Cliff Britton – A Life in Football

Part II of an in-depth look into the life of a man who was Everton's first manager in the modern sense of the word.

Part II – The Manager

As the tide turned in the Second World War Cliff, whilst still playing regular wartime club and international football, turned his thoughts to a time when the conflict would over. On 17 June 1943 he wrote to Stanley Rous, Secretary of the Football Association, putting forward a blueprint for the developing national game. The centre-piece of this was a “Football Association College”. Proposals tabled included:

  • The College would become a “mecca” for anyone, from around the world, wishing to study football
  • Clubs could send certain of their players there for expert development. Players attending the college would receive training from the finest coaches in the game.
  • Courses and refresher courses would be held for referees.
  • Players approaching the end of their footballing career could spend two years, learning (part-time) other roles such as coaching and management.
  • It would be used as a training venue for national teams.

Cliff finished his letter by extolling the camaraderie experienced at club and international level during the wartime period and hoped that this could be translated into peacetime football – as he believed that this spirit was key to future success.

Cliff’s thoughts were both visionary and altruistic. He wanted the FA to help footballers improve themselves on the pitch and prepare for a life after their playing days ended. Three weeks later Rous responded with a concise letter, thanking Cliff for his letter and promising to bring his suggestions before various FA committees “in due course” once they were established. No more was heard on the matter. It would be another over 40 years before the FA finally set up a Centre of Excellence at Lilleshall in Shropshire (it was the National Sports Centre so the FA shared it with other disciplines). It would be 2012 when the FA unveiled its National Football Centre at St George’s Park.

The end of Cliff’s own footballing career coincided with the cessation of hostilities in Europe. When a managerial opening came up at Second Division Burnley he applied and, apparently aided by a glowing reference from Everton’s board, was appointed in October 1945. He put into action a three-year plan to get promotion to the First Division.  New signing Allan Brown, alongside George Bray and Reg Atwell formed a half-back line of such solidity that it was dubbed "The Iron Curtain”, in a nod to Winston’s Churchill’s speech of that era. Looking back with author Mike Prestage, Bray recalled:

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“Cliff Britton had a good football brain and Burnley were lucky to have got him. He built a team around defence and laid down the tactics to the team. He knew from A to Z what his players could do and what they couldn’t. He was also fair to deal with. If you had anything to come pay-wise, or whatever, he always listened and would sort it out.”

Another player from that era, Tommy Henderson, told Prestage:

“He was very respected but always remained aloof. It was always ‘Mr Britton’ in your dealings with him. He was very strict but very fair. He had been a hell of a player and was a hell of a coach.”

In the 1946/47 season, which saw the resumption of the full domestic football league programme, only 32 goals were conceded by Burnley in all matches. With Harry Potts firing the bullets up front, The Clarets achieved promotion at the first attempt. All this was with a team assembled for only £2000. Cliff’s stock rose further with a FA Cup run which only ended in extra-time defeat by Charlton in the final. The next season saw Cliff steer his charges to 3rd place in the First Division, only being pipped for the runners-up spot by Manchester United on goal average.

Cliff Britton meets Theo Kelly and Harry Cooke in 1948

Cliff Britton meets Theo Kelly and Harry Cooke in 1948

On Merseyside the Everton directors cast envious glances towards Turf Moor. Theo Kelly had been combining the role of Manager and Secretary since the outbreak of war. Despite possessing formidable administrative adroitness Kelly appeared less adept at maintaining harmonious relations with his star players.  By 1946 three of the stars of the 1939 championship side, in Tommy Lawton, Torry Gillick and Joe Mercer, had departed for other clubs whilst TG Jones was becoming an increasingly unsettled and disillusioned presence at Goodison. Others, such as, Charlie Gee and Jock Thomson had retired whilst pre-war stars in Boyes, Stevenson, Sagar and Greenhalgh were past their peak. In the first two seasons of post-war football the Blues had finished 10th and 14th. The 1948/49 season started miserably with 6 defeats and only one win in the opening eight fixtures – only six goals had been scored including a penalty.

With relegation for only the second time in the club’s history a real prospect the board finally acted. After a 1-0 defeat at Stoke the Board resolved to approach Cliff with a view to him becoming team manager.  The very next day, a meeting was convened at the Exchange Hotel between the board members and the Burnley Manager. By the end of the session it was resolved that Cliff would become Everton’s manager but the former star wing-half ensured that he would be given unprecedented managerial powers at Goodison. The stipulations agreed to were noted in the board minutes (shown below) and attest to Cliff’s strong negotiating position:

  • That he be given full power & control over everything appertaining to the players.
  • That his salary shall be at the rate of £2,000 per annum plus £500 per annum as expenses.
  • That he be given a written agreement legally draw up, guaranteeing him five years services dating from the day he takes up his duties with the Everton club.
  • That there shall be a clause in the agreement stating that, should the Board dispense with his services before the term of this agreement is reached, namely 5 years, that he receive as compensation a sum of money equivalent to the amount of salary he would have received had he completed 5 years service.

Writing in the early 1970s Cliff laid out why he had insisted on such power:

Anyone becoming a manager should be more concerned with the powers he is given than the rewards. Salary is a secondary consideration. Any manager would be foolish to accept an appointment unless he is given full power and control over everything appertaining to the playing side of the game. This power would cover:

• Appointment of coaching and playing staff
• The final word in the buying and selling of players
• Selection of all teams
• Control of scouting and youth policies
• Control of discipline
• Control of travelling arrangements for teams
• Control of the use of grounds and staff

The news of the appointment broke four days later and Don Kendal (under the pen name Pilot), in the Evening Express, could barely contain his delight in several articles:

The appointment is great news for Everton followers, for Mr. Britton is one of the greatest of all post-war managers and as wholehearted an Evertonian as one could find anywhere. That he will serve the club as well as a manager as he did as a player, I have no doubt. It is not expecting too much of the man who, in the short space of two seasons, made Burnley into the most-talked-of-club in the land. What Cliff did for Burnley I think he can for Everton, for he has a keen knowledge of football coaching and training and is a master of tactics. There is nothing he asks of his players that he cannot go out on the field and demonstrate. He always works and trains with his players, and although a disciplinarian, has that golden knack of being able to get the very best out of his men and keep them team-minded.

The spirit of Everton Football club is to shine with greater intensity than ever before. In a matter of days this great club which has existed since 1878, will embark on a new era, which, I believe will be one of the greatest in its long and glorious history... Personally, I cannot see anything but success for the Kelly-Britton combination with the full support of the directorate, and the team-work of the players.

Cliff himself, told Kendall of his delight in answering the call back to Liverpool 4:

“You cannot lose your love for Everton, no matter how long you are away. I always have wanted to come back to Goodison and carry on where I left off – working for the benefit of the club. I know it is going to be hard work, but that I like. If I can help to bring success to Everton then I shall be happy. I have been exceptionally happy with Burnley and shall be sorry to leave them.”

As a former Evertonian with a blossoming managerial reputation the prospective manager ticked many of the requisite boxes. With Cliff serving several weeks’ notice at Turf Moor, the Goodison hierarchy sanctioned the departure of Ephraim “Jock” Dodds, the centre-forward who succeeded Tommy Lawton and Harry Catterick in the number nine shirt. The physical forward had an impressive strike rate of 36 goals in 55 Football League games for the Blues. His move the Lincoln left the club dependent on the injury-plagued Catterick and Albert Juliussen – an ill-starred big-money signing from Portsmouth.

Everton team in the autumn 1948. New manager Cliff stands next to TG Jones. (Photo care of Catterick family

Two days prior to officially taking up his new role Cliff had been a spectator in the stands at Bloomfield Road as the Toffees were drubbed 3-0 by Blackpool. Pilot noted that “Cliff sat in the stand watching and writing, making notes of errors faulty tactics; why goals were given away and why goals were missed.” Armed with the first-hand observations Cliff finally took his seat at his new desk in Goodison Park’s main stand at 10 0’clock on Monday 11th October.  He was welcomed by Theo Kelly and Harry Cooke, both of whom he’d known since moving to Merseyside in 1930. Cooke, as trainer and physio, had formed a close bond with Cliff which would last for decades. Speaking for the first time in an official capacity Cliff told the Liverpool Echo’s Ranger:

“The directors have placed their faith in me to tackle the club’s problems. I shall do my utmost to justify that faith. The position demands a 100 percent effort by all concerned and the loyal backing of supporters. I shall probably try various experiments; I am sure the club’s followers will be patient during this period and I ask them to give the side their full backing at all times.

“If the players feel that their supporters are behind them to the last man, it will give them the vital spirit which is needed to make the effort required. Encourage them all you can. If you have any criticism – leave it until after the match.  My association with Everton as a player was an extremely happy one, I thrust that as manager it will be likewise.”

The first morning at work was devoted to receiving a handover from Theo Kelly. The next day was taken up with a “conference” with the, record-breaking, 42 professionals on the club’s books before getting training underway at Goodison.  In unpublished recollections, committed to paper in the early 1970s, Cliff explained how a new manager had to instil discipline and put down a marker immediately. However it is interesting to note that Cliff’s approach included trying to take the players on the journey with him. He would talk to them in order to make the aims clear and put the hard work and discipline in context. Those who, ultimately, refused to buy into the ethos would be moved on:

It is not only necessary to have this authority to do the job but for the manager to hold the respect of the players. If they get to know that he lacks the power to enforce his own instructions he can expect a rough passage. To receive the full cooperation of the players the manager’s first action is to establish himself as THE BOSS. None of his staff should have any doubts about that.

After a couple of weeks to familiarise himself with the situation he should then be able to formulate his plan of action. Before putting it into operation it is wise to discuss it with the players so that they understand the objective and know the reasons for it. They must be convinced that what they are asked to do is in their interests as well as those of the club. One can’t get the full cooperation of the players by just telling them what to do. When dealing with strong-willed and self-opinionated characters ideas are communicated in the most trouble-free way when they are ‘sold’ to them in a thoughtful manner. The best response from men is more likely to be achieved by leading them rather than by driving them.

Having taken the players into his confidence and set the plan in motion it is then essential for the manager and his staff to see that everyone strictly keeps to it for the first few months so that the required routine becomes established. The majority of players are very reasonable to deal with. So long as the manager can justify his demands on them they will accept them. This is perhaps the secret of good management to see that they are never exceeded, unless it is for an exceptional situation. There are usually a few rebels who have to be convinced that unpunctuality, slackness and lack of interest for the job in hand will not be tolerated. Any sign of weakness or uncertainty by the officials could lead to endless trouble later on. If friendly persuasion does not produce the required response from a player, for what is in his interests, it is better for him to move on to another club for someone else to do the driving.

At Goodison Cliff had the added difficulty of managing players and coaches who had been his teammates only a few short years previously. His insistence on being referred to as “Mr Britton” was difficult for the fellow-championship winners like TG Jones and Gordon Watson to accept.

Although he would become known as a “suit and trilby” manager rather than one of the tracksuit variety, it was reported that he spent much of the first week in training gear overseeing an “intensive coaching and training campaign”. Despite this preparation, the first two games at the helm culminated in 1-0 and 5-0 defeats. The third match saw a Catterick brace secure a home victory over Huddersfield to get the new regime up and running.  One pressing matter to be addressed was the ongoing situation with TG Jones who’d seen a dream move to Roma stall over post-war red-tape. 

After sitting down with the new manager Jones offered to come off the transfer list – at least for the time being. From thereon in Everton’s form remained patchy but Cliff did enough to stave off relegation. The return to fitness of inside-right Eddie Wainwright, following appendicitis, and the switch of inside-left Cyril Lello to left-half from helped steady the ship in the final months of the season. It would be crucial goals from Wainwright and new signing, Jimmy McIntosh, which secured vital points to ultimately keep Everton four points clear of the drop-zone. That said, the statistics for the season were damming and underlined the task facing Cliff in arresting the downward trajectory Everton had been on since the war. The Blues had finished 18th out of 22 clubs with only 41 goals were scored, a quarter of which were thanks to Wainwright.

As at all the clubs he managed Cliff, the teetotaller, sought to control the consumption of alcohol.  Cliff’s son, John, recalls how his father’s approach could ruffle feathers throughout his managerial career:

“When managing Hull he had his no drinking rules. There were some ‘players of character’ who would sneak off and try to have a beer regardless.  He’d stamp down on it but having played with the likes of Dixie Dean, Stein and Jimmy Dunn, he realised that it went on. For him it was an absolute crying shame not to realise the fullness of your potential and to treat your talent with disrespect. My guess is that one of his biggest problems was not letting that show. A lot of players probably felt more judged than they thought was right. Having said that, the Hull City guys had tremendous respect for him.”

Over his seven and a half years in the manager’s chair at Goodison, Cliff was guarded and tried to keep the press at arm’s length. Ranger wrote about Cliff shortly after his 1956 departure from Everton. Intriguingly, on the subject of media relations, the words could just have easily been written a decade later to describe Harry Catterick:

Mr. Britton by nature was inclined to secretiveness. He was something of an enigma in that respect. One would have thought he would have welcomed any publicity which was for the good and glorification of Everton. Not always. On many occasions he clamped down on stories of that nature on the grounds that he considered they were no concern of the public. Nothing I could say would make him change his mind. Apart from the announcement of the team or transfer, information as to injuries and other comparatively minor matters he was never of great help to the pressman. This was not because he was deliberately obstructive; it was simply that he really felt they were matters which should be kept within the four walls of his office. I could never get him to realize all that the Press does for football.

John Britton feels that the reluctance to divulge much to the press was merely a reflection of the man: “He was a very quiet, private man. Many journalists would probably rate him as one of the most difficult people they ever had to deal with. Walter Pilkington at Lancashire Evening Post was a journalist that he trusted but he was very uncomfortable with a lot as he didn’t trust them. He’d have been in agony with today’s world of interviews 30 seconds after the game – and dealing with agents representing players. You had to earn his trust and that was a very fragile state of affairs.”

Cliff was also at pains to keep his work and family life separate – albeit not completely successfully as John Britton reflects:

“The thought of him taking us in front of a camera, or sharing anything professional with the family, was a no-no – never in a month of Sundays. In terms of mixing his family and his profession, there was a very clear line that never got broken. However, In terms of work-life balance, it didn’t work that way. We’d go on holiday to the Norfolk Broads and moor the boat in some way-out place. Dad would walk for miles to find a phone and he’d be on it for hours before reappearing – then the holiday could continue! At home we had a comfy chair in the hallway by the phone as nothing was going to interrupt his work calls.”

Cliff Britton chatting to Peter Farrell and colleagues in 1949

Cliff chatting to Peter Farrell and colleagues in 1949

The aloof exterior encountered by journalists and players masked the, humorous side of the man away from work. John Britton recalls: “He was very funny with a really dry humour. He used to wind up waitresses all the time. He never drank a drop of alcohol so when asked in a restaurant what he’d like to drink he’d reply with the whole ‘wine thing’ such as: ‘I’ll have Ginger Beer – a 1947 – fairly cold but not too cold.’”

An amusing vignette, which Cliff recounted to his son, was of a failed attempt to inspire the players: “I remember my dad telling me that one of his greatest disappointments at Everton was when Walter Winterbottom rang him up as England were playing an international in the region. He asked ‘Would you mind if we come along to Goodison for a training session?’ Dad got all the team together, saying: ‘You might have thought it was your day off but I want everyone in here as England are running a training session. I’ve broken all the rules and got it cleared with the club.

You’ll see a proper coaching session, see what the best of the bunch do and learn from it.” So they were stood there on the sidelines as the England team came out for the training session, ran round the pitch three times and went back in again without getting a ball out. All that after he’d built it up so much!

In spite of a, sometimes difficult, relationship with TG Jones, the Welshman was appointed team captain for the 1949/50 season. However the hero of the terraces quickly fell out of favour again and was demoted to the “A” (third) team. The explanation for this rift may lie in notes written by Cliff over 20 years later:

Every star player is not prepared to conduct himself in a manner which is in the best interests of the team. This can lead to a test of strength between the player and the manager with the rest of the team as onlookers. It is an unenviable position for any manager to be in but, to retain the respect of his players, it is a battle he dare not lose.

Rather than be faced with such a confrontation some managers prefer players of lesser ability with more stable characters on which to build his team. Players who lack a sense of responsibility to themselves are not thought, by some managers, to be the best ones in whose hands to place their livelihood.

Everton old boys January, 1950
L-R Britton, Gee, Dean, Thomson, Critchley, Geldard, Greenhalgh

The “star player” referenced was, very probably, the strong-willed Jones whilst views of “some managers” were, no doubt, a reflection of his own:

In January 1950 there was some levity as Cliff donned his boots for one last time alongside other Toffees greats of the 1930s in an Everton-Liverpool exhibition match under South Liverpool FC’s Holly Park floodlights. The classic half-back line of Cliff Britton, Charlie Gee and Jock Thomson (by now the manager at Maine Road) was complemented by the likes of Bill Dean, Billy Cook, Albert Geldard, Alex Stevenson, Norman Greenhalgh and Ted Critchley. The veteran Blues defeated a Liverpool eleven  5-1. The Reds included Matt Busby in their ranks with the result that the managers of three of the four Lancashire football giants were on the same pitch.  Ranger purred over the display 41 year-old Cliff: Britton was magnificent, cajoling the ball over a bumpy ground in a series of passes that made the crowd gasp by its virtuosity.

TG Jones finally left Everton in the summer of 1950 – quitting English league football altogether to become a hotelier and player-manager of Pwllheli FC. This left just the fading Ted Sagar on the playing staff from the 1938/39 title winners. With budgets restricted, the following season saw few new signings – Ted Buckle being one. Fears of relegation surfaced again before vital goals in the run-in from Catterick and Wainwright saw Everton to safety once more. With the season also shaping up dismally Cliff had drawn-up a list of 39 potential transfer targets which was shared with the board. Perhaps the most notable name on the list was Nat Lofthouse, the Bolton Wanderers centre-forward who was on the verge of an England call-up. With Bolton not interested in selling, Cliff turned to a player he knew well for his only big-money signing as Everton manager. Harry Potts was transferred from Burnley for a sizeable £20,000 sum but the move for a player on the cusp of his 30th birthday would, in retrospect prove ill-judged. Sadly the inside-right had already had his best days on the pitch.

Cliff, Ernest Green and Harry Cooke sailing to Sweden in 1950

From a position of apparent safety at the beginning of February 1951, the team spiralled inexorably towards relegation. The injured Lello and Wainwright were sorely missed as the goals dried up. One of Potts’ paltry five goals that season had secured a seemingly vital win in the penultimate match of the season.  It left Everton needing a draw at Hillsborough on the last day of the season to secure top-flight status for another year. What transpired was a 6-0 capitulation in one of the darkest days the club has seen.

At a stormy AGM held in the wake of relegation, at which one director was voted off the board by unhappy shareholders, Cliff gave a speech in which he outlined what he saw as the way forward:

“Our policy is to try to produce our own young players but if we can see any player in the market who would increase our strength we could sign him if the fee came somewhere near his value. The mere spending of money is no proof that a club will solve its team-building problems. Many clubs have tried that and failed. The spending of money may possibly make the problem more difficult because no club has an unlimited supply of cash and when you get in the region of £30,000 how many players can you buy?”

Arsenal half-back, Joe Mercer, attending the meeting as a shareholder, added his support to his former Everton team mate: “There is no better trained club in the country today than Everton” he said, “otherwise they would have been in the Second Division two years ago. Mr. Britton is on the right lines in concentrating on youth.”

A scouting network scoured the North West for players who could be groomed in the Everton way. One forward-thinking idea that Cliff espoused was a form of “football scholarship” whereby promising schoolboys would become affiliated to a nearby football club for an apprenticeship whilst continuing their studies. True to his ingrained principles he aimed always to have on his staff boys of “good character” who desisted from drinking alcohol. He was reported to have once told a Liverpool audience: “There is nothing more pleasing for a football manager than to learn that a player he has signed is interested in the Christian way of life.”  He stated his belief that nine-tenths of football was the ability to pass the ball accurately – to do the simple football tasks superlatively well.

Cliff Britton, 1952

Cliff Britton, 1952

True to his word Cliff did blood some youngsters in the Second Division. Dave Hickson usurped Harry Catterick in the number nine shirt just five games into the 1951/52 season and never looked back. He was joined in the attack by Tony McNamara. Other home-grown players featuring in the first eleven in the early 1950’s included: Jimmy O'Neill, Tommy Clinton, Don Donovan, George Rankin, TE Jones, Dave Gibson, Gwyn Lewis, John Willie Parker, George Cummins and Alan Hampson.  However, in contrast to in 1930/31 there would be no instant return to the top-flight – the Blues finished the campaign in a distant 7th place. At the subsequent AGM Cliff again underlined the difficulties of signing big-name players as well as “the folly of taking unwarranted financial gambles.”  He reaffirmed the desire for Everton pursue a policy of grooming the best of the large list of amateur players for first team duty.

Everton had a healthy contingent of Irish players in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. One such arrival in 1952 was Mick Meagan.  Mick would not make his first team debut for some five years – by which time Cliff had left the club.  Mick recalls how Cliff was viewed by the players: “Cliff signed me for Everton. In those days nearly every manager was an old school ex-army man – when you saw them coming you nearly stood to attention. Cliff was really strict but also a very nice man – a man to respect. Under Cliff we’d be enjoying training, playing 5-a-side and then he would arrive in his Crombie coat and trilby and stand there – then the “fun factor” would stop! There were no tracksuit managers in those days – Cliff left the training to Stan Bentham and Gordon Watson – he trusted the staff and that was it. Managers then always reminded me of race horse trainers coming to see how their horses were looking at the gallops.”

In today’s frenetic football world, relegation and failure to bounce straight back would guarantee dismissal for a manager, yet the Everton board under Chairman Ernest Green – a retired school master – displayed remarkable loyalty towards Cliff.  This loyalty must have been pushed to its limits when the, subsequent, 1952/53 season ended with a 16th place finish, some 20 points shy of the promotion mark. The only positivity was in the FA Cup where Dave Hickson’s heroics got the Blues to a semi-final which they lost 4-3 to Bolton (having been 4-0 down).

Cliff and family on holiday at Newquay in 1953

Cliff and family on holiday at Newquay in 1953


On the back of a strong start to the 1953/54 campaign Cliff was able to renegotiate his employment conditions with a pliant board. His job title was upgraded to General Manager and a five-year contract extension was signed with a salary of £3000 per annum. Interestingly, not all board members were comfortable with the agreement – Richard “Dick” Searle asked that his objection be minuted in a portent of future discord.  Finally Everton secured promotion at the third attempt with Hickson and Parker’s 56 league goals between them doing the trick.  A 4-0 defeat of Oldham on the final day of the season sealed promotion and there were joyous scenes for the travelling supporters. Club captain Peter Farrell commented that Cliff was even more elated than the players in the post-match dressing room.  

Back in the top-flight Cliff remained loyal – overly so – to the players who’d secured promotion and there were no new acquisitions as the 1954/55 season began promisingly with three consecutive victories. After that form was patchier but a comfortable mid-table finish was secured. The 1955/56 season, yet again, saw no new signings but Cliff did slowly bring fresh blood into the senior ranks. Wirral lads Brian and Jimmy Harris debuted on the same day – the latter’s selection at number nine hastened the shock departure of Dave Hickson to Aston Villa. Jimmy recalls how Cliff was seen from a young player’s perspective: “He had an aura about him – nobody argued with him. He was very strict and kept the directors in their place On a Friday morning we’d be lapping the track around the pitch at a very leisurely pace. Then you’d see the trilby come up through the entrance to the directors box in the main stand and he’d be watching you  – the pace soon picked up!”

Derek Temple, then a teenager in the reserves, remembers seeing the manager at a distance: “On Tuesday and Thursday nights the lads who weren’t full time professional trained in the concourse under the Gwladys Street stand with balls hung up under the girders. We used to run round and jump to head them. At one end there were nets and had goes at shooting. With all the dust you wouldn’t notice Cliff Britton come in but then, in the shadows,  sometimes you’d suddenly see this figure big overcoat and trilby hat watching and it would be, ‘Oh, eh-up – here’s the boss!’”

With the Blues stuck in mid-table in February 1956 events took a dramatic twist. For some time there had been rumblings behind the scenes from certain directors that Cliff was wielding too much power and ignoring their opinions. Some would state, off the record, to journalists that they had been treated like “office boys”. Cliff, by contrast, felt that interference by certain board members was in contravention of the promises made when he agreed to join Everton in 1948. At a routine board meeting on 7 February 1956, a decision was made that would unleash a chain of events culminating in the sensational departure of the manager.

With a six-week 1956 summer tour of the USA looming, the board decided to appoint an “Acting Manager” charged with taking care of business on Merseyside for the duration of the tour. The person chosen was Harold Pickering, a long-serving employee of the club. One person the directors had failed to consult was Cliff who was away training with the team in Buxton. It remains unclear if the failure to consult was naivety on the part of the board or something more Machiavellian engineered by certain directors to engineer a situation.

Deliberate or not, the decision caused consternation when Cliff learned of the arrangements made behind his back. He sought legal advice regarding the club’s apparent breach of contract with a view to leaving Everton.  Upon learning of Cliff’s ire the board hastily back-tracked and rescinded the plan to appoint Pickering. A letter was sent to Cliff on 23 February reversing the previous decision. It read:

I am directed by the Board of Directors of the Everton Football Club Co., Ltd., to inform you of the intention.... to rescind a Resolution of the Board...appointing Mr H. R. Pickering Acting Manager during your absence on the Club's forthcoming American tour.

The Board have learned with regret that you have construed their action as a reflection upon yourself and I am, therefore, asked to assure you that the Board had no such intention and that their proposal to rescind the Resolution above referred to, is prompted by their collective desire to remove any sense of grievance which, you may entertain, however misconceived it may be.

This act of contrition fell on deaf ears – Cliff had already decided that he would be leaving for reasons of principle which Cliff’s son explains: “It all goes back to right and wrong. For my dad the only judgement that counted was what a guy decided not to do. To do something and then apologise afterwards was not worth anything at all to him – it was hardly any better than doing it and not apologising.”

At a hastily-convened board meeting on the evening of Friday 24 February Cliff did not even bother to remove his overcoat. When this was queried by a director he replied, curtly, “I am not stopping”. Having listened to the board’s letter of 23 February being read out he was asked to make suggestions for an alternative acting manager for the duration of the US tour.  The board had misread Cliff’s intentions badly. Cliff later recalled: “I told them I was not interested in their letters and considered it an insult to my intelligence. I then read my prepared statement which I later gave to the press.”

Having re-affirmed that he was finished with the club Cliff presented a letter to the directors. It contained a list of stipulations, which if adhered to,  would lead to Cliff dropping his threat of legal action against the club. The conditions included surety of tenancy on Cliff’s club house for 40 years and transfer of the company car to his personal ownership. Cliff then left the meeting, leaving the board to consider the “demands”.  A harassed Ernest Green,  subsequently followed Cliff into another room in the hotel where he had said he would wait for thirty minutes while the directors digested his letter. Green conveyed the message that the board could not agree to the conditions in the letter and advised Cliff that certain directors were minded to sue Cliff for breach of contract if he walked away from Everton. Cliff responded that he had no doubts about leaving and would be making a statement to the press at 8pm if he heard nothing further from the board. When no further communication was received that evening the following statement was given to journalists:

“It will be very-surprising to all football followers of this town to see in print that someone has no desire to work for the Everton football club. After over 21 years service to this great club these are my feelings at the moment.

“This situation has been brought about by decisions which were made by a certain section of the board while I was away at Buxton on club business. After so long a period in Liverpool I had no desire to uproot my family or leave the club. In my own interests, as it is well known that I have been responsible for the management of the club since I returned seven and a half years ago, and in the interests of all the staff who have given loyal and faithful service to this club, I consider it my duty that this matter should be brought into the open for the shareholders and all who have the interests of the club at heart to be made aware of the grave danger of the club losing its great name in the football world which has been built up over a great number of years by men of high standing and reputation.

“I shall be very sorry to leave the team and staff who have given me the greatest loyalty and co-operation during my period of office. I cannot speak too highly of them, and also those directors who supported me during our troubled periods. But too many principles are involved to let this matter slide. I wish the team every success in the next round of the Cup and sincerely hope they will eventually bring it once again to Liverpool.”

With Everton due to play Bolton on the Saturday afternoon and an FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester City fast approaching, the managerial bombshell was broken to stunned supporters in the next day’s papers. Bee (the nom de plume of Leslie Edwards) in the Daily Post reported: 

After what must have been one of the most astounding board meetings in the long, history of Everton football Club. Mr. Clifford Britton last night literally and figuratively walked out of his £3,500 a year plus job as the club’s general manager. Later he told me “I have finished with Everton – for ever!”

Ernest Green  had always been a strong ally of Cliff – in contrast to some other board members. In the aftermath of the resignation becoming public knowledge a clearly distraught Green told the Daily Post. “I do want to say no club has ever had a better manager, that the club is running more smoothly now – it is happier, better ordered and disciplined –than it has ever been before. It is a great loss to the club, and a great pity that after seven years of devoted service just when all his work was coming to fruition, he has felt compelled to leave. He has been a great manager and the club has suffered a very severe loss.”

For a private man like Cliff, the days which followed must have been unbearably hard as reporters camped outside his home at 39 Southport Road in Thornton. A local person would be sent to knock on the front door and, as it was opened, the press flashbulbs exploded and questions were shouted down the drive. It was reported that Cliff failed to grab more than three hours sleep for a number of nights after the schism developed.

The Everton first-team players submitted a letter to the board with an entreaty to them to persuade Cliff to remain in post. One nameless player, said:  “We feel our chances of further progress have been somewhat diminished by the news of Mr. Britton’s decision. If at all possible, we feel that the team would fare better by the guidance of Mr. Britton who has been responsible for any success we have achieved so far.”

Cliff and the board then entered into several days of press statement ping-pong. The directors issued a statement:
Instead of Mr. Britton accepting the board’s invitation to make a suggestion as to temporary arrangements during his absence, he confronted the board with his resignation unless the board agreed within a time limit of half an hour to stipulated terms in order to retain his service, one of which was that he and his family should be secured in their present residence for a period of forty years. “Mr. Britton is under contract with the Everton club for a period of which two and a half years is unexpired and the board are considering the position in relation thereto in the light of Mr. Britton’s action and his subsequent statement to the Press.”

The directors then chose to circulate to the press a copy of the letter which Cliff had brought to the meeting on 24 February. Interestingly meeting at which it was decided to release the letter was not attended by Ernest Green.  Green felt his position as Chairman had become untenable in light of his closeness to Cliff. He was replaced by Dick Searle, the director who had objected to Cliff’s new contract award back in 1954. Interestingly Green was sent, along with Jack Sharp, as board representatives on the USA tour which had kick-started the resignation kerfuffle.

Cliff was angered that the board’s statement , erroneously, asserted that the letter had been used as an ultimatum in a bid to retain his managerial position. In fact he was leaving no matter what – the letter related to potential subsequent legal action.  Therefore he, once again, felt moved to respond via the media:

“The statement made from the club regarding my alleged demands about the house is untrue. I would like to make it quite clear that whatever the board may say, I had definitely made up my mind to leave the club and no inducement by the board would persuade me to stay...”

Whilst the war of words lumbered on Charlie Leyfield took charge of the first team whilst the board appointed a three-man sub-committee (Messrs T.C. Nuttall, C.E Balmforth and F. Micklesfield) to oversee team matters on an interim basis.

With the ill feeling at its zenith, Cliff told journalist that he had decided to walk away from football all together. His proposed choice of new career was quite ironic in light of his wariness of the media:  “I am now going into the journalistic profession. I have had many offers and have decided that this shall be my livelihood in future.  At all times I have stated quite definitely to the Everton board, and the Press, that I would never work for the Everton club again.”

Later he would tell Ranger of the weight which had been lifted from his shoulders:

“All this trouble has given me a new start on life and I feel a much happier man today than I have for a long time” said Mr. Britton in my last conversation with him. I am pleased to be out of football and for the rest of my life I shall feel indebted to those who have forced me out of the game.”

In the wake of Cliff’s departure, Ranger penned an in-depth, and perceptive, article assessing the man. A short extract is reproduced below:

Has his tendency to aloofness and isolation for he has never been what is called a “good mixer” given him a limited view on some matters to which he should have brought a broader outlook?

There in Mr. Britton’s make-up a streak of pugnacity as well as egoism. He never makes up his mind in a hurry but once having done so it is almost impossible to shift him. His friends regard this as one of his handicaps though it does not seem to strike him that way. The round-robin which the players sent to the Board last week is sample evidence of the regard they had for their manager. The fact that it was signed by them all, despite one at least having had his arguments with Mr. Britton speaks for itself.

In the weeks which followed the threat of legal action from both sides subsided. Cliff notified the board that he would withdraw his threat of legal action and the demand for his remaining 25 months’ salary to be paid up if certain directors apologised for the misleading statements made to the press. Negotiations also got underway through intermediaries for Cliff’s home to be purchased from the club for £3,500.

The board would steer clear of appointing a managerial successor to Cliff, instead choosing to retain much of the real power whilst appointing physical training expert Ian Buchan as Chief Coach. It would be a further two years before the next de-facto manager was appointed, in the shape of John Carey.

Despite the bruising manner of his departure from Everton, and comments made which suggested that he was through with football, Cliff would be back in football management within seven months. Four games into the 1956/57 season he was appointed by Preston North End and found himself managing the great Tom Finney.

Tom Finney and Cliff Britton at Deepdale

Tom Finney and Cliff Britton at Deepdale

Ostensibly a winger, Finney had been tried in a centre-forward role shortly before Cliff’s arrival. The new manager persisted with the experiment and it reaped dividends as the 34-year-old forward found a new lease of life. Although Cliff and Finney did not get on particularly well, the teetotal Preston legend praised the manager’s acumen when speaking to his biographer, Paul Agnew:

“Few people have ever been aware of the fact that Cliff Britton devised a special plan to accommodate my style in the middle. I was not simply switched there without careful consideration and it was not simply by chance that everything worked so well...The manager believed that a bad team with method was better than a good team without method.”

After the tumult of his departure from Goodison Park, and the feeling of underachievement there, the Preston role enabled Cliff to swiftly rebuild his reputation as a talented manager. In his first season, Finney’s 23 goals propelled the team to a third place finish in the First Division. The following season, with Finney rewarded with the club captaincy, the team went one better – finishing runner’s up to a Wolves side managed by his friend and former England teammate Stan Cullis (a godfather to one of Cliff’s sons). In contrast Everton languished in 15th and 16th places in the same two seasons.

At Deepdale, as at Everton, Cliff focussed on the development youngsters. This was rewarded when the Under-18 team reached the 1960 FA Youth Cup Final against Chelsea. The Londoners,  boasting future stars in Peter Bonnetti, Terry Venables and Bobby Tambling, ran out 5-2 aggregate winners.  The last two seasons of the 1950s had seen Preston have mid-table finishes prior to Finney hanging up his boots in the summer of 1960. The following season saw the Finney-less team surrender its top-flight status – Preston has not regained it since. Cliff, believing that he could not take the club further, left Preston as the season ended. He was not destined to be unemployed for long.

Hull Division Three Champions spring 1965

His next managerial role, commencing in July 1961, would take him to East Riding. He made headlines for negotiating the first ten-year managerial contract when joining Hull City. In all he would spend twelve years at the club. Hull were rooted in the Third Division and the Chairman, Harold Needler, saw Cliff as the man to push the club up to the top-flight. Cliff instigated his customary plan of developing a solid back line and developing young talent. He also made several astute signings such as Ken Wagstaff from Mansfield Town. Elevation to the Second Division was achieved in 1965. However it appears that Cliff repeated the error made at Everton a decade earlier in demonstrating too much loyalty to the players who had secured promotion. After a bright start in Division Two the team lacked the quality to make the next step up. In 1970 Cliff moved “upstairs” with Terry Neil coming in as manager. He finally retired in 1973.

Despite the acrimony of his departure from Everton in 1956, the links to Goodison were not completely severed.  When Harry Cooke was hospitalised in the mid-60s it was Cliff who arranged for a bouquet to be sent to his long-time friend. Selflessly he sent it from “Dixie and the lads” rather than in his own name, as he knew that this would mean more to Harry. 

In 1966 Harry Catterick’s Everton side overcame Sheffield Wednesday in a 5-goal thriller at Wembley. It would be Everton’ s first FA Cup victory since Cliff himself received his winner’s medal in 1933. That evening Cliff joined all of the 1933 team, bar the unwell Warney Cresswell and Jimmy Dunn who had passed away, at the celebration banquet in London – it was not reported if Albert Geldard entertained his colleagues with conjuring tricks. When the financial woes of Tommy Lawton came to the public’s attention in 1972, Cliff joined the organising committee, spearheaded by Joe Mercer, for a fundraising game to be held at Goodison Park.

1966 FA Cup Banquet with the 1933 FA Cup team

In retirement Cliff continued to watch and enjoy football. Reports suggesting that he had fallen out of love with the game were wide of the mark – what made him feel disaffected was the failure of the Hull hierarchy to deliver on some promises made regarding his pension pot. Never one to blow his own trumpet, Cliff would rarely talk about his wonderful playing career or experiences in management – even to family and friends.  He had hoped to spend his post-work years giving back the time to his wife, Bridget, which football had stolen over the years – sadly this time together was cut short as Cliff succumbed to cancer of the colon aged sixty-six on 1st December 1975.

So what was Cliff’s legacy at Everton, the club with which he is most closely associated with by the general public? As a player he set a standard at right half-back that has been emulated by very few at Goodison or further afield.  Conversely his managerial reign no doubt disappointed him as much as the supporters. His obstinacy and disinclination to be a “mixer” counted against him – so too did relegation in 1951 and an apparent reluctance to be more daring in the transfer market. That said, he brought through a number of talented players such as TE Jones, Jimmy Harris, Brian Harris and Derek Temple (the latter of whom would make his senior debut under Ian Buchan) without any financial outlay.

Cliff Britton and grandson in 1973

Cliff Britton and grandson in 1973

Looking back in retirement on his time in management Cliff made it clear that he would abhor success if it meant compromising his principles about life and the game. The term “some managers” was used again to reflect his own beliefs:

The main features for team building are talent, character and discipline. By what degree these three elements are blended together will vary according to the importance placed on each one by the individual manager. It will also depend on whether or not the ends are more important than the means. Some managers are not interested in success at any price. It would be an embarrassment for them to know that the players, or anyone else thought the club was being managed in a way which gave it, and the game, a bad image. These are the men who only get the full satisfaction of winning honours when they know, within themselves, that they did it within the rules and in a manner worthy of the game.

Perhaps Cliff’s greatest, but unforeseen, Goodison legacy was the influence he had on a quiet centre-forward who spent three years under him at the tail-end of the 1940s and early 1950s. The desire for privacy, a guarded approach to the press, a strong belief in discipline, the distance maintained from the players and the vision to nurture home-grown talent were all traits Cliff shared with Harry Catterick. Catterick was able to combine those characteristics with managerial ruthlessness and élan in spending the Moores transfer fund as he led Everton into its golden era.  

Part I – The Player


The Britton family
Billy Smith (Blue Correspondent website containing newspaper transcripts)
Everton Board ledgers (Everton Collection)
James Corbett
Various Everton, Preston and Hull-related websites
All photos courtesy of the Britton family except the 1948 team photo (care of the Catterick family)

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Reader Comments (5)

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Trevor Lynes
1 Posted 17/08/2015 at 00:10:57
Great article and it brought back memories of certain players both good and bad who passed through our club.

We were a pretty poor bunch in the early 50’s and I actually played against Eddie Wainwright and Jackie Grant when I made my debut for Southport against Rochdale.I well remember the shenanigans between Britton and the EFC boardroom and his leaving the club. Strangely enough I remember some really average players of that day and cannot remember better players since.Ted Buckle was really thin and people thought he only had one lung !!! One player who fleetingly passed through during that period was one Oscar Hold. God knows how I remember him.I remember Billy Liddell who played for Liverpool and frightened me every time he got the ball. He ended up a JP in Huyton. That particular period was pretty dismal and I just hope I do not have to live through a second relegation. Walter ’Nobby’ Fielding was by far our best player of that era.Thanks for the memories .... Cheers

Dennis Stevens
2 Posted 19/08/2015 at 17:38:30
A marvellous sequel to the piece on Cliff's playing career. Thanks for another compelling read. I couldn't help think that the likes of Jose Mourinho would be totally bemused by a character such as this.
Dick Fearon
3 Posted 19/08/2015 at 22:01:14
When all this was happening myself and most other supporters were kept in the dark about happenings behind board room closed doors.
This educational feast of previously hidden detail clearly shows that individual egos played no less a part in holding the club back as they do currently.
Pete Jones
4 Posted 21/08/2015 at 18:48:16
An outstanding read Rob; I feel I almost know the man personally. You can't help but admire his personality and principles, insofar as Everton has an ethos you can see how Cliff felt it and added to it.
Dave Abrahams
5 Posted 21/08/2015 at 20:35:01
Trevor Lynes, Oscar Hold was a centre forward who played a few times when I first watched Everton, he later became a respected coach in foreign countries, including Turkey (I think).

Wally Fielding was a very good inside forward who linked up well with Tommy Eglington an outside left. I believe Fielding was the player who signed the petition, to keep Cliff Britton at Goodison, who didn’t get on with the manager.

I remember Ted Buckle signing for Everton from Man Utd, he signed on a Friday and played the next day, against Man Utd in a 0-0 draw. He’d played the previous Saturday at Goodison Park for Man Utd Reserves.

I refused a pound note (worth a lot of money those days) from Cliff Britton after we had lost to Leeds Utd in the year we got promoted, he had asked me and my mates if we had anything to eat? I said yes, bit slow I know.

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© Rob Sawyer (EFC Heritage Society). All rights reserved.