The Deptford brothers – part 2

Following on from part 1 of the story of English football’s most famous brothers.

The goals didn’t flow as freely in Bill Deptford’s first two seasons at Upton Park, and he was in and out of the team, but Ron Greenwood was appointed manager in 1961 and saw something in Bill that others hadn’t. Hitherto seen as a classic big number nine, Greenwood felt that the young striker had better technique that he’d been given credit for, and that, allied to his excellent footballing brain, would make him effective on the right wing. Bill excelled in this position, and found himself a key part of a young and exciting team filled with team-mates who would go on to be legends of English football, players like Eddie Bovington, Jack Burkett and Ted Sissons. Such was his form that Bill made his full England debut against Scotland in March 1962 – before John, which nobody would ever have predicted. He was also named in England’s squad for the 1962 World Cup, but remained at home on standby as only 11 players travelled to Chile.

After Liverpool’s Second Division title win in 1961/62, John took to First Division football immediately, and in October 1962 he received his first England call-up, for a pair of friendlies against France and Switzerland. Alf Ramsey had four years to build a squad for the 1966 World Cup, and was faced with a lot of questions to answer. He knew one thing though: his team would be based on wingers, playing as symmetrically as possible. For the second match, the Deptfords played alongside each other – for the first time in their senior careers – and Ramsey was hit with a realisation: who could achieve this better than two brothers? There was a long way to go, but it felt like a key part of the jigsaw was already in place. 

The next few seasons were good for both Deptford brothers. In 1963/64 Bill won the FA Cup with West Ham and John won the league with Liverpool, the Reds adding an FA Cup the following year. That season also gave the brothers their first experience of European football. Liverpool reached the European Cup semi-final, where they faced Inter Milan, but a lapse in judgement in this tie ended John’s campaign. After repeated provocation from half-back Walter Oriundi, he lashed out and gave the Inter man a right hook. Sent off, he immediately expressed his regret: “I should have put my head on the bastard, then he’d miss the second leg too”. Liverpool lost the tie, but Bill would have a happy European experience, as West Ham won the Cup Winners’ Cup and he finished as the competition’s top scorer, thanks in part to his seven goals in a 13-0 away win against Lillestrøm.

In the summer of 1965, AS Roma made a bid of £124,999 19s 11d for John Deptford. Although initially hesitant, he found the wage increase impossible to turn down, and was soon landing in Rome to a hero’s welcome – helped by the fact that his old adversary Oriundi was hated by Roma fans, having walked out on them to join Inter having apparently signed a contract. On the pitch, John adapted immediately, scoring 11 goals in 13 games, but off the pitch it was different: he struggled with the food, the language, and was confused by the fact that his lodgings were technically in the Vatican City. “It was like living in a different country”, he complained.

More than this, though, John was concerned that being out of sight would jeopardise his place in the World Cup squad in 1965. In December, Roma reluctantly agreed to sell him to Arsenal for half of what they’d paid for him. John had a decent half season at Highbury, and did make the World Cup squad, and a memorable photo from that tournament shows that he did make friends while abroad. After the quarter final victory over Argentina, John is pictured swapping shirts with his former Roma teammate Carlos Sanjuan, while Alf Ramsey, in the distance, looks on warmly.

Both Deptford brothers were named in the squad, and played every minute, usually with chalk on their boots as per Ramsey’s instructions. With the pair whipping in crosses to the front three of Hurst, Greaves and Haynes, England’s free flowing attack swept teams aside at every stage. The final victory over West Germany demonstrated that the old fashioned style was still supreme, that W-M would remain with us for some time yet. For the Deptford brothers an image stands out – the two of them, after the match, arms aloft, holding the Jules Rimet trophy between them. From such different starts, their careers had come together for their ultimate success.

In 1966, the two had extra reason to be close: John’s move to Arsenal meant that the two were living in the same town for the first time since they were teenagers. Even back then, they had not socialised much, with John’s outgoing nature finding little common ground with the more reserved Bill. With John new to London, though, the roles were reserved somewhat, with Bill taking him under his wing and showing him life in the capital. Much credit for the unity during this period should go to the brothers’ partners, Vera (John) and Brenda (Bill). The two had been friends back in Lavington, and had married the respective brothers, before following their careers across England and beyond. The Deptford wives’ friendship was rekindled and this brought John and Bill closer than they’d ever been. It was a steady time for the Deptfords, both on and off the pitch. The brothers remained regulars at club and international level, enough to see them named in England’s Euro 68 squad, where once again they went deep in the tournament, reaching the semi-finals and finishing third. John came close to completing his set of domestic honours, only to be foiled when Leeds beat Arsenal in the final. Much worse luck was to come though.

Arsenal had been drawn against Kettering Town in the third round of the 1968/69 FA Cup. On the kind of bog of a pitch that third round cliches are made of, Arsenal were making hard work of overcoming their non-league opponents when Kettering keeper Roy Plumstead spilled a shot from David Court onto the Highbury turf. Sensing a chance, John charged in, but lost his footing and collided awkwardly with the ‘keeper. Immediately John knew it was bad, and as he was stretchered off in agony, he wondered if his career was over. The Arsenal backroom staff were slightly more optimistic. Yes, John had broken his leg, but in a way that was healable, with time at least. His return was hampered, though, by the psychological effects of the injury itself. Feeling sidelined and isolated, John began to drink regularly, which put him out of shape and made him less receptive to treatments. He disappeared briefly, unable to bear the thought of sitting on the sidelines for Arsenal’s certain victory in the 1969 League Cup final against Swindon. John returned to reserve team action in spring 1970, and was considered fit enough to make his comeback at the start of the season, but suffered another injury after four games, and was a mere bystander as Arsenal won the double. This took a psychological toll, and in October 1971, John gave up the ghost, announcing his retirement.

The story continues in part 3.

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