Geoff Clayton was born in Mossley, Lancashire, on 3 February 1938. His mother, Elsie Clayton, worked at the time as a typist with Robert Radcliffe & Sons, a woollen manufacturer in the town and, she and her mother brought Geoff up. Later, Elsie became a district nurse.
Geoff’s tough upbringing moulded him into a strong personality. Unprepared to accept anything he regarded as an injustice, he was seen as difficult by those who attempted to make him tow the party line but fellow pros valued his wicket-keeping skills and admired the way he was at his most resolute as a batsman when he needed to dig his side out of a hole. Discovered by the Lancashire Schools Federation, he cut his teeth with Mossley CC before being invited to join the Old Trafford ground staff straight from school. From 1956, Geoff began appearing for the Lancashire Second XI, also playing for Ashton CC and Werneth CC. His progress was delayed while he undertook his National Service, appearing for the Army and Combined Services in 1957 and 1958. From 1959 be became the first choice keeper at the county, a combination of his athleticism and simian gait earning him the nickname ‘Chimp’, an affectionate moniker that his friends still use. As striking as his brilliance behind the stumps were his loud and prolonged appeals, which added further theatre to proceedings.
His arrival at Somerset seemed like the proverbial manna from heaven: a leading first-class keeper able to replace Harold Stephenson. If there were any doubts about the move, they were eradicated by the eighty-five victims Geoff claimed in his first season with Somerset. He also played his part in keeping the team on their toes, enquiring of Fred Rumsey whether he should stand up to the wicket in order to fire the Somerset paceman up or, in the words of his erstwhile roommate, Peter Robinson, ‘hurling the ball at you like a bullet and telling you that you weren’t spinning it enough’. The termination of his contract with Lancashire had had nothing to do with his performances but everything to do with his attitude to authority. With twenty overs of the Lancashire innings remaining in their Gillette Cup semi-final against Warwickshire, and only five wickets intact, M. J. K. Smith had adopted defensive tactics, instructing his fielders to scatter to the boundary ropes. Geoff and Ken Grieves had taken umbrage and staged a go-slow. With the crowd slow hand clapping, one spectator running on to remonstrate, and team manager Cyril Washbrook furious, Geoff and Ken had continued to plough their own furrow. He was dropped for the Roses match that followed and was released at the end of the season, along with three others regarded as trouble-makers. He remained a popular figure in Lancashire. Brian Statham had looked out for Geoff from the outset and they were friends for the remainder of Brian’s life. In later years, when Brian was President of Lancashire, he arrived at the ground on one occasion to find his personal parking space taken by a battered three-wheeler. There was no mistaking the owner. Brian later joked that ‘it cost Geoff a couple of fags’. Geoff has eschewed any outward show throughout his life and his taste in clothing matched his battered old car. Lancashire cricket historian Rev Malcolm Lorimer observes that ‘I’ve taken a few funerals of former Lancashire players and Geoff always turns up in his tatty old raincoat looking like Columbo, walking down the middle of the chapel with a copy of the Racing Post stuffed in his pocket.’
Having arrived at Somerset with his wicket-keeping credentials already beyond doubt, his skills as a batsman were regarded as a bonus. Coming in as night watchman in the home fixture against Middlesex, he scored his only century. Over three seasons, he averaged 14.77 with the bat but, more importantly, claimed 209 catches and 33 stumpings, contributing to an overall first-class tally of more than 650 victims.
In a game against his old foes, Warwickshire, he staged a go-slow behind the stumps in order to reduce the over rate in the hope of securing a draw. Such behaviour was anathema to his captain, Colin Atkinson, who threatened to send him off unless he desisted. Relations between the skipper and his keeper never recovered with Geoff making little effort to disguise his irritation, resorting on some occasions, for example, to trapping with his foot balls thrown inaccurately from the boundary. His departure at the end of the 1967 season appeared sudden and unexpected to outside observers, although not to those who knew the strength of personality of the two protagonists.
Geoff might have been cussed to the point at times of being unmanageable, but he had been an invaluable member of the team. ‘He was all right, was Chimp,’ David Doughty reminisces. ‘He was fond of his fish and chips. He used to drive three of us to away matches and we’d always have to stop off for fish and chips. Geoff would be sat there with them on his lap, eating them with one hand while he drove with the other.’ ‘The scruffiest roommate who ever lived,’ Peter Robinson adds, ‘and he was keen on Mackeson Stout and Park Drive cigarettes, too. He used to leave his cigarettes balanced on the side of the bench when he went out to bat. It’s a wonder he never burned the old pavilion down.’
During the winters Geoff had supplemented his wages, working for a period as a coal delivery man. After leaving Somerset at the age of only twenty-nine, he walked away from the game he had graced. He turned his attention instead to greyhounds and horses and became a well-regarded greyhound trainer and owner.
He continued to find work where he could, never likely to take to an office job. ‘I’m not a letter writer,’ he admitted. ‘Fred Rumsey would write my letters and do my paperwork for me at Somerset and Jack Bond before him at Lancashire.’ For a while he rented a small number of grocery shops and Peter Robinson recalls encountering him at a later stage ‘selling cladding to adapt street lighting for local authorities: his friend had registered the patent’. For recreation, Geoff turned in time to crown bowls, while his interest in horse and greyhound racing continued unabated.
Never married, he changed little over the years and was saddened by the death of his beloved mother in 2004. ‘She always looked after me, right till the last,’ he confessed. ‘I suppose it should have been the other way around.’ He lived modestly and was always a man to build a near-impenetrable shell around himself. The combination of dogged determination on certain issues and a tight-lipped wall of silence when he could have aided his own cause won him admirers and critics in equal measure. His friends remained unwaveringly loyal to him, valuing the directness that strangers sometimes saw as cussedness or defensiveness. He remained his own man, unmoved by what anyone else might think.