Brian Clifton: An appreciation

By David Bull time Wed 15 Jan Club

Club historian David Bull remembers Brian Clifton, who has died aged 85...

Whitchurch-born Brian Clifton was serving an apprenticeship with Portals Paper Mills in the Test Valley when he was spotted by Saints scout, Stan Woodhouse, playing for the works-team.

His first two years with Southampton were spent doing National Service in the RAF at Boscombe Down. He eventually made his debut – scoring twice – at No.9, but he would mainly alternate, for Ted Bates, between Nos.4 and 10.

Not a tall man – his “official” height was invariably stated as 5'11" but Brian reckoned that was stretching the point by at least an inch-and-a-half – his goals nevertheless included a string of classic headers.

The one against Reading – an exquisite blend of timing and power from 12 yards, on Easter Monday 1960 – all but secured promotion from Division III. A prescient George O'Brien predicted that "that goal's going to be remembered forever."

The iconic image of that moment, as captured by Echo photographer Jimmy Adams, has helped to ensure its place in the pantheon of the Saints’ most memorable goals, even if Brian would modestly bat away any praise that might detract from the contribution to promotion of Derek Reeves's record-breaking 39 goals. 

Clifton Reading upload
Brian Clifton, second from right, scores with the header that will "be remembered forever"

He revered Reeves – “a wonderful guy” and “a real gentleman” – and named his first son after him. Having adjusted to Second Division football well enough to be ever-present in 1961/62, Brian became the first victim of the woeful start to the following season, when the shirts numbered 4 and 10 were handed to Ken Wimshurst and David Burnside, respectively. 

He was soon moved on to Grimsby, joking with Terry Paine that “they’ll probably have a hairnet big enough for you up there.” Such banter apart, he hugely admired Paine and was very generous in his praise for his competitors at right-half: Dick Conner and Wimshurst. 

Just before he left for Grimsby, Brian contrived to damage his knee in a “kick-about” on the unforgiving asphalt of the Dell car park. Ted Bates was furious. And they weren't best pleased at Grimsby, either, when the knee soon gave out. But the big freeze of 1962/63 virtually wiped out three months of fixtures, providing the perfect snow-screen for Brian to have his cartilage removed and barely miss a game. 

If his ground-play was never quite the same, his heading ability remained undiminished – not least when he converted to centre-half, “almost sweeping”, as he put it, and playing better, he contended, “than I’d ever played in my life.” 

While far from bitter about losing his midfield role at Southampton, he did like to reflect on how “perfectly” he would have complemented Tony Knapp, as a sweeper. “Knappie” would have gone “for everything – that’s all he knew to do, was go for it” – while Brian “dropped off and picked everything up and looked good.”

After suffering shin-splints at Grimsby, he went part-time, principally with Boston United. Brian then played Lincolnshire League football into his fifties and cricket for even longer. He worked for a company manufacturing freezer cabinets for the fish and poultry industries. 

Starting as a draughtsman in the drawing office, he stayed with the same firm for 28 years and was manager of the design department until he retired, remaining in the area at Holton-le-Clay. 

Clifton Brian upload

15 March 1934 – 12 January 2020


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