Wolves Kid’s Seasons In The Sun
Les Recalls Trend-Setting Travels Around SA
How’s this for an apparent fall from grace? On February 4, 1961, Les Cocker underpinned his status as an FA Youth Cup winner with Wolves and an England age-group international by making his Football League debut. Five weeks later, he signed permanently for Wellington Town.
It sounds a nightmare descent, but the move was quite palatable to the 21-year-old, who was to have his best days in senior football when he headed for South Africa several years later.
So why did he happily accept a career path that looks sharply downward on the face of it?
“I had a job in engineering as well and was happy to pursue that alongside playing a good class of non-League football,” the 70-year-old now says.
“Other clubs, such as Shrewsbury, were interested in me while I was at Wolves but I felt very wanted by Wellington and they were in the Southern League premier division.
“I had felt messed about by Stan Cullis at times and had only played that one game in the first team because Jimmy Murray was ruled out at short notice.
“So I jumped at the chance of going to Wellington and stayed there for five years or so.”
Cocker’s one and only Football League appearance came when he lined up at inside-forward in a 2-1 defeat at Blackburn nine months on from when the two clubs had met, with a contrasting outcome, in the 1960 FA Cup final.
He was a wing-half in his earlier Molineux career but the fact that Ron Flowers and Eddie Clamp filled those roles at Ewood Park on either side of skipper and centre-half Bill Slater underlined how difficult breaking through in that area was always likely to be.
Cocker still lives with wife Wendy a few miles east of Wellington, in Newport, but it was a call from the Southern Hemisphere that took them far away from their Wolverhampton roots in the middle of the swinging sixties.
Wolves were well known in South Africa, having toured there to great acclaim in 1951 and 1957 and recruited the likes of Eddie Stuart, Des Horne and Cliff Durandt from the republic with considerable success.
But this was a new trend…..a player well known at Molineux heading the other way to make a living.
“Brian Punter, who got as far as the Wolves reserve team, followed me out to South Africa and lads like Barry Stobart, Johnny Kirkham, Mickey Lill, Fred Kemp and Terry Wharton also went but I think I was the first,” Cocker added.
“I was out there when England won the World Cup and I thoroughly enjoyed it, although our children were only something like four and two.
“We were very well looked after and the money was pretty good. All the players were part-time professionals and I had an engineering job as well, so our standard of living was excellent.
“Clubs over there had wealthy owners and there was also a lively social scene which we enjoyed.
“I remember we drove once to the Drakensburg Mountains, where the Zulus are from, and saw Victoria Falls and Kruger Park, so we made the most of the experience.
“I played in Pretoria for Arcadia United, who were in the top division, but it’s a big country and we were flown to the away matches in Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and so on, although Johannesburg was only just down the road.
“We did pretty well in my two seasons and reached a cup final which we lost.
“We had gates of around 15,000 and a club called Highlands Park in Joburg were after me when we had our first return trip home paid for after the second season.
“But Wendy was terribly seasick for most of the two and a half weeks on the journey from Cape Town and always missed her family a lot, so we never went back.
“Career-wise, it would have made sense to return to South Africa but you have to put your loved ones first and I went off to play instead for John Charles at Hereford and then did the rounds with Kidderminster, Stourbridge, Dudley, Darlaston and Lower Gornal.”
Cocker, not to be confused with the late former England and Leeds trainer of the same name, ran his own engineering business in the West Midlands but is now retired.
Coming up in the next few days: How Wolves and their youngsters reduced Bobby Moore and Jimmy Greaves to tears.