KEITH Hicks has blown the final whistle on a 50-year career in football as retirement beckons for the ex-Oldham Athletic player.
And the former central defender from Shaw, who had been Rochdale AFC Community Sports Trust’s manager for the last 33 years, has been reflecting on a half century in football.
Hicks, 66, played in an era in which the riches were nowhere near what they are today – he appeared for Latics in the Second Division which is today’s Championship – yet never earned more than £160 a week.
But there is no envy from Hicks who admitted he had “done alright from the game”.
He can look back on marking some of the greats of the game – Kevin Keegan, Geoff Hurst and Denis Law – and when pushed up front in one game against Fulham found himself trying to outwit Bobby Moore, England’s World Cup winning captain.
And Hicks described his worst moment in football was missing out on the chance to play against George Best.
“I had been out injured and was on the bench for our game at Craven Cottage and came so close. Missing the chance to play against him was a low in my career,” he said.
Hicks, who was raised on Alt Estate, admitted he was destined to play for Latics as he attended his first match with dad John aged eight.
He played for Middleton Juniors Under-15s, then a feeder club for Latics, and remembers manager Jack Rowley, the Manchester United legend, watching his play on a Saturday morning.
Hicks said: “When I left school, two or three clubs were interest in signing me, but my old man, who was my agent, wanted me to go to Latics who he had been watching since the George Hardwick days in the 1950s.
“Former player Fred Ogden, who was a coach, finalised the signing. There were no signing-on fees and it was done over a bottle of Guinness.”
Hicks made his debut two years later in 1972 as a 17-year-old £8 a week apprentice in the goalless draw at Plymouth Argyle.
He said: “There was only one substitute in those days. It tended to be a defender if you were playing away and a forward at home.
“There were no kit man and such likes at the time, and I had done all sorts of jobs at Plymouth when at 2.30pm centre half Bill Cranston came back into the dressing room and said he couldn’t play so that is how I made my debut.
“I also remember playing against Frank Worthington, who went on to become an England international, when I was as apprentice.
“I had swept the Chaddy End steps with the other apprentices and was told to go home as I was playing that night against Huddersfield Town.”
Hicks also recalled his first professional contract when he was offered £17 a week and a further £10 appearance money.
He said: “I was unhappy and my dad went back and negotiated £22 with £5 appearance money as he figured I would not play much so would be better off.
“Centre half Dick Mulvaney, however, got injured in the first pre-season friendly, the first team against the reserves. I got into the side and played all 46 league games that season so ended up worse off.”
Hicks, who joined Latics when they were near the bottom of the Fourth Division, helped them win two promotions and become an established second tier side under the mercurial Jimmy Frizzell.
He made 269 appearances for Latics scoring 12 goals before in 1972 joining Hereford United where he spent five years.
Hicks admitted he hated Hereford’s earlier giantkilling when, as a non-league club, they knocked First Division Newcastle United out of the FA Cup.
“All you would hear about when Hereford was mentioned was that game,” he continued.
Hicks almost helped Hereford claim another FA Cup scalp when they drew Arsenal 1-1 at home in the third round and his found himself up against Paul Mariner, Tony Woodcock and Charlie Nichlas.
He said: “Mike Carter missed a great chance for us in the last minute as we drew 1-1.
“We lost the replay 7-2 but I was thinking it could have been us. At least I got to play at Highbury.”
Hicks’ professional playing career was ended by a pelvic injury sustained during his second season at Rochdale. He is convinced with today’s medical advances, he would never have had to call it a day.
The lure of playing never waned and Hicks played non-league for Hyde, Mossley where he was player-manager, Salford, Radcliffe, Chadderton and Bacup Borough where he played his final game aged 40.
“Mossley was the only club I managed, but I didn’t have the nous to be a manager. I wanted to be one of the boys having a drink after the game and I soon found out it was not my forte,” he explained.
Hicks’ career was ending at a time when football clubs were launching the Professional Footballers’ Association backed community programmes to help battle hooliganism which was still then a scourge of the game.
There were an initial six clubs in 1986 and, following their success, Rochdale were one of a further six clubs to launch their programmes the following year.
Hicks was appointed manager and in 33 years has helped it become so huge in the town that in 2007 the club was given the freedom of the borough in recognition for their work in the community.
“We work with everyone from Under-5s to senior citizens and with special needs and every conceivable group,” he said.
But illness within his family made Hicks decide it was the right time to retire so he can spend more time with them while golf, gardening and decorating feature on his to-do list.
The love of football has not diminished and, when fans return to football, Hicks intends to watch Latics one week and Dale the next.
Hicks concluded: “We didn’t receive the best wages but loved playing football.
“Ask any young kid on Clayton Playing Fields and they would give their right arm to play professionally.
“I was lucky to achieve that dream and carry on in the game afterwards. I have had a good run and done alright out of the game. And I would do it all over again given the chance.”