The guy who, 45 years after making the last of his 541 appearances, was still part of the fixtures and fittings at Sheffield United The down-to-earth bloke with no edge or ego but always time to talk to anyone about his beloved Blades.
When the club he not only served for 14 years on the pitch announced Badger’s passing on Thursday, aged 75, the sense of loss among even those who never saw him play was palpable. “One of our greatest sons” was how United’s official obituary described Badger. They could easily have added “finest ambassadors” - not that the former full-back, a friend, mentor and source of advice to numerous players past and present, was the type of person to go courting grand titles.
“Len was a diamond,” said Tony Currie, who became close pals with Badger and Ted Hemsley after joining United. “He was more than just a teammate. He was like a brother to me. Len was the first person I really met when I came up here to join United and I’ll miss him terribly.”
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Badger was a legendary figure at Bramall Lane. A proper legend. Not one of those we glibly talk about today. Born in Darnell, where he once told this newspaper how he used to organise mini-Steel City derbies with his mates in the schoolyard, Badger represented both Sheffield Boys and England Schoolboys before signing his first professional contract with United in 1962.
After first pulling on a first team jersey during a friendly in the States, he made his senior debut proper 11 months later during a 2-0 win over Leyton Orient. Manager John Harris, noting the youngster’s quality, passion and leadership skills, handed him the captain’s armband in 1966. One can only imagine what a proud moment that must have been for Badger and his family.
“Len was a special guy,” Hemsley said. “He was a special player and a special guy. Again, Len was the first person I met when I came here and things just went from there. Whatever I say about him, I’ll wish I’d said something else because I’ve got so many wonderful memories with him. I loved playing football with Len and I loved his company off the pitch.”
“Whenever I watched Len, Ted and Tony in each others’ company, I could see how much they all thought of each other,” Currie’s wife Liz continued, providing an insight into the relationship between the Three Amigos as they called themselves. “They’d be rabbiting on about something and then just start giggling. It was lovely to watch and it spoke more than words.”
Badger was a source of encouragement, advice and inspiration for a number of ex-United managers too. Making it clear he had Danny Wilson’s back amid the initial furore provoked by his appointment after both playing for and managing Sheffield Wednesday, Badger was also one of Chris Wilder’s biggest cheerleaders, telling anyone who would listen before each of his twp promotions, how proud he was to see a fellow fan prospering at the helm.
“Len was a down to earth, working class Sheffield lad with no airs or graces about him whatsoever,” Wilder, who parted company with United in March, said. “He never changed and, for me, he was the best example of what makes me so proud of this city - that it produces people like Len who no matter what they do never get above themselves. He personified everything that makes this city so great.”
“I obviously knew everything about Len before I took over, because anyone who has anything to do with Sheffield United could say the same,” Wilder continued. “But I really got to know him when I took over and he was one of the first people I sought out, because his love for the club just shone through. He was always positive and looked on the bright side.
“What a player he was as well. When I was coming through, being a full back as well, the amount of times I had ‘You’ll never be as good as Badge’ chucked out me was untrue. I wasn’t. But then you’d have to be some player to get to being anywhere near as good as he was.
“Len, Ted and TC - for me, people like that are the heartbeat of the football club. I know how they and his family will be feeling and my heart goes out to them all.”
A member of United’s great 1971 promotion winning squad, alongside his close friends Currie and Hemsley, Badger’s fame stretched far beyond the borders of South Yorkshire and north Derbyshire, where he spent a brief spell with Chesterfield at the end of his career. A story involving my own father, who is also no longer with us, illustrates this best. Sat in the bar of the Copthorne Hotel following a Saturday afternoon game, I watched his face light up when he saw Badger walk in. “Brilliant, he was brilliant,” dad remarked as the great man breezed by. It wasn’t just United fans bemused by the fact he was never awarded an England cap, despite representing his country at every other level.
“It’s a very sad day,” Sharp, United’s captain now, posted on social media. “It was a privilege to know Len.”
Everyone who crossed paths with Badger will say the same.