Last Sunday 26 September Martlets FC played a charity football match against Sussex County Vets XI to fundraise for Martlets. In support of the match, former professional footballer and Martlets’ patient Eric Whitington spoke to us about tricky tackles, behind-the-scenes banter and why ‘community spirit’ has always been at the heart of life on and off the pitch.
If you were a resident of Crawley in the early 1970s, you might well have encountered a rousing piece of graffiti daubed around the town: ‘Eric is God’. According to a fan post on where-are-they-now.co.uk, it referred to rock god Eric Clapton. But local football fanatics liked to think it was a homage to their local hero Eric; a prolific goal scorer for Crawley Town.
“I don’t remember seeing that bit of graffiti or hearing about it,” chuckles Eric. At 75 and 6ft 2in, he was known as ‘big Eric’ to his supporters. “It’s great to know the fans connected that with me even if it was spray-painted in honour of Eric Clapton!”
Throughout his career, Eric played professionally for numerous clubs including Crawley Town, Folkestone, Eastbourne United, and Brighton and Hove Albion. He also spent 18 months in South Africa playing for the Highlands Park club. Straight out of school, he was signed up to Chelsea’s prestigious youth squad. And got a cap for England’s Youth International team in 1962.
First memories of football
“My first memories of football are of being taken to matches by my dad, who was a referee,” he recalls. “People in the crowd and on the pitch used to shout and swear at some of the decisions he made. But at eight years old it felt amazing seeing him at the centre of all that activity.”
Eric grew up watching Brighton play at the old Goldstone ground.
“All the boys would take their little boxes to stand on so they could see the match from the terraces. It was so exciting,” he adds. “In those days you could be stood next to somebody from the opposition’s supporters, which made for some interesting banter. Mixing up the supporters isn’t encouraged these days of course!”
His early promise as a gifted player was spotted by sports teachers at Westlain Grammar School in Brighton; he was a regular on both Brighton and Sussex boys’ teams. At these local and county matches he would encounter players who would later become some of soccer’s biggest names.
“Peter Allen was a local lad and went on to play for Leyton Orient. And at one match there was a boy marking me called Billy Bonds who went on to do great things at West Ham,” says Eric. “I found it interesting to see other players developing and you could tell who was going to be great.”
Peter Allen is still the holder of Leyton Orient’s all-time appearance record, playing more than 400 times for the club. And the legendary chant, ‘six feet two, eyes of blue, Billy Bonds is after you’, is still an unshakeable memory for many West Ham veteran.
“It’s strange, I don’t recall any of the fan chants from my days in football,” says Eric.
“I vividly remember the dressing rooms at Brighton’s Goldstone ground. And the smell of the liniment we used to rub onto our legs. You’d hear the crowd roar as we came out and get a rush of energy. But once I was on the pitch, everything beyond it disappeared as I was focused on getting the job done.”
During Eric’s last year at school, he was approached by several high-profile clubs; they were keen to sign him up to their apprenticeship schemes. Arsenal was knocking on the door and West Ham, but he decided to opt for Chelsea.
“I was only 16 and it was my first job,” he recalls. “It required me to be on the 6.14am train every morning at Brighton station to go to Chelsea’s training ground. It was quite a challenge, but a tremendous experience to train there.”
Eric was in the London Floodlit League on Chelsea’s youth team. He was also selected for England’s youth squad, playing against Scotland and Northern Ireland and captained the game against Wales.
“I was at Chelsea for a year until the manager replaced me with a chap called Peter Osgood,” says Eric. “He was a brilliant player and went on to play for Chelsea’s main team and for England. In Peter’s autobiography he mentions taking my spot, which I found quite amusing, though less so at the time.”
After his departure from Chelsea, Brighton and Hove Albion were keen to sign Eric up. He soon made the transition into the main squad.
A tricky tackle
“I was with Brighton for five to six years,” he says. “We got drawn in the FA Cup against Chelsea in ’67. Suddenly I was up against some of the blokes I used to go to work with on a daily basis. It was at the Goldstone ground which sold out to capacity with around 33,000 people watching. Unfortunately, one of the Chelsea players got sent off during the game following a rather robust tackle from me. He was angry and kicked the first blue and white shirt he saw, and it was game over for him. A few years later that tackle was the subject of another close encounter with a Chelsea defender; he was known as Ronnie ‘Chopper’ Harris for his tough defending style.
“My wife and I had gone to a local pub as Ronnie was giving a talk about playing for Chelsea; I couldn’t resist going along. The doorman recognised me as an ex- Brighton player and gave us a prime seat in the front row. At the Q and A session at the end I made a comment: ‘I feel a lot more relaxed here this evening listening to you than the last time we were this close’. Ronnie peered down at me sitting at the front but didn’t make the connection. ‘When we met during the FA Cup you told me you were going to break my legs if ever I came into the penalty area again,’ I added. And reminded him of our FA Cup encounter. Suddenly his eyes changed, and I knew he’d recognised me. Thankfully we both had a laugh about it.”
The FA Cup match at which Eric had tackled the Chelsea defender ended in a draw. So Brighton went up to the Chelsea ground the following week for a replay.
“I think it was 4-0 to Chelsea,” says Eric. “But it was such an amazing experience with more than 60,000 people watching at Stamford Bridge. That was big time football and a reminder of what it was like going to matches growing up.”
Keeping football in the family
After his time at Brighton, Eric signed a contract with South African club Highlands Park for 18 months. He then moved back to the UK; he and his wife Joan were keen to bring up their young family in Brighton. Eric played for several clubs in the Southern League including Crawley Town, Folkstone and Horsham. Then, after a bad knee injury, made the move out of football into a top job in the construction industry.
“Football’s still in the family though,” says Eric. “Our son Craig grew up playing in the Sussex boys’ team with England manager Gareth Southgate. Gareth is a Crawley lad born and bred and was always incredible to watch, such a talent. He’s gone on to be a tremendous manager. Somehow he juggles all the different personalities and egos and gets the most out of everyone playing together as one.”
Eric’s son Craig played for Crawley and then played professionally for teams up north. His grandson Charlie (Craig’s son) is a Brighton and Hove Albion supporter though. He and Eric used to go to games at the Amex stadium together before Eric’s health began to decline.
“The football grounds have changed a lot. I remember the transitions from Goldstone to Withdean and then to Falmer. Now I tend to watch on TV as my health isn’t so good and it’s harder to get around. And dare I say it, I’m also a big rugby fan too,” he says, with a wink.
Ask Eric what he misses most about his footballing days and he replies without hesitation: it’s the banter, the camaraderie and that feeling of running with the ball about to score.
“I miss the chat in the dressing room and being able to run round a pitch,” he explains. “I learnt so many life lessons from playing football. And a thing or two listening to the older lads’ banter in the dressing room!”
“Community is so important; that feeling of bringing people and skills together for something great. When I was younger that was through football. But in later life feeling I’m part of a community still lifts my mood.”
Eric is currently an outpatient at Martlets and says accessing their wellbeing services has been life-changing.
“It shook me out of a depression and got me motivated again and I’d missed that. I’m not in the greatest of health. But I’ve got some of that uplifting feeling back that I had when I was playing football. Martlets are just wonderful people; as a team they’re up there with the football clubs I’ve played for in terms of how they work together. There’s a big difference though; there are a lot of egos in big football clubs. Whereas everybody I’ve encountered at Martlets is pulling in the same direction and not trying to be the stand-out star. Whether it’s football, family or feeling cared for, for me it’s all about feeling that community spirit.”
Formed in 2020, Martlets FC are a squad of 30+ Sussex based players ranging from well-known YouTube bloggers and celebs to ex-professional sportsman and local business people. Our aim is to get together for training sessions once a month at different venues throughout Sussex and play three blue ribbon fixtures in the year. We hope our Sussex football clubs can help us with venues for training and look forward to arranged matches against the Arsenal Foundation, Chelsea old boys and a Brighton and Hove Albion XI.
You can support our team by making a donation to Martlets.
Upcoming games and information will be posted here.