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Holton Returns

Colin Payne looks at the time the hero returned, playing for someone else


With the passing of time, it’s easy when assessing past players to lose sight of just how damn good certain ‘legends’ really were. We get caught in the celebrity factor of today, where what is said and done off the field of play skews how we feel about these men, personality overriding ability, a winning smile more convincing than a scoring right boot. Oh, and of course the minor fact that we likely have never seen certain legends kick a ball either in person or on a screen may contribute too! Cliff Holton is no doubt the greatest example of this.

Brought to Watford from Arsenal whilst still in the prime of his career, he is a player who should never have set foot on the Vicarage Road turf, unless visiting for a cup tie, he was just too good. He had been a first-team regular, and scorer, at Arsenal, but – reflecting the difference between now and then – found he needed to play lower down the leagues in order to devote more time to his business interests.

Anyone reading this will no doubt know how he smashed all club records in the 1959/60 season, scoring an insane 48 League and cup goals as the newly monikered Hornets embarked upon a decent cup run and a first-ever League promotion via fourth place in the still-freshly created Fourth Division. The following season he appeared unperturbed, netting 32 goals as Watford finished an impressive fourth in the third tier. This was a marriage made in Hornet Heaven. 

Within three games of the start of the 1961/62 season Holton was gone. 

It hadn’t even been good business, with the club losing £3,000 of the £10,000 fee they had paid Arsenal. It hurt fans, and to this day no good reason for such a move has been explained. That season the gates dropped, and Watford finished a lowly 17th. The feeling of loss wasn’t helped as in the season of his move Holton set a still-standing Cobblers record for goals scored with an impressive 36.

The following campaign he returned to Vicarage Road, emerging from the tunnel stony-faced, an image we have seen so many times with him in a Watford shirt, in front of over 19,000 fans. This was a massive tie, wounds were still very much unhealed, and as popular as the Big Fella may have been in the past the home fans were in no mood for warm welcomes. Against the backdrop of a good start to the season and much optimism from both clubs, 27 October 1962 saw him leading out table-toppers and eventual League Champions Northampton Town in a game filled with passion and high emotions. The following week’s programme was to rebuke supporters for abusing the visiting players and officials, as well as for the throwing of objects at the game.  All very un-Watford like, but it wasn’t just on the tightly filled terraces that emotions would boil over.

It was to go down as one of the classic matches from that era, as Dai Ward, George Harris, Dennis Woods and Bobby Howfield all scored as the Hornets triumphed 4-2. In a bad-tempered exchange the notoriously ‘unpredictable’ Howfield punched Northampton player Alec Ashworth to the ground, much to the delight of the already fired-up crowd, who were always partial to a good ‘scrap’ on the field, and practically rapturous that it should occur in such an emotive setting. Ashworth, to his credit and the enjoyment of the crowd – which included a large contingent from up the newly opened M1 - duly responded in the then time-honoured fashion, getting up and returning the blow. Both were sent off, a rarity in an era when football was regarded as very much a ‘man’s game’, and Howfield went into the record books as the only Watford player to be sent off in a ten-year period between August 1957 and November 1967. 

Within a week Holton, who failed to score on this return, but did on 14 occasions in 21 games that season for Northampton, was again bizarrely moved on for a loss, this time to Crystal Palace, whilst the Cobblers went on to win the league, with Watford again finishing 17th. 

Holton would eventually return to Vicarage Road in a yellow shirt, with Ken Furphy signing him in 1965. In 24 matches he scored 12 goals, but by that stage he was on the decline. He would move to Charlton for the second half of the season, in a deal that included a makeweight Stewart Scullion coming to Vicarage Road. For once, someone got close to some value in a transfer, but the Big Fella had gone.