He was born in Oxford and was a natural sportsman, winning medals for swimming and diving as befitted the son of a Headington boat builder, reared by the river. He was an outstanding school track athlete, played cricket for Essex Seconds for four years, turned down a place as a professional with Middlesex and reserved his penchant for fast-medium bowling in local club cricket.
Later, he became an outstanding golfer, serving on the board at Hadley Wood, still playing off a seven handicap and working for the Herts Handicap Committee. His father’s view was that professional football was a dead-end job which prompted Cliff to become an apprentice tool-maker with Morris.
He began his football life as a defender, serving Isthmian League Oxford City as a full-back before joining Arsenal in 1947. It was not until 1950, after National Service in the Army, that he was switched to centre-forward and he earned a place in the Gunners’ senior side in the spring of 1951. Imposing, strong and far quicker than was suggested by a rather ungainly, loping gait, Holton adopted a rampaging style which unsettled opponents. He wasn’t a bad passer either, but he was most famous for the thunderous power of his shot with either foot, which accounted for many of his goals.
He was in the Arsenal side to reach the FA Cup Final in 1952 and his19 goals in 21 outings helping to secure the League Championship in 1952-53, and the promising 24-year-old was spoken of as an England international of the future. He continued to figure for Arsenal for another three seasons and on 6 October 1956, he scored four goals in a home match against Manchester City, becoming the first player since Jack Lambert to score more than three in a game at Highbury.
He lost his place to an ageing Tommy Lawton but a year later, having been switched to left-half, Holton was restored to the side and became captain for a spell. But despite doughty service in various roles, he was judged surplus to requirements as the new manager George Swindin sought to revamp a lacklustre team. Holton was sold to Watford for £10,000 in October 1958. After taking a little time to settle at Vicarage Road, he became one of the most revered figures in the Hornets’ history, netting a club record for one term of 48 League and FA Cup goals as he skippered them to promotion from the Fourth Division in 1960.
His departure from Vicarage Road in the late summer of 1961 to Northampton Town caused such a furore; his shadow remained over the club for a decade. Fifteen years later, when Jim Bonser resigned as chairman, he was still trying, to no avail, to justify that transfer, which disillusioned a generation of Vicarage Road regulars. He finally admitted when he stepped down, what everybody had known 15 years earlier: “We got rid of the wrong man”.
At Northampton Town in 1961 – he scored a club record 36 goals in 1961-62, achieving the rare feat of holding the all-time goals in a season record at two different clubs. He went on to play for Crystal Palace, signing in December 1962 and was part of the Palace side which achieved promotion to the second tier in 1964, with 43 appearances that season scoring 20 goals. He then returned to Watford on 6 May 1965, before moving on to Charlton Athletic and subsequently Leyton Orient.
Only four men since the Second World War had scored more goals in English League football than Cliff Holton namely Arthur Rowley, Jimmy Greaves, John Atyeo and John Aldridge, all of whom, unlike Holton, concentrated solely on a striking role. However the big, burly Oxonian never scaled the giddy heights predicted for him as a young Arsenal star during the early 1950
He finally retired in 1968, due in part to a knee injury and left the game completely. A forthright and articulate individual, Holton seemed ideal soccer management material but he preferred instead to concentrate on a precision engineering business, which he ran until 1989 before working part-time in sports marketing.
He died suddenly in 1996 at the age of 67 while on holiday in Almeria, Spain.
His scoring record was –