Big Interview - Cliff Portwood

Tony Dewhurst talks to Sir Tom Finney's patient deputy about his fascinating career.

Just sitting with Cliff Portwood, talking and drinking tea on a Sunday morning, does plenty to rekindle the old, deep enthusiasm for football.

Laughter comes as readily to him as it always did when he was playing with Preston North End 50 years ago and when, later in his fascinating life, he became a singing star in Australia and America.

Portwood has the energy and drive of a man half his age, and when the 71-year-old bursts into an unexpected rendition of his favourite song Send in the Clowns, it is clear the spirit and the voice that produced five gold albums is still strong and willing.

When Cliff hands me his best-selling record, his picture is on the cover astride a red sports car with a mop of black hair, and wearing a black designer shirt.

The dashing winger, bought for a 10 guineas donation to North Salford Youth Centre as Tom Finney's understudy in February 1955, looks like a young Tom Jones.

"I suppose my singing career started in the Deepdale dressing room, but the lads didn't think I was much of a singer then," laughed Cliff.

"I'd stand in the shower after a game singing my heart out.

"Save The Last Waltz For Me, Bring Me Sunshine, Amarillo, Fly Me To The Moon, lovely.

"The lads would be going, 'For goodness sake Cliff, turn it down. Give us a break'.

"They didn't know what they were missing, did they?

"I always loved to sing, but I never imagined then, as a young pro at Preston, I'd sing all over the world for a living."

It was to prove a long and winding road for Portwood.

"One day a mate of mine, who managed The Seekers, arranged for me to have an audition at London's Talk of the Town theatre.

"I got there and Michael Grade was doing the audition.

"I thought 'Blimey. This is serious stuff.'

"Funny thing was, I'd seen Eartha Kitt in concert at the Talk of the Town a week earlier.

"So there I was stood on the same stage auditioning at one of the most famous theatres in the world.

"It was so different to the night, when it is all lights, glamour and razzmatazz.

"It looked terrible, with all the ladders and ropes hanging down, but I think Mr Grade was quite pleased with my effort really.

"When I was at Portsmouth in the 1960s, I'd help out during the summer at a holiday camp on Hayling Island and I would sing with the band in the evening.

"I was paid for the sports work, but the singing was just for fun.

"After I left to play football in South Africa, with Durban, I entered a radio talent contest and won.

"From then on I never looked back."

The reward for winning the contest was a trip to Australia and the chance of a record deal. He never returned to South Africa.

"Once I was in Australia, I was making appearances in cabaret, played the club circuit and had my own television show.

"I was the resident vocalist on a variety show called The Penthouse, which went out on Channel 7 in Australia.

"I got to work with Tommy Cooper, a marvellous man, Frankie Vaughan and Dick Emery.

"I even had a drink with Keith Moon, the late drummer from The Who, which was an interesting experience.

"It was so much fun, and I became a household name.

"They nicknamed me 'Sexy Legs', which did get a bit embarrassing. I had two songs to learn each week and the show was always live.

"In those days, there was only one camera and you'd stand on a cross in front of you.

"The only thing that moved was my hips, like a Thunderbird puppet, and that's how I got the nickname.

"I'd be sat in a restaurant or at traffic lights and people would shout, 'Strewth, it's Sexy Legs."

He was 17 when he signed for Preston. Competition was fierce at Deepdale, with PNE in Division One and Tom Finney in his pomp.

But while Cliff never broke into the first-team squad, he remembers Deepdale with great affection.

He lives in Hampshire now, but admits he was moved to tears when the PNE ex-players association invited him back to Deepdale to celebrate

North End's 4,500th league game against Queens Park Rangers.

When I drove him to Deepdale from his Fulwood hotel, and he saw the stadium for the first time in 30 years, it was an emotional moment for Cliff.

"It is just great to be back," he said.

"It is like I'm back home again among friends – Deepdale looks magnificent.

"It was a special time in my life.

"My father helped run the Salford Youth club team and when I graduated to the Manchester Youth Clubs' side I played with Bobby Charlton, Eddie Colman and Albert Scanlon.

"I got picked at inside-right for the England Youth Clubs side against Hull City at Boothferry Park and I scored two goals in a 4-2 victory.

"The next day a car turned up at the office where I worked, Albert Simpson's, Manchester, and the boss said, 'You're going to Preston, Cliff. The car is waiting outside'.

"I'm said, 'I'm happy working here, boss, why do I want to go to Preston to work in an office?'

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be a professional footballer for Preston North End.

"A few hours later, though, I'd signed as professional on 7 a week.

"It was like, 'Wow I'm going to kick the same ball as the great Tom Finney'.

"I was supposed to be Tom's understudy, that's what they said when I signed anyway.

"I played outside-right and outside-left, so there wasn't much pressure on me there then!"

While he showed a lot of potential, National Service virtually killed off any hopes of carving out a career at Preston.

"I spent my first year in Northern Ireland, meaning I couldn't get to Deepdale very often.

"Mind you, being a footballer helped to make service life more tolerable.

"I was selected for the Army side and they sent me to play in a Combined Services tournament.

"We won the Championship and when I got back to camp, the sergeant major was waiting to greet me.

"I thought I'd get a hero's welcome. Instead, he was like the angry sergeant from the television series It Ain't Half Hot Mum.

"I walked in with my kit bag and he exploded, 'Where have you been Portwood?

"I told him I'd been playing football for the Army, but he bawled, 'I knew nothing about it. Take him to jail for 24 hours!'

"I'd just helped the Army win a big cup and the next day I'm behind bars!"

When he was demobbed he returned to Deepdale and spent a frustrating few months in the reserves and A team.

He said: "When I got back the trainer, Jimmy Milne, called me into his office and said the manager, Cliff Britton, wanted me out.

"He'd never seen me play – but I never kicked a ball for Preston again and to this day I feel upset thinking about it. I was devastated.

"I joined Port Vale on a free transfer – or that's what I thought.

"I found out a couple of weeks ago that Vale had paid Preston a 1,000 fee.

"That wouldn't happen today would it. The players do what they want now."

Cliff admits he never lacked competitive fire, either on the football field or with a microphone in his hand.

"I think it is a pretty similar experience, except on stage you don't get kissed and smacked on the head when you do well," he said.

"In football you come out of the tunnel together, as part of the team.

"When I went on stage for the first time I was looking behind me, thinking 'Where are the rest of the lads, there's nobody there'.

"When you sing, you get in front of an audience and it is, 'Entertain us'.

"Through the struggling times, you'd be in places and half of them didn't want to know who was up there on stage singing.

"That was hard, but every singer has to deal with that.

"It is like serving your apprenticeship in football.

"I was quite lucky because I didn't get heckled.

"I always had a warmth and a certain spontaneous connection with my audience.

"I don't know why that was, but I loved the life.

"I've been extremely fortunate to have had both a football and singing career, playing at the top grounds in England and appearing at the London Palladium and Talk of the Town.