Tony Clayton, former England international who will forever be in the history books, passed away on 1st June in Bournemouth.

Tony was a member of the England team who took part in what became known as ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ in 1971, along with Alan Hydes, Trevor Taylor, Karenza Mathews, Pauline Piddock and Jill Shirley, they made not only table tennis history but world history.  

Tony’s funeral service will be held at St Catherine’s RC Church, 4 Lewens Lane, Wimborne, BH21 1LE on Thursday 13th June at 2pm. All are most welcome. 

It is not necessary to let Sanja know beforehand if you will be attending but if anyone wishes to let her know then please text or email. There will be a small wake nearby after the service. Any donations in memory of Tony should be made to Water Aid.

Tony’s table tennis career started a while before that in his home city of Hull. Born on 28th December 1950, to an Italian mother and English father, he started playing at his public school, Hymer’s College, where his Maths teacher Geoff Underwood, took charge of and developed the table tennis team. This and attending Hull Young People’s Institute resulted in Tony winning the Under-15 Hull and East Riding Schools tournament in 1965.

In 1967 with Alan Fletcher, who also went on to be an England international, Geoffrey Coxon and Andrew Petrie they became runners-up in the English Schools Under-17 Boys Team event. The following year at Under-19 level, Tony with Cliff Boothby, Alan Fletcher and Andrew Petrie won the event.

1968. ETTA National Schools U19s Norman Cook Trophy Winners, Hymers College, Hull Cliff Boothby, Andrew Petrie, Tony Clayton, Alan Fletcher. ETTA Chairman Tom Blunn presenting the trophy

By this time Tony had become a well-respected junior, taking several junior titles in Open tournaments around the country as well as in his native Yorkshire, winning the Junior Boys’ Singles title in the Hull Closed in 1967/68 and the Men’s Doubles that year with Ray Hinchliff and the Mixed Doubles with Valerie King.

1967-68. 3rd Slough Junior Open. U17 BS Winner, Tony Clayton with Horlicks Cup presented by the Mayor of Slough From the Tony Pacitto Collection

It was in January 1967 that Tony made his Yorkshire County junior debut at Kellingley Miners Welfare, near Pontefract, against Northumberland, a match Yorkshire won 10-0. Two years later he made his county senior first team debut versus Essex at Chelmsford. It was an unexpected 5-4 win for Yorkshire against Chester Barnes, Stuart Gibbs and David Brown. In all, Tony represented his county at senior level 70 times, only bettered by Ray Hinchliff. It was with Ray that he won his one Yorkshire senior title in the men’s doubles in 1969, having won the junior boys’ title the previous year.

Tony had established himself as a junior international playing against Scotland, Sweden, Wales and West Germany. His best result was against the German players where he beat their number one, winning his three matches and helping the team to a 7-2 victory. There was a bronze medal in the English Open Junior Boys’ Doubles in 1968 partnered by Brian Mitchell.

With such good results it wasn’t surprising that Tony was selected to play in the European Youth Championships (EYC) in St Petersburg (Leningrad) in August 1969 where, at the Yubileiny Palace of Sports, the Boys’ Team won one but lost their other three matches in their group. By the end of his junior career, Tony had reached a ranking of No 3 in England.

Tony moved counties when he attended Liverpool University, crossing the border to rival county Lancashire. He had considerable success, winning several singles and doubles titles at UAU and BUSF Championships. This led to being selected for the first International Universities Championships in Hanover, Germany in February 1973 where the Men’s GB Team of Tony, Alan Fletcher and Brian Mitchell finished ninth, despite only losing one match, due to a rather odd playing system. Tony won the Consolation Singles.

1971 had started with impressive results at the National Championships in January where Tony took runners-up spot in the Men’s Singles, losing to Chester Barnes in the final with Laurie Landry in his corner. However, it was his Yorkshire grit and determination which had got him there. Ranked 10 in England at the time he met, holder, Denis Neale in the first round and despite being 0-2 and 19-20 down went on to win that match. Next was Simon Heaps and that was another win. Match three against Les Haslam in the quarter-finals saw Tony fight back from the brink of defeat after being 1-2 and 14-20 down. His semi-final opponent was David Brown of Essex and here again he was 0-2 down before making a comeback to win -18, -14, 15, 16, 19.

This led to Tony being selected for his first England senior appearance, which took place in February 1971 at the English Open. With Alan Hydes and Trevor Taylor, the trio reached the quarter-finals of the Men’s Team event. More caps were to follow.

It was while in the geography department at university in April 1971, that the phone call from the ETTA. Pack your bags, you are going to Singapore for the 1st Commonwealth Championships and then on to Japan for the World Championships. At the last minute, Chester Barnes and Denis Neale had pulled out of the two Championships due to contractual difficulties. Tony was first reserve and having had all his injections was soon on his way.

What a momentous trip for a young 20-year-old. Tony came away with medals in Singapore, a gold in the team event with Alan Hydes and Trevor Taylor – all left handers – and then a silver with Karenza Mathews in the Mixed Doubles. Moving on to Nagoya in Japan for the World Championships, the men’s trio finished a creditable 10th.

However, it was what happened next that made history. For the first time since the Cultural Revolution which began in 1966, China played in a World Championships. Political manoeuvrings had been going on behind the scenes for some time as relations between China and the West eased. As a result, England were invited to China for 15 days in what became known as Ping Pong Diplomacy, four other countries were also invited, including the USA.

Much of the time in China was spent sightseeing, visiting palaces, schools, communes, steelworks, the Double Happiness ball factory, ballet, opera and of course the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. The team of Tony, Alan Hydes, Trevor Taylor, Pauline Piddock and Jill Shirley took part in six matches which were played in Peking, Shanghai and Tientsin in front of capacity crowds, 23,000 in Peking and 6,500 in Shanghai and Tientsin with thousands more queuing up to get in. The English team won four of the six matches but the feeling was of friendship first, competition second.

1971. China Tour. Tony on the right, far table and (below) team photo with Tony bottom row, third left

Tony’s game suited the fast penholder counterattack having been brought up at Hull’s YPI were the concrete floor meant super-fast conditions. He felt his game benefitted enormously by the trip.

Everywhere the players went in China they were crowded by curious onlookers and the girls’ mini skirts in particular fascinated Chinese youngsters. When viewing an English lesson at one of the schools the lesson consisted of learning “We have boundless love for Chairman Mao” and “My father is a fighter for the People’s Liberation Army”!

A reciprocal visit by China was made in December 1971 and again, Tony was involved in many of the matches as well as other aspects of the Chinese tour, including a reception at 10 Downing Street hosted by Prime Minister Edward Heath, and meeting Princess Anne.

1971. China Tour,10 Downing Street. Back: Tony Clayton, Bryan Merrett, Karenza Mathews, PM Ted Heath, Jill Shirley Front: Nicky Jarvis, Denis Neale, Chester Barnes Photo by the Press Association

In between visiting China and China visiting England, Tony had taken part in a five tests series in Australia in July 1971 with Brian Burn, as well as playing against all the State sides. What a whirlwind of a year.

At the National Championships it was another medal in 1972/73 when Tony beat Desmond Douglas in the quarter-finals of the Men’s Singles only to go out to Trevor Taylor, the eventual winner, in the semis. Tony had an amazing partnership with Laurie Landry in Men’s Doubles winning over 100 Open titles and nearly making it a national title, just losing to Denis Neale and Trevor Taylor in 1973. The Mixed Doubles was another nearly but not quite in the National Championships when with Susan Howard (Henderson) they lost in the final to Alan Hydes and Susan’s sister, Linda Howard (Jarvis), also in 1973, having come through a gruelling expedite match in the semi-finals.

Dynamic duo, Tony Clayton & Laurie Landry Photo by Tony Ross

In all, Tony played in over 40 internationals, he won many Open titles, took part in the Sunday Times Super League for elite players, leading his team of Jimmy Walker and junior, Paul Day, to third place in 1973/74 and with Desmond Douglas and junior, Andy Barden, to second place in 1974/75. Tony played in the Senior British League for a number of seasons for teams from Maidenhead, Fareham, Salisbury, Bath and ending up with Joliffe Poole after moving to Dorset.

16th February 1974. Sunday Times Super League. Alan Hydes, ETTA Chairman Charles Wyles, Tony Clayton Photo by Tony Ross

Tony embraced being a veteran, playing in Veteran County matches for Dorset and helping his county win the Premier Division in 1994/95. He also played in the Veterans’ British League and numerous VETTS events. Tony represented England at this age level, when he was selected to play in the Home Countries Championships by VETTS.

23rd April 2017. VETTS Western Masters. Tony hitting his well renowned backhand Photo by Mike Rhodes

At the World Veterans’ Championships in Manchester in 1998 he was a semi-finalist with David Sharples in the Over-40 Men’s Team event.

1998. World Veteran Championships, Manchester. Over 40 Men’s Team Semi-finalists Tony Clayton & David Sharples with Over 40 Women’s Team Semi-finalists Joan Humphrey-Middlemore, Eileen Shaler, Jan Dunning

As well as playing, Tony was England Junior Captain for one season in 1978-79, an ETTA National Selection Committee Member 1978-83, a member of the ETTA Board of Appeal 2014-16 and a Ranking Panel member 1980-81. When the Players’ Association of Table Tennis was formed, he was their inaugural secretary for the first year in 1975. Tony was inducted into the Liverpool University Hall of Fame in 2009, was Chairman of Dorset County TTA from 1997-2005 and President from 2009-18 and also a Vice-President of Hull & District TTA.

However, sadly, in more recent years Tony began to suffer from dementia which began to rob him of much of his memory. Despite this he still carried on playing table tennis and had weekly sessions with Matt Ware whose enthusiasm, love and energy for Tony were incredible. Although Tony couldn’t speak very well, he would get seriously annoyed if he lost a point and very pleased with himself if he won one against Matt!

His wife, Sanja, is convinced the sessions helped not only prolong Tony’s life but also the quality of it. Tony was a wonderful, warm, funny and gentle man with wit and charm who was adored by all the staff at the care home as these qualities shone through despite his illness.

A wonderful player, a wonderful man who fitted so much into a lifetime. However, it isn’t always what you do but how you do it and the outpouring of affection for Tony shows the love and respect that so many had for him.

Karenza Mathews, England international, silver medallist with Tony in Singapore: Tony was a member of our team when we travelled to the Far East. The trip was long and quite tiring and several of us suffered from a variety of tummy problems. Tony was always cheerful and full of fun and did much to keep up the spirits of the team. Over the years since then we have met a number of times; he never changed and was always the life and soul of the party. He will be sadly missed.”

Martin Hughes, long-time teammate from Dorset described Tony as “an extremely modest man and even after years of living in Dorset, most people did not know about his table tennis exploits. He was very practical and would always help his mates with odd jobs around their houses as well as doing his own”.

Martin gave an insight into some of Tony’s other activities which included being a pub quiz fan and the two of them, with Brian Burn, went regularly to quizzes on a Sunday for 15-20 years. Tony also played a bit of tennis and enjoyed swimming and played golf and badminton badly.

Ian Marshall, fellow Yorkshireman and ITTF media guru, said of Tony: “A stoic character, never a ridiculous celebration when he beat a higher ranked opponent, more a gentle smile in apology, furthermore if a player well below his level had pretensions of grandeur and was proving irritable, Tony referred to them as “KBC”, keen but crap”.

VETTS Chairman Jan Johns on behalf of VETTS: “We received the sad news that we had been dreading. With the passing of Tony Clayton, the VETTS has lost a legend of English Table Tennis. Tony was not only a wonderful player, but also a true gentleman. He was a popular figure at the VETTS events and won many titles. By way of example, in the 2015-16 season, Tony won the Nationals O60s Singles and Doubles titles, represented England in the Home Countries, winning the team event with Maurice Newman, and ended the season at number 1 in the VETTS 60s ranking list. 

“In 1998, at the World Veterans Championships in Manchester, he was a key member of the team that won a medal in the team event. 

“Tony had that rare combination of talent, flair and generosity. We will miss you, Tony. The VETTS send their sincere condolences to Sanja, and all of Tony’s friends and family.”   

Our sincerest condolences go to wife, Sanja, and Tony’s two children Oliver and Amy, his grandchildren as well as all family and friends.