Monday, 29 June 2015

Derek Ufton

On one very famous afternoon at The Valley in December 1957, with just an hour gone, Charlton Athletic found themselves 5-1 down to Bill Shankly’s Huddersfield Town. An away win in this Second Division fixture was now on the cards. Centre half and club captain Derek Ufton had been stretchered off with a shoulder injury in the first 15 minutes of the match when there was no score. No substitutes were allowed back then, so Charlton were really under the cosh. Amazingly, however, the ten men fought back and managed to win the thrilling game 7-6. Ufton, who was taken to hospital in Greenwich to receive surgery, recalled that just before the anesthetic he was told his team was now losing 4-1. When he awoke and discovered the final score he refused to believe it. He had taken part in the club’s most memorable match and missed all thirteen goals!

I had a nice chat with Derek Ufton on the telephone last year, a few weeks before his 85th birthday. The former Dulwich Hamlet player from a lifetime ago told me all about the incident at Charlton. He has reeled off that same story countless times over the years to friends, admirers, interviewers, at dinners and get-togethers with Charlton, Kent County Cricket Club, and many other charity organizations he has belonged to. Today he is a Kent Ambassador.

The dislocation of his shoulder, or rather both shoulders was a frustrating injury he continually had to put up with. It happened on twenty separate occasions throughout his sporting life. Thirteen times on one side of his body and seven on the other. These persistent injuries did not affect him mentally, but he once calculated that it cost him about one hundred games from his career. The first time it happened was in an army match following the war while he was doing his national service. The injury reoccurred early in his Charlton career, and the loosening of the joints meant this was something that was not going to go away – especially if one happens to be a robust defender.

Derek Gilbert Ufton was born in Crayford in Kent in 1928, and began to attend the Dartford Grammar School just before the start of World War Two. When all school sports were abandoned he put together a football team with some of his mates and joined a local schoolboys’ league. His hero was goalkeeping legend Sam Bartram of Charlton Athletic, today regarded as one of the club’s greatest players. Little did young Derek know at such a tender age that one day he would be playing alongside Bartram in the Charlton team.

Like Bartram, he donned a pair of gloves and enjoyed nothing better than diving around trying to catch a ball. A cricket ball! In the summer months he took to wicket keeping, and enrolled in the celebrated Alf Gover Cricket School in south west London.  The indoor cricket school was halfway up East Hill, just off the Wandsworth High Street, and players came from halfway round the world to improve their technique. Gover, who was at the tail-end of his career with Surrey during the war period, holds a legendary status in the annals of cricket. His students read like a list of world greats, including India’s Sunil Gavaskar and West Indies’ trio Garry Sobers, Viv Richards and Brian Lara.

An old narrow staircase led to the almost shrine-like gas lit cricket nets. Here groups of teenagers, learning the game, rubbed shoulders with cricketing greats perfecting their own. And amidst the odours of linseed and liniment, and the thud of ball on bat, one would invariably find ‘old Alf’ impeccably kitted out in his England sweater and customary silk cravat: "Bat up, son. One to drive.” his favourite mantra.

One of the teachers at the school was Leslie Todd, who started out in the Dulwich Hamlet junior football team as a left winger in the early 1920s. Later he became a top cricketer for Kent in the 1930s and still turned out occasionally for the Hamlet’s wandering cricket side. Todd took a shine to the youngster and became his mentor and coach, and kindly presented him with his old cricket bag.  “It was a real sturdy thing made of leather. It was a great honour owning that bag.” As the two got to know each other better, and seeing the boy’s skill in both sports, Todd arranged for the seventeen year old to have a trial at Dulwich Hamlet. Derek’s father accompanied him on the journey from his home in Crayford to Champion Hill.

Derek soon made his way into the Hamlet’s ‘A’ side, then the Reserves, before appearing for the First Team late in the year. Although the records I have seen for that time period are quite sparse, Derek is listed as playing in the Boxing Day match, and noted as the scorer of the Hamlet’s solitary goal in a 6-1 defeat at home to Walthamstow Avenue in the New Year.

In his only season at Dulwich – 1945/46 – he not only featured in the various Hamlet teams but was tried in a variety of positions. This was very unsettling for the young man. “It really wasn’t what I was expecting, so after just one season I left the club.” To be fair to the club this was an unusual season to say the least. Players were returning from the services, many having had first hand encounters in combat. Indeed, four of the Hamlet’s popular pre-war players were sadly killed in enemy action. In the true spirit of amateurism – and Dulwich Hamlet were fiercely amateur – when a player was demobbed or on leave he was automatically chosen to fill his favoured position. It was only right that a young buck like Derek Ufton should graciously accept another role on the field, even if it meant he was out of position. Besides, it was a simpler age: “There were not the tactics that we have today. In those days the selection committee would pick the best eleven players and they would just go out and play.”

Although Derek Ufton never represented Dulwich Hamlet at cricket he did once play against them. The match took place at the King’s College Hospital ground on Dog Kennel Hill next door to Champion Hill; a benefit match for his great pal Arthur Phebey who brought along his All Star XI. The two had first met at the end of the season fixture away to Tufnell Park, when Phebey, on leave, was drafted straight into the Hamlet side. Like Ufton, Phebey was a dab hand at both cricket and football and when the pair of them played for Kent as wicket keeper and opening batsman respectively, they developed a lifelong friendship. Derek remembered the problems of the crossover between amateur and professional sports when it came to payments. “Dulwich told Arthur that if he became a professional with Kent he would not be received back at Dulwich as an amateur footballer. He will never play for Dulwich Hamlet again.” In 1962 things changed in the cricket world and the ‘gentlemen’ all became ‘players’. “Because we were professional cricketers and played Friday, Saturday and Monday, we would play golf on Sunday but we were not allowed in the clubhouse because we were professionals.”

After his own stint in the army through national conscription, Derek signed professionally with Charlton Athletic, and often played before packed crowds of 70,000. He remained with the club throughout the 1950s and for several years was captain. Many would have retired from the sport had they had a similar recurring injury like Derek’s, but he soldiered on despite his affliction. “You only get about fifteen years in a sport. You may finish at 35 if you’re lucky.” Such was his resolution, that in 1953 he reached the pinnacle of his career with an England call up against the Rest of Europe at Wembley Stadium. Lining up with such giants as Billy Wright, Stan Mortenson, Nat Lofthouse and Stanley Matthews, the game ended in a 4-4 draw with Alf Ramsey converting a late penalty to spare England’s blushes.
Derek Ufton standing third from left, 
next to Alf Ramsay and behind Stanley Matthews.
Between 1949 and1962 Derek also played 148 first class matches for Kent County Cricket Club. In those thirteen seasons the left hander scored 3,915 runs, took 269 catches and recorded 44 stumpings.
Following his playing career at The Valley he took the helm at Tooting and Mitcham United in the Isthmian League for three seasons. This tenure at Tooting reacquainted him with Dulwich Hamlet, in the same division. Dulwich were going through a very lean spell that lasted several years, and Derek’s side had the upper hand, winning all six league encounters they were involved in. During that period the Terrors were also responsible for knocking the Hamlet out of the FA Cup in the qualifying rounds two years running. He was particularly impressed with Tooting’s ground at Sandy Lane, and in the whole non-league scene in general. “Some non-league clubs could teach the league clubs a thing or two.” Alan Knott, who later made his name as the England wicket keeper in the 1970s, was invited by Derek to play for Tooting. “After a few games, however, we decided that it probably wasn’t a good idea. We were both concerned that he might pick up an injury, and it just wasn’t worth it.”

He then joined Plymouth Argyle as head coach under Malcolm Allison. When Alison moved on to Manchester City, Ufton took his place as Argyle manager. Despite gaining popularity in his first season at Plymouth the club failed to progress, and went on to plummet in the following seasons. He was eventually sacked after finishing rock bottom of Division 2. This relegation blow saw him quit coaching altogether, and he never managed again.

In later years he returned to Kent CC, becoming President in 2001. “It allows me access to the Holy of Holies.” In 1984 he also returned to Charlton Athletic and played a key role in their return to The Valley in 1992. This followed several years in the wilderness playing their home games at Selhurst Park and Upton Park. The historic homecoming was an emotional day for Derek, former player and now director of the CAFC limited company, and every time he faced an interviewer he broke into tears.

Although he only played a handful of matches for Dulwich in that immediate post war season, as far as I am aware Derek Ufton is not a member of Dulwich Hamlet’s Vice Presidents’ Club. He should be. He would be a great addition to a long list of former players that attend the odd game or two a season at Champion Hill. Now an octogenarian, he has certainly contributed a tremendous amount to sport in the south east, especially in Kent. A sporting life that goes back almost seventy years when he started out as a teenager for Dulwich Hamlet. 


I was slightly taken aback when the announcer mentioned that one of the day’s guests was Derek Ufton. He was here as part of the Vice Presidents Club who were sponsoring the match with VCD Athletic. As a boy Derek’s local club was VCD but he found himself playing for Dulwich Hamlet for a short time following the war.

From my position behind the dugout I picked him out. I had in my head a picture card portrait of Derek in his playing days, and although now very aged it wasn’t difficult to spot him.

I waited for him to finish his half time cup of tea and biscuit and I went up to introduce myself. He was pleased to see me. He had recentlysent me a lovely letter, via the club thanking me for the article on him in HH25. He was extremely grateful.

“Hello, Derek, I’m Jack from the Hamlet Historian.” I said. “Jack McInroy.” he said. “You are the person I wanted to meet today. I didn’t want to leave here without seeing you and thanking you for your article.” It then dawned on me that my request that he be invited along to Champion Hill for his first visit in many decades had come to fruition. Bob ‘the Cat’ Bevan bringing him along. It was quite a thrill that our little magazine was responsible.

We didn’t chat for long. A week earlier he had spent the day with his old friend Bobby Charlton, and soon after this game Derek would be rubbing shoulders with Hamlet supremo Gavin Rose. He recalled playing against the legendary Duncan Edwards, who Bob the Cat, at his side, had seen play at the old Hamlet ground for the British Army against the French Army in 1956. Up front for the French with two of their goals in a 3-1 win – Just Fontaine, who two years later scored a record thirteen goals in the World Cup. You see, all the legends make a visit to Champion Hill.

Original article from HH25 Spring 2014
Copyright © Jack McInroy

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