Obituary: Cliff Holton

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The Independent Online
Only four men since the Second World War have scored more goals in English League football than Cliff Holton, though the big, burly Oxonian never scaled the giddy heights predicted for him as a young Arsenal star during the early 1950s.

In mid-decade, as he stood on the threshold of his prime, he suffered a plateau in his development which saw him converted into a half-back, then dispatched to the lower divisions for the remainder of his career. However, his response was both spirited and emphatic: returning to his striking role, he contributed a further double- century of strikes over the subsequent nine years, becoming a cult hero at several clubs in the process.

Surprisingly, Holton had begun his football life as a defender, serving Isthmian League Oxford City as a full-back before joining Arsenal in 1947. It was not until 1950, after National Service in the Army, that he was switched to centre-forward and he earned a place in the Gunners' senior side in the spring of 1951. Imposing, strong and far quicker than was suggested by a rather ungainly, loping gait, Holton adopted a rampaging style which unsettled opponents. He wasn't a bad passer either, but he was most famous for his thunderous power of shot in either foot, which accounted for many of his goals.

This enviable catalogue of attributes brought encouraging progress in 1951/52, though he disappointed at Wembley as an injury-riven Arsenal lost the FA Cup Final to Newcastle. The following campaign ended in glory, though, Holton's 19 goals in 21 outings helping to secure the League Championship, and the promising 24-year-old was spoken of as an England international of the future.

Alas that was not to be. Thereafter the Gunners began to labour and in 1954 / 55 Holton lost his berth to the ageing Tommy Lawton. A year later, having been switched to left-half, Holton was restored to the side and became captain for a spell. But despite doughty service in various roles, he was judged surplus to requirements as the new manager George Swindin sought to revamp a lacklustre team. Holton was sold to Watford for pounds 9,000 in October 1958.

He was 29 by then and many believed that his best days were behind him. In fact, he was about to enter his most productive period. After taking a little time to settle at Vicarage Road, he became one of the most revered figures in the Hornets' history, netting a club record for one term of 48 League and FA Cup goals as he skippered them to promotion from the Fourth Division in 1960.

When he left for Northampton in 1961 - Watford reckoned he was spending too much time on business interests - there were protest petitions from outraged fans, whose judgement was soon borne out. Just five hours after joining the Cobblers on a Saturday morning, Holton had scored a hat trick for his new employers. Watford then struggled unexpectedly for the rest of the season. Later, Holton's goals helped both Northampton and Crystal Palace gain promotions, and he went on to net regularly in a second spell at Watford in 1965 / 66, then for Charlton Athletic in 1966 and for Orient in 1966 / 67, before a gammy knee forced retirement in 1967.

A forthright and articulate individual, Holton seemed ideal soccer management material but he preferred instead to concentrate on a precision engineering business, which he ran until 1989 before working part-time in sports marketing.

Cliff Holton's tally of 293 League goals in 570 appearances has been bettered by only Arthur Rowley, Jimmy Greaves, John Atyeo and John Aldridge since the war. And but for his infuriating mid-Fifties blip, that select list surely would have been significantly shorter.

Ivan Ponting

Clifford Charles Holton, footballer: born Oxford 29 April 1929; played for Arsenal 1947-58, Watford 1958-61, 1965-66, Northampton Town 1961-62, Crystal Palace 1962-65, Charlton Athletic 1966, Orient 1966-67; died 30 May 1996.