BY Vince Cooper
Keith Weller is remembered by many as ‘the footballer who wore tights’ . But beneath the undergarments there was a top-class footballer who many felt was worth many more than the four England caps he won.
Born in Islington North London in 1946, Weller played his early football with Ashington Boys Club and made representative appearances for Islington, Hackney and Middlesex schoolboys. Having grown up as an Arsenal fan he spent the 1961-62 season with the Highbury team. But the Gunners let him slip through their fingers and he instead joined rivals Tottenham Hotspur in December 1962.
Keith Weller on one of his rare Spurs starts tries to close down Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton
He signed with Spurs as an amateur but was offered, and accepted, professional terms in 1964. Weller started out as a striker but was soon moved out to the wing as he made his way through the club’s Metropolitan League and reserve teams. He spent three years at White Hart Lane but managed just 20 appearances for the club, with a solitary goal against Newcastle United.
Although highly-rated by Spurs manager Bill Nicholson he could never really establish himself as anything other than a replacement for the big stars as the North Londoners competed at the very top and fielded a line-up packed with internationals with Welsh star Cliff Jones in front of him in the pecking order.
Millwall boss Benny Fenton saw the potential of the youngster and paid £17,000 to take him to The Den where he flourished. Nicholson was apparently reluctant to sanction the move but the player was determined to leave in order to get regular playing time.
Fenton brought both Weller and Derek Possee from Spurs and they had a major impact as the second Division team employed an attractive, attacking style and pushed for a place in the top flight. The Millwall boss quickly made him skipper and the former winger added to his game with his skills enabling him to play as both a midfield player and a striker whilst retaining the blistering pace that was integral to his game.
He earned his first international recognition when chosen to represent Young England against the full national side in the annual match played on the eve of the FA Cup final. The match was a tedious goalless draw with Weller one of the few shining lights. In the Daily Mirror, Harry Miller wrote; ‘The Millwall captain with his strong running and powerful shooting, at least gave 18,140 bored fans something to cheer’.
Producing magic at The Den
While they had a number of skilful players the second tier then, as now, was a tough division to escape from and when Millwall could finish only 10th in 1969-70 it became clear that Weller belonged in the top flight and deserved a chance there. It was FA Cup winners Chelsea who won the race for his signature, forking out £100,000 to take him to Stamford Bridge.
Weller scores for Chelsea against Newcastle
Playing almost exclusively on the right wing, Weller was top scorer with 14 goals in Chelsea’s 1970-71 season – one belter against Newcastle United in particular stands out, and he played a key role in the club’s triumph in the European Cup-Winners Cup, appearing in all but one game as the Blues overcame Real Madrid after a replay in Athens.
The European Cup Winners Cup final
But he never really seemed to fit-in with the ‘Chelsea set’ and the addition of Chris Garland and Steve Kember along with an injury and illness-hit start to the 1971-72 season saw Dave Sexton decide he was surplus to requirements. In September 1971 and after just over a year in West London, there was another £100,000 move, and this time the Londoner finally left the capital, for the less-rarified setting of newly-promoted Leicester City’s Filbert Street.
New manager Jimmy Bloomfield was a great believer in the free-flowing style of football that suited Weller and he made the Foxes one of the better sides to watch off the period. He also made Weller a key component of the team after being more of a supporting-act at Chelsea alongside the likes of Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson and Charlie Cooke. His first season at Filbert Street saw him replace David Nish as captain and capture the club’s Player of the Year award.
Bloomfield restored Weller to a more effective central role although he retained the versatility to switch outside when required. He allied that excellent pace to fine ball skills and the ability to shoot from distance and was clearly one of the outstanding English players of the period.
He also showed an occasional temperamental side, perhaps best-evidenced when he refused to return to the pitch, effectively ‘going on strike’ at half-time of a match against Ipswich Town in 1974. Weller had recently had a transfer request turned down, had been falling out with teammates and was being barracked by sections of the crowd. After leaving the pitch at the interval he decided he’d had enough and went for an ‘early bath’.
Weller received a club fine for his actions and the transfer request was granted, although he would eventually remain with City for five more years,
Jon Sammels, Weller and Alan Birchenall
In total Weller spent eight years at Filbert Street and he lined up alongside a number of similar styled players including Frank Worthington, Len Glover, Jon Sammels, Alan Birchenall and others in making Leicester a team of entertainers during that period, although they rarely looked like claiming any silverware.
Even among all of those talented footballers Weller often stood out. Surprisingly he made just those four starts for his country. Clearly not the type to impress Sir Alf Ramsey (although he did captain an FA squad that toured New Zealand during Ramsey’s reign and scored 11 times in as many games), it took the arrival as temporary manager of Joe Mercer for a first international cap to come his way.
Weller celebrates scoring against Northern Ireland
It was a Home International match against Wales at Ninian Park and Weller celebrated his arrival by laying on a goal for Stan Bowles in a 2-0 win. He played again against Northern Ireland four days later and got England’s goal, with his head, in a 1-1 draw.
On his England debut
Mercer, who was in temporary charge while Don Revie fulfilled his duties with Leeds United, also picked Weller for the loss to Scotland and the draw against Argentina but those four matches – all in the space of 11 days – are the sum, and scant, total of his national team appearances.
Weller continued performing at the highest level for Leicester throughout the 1970s, including a hat-trick against Liverpool in 1972 and a wonderful solo goal against Luton Town in ‘74. His blistering pace, great ball control and the confidence to take on any opponent made him the stand out at Filbert Street. But the club would finish no higher than 7th during his time there, whilst a 1974 semi-final replay defeat by eventual winners Liverpool was their best FA Cup showing.
Man in tights
But it was another Cup tie, towards the end of his time at Filbert Street, that many remember Keith for. On 6 January 1979 freezing conditions gripped the country and only 4 of that day’s scheduled FA Cup 3rd round matches went ahead. One of those was City’s tie against Norwich City at Filbert Street.
As the teams came onto the pitch it quickly became clear that Weller was wearing white tights to protect him from the cold. He ignored the many comments from away fans and produced a fine performance, scoring what proved to be his final goal for the club as his team won 3-0.
Knee problems blighted Weller’s later years at Filbert Street and after Bloomfield left, replacement Frank McLintock took over and he failed to save the club from relegation.
New manager Jock Wallace used Weller’s nous in a young, inexperienced side in the 1978-79 season before allowing him to leave, initially on loan, for New England Tea Men of the National American Soccer League at the end of the season. He left City having made just under 300 appearance for the club, scoring those 43 goals.
Time with the Tea Men
He enjoyed two productive seasons with the Tea Men before moving on to Fort Lauderdale Strikers and, for a brief spell, Tulsa Rougnecks. He then moved into coaching, staying in the US and working with Fort Lauderdale Sun, Houston Dynamo, Dallas Sidekicks, San Diego Sockers, Tacoma Stars and Sacramento Knights.
After five years in NASL spell there was almost an English comeback, but it was scuppered for the sake of £100.
in October 1983, Weller was holidaying with friend and Cardiff City player Roger Gibbins and training with the club during the American close-season. The Welsh side were in the midst of an injury crisis and they had a number of players cup-tied for a Milk Cup second-leg tie at Norwich City.
Bluebirds manager Len Ashurst tried to register Weller for the match but because Weller had drawn his Provident Fund ‘retirement’ cheque for £100 on leaving English football he was barred from playing. ‘It was frustrating when you are prevented from playing because of stupid bureaucracy over the Football League Pension scheme”, said Weller. “All for the sake of £100.
”Cardiff had been very good to me and let me train with them and I wanted to be able to help them out when they were in trouble”.
Skipper of the New England Tea Men
After retiring, Weller settled in Seattle working at various jobs including running a coffee shop. In the late 90s he was diagnosed with a rare form of bowel cancer. In 2002 Leicester City fans raised £40,000 to help pay for therapy but he sadly passed away in November 2004. Former teammate Alan Birchenall also raised £27,500 to pay for research into the disease.
The 1970s seems littered with players whose flair perhaps cost them more honours, both individually and as a team member. Keith Weller allied the flair to a hard-working approach and a willingness to give his all in every game. Yet it still feels as though his career should have had more reward than it received.