Albert Quixall was once hailed, glibly but not altogether inaccurately, as the golden boy of English football. That was in the mid-1950s when the multi-talented young inside-forward was shining brightly for Sheffield Wednesday and taking the first steps in what was expected to be a long and lustrous England career.
When he moved to Manchester United in a record-breaking £45,000 deal in 1958, the first transfer supervised by Matt Busby in the wake of the Munich air tragedy, it appeared to be a natural progression towards full-fledged stardom.
However, though by no means a flop at Old Trafford, he failed to realise his full, glittering potential, pocketing an FA Cup winner’s medal in 1963 but then missing out on the multiple glories compiled by the Red Devils over the ensuing half a decade.
Quixall, who has died aged 87, made his initial impact in the late 1940s, cutting a dash as an England schoolboy international, and soon he was targeted by a bevy of leading league clubs. Unsurprisingly he chose his hometown heroes, Wednesday, for whom he had shouted since early boyhood from the Hillsborough terraces, and so precocious were his gifts as a midfield schemer that he was called up for First Division duty as a 17-year-old in February 1951, netting on his debut in a 2-2 draw with Chelsea.
Quixall barely figured again that term as the uninspired Owls nosedived to relegation, but he emerged as a central figure as they bounced back to the top flight at the first attempt as Second Division champions in 1951/52. His command of a football was total and his subtle, beautifully weighted passes were capitalised on avidly by the free-scoring Derek Dooley and Jackie Sewell, but there was more to his public appeal than his play-making gifts.
Though the era of media overkill was far in the future, Quixall was, to some modest degree, the David Beckham of his day. He was blond, blessed with boyish good looks and wore the shortest shorts ever seen on a football field to that date. The newspapers were enraptured by this combination of sporting wizardry and personal charisma, and although Wednesday struggled to hold their own among the elite, Quixall’s star was firmly in the ascendancy.
Duly, in the autumn of 1953 he was called to his country’s colours, still only 20, the hottest young property in the game, seemingly not a cloud on his horizon. For all his gifts, however, he failed to become established at international level and although it seemed barely conceivable at the time, his fifth cap, gained in 1955 at the age of 21, was also his last.
Back on the club front, Wednesday were demoted again in 1954/55, but Quixall was hugely instrumental in the lifting of another Second Division crown a season later, playing in a more advanced role and adding regular scoring to his creative duties.
The Owls justified their reputation as a yo-yo club by suffering yet another relegation in 1957/58 and, with Manchester United seeking to rebuild after Munich, the time seemed ripe for the 25-year-old to move on.
That said, Quixall was not eager to leave Hillsborough, which he described as his spiritual footballing home, but several of the United men who had perished were his close friends and he spoke of the need to help in Busby’s renaissance in their memory. As he recalled in later years, money hadn’t come into it because at the time players were governed by an iniquitous maximum wage rule which, in financial terms, made it irrelevant who employed them.
There was no denying, though, that Quixall appeared well suited to the glamorous Manchester club, but he was rather nervous and took several months to settle. Certainly he felt pressure from the enormous fee Busby had paid for his services, and he was mortified when the Red Devils went seven games without victory following his arrival.
By late autumn, however, he began to assert his quality and was a key performer as an inexperienced United side mounted an unlikely bid for the First Division title. Eventually they finished as runners-up to Wolves, a remarkable achievement for a side shorn of so many stars by the recent disaster, and Quixall was praised widely for his clever generalship of a prolific forward line which also included Bobby Charlton as his fellow inside-forward, Dennis Viollet in the centre, and Warren Bradley and Albert Scanlon on the flanks.
Thereafter the Yorkshireman consolidated his place in a side which showed tentative signs of blossoming in the early 1960s following the arrival of new players, notably Denis Law, but he couldn’t attain the consistency he had displayed at Sheffield. A sensitive character, sometimes he found it difficult to meld with some of his more robustly inclined colleagues at a period of difficult transition for the team.
A disappointing 1962-63 campaign, during which United had flirted with demotion, was saved by their triumph over favourites Leicester City in the FA Cup Final, and Quixall played an admirable part in one of the more entertaining of Wembley showpieces.
But a new wave of talented youngsters was emerging, spearheaded by George Best, and he lost his place, never to regain it, following a hammering at Burnley on Boxing Day 1963.
The following September he switched to Oldham Athletic, but didn’t thrive and served brief spells with Stockport County and non-League Altrincham before retiring to run a scrap metal company in Moss Side, Manchester.
In retrospect, Quixall reckoned that the plethora of games he played in his teens and early twenties – sometimes four per week, including appearances for the army during national service – might have caused a burn-out effect, thus causing his effectiveness to deteriorate prematurely.
For all that, the amiable and self-effacing Quixall, who retired contentedly in Manchester with his ballet dancer wife, insisted that he had no regrets.
Albert Quixall, footballer, born 9 August 1933, died 12 November 2020