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Hornet Heaven Deceased Player of the Month: Ernest Protheroe

You may not have heard of Ernest Protheroe, but in 1932 he earned Watford a British record transfer fee. Only two games later, he met a tragic end. Olly Wicken tells the story.


Ernest Protheroe signed for Watford from Charlton Athletic in June 1931. The Watford Observer headline announced ‘The Brewers Sign Nippy Protheroe’, but the transfer fee of £500 was felt to be a lot of money for a player who hadn’t been able to gain a regular first-team place at The Valley.

At Watford, though, Ernest – a winger with very blue eyes who had earned himself the nickname ‘The Whippet’ at Charlton – quickly became a great success. The Vicarage Road crowd took to his surging runs and inch-perfect crosses, and he inspired Watford to one of their best starts to a season for many years. By Christmas, he was the team’s top scorer and was already attracting the attention of other clubs. But it was a shock when, in April 1932, the Italian giants Verona made an offer of £14,000 for the star winger. 

Watford simply couldn’t turn the offer down. The sum shattered the British record transfer fee — which had stood at £10,647 since October 1928 when Arsenal had signed David Jack from Bolton Wanderers. 

Ernest (whose final stats for Watford were 38 appearances and 17 goals) accepted a signing-on fee of £2,500 and a weekly wage of over £60 (which was nearly five times the amount he was earning with Watford). But he asked Verona to wait a fortnight. He had been courting a young woman on the ground staff at Vicarage Road and was worried that moving abroad would end their relationship. He proposed to her and married her, at very short notice, in Croxley Green. After the ceremony, the young couple walked around the touchline at Vicarage Road before Watford’s home match with Leyton Orient, as Ernest waved goodbye to the crowd.

In Verona, Ernest became an instant hit. On his debut, he scored a winner against AC Milan in front of 80,000 fans. He couldn’t have had a better start. But, the following week, tragedy struck.

After Verona’s final game of the season – a 0-0 draw in Napoli – Ernest travelled to an after-match party in the Alfa Romeo of Giuseppe Rava, the pin-up boy of Italian football whom Napoli had signed from Internazionale for the astonishing fee of £85,000. In torrential rain, at 80 mph, Rava lost control of the car on a hairpin bend, and it plummeted into a ravine. Two of Verona’s young stars were dead.

And that’s how, heartbreakingly young, in May 1932, Ernest Protheroe arrived in Hornet Heaven. Before the year was out, he was joined by his father-in-law who had played for Watford before the First World War – Alf ‘Stubby’ Simpson. They enjoy their afterlife there, but Ernest is still longing for the day that his wife Gladys joins him. 

Gladys went on to become a player-coach at Watford in the 1940s (making 28 appearances in Division Three South and scoring once), and returned to the club in the 1970s, as co-owner with Elton John. Many years later, Ernest used to hear her birthday being announced over the tannoy at away games, and, as far as he knows, she’s still actively pursuing a highly successful football coaching career. (The last he heard, several years ago, was that she was assistant manager at Henan Jianye in the Chinese Super League.) When Gladys Protheroe arrives in Hornet Heaven, Ernest will be happy for the rest of time.  

The above information is taken from the book Gladys Protheroe …Football Genius! by Simon Cheetham (Juma Publishing, 1994).