Jimmy Hagan, a 15-year-old when he joined Derby County in 1933, developed into a truly outstanding inside forward, but the big disappointment for the Rams was that he spent his best years playing for Sheffield United. Strong-minded – to a fault, some thought – Hagan was only 20 when he quarrelled with the Derby manager and left...
Jimmy Hagan, born in 1918, would be better known had his best years not coincided with the Second World War and had he not been quite so obdurate. He played in 16 wartime internationals – classified as unofficial and so barely recorded – giving performances that stood comparison with teammates Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney.
But while he glittered brilliantly on the outside as a two-footed inside-forward, his propensity for awkwardness meant officialdom were leery of him. He played in only one full international for England, a pitiful return for one so talented.
He started with Derby County in 1933 as a 15-year-old, an England schoolboy international from County Durham. Two years later he turned full-time pro and made 31 appearances for the Rams before falling out with manager George Jobey. With a sense of his own worth, his argument with the club concerned the price Sheffield United should pay for him.
On a weekly wage of seven pounds, Hagan made his debut for Sheffield United in 1938 and for the next 20 years built a cult following at Bramall Lane. ‘Jimmy Hagan was the very heart of Sheffield United,’ his biographer, Roger Barnard, wrote, ‘the conductor, the orchestra leader and virtuoso soloist combined.’
And yet straight after the war Hagan almost walked away from a game that paid him so little for the embellishment he gave it. He joined a local architects to train as a surveyor and for a few years gave the club only part-time service. In the end, though, he missed the game too much to be put off by its frugal rewards.
‘What made Jimmy Hagan so outstanding was that he had a brain, for a start. And he could be in a small room with three other people,’ Colin Collindridge, a Sheffield United teammate, said, ‘and, with the ball at his feet, he’d dribble round the lot of them.’
Collindridge said there was a drawback to playing alongside him: ‘Opponents wouldn’t be able to get the ball off him and I’d stand watching him in amazement and then wouldn’t be ready when he passed the ball to me.’
But Collindridge and Hagan did perfect one double act: ‘After the war Jimmy and I had a routine going that appealed to Jimmy because it meant using his brain.
‘A German bomb had landed on the Bramall Lane pitch and where the crater had been filled in the surface was always a bit soft. I’d manoeuvre my fullback so he was standing on this bit of ground and when he was properly bogged down Jimmy would slip the ball past him for me to run on to.’
This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback.