The latest in a series of profiles and interviews, Orginal Fat Bob gives his personal view on the life and career of a footballing guest, before sitting down for a chat and asking a few questions. Our Diasboro special guest this week is John Hickton.
1. The Overview – the man and his career
John Hickton was a prolific striker and at one time considered to be a defender, who had a 15-year career in the football league between 1963-78. He is the club’s fourth all-time top scorer, with 192 goals, and is third in the all-time appearances list, pulling on the Boro shirt an incredible 499 times. This ranking is just behind George Camsell, George Elliott and Brian Clough in the scoring tally and Tim Williamson and Gordon Jones in appearances. This is quite a small and illustrious company of Boro stars.
Born on 24 September 1944 in Brimington near Chesterfield, he was actually a Manchester United fan as a boy. As a talented young footballer, he had the choice to sign for Arsenal and United, but opted for nearby Sheffield Wednesday, who at the time were second in the First Division and had several England Internationals in the side.
John caught the eye of the Boro scouts at Sheffield Wednesday, after he had played 53 games and scored a brilliant 21 goals. On the day that Boro went to Sheffield to sign him, Norwich were also there with the intention of persuading John to join them instead, but luckily for us the Boro Secretary and the Owls Secretary were good friends and he was spirited away out of the reach of Norwich. So it was at the Wednesday Secretary’s house where he subsequently signed on the dotted line for Stan Anderson on his 22nd birthday, where he earned himself a contract worth £28 per week and moved into a club house in Acklam. Alan Brown who was his manager at Wednesday told him he had made a good career choice by joining Boro.
John proved to be one of our best signings ever and he made his debut for us in a 3-2 win against Workington Town in 1966-67. Town were winning 2-0 at one time and riding high in the then third division. Boro had just been recently relegated from the second division and were struggling at the lower end of the division. This result dramatically changed both sides fortunes, because Boro were promoted that season, Town were relegated and have struggled ever since. He appeared 45 times during the 1966-67 promotion season, scoring 17 goals in all competitions. John O’Rourke was the club’s top scorer with 30 goals, followed by Arthur Horsfield with 23 goals.
Of course, many at Diasboro including myself, may well recall that final game of the season on Tuesday 16th May 1967 when we were at home to Oxford United. With all the other team’s fixtures in the Division completed, we needed a win to finish in 2nd place and join already crowned Champions, Queens Park Rangers, in getting promoted to the Second Division. With over 40,000 supporters crammed into Ayresome Park, I remember that hundreds sat on the perimeter of the pitch, and many more were locked outside, or climbing the walls to get in. I also recall that a small boundary wall collapsed in the North East corner and some fans were injured. The atmosphere was overpowering, a cacophony of sound roaring the team to promotion. John scored a header ten minutes into the second half, and our goal machine John O’Rourke scored a hat-trick. We all spilled onto the pitch after every goal and Ayresome Park was at fever pitch. We ran out 4-1 winners and were promoted back to the Second Division. Stan Anderson’s team had gained promotion at the first attempt. That game goes down as one of the greatest nights in the club’s history and is still remembered and talked about today.
Boro’s first season back in the Second Division in 1967 saw John play in a centre forward role, finishing top scorer with 29 goals. With his robust performances and a keen eye for goal, he soon became a crowd favourite amongst Boro fans. He linked up well with our other heroes of that time which included: O’Rourke, Horsfield, McMordie, and Downing, We finished 6th in the 1967-68 season.
The following season saw Boro go even better as they finished 4th and just missed out on promotion by seven points. One of Big John’s standout games came in March, in a thrilling 5-3 win against Hull City at Ayresome Park, where he scored four with McMordie getting the other. He finished the 1968-69 season as top scorer with 18 goals, which also saw the first appearances of another future Boro great, Willie Maddren.
The 1969-70 season saw John with a new strike partner, as Hugh McIlmoyle was signed from Carlisle United. That October saw Hickton go on a remarkable run of 11 goals in 11 games, as Boro won five in a row and challenged for promotion. We also reached the Quarter-Final of the FA Cup that February, with John scoring at Ayresome Park in the 1-1 draw against Manchester United. He was on target again four days later, but unfortunately Boro got beat 2-1 in the replay at Old Trafford. The season ended with Boro once again finishing in 4th as they missed out on promotion.
Boro were hoping that 1970-71 would be their year for promotion, with Hickton starting off by scoring on the opening day, in a 2-1 win against Carlisle. However, only one win followed in their next six games, but September saw the visit of Queens Park Rangers in a game that would go down as an Ayresome Park classic. Boro won the game 6-2, and John would take the match ball, scoring a hat-trick, but the game is also remembered for Hughie McIlmoyle, who set up three, scored two, and won a penalty. Both McIlmoyle and Hickton were said to be unplayable that day. Despite Boro’s inconsistency, Hickton couldn’t stop scoring, bagging 19 goals by the new year. Boro could only finish the season in 7th spot but John was once more top scorer with 27.
The summer of 1971 saw Boro boss Stan Anderson strengthen his team by bringing in World Cup winner and ex-Manchester United midfielder Nobby Stiles, along with Stuart Boam, John Craggs, and goalkeeper Jim Platt. However, Boro’s inconsistent form from the previous season continued when after a good start, a bad run saw only one win in nine from November until January. The new year saw them pick up, winning six out of seven league games and reaching the 5th round of the FA Cup. For the third season in a row Boro were drawn against Manchester United in the cup, and following a goalless draw at Old Trafford, Boro were thumped 0-3 in the replay at Ayresome Park. From mid-March until the end of the season, Boro won only two in the last eleven, picking up just 8 points to slip to a 9th placed finish. John was a virtual ever present and top scorer again with 16 goals.
John missed the opening three games of the 1972-73 season through injury, and again Boro’s inconsistent form continued, as they struggled to find the net. Then October saw the arrival of ex-Newcastle frontman Alan Foggon from Cardiff, with midfielder Graeme Souness joining Boro from Tottenham Hotspur in December. When in January Boro lost at Third Division Plymouth 1-0 in the FA Cup 3rd round, it was followed by a 0-0 draw with QPR at Ayresome Park. Boro Manager Stan Anderson had seen enough and handed in his resignation.
I remember when Harold Shepherdson took over as caretaker manager until the end of the season as I was refereeing all his trial matches at that time. He revealed to me it was he who had signed Souness when working with England and it was Martin Peters who had recommended him to Shep. Boro finished 4th in the table under Harold and John the top scorer for the sixth season running, with 15 goals.
England World Cup winner and ex-Leeds United Centre half Jack Charlton was installed as Boro manager, in the summer of 1973. Big Jack got to work by signing European Cup winner and Celtic legend Bobby Murdoch, on a free transfer, the only addition to Anderson’s team. He also introduced the now famous, white chest band on the front of the Boro shirt. John and his teammates were about to produce a record breaking season on their way to promotion to Division One during 1973-74. Although, after starting with a victory away to Portsmouth, a 2-0 defeat followed at home to Fulham, which prompted Charlton to famously say: “we do it my way or not at all.” Charlton’s team then went on a 24-game unbeaten run stretching until February, topping the table in October and staying there for the rest of the season.
Promotion was secured on 23rd March, with eight games still left to play, with Boro winning the Second Division Championship in a 1-0 away win at Luton Town, on March 30th. The second Division Championship trophy was presented to Jack Charlton and the Boro team at the home game against Sheffield Wednesday on April 20th. Boro celebrated by thrashing Wednesday 8-0 with John again on the score sheet, along with Graeme Souness who bagged a hat-trick. (my favourite Boro game – OFB). The promotion team of 1974, dubbed Charlton’s Champions, was to go down in history as one of the greatest Middlesbrough teams of all-time and probably the one that I am most fond of. The club was back in the top-flight, following a 20-year absence. John wore the number nine shirt during the 73-74 season, scoring 11 goals in 44 appearances but it was Alan Foggon who finished top scorer with 20 goals.
John Hickton kicked off Boro’s First Division season in style, getting on the scoresheet in a 3-0 opening day victory at Birmingham City, with Alan Foggon getting the other two. Unlike today, manager Jack Charlton opted to go into the new season keeping faith in the players who had earned promotion, making no additions to the Boro squad. John’s goals and Boro’s excellent form saw the club finish 7th in the First Division, the highest league placing since the 1950-51 season.
John got on the goal trail early in the 1975-76 campaign, scoring three in the first six games, followed by only two more goals before Christmas, as Boro struggled for consistency, which continued throughout the season. Despite Boro’s inconsistent league form, they reached the Semi-Final of the League Cup, playing Manchester City, in the first leg at Ayresome Park, where Hickton scored the goal in a 1-0 win. The impressive City ran out 4-0 winners, in the second leg at Maine Road, cruelly ending another Wembley dream for Hickton and Middlesbrough. The 1975-76 season also saw Middlesbrough enter the Anglo-Scottish Cup, which they won after beating Fulham over two legs. Captain Stuart Boam lifted the trophy at Craven Cottage in December. John Hickton scored five goals in the competition, including a brace in a 5-2 victory away to Aberdeen. However, Boro’s indifferent form left them only 13th in the First Division table, though John was the top scorer with 18 goals in all competitions.
After ten years at the club, the 1976-77 season was John Hickton’s Testimonial season, though with Jack Charlton opting to bring in striker Alf Wood and also giving Alan Willey and Peter Brine a chance in the Boro attack, it meant John’s playing time was limited. He made ten appearances for Middlesbrough, five coming off the bench, before a short loan spell at Hull City, where he played six games, scoring one goal for the Tigers. Middlesbrough celebrated Hickton’s illustrious spell at the club, with a midweek testimonial game against Sunderland in April 1977, he scored a hat-trick in a 6-1 win, in front of 10,500 supporters at Ayresome Park.
It was also around this time that manager Jack Charlton departed Middlesbrough after four years in charge, he was replaced by former Wrexham manager John Neal. The 1977-78 season would be the last season on Teesside for Boro Legend John Hickton, the thirty-three year old striker was to make only three starts all season. His last appearance was coming off the bench in a 1-2 defeat against West Ham United, at Ayresome Park in April 1978, as Middlesbrough finished the season in 14th position.
John left Boro in 1977 at the end of his career to join Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the North American Soccer League, where George Best, Gordon Banks, and Ian Callaghan, were amongst his new teammates in Florida. Sadly, he broke his leg in his second game and never played competitive football again.
He is quite rightly considered one of the legendary players to have pulled on a Boro shirt and for that, we are eternally grateful that he did.
I took an instant liking to John when I first saw him play and he has been one of my favourite Boro players of all time. I remember being up at Newcastle at St James Park one afternoon, watching our team when we were awarded a penalty. I swear he set off from the half way line before getting to the penalty spot and the ball. He scored the penalty of course, you could always guarantee that he would.
He is now retired, playing golf and living in Chesterfield near his birthplace. He has fond memories of Middlesbrough where he lived in Linthorpe, Acklam and Nunthorpe with his wife Rosemary. His children were born here, and he used to love going to Redcar and walking on the beach. He also recalls visits with the team to the local nightclubs including the Fiesta. He said that “Big Jack” [Charlton] always insisted on coming with the team to keep an eye on the players, to make sure they didn’t get too friendly with the gorgeous Fiesta Fawns. (remember them? OFB). He also used to own a newsagent shop in Redcar, but it was hard work and very long hours. He certainly doesn’t regret having to give that part of his life up
Today, when I meet him for our chat, those long blonde locks are long gone. He doesn’t seem quite as tall as I remember him, and wonder how he used to leap high in the air on the pitch. He is ruddy faced, a twinkle in his eye, but he is quite concise and firm with his responses. He is pleased to talk about his time with Boro and grateful that supporters all over the world are still interested in him and his thoughts.
2. The Interview – a quick chat
OFB: You joined Boro as a professional footballer in 1966? Did you know much about Middlesbrough F.C. at that time?
JH: I knew Ayresome Park had been a world cup ground, home to North Korea and that famous 1-0 victory over Italy at Middlesbrough.
OFB: Where did you stay? Did you rent, or did you live in digs?
JH: I first used a club house, then had a house on Acklam Road. We then moved to a bungalow on Thornaby Road. I decided to buy a plot of land and had a house built, as I wanted it to be built personally. This was in Nunthorpe. I thought then and still do, that it’s a lovely place to live.
OFB: When you first came to Middlesbrough you were signed as a defender. Whose idea was it that you should play at centre-forward? Had you played in that position before? Which position did you prefer playing in?
JH: I only enjoyed one thing when I played football and that was scoring goals!
OFB: Who was your favourite Boro player during your playing days and others that you have played with?
JH: All the Boro players I played with were my favourite players, oh and Pele!
OFB: Who were the best and worst trainers in the team?
JH: I’m not going to answer that, I still see all the lads…
OFB: When did the team travel for away games, how did they get there, by bus or by train?
JH: We usually travelled the day before and used our own charter bus if it was not too far away. We got the train if a long distance.
OFB: How many players usually travelled and did the Directors travel with you?
JH: There were usually only about 13 players who travelled to games and the Middlesbrough Directors always went with us, either on the Club Coach or the Train.
OFB: Did you have nice hotels or was it just bed and breakfast?
JH: We always stayed in nice hotels, we never used bed and breakfast establishments.
OFB: Who did you room with for away matches?
JH: Frank Spraggon.
OFB: Who was the joker in the team?
JH: Stuart Boam was the joker, then again, all the lads used to have a laugh and a bit of a joke.
OFB: Can you tell us any amusing anecdotes or pranks that were played?
JH: No! (emphatically! OFB)
OFB: Whose boots did you clean as an apprentice and who cleaned yours?
JH: I never cleaned anyone’s boots and I don’t know who used to clean mine.
OFB: Did you try and emulate your style of play, on any individual player who played in your position?
JH: I always used to love watching Jimmy Greaves and I used to try and model myself on him.
OFB: You had a very individual way of taking penalties, which usually involved a long run up, how did that evolve?
JH: I don’t know really, it just seemed to happen and get better and better and longer and longer. I remember people started talking about how long I took on the run up and I could see the goalkeepers looking at me warily. So I just played to the fans and started getting farther and farther away from the goal to make some impact and it always worked!
OFB: What was your most memorable game, your own individual performance and best experience with the fans?
JH: Every game I played for Middlesbrough was the best. I loved playing for the Boro and the fans were and still are the greatest, which is the best experience I have ever had in football.
OFB: Out of all the goals you scored for Boro, which was your favourite goal that you scored?
JH: Every goal I scored was a favourite, I loved them all!
OFB: What was your worst game or experience and why?
JH: I never had a bad game or a bad experience. I didn’t like it towards the end of my time with Boro when I used to get subbed with twenty or so minutes to go. Big Jack used to say to me, “you’re getting older now, just run around a lot and I’ll give you a rest before the end of the game.” So that’s what happened, but I still didn’t like it.
OFB: Is there a game that you wished you had played in, either for Boro, or another team?
JH: I would have loved to have played for England, in the 1966 world cup at Wembley and scored the winning goal.
OFB: Who was in your opinion the best manager that Boro have ever had and why?
JH: Undoubtedly it has to be Jack Charlton. He had such a good knowledge of the game and how it should be played.
OFB: Who was in your opinion the manager that had the greatest influence on your career and why?
JH: Derek Dooley at Sheffield Wednesday. He took a job with a firm owned by one of the club directors and also worked with the Wednesday junior team. This was after he had lost his leg when he broke it playing for Wednesday and it became infected. He was the greatest influence on my career because he was such a brilliant coach.
OFB: Which opposing team and which player did you fear playing against?
JH: None, I never feared anyone.
OFB: Which opposing team and which player did you like playing against?
JH: I loved playing against Liverpool and Manchester United.
OFB: Who is your favourite Boro player of all time and why?
JH: My favourite player of all time has to be Willie Maddren, he was just great.
OFB: Who is your current favourite Boro player and why?
JH: I love all the current Boro players! (very diplomatic OFB)
OFB: How do you think the match day has changed from the time that you played professional football to the present day?
JH: Its changed a great deal and really, I can’t say in words how much, as it’s a different game now.
OFB: If you could be a fly on the wall, is there any dressing room you would wish to eavesdrop on?
JH: No, I’m quite content not listening in to anything thank you.
OFB: Do you have any regrets in your career, or missed opportunities?
JH: No, no regrets, none at all.
OFB: Do you still follow the Boro and their results
JH: Yes of course, I’m their best supporter!
OFB: Do you still live in Chesterfield these days and what do you do?
JH: Yes, I still live there, and I’m retired now.
OFB: Whom have you made a lifelong friend through football?
JH: All my old Boro team mates. (the 1973/74 team keep in regular touch with one another and are planning to get together for a dinner at the club OFB)
OFB: Finally, if you hadn’t had a professional career as a footballer, what do you think you would have done as a career?
JH: I’d have been an accountant. (still on the score sheet! OFB)
OFB: A huge thank you John for taking the time to talk to Diasboro and our readers and our best wishes for the future.
JH: Thank you all for reading what I’ve got to say, after all these years.