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Players: Tributes:
Cliff Holton
The man and his aura may be gone but the legend lives on
By Oliver Phillips

He was 67 and still retained that aura and presence, which was his hallmark on and off the field. Such were those qualities that Cliff Holton’s death in Almeria, Spain, last week, is that much harder to take in.

He seemed so much larger than life, a living legend, that his passing reminds us all of our mortality. The concept of the Big Fella dying peacefully in his sleep last Thursday morning, on the day he was due to return to his Hadley Wood home with his wife Beryl, stunned so many.

Watford groundsman Les Simmons, the only permanent post-war fixture at Vicarage Road, epitomised the general reaction when I told him the news: “That’s impossible. Well, no, I suppose it isn’t but you know what I mean,” he said.

Indeed, legends cannot die, one supposes.

Ken Nicholas, a former colleague at Arsenal and Watford, found it hard to take in.

“It is just incredible to think. Cliff was at George Catleugh’s funeral a month or so ago and everyone felt he looked fit enough for another game,” said the erstwhile full back.

“I cannot believe it,” said his former striking partner Dennis Uphill, who is recovering from a third heart-attack. “I used to see him regularly at golf occasions. Long after our association at Watford, we used to bump into each other. He looked so fit and well when I last saw him.”

Graham Taylor, who had been talking about the man just half an hour earlier, sat stunned on Monday, not just at the news but also the fact that Big Cliff was 67. “He looked younger, fitter and there was so much to him: like you say, an aura, a presence,” said the Watford general manager.

Only six weeks earlier at George Catleugh’s funeral, I had witnessed Cliff Holton come up to Taylor and pinch the Watford manager’s cheek. “Yes, I’m right. Your skin is thick enough and all the experience you have gained over these last few years will benefit Watford,” said the former striker.

Taylor, struck by the 36-year-old team spirit of the Class of 59, who constituted a sizeable percentage of George’s mourners, became keen to pull the threads of Watford’s past together and avoid any repeat of the Taffy Davies debacle. He had pencilled in Holton as a key figure.

‘We got rid of the wrong man’ – Bonser

But then Holton has always been a key figure. His departure from Vicarage Road in the late summer of 1961 caused such a furore, his shadow remained over the club for a decade. Fifteen years later, when Jim Bonser resigned as chairman, he was still trying, to no avail, to justify that transfer, which disillusioned a generation of Vicarage Road regulars. He finally admitted when he stepped down, what we all had known 15 years earlier: “We got rid of the wrong man”.

For those who never saw Holton play, but have since delighted in the likes of Keith Eddy, Stewart Scullion, Ross Luther, Barnesy and Macker will note that their heroes provided memorable moments in outstanding eras of management. Take those individuals out of the team and the times would still have been memorable.

Not so with the Big Fella, for I don’t think any of his colleagues would disagree that in Cliffs case, Holton was the era.

His arrival at Fourth Division Vicarage Road in 1958 was the realisation of a football fantasy. Watford paid Arsenal a club and divisional record of £10,000 for the 29-year-old striker who was regarded by many pundits as the best non-capped player in the country.

Only 14 players in the entire history of the Football League have surpassed Holton’s career aggregate of 293 goals, scored for Arsenal, Watford, Northampton, Crystal Palace, Charlton and Orient. Not bad for a player, who although recalled as a marvellous trainer was a part-timer for much of his career.

While goals were more frequently scored in those days, it should be remembered that Holton played as a full-back, a winger, then in midfield and had performed as a wing-half for three seasons prior to joining Watford. He also wore the number five shirt for the Hornets and, to add to those ironies, he always thought centre half was his best position.

He was a natural sportsman, winning medals for swimming and diving as befitted the son of a Headington boat builder, reared by the river. He was an outstanding school track athlete, played cricket for Essex Seconds for four years, turned down a place as a professional with Middlesex and reserved his penchant for fast-medium bowling in local club cricket.

Later, he became an outstanding golfer, serving on the board at Hadley Wood, still playing off a seven handicap and working for the Herts Handicap Committee but years ago, his father’s view that professional football was a dead-end job, had prompted the young Holton to become an apprentice tool-maker with Morris. Having broken into an under-15 team as an 11-year-old, he progressed through Oxford City amateur side to prompt Arsenal to swoop for his services.

A member of the Gunners’ 1953 championship-winning team, he was consistently tipped as the next England centre-forward and later there was talk of rebuilding the team around Holton as centre-half!

He admitted that he was “not hard enough” to become a manager and looked to develop a career outside the game, passing his national certificate in light engineering and switching to part-time work. “I always had that feeling that football was something you did in passing,” he told me once.

Holton became a partner and finally bought the business, selling it in 1990 and then took on a job with St. Albans-based MPP, organising golf days for companies for a few years before retiring altogether.

As a player, he quit at the age of 38 at Orient. “The elasticity in my legs had gone,” said the man who used to win cross-country races and sprints among the playing staff at Vicarage Road. By the time he had hung up his boots, he had hauled Second Division Charlton out of trouble, halted Orient’s slide, won promotion for Northampton and Crystal Palace to the Second Division and earned the nickname “Dr Holton”.

One of Watford’s all-time top five

Yet it was at Watford that we remember him where his achievements can be summed up briefly in statistics. The club’s fourth-highest all-time goalscorer, he hit 105 goals in 166 appearances in Watford’s colours (48 in 52 outings during the 1959–60 promotion season when he became one of two players in the entire history of the League to score hat-tricks on successive days).

Only Arthur Rowley, Jimmy Greaves, John Atyeo and John Aldridge, all of whom, unlike Holton, concentrated on a striking role, have scored more League goals since the war.

But it was the style of the man which lives on, long after the precise facts are forgotten.

Distance, as he once pointed out, possibly lends enchantment and he was occasionally reminded of how he beat four men and unleashed a thunderous shot into the top corner from 30 yards.

“It was probably a case of me beating one man and hitting the ball through the goalkeeper’s legs from less than 20 yards,” he replied modestly.

Well, we preferred our version because he was a player capable of scoring phenomenal goals, blistering drives with either foot, particularly with those old, heavy leather balls. People say that they have never seen a more powerfully accurate striker of the ball at Vicarage Road before or since Holton and I accept that viewpoint unreservedly.

He was the idol of a Vicarage Road generation who roared with expectancy when the Big Fella led the side out, drooled at those long passes out to the wings, which beat the full back and sat up nicely for the scurrying Banning and Bounce to run onto. And then we held our breath in anticipation, as he came in to shoot, concentration etched on our brows as we tried to follow the blurred trajectory of the ball as it sped goalwards.

That combination of majesty and power in either foot, heightened our perceptions of football at first hand. We did not just have a well-balanced team, arguably we had the most outstanding player outside the old First Division and in that memorable cup run, he underlined the fact.

Suffice to say that if we had all witnessed the entirety of Watford’s 115-year history, when selecting an all-time team, there would be few indeed who would not put his name among the first two on the team sheet. Promotion, goals and so many thrills epitomised the Holton era and although his name does not appear under the list of managers, he was the most influential voice in the dressing room from 1958 until 1961. His intellect was effortlessly superior to that of Neil McBain, and Ron Burgess, great player though he was, lacked the strength of character to impose himself as the boss.

Sadly and completely erroneously Burgess believed he would be more successful without Holton and persuaded the board to sell the striker. Cliff summed up the decision perfectly, in a feature I wrote on him four years ago. “To sell a player who has been bought, in part, by public subscription and donations, is quite a risky undertaking. To sell a player who has done reasonably well, done the business if you like, is risky in itself. To combine both factors and sell him while, at the same time proclaiming that you have no intention of selling him to anybody, is absolutely ridiculous. It must have been the worst piece of marketing in the club’s history.”

As a cub reporter, I spoke to our idol for the first time just a few days before he was sold that Wednesday afternoon in 1961. I was also on hand to witness the transaction at the Rest Hotel, Kenton, my first scoop, as I arrived breathless from the bike ride from Watford.

He always held a special affinity

Later he would reflect on the fact that he retained a particular affinity for Watford, more so than for Arsenal where he spent the greater part of his career.

“Make no mistake, I loved scoring goals and loved the cheers they brought,” said the man who could thunder in a net-bulging shot and turn away from the goalmouth without an outward display of emotion.

“And I loved winning promotion at Vicarage Road. To have 26,000 people chanting ‘we want Cliff’ and not wanting to hang me was something very special in my life.”

I got to know him over the intervening years and was always touched by his willingness to help. He phoned me once from Spain on hearing the news of Freddie Bunce’s passing and on another occasion when Watford’s alternative arrangements fell through, he responded to my call and stepped into the breach at 24-hours notice to present the Awards at Bailey’s one night.

It was a bonus that not only did he enrich my life on the terraces, but also subsequently through knowing the man. One evening at Vicarage Road, after making a pre-testimonial match appearance on the pitch, we were talking in the guest bar and he revealed that he had no idea where he was supposed to sit. He asked if he could join me in the pressbox and, as we left the bar and headed for the stairway up to the stand, he said a sentence that years before, would have been the realisation of a schoolboy fantasy. Even then, I took a deep breath as Cliff Holton said: “Lead the side out, Oli.”

As Graham Taylor remarked this week: “Every time I met him, I was aware that here was a complete person, not just Cliff Holton the ex-star who knew his place in the game and was at ease with it, but Cliff the father, the husband, the businessman. He was a complete man and I always felt, when I had left his company, that he had given me positive thoughts, a positive impression.”

Everyone who saw Big Cliff has an individual recollection, be it the hat-trick he scored against the Hornets including a 60-yard goal, or his powerful runs through the middle. Remember that slow almost ponderous build-up – “The opposing centre halves would dismiss him as an old carthorse over the first three or four yards” – but he was devastating once he had a full head of steam to outstrip and outpower the opposition centre half. Perhaps it is this goal or another, his passing his undoubted ability in the air or; just the aura which individuals remember.

A grown man once beamed in satisfaction after a trip to Oxford, and told me that it had all been worthwhile, just to see Cliff line up a shot which cleared the bar two minutes from time, and see people duck and lift arms to fend off the leather threat as it seared into the terraces.

“It is nice to be remembered but then we are into this whole thing about legends and people might well ask, ‘does he justify it?’” he remarked to me once, perhaps surprised but comfortable and moved by his enduring popularity in this locality, but I like to think he knew the answer.

For his widow Beryl, his two sons Martin and Brian and granddaughter Katie and the family and all those who knew Big Cliff and counted him as a friend or an acquaintance, this has been a sad time.

But for those of us who saw him play, the legend lives on with us: no videos, just treasured visions in our mind’s eye.

From the Watford Observer, Friday June 7 1996