Cliff Holton was the first hero to dominate Vicarage Road by force of his personality. He drew crowds and gasps in equal measure. He was physically imposing and he led from the front. Even those who did not see him play can sense his aura in a simple black and white photo. Hair immaculately Brylcreemed. Jawline square and strong like Desperate Dan from the comics. Chest jutting out with pride and defiance.
As a goalscoring forward he could do things that made him seem like a real life Roy of the Rovers. When he fired that heavy leather ball at goal he did so with such power. If Holton smacked the ball, it stayed smacked.
When Neil McBain signed Holton in October 1958, it was a real coup, certainly the most extraordinary signing the club had ever made. Holton had been a league champion. He scored 19 goals as Arsenal won the title in 1953. Now he was dropping down to the Fourth Division, partly so he could develop some business interests that would earn him a living when he finished playing.
Watford’s prospects were not so bright. They missed the cut when the Football League expanded in summer 1958 and so started the next season in the Fourth Division. The promised land of Division Two seemed further away than ever.
And despite being used to playing at a much higher level, Holton was not an instant hit at Vicarage Road. His first season was steady, with a goal every three games and McBain, the man who signed him, was sacked. It wasn’t until new manager Ron Burgess signed Dennis Uphill from Mansfield Town that Holton flourished.
Holton scored 42 league goals as Watford won the Fourth Division title in 1960. He got another 32 in the Third Division and although Watford missed out on a second successive promotion, the progress was unmistakable. And then, a month into the 1961-62 season, he was gone. Just like that.
On Wednesday, September 6 the Watford board committed what most of their supporters thought was high treason. They sold Holton.
Perhaps if he had moved to a club in the First or Second Division the fans would have understood. But they didn’t. They flogged him to Northampton Town for just £7,000. Even for a 31-year-old it was a rock bottom price.
The deal was done at a hotel in Kenton, north London. After signing the contract, Holton travelled with the Northampton manager, Dave Bowen, to Selhurst Park. Just three hours after signing for the Cobblers, he scored a hat-trick for his new team in a 4-1 win.
The first many Watford supporters knew was when they opened their newspaper the following morning and saw that Holton had scored three for someone else. It must have been like discovering the wife had run off with the milkman.
News didn’t travel as quickly in those days. Even the radio didn’t report much football transfer news. As a result, it was a huge shock for Watford supporters and the reaction was furious.
Someone left a note on the gate at Vicarage Road. It read: ‘Poor old Cliff. Fired by the Gunners, Stung by the Hornets and Caught by the Cobblers.’
Supporters writing to the Watford Observer were livid. ‘The supporters have been sold up the river,’ said one. ‘It’s the worst thing the board has ever done,’ said another. Holton refused to elaborate on the transfer but his wife told the press he hadn’t wanted to leave. ‘Perhaps it’s because he didn’t play for Tottenham,’ she said, referring to the fact Burgess, Watford's manager, had played for Spurs.
The chairman, Jim Bonser, was accused of deliberately sabotaging the team’s chances of winning promotion. Others thought that perhaps Watford feared one man becoming bigger than the club.
Holton had picked up an injury in his final game for Watford, a 3-3 draw against Lincoln. Afterwards Burgess had told him to report to the club on Monday morning for treatment. Holton didn’t turn up, later claiming he had not heard the manager’s instructions.
There were rumbles that Watford were irritated that Holton’s business interests were getting in the way of his football. He was a part-timer, whereas most of the rest of the squad were by now full-time.
Bonser said that Northampton had made an approach for Holton and that when he’d put it to the board, they had been unanimous in agreement.
‘I was the one who decided to go,’ said Holton. ‘I went after having a chat with Mr Burgess and Mr Bonser. I realised that as far as I was concerned there was a bee in their bonnets. I felt they wanted me out.’
So why does the story of Cliff Holton's sale dominate a match he didn’t even play in? Simply because the consequences of his departure were still reverberating nearly three weeks later. The letters continued to arrive at the club and the local paper. Disappointed supporters threatened never to set foot inside Vicarage Road again.
There was talk of boycotting the next home match and the crowd of 10,339 for Swindon’s visit was 5,000 down on the previous gate.
Watford versus Queens Park Rangers was something of a derby game. Like Watford, QPR were one of the teams fancied to win promotion and Rangers seemed always to get the better of the exchanges. Watford had not beaten QPR at home since 1938.
The anger about Holton's sudden departure was still simmering and a bumper crowd had come to see if Watford could beat their rivals. If they couldn’t, they were going to take it out on Jim Bonser.
After Holton was injured against Lincoln, Tommy Williams and Ron Crisp deputised. Both did well. Crisp scored twice in a 4-3 defeat at Peterborough, then Williams got a hat-trick of headers in a 4-3 win at Torquay.
But they were only temporary replacements. Now it was obvious there was a giant, Holton-sized gap in the forward line.
Step forward John Fairbrother, who had been as prolific for the reserves as Holton was for the first team. The 20-year-old got 40 goals during his first season for the second string and he’d done pretty well when given a chance in Division Three the previous season. Coming into the team as Holton’s direct replacement was another matter.
Things didn’t go well at the start. Rangers scored after just 12 minutes when John McClelland, no relation to the Northern Irish defender who played for Watford in the Eighties, slammed home from close range.
A moment of hesitation from Bobby Bell gifted QPR their second. Jim Towers seized the chance, while the Vicarage Road crowd seethed.
With half an hour to go, the crowd made their feelings clear. They began the slow handclap. These were more genteel times but all directors feared the slow handclap, teeming with contempt. It was far more savage then than an inarticulate mouthful of abuse is today.
And it went on. Clap-clap-clap. It wasn’t just directed at the team’s inept display but at Bonser and Burgess for selling their hero.
However, the final 20 minutes were superb. John Ryder got the first from a Freddie Bunce cross. Then Fairbrother swivelled on a pass from Peter Walker to smash the equaliser into the roof of the net. With eight minutes left, Fairbrother headed the winner. The crowd cheered him as if he’d been their hero for years. It helped them forget Cliff, for that afternoon, at least. Cliff who?
In the end, though, selling Holton, or more to the point, failing to replace him, cost Burgess his job.
Watford Underwood, Bell, Nicholas, Ryden, McNeice, Porter, Williams, Walker, Fairbrother, Stokes, Bunce
Manager Ron Burgess
Scorers Ryden 71, Fairbrother 76, 82
QPR scorers McClelland 12, Towers 35
Why was this match chosen? People who watched Watford in the late 1950s and early 1960s still speak about Holton in reverential terms and his sale hit them like a bolt from the blue. It felt like the club was giving up on the dream of reaching Division Two. To come back from 2-0 down to beat QPR – far more of a needle match in those days than games against Luton – was special enough without the backdrop of turmoil.
How do I feel about this game's inclusion now? Reading the contemporary reports of events before and after this match in the Watford Observer at Watford Library while researching this book brought home the significance of Holton's sale.