Club Historian David Bull remembers Bill Ellerington, an outstanding contributor to the Saints’ history, who has died aged 91.
During the First World War, Sunderland-born Bill Ellerington was among the migration of footballers from the north-east to work at Harland and Woolf in Woolston, guesting a while for Southampton. His son, Bill, was born in Southampton in 1923, but Bill Sr took the family back to Sunderland, where Bill Jr completed his schooling.
Young Bill captained England Schools in 1937 and, by the age of 15, was an awe-struck amateur at Roker Park. He was still registered with Sunderland when the family reverted to Southampton but he guested, in his turn, for the Saints until 1942, when the RAF beckoned. Having signed, full-time, in 1945, Bill was at right-back for the Saints, aged 23, when the Football League re-opened for business in 1946/47.
Bill Ellerington, aged 13, with the ball at his feet, captains the England Schools side that beat Scotland 4-3 at Cowdenbeath in May 1937.
But then came the FA Cup Fourth Round. When the squad went golfing ahead of their tie at Newcastle, all of the players wore heavy polo-neck jerseys – save for Bill, open-necked. He went down with pleurisy. Duly summoned north to play, Alf Ramsey would remain ever-present for two years. His performances were good enough not only to sideline Ellerington, but to win him an England cap in December 1948.
But then Ramsey lost his Southampton place to Ellerington, the following month, after injuring his knee in a friendly – although Joe Mallett would ever after insist that Alf’s undoing was his disruption, the previous Saturday, of the offside tactics master-minded by left-back and captain, Bill Rochford, Ellerington’s mentor and hero, who “played the offside-trap like no-one who’s ever existed or ever will do.” However you explain Ellerington’s resurrection, the fact is that he seized his chance impressively enough to be capped twice on England’s continental tour of May 1949.
Bill Ellerington (left) and Jimmy Dickinson, fellow-debutants for England in Norway, May 1949.
Cue comparisons of these two right-backs at a Second Division club, competing for the England shirt. While enthusing that Ramsey “was a brilliant user of the ball,” Mallett felt that “Bill’s all-round defensive game was better than Alf’s.” Ted Ballard saw the pros and cons differently: “Alf was a much better all-round player,” he reckoned, but “Bill was one of the best kickers of the ball” he’d ever seen.
In the very week of Bill’s international debut in Oslo, a disgruntled Ramsey was transferred to Tottenham, feeling slighted by manager Dodgin, who had pointedly told reporters that Ellerington “never moaned once, all the time he was in the Reserves.” While Ramsey wasted no time in reclaiming the England spot, Bill was one of seven full internationals – not to mention the up-and-coming Nat Lofthouse – in the FA party that toured Canada in 1950.
Bill Ellerington (left), on the FA’s 1950 tour of Canada, with Jackie Sewell, Nat Lofthouse and Stan Hanson.
His 238th game for the Saints in 1956 would be his last for the first team. Duly appointed player-coach to the club’s new manager – his long-time team-mate, Ted Bates – Bill played on for the “A” team. To his young charges, Bill was a much-admired model – most especially, for Terry Simpson, as to how to kick the ball. That theme again. Simpson describes Bill’s kicking as “the finest. No effort. Beautiful. Like a golf swing.” Only Bobby Charlton has ever matched Bill in that regard, he reckons.
Bill demonstrates why he was judged to be the “finest” kicker of a football – matched only by Bobby Charlton.
Bill’s first task, off the field, was to help Bates scour the lists of players available for transfer, hoping for bargain-buys. And then he had to inspect the potential bargains. It is not contested that both Cliff Huxford and George O’Brien were his recommendations, although he would shrug off the received wisdom that he had “found” Mick Channon. Terry Paine so admired Bill’s judgment that, after moving to Hereford in 1974 as player-coach, he would seek his advice on players who might hack it in the Third, and later Second, Division. Hereford’s manager, John Sillett, “respected Bill as much as any scout I’ve ever met. An excellent judge – hard to please!”
By then, Bill had been transferred by Lawrie McMenemy from his coaching role into scouting. He helped Ted Bates in 1976 to spy on FA Cup opponents, especially Manchester United ahead of the Final – a mission described by Channon as “the greatest piece of tactical scouting I have ever known.” But his unassuming, unassertive style was not up McMenemy’s street and he was relieved of his duties – to his lasting chagrin – in the manager’s 1980 reshuffle. Aged 57, he would never work in the game again. He would stay in touch with it, though, in his own modest way, attending various functions and ceremonies on the express condition that he not be asked to speak.
He was always an animated analyst, however, with a private audience. Even after a stroke and heart attack in 2008 had dented his confidence and impaired his memory, he remained an enthusiastic host to the Saints historians, generously affording them access to his vast collection of photos and memorabilia, while being ever keen to relive his playing days – with Rosalind, his wife of 65 years, on hand to fill in the memory-gaps. Rosalind is the daughter of Wilf Gregory, who ran the Highcliffe Corinthians, the first club of Terry Paine, who had grown up, just around the corner from them on Winchester’s Highcliffe estate, dependent upon Wilf for a football to practise with.
Bill’s previous capacity for recall had been in demand when Ted Bates’s memory succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 2002/03. Bill became a regular visitor, reminiscing about how they’d scraped by in Ted’s early seasons as manager. Ted properly stands alone, as a statue on the St Mary’s forecourt. But supposing that the fashion had been not for individual statues but for major pairings, then there would rightfully have been a statue of Ted, with Bill alongside – or, more probably, peeping modestly over the boss’s shoulder.
30 June 1923 – 4 April 2015
This Appreciation has been compiled from numerous interviews, over the last 20 years, with Bill Ellerington and other ex-Saints, variously conducted by David Bull, Duncan Holley and Tim Manns, with Gary Chalk totting up the statistics.