A Remarkable Sporting Life – Derek Ufton

Wednesday 27th August 2014

A stalwart one-club man, both as a professional cricketer and footballer, DEREK UFTON made 149 first-class appearances as Kent’s wicketkeeper-batsman and played 263 matches shoring up the defence of Charlton Athletic. He shared some of the memories of a remarkable sporting life with MARK PENNELL…

Andrew Lang, the Scots novelist, once wrote: “Cricket is a very humanising game. It appeals to the emotions of local patriotism and pride. It is eminently unselfish; the love of it never leaves us, and binds all the brethren together, whatever their politics and rank may be.”

Lang’s words, written in 1893, also encapsulate the cricketing ethos of Derek Ufton, and his selfless approach to sport. Yes, local pride at being a Kentish Man (he hails from Crayford), played a role in his participation but, what matters most to Ufton are the numerous, life-long friendships forged while playing the games he loves.

Derek has crammed more into his 86 years than most sportsmen you might care to meet. He has lunched with Mick Jagger, met prime ministers and royalty, and has wined and dined stars of stage, screen as well as major sporting celebrities.

A member of Kent County Cricket Club’s staff from 1949 through to a testimonial season in 1963 – in which he banked a deserved £4,000 – he also graced The Valley from 1949 to 1960.

In 1953, Ufton did ‘the walk’ – the term professional footballers use for winning an England cap at Wembley – which he achieved against The Rest of Europe in front of 100,000 in a match to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the FA. He played alongside legends like Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey, Nat Lofthouse, Stan Mortensen, Stanley Matthews and Gil Merrick in a 4-4 draw.

Ufton also featured in Charlton’s most famous match, the 1957 clash against Huddersfield Town at The Valley that ended in a 7-6 home win. Charlton, reduced to 10 men after Derek went off with a dislocated shoulder, and soon 5-1 down, fought back to win, but not before Ufton had tried to discharge himself from hospital, albeit unsuccessfully, in order to play the second half.

Derek somehow found time to play cricket and soccer while serving in the Army and then, in later life, to take on administrative roles, thus creating his own unique legacy by ensuring that the clubs he graced as a player were handsomely repaid with unstinting, behind-the-scenes service.

At Kent, he was co-opted onto the general committee in 1975 and acted as chairman of cricket for almost a decade [1991-2000], only retiring to become the club’s president in 2001. As for the Addicks, he served on Charlton’s board of directors for 25 years from 1984 to 2009 and still attends most home games.

Ufton also managed Plymouth Argyle [1965-68], having taken over the reins from his life-long friend Malcolm Allison, and has spent the last 40-odd years working in London’s casino and hospitality industry.

With an amazing memory and a seemingly endless list of anecdotes, it is safe to say that sport in Kent will never see the likes of Derek Ufton again.

As a kid all I wanted to do was play with a ball … my dad loved his sport, playing football, cricket, tennis and bowls, and my uncle was pretty much the same. I presume that’s where it came from, but my mum was brilliant too, she just went along with whatever I wanted to do. At first it was all cricket, and mum would throw a ball at me for hours on end and I’d walk up with dad to the Vickers Crayford & Dartford Athletic Club, which is where I first watched cricket. I was only eight or nine, too young for the club side, but I discovered the local choir at St Paulinus, in Crayford, had its own team. I was hopeless at singing, couldn’t hold a note, but joined the choir just so I could play cricket for the church.
I was lucky then to win a scholarship to Dartford Grammar, and played for the school from then on. I kept wicket a bit if no one else fancied it, and bowled a bit, not that I was any good, but I loved fielding, and of course, my batting. Batting was my first love.

We all suffered dreadfully during the Second World War … I lost a lot of friends on D-Day, mates from school. We were also bombed three times at home and seemed to spend a lot of nights in shelters. Although we never had to move, the house was left in a dreadful state and then my mum was killed by a flying bomb.

I was working at a shipping office in London around the time of The Blitz and got a phone call from my dad, telling me to come home because mum had been in an incident. Even now it hurts. We lined up in a queue at hospital and dad gave his name to two nurses, who were clearly very busy. The younger nurse of the two just blurted out: ‘Oh, she’s dead’. That was that. That moment has lived with me ever since.
They called them doodlebugs, those V1s, maybe in an effort to make light of it all, but the V2s were even worse. I remember playing cricket at The Mote with these things flying overhead. Batters used to shout ‘don’t bowl the next ball’ as they were waiting to hear them chug overhead and away into the distance. If you couldn’t hear them chugging, then you’d look up to see which way it was falling and ran as fast as you could in the opposite direction. They were bombs you could watch fall and, if you were out at night with your mates, they appeared like shooting stars in the sky.

Once conscripted to the Royal Army Service Corps . . . I was posted to Buller Barracks in Aldershot, which is where Godfrey Evans had been. I played for the Service Corps team for a couple of years from 1946, but it wasn’t like playing for the full Army side. If you went into the Army as a first team county player, as Brian Close did, you were seen as a cricketing hero and were instantly selected by the Army. But for the likes of me and Johnny Aitchison, a left-arm bowler with a beautiful action who got posted to Germany, we hadn’t been given a game for Kent in our first season, so getting into the Army side was a much tougher proposition. I think I played one game for United Services in Aldershot, so although my cricket didn’t improve until I re-joined Kent, being in the Army did give me the opportunity to develop as a footballer.

The first county game I ever saw . . . was at Weston-super-Mare between Somerset and Gloucestershire. Arthur Wellard, who was a Kent man and had played club cricket for Bexley, was playing for Somerset. I’d read about him and admired him. To me, county cricketers were like gods then, so I went along to see Arthur and he got nought!
My first championship game for Kent was in 1949 at The Mote and my first away game in the championship for Kent just happened to be back at Clarence Park in Weston-super-Mare.

That was another big thrill, as it was the first time I played against Denis Compton who, to my mind, was the best player I ever played with and against. We became great friends, but his ability to bat with grace and control, even on a bad wicket, set him apart. No matter what the surface was like, the bat came through the line so straight and the ball whizzed to the boundary. He had so much control of his wrists and his footwork; he was a genius.
The best bowler I faced was Fred Trueman. Tyson was the fastest, Statham the most accurate and Loader the nastiest, but on the field Freddie was all three combined. He’d knock your stumps flying, yet was one of the nicest guys you’d wish to meet after the day’s play.

Because I’d scored a hundred in the Kent Second XI in 1945 I was maybe regarded promising . . . but I didn’t score runs regularly enough after I re-joined in 1949, so it was my own fault that my career as a specialist batsman stalled. ‘Hopper’ Levett had retired, Les Ames didn’t want to keep because of his bad back and Godfrey Evans started getting called up by England. Although they had a lad called Geoff Ward on the staff, they asked me to give keeping a go. Les was captain, and it worked out that when Godfrey was away I stood in. I played the odd game as a front-line batsman, but was too inconsistent. It was sad because, although I enjoyed keeping, I just wanted to prove myself in the first team by scoring runs.
I wasn’t a natural keeper, I suppose, but you improve tremendously if you’re doing it day in, day out, and it becomes more natural. Godfrey was another cricketing genius. He was a great friend and, without a doubt, gave his best to the Test team. And then Alan Knott came along and became the greatest keeper England has ever had. Not only that, but ‘Knotty’ performed for Kent, with bat and gloves, to the same levels as he did in his Test appearances. He was a fantastic performer.

After the war . . . Johnny Aitchison, Fred Ridgway, a lad called ‘Ginger’ Salmon and I were the first youngsters to be taken on by Kent. They wanted us to live locally because they needed us in at 9am to roll pitches, clean the equipment and put up the nets.
Luckily, Johnny had an aunt in Whitstable, so we all went and roomed with her in Nelson Road. We’d have fish and chips most nights and walk up to Tankerton to play on the putting green on The Slopes. After three months I got called up but, after I got demobbed in 1949, I went back to living in Whitstable with Johnny. His aunt owned one of the beach huts and Malcolm Allison used to come down at weekends, don these leopard-skin bathing trunks and strut around like Tarzan. Johnny would refuse to walk along with him, but Tankerton had never seen anything like it. It was all great fun.

One of my biggest thrills in cricket was my first game at Lord’s. . . I got picked as a batsman but scored 11 and six. It was packed on the Saturday and the crowd sat on the grass. It was wonderful. I was playing for Kent, at Lord’s, and had achieved much of what I’d wanted to in life, which was to play cricket every day of the week for Kent. That’s a marvellous feeling to have.
I did manage to score a first-class hundred against Sussex at Hastings. I went in at 57 for three and was unbeaten on 75 at tea. Brian Edrich was down the other end and helped get me through. Having got a couple of 80 not outs, I felt I was destined never to get one, because guys kept getting out at the other end, so I know how Sam Billings is feeling right now. But I can tell Sam that when you do get to three figures it’s a great feeling, and I’ll be delighted for him when he does.
I feel blessed to have played for Kent but I didn’t achieve my ambition to play for England. Though it’s treasured, I’d have swapped my England football cap for an England cricket one.

I loved playing football but didn’t like training . . . it was a waste of time, but right from the age of 13 it never seriously occurred to me that I was any good at football. I came out of the Army and had been offered a trial by Cardiff. But, I went to a local dance that first Saturday night and bumped in Malcolm Allison, who said he’d get me a trial at Charlton, which he did. Malcolm and Charlton had maybe spotted the extra spark in me that I possibly lacked at cricket so, within the space of a fortnight, I went from 6d a day in the Army to earn £7 a week. I was amazingly lucky.

I loved playing for Charlton . . . and of course playing for England at Wembley was an incredible experience. Alf Ramsey was marvellous. He talked me though the game and they were maybe the biggest three days of my life. My Charlton debut was at home to Liverpool. I gave away a penalty and we lost, but thankfully I got picked for a second game at Highbury which we won 3-2. That’s how it all started.

I finished football in 1960 when I was 32 . . . and having turned down a move to Luton. After a sleepless night I phoned Sammy Bartram, their manager who used to keep goal for Charlton, and told him I just couldn’t do it, then I rang Charlton and told them I was going to retire from playing.

After football management I was very lucky to get a great job in town … working for Mecca at The Sportsman Club right opposite The Dominion in Tottenham Court Road. The management changed, it was bought out by Americans and it became known as London Clubs. I worked for them through to my 81st birthday. Known loosely as a sporting activities director, I looked after their interests in hospitality boxes at football, cricket, rugby and horse racing, and helping to introduce the nobility, sportsmen and celebrities to the London casino lifestyle.

We’d have dinner parties to mark the England cricket team leaving to play in Australia or the Lions on tour to New Zealand, and our members could buy tickets. I also helped run monthly sports awards and I’d try to get a top name along to award the prizes. So, when Tony Jacklin won The Open I asked Peter Alliss to present him with our trophy. These guys were never paid, but I’d thank them for coming with a gift. Down the years we had the likes of James Hunt, Jack Nicklaus, John Curry, Frank Sinatra, Lee Trevino, Henry Cooper and most of the big-time boxers all visit the casino. They were great days.
I’d also grown up in Dartford with Joe Jagger, who told me his sons Chris and Mick liked cricket and, at the time, I thought little of it. But then, before we knew it, Mick was top of the pops. Mick often came to Kent games, but was always incognito. With a hat and shades on, people don’t always recognise him. When Kent played in London he used to book in at The Savoy under an agreed pseudonym and we’d contact his room, agree to meet up or leave tickets on reception. He’s a really likeable bloke, but is also surprisingly shy.