Cliff Portwood - Mr Twinkle Toes
Posted on 29th Mar 2023 by David Taylor
Cliff Portwood 1937 - 2012
Cliff Portwood yesterday morning (10 January 2012) lost his long battle against a lung complaint, a battle during which he always wore a smile. He passed away in the presence of his family in Basingstoke Hospital, he was seventy four.
While trawling the internet trying to piece together the parts of this obituary I found one site which simply asked the question – Who is Cliff Portwood? The answer – Only the man with the most fascinating career in the world.
Few can argue with that statement though as he played football with Bobby Charlton, worked on stage with Tommy Cooper, sang with England`s World Cup winning squad, had Jimmy Dickinson as his best man and his career spanned three different continents and that is just a few of the highlights.
Cliff Portwood was born in Salford on 17 October 1937 and his football career started at North Salford Youth Club where his father ran the side and then he was selected for the Manchester Youth Clubs side which included Albert Scanlon, Eddie Colman and a certain Bobby Charlton.
He was then spotted by the England structure and represented the national Youth Clubs side scoring twice in a 4-2 win at Hull City. The next day Cliff was signed by Preston North End earning £7 per week. His Youth Centre apparently received a donation of ten guineas. It was at Preston that he came under the influence of the great Tom Finney. In fact I have seen him called Finney`s understudy as Cliff was then playing on either wing.
However National Service was to curtail Portwood`s career at Deepdale. He would though represent the Army at football and even that got him in trouble. Returning late to camp after winning a tournament for the Army he was immediately given 24 hours in jail by the Sergeant Major!!
After demob back at Preston things were tough and Cliff played just reserve and ‘A` team football before he was on the move to Port Vale for the princely sum of £750. Cliff always felt that the Preston manager at the time Jimmy Milne, never gave him a chance before sending him packing; ‘he never saw me play` was always his retort.
At Vale Park, Cliff eventually tasted first team football making his debut in the 1959 and finishing his first season with nine goals in twenty league games and the next season he was top scorer with an impressive haul of twenty six goals. That record brought the scouts to watch him and Vale could not resist an offer from Grimsby Town of £6,000 for Cliff`s signature.
Two seasons at Blundell Park followed and Cliff was top scorer for his new club in 1961/62 as they won promotion to the Second Division as runner up to champions Portsmouth!! The next season the Mariners hung on to their status in the second level but new manager Tom Johnston decided to sell Portwood and he joined Pompey for £4,000 in the summer of 1964.
There are those who always believed that Cliff was signed to replace the prolific Ron Saunders but a look at the teamsheet for the opening day of the 1964/65 season kills that thought. For both Saunders and Portwood were there, in fact they both scored as Pompey crushed 5-2 at Leyton Orient. Ron Saunders was replaced by the far from prolific Ron Tindall when he (Saunders) left two weeks later.
That first season was Cliff`s best for goals for Pompey scoring eleven in thirty one games, injury meant he missed a number of games in the spring, else no doubt he would have scored more. After that successful first season Cliff tended to drift in and out of the side as George Smith with only between sixteen and eighteen professionals at his disposal, shuffled the pack.
One of those spells on the sidelines famously ended on 23 February 1967 when after ten games out of favour Cliff was back in the side to face table topping Wolves at Fratton Park. Cliff scored the two Pompey goals as they led 2-0 only to fade in the second half and lose 3-2. Famous? I hear you all ask – well those two goals were the first scored by a Pompey player in front of the Match of the Day cameras.
Cliff was always aware of his place in Pompey history when talking to younger fans about it when I met him at a book signing a couple of years ago. He was also keener to sell his CDs that talk about football but we will come to that side of Cliff shortly.
Cliff`s final Pompey appearance was on the opening day of the 1968/69 campaign in a goalless draw at Huddersfield, he was then an unused substitute in the September home games with Bury and Crystal Palace. In 1969 he followed the trail of a number of Pompey players of that era and signed for Durban United in South Africa.
The other career
Cliff`s singing career began in the showers at Preston and ended on the cabaret circuit in Florida. Cliff apparently loved to sing in the showers as a youngster much to the annoyance of his fellow players but he stuck at it and when at Pompey he had summer jobs singing at a holiday camp on Hayling Island and would also entertain fans at the supporter`s club.
There is a famous story that Cliff when boss George Smith entered the room would break into the chorus of Esther Phillips` classic ‘Please release me`. George did eventually get the message.
When in Durban entered a radio talent contest, which he won; the prize was a trip to Australia with a chance of a recording contact. Cliff never returned to South Africa. Once in Australia he soon became a household name and one Pompey fan now back in England told be that he could not believe it when he was stood outside a nightclub in Melbourne and saw a sign advertising ‘see Cliff Portwood live` when he had only a few years before seen him perform on God`s Green Acre.
Cliff even ended up with his own TV show ‘The Penthouse` shown on Channel 7 and he got work with the likes of Tommy Cooper, Dick Emery and Frankie Vaughan and he also received five gold discs for record sales.
Back in the UK in the early 80`s Cliff (Portwood not Richard) was invited to sing with members of the England World Cup winning team of 1966 on a single for the 1982 finals. You will have heard if you followed the link above the song and seen the faces of Alan Ball, Geoff Hurst, Ray Wilson, Martin Peters, Gordon Banks, Nobby Stiles and Bobby Moore. The record however was not released until after England`s exit from the tournament due to technical difficulties. It was re-released in 2010 and got Cliff more publicity.
After Cliff returned to Britain he took over running the Gentleman Jim pub in Alton which he renamed from the Double Axe in 1982. The pub was of course named after his close friend and team mate Jimmy Dickinson. Dickinson was best man at Cliff`s wedding and apparently it was Cliff who drove to Barnsley to collect Jim after his fateful heart attack.
After running a number of clubs in the Haslemere area Cliff successfully resurrected his singing career in Florida in the late 90`s but when he was diagnosed with an incurable lung disease he decided to return home to Hampshire. Cliff loved all sport and was keen golfer and he loved his cricket too playing for the Maniacs in the mid 60s with Brian Lewis, Jimmy Dickinson and Harry Harris.
Cliff was a stylish player who was always a joy to watch. In the early sixties players were more often than not tough characters but Cliff did not belong to that group. He played over one hundred games for Pompey scoring over thirty goals.
His most important Pompey goal probably came against Blackpool in December 1967 when the biggest league crowd in the last fifty years watched a 3-1 home win in a clash of the top two.
His eldest grandson had been on the books of the Pompey Academy.
When asked about his style of play in an interview with Sport.co.uk he likened himself to Ronaldo – ‘saying know it sounds ridiculous and big-headed, but my sort of style was the Ronaldo type – on the ball, twinkly-toed, turn on a sixpence, turn in the box, sharp. They used to call me ‘Twinkle Toes` when I played because my idea of football was getting away from the defender so they`ve got to get near you. Consequently I wasn`t a big cruncher or anything like that but I would watch them coming and I loved it when an opponent was sliding in because I`d just wait until he was sliding and then lift the ball over his leg! They were crunchers in those days – get stuck in, you know?`
Thanks for the memories Cliff – rest in peace.
David Taylor 11 January 2012
The Portwood family responded - I am Cliff Portwood’s son in law.
I would like to thank you on behalf of Cliffs 3 children and 3 grandchildren for the wonderful article you have written about Cliff and his life.
Of the many touching tributes from Cliffs old clubs and on related forums, it is by far the most accurate, well researched and personal.
Whilst it brought a tear to the eye of his children, it also raised many smiles and happy memories at this difficult time for them.
I would also like to thank you personally myself.