Cobridge, Stoke-on-Trent born centre forward Wilf Kirkham started his football career with Cobridge Church in 1919 and joined Congleton Town in 1920, playing for Shelton United in 1921 and Sheffield Teacher Training College in 1922. He turned professional with Second Division Port Vale in 1923 and made his Football League debut that October at Leeds United in a 3-0 defeat. He scored his first senior goal in a 3-1 win over Coventry City at Highfield Road on 19th January 1924. On 8th March, he scored twice in a 3-1 win over Fulham at The Old Recreation Ground. But overall his debut season, 7 goals in 21 appearances, gave little clue of what was to follow.
He quickly became virtually the Vale’s only source of goals, and hit 33 goals in 44 games in 1924-25, more than the rest of the squad combined. He scored his first hat-trick in the FA Cup, in an 8-2 demolition of non-league Alfreton on 13th December 1924. He also hit hat-tricks in the League against tougher opposition, bagging three against both Clapton Orient and Stockport County. As well as this he hit the net twice in a 7-2 defeat to First Division club Aston Villa at Villa Park, in the FA Cup First Round.
On 7th September 1925, Kirkham scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 victory over rivals Stoke City at the Victoria Ground. This completed the double over Stoke, as he scored twice in a 3-0 home victory eight days previously. On 19th September, he hit the net four times in a 6-1 thrashing of Darlington. He also scored hat-tricks against Middlesbrough and Preston North End, and finished the 1925-26 campaign with 35 goals in 41 appearances.
In the 1926-27 season, Kirkham scored a club record 38 League goals, in a total of 41 goals in 46 League and Cup games. He hit hat-tricks against Grimsby Town, South Shields, Notts County, and Middlesbrough, and also hit four in a 7-1 win over Fulham. In the FA Cup, he earned the Vale a replay against Arsenal with the equaliser in a 2-2 draw, before the tie was lost at Highbury.
He never rediscovered his record-setting form, though still managed to hit 14 goals in 40 games in 1927-28. He also found himself briefly rested, as Stewart Littlewood found a short period of good form. Though he scored 15 goals in 32 appearances in 1928-29, hitting a hat-trick against Reading, the club suffered relegation into the Third Division (North). Kirkham however remained in the Second Division after he transferred to Stoke City for a £2,800 fee in the summer of 1929; this was a club record for Stoke. He had scored 145 goals in 224 appearances for Port Vale.
Kirkham continued his impressive scoring record with The Potters, and hit a hat-trick against Nottingham Forest as he bagged 15 goals in 27 games in 1929-30. He then hit a hit-trick against Oldham Athletic, and went on to score 14 goals in 23 appearances in 1930-31. However having already scored in the game, he broke his leg on the opening day of the 1931-32 season, in a 2-1 home win over Chesterfield. He never played again for Stoke. Having scored 30 goals in 51 appearances for them he made a surprise return to Port Vale in January 1932.
After impressing in the reserve side Kirkham was back in The Valiants’ first team. His first match back was another 3-0 victory over Stoke City – his return and the derby win proved a large morale boost for fans. He bagged four goals in 16 games in 1931-32. For the 1932-33 season, Kirkham was once more Vale’s top scorer with 15 goals in 34 games. At the end of the campaign he announced his retirement from professional football, at the age of 31. For both Potteries clubs he scored a total of 194 goals in 327 competitive games, an average of a goal every 1.7 games.
He holds four goalscoring records at Port Vale. His 153 League goals and 164 goals in all competitions are both records, as his tally of 38 goals in the 1926-27 season and his total tally of 13 competitive hat-tricks. A cousin of Tom Holford, he was noted for his “Kirkham Special” hook shots, generally intelligent football and of course his prolific scoring record.