Leading From The Front

Pender – Skipper, Winner, Driver!

And now, as Monty Python used to tell us, for something completely different.

John Pender – in his role as a focal point of Wolves’ defence in the early and mid-1980s.

We’ve mentioned all manner of professions when revealing what former Wolves players are up to these days. Now we can introduce one of them as a bus driver.

We had hoped to profile John Pender much, much earlier but considered the phone interview we carried out with him four years ago to have been too hurried and too brief to do him justice.

Now, we have sat in his living room, talked through his life and career at length and met several members of his family. Everything, really, except needing to obey that sign about having the exact fare ready.

“I have been driving buses around the Wolverhampton area for National Express for two or three years,” he says. “I had been working at Asda near Telford before that.

“We have four kids, so I need to work and my wife does as well. I’m only 55 and always knew the earnings from my playing career wouldn’t keep me going forever.

“Despite being on the Wolverhampton roads a lot, I am not recognised very often. I certainly don’t rush to tell passengers and colleagues about my past…..occasionally someone finds out my name and might ask if I am the same John Pender.

“But I have been away from football for a long time and the old boys network has passed me by in a lot of ways. I don’t really stay in touch with anyone I knew from Molineux, so I am not in the public eye much. I just get on with my life.

“Ironically, considering my job, we have spent the last two years living miles from anywhere. There are no bus routes here, so running the kids around takes plenty of time. Things are still busy.”

We can vouch for the accuracy of that last statement. Having found John a few years ago, then sort of lost him before reconnecting, we repeatedly tried and failed to fix up a meeting. When the day finally came, finding his sprawling bungalow in the sticks near the Staffordshire-Shropshire border was no easy task.

There he was, though…..on the roadside like the good host he is, waving me in. I would never have guessed from the inside that this was a former footballer’s place. There was an absence of visible keepsakes, although he said: “I have a few medals and shirts in the loft.”

Pender had to be reminded of how many first-team games he played for Wolves (129), adding. “I’m guessing I had about 500 matches all told for my various clubs.” So, now is the time for us to put some flesh on the bones….

No 5 Pender leaves this one to his colleagues as Wolves edge closer to promotion with a draw at Rotherham in April, 1983.

“I was born in Luton but we moved to Birmingham when I was very young and then on to Lichfield, probably when I was three,” he said. “My dad was a heavy goods mechanic and his job took him around a bit.

“I was at Villa for schoolboy training and I remember Mark Walters being the star of the group. But they didn’t offer me anything and I was spotted by a Wolves scout when I was playing for Lichfield Social – as a midfielder in their junior sides at first, then in defence in the seniors.

“John Jarman signed me at Wolves as an apprentice when I left school at 16 and I soon found myself in a very good youth team. Ian Cartwright, Dale Rudge, Anthony Kernan, Billy Livingstone, Graham Quinn and David Beattie were also there.

“Graham was from Dublin and played alongside me at the back. My parents are from Carlow in Ireland and moved over here not long before I was born, so I played for Ireland alongside Graham and Anthony when we went to the 1982 European Youth Championships in Finland.

“Unfortunately, we had a tough draw with the Soviet Union and West Germany and didn’t make it past the group stages but I played in every game. I also went to the Toulon tournament.

“We must have had five or six internationals in the Wolves squad which did well in the FA Youth Cup. We reached the semi-finals and lost (7-2) over two legs to Watford, who had John Barnes in their side and went on to beat Manchester United in the final.”

Pender was already a Wolves first-teamer by then and had the unusual challenge of facing West Ham in a First Division fixture at Upton Park
and Graham Taylor’s young Hornets on successive nights.

His senior debut came in a 1-0 home defeat against Swansea in March, 1982 – and the follow-up results in the games he played in what remained of a desperately disappointing Molineux season underline the fact he made a good initial impression; Coventry (0-0), Arsenal (1-1), West Ham (1-3), Nottingham Forest (1-0), Manchester City (4-1), Birmingham (1-1) and Brighton (0-2).

“I was only 18 when I went into the side,” he added. “Ian Greaves gave me my first chance and I remember feeling nervous, partly because Swansea were flying. They were in the leading group, although Liverpool won the League again. Bob Latchford was up against me and I’m sure they also had Gary Stanley, who became a team-mate of mine at Bristol City.”

If Wolves were under the cosh at the time, destined as they were for relegation and receivership, they over-performed spectacularly when they emerged on the other side.

No-one really expected or foresaw the promotion that came immediately under Graham Hawkins and Jim Barron, with the Bhattis and Derek Dougan on board as perceived saviours.

Pender was one of the mainstays of a side of unlikely heroes and adds: “It was a very young team and probably not equipped to step back up to the top division as we did.

“We were well clear at various stages in the 1982-83 Second Division but were overtaken in the end by QPR, who had Bob Hazell playing for them. Another London trip provided a highlight for me because I headed in a free-kick when we won at Fulham and found myself as a Goal of the Month contender.

An era that conjures up bitter-sweet memories.

“Alan Dodd was a good player who I combined well with. I was all for going and heading the ball. He would hold back, reading the game and picking up the pieces.

“The lack of experience probably cost us when we went up. We had some older heads like Kenny Hibbitt, Geoff Palmer and John Burridge, but there were loads of young lads like myself. I remember learning that I could have a good game but switch off for just a few seconds and find myself responsible for us conceding a goal. That was the difference.

“The club were on a slippery slope and would sell anyone if offers came in. Andy Gray went, so did Wayne Clarke. If some money was on the table, a leading player was off.

“Wolves are showing now how huge they are but it was different then. They were in turmoil and freefall. After we had gone straight through the Second Division and suffered a second successive relegation, I married Denise and we went off on honeymoon to St Lucia. When we returned, there was a bid in for me from Charlton and I went – at around the time John Humphrey made the same move.”

Lennie Lawrence was in charge at The Valley. As much as anyone was anyway. After three games, the club were homeless and decamped to Selhurst Park, where a side also including Peter Shirtliff and Alan Curbishley would turn up in a fleet of cars.

Injuries, some requiring surgery, limited Pender to 46 games in two and a quarter seasons but he chalked up another promotion to the top flight in the process and was seen as a worthwhile risk when Bristol City moved in during the autumn of 1987.

A sending-off for hauling back an opponent in a late defeat at Blackpool made it a far from dream debut for him in the colours of Wolves’ forthcoming FA Cup adversaries but he recovered from the disappointment to enjoy his time there.

“Terry Cooper was manager and they had just sold David Moyes to Shrewsbury, so I think I was his replacement,” he added. “Keith Curle had been there previously as well.

“I can’t remember who it was that I pulled back. I am thinking Trevor Sinclair because I faced him at least once but I might have my years mixed up. I know it was someone quick who I decided I wasn’t going to catch by fair means!

“We reached the semi-final of the League Cup and drew the first leg at Nottingham Forest, where we led 1-0 until near the end, when I scored an own goal. Lee Chapman was right behind me and might have scored but I just stuck out my foot to deal with a short through ball and knocked it past our keeper Keith Waugh. We hit the woodwork in the second leg, went into extra-time and then saw Gary Parker get the only goal.”

It was in that same 1988-89 campaign that a Bristol side containing Pender as skipper and Steve McClaren were powerless to prevent Steve Bull from using a Sherpa Van Trophy night at Molineux to plunder one of his club record 18 Wolves hat-tricks.

It was also the time when the bulwark centre-half learned something about the perils of fixture congestion. “We played more than 60 matches that season and I am sure all our cup commitments had an effect on us in the League. I look at this weekend’s FA Cup meeting at Ashton Gate and wonder whether going through another round might get in the way of the important job of picking up points.

John (white shorts) in action for Bristol City.

“Joe Jordan, who I had faced before, had taken over from the man who signed me, Terry Cooper, and had done everything in the game. Unfortunately, we didn’t get on great after a while and, although I had been offered a new contract, it was time to move again.”

Pender seemed to have the mantra that if he was going to change clubs, he would seek a completely new environment. From Wolverhampton, South London and Bristol, it was now off to the north and Burnley following 114 Robins games in three years.

A third Pender promotion had been chalked up in the West Country and Burnley’s standing in the Fourth Division, not long after they had gone within a whisker of dropping into non-League, offered definite potential of another one.

“Frank Casper was the manager who signed me but Jimmy Mullen (no relation to the Wolves version) took over and we went from strength to strength,” he added. “I enjoyed my time there a lot – it was like Wolves, a traditional club and one where the whole town seemed to get behind you.

“I was there for a few years and have stayed in touch with Andy Farrell and Ian Meesham, who I got on well with up there. I also went to the Wolves v Burnley game this season – they are the two clubs whose results I look for first.

“Torquay beat us in the play-offs in 1990-91 after we head battered them, then we went up automatically and I at last made it to Wembley in 1994. Stockport had been a bit of a bogey side but we beat them 2-1 and were up to what used to be called the Second Division.”

Pender had become only the second man ever to lead Burnley to two promotions. The other was Martin Dobson. Adrian Heath and Ted McMinn were among his Turf Moor team-mates but he wasn’t around for the two defeats against Wolves in 1994-95.

He wanted two full seasons on his contract, the club were prepared to offer only one and he again jumped ship, to a much more local port this time, to Wigan.

“One of our kids was born in London, one in Bristol and two in Burnley,” he added. “That shows what a footballer’s life is like. At least joining Wigan meant we didn’t have to move house again.

“I liked it there and we played some nice football under John Deehan. The stadium was a little run-down but the pitch was lovely. We were never ordered to hoof it.

“We won promotion – I think that was the sixth of my career. Maybe that record explains why I was able to secure moves and was often made captain soon after arriving. I knew what it was all about.

“From going up at Wolves under Graham Hawkins, who was a nice, genuine bloke who knew my position well, I worked out that you played your football at the start of the season and then learned how to dig out results when the pressure was on at the end.

“I worked hard, probably led by example and always tried my best. I think back and reflect how I was one of the lucky ones who got through. I captained Wolves at 19 and was also captain of Wigan and Rochdale at the end of my career, at least for part of the time.

“But I remember for example how Dave Beattie, who I think lived in Bilston, didn’t make it in the professional game as far as I’m aware and Graham Quinn presumably went back to Ireland without joining another club over here.”

Pender quit after damaging his patella tendon and cruciate ligaments while at Rochdale, a splint and a spell of rehabilitation at Lilleshall failing to achieve the salvation target. He was 34 and was done with the game.

Driving a bus near you soon? John Pender at home this winter.

He has since been a sales manager for a Worcester firm of cavity wall insulators – a 14-year stint that ended in redundancy – then had a delivery job for Asda before switching to the one at the wheel on public transport.

We were patient in our efforts to tell the story of John Patrick Pender – and hope you agree that the wait has been very worthwhile.

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