LA Story Clouded By Injury Misfortune
Thanks to substantial help overseas, Wolves Heroes have succeeded in securing an interview with Bob McNab, the Molineux full-back of three and a half decades ago who became a successful property developer in Los Angeles and is the father of a Hollywood actress. Our story is by California-based Charles Bamforth.
Bob McNab does not look upon his time at Molineux with any particular fondness. The 1975-76 season was a frustrating time for a player who prided himself on being the fittest of the bunch at the heart of success.
That was what he had been used to as a key part of the mighty Arsenal side of the early 1970s and the winners of the esteemed double. McNab played in all but two of the Gunners’ games that season.
Now here he was at Molineux, commuting from his home in London, training with Watford and undone by a serious hamstring injury at Tottenham in his unlucky 13th and final Division One game in gold and black.
“I did it three times,” he says. “It was so frustrating. But the whole experience was maddening. It really isn’t a good idea to commute when you are a footballer, missing the team meetings. Guess whose fault it becomes if the team is not doing well.
“Wherever I had been in my career, I wanted to be the fittest. Even after I had made it into the England team, I was always first in the cross countries and winning the ‘doggies’ with my club.
“When I went to Wolves at the age of 32, I still found myself at the front of the pack in the cross countries. I could see Derek Parkin leading and I let him stay there. I didn’t think it would be smart to go out to win. Bill McGarry said: ‘Hey, you can run’. Of course I could.
“And there’s plenty I felt I had to offer about how we did things at Highbury. But I held my tongue – you know, being the new guy. I felt it would have been embarrassing otherwise in front of my new team-mates.”
McNab, 68, clearly feels there were those at Wolves who thought he was only in it for the money. For a player so dedicated to fitness and giving his all, that stung.
“I remember hosting a table at a football dinner for my business associates,” added the long-time property developer, once owner of a pub in Tottenham and a group of betting shops. “There was a big national haulage contractor there who had a Wolves fan as one of his guests. This guy got hopelessly drunk and came over to my table effing and blinding about my time at Molineux. He knew nothing about me and what had really happened.
“To make matters worse, I was paying for everything – and I was born in Yorkshire!”
McNab worked hard to return from his hamstring problems but the risk of recurrence was great and so it twice proved. It was his friend Frank McLintock who advised him to seek a radical solution.
“It had developed into a sciatic problem. He suggested acupuncture – and I was cured fast. Amazing! The club physio was still treating it as a pulled muscle.”
McNab might not look back on his time in the West Midlands with any great satisfaction but this is different from saying he doesn’t respect Wolves.
“I always did. As a kid, I used to watch those floodlit games and was thrilled by them; Johnny Hancocks and the rest. I would throw myself about pretending to be Bert Williams. I had a photo of him on one wall and Stanley Matthews on the other. I am delighted to see Wolves doing well now. Mick McCarthy is a commonsense guy. It’s a tough job, trying to compete with all that money nonsense at places like City.”
It is no wonder McNab rates highly the job the hard-working McCarthy is doing. He is a great believer in serious graft and doing things properly.
“Fans have to understand that managers like Mick have to get more from less as he is in the win business; it’s not a fashion show.
“I was born and bred behind the old Huddersfield ground, Leeds Road. I didn’t own a car until I was 23. I used to walk or get a bus to the games. ‘Hey up, Bob, have a good ’un today,’ they would be saying to me.
“My dad wouldn’t let me sign professional until I had passed my City and Guilds. I worked as an apprentice carpenter for 46 and a half hours a week, trained with Huddersfield Town juniors two nights and the other three nights were spent at Technical College. In those days, the City and Guilds was a six-year programme. I managed to pass in five years. It has since been extremely useful for our projects here in Los Angeles in our houses.
“Eddie Boot signed me and Tom Johnston succeeded him. To be honest, I learned nothing from them. It was Ian Greaves (who went on to manage Wolves much later) who really took me under his wing and gave me the best guidance. I had been out for 15 months with two cartilage operations but Ian, who had just come over from Manchester United with Henry Cockburn, asked me to come in and work with him early each morning. Within three weeks, I was back in the first team and, a season and a half later, I was transferred to Arsenal for a record fee (₤50,000). All of that because of someone with knowledge.”
‘Nabbers’ respects capable and creative coaches greatly. He does not suffer fools gladly, as we shall see.
He had no particular desire to leave his home-town team, where he was a colleague of Mike O’Grady, John Oldfield and a fellow full-back, a certain Derek Parkin. The trio went on to experience contrasting fortunes at Wolves.
“I was on ₤25 basic with ₤10 appearance money but had enjoyed a good run in the first team. I played in 62 consecutive games and knew that first-team regulars received ₤35 basic. So that is what I expected to be offered at the end of 1965-1966.
“When my written offer came at the end of the season, I was disappointed and insulted, so I put in a transfer request. It was exactly what the board wanted and in no time it was in the Huddersfield Examiner that my demands were ‘ridiculous’! They (the board) could not be seen to want to sell a local boy after we only missed promotion in the last game of the season. Is it any wonder that we now have agents?
“Arsenal and Liverpool came in for me. Bill Shankly, it seems, had been interested for quite a while. He wanted me to replace Gerry Byrne, who had been injured by a very bad tackle in the 1965 FA Cup final.
“When I got to Anfield, Gerry (a lovely man) was on the treatment table and Shanks said ‘Aye, Gerry, meet Bob McNab. Aye, a great little full-back.’ Gerry’s face said it all. Afterwards, in the boardroom, Bill wanted to show me Gerry Byrne’s contract, so I could understand why the deal he was offering me was so good. I didn’t like that and I wouldn’t look at it. I thought it very insensitive.” So McNab went to Highbury.
“Shanks didn’t speak to me for four years,” he added. “You know how he was….you’d arrive at Anfield and he would be waiting to greet you off the coach. ‘Aye, Frank (McLintock), it’s going to be a tough game today. Bob (Wilson), aye, you’re looking good’. And so on. Then he would see me and snarl and mutter something. In fairness, after we beat them at Wembley in 1971, he came up, shook my hand and said ‘aye, son, you’re a good player.’”
After 68 games for Huddersfield, McNab would play well over 300 for the Gunners. He scored four goals and earned four England caps as well as representing the Football League. He was a stylish left-back, an organiser of his back-line, a creative influence. He was signed by Bertie Mee.
“Bertie was not a traditional football man, by any means, but he was what Arsenal needed at the time because he put discipline back into the club. He was almost a military figure (Bertie like many of the Arsenal physios had been recruited from the military).
“We called him Mr. Mainwaring (one of the main characters in Dad’s Army) behind his back. That was because he spoke like military-officer class but I can tell you that he was a tough nut and training kicked up a notch when he appeared – even above that which the coach, Don Howe, demanded.
“I never minded Bertie after my previous experience with managers. He was honest and fair and helped me with my right knee, which continued to trouble me throughout my career. Bertie was regarded as the best physio in England and I always had a great deal of respect for him.
“What Bertie did was appoint good coaches – such as Don, Dave Sexton, who was a lovely man, and Steve Burtenshaw. He got it wrong just once.”
Clearly, McNab did not have a great deal of time for Bobby Campbell and it was largely as a result of what ensued that McNab left Highbury. He becomes very guarded in his words at this point.
“I became very disillusioned with the management of the club selling good players and buying inferior ones, as proven by the success that many of the players achieved. In my last meeting with Bertie, he asked me to stay at Arsenal and offered me a testimonial game and a future job as a coach. It was too late. I’d had enough and just wanted to get away. Bertie later told someone that I was very head-strong. Read Frank McLintock’s True Grit.”
I will but I have already read Peter Storey’s True Storey and I get the drift. In his remarkable book, Storey holds nothing back, including his respect for his former team-mate, Bob McNab. I mentioned that.
“Great player, Peter. Misunderstood by many. You know, you can influence a game in many ways. Bobby Moore, who was a very good friend of mine, used to say that Peter was one of the three best players he had ever played with. He was such a great full-back, a great ball winner and maybe the best man-for-man marker in midfield that the game has seen. He would win the ball and lay it off to play-makers in a better position. Simple.
“Even after all of Peter’s troubles, I would still trust him as much as any player I have played with on and off the field, as long as he isn’t drinking. He has basically been teetotal for years.”
Naturally, McNab looks back with the greatest fondness on his time in North London. True, Arsenal lost two League Cup finals and an FA Cup final but, in addition to the 1970-71 double, they won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Clearly, they worked hard – and played hard. Campbell’s arrival was the writing on the wall, though, and McNab was on his way to Wolves. But not before he had been approached by Crystal Palace.
“Tel (Terry Venables), who I knew well from his time at Spurs, set it up and I met with the manager, Malcolm Allison, in his office. I knew Malcolm from the TV panel work for ITV. Well, I was in Malcolm’s office for an hour and, for 55 minutes of that, he was on the phone arranging his holiday.
“A pity; it would have been so much easier for me to be at Selhurst Park as I lived in London.”
Despite Wolves’ relegation in 1976, Sammy Chung wanted McNab to sign on again for the following year.
“I didn’t want people pointing the finger at me, saying I was only in it for the money,” he said. “I wasn’t. I’m a workman. The previous season had been a source of embarrassment. Wherever I had been, I was used to playing all the games if at all possible.” Clearly, too, Bob McNab needed to respect the coaches he worked for.
He decided to head Stateside, to San Antonio Thunder in Texas, with his buddy Bobby Moore. “120 degrees at night! And owned by Frito Lay.” He returned to England for a while to Barnet.
“That drove me mad. I really couldn’t face going through the non-League. I liked the intellectual side of playing, the creative stuff.”
And so he went back to North America, this time for a coaching role with Vancouver Whitecaps. I’ll let former Wolves player and Canadian football supremo Les Wilson pick up the story at this point:
“Bob McNab joined the Whitecaps organisation in late 1978 as assistant to the head coach Tony Waiters. He helped mastermind the famous 1979 Vancouver Whitecaps triple – the Western Division Championship, the National Conference Championship and the NASL Soccer Bowl Championship.
“Bob was instrumental in the recruitment of former England internationals and First Division players like Alan Ball (a former Arsenal team-mate), Scotland international Willie Johnston, Ray Lewington, Jon Sammels (another ex-Arsenal colleague) and Trevor Whymark. I was then the team administrator, director of player development and staff coach. I was the fortunate one as I was working with Tony Waiters and Bob McNab.
“It was a fantastic learning curve for me and for so many others at the club. Bob was totally committed to the Whitecaps. He used many coaching and training drills and practices that Arsenal had used under Bertie Mee and Don Howe.
“At the beginning of the 1979 season, we had injury problems. Bob, in his usual determined style, played at full-back in the first two games of the NASL season and I believe played as a substitute in one other game. His performances were flawless and he made the game look so easy.
“He was as fit as or fitter than most players at the club. During training, practice matches or in running competitions, he would be leading the way. He led by example on and off the field and was a true professional. He was a great role model for so many at the Whitecaps; a born winner.
“When he had played in England, Bob was extremely fast, physically very fit, and a great competitor. He had excellent positional sense, read the game better than most, had awareness, strength and excellent distribution, and could tackle with the best of them. He was without question a complete team player.”
McNab went on to manage Tacoma Stars and San Jose Grizzlies in indoor football.
“I brought Preki to North American football,” he added. “Milan Mandaric signed him from Tacoma, which introduced me to Milan, and we worked on a few projects together in San Jose. One task was to work with the administrator at Portsmouth for three months to acquire the club. That led to me becoming manager six months later after the firing of Alan Ball. It lasted only three weeks – enough time for Milan to interview a new full-time manager.”
That was more than a decade ago. McNab is now happily retired and waiting to move into a new condo in Santa Monica, California. As is so often the case for footballers, the stresses and strains have bitten in, making for two new knees and a new hip soon.
“They are remnants of my early days at Huddersfield. Since those early injuries, I have always walked with ever so slight a limp.”
Despite being based on America’s west coast and the father of well-known television actress Mercedes McNab, he still has that pronounced Yorkshire accent and attitude. “You’re from Wigan, Charlie? That’s bloody rugby country!”