Few players from the lower reaches of English football ever make it into the national consciousness, let alone stay there for decades. Yet Ronnie Radford, who never played at any level higher than the old Fourth Division, did just that. Radford, who has died aged 79, earned his enduring fame on a muddy pitch at non-league Hereford United in February 1972 during a televised third round FA Cup replay match against First Division Newcastle.
The tie seemed to be all over when the visitors went 1-0 up with 10 minutes to play. But shortly afterwards Radford won a sturdy tackle just inside the opposition half, played a long-range one-two with the winger Brian Owen and then unleashed a wondrous shot from 30 yards that rocketed into the top corner of the Newcastle goal. As Radford arced across the sodden surface with arms aloft, hundreds of youthful Hereford pitch invaders engulfed him in a scene of such delirious ecstasy that it has become as much a part of the folklore of the FA Cup as the white horse at Wembley or long-haired Charlie George lying on his back after scoring the winner in the 1971 final.
Radford’s glorious strike allowed Hereford to essay one of the greatest ever cup giant-killing feats with a 2-1 win that was sealed by a goal from Ricky George in extra time. Highlights of the drama were relayed to millions on Match of the Day, with suitably excitable commentary from a young John Motson. Radford’s goal has since been replayed hundreds of thousands of times by misty-eyed admirers.
The player himself, a journeyman who spent most of his career in part-time non-league football while working as a joiner, was among those playback enthusiasts who could relive the moment endlessly without becoming bored. But he was typically modest about what has often been described as the best ever goal in the FA Cup. “At the time I didn’t even think about the distance to the goal,” he recalled. “I just thought: ‘I’ve got to hit this.’ It could have gone in the car park, but it didn’t.”
Radford was born in South Elmsall, a small coal mining town in Yorkshire. He played at school as a midfielder, a position he occupied for most of his career, although he also appeared at full back. Signed up by First Division Sheffield Wednesday in 1961 as a teenager, he was moved on in the same year to Second Division Leeds, where he trained under their player-manager Don Revie.
Having failed to make the first team either at Leeds or Wednesday, in 1962 he was signed up by non-league Cheltenham, where he had a happy time for the next three years on a weekly wage of £12 that was supplemented by joinery work. There was a short interlude with Rugby Town in 1965, but he soon returned to Cheltenham, spending another three seasons there and clocking up 318 appearances until Fourth Division Newport County signed him for £1,500, giving him his first experience of higher-level football.
“It was quicker in the Football League, but my fitness levels improved with full-time training and it was a good experience,” he said later. However, Radford was still living in Cheltenham with his wife Annie, found the travelling to Wales onerous, and also missed his work as a joiner, which he regarded as his main activity.
After two seasons at Newport, during which he appeared 68 times, he plumped in 1961 for a transfer back to part-time Hereford, allowing him to be nearer home and to pick up with his joinery again. “I left Newport because of the travelling really, and I was earning less in full-time football than I was playing part-time and working,” he said.
Although he could never have imagined it, the switch to Hereford also quickly thrust Radford into the spotlight. He was barely into his sojourn there when the club went on a terrific FA Cup run, progressing all the way from the qualifying rounds to within theoretical breathing distance of the final at Wembley. Although the momentous win against Newcastle came as a result of a fine team performance, inevitably Radford’s extraordinary goal – and the heartwarming scenes that followed it – stole the limelight.
At the time he had never seen himself on the small screen. “After the match, me and Annie stopped off for fish and chips and ate it in front of Match of the Day,” he said. “We thought it was going to be two minutes of highlights but they made it into the main game. I’d never watched myself play football, I didn’t even know what it looked like when I ran. It was such a strange experience.”
Although he was flattered to be the centre of attention, Radford was also discomfited by being the focus of so much media activity. “I was only one part of it, one kick. There were 14 other guys who shared all those experiences with the people of Hereford. I just felt so uncomfortable about being singled out.”
After the win against Newcastle, Hereford lost in the fourth round of the cup to West Ham, but were subsequently promoted to the football league. Radford stayed at the club until 1974, after which he had a short spell as player-manager at Worcester City and then played for Bath City, where an achilles tendon injury ended his career at the age of 33.
A finish to serious football prompted a return to his native Yorkshire, where he settled in Wakefield with Annie and their two children, Gary and David. Taking up joinery full-tme, he remained there for the rest of his life.
Each year, as a reminder of his enduring place in public folk memory, Radford was invited to the FA Cup final to present an award to the team that had pulled off the most inspiring giant-killing act in that year’s competition.
He is survived by Annie and their sons.