90 not out! Happy birthday Eric Gill

As Albion's oldest surviving player celebrates his 90th birthday this week, a look at the extraordinary career of goalkeeper Eric Gill who played 247 consecutive games for the club between 1953-58.

By Spencer Vignes • 07 November 2020

Eric Gill in action against Stoke City in April, 1959.

Chances are that you’ve never even heard of Eric Gill, let alone had the privilege of seeing the esteemed Londoner in action. To be honest, I’m still playing catch-up with his remarkable story having interviewed him for the first time during the recent lockdown. I knew bits and pieces, enough perhaps to make three or four words, but that was about it. After talking for all of 76 minutes and 43 seconds (there’s no arguing with the timer on a modern dictaphone), I’m now at the stage where I almost don’t know where to start with this inspirational man.

Nevertheless, here goes. Born 1930, Camden Town. Which, as a youth, put him right slap bang in the middle of the Blitz. Survived several near misses to see out the war and become an amateur goalkeeper. Picked up by Charlton Athletic where he understudied the great Sam Bartram for four years. Supposed to join Bristol City in June 1952, except that Albion manager Billy Lane got there first. Played 247 consecutive matches between the posts from February 1953 to February 1958, equalling the Football League record for goalkeepers in the process.

Only denied the out-and-out record by an untimely bout of flu. An integral member of the first ever Albion team to win a promotion, rising from what was then Division Three South to today’s equivalent of the Championship. Spent a further eight seasons keeping goal for Southern League Guildford City while also managing a hotel on Brighton seafront (Simpson’s in Marine Parade, now known as Drakes). Reluctantly took up bowling (believing it to be an old man’s game) in his late sixties but proved so good at it that he went on to play for Sussex. Still sharp as a butcher’s knife, not to mention dapper as ever.

Eric Gill, centre, helps Albion celebrate promotion in 1958.

All told, Eric played for the Albion at a time when keeping goal amounted to facing Mike Tyson in his prime once if not twice every week. During what proved to be his one and only appearance for Charlton as a rookie, Eric came for and caught a cross only to be sent sprawling into the net by a combative charge from the Manchester United and England forward Jack Rowley.

The goal stood. That’s just the way it was back then. As the man himself recalls, "You had to learn to stand up or get out of the way". Eric Gill learned to stand up alright, despite being relatively small for a goalkeeper (5ft 10ins). And, almost 70 years later, he’s still standing proud.

“I was born and bred in London and started my football career in Palmers Green with an amateur club. Broomfield FC, they were called. Joe Hulme, Tottenham’s manager at the time, was president. He came to see me and said, ‘Oh yes, I’d like to sign you, but stay put until I come for you’. Well I waited and waited… and he never came. So I wrote to Arsenal, Chelsea and Charlton for a trial. Arsenal didn’t even reply, Chelsea said they weren’t holding trials, and Charlton wrote back and said, ‘Bring your boots on Saturday’ and that’s what I did!

Eric Gill makes a save at the Goldstone in 1956.

"We were lucky during the war. There was German planes bombing us virtually every day at one time. Where I lived (Camden Town), the worst we got in our block of flats was incendiary bombs that used to land on the top floor and set everything alight. We was on the first balcony, so we didn’t get that. We had all our windows blown in one night from an air raid, but the luckiest time of all was when they dropped a land mine on a parachute within 40 or 50 feet of our house… and it never went off!

"I’d never even been to Brighton until the day I went to meet (Albion manager) Billy Lane. He met me at the station, took me to a nice posh restaurant, then back to the club. ‘Right, put your name on this contract’ he goes. To be honest, it was the best thing I ever did because I stayed for eight years. And I got to play all those consecutive games! It would have been a (Football League) record, but I got to 247 and caught the flu!

"We was playing away on the weekend (at Coventry), I got out of bed, went to the railway station, and when I got there the manager sent me home. He said, ‘You can’t play, go home and get back into bed’. Which I did. He made the right decision. I didn’t think so at the time, but he did. The record holder was Ted Ditchburn, the Tottenham and England goalkeeper. He sent me a telegram congratulating me on beating his record. And of course I didn’t beat it, I only drew with it! So I had to write back and thank him and say that unfortunately it didn’t happen. That was a nice gesture by Ted to do that.

"We had quite a good side back then. Twice we came second in the league, but to win promotion from the Third Division South you had to win it. You come second, you got nothing. That season (1957/58), in the very first match I got the ball, bounced it out to the edge of the penalty area, and I give it such a wallop that it sailed right down to their penalty area. Our centre forward, Peter Harburn, chased it, put it in the net and we won 1-0 (at Gillingham). And we went on to win promotion from that.

"The day we won to go up, the whole town went crazy. The ground was absolutely jam-packed. They were passing the kids overhead down onto the touchline. One of our lads, Adrian Thorne, came in and every shot he hit went in (Thorne scored five in a 6-0 home win over Watford). He was a college boy. He wasn’t like the rest of us footballers – he was refined! But he was a lovely boy. I think that night lived with him forever.

Eric Gill made nearly 300 appearances for the club.

"That first game of the following season (1958/59), I wasn’t well. That was unfortunate for the reserve goalkeeper, Dave Hollins, because he let nine in (in a 9-0 defeat at Middlesbrough). That was unbelievable, but he went on to have a wonderful career and became a Welsh international. He lives in Ovingdean now. After all these years of never seeing him, I’ve seen him quite a few times. A lovely guy, is Dave. Us keepers, we stick together!”


Did you know?

  • Eric played as a centre-forward as a schoolboy but then joined Charlton Athletic in February 1948 as a 17-year-old goalkeeper.
  • During National Service, he represented the Army but at the Valley he had to contend with the legendary Sam Bartram and made only one first-team appearance. On his demob he was loaned to Tonbridge in the Southern League.
  • In June 1952, Billy Lane brought Eric to Hove for £400 amidst competition from Gillingham and Cardiff City, and the 21-year-old quickly established himself as first choice.
  • Although not particularly tall for a goalkeeper, he was near faultless with his handling and for four consecutive seasons he made 46 appearances.
  • Having played a big part in the Third Division (South) title success, an injury sustained in training the following term meant that Eric was never quite the same player again. He made 296 appearances for Albion. 
  • He left for Guildford City in June 1960, a route taken by several ex-Albion players of the period, and clocked up 225 Southern League appearances in six years with the Surrey club.
  • While with the Albion, Eric took over the Perrimay Hotel in Charlotte Street, Brighton, and later ran the Simpson’s Hotel in Marine Parade.
  • His son, Steve, played for England Schoolboys and was on West Ham United’s books as a schoolboy.