Derek Woodley – ‘A Man Out Of His Time’
We first encountered Derek Woodley in a Monday night match at Southend in October 1964. They beat us 3-1, and Woodley was almost unplayable. He scored two goals from the right wing, turning Geoff Hudson inside out and crashing the ball twice past Johnny Simpson. He was an exciting player, so when we signed him from Southend in January 1968 it seemed like a great move. We discovered that he held the record for the fastest ever goal scored at Wembley – 15 seconds in a Schoolboy International. He would become the next Gills goal-scoring winger, following on from the recent ones like Errol Crossan, Gordon Pulley and Ron Newman.
But between the time we saw him, and the time we signed him, wing play had gone out of fashion. Alf Ramsey considered that England didn’t have wingers of sufficient quality at international level, so he played a system which didn’t need them, and won the World Cup. At club level, everybody followed suit. It meant that players like Derek Woodley would have to tackle back and cover in midfield, and that wasn’t his game at all.
He was immediately popular with the crowd because of his previous reputation, and there was always the possibility that he would tear down the wing, cut in and crash home an unstoppable shot. Unfortunately, it rarely happened – tactics and deteriorating footballing abilities around him saw to that. He stayed pretty isolated on the right wing, and rarely got his kit dirty. That gained him the reputation, particularly at away games, of being a poser. Nowadays he would have the looks and style to model clothes, but to football crowds in those days that kind of thing was like a red rag to a bull. Shorts a couple of sizes too small, and a swept up hair style which bounced when he ran, didn’t help his cause. I remember him taking some brutal stick at Vicarage Road from Watford fans who kept calling him ‘Ada’, and the name stuck. There was a cheer almost as loud as a goal when their defender eventually clobbered him and crashed him into the dog-track which used to surround their pitch, covering him in mud and straw.
Like so much towards the end of Basil Hayward’s reign, with Derek it became more hope than achievement. Everyone knew he could perform, everyone wanted him too, and a buzz went round the crowd when he got the ball, as our cult heroes were getting thin on the ground. Occasionally there was a brilliant goal – against Orient and Mansfield for example but so often it just didn’t happen. In all he scored 9 goals from 99 appearances, which was a shadow of what he had achieved in his heyday – a sort of career in reverse. He was one of many who left the club following our relegation back to the Fourth Division and Hayward’s sacking in 1971.
Sadly, Derek died last year, aged 61.