Charlton legend Derek Ufton dies at age of 92

by RICK EVERITT
 

For more than three decades, until 2001, Derek Ufton shared with Mike Bailey the honour of being one of just two Charlton players to have won a full England cap after the Second World War, against the Rest of the World in 1953.


Ufton, who has died aged 92 in Kent, not too far from his beloved St Lawrence ground, home of Kent County Cricket Club, was the oldest surviving England football international by 2020. But his life was distinguished by much more than longevity.

 

He went on to captain Jimmy Seed’s team at the end of the First Division years, and then played a vital if unwanted part in creating the legend of the 7-6 game against Huddersfield Town in 1957, all the while maintaining a parallel and highly respectable first-class cricket career.

 

Then long after his playing days in both sports were over, he remained a stalwart contributor to both organisations behind the scenes, serving as a Charlton director for 25 years from 1984 to 2009, and playing a key role in the return to The Valley. He remains the only former player ever to have served on the club’s board.

 

Well into his 80s, he was still driving up from his home just outside Canterbury to take part in midweek Valley Gold committee meetings and, when that became too much, still getting to matches at The Valley with his wife Judy. He remained in good health almost to the end of his life.


By any standard, Ufton’s service to both Charlton and Kent was long and remarkable. What I only discovered, when we met up for a major Voice of The Valley interview late in 2014, was that he was also a regular in SE7 before the war.


Living in Crayford, his family were Dartford supporters initially, and one of the first matches he ever attended was the Southern League outfit’s 4-0 thrashing of Gainsborough Trinity in the second round of the FA Cup in December 1935. Ufton, born in 1928, was seven years old.


“Dartford were quite a good Southern League side, just outside the Football League in those days,” remembered Derek. “But Charlton went on their record run from the Third to First Division and one day in 1936 my dad said he would take me down there.”


Thus it was that he came to stand behind Sam Bartram’s goal for the first time, fully 13 years before he would take his place in front of it, and so begin his own senior career.


“I used to have a bit of a tantrum if my dad wouldn’t take me after that,” he said. And so he was there, on February 12th, 1938, when Aston Villa visited for the fifth round of the FA Cup and drew 1-1 in front of the club’s all-time record crowd of 75,031. 


There couldn’t have been be many left who could say that, and none who could lay claim to Ufton’s extraordinary perspective across almost eight decades of Charlton history.


“We always got there early, so I was right down the front,” he said. “It wasn’t frightening at all. They were literally passing youngsters down. People reckon there were more than 75,000 in there and that’s probably right. But the big difference was that there were virtually no away supporters in those days.”

 

Tragedy struck Ufton at the age of 16, when his  mother was killed by a flying bomb in 1944. She was with the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) in a local hall dishing out clothes for children who were to be evacuated the next day.


After the war his dominant ambition remained to become a professional cricketer. Had he enjoyed greater success as a batsman, even after he had become an established First Division player, his football career may well have taken a back seat.


“As a boy, cricket was what I thought about every day,” he admitted. “I loved football and played in a team made up of boys from my school, Dartford Grammar, which played rugby. But nobody ever said anything to me, so it didn’t occur to me that I could play football professionally.


”My dream was to play for Charlton. I always wanted to do both. But I never thought the opportunity would arise. With cricket I was desperate to make it and my dad got as desperate as me, so we were all trying to make it happen.”

 

Following Natinal Service, Ufton made his Charlton debut when he replaced Charlie Revell at left-half for the home fixture against Liverpool on November 12th, 1949. It was not a particularly happy debut, with Ufton conceding a penalty for handball in a 3-1 defeat.


Just seven days later, however, he was part of the first Charlton team to defeat Arsenal at Highbury, the 3-2 win ending a 12-match unbeaten run for the third-placed Gunners. With the bulk of his eventual 277 senior appearances to be made at centre-half, in an era when the role did not include getting forward at set-pieces, Ufton mused that the 16 matches he played at left-half that year were probably his best opportunity to get on the scoresheet. 


Remarkably, however, he would never score a senior goal for Charlton: “I did have a few kicked off the line in that first season, but none went it,” he recalled. “I’d scored a few goals at Dulwich and quite a lot when I played in the army team at left-half. I think about it quite a lot, really. Why didn’t I score any goals when I got to The Valley?”

 

Ufton was still one month short of his 29th birthday at the end of the 1956/57 season, which had seen Charlton relegated from the First Division after 21 years.

 

He had played 216 games in the top flight, as well as 14 times in FA Cup matches, and like the club could entertain realistic ambitions of a return.


But although his playing career would extend to three more campaigns, he would make just 47 further appearances. The majority were in the ill-fated 1957/58 season, in which the team missed out on promotion by a single point.


His most renowned contribution came on December 21st, 1957, when he dislocated his shoulder and had to leave the field after 17 minutes of the legendary 7-6 match against Huddersfield Town.


The game was goalless when the centre-half was injured and he had been taken to the Miller Hospital, in Greenwich, for treatment by the time Johnny Summers began the scoring spree that eventually allowed 10-man Charlton to overturn a 5-1 deficit in the final 26 minutes.


Ufton had begun the campaign at left-half, with Gordon Jago now manager Jimmy Trotter’s first choice in the centre of the defence. And he was wearing the number six shirt on October 12th, when the flu-hit Addicks took on eventual champions West Ham United.
“Jimmy Trotter did quite well that year, but he wasn’t really a leader,” said Derek. “He was too quiet.


He points to the lack of a predetermined penalty-taker against the Hammers as an example of the lack of organisation within the club.


“We got a penalty and Gordon Hurst took it. He aimed it straight at their goalkeeper, Ernie Gregory, who just stood there, so it hit him and rebounded out.


“Goodness knows why, but the referee decided Ernie had moved too soon and told us to take it again. Gordon didn’t want the responsibility. So I asked Billy Kiernan to take it, but he wouldn’t. Time was going by and the referee was asking us to get on with it. I looked at Marvin Hinton, who took penalties in the reserves, but it was his first game and I thought I can’t put that on him.


“So I took it myself and missed. It was my one and only chance to score a goal and I put it wide on the left-hand side. I should have known, because I’d taken penalties before in junior matches and never scored any of them!”

 

As for his cricket career: “Kent had kept leaving me out of the first XI because they said I needed wicket-keeping practice, which I couldn’t get with [England wicket-keeper] Godfrey Evans in the side. So I ended up making the opposite argument that I wasn’t batting as well as I might because I wasn’t playing regularly.


“I decided to give up wicket-keeping and just try to prove myself as a batsman. So I didn’t keep wicket in 1954 and they brought in a fellow called Tony Catt from the Lord’s groundstaff.


“That’s how it continued until 1958, but I was having more and more problems with my shoulder and Colin Cowdrey, who was now the captain, said he didn’t want to take the risk of having someone in the side who was always getting injured. So in 1959, I was second XI captain.


“Godfrey Evans then packed up and Tony Catt took over in 1960, but after a few matches I got a call saying that I would be playing at Blackheath in the next game. So in half of 1960, all of 1961 and half of 1962, I was first-choice keeper and I played more than 50 matches in succession.


“Then in June 1962 they brought Tony Catt back into the side. It was ridiculous from my point of view, because I was fourth in the [national] wicket-keeper rankings, although I hadn’t scored so many runs.


“They retained me in 1963, but then Alan Knott appeared. I was 35 and couldn’t complain, but really I finished because Alan Knott came along. My career had been caught between Evans and Knott, two England wicket-keepers. In the end I was batting at number eight. My opportunity to play regularly happened ten years too late. 


“When you’re number two to an exceptional talent, you never know quite how good you could be. With the best in the world above you, it’s hard for people to judge your merits. If I’d wanted to find out how good I was, I should probably have moved on. I was tempted. Leicestershire and Somerset both made me offers.


“At the back of my mind was the fact that I was a Kent supporter, but also it was already a hassle trying to reconcile the cricket and the football. If I’d gone elsewhere it would have become even more difficult.”


He had scored 3,919 runs in 149 first-class matches at an average of 19.99, taking 240 catches and making 44 stumpings.

 

In 1964 his old friend and former Valley teammate Malcolm Allison, who had been appointed manager at Second Division Plymouth Argyle, took him to Home Park as a coach.

 

Allison’s departure at the end of the season then provided Ufton with an opportunity of his own and he took over as Pilgrims boss in the summer of 1965.


“Joe Mercer offered Malcolm a job at Manchester City. I hadn’t agreed with a few things he’d done and we had a few arguments. He was a bit cross with me for not resigning when he went. Maybe he was right, but I stayed at Plymouth and loved it. 


“It went quite well for a while, but I made mistakes, obviously. There were two or three occasions when I almost got it right and then didn’t have the courage to do what I thought was the right thing.”


His first signing was a man set to become very familiar to Charlton fans a decade later – centre-half Andy Nelson, from Leyton Orient. Nelson had played in the top division with Ipswich Town, who won the League title under Alf Ramsey in 1962.

 

Plymouth finished 18th in Ufton’s first season in charge and 16th in his second. In his third they were heading for relegation and eventually finished bottom, although by then he had been sacked.

 

He returned to the game at Charlton in 1984, following the Sunley-led financial rescue earlier that year: “In about June I got a call from Richard [Collins] to say that they had decided they didn’t have enough football knowledge and the name they had come up with was Jimmy Hill. They wanted me to ask him if he would become a director. I took Jimmy down to see John Sunley at his house in Sandwich Bay, but he said he wouldn’t join the board unless I did too, so that’s what happened.”

 

Hill did not last long, but Ufton remained for 25 years and playd a crucial role in facilitating the recovery of The Valley by director Mike Norris in 1988, thanks to his relationship with owner and former charman Michael Gliksten, which went back to Ufton's playing days.

 

He remained, to the very end of his life, a dedicated follower of football and cricket, passionate about Charlton and Kent, and with a love of talkiing about both. What he had to say was never less than enlightening. It was a privilege to have known him.

 

This article is based on a very edited version of the mammoth 19-page interview with Ufton published over two parts in VOTV116 and 117, which are still available to order here.

A further tribute to Derek Ufton will appear in VOTV167 due out on May 1st.

 

 

VOTV170, the third issue of the 2021/22 season, was published on October 16th (see front of website). There are three pricing options - for UK (first class), European and worldwide delivery. 

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