I was, for many years, puzzled by a photo in The Everton Story, a book by Derek Hodgson, showing a youthful player in the 1930s. It was captioned as being ‘Will Cuff’ – yet Cuff, the vulnerable Everton Chairman and former club Secretary, was well into his 60s, at this point.
So, who was the mislabeled player featured in the book? With help from Everton historian, and custodian of the Blues Chronicles website, Billy Smith, he was identified as John Cuff – the shared surname explaining the confusion on the part of the book’s author/editor. Although not a familiar name to many, John Cuff has an interesting claim to sporting fame.
At Everton, Frank Sugg, Jack Sharp and Harry Makepeace all juggled playing top-level soccer and cricket. Several Toffeemen, notably Dixie Dean, George Burnett and Gordon Watson, have tried their hand at Baseball in the 1940s, while Dean’s teammate, Jimmy Cunliffe, earned a living playing professional bowls in the 1950s. But, to my knowledge, only Cuff swapped football for motorsport.
Born in 1918, John was the son of a publican who ran the Pineapple Inn in North Shields. He played football in his teenage years for Newcastle’s St Cuthbert’s Grammar School, before signing for North Shields FC. He had a two-week trial with Aston Villa, but homesickness got the better of him. With other clubs showing interest, John’s uncle (and North Shields’ coach) wrote a letter of recommendation in March 1936 to Everton’s board of directors. The uncle’s opinion carried some weight as he was Alan Grenyer, who had served the Toffees as a wing-half for over a decade, collecting a Football League winners medal in 1914/15. Acting on Grenyer’s advice, the Blues’ board invited John, just turned 18, for a trial, before signing him as a professional.
His appearances as an inside-forward in royal blue were restricted to the A and reserve teams, so a move to Northampton Town, managed by former Everton star Warney Cresswell, in May 1938, made sense for all parties. John’s only senior outing for The Cobblers was in the Third Division Senior Cup competition. At the conclusion of the season, John returned to Merseyside, signing for Tranmere Rovers but the outbreak of war stymied his chances of making a go of it at Prenton Park.
He returned to Tynemouth to live at the family public house, before enlisting with the Black Watch regiment. Having married Marjory in 1945, John settled in Sheffield before relocating to Preston, where he founded a successful dry-cleaning business. A car enthusiast, he moved into vehicle sales, running franchises in Barrow and Preston (Modern Age Motors). This went hand in hand with rally driving from the mid-1960’s onwards. He became a semi-professional Jaguar driver and a works team Rover driver. John successfully completed the Tulip Rally, Monte Carlo Rally, East Africa Safari and the Coupe Des Alpes. He even qualified for a private pilot’s licence so that he could fly himself in a light aircraft to and from the motorsport events.
After many years of working and travelling to motor rallies, John retired in the early 1980’s, still keeping himself busy by taking an interest in antiques and exploring the country in his caravan. He passed away in Preston in 2003.
With thanks to Jon Cuff, and family, for assistance and use of images.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the Everton FC match-day programme for the visit of Newcastle United, 25 April 2023.