Soccer legend Joe Frickleton: 'Epitaph for a Soldier'

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Joe Frickleton (Gallo)
Joe Frickleton (Gallo)

He was compared so often as a player with former England international and hard-as-nails Manchester United midfielder, Nobby Stiles, that the pair of diminutive tough guys became almost synonymous in South Africa.

Yet Joe Frickleton, who died aged 85 this week at a Cape Town nursing home following the deterioration to his long-suffering ailments of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease, was something of an introvert, modest and relatively softly-spoken in his broad Scottish accent outside the soccer spectrum in which he featured prominently as both an accomplished team manager and a player.

The overriding image for most, however, conjure up the picture of an "Epitaph for a Soldier" as Frickleton fought tooth and nail on the pitch - no matter in what capacity.

He was brought to South Africa in 1964 from Scotland by Highlands Park after featuring for Clydebank at junior level and playing 117 times for East Stirlingshire after turning professional - but failing after a short spell with the more famed Glasgow Rangers to secure a long-term contract.

Frickleton was an instant success as a holding midfielder with Highlands, with "The Lions of the North" securing the PSL Championship in three successive seasons after his arrival and numerous other titles before his retirement as a player in 1974.

The star-studded Highlands team at the time was dominated by gifted ball players like Brazilians Jorge Santoro and the prolific-scoring Walter da Silva; Sottish wings Willie McIntosh and Bobby Hume and ice-cool captain Charlie Gough.

It was joked that Frickleton's role amid this array of talent was mainly to protect those with greater skill, despite his size, if matters became tough and out-of-hand.

And in his very first game for Highlands against Benoni United he was delegated with the role of marking a lithe, but dangerous and subtle Hugo Giovannoni out of the picture.

In no time Frickleton had Giovannoni writhing on the ground as a result of a crunching tackle. Then for good measure, he "accidentally" stepped all over the Benoni United player!

"I had to fulfil what was expected from me,'' he explained afterwards with a straight face.

After his retirement as a player, Frickleton enjoyed title success at Highlands as a coach, with emerging young players like Martin Cohen, Hennie Joubert and Julie Kaplan in his line-up - and then winning titles with Lusitano as well during a short period managing John de Canha's Portuguese club.

Frickleton returned to manage Highlands before the club sold its franchise to what was to become Jomo Cosmos in 1983 - then enjoying the limelight from the bench most prominently in the coaching department while with Kaizer Chiefs in 1984.

The Soweto glamour club won a record four titles, including the NPSL League Championship, in a single season while Frickleton was at the helm. But only months later, after Chiefs made an indifferent start to the 1985 season, the straight-talking Scot left Amakhosi after differences with the club management and unforgiving army of supporters.

He also retired from soccer management at the time and only made a brief comeback almost a decade later with Orlando Pirates, which was enacted with a bitter-sweet outcome.

Frickleton guided The Buccaneers to becoming the first South African club to reach the final of CAF's Champions League in 1995, but after a 2-2 draw with Asec Mimosa in the opening first leg of the final at home, differences with club president Irvin Khoza resulted in Joe leaving before the second away leg, which Pirates won 1-0.

Frickleton became something of a tennis nut in his later years, but despite his characteristic grit on the court it was too late to progress to any great heights.

But this did not prevent him calling me regularly, with the question: "how are you placed for a hit tomorrow - or is there anyone else who might be interested?" 

And before any trips I made to Cape Town, to where Frickleton had moved after selling the family house in Highlands North, which bordered on Balfour Park, Highlands' home ground, reminding me "not to forget your racquet".

Undoubtedly he has not now forgotten his racquet to heaven, where he will surely find a good game to boot.

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