Ronnie Clayton: Footballer who captained England and played at wing-half for Blackburn Rovers for 20 years

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The Independent Online

Ronnie Clayton was the embodiment of an era in football history which could hardly contrast more vividly with today's game, in which his modern equivalents become multi-millionaires with one stroke of a pen.

At the end of the 1950s, when Clayton was captain of England, on the morning of a match for his club, Blackburn Rovers, he was to be found walking the streets of the town delivering newspapers. The industrious, unassuming Lancastrian judged his early shift to be necessary to help make a success of the newsagent's shop he ran with his wife in order to provide for his eventual retirement. The thought of the current England skipper, Rio Ferdinand, similarly employed is too surreal even to contemplate.

Though his tenure as an international captain lasted only five games before he was discarded for good at the age of 25, Clayton was a high-quality performer, a dynamic, driving wing-half and a one-club man at a time when such a breed proliferated. Throughout his two decades with Blackburn, during which he made nearly 700 senior appearances but never collected a major medal, he was a monument to integrity and sportsmanship, a courteous and dignified ambassador for club, country and the wider game.

As a boy Clayton was rejected by his home-town club, Preston North End, receiving the common but illogical and often misguided snub: "Sorry son, you're too small. Come back in a year or two." The disappointed but still ambitious 15-year-old instead accepted a trial with Second Division Blackburn along with his older brother and fellow wing-half, Ken, in 1949.

That was to prove a providential decision, but not before a scare when the car in which the Claytons were travelling broke down on the way to Ewood Park. Undeterred, they hitched a lift on a beer lorry and exhibited sufficient promise to secure amateur contracts.

Ronnie had been a left-winger at school, and had played at centre-forward and centre-half, but after his conversion to wing-half at 16 he had the Blackburn manager Jackie Bestall purring about an international future. He made his senior debut in a home victory over QPR on the last afternoon of 1950-51, turned professional in the August and made an impact during the subsequent term, not least in helping Rovers to an FA Cup semi-final which they lost after a replay to the eventual winners, Newcastle United.

Clayton's gathering impetus was slowed by National Service, during which he played for the Army and fretted about his club future to the extent that he requested a transfer. Arsenal were among the leading clubs who pricked up their ears but the dispute, which also involved Ken, was settled and in 1954-55 Clayton became a Blackburn regular, a status he would retain for the next 15 years. As his star rose he fulfilled Bestall's prediction, soon earning England honours at under-23 and "B" level before winning his first cap, against Northern Ireland at Wembley in November 1955.

That season and the next he was in magnificent form for club and country. As Rovers pushed hard for promotion, narrowly missing out both times, it was a particular joy for Ronnie that his brother was usually alongside him at left-half, and a sickening blow when Ken's career was virtually ended by a broken leg in the spring of 1957.

An exceptional display in a 4-2 victory over Brazil at Wembley in May 1956 signalled the start of an 18-match international sequence, with the half-back line of Clayton, veteran skipper Billy Wright and the youthful Manchester United prodigy, Duncan Edwards, emerging as a potent force.

Clayton's attributes were legion. Wirily athletic, he was an expert timer of powerful tackles, his aerial work was crisp and precise, he seemed to draw on a bottomless pit of energy and his ball skills, while not extravagant, were by no means negligible. He was adept at long-distance throw-ins which caught many a defence unawares, and his distribution was invariably sensible, occasionally perceptive.

At Blackburn, where he was sharing star billing with the dazzlingly talented winger Bryan Douglas, to whom he would remain close for the rest of his life, he was a colossal factor when Rovers finally claimed a place among the elite as Second Division runners-up to West Ham United in 1957-58. Having become captain, Clayton was the heartbeat of an attractive team now managed by Johnny Carey, and he led by courageous example, being ready to play through injury at need.

On occasion, however, that very willingness worked against Clayton. He soldiered on gamely while struggling with a gammy knee and gave a handful of below-par performances, which cost him his place in the England line-up for most of the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, the Wolves tough-nut Eddie Clamp being preferred. Clayton was recalled for the group play-off showdown with the USSR, which ended in a mortifying 1-0 reverse.

He settled easily, though, in the First Division, his reliability the rock around which his colleagues rallied, and at the outset of 1959-60 there wasn't a cloud on the Clayton horizon. He had been installed as England captain following the retirement of Wright, Blackburn got off to a flyer which took them to the top-flight summit in the autumn and he had regained all his former poise.

But the second half of the season was the nadir of Clayton's career. Rovers tumbled down the table, though they took consolation from their run to the FA Cup final, in which they faced Stan Cullis's formidable Wolves. It was a dreadful game, with Blackburn reduced to 10 men in those pre-substitute days when full-back Dave Whelan – later Wigan Athletic's millionaire owner – sustained a broken leg before the interval. Already a goal down, they could achieve little more than damage limitation, and Wolves won 3-0.

Clayton, debilitated by tonsillitis, was not at his best, and he was criticised for not rousing his men. The tenor of the occasion was sullied further when some Blackburn fans, feeling Wolves had been over-physical, showered the victors with orange peel and other rubbish. What should have been the season's gala occasion was labelled "the dustbin final" and Clayton's personal stock plummeted.

Four days later, and still not well, he led out England at Wembley to face Yugoslavia and gave a poor display in a thrilling but, as far as the home support was concerned, disappointing 3-3 draw. One newspaper described his showing as one of the poorest ever by an England captain. Other headlines demanded that "Clayton must go" and he did, replaced by Bobby Robson and never picked again for his country.

It was a bitter pill for a player who at 25 should have been on the threshold of his prime. Now, after 35 full caps and 10 appearances for the Football League, his representative days were over. He resumed his stalwart service at Ewood Park, excelling as a team now led by Jack Marshall became solid members of England's top division throughout the first half of the 1960s.

Indeed, in 1963-64, with Fred Pickering and Andy McEvoy scoring freely and Douglas prompting from midfield, they led the table around the turn of the year. There were such triumphs as 7-2 over Tottenham, 5-1 against Wolves, and 8-2 at West Ham on Boxing Day. But Pickering's wish for a move was granted and the side declined dramatically, finishing in seventh place.

In 1965-66 Blackburn were woeful, finishing bottom 13 points adrift of their closest rivals, Northampton Town. Clayton remained a beacon of stability, often an inspirational figure, giving everything to the cause he had espoused throughout his career.

Having reached his 30s he was less mobile, and he moved into central defence, reading the game as shrewdly as ever and demonstrating his leadership qualities as the team almost bounced out of the Second Division at the first attempt, finishing fourth place.

His last hurrah as a Rover came in 1968-69 when creaking knees limited his appearances and his beloved club almost sank to the third tier. A stint followed as player-manager at non-League Morecambe before a happy interlude playing with Great Harwood alongside his old Ewood Park comrades Bryan Douglas and Roy Vernon.

Later came work as an area manager for a tyre company, but Clayton remained devoted to the club and to championing the cause of the local grassroots game, and the Blackburn public never ceased to treat him as an hero. This kind and gentle man garnered no medals but his harvest of admirers was bountiful indeed.

Ronald Clayton, footballer; born Preston 5 August 1934; played for Blackburn Rovers 1949-69; 35 England caps 1955-60; married (two sons, one daughter); died Blackburn 29 October 2010.

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