David Longhurst 1965-1990
There are times as a football supporter when you think you have seen it all. But then something wholly unexpected happens that makes you realise that isn't true. It hardly seems possible for those of us who were there, but today marks the 25th anniversary of the passing of York City winger David Longhurst.
Hailing from the steelworking town of Corby, it would not be unfair to say Longhurst was the classic journeyman footballer. Picked up at the age of 18 by Brian Clough, he had failed to fulfil his early promise at Forest and had been released two years later. As many First Division casualties did at that time, Longhurst began a lower-division odyssey around some of the usual suspects - Halifax, Northampton and Peterborough - before arriving at York City in January 1990. The highlight of his career had been almost helping Northampton into the Second Division in 1988 but things had not gone so well since. Never a prolific goalscorer, he had a career average of 8 goals a season, which for a striker is none too impressive. However, he had a reputation as a provider and was seeking to make his name anew with his new club. A knee ligament injury at Rochdale in only his fourth game had kept him out since February and he was keen to show his fitness.
The game at York City on 8 September 1990 was the third League match of the new season, that wonderful time in the football calendar when supporters of every club are still optimistic that this could finally be their season. New players have arrived and are adjusting to their new surroundings, and some clubs even have new managers. City were one of those, with Leeds and England legend Allan Clarke succeeding Colin Murphy during the summer. City had started brightly with a stylish 2-2 draw at Turf Moor followed by a narrow win over Halifax; in contrast York had started poorly with four League and Cup defeats and had failed to score a single goal. Lincoln had both eyes firmly on three points, and a good number of fans had made the trip to Bootham Crescent on a warm late summer day.
The match itself was unremarkable with neither side able to create an advantage. Chances were few and far between, but one of those had fallen to Longhurst, who shot wide of the near post when well placed. The reaction from the Imps fans was that predictable mix of delight, derision and relief that follows a bad miss by an opponent: that reaction was to take on some poignancy a few minutes later. He was having a good game and was causing us problems; he looked a very useful player.
A couple of minutes before half time, York brought the ball out of defence and Longhurst began a run down the left, leaving Paul Casey in his wake. Then he just went down near the half way line. As simple as that. Widespread reports at the time of a collision with a Lincoln player are inaccurate. Far from being amusing, it was immediately obvious that something was very wrong. The players in the vicinity ran straight across to him and the physios from both teams were on the pitch within seconds. A friend of mine who was sitting in the main stand told me that Longhurst's legs were visibly twitching, a sure sign of a serious cardiac incident. York club doctor Angus MacLeod joined the group around the player and urgent signs were made to the dressing rooms. Eventually he was carried off on a stretcher as an ambulance arrived behind the main stand. I will always remember John Schofield carrying the physio's bag off the pitch; he cut a dejected figure; how much he knew at that stage, only he knows, but the sight of a player receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage cannot have been a good one.
The game restarted but it was obvious that the players did not want to play. The referee blew the half-time whistle a few seconds early and the players walked slowly off the field. The atmosphere was subdued; no one knew what had happened, but at the same time everyone knew. A policewoman walked past us and said the game was being abandoned; shortly afterwards, the formal announcement was made, the voice of the matchday announcer shaking with emotion. As we left the ground, the police pleaded with us for no trouble; there was no way there was going to be any. During the drive back to Lincoln, it was announced on Sport On 2 that tragedy had struck at York with the death of a player.
The immediate aftermath was one of shock as lack of information blended with misinformation in equal measure. Longhurst's parents Vic and Pat had heard of their son's death through that radio announcement; has there ever been a worse way to learn of such news? The Times even mis-reported that they had driven to Lincoln immediately on hearing the news. A heart attack was presumed to be the cause but a post mortem and coroner's inquest were ordered. The post mortem and other subsequent tests revealed the cause of death to have been heart failure, rather than a heart attack, brought on by a condition called cardiomyopathy. In Longhurst's case, this had involved a significant enlargement of the heart, causing internal pressure. Sadly, he had been dead by the time he hit the pitch.
York City postponed their next game against Hartlepool and in due course announced that the roof they were planning to build over the Shipton Street End would be named The David Longhurst Stand, which it is to this day. Lincoln held a minute's silence prior to their home game against Cardiff the following Saturday. An eventual legacy was the mandatory testing of young players for cardiac conditions at the earliest stages of their careers, although the losses of Daniel Yorath and Marc-Vivien Foe, and the astonishing story of Fabrice Muamba in recent years demonstrate that the risk cannot be eradicated entirely. Whether or not it could have been detected in Longhurst's case is debatable, but his then-team mate Russ Wilcox stated this week that he was especially poor at long-distance running and appeared lazy; an early sign that something was wrong, perhaps?
Besides being a useful footballer, Longhurst was apparently a very nice guy and a bit of a character. Never on the slim side of the scale, he was known for liking the better things in life, and my favourite story also comes from Russ Wilcox. York had a system of weighing their players on a Friday and again on a Monday morning; on one occasion, Longhurst managed to put on ten pounds over the course of one weekend, the explanation being a few beers and a curry.
We will never know what he might have achieved as a footballer, or in life in general. The loss of David Longhurst was no more devastating than the loss of any young person of course, but he was a member of our footballing family and deserves to be remembered. In these days of brainless tatoo'd multi-millionaire monosyllabics, it is easy to forget that the likes of David Longhurst are just as important to the game as they are.
I'll leave the last word to City chairman John Reames, who wrote in his programme notes for the Cardiff match:
"The sudden death on the pitch of David Longhurst should remind us all that football is just a game."
David John Longhurst, 15 January 1965 - 8 September 1990.