The Big Man bows in
By Chris Salter and Nicholas Ralph
Few Watford fans could believe their eyes that morning in October 1958 when they read in the sports pages that the club had signed Big Cliff Holton from Arsenal. Even at a club record fee of 12,000 pounds, his signature represented a coup of unbelievable proportions for our small team. Holton was a household name, the big centre forward who, at 29, most of us expected to see playing for England, not in the blue and white of Watford! This was no spent force easing down to a lower division to see out his playing days, but a star act who Liverpool, Aston Villa and Middlesborough were all bidding for. A few weeks earlier, Jim Bonser had taken over as Watford Chairman, and our new super-boss went right over the head of his veteran manager, Neil McBain, in negotiating the Holton deal. A disapproving McBain was just wheeled in to witness Holton putting his signature on a Watford contract, and to have his picture taken with the new acquisition. Why did such a star choose to come to Watford? The main reason seems to have been Holton's business interests in an engineering firm situated at Park Royal, and his consequent desire to remain in the greater-London area. Never have a soccer team owed so much to the location of an engineering business!
The Cliffster made his Watford debut against Gateshead in this the first year of Division 4, and although he did not score, we put the five goals past them - that became something of a habit over the next couple of seasons. The next week, however, he revealed his power with a brace of goals in a 5 - 3 away drubbing of Oldham. (It was an interesting year for us fans, meeting in anger for the first time all these northern teams that had sounded so far away and mysterious till then.) In view of the future, it is a shock to recall that Cliff did not score at Vicarage Road for two months after his signing. In fact, he seems to have had strong self doubts as to whether the move down three divisions may not have been the big mistake that most outside Watford felt it to have been. The disapproval of the other Big Fella, Neil McBain, can't have helped to make him feel at home either. However, Holton found an ally who's ambition matched his own in trainer Pat Molloy, and together they planned team tactics over the head of McBain. Holton's influence on the other players became ever stronger both on and off the field, and he made sure that they were as sharp off the pitch as he wanted them to be on.
Things were changing off the field of play in another way too. Early in 1959, the great ex-Spurs and England defender, Ron Burgess, joined the staff as coach, and soon afterwards McBain was squeezed out and Burgess took over the manager's chair. For the next two years, relationships between Burgess and Holton were decidedly ambivalent. Perhaps a really self-possessed manager could have relished his star player's heavy involvement in so many details of the team's performance, both on and off the field. Sadly, even at the time, it seemed all too clear that, respected though Burgess was, he felt himself threatened by the worship of his star forward both by the fans and by the rest of the team. Burgess's first move as manager was to shift Holton to centre half, and announce that he intended to keep him there. Although Holton later agreed that he felt this to be an astute move, the fans were scandalised. Watford finished the season 15th out of 24, and dreams of instant promotion from the league's basement had evaporated long before.