JOHN HOPE died alone this week aged 67 with little more than a passing mention for the goalkeeper who was part of the greatest Sheffield United side I have had the privilege to watch.
That is not to say that Hope, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease as a 55-year-old, was the best goalkeeper. Far from it. Jim Brown, Steve Conroy, Simon Tracey, Alan Kelly and Paddy Kenny are candidates but that accolade belongs to Alan Hodgkinson. Hope had the daunting task of succeeding the Bramall Lane legend who died last December aged 79. They were boots he was never going to fill.
Hope was an enigma. Capable of making truly wonderful saves but prone to jaw-dropping gaffes. He was good enough to be a part of the England Under-23 squad when Peter Shilton, who became one of the nation’s greats, was No1. Phil Parkes, a keeper who would have surely made more of an impact on the international stage but for the presence of Shilton, was understudy.
But despite Hope’s obvious potential he wasn’t able to sustain his professional career. His moment in the sun was at Bramall Lane – he made 76 appearances – where Blades fans took him and his frustrating inconsistencies to their hearts.
Tony Currie, who remained a friend of Hope’s and earlier this year helped raise money to support him and a Parkinson’s charity, said this week: “John was an excellent goalkeeper. When he came to us we went on a couple of long unbeaten runs and Hopey was their throughout all of those. People forget just how good John was but all of us who played with him knew.”
It says a great deal about the man who began his working life as a welder close to where he was born in Shildon, County Durham, that he won over fans at the Lane. On arrival the odds were stacked against him. United manager John Harris sacrificed striker John Tudor in an exchange deal with Newcastle United which also brought former Sheffield Wednesday forward David Ford to the Lane from Tyneside.
Tudor, who went on to form a deadly partnership with Malcolm Macdonald at St James’ Park, had scored 33 goals in 78 appearances for the Blades. The loss of what many regarded, including me, of one of the Lane’s crown jewels was met with anger.
As was often the case with mild-mannered Harris who shunned the limelight and is often overlooked when memories are recalled of the great team he put together, the deal was in fact a short-term masterstroke in his effort to replace one of the country’s top keepers.
United, with sublime players such as Currie, Alan Woodward, Gill Reece, Geoff Salmons, Colin Addison, Frank Barlow, Len Badger, Ted Hemsley David Powell, John Flynn and Eddie Colquhoun, won promotion to the top flight with flair and style. Like many others, it cemented my love for the Blades and has sustained me through many trying times ever since.
Hope had to bide his time but slotted in seamlessly at the end of January ’71 when Hodgy’s 675-match career at the Lane came to an end with what we now know was a very special group of players. He produced a catalogue of brilliant, acrobatic saves.
Yes, Leicester City won the old Second Division title in the way that teams are expected to do. But United were the football team in its truest sense. The entertainers. Something they proved when clinching promotion in the most exciting finale I have ever witnessed before taking the top tier by storm and going 10 matches unbeaten, topping the table until mid October.
Hope kept a club record seven clean sheets along the way in that glorious season of 1970-71. A record that stood until surpassed by Mark Howard (eight) in 2014. “If I ever bump into Mark then I’d like to shake him by the hand and tell him very well done because it’s not an easy thing to do,” said Hope at the time.
United finished tenth but life became increasingly uncomfortable for him. Yes, he continued to produce wonderful saves but they were littered with those gaffes which were to ultimately define him and destroy his confidence.
Replaced by Tom McAllister the following season, Hope was confined to the reserves. He made his last appearance for the Blades in a 3-0 defeat at Ipswich Town in March ’74.
For a popular player whose introduction to the Lane had promised so much and was knocking on England’s door, Hope’s rise and fall was dramatic. His departure from United was sad. Offered as a free transfer there were no takers. Hope considered going part-time and returning to welding in his native North East.
Fourth Division Hartlepool stepped in where he made 28 appearances in 1975-76 before winding up his career at non league Whitby Town. His last match to attract national attention was for Hartlepool against Manchester City who put six past him without reply in an FA Cup tie at Maine Road in 1976. It was at Maine Road where Hope made his one and only appearance for Newcastle, a 1-0 First Division defeat to City in ’69.
His was on standby as understudy to Newcastle’s Willie McFaul in the Geordies’ Initer-Cities Fairs Cup 6-2 aggregate triumph over Hungarians Ujpesti Dozsa following an £8,000 move to St James’ Park from Darlington in 1969.
Alan Foggon, who scored for Newcastle in the second leg in Budapest, said: “John was a lovely man and we’re all shocked at the news. We hold regular meetings in Newcastle for the old apprentices and reserve players from our era. John always came up on the bus from Stockton to attend despite having Parkinson’s.”
Hope was invited to the Lane as a one of the guests of honour for the 125th anniversary celebrations. “I’m so looking forward to coming back,” he said. “Sheffield United means the world to me, it really does. Absolutely everything.
“In football terms, I still regard that as my home. I made so many friends there and good friends at that. Not just acquaintances. It’s a special club with so much history and so much to be proud of. But what really makes it so great are the people."
Hope will never be forgotten by a generation of Blades who were fortunate, like me, to witness a moment in time when Sheffield United produced a quality of football the like of which has not been seen since at the Lane.
John Hope March 30, 1949-July 18, 2016 RIP.