John Mortimore: An appreciation


Saints historian David Bull remembers former Southampton Football Club President John Mortimore, who has died aged 86.

John Mortimore came to The Dell as the Board’s radical remedy to the difficulties the team was having in their second season in the top flight.

At a special Sunday meeting on February 25th 1968, the Directors decided that 49-year-old manager Ted Bates, who had brought the Saints from the Third Division to the First, needed to be relieved of “some of the pressures” upon him. They would advertise for an assistant manager/coach, who would “take charge of the coaching, training and discipline of the players.”

The job sounded attractive enough to tempt a strong field, including even Jimmy Scoular, ex-Pompey and Scotland, who was in his fourth season as manager of Cardiff City, then enjoying a run in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. The Board’s unanimous choice was 33-year-old John Mortimore.

Farnborough-born, John could recall crossing Hampshire, as a teenager, to watch the Saints in their doomed run-in of 1949. But his playing career had taken him eastward, as an amateur at Woking, as he became a schoolteacher, and then as a professional at Chelsea, before a swansong at QPR. In the course of his 279 games as Chelsea’s centre-half, the club won promotion from the Second Division in 1963 and the League Cup in 1965.

What the directors expected of Mortimore was not welcomed by the dressing room. In interviews 30 to 40 years later, for my biographies of Bates and Terry Paine, players from the 1968 team queued up to justify their opposition to the Board’s tripartite job description.

For a start, it was far too early, in English football, Jimmy Gabriel explained, for the manager to have a coach working under him. Bates was a qualified coach and any additional coaching should have been left to senior players, with Paine in charge of the forwards and Gabriel himself directing the defence. And nor did it need an alternative approach to training. John Sydenham took exception to the introduction of “a clipboard man”.

And then there was the matter of “discipline”. Mick Channon, then a 19-year-old rebel without a pause, blamed Alf Ramsey: his World Cup-winning squad contained some notorious drinkers whose habits Ramsey had tempered. One way or another, then, Mortimore had taken on Mission Impossible. Channon was one of those who felt John weathered the initial resistance to come good, winning him the alternative criticism from Ron Davies of being “too much of a nice guy”.

It was Davies who told the Daily Express, the following season, that the Saints were benefiting from a “more consistent, far tighter defence,” a feather in Mortimore’s tactical cap. The last word on the Directors’ experiment can be left to Eric Martin who dubbed it “a sort of European thing”.

Their tight defence in 1968/69 took them to seventh in the table and European football. Naturally, the BEA Viscount on which the squad flew to Trondheim for their opening match in the European Fairs Cup was “dry”: fruit juice and milk only. There’s discipline for you.

Mortimore would leave in 1971 to show how comfortable he was with the “European thing”, first in Greece and then in Portugal. In his two spells with Benfica, the club twice won Portugal’s League and twice its Cup. Back in England in 1973, he joined his great friend Ron Tindall for one season at Portsmouth. After which, John's service to football would consist of a medley of posts in continental Europe and various positions at Southampton, including a spell as Lawrie McMenemy’s assistant (1979-85) and a stint in 1994 as caretaker manager.

Although hurt, John accepted his dismissal with dignity. His wife Mary and he became season ticket holders, chatting to the likes of me as they queued at an Itchen Stand turnstile.

After living for a few years with Alzheimer’s, John went into a care home 18 months ago, He survived Covid-19 last year but eventually succumbed to a build-up of illnesses.

23rd September 1934 – 26th January 2021