A £4,000 transfer to non-league Halifax might not sound like a footballer’s big break, but that’s exactly what it was for Geoff Horsfield in late 1996. Approaching his 23rd birthday and spending more time in the pub than on the pitch, Horsfield had already been released by fourth-tier Scarborough and was making his living as a bricklayer. It was a profession he kept up while helping the Shaymen narrowly escape relegation from the Conference that season. A team-mate once described the time Horsfield turned up for a game straight from the building site “still wearing his work gear and with a Big Mac in his hand”.
The now well-trodden story of Jamie Vardy’s meteoric rise from non-league to Premier League has been deemed so extraordinary that Hollywood moviemakers are interested in telling it. But a film about Horsfield wouldn‘t be bad either. Son of a Barnsley coal miner, legendary lad, Great Escape hero, cancer survivor… the striker’s eventful career makes Vardy’s look sedate.
Horsfield’s second season at The Shay is where the movie montage (backing track, ‘Another Brick in the Wall’) of him banging in goals while simultaneously building houses and knocking back WKDs kicks in. He netted 34 times in 1996/97 as the Yorkshire club won promotion to the Football League, before a similarly prolific start to his league career the following season persuaded Kevin Keegan to shell out £350,000 to take him to Fulham.
“Tough, wholehearted and scored goals,” was how one Cottagers fan remembers the centre-forward’s impact in west London. “Strong”, “robust” and “fearless” were other descriptors used to describe Horsfield, whose no-nonsense style seeped from his every pore – on and off the pitch.
“Horsfield for England” was the chant ringing from the Craven Cottage stands as he scored 17 goals to help secure another promotion – this time to the second tier.
“Geoff was a classic big poacher. He didn’t always look good but he got the ball in the back of the net,” said another Fulham fan. “He was a crowd pleaser and we loved him,” beamed another. But it was all a bit old school for Fulham’s sophisticated new French manager Jean Tigana, who hastily ushered Horsfield out of the door to Birmingham City for a £2.25m fee in 2000.
At St Andrews, Horsfield is similarly revered, not so much for the volume of his goals but the timing of them. In his first season, his League Cup semi-final brace against Ipswich sent the Blues into their first major cup final for almost 40 years. The following year, he headed home an equaliser against Norwich in the play-off final, which the Blues won on penalties.
“He put his head where some people wouldn’t put their feet,” recalled one City fan of that strike.
But it was in the Premier League, where the club was able to renew its long-lost friendship with city neighbours Aston Villa, that Horsfield laid his name in Blues folklore. A first top flight goal at Villa Park was his Vardy moment. Of his four other goals that season, one was in the return fixture against Villa and another was an injury-time winner against West Brom. Blues fans also fondly recall his lop-sided tête-à-tête with a frightened Gareth Barry during one of those fiery derbies, and a brief stint in goal at Villa Park after goalkeeper Nico Vaesen was injured.
The season ended with Horsfield forming an unlikely double act with suave French World Cup winner Christophe Dugarry. The pair combined up front to help the Blues seal survival, after which Dugarry invited his team-mate to spend some time on his yacht with Gallic dandies including Zinedine Zidane.
“I hope they don’t get the ball out,” Horsfield is rumoured to have said, an example of the down-to-earth manner that most endeared him to the fans.
“I remember him scoring against Villa, being offside a lot and walking into a bar on Broad Street with a quality babe on each arm,” summarised one Birmingham fan, while others described Horsfield as “a bit of a lad”, “a great bloke with a heart of gold and “an animal on the beer”. Blues fans also recall a famous tale about an alleged romantic dalliance with a famous lady, but we can’t really mention that.
Not that it was all glamour. Another Bluenose remembers “the time at Man City where he got clean through, rounded the keeper and then swung his foot, missed the ball and fell over” adding, “top bloke though”.
It says a lot for Horsfield’s character that he is loved almost equally by fans of Midlands rivals Birmingham and West Brom, for whom he signed after a brief spell at Wigan.
He helped secure yet another promotion in his first season at the Hawthorns, but it’s his contribution the following year that still affords him hero status. In the final match of the season against Portsmouth, Horsfield scored the goal that secured the Baggies’ Great Escape as they became the first club in Premiership history to avoid relegation after being bottom at Christmas.
“Old-fashioned centre-forward, tough as nails, would run through a brick wall for the cause,” gushed one cliché-addled Baggies fan, while others remembered a player who was “honest”, “hardworking”, “inspirational”, “very likeable” and “strong as an ox”.
Horsfield’s famed strength would be tested to its limit in October 2008 when, while a free agent, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and advised that his playing career was over.
Perhaps the most remarkable of all Horsfield’s feats occurred just two months later, when he signed for Lincoln City and went straight into the team - grabbing an assist on his debut and finding the net soon afterwards. Horsfield can also count swine flu and deadly blood clots on the lung among the ailments he has fought and beaten.
After leaving Lincoln he became player-assistant manager, and later a coach, at Port Vale. He appeared to have lost none of his rambunctiousness, once having a row with manager Jim Gannon that resulted in both men being forced to leave the team bus at separate motorway service stations on their way to a match at Aldershot.
But once the buzz of playing had gone, Horsfield decided to jack in football and return to his first love. In 2012 he quit Vale to start a construction business. One Birmingham fan claims to “know a guy who now lays his carpets”.
That might not sound like the most Hollywood ending to the film, but it does bring us full circle and illustrate the reason Horsfield is so admired. It’s because throughout all that drama, he’s never changed a bit.
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