The Big Fella (Volume 4)
David Harrison recalls Cliff Holton, a man who really was entitled to be called a true Watford great.
You’ll need to bear with me. This is a tricky assignment.
I’m in no doubt I collected the Big Fella brief as the only member of the Treasury editorial group old enough to have seen Cliff Holton in his prime.
And yes, I saw him play on a good few occasions. Probably 20-odd times while in his majestic pomp and another half-dozen or so when he returned, for a six-month cameo, at the twilight of his career. By then Cliff was 36, a little thicker around the midriff and, while still a prolific scorer, no longer the player he’d been five years earlier.
The difficulty comes in attempting to put the man in some sort of club context. The thing is, I was a wide-eyed six-year-old when I first set eyes on Cliff, and only eight when he became the first in what’s become a steady procession of Watford players to leave me distraught by departing for greener pastures. Or, in Cliff’s case, Northampton.
Quite apart from anything else, he was the biggest man I’d ever seen, while his goalscoring exploits were extraordinary. I’m well aware they were mostly Fourth Division goals, which hardly equate to today’s Premier League. But then again, he scored 48 of them in his first full season. A club record, needless to say, and one that will never be beaten.
My first game at the Vic was against Darlington in November 1959, the middle of a run comprising 22 Watford goals in seven consecutive home wins. The remarkable aspect of that Darlo game was that Cliff didn’t score, but he soon made up for that.
I’m not about to attempt some sort of post-dated obituary. Those were written, elegantly and affectionately, by far more qualified observers, more than twenty years ago. All I can offer is a lifetime of support that has taken me from Cliff to Troy, via those who went in between. In the absence of any significant filmed evidence (and more of that in a moment), maybe that’s how we should attempt some sort of assessment.
In my eyes, Cliff Holton embodied key attributes of all the most effective Watford goalscorers I’ve seen. He somehow combined the style and class of Charlie Livesey, the brute strength of Barry Endean, the single-minded selfishness of Billy Jennings, the attacking verve of Luther, the eye for goal of Mo Johnston, the crowd-rousing ability of Mooney, and so on, until you get to Deeney and company.
Given the significant proviso about my then youth, the Big Fella remains the most prolific, compelling, charismatic striker I’ve seen at the club.
For ‘younger’ readers (defined here as those yet to draw a pension) there was a sequence in the recent Wembley semi-final that provided a useful reference point. From the moment Troy lured the hapless Dendocker into that lunging injury-time tackle, all that followed was Holtonesque. The unshakeable self-belief to claim the ball, the lack of any debate, the measured walk back, the pause, the deep breath and, when it came, a spot-kick that would have broken the keeper’s nose had he inadvertently got his face in the way. Incidentally, Cliff scored 11 such penalties for Watford. In one season.
This piece, not unreasonably, is based around Holton’s remarkable exploits at Vicarage Road, but it’s worth remembering he was already a seasoned, successful 29-year-old First Division player on arrival. The transfer was an astonishing coup for a Fourth Division club, as Holton had played 217 games in all competitions for Arsenal and scored 88 goals, despite many of those appearances coming in defence or midfield. A versatile, genuinely two-footed player, he’d played in the 1952 FA Cup Final and followed that by scoring 19 League goals to help the Gunners win the 1952/53 First Division title. An England cap would not have come as a great surprise.
To Watford’s immense good fortune, Cliff subsequently fell out with new Arsenal manager George Swindin, who promptly dropped him from the side. At the same time, he was developing significant business interests that would have made a move away from London a non-starter. The stars somehow aligned, quick-witted club director Doug Broad spotted the possibility and a genuine star arrived at Vicarage Road.
The Big Fella’s move to Watford had been protracted, to say the least. The Millwall match programme from 11 October 1958 reported, ‘Last Monday the club had a long interview with the Arsenal manager to see if terms could be agreed over Cliff Holton. There is still a gap between our price and the fee required by the Arsenal and though we were prepared to go a little higher than our original bid, we just could not meet their price – there the matter rests.’
Well, there it rested for two weeks because, in the programme for the 25 October game against Gateshead, the ‘Voice of Watford’ informed fans that Cliff had indeed signed during the week. ‘The fee is the largest ever paid by the Club. This transfer was a personal triumph for our Chairman, Mr Jim Bonser, who has given endless hours of his business time, which he can ill afford to give, to bring this matter to a final conclusion.’ Mr Bonser, supporters were told, had endured numerous telephone calls, ‘some as early as eight o’clock in the morning!’ We can only hope the cantankerous old chairman didn’t miss his breakfast.
Despite the massive build-up and record fee (reputedly £10,000), Cliff failed to hit the ground running. He scored five goals in his first 15 games and had managed ten in 35 appearances by the end of that 1958/59 season. A change of manager (Ron Burgess replaced the hapless Neil McBain early in the new year) probably wouldn’t have helped and neither would uncertainty over Cliff’s best position, with the man himself convinced he was most effectively deployed at centre-half.
But by the start of the 1959/60 season things were falling spectacularly into place. Cliff, an imposing, intelligent and eloquent figure, had effectively assumed control of the dressing room from a weak manager and was, to all intents, running the playing side of the club.
One win, and only two goals, from the first five games gave no indication of the unprecedented goal-fest about to unfold. But things improved progressively as the season developed, and by early in the New Year over 31,000 were present at the Vic to see Watford become the first Division 4 side ever to beat a top-flight outfit in the FA Cup, as Birmingham were despatched 2-1. In that game, Holton scored what many believed to be his finest Watford goal, a fierce half-volley struck on the turn.
Once that side was into its stride, the goals flowed. Cliff, together with his admirable striking partner Dennis Uphill, who had joined from Mansfield during the summer, scored a ridiculous 84 between them during that season.
League fixtures at that time saw games played on Good Friday, Saturday and Easter Monday. Cliff scored a Vicarage Road hat-trick on Friday afternoon against Chester, only to repeat the feat 24 hours later against Gateshead.
Promotion was duly rubber-stamped, with a 2-2 draw against Walsall in front of more than 20,000 at the Vic, many of whom were roaring, ‘We want Cliff’ on the pitch after the game. My mother refused to let my Dad take me to a very special Vicarage Road night, but I’m pretty much over it now.
Things in Division 3 the following season were tougher, but the club still managed a top-four finish, while Cliff chipped in with another 34 goals.
All good things come to an end, however, and in one of the most ridiculous decisions ever made by the club, Burgess somehow persuaded Bonser and his fellow directors that Holton should be allowed to leave. Reluctantly, he joined Northampton in September 1961 and promptly scored a hat-trick on his debut. The transfer fee was a derisory £7,000, and Cliff haunted the Hornets from that day on. He returned to score yet another hat-trick, this time wearing the colours of a moderate Crystal Palace side, who nevertheless denied Watford their long-sought promotion to Division 2.
Ken Furphy joined the club as player-manager during the 1964/65 season and, probably sick of hearing tales of the conquering hero the club had allowed to leave, signed Cliff from Crystal Palace for £5,000 in the summer of 1965. The Big Fella had become a significantly bigger fella by then, but retained a tremendous eye for goal. He pottered around, seemingly without exerting undue effort, but still contributed 12 goals in 27 appearances, finishing as top scorer despite leaving for Charlton in February. The mercurial Stewart Scullion joined Watford as part of that deal, so Cliff still contributed significantly, even after departing.
I mentioned the lack of video evidence featuring Cliff playing for Watford, and sadly that does appear to be the case. But if you go to YouTube and search for Cliff Holton, you’ll find grainy film of a 1953 FA Cup tie between Arsenal and Doncaster Rovers. It features a regulation 5-1 win for the Gunners, but their second goal is worthy of close examination.
A shot was blocked and fell nicely 12 yards out, from where it was thrashed comprehensively into the top corner. The scorer, even after all these years, is unmistakable, as was his reaction. No fuss, no arm waving; Cliff just turned and walked back towards halfway, ready to do it all again.
When news filtered through of Cliff’s untimely death at the age of just 67, while on holiday in Spain, it seemed the initial response was not so much sorrow as bewilderment. Legendary groundsman Les Simmonds was quoted as saying, “That’s impossible” when first told the news. And so it seemed.
As is so often the case, the last word must go to Graham Taylor, as quoted in the superb Oliver Phillips tribute. Graham had got to know Cliff well and, quite apart from his goalscoring achievements, was clearly hugely taken by the man. “Every time I met him, I was aware that here was a complete person. 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.”
For me, simply the best.
This article is from Volume 4 of The Watford Treasury, to purchase this publication in all its visual glory, please follow the link below: