From cricketers to athletes, plenty of sportsmen have tried to become footballers – though few have switched disciplines with much success
22 March ~ “I’ve spoken to Alex Ferguson and I told him he needs to put in a good word,” said the newly retired Usain Bolt at the beginning of January. “He told me if I get fit and ready, he will see what he can do.” The reigning Olympic 100 and 200 metre champion has long held the ambition of becoming a professional footballer once his track career ended. Although his wish to play for United (presumably Bolt knows Ferguson is no longer manager at Old Trafford) is pie in the sky, he has recently trained with South African club Mamelodi Sundowns, and will captain the Rest of the World team in this year's Soccer Aid.
According to the BBC, Bolt was less than impressed with his efforts in South Africa, admitting: “When I get back to Jamaica I need more training because I’m unfit.” For a sportsman noted for his supreme self-confidence and often grandiose public utterances, Bolt downplayed the subject of his make or break trial in Dortmund: “I’ll do the soccer trial – then I can decide whether it makes sense to do it, or if it doesn’t make sense.” The 31-year-old is right to strike a note of caution with regards to making this particular sporting switch, if history is anything to go by.
After retiring as a decathlete in 1992, Daley Thompson attempted to make the breakthrough at Mansfield, Stevenage and Reading, but never clocked up a first-team appearance despite, as he put it, “giving my heart and soul to breaking through there”. Part of the problem was that, like Bolt, Thompson was already in his 30s when he tried to make it as a footballer. “I was a bit slower and if I’m honest, a bit long in the tooth to cut it,” he admitted. Sadly his goal for Reading against Leatherhead in a friendly match will remain the high point of Thompson’s football career. Plenty of footballers used to double up as county cricketers in the summer with some playing at international level in both sports. Ian Botham was far from equally adept at both, through he did at least play 11 league matches as a central defender for Scunthorpe, spread over four seasons, as well as turning out in non-League with Yeovil.
Several footballers opted to focus on the game permanently only after having achieved notable successes in other team sports. Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper Lev Yashin had starred for his club’s ice hockey team (where his coach insisted that all players write with both hands to increase the their dexterity) and later explained: “Ice hockey toughens one up and improves one’s reflexes in a different way to soccer.”
Former Woolwich Arsenal defender Jimmy Jackson had once been an excellent Australian Rules footballer before making the leap to Association football in England. After introducing the concept of zonal marking to Woolwich players in 1904, Jackson explained to bemused team-mates that effective marking was far more intrinsic to the Australian code than in the football played here. Several Republic of Ireland stars, including Niall Quinn, Kevin Doyle and Kevin Moran, played Gaelic football to a good standard before making the permanent switch to soccer, but there have been many footballers who have dabbled in other sports, with decidedly mixed results.
After a career which encompassed clubs including Sheffield United and Birmingham City, midfielder Curtis Woodhouse announced at the end of 2006-07 that he’d “fallen out of love with football” and, despite no previous experience, won his first professional boxing bout against Dean Marcantonio. After having his boxing licence suspended for assaulting a police officer, Woodhouse later returned to play non-League football. Forward Leon McKenzie retired from football in 2013 and enjoyed some notable successes in the ring, eventually losing the English Super Middleweight title fight by a split decision in 2016. Having suffered from depression during his sporting career, McKenzie has stated his ambition to alter attitudes towards mental illness in both boxing and football in the future.
Several footballers later tried their hand at gridiron, usually as field goal kickers. The most high-profile example in England was former Queens Park Rangers and Tottenham striker Clive Allen, who played for the London Monarchs in the 1990s. Yet the most successful was Austrian forward Toni Fritsch, who scored a memorable brace for his country at Wembley in 1965 against Alf Ramsey’s England in a 3-2 win. “Wembley Toni” was later signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 1971, and a year later became the only Austrian to win the Super Bowl. Fritsch, who had “never seen a game before. And I signed a contract with Dallas that I couldn’t even read or understand,” enjoyed a decade-long career in American football.
Injury-prone former West Ham United defender Julian Dicks tried his hand as a professional golfer after being forced to retire from football prematurely, but the knee injury which plagued his earlier career also terminated his adventure on the links. “It’s tough trying to carve out a living in another sport,” Dicks later reflected. Usain Bolt may discover that gravitating in the opposite direction can be equally tricky. Jon Spurling
This article first appeared in WSC 373, March 2018