By Simon Wright
Perhaps not the most prolific of strikers but David Longhurst gave it his all and still potentially had the best years of his football career ahead of him. He represented all of his football clubs with great dignity. The Northampton-born attacker was only 25 when he died on the pitch playing for York City on 8 September 1990.
Parallels can be drawn from the sudden collapse of Fabrice Muamba during the FA Cup quarter-final match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers in March 2012. Like Longhurst, Muamba was a young, hard-working footballer who wasn’t the most gifted but would be a vital cog of any team. In David’s case, that was for the numerous Football League clubs he represented.
In terms of strike rate for goals per game, Longhurst was far from the best. Just over 40 league goals in nearly 200 appearances, so around one goal every five matches. He had the ability and the desire to improve on his weaknesses on the football field though and it can’t be argued that he was taken far too young.
As Muamba would experience at Arsenal, Longhurst’s career began with a prestigious club – at least they were when Brian Clough was in charge in the 1980s at Nottingham Forest. On the youth team books at the City Ground, Longhurst didn’t make the grade though and never featured for the Forest first team. Being released from a football club at a young age can leave players downcast and depressed – not knowing where to go next. Players like long-time England goalkeeper David Seaman have suffered that fate as he did at Leeds United, but rebuilt their careers for lower standard sides before returning to the top grade, proven by his legendary stint at Arsenal.
For David Longhurst, this meant a move to Halifax Town at the age of 20. It might not sound glamorous but the fans at The Shay quickly became a fan of his striking capabilities. His best spell was at Halifax, finding the target 24 times in two seasons and it earned him a move to his hometown club Northampton Town in 1987. Northampton had just been promoted to the old Third Division but the goalscoring instincts at Halifax didn’t quite transfer with Longhurst to Northampton and seven strikes in the 1987-88 campaign were not enough for Cobblers manager Graham Carr. He sold Longhurst to Peterborough United and then he moved to York City in the spring of 1990.
Appearances were sparse for York but with two goals in the six league matches he did play for the club, Longhurst was starting to show some of the form seen in his days at Halifax. The third match of York’s 1990-91 campaign was a home game with Lincoln City. Two minutes before the interval, Longhurst suffered a heart attack just outside the Lincoln penalty area and collapsed. Players from both sides quickly signalled for assistance but it was too late. Despite the best efforts of the medical team at York, David was pronounced dead when he arrived at hospital. His death was the first in 69 years in a Football League match.
Over 20 years later, his father Vic revealed how he found out the news of his son’s death. Travelling down from Scotland, he was hoping to be at the ground to watch David play but his car broke down on the journey. He had the news broken to him after tuning in his car radio to hear the results of the match.
They said a player had gone down. We drove into a petrol station and while we were sitting there, I went to get the results of the match and the radio gave the information out. It was devastating.
The match was abandoned at half-time. A post-mortem examination revealed that Longhurst had a rare heart condition called cardiomyopathy – a myocardial disease that leads to sudden heart failure. The most devastating aspect is that this condition can be caught by an ultrasonic scan in its early stages. Whilst difficult to predict, the advances in medical science and technology plus the improvement in facilities around grounds across England mean that if this incident happened today, there would have been a better chance of David Longhurst still being with us.
The stunned York supporters suggested that a new stand due to be built at the Bootham Crescent ground should be named in David’s honour and this was agreed by both the club and his father. Events were organised to help fundraise the new stand including discos and sponsored walks. The David Longhurst stand was opened for the first time at the start of the 1991/92 season.
A bubbly personality and popular player with all of the clubs he represented, who knows what kind of career David Longhurst would have gone onto. His legacy will always remain with the stand at York’s ground but his name is often one of football’s forgotten fallen heroes.