On 6 April 1912 England international goalkeeper Sam Hardy played his last game for Liverpool after 240 appearances in just over six years. Hardy began his league career playing for Chesterfield who he had joined after his Newbold White Star team had beaten Chesterfield reserves in the 1902 Byron Cup Final, a competition for Derbyshire clubs. While at Chesterfield he quickly earned himself a reputation of being a goalkeeper of the very highest quality. Liverpool’s manager Tom Watson got to see him play in a second division game at Anfield when Chesterfield were beaten 6-1. Despite the scoreline Hardy caught the eye of Watson as he single-handedly prevented the score being even more of a rout with a fine display.
After 71 league appearances for Chesterfield, which included 30 clean-sheets, no one at the club was surprised to see him move to a larger team when Hardy signed for Liverpool in May 1905 for £300. Liverpool began the 1905/06 season struggling for form and Hardy was called into replace the ageing incumbent Ned Doig, who was approaching his fortieth birthday. Hardy made his debut in the ninth game of the season on 21 October 1905, a 4-1 win over Nottingham Forest at Anfield. He was now Liverpool’s first choice keeper and this coincided with an upsurge in Liverpool’s form as they won 9 of their next 10 games, beating the champions Newcastle at St. James’ Park, league leaders Villa along the way, and Hardy keeping four clean sheets in the process. By Christmas Liverpool were top of the league, and by the end of the season Hardy was the owner of a League Champions medal, as Liverpool won their second title in five years.
In 1907 Hardy had been performing consistently well enough to get a call-up to the England side and made his debut on 14 October in a 1-0 win over Ireland at Goodison Park. With Blackburn Rover’s Bob Crompton and West Brom’s Jesse Pennington he formed a celebrated defence that in 1909 saw England set a unique record when they defeated Ireland, Scotland, and Wales in a season without conceding a goal, helped along by Hardy saving a penalty against the Scots.
Despite his performances earning him the nickname “Safe and Steady Sam”, in the 1911/12 season manager Watson decided to give youth a chance, just as he had when he replaced Doig with Hardy in seven years earlier. Now aged 29, Hardy saw his position as Liverpool’s first choice keeper taken by the 20 year old Scot Ken Campbell. This saw Hardy leaving the club at the end of the season and he played his last game for Liverpool against the club he was to join, Aston Villa. Liverpool received a transfer fee of £1500 for Hardy, a substantial amount of money in those days when Alf Common’s transfer of £1000 had been the first four-figure transfer just a few years earlier. Liverpool’s board were happy to see Hardy leave. They had issued statements doubting his abilities and grown increasingly disgruntled that Hardy continued to live in Derbyshire while he was at the club, and when he left the board announced that in future they might well only consider signing players who choose to live in Liverpool.
Far from his career being in decline though he was a success straight away at Villa. In his first season he helped Villa finish second in the league and won the first of two FA Cup winners medals he was to win with them, the other coming in 1920.
In 1921 he left Villa after 183 appearances and joined Nottingham Forest who paid £1000 for him. Now 38 years old it might have been considered his best days were behind him but he proved he still had a lot to offer as he helped Forest win the second division championship in his first season. He went on to play 102 times for Forest before injury finally ended his career just short of his 42nd birthday.
Throughout his career Hardy’s strength was in his ability to make goalkeeping look unspectacular. He used his intellect to play football, perhaps more than any keeper before him. His game was all about anticipation and positioning, so much so that there is a story about a youngster taken to see him who came away distinctly unimpressed, convinced that the opposition had merely kicked everything straight at him. In 1908 he explained himself a little in an article for the Liverpool Echo entitled ‘Aspects of a difficult art’, in which he placed anticipation as the highest of the goalkeeper’s skills. Player and football writer Charlie Buchan said of Hardy, “I consider [him] the finest goalkeeper I played against. By uncanny anticipation and wonderful positional sense he seemed to act like a magnet to the ball. I never saw him dive full length to make a save. He advanced a yard or two and so narrowed the shooting angle that forwards usually sent the ball straight at him.” The authors Adam Ward and Jeremy Griffin of The Essential Aston Villa echoed that when they wrote “There can be few men left alive who ever saw Sam Hardy keep goal for Aston Villa but those who remain will probably contend that the popular custodian was the greatest net minder in the club’s history… Hardy was a goalkeeper not given to acrobatics and he never embellished his work with unnecessary leaps and rolls. Instead, he kept goal with an economy of effort that had the effect of making him look as though he was always playing well within himself.”
Despite the adulation he received when he was playing Hardy was always down to earth, and a man of the people. He was seen playing with youngsters in a Liverpool park in a classic coat for goalposts kickabout. It was also not unknown for Hardy, a keen cigarette smoker, to be seen in the crowd sharing a cigarette with spectators before kick off. As a miner’s son he understood the importance of a strong union, and was a prominent campaigner in the PFA and was always happy to use his fame to help their campaigns. Today he is still regarded by many as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time and appeared in the BBC’s Football Legends List put together to celebrate 100 years of League football in 1998. Still remembered on Merseyside he also made it into the Liverpool FC website poll of Liverpool’s greatest players.
Sam Hardy died on 24 October 1966 having played 551 league games in 22 years winning one championship medal and two cup winners medals, but the most remarkable aspect of Hardy’s career was that although he won just 21 caps in a period interrupted by war and when internationals were infrequent, from the date he made his England debut in 1907 he was first choice keeper for the international side for an incredible fourteen years, winning his last cap against Scotland in a game England won 5-4 at Hillsborough. That is a record that if he had played in modern times, would surely have seen him challenging Peter Shilton’s total of 125 caps.