ALAN WOODWARD’S passing is a watershed for a generation of Sheffield United supporters. A moment for reflection. A reminder of our mortality and that nothing lasts for ever.
The phrase Woodward and Currie has tripped off the tongue since I was a boy. Not just in South Yorkshire but across the country. Mention to football fans of my generation you are a Blade, the chances are they will instantly recall Woody and TC.
Like Rolls and Royce their names are synonymous with a prestige brand. They are also names which inspired a new following of Unitedites, many of whom form the loyal core of support the club enjoys today.
Tony Currie, not surprisingly, was voted United’s best ever player during the recent 125-year anniversary celebrations. An event which Woodward travelled from his Oklahoma home to attend and during which he made his final visit to Bramall Lane.
Without doubt Currie is the most talented I’ve seen but if it does not sound too contradictory, for me Woody is the most outstanding player I have witnessed wearing the treasured red and white stripes.
I will always remember a unique sound of expectation that use to reverberate around the three sides of Bramall Lane when Woodward received the ball anywhere within 40 yards of the opposition’s penalty area. An intense buzz as that iconic No7 shirt flew goalwards from the right wing. A shirt, seemingly, he was destined to wear. Woodward was born on the seventh and made his United debut on the seventh.
He must have worn grooves down the right flanks. There was no hesitation. Everyone knew what was going to happen. Defenders braced themselves as Woody unleashed trademark screamers with his gifted right boot. More often than not, if he made full contact they finished in the back of the net.
A corner specialist, too. I can’t recall when I saw it for the first time, I know it was at the Lane, but to a young boy just as if witnessing an act of magic. Ahead of its time and a talent befitting any top class player of today.
Woody, like a man driven by a metronome, delivered inswinging corner kicks which at the very least would hang under the crossbar waiting for a United head to glance it home. On many occasions, however, the curling ball, with pace and precision, would cut out the middle men, wrong foot goalkeepers and defenders alike to sweep across the line.
Those qualities are why Woodward is United’s post-war record goalscorer with 158 strikes in 536 league appearances. His is second of all time behind Harry Johnson (201). He made 639 appearances in total, scoring 191 times in all competitions.
Between 1967 and ’72 he made 148 consecutive league appearances. He was an ever-present in five league campaigns. Only Joe Shaw (632) and Alan Hodgkinson (576) have played more league matches for United. In his 16 seasons at senior level at the Lane – he made his league debut at Liverpool on October 7, 1964 –nine were in the top division.
My first memory of Woodward, and United, was at Preston North End on September 27, 1969 when my dad introduced me to the Blades in the old Division Two. We lost 2-1 but Woody scored a trademark goal which flew past goalkeeper Alan Kelly senior, whose son, Alan, became a huge favourite between the sticks at Bramall Lane in more recent times.
There were many memorable goals after that but Woodward’s performance at home to Ipswich in November 1971 stands out. It was in the old First Division following United’s golden promotion season of 1970-71 when Blades fans were treated to sublime football the like of which has never been surpassed. Not even close. Woodward scored four goals that day in a 7-0 win. Gill Reece, Len Badger and Billy Dearden were the other marksmen.
Woodward was more than good enough to play for England. He never did. It was unfortunate that when he came to prominence Alf Ramsey was manager of the national team and wingers were out of favour.
Woody was a no nonsense Yorkshireman, born in Chapeltown but brought up in the mining area of Silkstone, Barnsley. A man of few words as I discovered at Blackpool in a pre-season friendly.
My hero was sitting just three seats away and it took until half time to pluck up courage to speak to him. Woody just looked at me and then turned away. I was upset at the time, but now I realise that as a private man who shunned the limelight and had no time for hero worship, he was probably feeling just as awkward as I was. I gather that outside of football in his family life he wasn’t the easiest person to get along with.
It is with more than a little surprise, then, that this dour Yorkshireman was to become a pioneer of the fledgling North American Soccer League when his career came to a close at United in 1978. He signed for Tulsa Roughnecks in Oklahoma where he played for three years and made 47 appearances wearing, what else, but the No7 shirt.
He wasn’t alone. Duncan McKenzie, David Nish, Terry Darracott, Roger Davies and Ron Futcher to name but a few were big names that followed the road to Tulsa. Former United teammate David Bradford, already in the States, was another. Woody was regarded as one of the most popular members of Tulsa’s team.
After quitting football Woodward made Tulsa his permanent home and the place where he died on Thursday. He swapped football for American Airlines, working as a maintenance and baggage handler at Tulsa airport.
With Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard about to start their careers across the Atlantic, following David Beckham and Thierry Henry’s well-trodden footsteps in what has become Major League Soccer, it drives home how professional football has changed so dramatically since the 1970s and 80s. A player of Woodward’s quality, had he been born 25 years later, would have enjoyed a millionaire’s lifestyle.
I’m not sure the guy who ignored me at Bloomfield Road would have been comfortable with that.
Here’s to Alan Woodward. An extraordinarily gifted footballer who will not be forgotten on either side of the Atlantic. Not at all bad for a young, unassuming lad from Silkstone.