Rovers’ Greatest Heroes: Ronnie Clayton

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A Blackburn Rovers and England captain, Ronnie Clayton was a one-club man who made it to a World Cup

Born in Preston in the inter-war years, Clayton began playing for Rovers in the 1950/51 at the age of 16 and immediately made an impression as a right half, the modern-day equivalent of which would be a wing-back or attacking right back. At the time Rovers were playing in the 2nd division and were pushing for promotion season after season, eventually achieving that goal in 1958 with an exciting young team built around Clayton, Bryan Douglas and Peter Dobing.

Being in the second division didn’t seem to hinder Clayton’s potential to play international football. He was selected for the England team to play Northern Ireland in 1955 and went on to play a further 34 times, and was given the great honour of captaining his country on five occasions.

Both Clayton and Douglas were selected for the England squad that went over to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup. However, the exertions of Rovers’ promotion-winning season seemed to take it’s toll on Clayton as he lost his starting position after an indifferent display against a talented Yugoslavian team. He did manage to win his place back though as he was brought in for the important playoff match versus the Soviet Union.

Clayton won his final England cap in 1960 but he continued to make huge contributions to Rovers’ domestic campaigns back in the First Division. The club reached the 1960 FA Cup final, losing out to Wolves 3-0 in the game that has become relatively famous as the match in which future sports job magnate and Wigan Athletic owner Dave Whelan broke his leg and ended both Rovers’ hopes in that final (no substitutions in those days) and also Whelan’s playing career.

Despite a couple more high points, an 8-2 Boxing Day win over West Ham United in 1963 took Rovers to the top of the league, Rovers ultimately achieved very little in terms of silverware or title challenges and eventually faded out of the top division in 1966, not to return again until Kenny Dalglish’s team won promotion to the inaugural Premier League in 1992.

Clayton was pretty much an ever-present as a right half through all of this until 1969 when the club gave him a free transfer. He moved on to become player/manager at Morecambe, his management career didn’t take off though and he moved on to play as captain for Great Harwood for another season before retiring.

Interestingly, and as an example of how the game has changed, Clayton worked full-time at his family newsagent’s business in Darwen after his football career was over. Almost seems a bit sad for such a legend of our club but Clayton played in the era before the maximum wage was broken and footballers began to live like real athletes and entertainment stars.

What was it like to watch him live? 

A number of quotes are around which describe the way that Clayton played. Former teammates Mick McGrath, Matt Woods and Mike Ferguson said:

McGrath: “On the pitch he was a great defender and off the pitch you could not meet a nicer guy. Make no mistake he was one of the best players around”.

Woods: “He was a real one-club man, a rare breed. What a player as well, he was up and down all the time, he never stopped running.”

Ferguson: “When I made my debut at Ipswich, Bryan Douglas just told me to stay on the line and Ronnie would find me. He did every time, he would just deliver the ball straight to me, it was amazing. Ronnie and Bryan were the men who led the side back after the 1960 FA Cup final debacle. I think that really hurt Ronnie and he was determined to make up for it, and of course, the supporters thought the world of him.”

His Legendary Moment

It’s rare enough for a Rovers player to represent England, let alone for one to captain the country. So when Ronnie Clayton led out the Three Lions at Ninian Park on the 17th October 1959 to play Wales, it was the crowning moment of his career.

His Legacy

There have been a few “right-half” players through the Ewood Park tunnel in the blue and white since Clayton retired but it would be fair to say that none have gotten close to the adoration, honours or longevity that Clayton displayed.

When he passed away in the year 2010, people came out from across the country and the world to pay their tributes to the great man. Not many players have the level of love and respect that Clayton inspired and it’s unlikely we will see any Rovers player get close to his records in his position.

Thanks for reading.

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