Lance Bellers remembers Harry Cripps, who passed away on December 29, 1995
’Arry Cripps was the best player ever to have a name beginning with an apostrophe. Born as Henry Richard Cripps in Norfolk during the war, it merely took a move to East London to give him his proper and rightful name. Kicking off his football career at West Ham, he played just one senior game for the Hammers – against Millwall. Between that Southern Floodlit Cup fixture in 1956 and an eventual move to Charlton in 1974, ’Arry Boy fitted in 447 appearances for the Lions and won the hearts of the Millwall faithful.
From when I first saw him at the age of five playing his part in a thrilling 1-0 demolition of Bury, I was aware that Cripps was not just any old player. He embodied an era when players stayed loyal to one club for years, permanent fixtures that supporters could rely on through thick and thin. Cripps gave the home fans what they wanted – commitment, loyalty and unflinching effort that almost climaxed in promotion to the top division in 1972. Millwall have had the occasional player in the same mould since – Terry Hurlock towards the end of the Eighties, for example, and Keith Stevens at the moment – but neither could make a rightful claim to the Cripps crown.
’Arry performed at a time when teams really did not like visiting the Den: they’d have trouble finding the ground, then had to contend with cramped surroundings, initmidating fans and, on top of it all, crunching tackles from ’Arry. Even his name sounded exactly right, fitting in with the Dickensian image of shadowy figures and swirling mists around Cold Blow Lane.
For a full back, Cripps had a fierce shot which bagged him 40 goals at Millwall and then a further four at Charlton, which helped them secure promotion to the Second Division. In the Valiants’ final match of that 1974-75 season he had to retire with a head wound, only to reappear in the directors’ box at the final whistle with his head wrapped in bandages. Gaining the loudest cheer from the Charlton supporters was confirmation that Cripps had transcended the gap between old rivals.
He went on to be assistant manager at the Valley, followed by a spell as assistant to Bobby Moore at Southend. He even spent time coaching public schoolboys at Winchester, a culture clash if ever there was one.
Harry Cripps has been a legend all my life. He played in the classic all-white Millwall kit alongside Possee, Weller and Dunphy, making him part of the true Golden Age at the Den. Although I never personally met the man, we did share the same barber – my childhood hair chopper would often brag that ’Arry Boy was one of his regular clients. In recent years, Cripps made frequent visits to the old and new Dens as a spectator, despite suffering a stroke in 1990. It was a shock to discover that he had died of a heart attack at the age of 54. With exceptionally bad timing, the Millwall programme at the next home match ran a piece titled Harry Cripps – where is he now?. But the players did wear black armbands, a wreath was placed behind the goal at the home end and the teams walked out to ‘’Arry’s Dream’, a typically terrible football song about promotion hopes.
These days, while we’re losing yet another game at our nice new ground, I’m sure I’m not the only spectator left pining for old certainties: invincible home form in a crumbling stadium and ’Arry dispatching a winger into Row C.
From WSC 108 February 1996. What was happening this month