It took a chance meeting with a window cleaner to kick-off a Horsham career that amassed more than 130 matches, cup final appearances, and a county call-up for one of our ‘stars’ of the 1960s.

Don Cocozza was an instantly recognisable presence in the Horsham forward line, his swashbuckling displays not only netting him a personal tally of almost fifty goals but his free-scoring teammates regularly reaped the benefits of his talents as the club challenged for league and cup honours during the second part of the decade. He helped Horsham to a Senior Cup final appearance in his first season and, but for injury, would have featured in our standout fixture of the decade, the FA Cup 1st round tie with Swindon Town.

We took advantage of last summer’s lockdown to chat to Don, who celebrates his 83rd birthday today, about his football career and discovered that time has not dimmed the memories of what he described as some of his happiest times in the game.

We began by asking Don about that unusual introduction to life at Queen Street.

“When I got demobbed I was doing an engineering apprenticeship” he recalls. “Being in the army puts you in a different state of life. Everything’s there for you, which was just as well really as we were getting paid less than £1.50 a week, so when you come out you’re a bit unsettled and you wonder what you’re going to do. Like many of my peers, I fancied becoming a professional footballer but in those days it wasn’t a very attractive scene, unlike today.

“I was walking through Worthing one day, wondering what I should do and where I could work, when I saw an old window cleaner cleaning the windows of the local gas board. It turned out he was on the committee of Worthing Football Club and he recognised me. He yelled out ‘hello Don. I hear you’re out now’ and came scampering down the ladder.

“We got chatting and when I told him about my predicament he gave me a business card and said phone this man and he’ll give you a job. The name on the card was Les Hale and the company was APE (All-Precision Engineering), based in Horsham. I said what do you mean, he’ll give me a job? He said you phone them and you’ll see. So I called the number that evening and, unbeknown to me, Les Hale was the president of Horsham Football Club! Don, he said, I’ll give you a job at APE if you play for Horsham.

Horsham chairman Les Hale, whose offer to Don of a full-time job came with a catch!

“I already knew six other players from Horsham from when I played for the county so I took the job, a good job that paid a decent wage, and that’s how I ended up playing for Horsham. Micky Browning worked there at the time, too.

“I was only there a year because I got fed up with the travelling. I mean it was a lovely journey up from Worthing on the steam train, and work was only a five minute walk from the station, but it all got a bit much really. In the end, Mr Beeching did away with the line and it’s a cycle path now.

“Because of my apprenticeship, my National Service was deferred until I was twenty. I was called up on October 2nd 1958 and did my training at Chichester Barracks for three months. I was in the Royal Sussex Regiment, an infantry regiment, but after basic training I was transferred to the Royal West Kent Regiment who wanted me for my football! I got posted to the Maidstone depot and two days later I was playing for the depot team, even though they had never seen me play. I suppose it was through word of mouth that I could play a bit. I was only there three months then I got posted to Cyprus for about a year and then came back and served my last ten months in England.

“Wigmore Athletic (now Worthing United) was my first club. I played with them as a minor up to the age of 16 then I got into the first team reserve side when I was 17, after I left school, and then when I was just over 17 I got into the first team. My older brother was a founder member and I played in the team with him for five years, until he retired. They were in the Worthing Intermediate League but they’d got promotion to County League div two and then to division one, which is when I joined. I was a slip of a lad who got kicked about a bit but, over time, I was able to learn a few skills to avoid that sort of thing.

“Horsham was one of the biggest teams in the county and playing for them was a wonderful experience. We used to get crowds of between two and three thousand every week and when you remember that seven of us played for the county, it was a great team with great footballers. For that era, for that league, we played some delightful football, a good standard, and had a very appreciative crowd.”

Don made his first team debut for Horsham on Saturday November 19th, 1960, a 0-0 Senior Cup draw at Lewes. Playing alongside him that day were:

David Stripp, Ron Hartley, Geoff Crowther, Billy Bell, Glyn Jones, Roy Mobsby, Jimmy Carter, Denis Stillwell, Dave Collyer and Tony Barnett

“Having played for Sussex with people like Dave Collyer, Tony Barnett, Geoff Crowther, Micky Browning and David Stripp made it really easy for me to come into the side and I particularly bonded with Geoff. Sadly he passed away from motor-neurone a few years ago but my wife and I are still in touch with Geoff’s widow to this day.”

Don marked his first league start with a goal in a high-scoring affair, a 6-5 defeat at Worthing that Christmas. The goals were really flying in that season as the very next game saw Leatherhead beaten 6-4 and, before the season was out, Horsham were involved in another 6-4, a 6-3, an 8-2, 6-0, a couple of 5-2s and even an 8-0 hammering at Erith & Belvedere!

“It was a hugely enjoyable time to be playing football, not just because of the standard of football we produced but also the bonhomie of the players. No-one ever said oh, you were crap – you didn’t expect praise or criticism because we were a team. Those of us who played for the county, which was a big deal back then, weren’t treated any differently. It really was a lovely gang of guys and the best team I’ve ever played with.

“We played at some far off places in those days, like Letchworth, Dagenham and Chesham, but the coach journeys were a gas. Don’t forget this was a long time before motorways came about, and we had some really long trips, but they were hilarious, a litany of humour led more often than not, it must be said, by our manager, Gerry Bowler! From the time we got onto the coach to the time we got off at the ground, there was no fatigue because we always just laughed our socks off. It was really good fun.

“Gerry played for Northern Ireland and was a great comedian who had us in fits. He was a good coach. What was good about Gerry is that he realised there were talented players at Horsham and he encouraged them to express themselves. He didn’t tell them to do this, or do that, he just said to go out and play your game. And he was successful for it. It probably wasn’t the best way to go about things, as I suspect someone with more discipline would have got better results, but as players we loved it.”

A virtual first team ever-present for the remainder of that first season, Don was thwarted in his hopes of securing a Corinthian League winners’ medal at the first attempt when the team’s title challenge faded in the closing weeks of the campaign, resulting in a final finish of fifth.

“I suppose we were disappointed (at missing out on the title) but the teams that were above us were very, very good. We were good but they were just better than us, it’s as simple as that. I remember, though, we had some cracking games against them. There was one in particular, at home to Maidenhead, that was superb and the crowd applauded both teams as they came off at the end. It was a magnificent game.

“In those days we were being influenced by the emergence of the Brazilians and the Hungarians and the all-new style of football they tried to play. More artistic, short-passing, switching play, all that sort of stuff and that started to show in amateur teams and with our sort of talent it showed, and it was great. It was entertaining to watch but even more entertaining to play in and I looked forward to every match.

Programme cover from the 1961 Senior Cup Final

“We did get to the Senior Cup final that season, against Worthing, and I remember that game well because I scored the first goal but they won it in the last minute or so. It was played at Brighton’s old Goldstone Ground and there was a huge crowd. I think it was that game that the manager for Brighton at the time, Billy Lane, an old brash, cigar-smoking, trilby hat-wearing, scruffy looking ‘pretend manager’ came into the changing rooms after the match. We were all sat there a bit despondent because we’d been pipped at the last minute, and he’s said to Dave Collyer, Micky Browning and me “I want you three on Albion’s books”. I mean what manager in his right mind would say that, not even ‘I want you to have a trial’, you know? So we said no thanks, we’ve got a better team than you!”

At the end of that 1960/61 campaign, Don joined his teammates on a two match tour of Belgium, playing against local sides Olympic Anderlecht and FC Jupille. “That was marvellous” he recalled. “I did two trips with Horsham, one to Belgium and one to Jersey, and there was another occasion when we hosted the Dutch side, Zwolle. We put the players up in our own homes when they came over, although I was single and living in Worthing so I didn’t have to as they wanted all the players to stay in Horsham. I ended up coming over and staying at Micky Browning’s place for those few days.

“I remember that Belgium trip very well. We played two games in three days, I think it was, and we must have had an average of three hours’ sleep every night! I think we played the last game in a trance. The drink flowed, which contributed to the lack of sleep, so our standard of football dropped yet we still won both games because the others were in as bad a shape as us!

“One of the games we played, I can’t recall which one it was, was right next to a slag heap so there was a fine layer of dust all over the pitch and it wasn’t long before we were covered in it. But we weren’t given showers after the match, we were given a bucket of water each and I’d never been dirtier! We won every game I played in on those trips and there was a great camaraderie with the opposing teams. They were lovely times and such great fun.”

Horsham’s players en route to Wokingham to face Chesham in the Memorial Shield Final in August 1961

Horsham’s 1961/62 campaign kicked off with a match against Chesham United in the final of the Memorial Shield that had been held over from the previous season. Although played at neutral Wokingham, the very mention of Chesham evoked more bath time memories for Don. “Chesham were a very, very good side and another thing I remember about Chesham was at their ground they had a big communal bath that you’d all jump into after the game and the water was always scolding hot. It came up to your chest so when you jumped in you’d all come out looking like lobsters.”

Having ended the previous season as the division’s leading scorers, Horsham quickly picked up the mantel again with the prolific Browning plundering 42 goals in 36 appearances. “Of course, with someone like Mick up front we were always going to score goals” recalled Don.

“Micky was a delight for inside-forwards like myself and Dave Collyer because we were sort of the architects in pushing the ball through and doing all the approach work so to have him there to polish it all off was a rare gift. He had a hell of a shot and a fast first 15 yards so you could push past the defender and you knew that Mick would go past him and whack it.

“Micky wouldn’t mix it, though. He wasn’t one of your target centre-forwards, all burly and tall. He was about 5’8”, 5’9”, and would rarely head a ball, but he was really fast, stocky with a low centre of gravity and hard to shift. His speed and powerful shot were his main assets.

“We played with five up front in those days and in that first year we had Tony Barnett on the left wing, Dave Collyer inside of him, Micky centre-forward, me on the right and Den Stilwell wide right. And if Den was injured or whatever, Jimmy Carter would take his place. If Micky, myself or Dave were injured, the Streeter boys (Mick and Ted) would come in. They were good boys, too.

“A few years ago, I was invited along to a reunion of former players at Worthing and Micky, Geoff Crowther and Mick Streeter were there. It was a couple of years after I’d had a massive stroke so we were all there comparing ailments. Mick had a couple of new knees, there were hips and heart bypasses, you name it we’d had it all between us!”

In November 1961, former player Roy Myerscough was appointed as the club’s first manager in two years but it’s clear that Don was no fan. “Roy was on Preston’s books. He was okay but he talked about himself a lot. He reckoned the only thing that kept him out of the Preston first team was Tom Finney so he had quite a high opinion of himself.”

Don’s good form saw him recalled to the County squad, scoring in a 3-0 win over a Kent side that included a young David Sadler, a future England international who would also go on to win two league titles and a European Cup with Manchester United. We asked Dom if he came up against any other players who went on to forge a career in the game.

“I played for Sussex Youth when I was 18 and we came up against one of the London representative sides who had a centre-forward called Barry Sluman, who went on to play in the same Chelsea side as Jimmy Greaves. I was at primary school with Peter Bonetti who is sadly no longer with us and who, of course, went on to play for many years in goal for Chelsea and England. He was a couple of years behind me, age-wise, but my younger brother played in the same team as him. Later on, Peter’s brother Phil had a few games for Horsham’s reserves.”

By the start of March, Horsham were again in contention for the title only for four defeats in five matches to end their challenge. There were, though, impressive victories over Edgware and champions Maidenhead on the final day, a result that gave us a final placing of third.

“Yes, we came up just short again. There wasn’t a massive difference between the teams that season but I remember Maidenhead had a centre-forward, Polish I think he was, by the name of Jakubiec. He was sh*t hot, a superb player who was worth two goals a match and he really took some containing. He was their Micky Browning if you like, possibly even better than Micky. A real sharpshooter who could turn a half chance into a goal. Micky’s strength came from his inside-forwards feeding him but Jakubiec was the sort of player who could pull rabbits out of hats.”

Don suffered further disappointment at the end of the 1961/62 season when he was in the Sussex side that went down 5-1 to Essex in the final of the Southern Counties Amateur Championship. “I played in two finals for Sussex. The first final we got to was against Surrey, I think, and it was played at the Goldstone Ground. We lost by the odd goal there, in front of about 7,000 people. We’d had a super season and hadn’t lost a match but we went down 4-3 on a blistering hot day. I played in two Senior Cup finals at Brighton’s ground and a Southern Counties final there and was on the losing side every time by the odd goal! The one against Essex, at Grays, we just didn’t do it. I remember scoring, in fact I scored in both those finals. “

There was a mass exodus of players in the summer of 1962, with many of the big hitters moving on. Mick Browning, David Stripp, captain Glyn Jones, Geoff Crowther, Ron Hartley and Dave Collyer all decided to seek pastures new as did Don, who returned to Wigmore Athletic. “For me it was the travelling. I can’t answer for the others because I don’t know but when one or two leave, it can open the floodgates, especially when you are as close as we all were.

“I was always happy playing football but I started to realise, when I went back to Wigmore, that this wasn’t where I should be. All the things I’d learnt at a higher level didn’t apply down there because people didn’t think the same. Players like Micky Browning and Dave Collyer, you knew where they’d be and what they could do so I missed that and that’s why I went back to Horsham.”

After a spell at Lewes, Don eventually returned to Horsham in 1964 but not before suffering an injury from which he still has painful memories. “I was playing for Lewes against Crawley in the FA Cup when a tackle from behind by the opposing half-back cracked my leg and I was carried off and taken to hospital. They x-rayed it and said it’s deep bruising so the doctors told me I shouldn’t play. I went to Albion’s physio, who was also Lewes’ physio, and after a week of treatment he said there’s something wrong here, it’s not healing.

“I could hardly walk, and was hobbling round on crutches. So I went back for another x-ray and this time they told me I had a peripheral crack on the main bone in the lower leg. I asked if that meant going into plaster but they said it was too late for that as it had started to heal and a callus had started to form round where the crack was. They said carry on having physio but don’t do any weight carrying and certainly don’t kick a football.

“I was back playing within two months but I was a bit short in what was required to play to a decent standard. It was then that I wrote to the County secretary as I’d received a selection note to play for Sussex, against Kent I think, and I said I’m not up to speed so you shouldn’t select me. I got a letter back saying well we want you to play. I didn’t argue so I went along and played well for 20 minutes but that was it, the pain was too much.”

Thankfully the injury had healed sufficiently for Don to be selected for the opening match of Horsham’s 1964/65 campaign, a 4-0 win at home to Harrow Town. By this time the club had undergone many changes. We were now playing in the Athenian League under the guidance of Mick Browning, who had been appointed to the role of player-manager, and the likes of Crowther, Collyer and Carter had all returned along with new signings Brian Riggs, Ray Dowse, Clive Jackson, Ron ‘Nobby’ Davis, goalkeeper Keith Etheridge and Alun Jones, brother of former skipper Glyn.

“That was a good side, a very strong side. I don’t think it was as artistic as the side when I was first there but it was more mature. They were a couple of years older so a bit wiser, you knew the score better. You played a harder game of football. Blokes like Alun Jones, Ray Dowse and Nobby Davis were tough players. They got stuck in but they were good footballers too.”

We made a terrific start to that season, with Browning scoring all four goals in that opening day defeat of Harrow for what was the first of six successive league victories. Unfortunately that run came to an emphatic end when we were thumped 5-0 by Crawley in the FA Cup in front of almost 2,000 spectators.

“The Crawley game was a bruising game, it really was. And the bloke who cracked my leg when I was at Lewes was playing that day too. His name was Finch, the left-half, and I remembered him so I thought I’ll just keep moving. I won’t let him settle on me at all. I had a reasonable game but I was very conscious of him. I remembered in the first minutes of that game with Lewes, he came up to me and trod all over my feet, stamped on them. They were all professionals and knew all the little things to upset you.”

After such a bright start, our form was starting to wane a bit and, after a 5-1 loss at Slough, we looked in line for another heavy defeat when we trailed Epsom & Ewell 5-1 just after half-time of our Athenian League match. What happened next has gone down in club folklore as we hit back with five unanswered goals to record an astonishing 6-5 win.

“I remember that game vividly. I scored in that game, Micky scored and Collyer got at least two. I can’t explain how or why it happened. They must have lapsed, we seized the moment but we had nothing to lose in going for it. Often when you get one back, the other team starts to doubt itself and you can sense that sometimes. These things happen sometimes. Dave Collyer was a good player. I think he went from Horsham to one of the County League sides, quite low County League if I remember rightly. He was in the police force for a while which limited his availability.

“We got Godfrey Stevens in from Lewes sometime after that. Godfrey was totally different to Mick in that he was a target centre-forward. He’d burst through and was up there amongst it all, all elbows and a good header of the ball. He used to frighten the life out of them and went on to play for the county under Wilf Hugill, who was Sussex player-manager at the time.”

We were still in with a shout of promotion to the Premier Division but with our interest in the Senior Cup and Memorial Shield still strong going in to March, we were left facing a tough fixture pile-up until the end of the season. When we travelled to Haywards Heath for our Senior Cup semi-final with Lewes, it was the first of fifteen matches in thirty-five days and, perhaps unsurprisingly, we ended up having to settle for fourth place, some nine points behind promoted Hemel Hempstead and champions Slough Town.

The 1965/66 season was a landmark one for Horsham Football Club, with the introduction of floodlights for the first time in our history. Sadly Don missed the big ‘switch on’ due to a calf injury that restricted him to just one appearance in more than three months. In his absence the team reached the 4th qualifying round of the FA Amateur Cup but had slumped to the bottom of the table, leading some supporters to start to round on the players, with Tony Miller reportedly walking away after six years with the club because of the abuse.

“I wasn’t aware of anything like that at all, and to hear that happened really surprises me. All I can remember of my years at Horsham, playing in the first team, I just embraced the crowd. They were lovely. You walked off the pitch at full time and they were coming up to you, shaking your hand or patting you on the back. I never saw a hint of any abuse.”

Don (centre) watches on as Dave Collyer heads at goal during Horsham’s 3-2 win against Tilbury in April 1965

Don returned to action a week before Christmas and scored in successive 4-4 draws with Woking and Eastbourne, but the side remained in trouble with the 3-1 defeat of Harlow on January 15th only our 3rd league victory in fifteen attempts. But any hopes of a revival were short-lived as we won just once more in the league that season and suffered the ignominy of a home defeat to Horsham YMCA in the Senior Cup, the first-ever competitive meeting between the two near-neighbours.

“Mick lost his job after that and Pat Tobin came in as manager. I think Pat was more regimented than Mick, who really just continued with the same philosophy of ‘I’ve got good players, let them express themselves’. But Pat came in and he was a guy who was an ex-pro, I believe, so he had that professional philosophy in place. I had several training sessions at Horsham’s ground and he was all for the heavy hammer sessions but that wasn’t quite how I saw football should be. I look at teams like Man City nowadays and that’s how I like football to be played.”

Unfortunately Pat was unable to keep Horsham up and we were relegated, along with Eastbourne, for the first time in our history. Although re-signing for the club the following season, Don was kept out of the action by an operation on his appendix and never actually played for the club again, missing out on that historic FA Cup 1st round tie with Swindon Town.

“Pat actually wanted me to play in that game, although I don’t know why. I don’t think he liked my style and I don’t think he liked me. But I just couldn’t because of the injury. But I did watch the game and poor old Wilf Hugill, Don Rogers gave him the run around. It was tough to watch and not play in but I’ve always tried to adapt to what’s in front of me, whether that’s in sport or my private life. If something turns bad, I adapt, like when I suffered my stroke.”

With his Horsham career seemingly stalled, Don returned once more to Wigmore. “I think a bit of my heart was in Wigmore, what with my brother being a founder member and me cutting my teeth with them. My physical attributes were reclining. I wasn’t so quick, I didn’t train so hard because I was married and had a family, and I was re-finding my level. To be honest, I was playing well within my capabilities and was always their top goalscorer but I knew I wasn’t good enough for the next level up any more.”

Don was fortunate to play alongside many great players during his Horsham career but, in his opinion, there was one man who stood head and shoulders above the rest; goalkeeper, David Stripp.

“David’s reactions were remarkable but his ball distribution was just incredible. He could throw the ball out to the halfway line, accurately, and in those days the goalkeepers couldn’t walk with the ball. I think they were limited to three steps and then they had to bounce it. But he could half volley it well into the opposition’s half. They can all do it now but it was remarkable for that era because the ball was heavier and the boots were clumsier.”

Don Cocozza, pictured in 2018

Along with all the many happy memories, Don reflects with understandable sadness that few of his former teammates are still with us. “I was excellent friends with Geoff Crowther, with Micky and with Wilf Hugill, who only lived ten minutes away from me but sadly they’ve all passed on. But I met so many wonderful people during my time in football, and at Horsham in particular. The standard of football we played at times was exceptional and it really was the best time I’ve ever had in football.”

Don Docozza was talking to Mark Wells

 

Comments

  1. Dennis Strudwick says:

    This is a lovely piece about a lovely man. Well done Mark for this composition. I can hear Don’s passion, enthusiasm and immense humour coming through his every word.
    I didn’t play with Don but I got to know him when I lived in Worthing for a short while through our mutual friend, the wonderful Wilf Hugill. (What class chaps they are/were). And Don & Wilf, with their wives Margaret & Sonia, came to stay with me & Jan in Worcester for a long weekend. 72 hours of giggles, rib-tickling chuckles and belly laughs.
    We are so pleased to hear Don is well. Happy birthday Top Man, aka Donkey Ozza!!
    With a shed load of love from Den & Jan Strudwick

  2. Phil Skingsley says:

    Well done Mark, as this makes very interesting reading, and is about a very talented player.

    Fortunately I did get to play one game alongside of Don when I was playing for Horsham reserves, and it could have been the 1966/67 season? We were drawn against Worthing reserves at Queen Street, and all of the talk had been about how good they were and about their new wonder player, Norman Cairns, so we weren’t expecting too much from that game.

    But then again, reality is often different from expectations, and we ran out 8-0 winners, with Don scoring a hat-trick I believe (well at least two) and it was great to watch his silky skills especially around and inside the penalty area, not only that, he managed a headed goal, for which I don’t think he was renowned!!

    I can’t remember if he played any more games for us, however it was a pleasure to play alongside such a silky smooth player, and a nice guy to boot.

    Good luck to you Don.

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