Wilf Mannion, former England international forward, joined Hull City in December 1954 six months after he had announced his retirement – his former club Middlesbrough still held Mannion’s registration and the signing cost Hull City a £4,500 fee. Wilf joined Tigers team that was sliding down the division after an excellent opening few weeks under manager Bob Jackson, the two-time League title winner at Portsmouth five years earlier. Mannion’s signing was an attempt to stimulate a return to form for the Tigers, and while Wilf scored in his second appearance, a New Years Day 2-3 defeat at Nottingham Forest, events soon took a hold and Mannion’s time at City was short. In March 1955 Jackson was replaced at the City helm by Bob Brocklebank, and consecutive victories in April, amid a slew of defeats, were enough to secure City’s Second Division status. Shortly afterwards the Football League reacted to a number of incendiary press articles written by Mannion during his six month retirement that alleged corruption in the game during his pomp at Middlesbrough. Wilf refused to name the clubs involved and his punishment was a total ban from the senior game. Wilf was therefore unable to continue with the Tigers and left the club in May 1955.
Wilfred James Mannion, known as “Golden Boy” thanks to his blonde hair, was one of the finest footballers of his generation – a generation that produced such greats as Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright and Stan Mortensen – and some contend that he is elevated alongside Pele as one of the game’s greatest forwards of all. He was a fabulous dribbler, a pinpoint passer, he was incredibly strong in the air for a short man and he was a selfless player who prioritised creating goals for others over scoring himself – although he did contribute plenty of goals in his pomp. But he was also an outspoken figure who angered his home town club and the upper echelons of the English game at a time when journeymen footballers and England superstars were all paid the same maximum wage, and whose registrations were held by their clubs until the directors decided to relinquish that stranglehold, even long after the player’s contract had expired and they were no longer being remunerated.
Wilf Mannion was born at the end of World War One at South Bank, the eighth of ten children raised by Thomas Mannion, a steel worker at the Bolckow Vaughan blast furnace, and his wife Mary Mannion, both of whom hailed from Ireland. He lived in Napier Street, a long since demolished terrace where 100 years later the Asda petrol station stood. By the early 21st century South Bank was a semi-derelict township on the southern shores of the River Tees between Middlesbrough and Redcar, but in the 1920s it was a crammed but generally well-to-do area whose wealth was generated by the more modern steelworks constructed nearby by Bolckow Vaughan and Dorman Long. A small child, Wilf was nevertheless a footballing prodigy from a young age and was playing alongside boys of 13 and 14 years while he was still 7. Prior to leaving school at 14 Mannion played in a trial match between schoolboy XIs representing the North and Midlands, with the best prospects being chosen for the England Schoolboys team. Mannion dominated the trial match but was told at the end that at four feet and two inches he was too small to be selected – this angered him and gave him drive to succeed. When he left school he worked in the local steel rolling mill, playing football for works side Smith’s Dock FC and local league side South Bank St Peter’s.
He grew in his mid teens and was closer to five feet and five inches when he was approached by Middlesbrough to sign terms at the age of 17. Wilf’s elder brother Tommy counselled against signing for his local professional club – Tommy was 12 years his senior and considered by Wilf to be a superior footballer even to himself, but was friends with ex-professional players and had refused advances from clubs because of the restrictive terms in their contracts – a portent of things to come, as it turned out. Wilf nevertheless signed amateur forms with Middlesbrough early in 1936 and was handed his first professional contract in September 1936. After two months impressing in the reserves he made his debut for Boro first team in January 1937 against Portsmouth and followed up with a second appearance in April 1937 against Preston.
Mannion continued to impress in the Boro reserves during the early months of the 1937/38 season and when the first team suffered a 3-5 defeat at Leeds on Christmas Day, changes were deemed necessary when Leeds came to Ayresome Park two days later for the return fixture. Mannion was given his chance in front of a gate of 35,000 and he scored his first Boro goal in a 2-0 win. Five days later local rivals Sunderland – League champions 18 months earlier, current FA Cup holders and featuring England international forward Raich Carter – visited Middlesbrough and were sent away defeated with Mannion scoring again. For the rest of the season Mannion was a regular first choice inside forward and took his goal tally for the season to five in 25 starts.
In 1938/39 Mannion missed only four League games as Boro ended the season fourth in the First Division, and also played in four FA Cup ties. With Boro’s results oscillating considerably from week to week, Wilf scored four times as Blackpool were demolished 9-2 in December 1938 and bagged a hattrick when Boro beat Portsmouth 8-2 in March 1939. By the end of the season Mannion had scored 14 times in 42 starts during his first full season, his youthful promise was bearing fruit, his diminutive stature was overcome, the doubters were proved wrong and Mannion was an emerging star of the game. At the start of the 1939/40 season Middlesbrough considered themselves genuine League title challengers – and then World War Two stopped professional football for seven years.
During the later months of 1939 Mannion joined to Auxiliary Fire Service and continued to play wartime fixtures for Middlesbrough. He was conscripted in January 1940 and refused the offer made to many professional footballers to become a physical training instructor and instead served the Army’s Green Howards. His regiment was sent to France to defend the front line, only to be evacuated back to England three months later via the Dunkerque evacuation. In 1942 he played against Scotland for a representative England side that did not yield a full international cap, and also guested for both Tottenham Hotspur and Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic. He then spent time in South Africa with the Army before returning to Europe in July 1943 to take part in the invasion of Sicily and then on towards Rome, losing colleagues along the way including his Army captain and close working colleague, the former Yorkshire and England cricketer Hedley Verity. This trauma severely affected Wilf’s health and he was sent to Egypt to recover, where he convalesced under the wing of future Arsenal manager Bertie Mee. Despite a bout of malaria Wilf made a full physical recovery, playing in many wartime representative matches and returning to Middlesbrough for the recommencement of League football in August 1946 in good shape, but with the happy-go-lucky nature of his youth dulled by his wartime experiences.
During the 1946/47 season Mannion made 37 League starts and scored eighteen goals. He added another five strikes in seven FA Cup appearances, including a Fifth Round replay hattrick against Nottingham Forest, as Boro reached the Sixth Round only to lose a replay against Burnley after a controversial offside decision denied Mannion’s team the win at Ayresome Park in front of 53,000 fans. Now aged 28, Mannion was one of the League’s stand-out performers despite Boro finishing in mid-table, and after four wartime international appearances he was called up for his first full England cap in September 1946 – he hit a hattrick as England beat Ireland 7-2, playing alongside Ex-Tigers Neil Franklin and Raich Carter. By the end of the season Mannion had won his first eight caps and scored seven goals for his country.
In 1947/48 season Mannion again a first team regular, making 38 appearances in all competitions but only scoring two goals. As Boro struggled towards the foot of the First Division table Mannion grew disillusioned and restless, as high profile clubs with deep pockets circled and offered transfer fees upwards of £30,000, all of which Middlesbrough rebuffed. The words of his brother Tommy 12 years earlier gained resonance when Mannion was forced to stay at Boro and draw the game’s relatively paltry maximum wage when his preference would have been to move to big spending Oldham Athletic, a transfer that would have given Mannion a considerable cash boost and also netted Middlesbrough a world record £30,000 fee. Middlesbrough manager David Jack (the first man to score in a Wembley FA Cup final in 1923) refused to sanction the move and in the 1948 close season, in typically single-minded fashion, Wilf went on strike rather than put up with his lot. After six months out of the game selling chicken sheds to make ends meet, the dispute fizzled out during the winter months and Mannion returned to the Boro first team. He scored four times in 17 starts by the end of the 1948/49 season as Middlesbrough avoided relegation by a solitary point. Mannion was a Middlesbrough first team regular for a further five seasons and his goal tally grew as he entered his mid-thirties, peaking with 19 league goals in 1952/53 season, but the Teessiders were perennial strugglers in the lower reaches of the First Division table and Mannion continued to be denied the chance of medal-winning glory. In the 1953/54 season Mannion managed only nine goals in 37 starts as Middlesbrough were relegated to the Second Division. Once again disillusioned, Mannion announced his retirement from playing in May 1954, having started 368 matches for his hometown team in all competitions and scored 110 goals.
Despite Middlesbrough’s modest performances in the First Division, Mannion skills meant he was one of England’s most decorated footballer during the late 1940s and early 1950s. In total he was awarded 26 England caps between September 1946 and October 1951, scoring 11 goals. He was part of England’s 1950 World Cup Finals squad that travelled to Brazil and he played in two of England’s three games, the 2-0 win against Chile (Mannion scored the second while another future Tiger Stan Mortensen netted the first) and the humiliating 0-1 defeat at the hands of USA. Mannion also played in four wartime internationals, three England matches in 1949 and 1950 that did not yield full caps, a Great Britain XI that defeated a Rest of Europe XI 6-1 in 1947 and was twice was selected for Football League XIs.
Following his 1955 ban from senior football Mannion spent the 1955/56 season playing for Poole Town. In the summer of 1956 he joined Cambridge United, then competing in the Eastern Counties League, and at his final club as a player Wilf scored 23 times in 75 appearances across two seasons. His last game for Cambridge was against Wisbech Town in April 1958, two weeks after the club had arranged a benefit match for him against an International XI – no such testamonial had been granted by his first club Middlesbrough. Mannion managed King’s Lynn in the Southern League during 1958/59 but the prospect of part-time players from the Fens being managed by one of the nation’s greatest forwards was perhaps an explanation for why management at this level didn’t suit Wilf. After nine months running a pub in Stevenage and another nine months working at the Vauxhall car plant in Luton, Wilf had a second shot at management at Lancashire Combination side Earlestown FC that started in November 1960 and ended abruptly in October 1962 when the club folded.
Mannion withdrew from football in the early 1960s and returned to Teesside, but struggled to find work and sold his England caps to make ends meet. During the 1970s he had a brief spell as a football writer for national newspapers but his antipathy for the modern game shone through and he was soon ditched. He then worked in the ICI chemical processing complex at Wilton near Redcar, working as a labourer and tea maker for the pipe fitting team and occasionally quietly recounting stories about his playing days. Only in the 1980s was Wilf fully rehabilitated with Middlesbrough Football Club, granting him a testamonial in 1983 against a Bobby Robson-led England XI that finally gave Mannion the financial security his talents deserved. He lived out his life in a modest house in Redcar and died in April 2000, his funeral attracting a tremendous crowd that wished to pay their last respects to the Golden Boy, their hero from fifty years ago.
A statue now stands outside Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium to commemorate Mannion’s life (pictured) and the former ground of now-defunct South Bank FC has been converted into a community sports facility called Golden Boy Green. In 2004 Wilf was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame, an honour bestowed by the National Football Museum in Manchester.
Date/Place of Birth: 16 May 1918, South Bank
Hull City First Game: 27 December 1954, Luton Town H (Division Two), 36 years, 255 days old
Hull City Final Game: 30 April 1955, Derby County A (Division Two), 36 years, 349 days old
Middlesbrough (1936-1954), Hull City (1954-1955), Poole Town (1955-1956), Cambridge United (1956-1958)
Hull City Record
Career: 17 apps, 1 goalsWilf Mannion