Football in the 50s: an interview with Sheffield United’s Len Cox

Written by Sport, Sport Features

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With Sheffield United impressing upon their return to the Premier League, the eyes of the footballing world are fixed upon the city. However, there are decades of footballing history ingrained in the streets of Sheffield, and someone who knows this history more than most is Len Cox, who played for Sheffield United from 1955-1963.

The love affair with United started early for Len, who remembered “having a friend whose dad had a good job in the steelworks. He had a season ticket at Bramall Lane, and he used to take us when we were 8, sneaking us through the John Street turnstiles at the same time to get us both in for the price of one!”

Len was hooked, returning to Bramall Lane throughout his childhood. At fifteen, Len realised every young fan’s dream, impressing for the Firth Park school team and subsequently signing for United. Fond memories of his early career included a tournament in Cannes, attended by a youth team from Real Madrid. “In the end we won the tournament, winning all of our games 2-0, and that was my first trip to another country. Having lived through the war you couldn’t go to Bridlington, never mind abroad, so it was a great experience for us all.”

Len was soon promoted to the senior team once he reached eighteen. Whereas today a lucrative new deal may have beckoned, football was not awash with riches in the 1950s. “Back then you had a maximum wage”, Len said, “we couldn’t earn any more than £17 a week with a £2 bonus for a win”. The financial disparity between what Len and his teammates earned, compared to the current Bramall Lane wage bill, is certainly vast, with the PFA placing the average Premier League wage at an eye-watering £50,000 a week.

Another quirk of 1950s football was the prohibition of substitutions. Changes could not be made even in the case of injury, which as Len recounts, often led to on-field chaos.

“We once played Everton’s reserves at Goodison Park, and after 5 minutes, our goalkeeper Ted Burgin broke his arm. A few minutes later our left-back broke his ankle, and of course we had no substitutes, so we played on with 9 men- I won’t tell you the score but it certainly wasn’t a great game for us.”

Len was fortunate enough to encounter some of England’s greatest players as a youth international, playing with the likes of Jimmy Greaves and one of Sheffield’s most famous sons, Gordon Banks. However, Len remains baffled that Banks never had an opportunity to play for a Sheffield club. He remembered that “he was quick off his line, brilliant in the air and had superb judgement, but strangely, neither United nor Wednesday picked him up.”

Despite his early promise, Len eventually left United under pressure from his parents, who wanted him focus on his other profession- accountancy. He played part-time for Chesterfield and Scarborough before retiring, and although his United career was cut short, he has no regrets. “I got to play for the club I grew up supporting, and even if my time at Bramall Lane was shorter than it might have been, that still makes me a lot luckier than most”.

Last modified: 18th March 2020

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