TODAY, heroes tend to come from the world of Marvel Comics, sport, show business or music. They are idolised worldwide for their lifestyle, fame and wealth.

But my boyhood hero was a working-class footballer who played for Bradford Park Avenue (and later Halifax Town), and cricket in the Bradford League the 1950s. His name was Les Horsman.

Born in Burley-in-Wharfedale in 1920, Les Horsman was a friend of my dad’s. He played football for Burley Trojans and Guiseley before signing for Bradford Park Avenue. During the Second World War he joined the Army and, based near London, guested for Arsenal. Football League and FA Cup ties were suspended, but friendly matches were played. Arsenal were in the Football League South, Les turned out for them five times and scored three goals in 1944. His team mates included internationals such as Ted Drake, Wally Barnes, Cliff Bastin, George Swindon, Bernard Joy and Stan Mortensen.

From 1944-1945 Les played for Avenue in the League North with Len Shackleton and Billy Elliott, future internationals. He scored in his debut in the 1-0 victory over Bradford City on January 22, 1944.

When the war ended he resumed his professional career with Avenue, then in the old Second Division. He was involved in some thrilling FA Cup ties. In the third round in the 1948-9 season Avenue pulled off a giant-killing victory at St James’s Park by beating Newcastle United 2-0. Downie and McIlvenny, the goal scorers, stood out in attack, but according to the Empire News, the defence depended largely on the power of centre half, Les Horsman: “He never gave Jackie Milburn (England international) the slightest opportunity.” The reward was a fourth round away trip to Manchester United in January, 1949.

The match was played at Maine Road because Old Trafford was bombed in the war, and still out of action. In front of a crowd of 82,771 (the highest number ever to watch Avenue), Gerry Henry put Bradford ahead, but United equalised through Charlie Mitten in the second half. Kenneth Wolstenholme wrote: “Les Horsman stood out as the star of this grim and thrilling struggle. What a game he played! He put the screws on Rowley (another England international) right from the start, and United failed to produce a match winner.” The Yorkshire Observer described Horsman’s performance as “an inspired exhibition, getting through more work than anyone else in the game.”

Avenue’s manager, Emery, hardly spoke to players except on the day of the game. A great deal of training involved running up and down, and rarely did they kick a ball, because it was believed it would increase their hunger on match day. Tactics, if they existed, were basic. Matt Busby, Manchester United manager, had more advanced ideas. Before the replay, the Bradford team stayed at their ‘lucky’ hotel in Ilkley. It was an all-ticket encounter at Park Avenue, ending in another 1-1 draw. United’s Henry Cockcroft was man of the match. Mitten scored first for United, but two minutes later Arthur Farrell equalised from a penalty. United put on loads of pressure in the second half, but the Avenue defence was strong with Horsman bending “two strong shoulders to the wheel.” The game went into extra time, but Harry McIlvenny was stretchered off with a broken leg after the beginning of extra time, and this was to ruin a promising career.

Manchester United refused to discard the style and polished efficiency which had carried them to the top of the post-war soccer world. United’s goal came from Mitten after good work from full back Carey. The indications were that Avenue would be trounced, but two minutes later, Chilton handled in the box and Farrell “rammed home” the penalty. Avenue were back in the game, and their defence was too strong for the United attack, with goalkeeper ‘Chick’ Farr, and centre half Horsman outstanding. The 10 men Bradford battled on through extra time to secure the draw.

The second replay was at Maine Road in front of 70,000. Ainsley replaced McIlvenny. This time United outplayed Avenue, and after Ronnie Burke put United ahead on 26 minutes, Avenue struggled. It was one-way traffic in the second half. Farr was the hero, he kept the score down. Elliott went off injured before the end. United had the punch, skill and finish, to win 5-0. It turned out to be a game too far for Bradford. ‘Chick’ Farr got loud applause from United fans as he left the pitch.

The four cup ties against Newcastle and Manchester United were watched by 229,493 spectators and brought in much-needed revenue. Les Horsman played every game for Avenue in the 1948-9 season. The following season they were relegated to join Bradford City in Third Division North.

For most of the 1950s Bradford football was in the doldrums. In 1952 my dad took me to watch Les play for Bradford Park Avenue. Les met us outside the changing-rooms and gave us two complimentary tickets, then took us to meet the players. My eyes filled up, not from excitement, but from the mix of liniment and cigarette smoke. Bill Deplidge sat me on the massage table, ruffled my hair and passed around my autograph book for players to sign. As we took our seats in the main stand, the scene was cold and grey. Clothing was not colourful. There may have been the odd black, amber and red scarf, and a football rattle, but very little else among the tightly packed, predominantly male spectators, many in flat caps. Little lads were often lifted over the turnstiles, and admitted free. Smog from the mill chimneys and nearby houses, along with the cigarette and pipe smoke, increased the greyness. I remember being impressed by the architecture of the Avenue ground.

l Dave’s next article will explore the next stage of Les Horsman’s career.