last appearance coming in a 3-0 win over Doncaster in January 1971.

But where did it all begin? Back in the day, Wolves were one of the top teams in the country, league title winners in 1957-58 and 1958-59 and FA Cup winners in 1960. They had a feeder nursery club based near Rotherham called Wath Wanderers.

It was run by a former Wolves player turned scout, Mark Crook, who would scour Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and the area between Hull and Newcastle searching for youngsters who might make it in the famous old gold.

Sidebottom, born on Boxing Day 1936 in Mapplewell, three miles north of Barnsley, worked in a foundry near Barnsley in his teens and was spotted playing for Barnsley Boys and ended up at Wath Wanderers.

He signed pro for Wolves aged 17 in 1954 and played in the Wolves side beaten by a Manchester United featuring the mighty Duncan Edwards in the final of the 1954 FA Youth Cup.

With England international Bert Williams and Scot Malcolm Finlayson ahead of him in the first team, it was four years before he made that debut in a 2-1 defeat to arch rivals WBA. Subsequently he vied for the jersey with Nigel Sims and Noel Dwyer but

Sidebottom would go on to play 35 times for Wolves including two of the matches en route to the 1960 FA Cup Final win over Blackburn Rovers, and in the 1960 Charity Shield draw with Burnley.

He also appeared in a 5-2 European Cup second-round defeat at home to Barcelona, as well as the Cup Winners’ Cup.

Most of his senior outings for Wolves came in the early part of the 1960-61 season, featuring in 18 of the first 22 League games as deputy for the injured Finlayson.

In February 1961 he was transferred to Villa for £15,000 where, in September that year, he played in goal as Joe Mercer’s side beat Rotherham 3-0 in the second leg of what was, in that inaugural season of the competition, a two-legged final, Rotherham having won the first game 2-0.

Interesting to look back now and see that among his teammates that day were John Neal, who later became manager of Chelsea, Gordon Lee, a future Everton manager, and Vic Crowe, who managed Villa in the early ‘70s.

Over the next four years, Sidebottom made 88 appearances for Villa before linking up with Freddie Goodwin for the first time in 1965 when he joined Division 3 Scunthorpe United.

Goodwin had joined Scunny as player-manager in 1964. Waiting in the wings behind the experienced Sidebottom was a goalkeeper who would eventually emerge as one of England’s finest: Ray Clemence.

Sidebottom kept the youngster at bay during the 1965-66 season but eventually, after 59 games for The Iron, lost his place to the ‘keeper who went on to join Liverpool and Spurs and earn 61 caps for England before becoming the country’s goalkeeping coach.

When Goodwin tried his luck in America in 1967-68, Sidebottom was one of his first signings at New York Generals, and the ‘keeper played 44 games over there.

Almost, it seemed, as night followed day, shortly after Goodwin took over as Brighton manager, Sidebottom followed in January 1969.

He would ultimately play 45 times for the Albion. After that earlier concussion incident against Walsall, he also had to leave the field with severe concussion when he cracked his head against a goalpost playing for the Reserves at Southwick.

He couldn’t shake off pains and double vision, and there followed a series of consultations. Even when the club’s own doctor advised him to pack up, he still didn’t want to accept the verdict.

It was only when he saw leading Harley Street neurologist Dr Roger Bannister (the same chap who ran the first sub-four minute mile) that he finally had to accept that he would have to quit the game at the age of 35.

“We went to the top to find out just why Geoff has been getting these pains,” manager Saward told the Argus. “I cannot say how sorry we all are. Geoff is the finest sort of professional; he is admired and liked throughout the game.”

Goodwin, who brought his Birmingham City side to the Goldstone to play in a testimonial match for Sidebottom in May 1972, said: “He was certainly the bravest goalkeeper I have ever seen.

“He was a marvellous club man. I signed him for Scunthorpe, New York Generals and Brighton and he never destroyed the faith I had in him.”

In the Birmingham side for that testimonial were striker Bob Latchford, who later played for Everton and England, and Gordon Taylor, who became chief executive of the PFA.

Sidebottom became a window cleaner and a building contractor after his playing days were over and he died aged 71 in November 2008.

Further reading

http://www.wolvesheroes.com/2008/11/06/keeper-passes-away/

http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/former-aston-villa-goalkeeper-geoff-72339

www.nasljerseys.com/Players/S/Sidebottom.Geoff.htm

 

  • Pictures show the programme cover for Sidebottom’s testimonial, from the 1969 Albion team line-up, and a programme announcement following news of his retirement.
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