Former Player Remembers: Jeff Blockley

Last month central defender Jeff Blockley spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his career in football.
Between 1968 and 1978, Leicester-born Jeff played at the top level for Coventry City, for Arsenal and for Jimmy Bloomfield’s Leicester City. 

He gained international recognition with the England U-23 and full England sides. As a 15 year-old, Jeff was in the Leicester Boys side which shared the English Schools FA Trophy with Swansea Boys in 1965. 

Peter Shilton was in the same team, together with future Showaddywaddy drummer Romeo Challenger. The programme for the game described Jeff, who went to New Parks School, as ‘the tallest member of the side who has been a dominating figure in the run to the final. He likes cricket and basketball.’ 

Jeff recalled: “I was in the schools side from a young age. Peter Shilton was in the same team. We grew up together and followed our dreams. We were successful in that under-15 side which shared the English School’s FA trophy with Swansea Boys. At the time I was training down at Leicester City which I had done from the age of 13. 

"There was a group of us training there who were all members of the Blaby Boys’ Club. In those days young players signed schoolboy forms but I wasn’t very happy with the way it was done at Leicester. They gave Pete (Shilton) the forms for me to sign. They hadn’t discussed this or been to see my parents. 

"They just took it for granted that I would sign. It might have been a misunderstanding but I thought that if that was the way they were going to treat me, I wasn’t too happy. At that time there were a lot of people coming down from Scotland and I felt local lads weren’t getting a good shot at it. 

"This all meant that I had my doubts and so I signed for Arsenal on schoolboy forms. I used to go to Arsenal in the school holidays, and whenever else I could, and train with their schoolboys. However, when I left school, Arsenal decided not to sign me so I had to start looking for a new club. I had trials with Forest and Coventry and Coventry offered me an apprenticeship.” 

At Coventry City, Jeff built up a reputation as an uncompromising but stylish centre-half. Between 1968 and 1972 he played over 150 games and was selected for the England Under-23 side. 

"When I was at school Leicester City centre-half Ian King was my hero. In those days you modelled yourselves on players like this. My mentor at Coventry was club captain and centre-half George Curtis (who was nearing the end of a very lengthy career as a Coventry City player). It was a different game in those days. 

"I got my break and I made my debut when I was 19 down at West Ham in March 1969. We struggled in that first season after promotion but we had a good youth set up. They started to bring the kids through and we all started to gel. 

"The following season we finished 6th and got into Europe. I was captain when I was 20. At this time I was captain of the England U-23 side. Alf Ramsey was the manager and you couldn’t get any bigger than that. He was an icon. 

"I was fortunate to be around at that time and playing against Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and all the top players. One minute I was watching the World Cup Final as a 16 year-old and all of a sudden I was playing against these people! 

"At the time you just thought that’s the way it is. You just got on with it. When Coventry got into Europe we played Bayern Munich who had World Cup players like Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller in their side.” 

In October 1972, Jeff was transferred to Arsenal for £200,000, at a time when the British transfer record fee was the £220,000 that Arsenal had paid for Alan Ball ten months earlier. 

He made his Arsenal debut at Sheffield United and four days later made his England debut, playing alongside Bobby Moore. His old Leicester schoolboy teammate Peter Shilton was in goal. 

At the end of his first season at Arsenal, the Gunners finished League runners-up to Liverpool. 

“Manager Noel Cantwell left Coventry and Arsenal came in for me. Gordon Milne and Joe Mercer wanted to rebuild at Coventry. Arsenal had put a bid in and I went down there. Because I had been there as a schoolboy, it was like going full circle. 

"I made my debut for Arsenal on the Saturday and the following Tuesday or Wednesday I made my England debut against Yugoslavia in a 1-1 draw. It was a great time. I was down there at Highbury for about two and a half years. 

"I had one or two injuries and in the end, it didn’t go as well as I wanted it to.” In January 1975, Jeff returned to his home town when he signed for Jimmy Bloomfield’s Leicester City for a fee of £100,000. 

“At the time Arsenal seemed to be playing Leicester quite a lot of times in Cups and in the League. Being a Leicester lad I knew quite a few of the players. 

"At a Sportswriters’ Dinner, I got chatting to ‘Birch’ and the lads and they were saying ‘How do you fancy coming up to Leicester?’ I said I would love to. It was my home team and at the time they had some really good players. 

But it was down to manager Jimmy Bloomfield. Leicester made an offer and I came to Filbert Street. When Jeff arrived, Leicester were struggling near the foot of the table. The season was rescued by the arrival of Jeff and Chelsea’s Chris Garland, who signed shortly afterwards. 

“They signed me and Chris Garland. Stevie Kember came the following season. Chris scored eight goals in ten games and I organised the lads at the back. When I signed, Jimmy said he wanted me to organise people and he made me the captain the following season. 

"We escaped relegation in the season I came to Filbert Street and the following year we had a good season finishing seventh. When I first came, Crossy (Graham Cross) and myself were the main two central defenders. 

"The following season, Graham had a few issues with Jimmy about playing cricket for Leicestershire. He went off and so it was me and Woolly (Alan Woollett) and other different people. Things went well. We had good players. 

"There was Mark Wallington in goal, with Stevie Whitworth and Denis Rofe in defence. In midfield we had Jonny Sammels and Birch. We had Keith (Weller) up front and Frank Worthington. I knew Frank from England under-23 tours. It was a good time. Jimmy was a good manager without being too dogmatic. He would expect the players to think for themselves.” 

After six seasons, all in the top division, Jimmy Bloomfield lost his job at Filbert Street in May 1977 despite the Club finishing 11th in the table. 

“It was after we had played West Brom at Filbert Street. We got taken apart. We lost 5-0. I was injured at the time. There was pressure to remove Jimmy. It was a shock to all of us when Jimmy got the sack.” 

The following season was Jeff’s last at Filbert Street. His old Arsenal team mate and former Leicester City star Frank McLintock was appointed manager for the 1977/78 season, which ended with the Club being relegated. 

“When Frank came, I had just had a cartilage operation and I was recovering from that. I probably only played about ten games that season. I had got myself fit after my knee operation but I wasn’t in the side. Frank bought a few people in. This is how football is. I like Frank. He got people in who didn’t really help him in his transition from player to manager. It was not a good time that season.” 

In June 1978, Jeff moved to Meadow Lane and played nearly 60 games for Notts County in the old Second Division before going to Enderby Town in 1980. 

“In those days when you were thirty that was probably it. Nowadays as a defender you would probably get away with it for another four years. At Notts County, Brian Kilcline was coming through the ranks. They wanted to go a certain way and you have to respect that. 

It’s different now. Players are in a squad and you don’t have to play every week. In our day you wanted to play and you needed to play. You would have a rest now and again but not very often.” 

Summing up his career, Jeff concluded by saying: “All my memories are from Highfield Road, Highbury and Filbert Street, but especially from Leicester. We had some great times at Filbert Street.”

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