Wath A Story!
The Phenomenon Of That Vital Other Wanderers
Charles Bamforth, a highly valued contributor to this website, presents a brilliantly researched insight into Mark Crook, flat cap, walking stick and all, and the legendary nursery club who served Wolves so magnificently.
Peter Doherty was a Beckham or Messi of his day. The great Northern Ireland international became player-manager towards the end of his playing career at Doncaster Rovers in what in those more straightforward days was called the Second Division. Perhaps, then, there is little reason to wonder why a blond stripling of a lad from the Doncaster Schoolboys side resisted an approach from the then mighty Sheffield Wednesday by deciding instead to sign with Rovers as an amateur in 1950. Well, they had also found him a job at the locomotive sheds for 25 shillings a week (£1.25 in modern parlance) and everyone knew anyway that the chances of any aspiring player ‘making it’ were remote.
Thus the future seemed to be settled for Ron Flowers, as he recalls in his 1962 autobiography For Wolves and England. Despite the fact, however, that he relished being coached along with the Dons’ other young lads by the future Preston boss, Jimmy Milne, he was never given a first-team game.
Flowers duly caught the eye of the main focus of this particular article, Mark Crook. Crook ran a young side in the town of Wath-upon-Dearne, just ten miles from the Flowers homestead in Edlington.
Wath Wanderers fed promising youngsters from the North and East to Molineux. In Flowers’ case, of course, the rest most decidedly was an ‘old golden’ history.
He wrote: “My first game, at inside-right, was against Newcastle United on the Burnden Colliery Ground and, after the match, as a special treat, we were taken to see Wolves play Sunderland at Roker Park. For me, the great moment was to see Billy Wright play for the first time. … at Roker Park (he) gave a superb exhibition, which made me all the more determined to try to one day follow him and become a professional footballer.”
We would still have much to thank Mark Crook for if all he ever did was supply Wolves with their very own 1966 World Cup squaddie. But there were so many more. From the late 1940s and the 1950s, we can count among others Geoff Sidebottom, Roy Swinbourne, Jack Short, Joe Bonson, Barry Stobart, John Galley and, of course, Peter Knowles.
In Flowers’ case, we can also see evidence for Crook’s vision, for it was he that stuck him in at left-half for a game at Rotherham when the usual no 6 did not show up. Such were the vicissitudes of team selection at Wath over the years, with seldom the same side playing in successive games.
Ron picks up the story: “Almost at the start of the game, I went down to head a low ball, someone took a kick at it and hit me full in the face. When they picked me up and sponged my swollen lips, it was to discover that my two front teeth had departed forever.”
He carried on playing, of course, both in that game and in so many more, mostly at left-half, for Wolves and England.
In due course, Ron Flowers made the journey that the cream of the Wath crop did for over 30 years; he was sent to Molineux to see if he passed muster with the other Wanderers’ hierarchy, at the time headed by Stanley Cullis. Ron went three times and, on the third occasion in August, 1951, was offered terms at £7 in the season and £6 in the summer.
His Wath colleague, Dick Neal, did not make the cut – but went on to have a fine career with Birmingham and others. Neal is a good example of the fact that not everyone from Wath struck Wanderers gold but did make a go of things elsewhere. If we are to make a true reckoning of Mark Crook’s contributions, it is not only the successful Wolves players that need to be tallied.
So how did the Wath phenomenon begin? Who better to turn to than the legendary manager who delighted in the conveyor belt of young talent that this corner of South Yorkshire delivered? In his All for the Wolves book, published in 1960, Cullis wrote: “Wath is probably the first football club ever formed for the primary purpose of finding outstanding youngsters to pass on to a parent organisation and it is almost worth its weight in gold.
“The idea formed in the lively brain of Mark Crook, the Wolves winger of the 1930s, who bought a fish-shop when he retired to Yorkshire just before the war. His interest in football led him to spot two local lads called Colin Collindridge and Gerald Henry, who he brought to Molineux for a trial. Major Buckley did not sign either, although Collindridge later became a successful player for Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest whilst Henry enjoyed many good seasons with Leeds United.
“Mark thought it would be a good thing if he could keep the promising youngsters for coaching and training until he was sure they reached the high standards the Major demanded.
“So, in 1938, he formed his own club called Broughton Welfare and not many years went by before he was finding youngsters who were to become some of the top names in football.
“Both George and Ted Robledo, the brothers who were born in Chile and later earned FA Cup winners medals with Newcastle United, were among his early recommendations and, indeed, as a 15-year-old, in 1942, George scored two goals for Wolves in a charity match at Merthyr.
“War conditions made it difficult to sign youngsters from a distant part and the two Robledos went to Barnsley, who later sold them to Newcastle for a big fee.
“Now, Wath put out two teams each Saturday, one in the Northern Intermediate League and the other in a Sheffield junior league. Mark has his own organisation of scouts and each season he sorts out the best from the dozens of youngsters who he brings for a trial at his wonderful little club. Wolves, happy to do so, pay the running expenses of the club and provide the kit and other necessities. Every penny is well spent, for Wath is almost a football gold-mine.”
The Derby Evening Telegraph of January 14, 1933, painted Mark Crook’s pen portrait as a player: “He was born in Morley, Leeds, on June 29, 1903, and joined Blackpool in 1925. Scoring 12 goals in 51 games, he caught the eye of Buckley and became a part of the Wolves team that won the Second Division title in 1931-32. All told, he struck 14 goals in 78 League games before heading to Luton in 1934. After just a handful of games for the Hatters, he retired to open his fish and chip shop.”
To glean more about Crook, I turned to his only grandchild, Jane Whitlam. She said: “My granddad had three children. The youngest was my dad, Peter, who passed away last year. He played local football. Dad was often the chauffeur for collecting players. Once, he picked up the Charlton brothers from the station but other clubs made them better offers.
“Granddad and Gran (Nell) lived in a bungalow next to the fish and chip shop. On the other side was the betting shop that he started. Granddad kept greyhounds in kennels round the back and had someone come each day to walk them. He was interested in all sports.
“I can remember being taken scouting. My dad would work in the betting office on a Saturday afternoon, so Granddad could go off to watch games. We’d go to fields that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea who he was watching or what became of them.
“He was a very funny man, very sociable. He got on well with everybody. He is still well remembered here in Wath. My lads play cricket at the same club where Granddad played – he would have been so proud of them. Wath Wanderers used to change in the pavilion at the cricket ground. It has been replaced now.
“He had a dodgy hip and dodgy knee and walked with a stick. He took it everywhere and used it for everything. He would open doors with it or hook you round the neck with it if he wanted you! The rubber ferule on the end was worn away and you could hear him coming. My mother, Joyce, was a fantastic cook. Whenever she came up with something a bit special, say a trifle, we would hear that tap, tap. ‘I bloody knew it,’ she would say, ‘your granddad has a sixth sense.’
“Granddad never wore a suit. He always had a chain hanging off his belt with his keys on it. And he wore his flat cap.
“My gran and granddad found each other when he was at his first club, Blackpool. My grandma’s auntie ran a boarding house and took in footballers. My gran was helping out and served him his meal. That’s how they met.
“I was only eight when Granddad died in 1977 but I had spent a lot of time at my gran and granddad’s. He went away a lot scouting but returned home each day. Gran persuaded him to have a caravan at Bridlington. But, whenever they went, he would never sleep there. He always went home to his own bed before returning next day. It was to the caravan that things like chipped teapots would go – he wouldn’t let gran throw such things away.”
I contacted some of Crook’s former players to gain an insight into the man as a manager of the younger element. Consistently, they tell of a good and caring individual.
The catchment area for players seems to have been Yorkshire and the North East almost exclusively. I can trace only one recruited from across the Pennines, some bloke by the name of Alan Ball, who Cullis rejected on account of his diminutive stature. Another who impressed Crook but didn’t make enough of a mark with Cullis was Terry Cooper. No system is flawless.
One of the locals was David Galvin, the lad from Denaby Main (the same birthplace as Swinbourne) who played a handful of games for Wolves in 1969 before embarking on a lengthy career with Gillingham.
“I worked down the pit and would train on a Tuesday and Thursday evening at Wath, leaving the mine at 4.30 for training at 6.30,” Galvin said. “It was a council ground, used for cricket as well as football. We would walk round the cricket pitch to get to the changing rooms. There were no floodlights. The pitch was roped off. There was no hard standing and only a handful of folks would be watching. We played in gold and black and there was a one-sheet programme.
“I was there two seasons. Only four lads were regular, playing every week. The rest were triallists, so the team was changing all the time.
“Mark Crook was a short guy. He knew his football but didn’t do a lot of coaching. There was lots of physical stuff but we did a fair bit of ball work. He had an assistant – a tall, bulky bloke who looked after the kit and didn’t say a lot.
“Mr Crook was very caring and he did a hell of a lot for me. Technically, we could only play until we were 18 and then we would either sign for Wolves or be released. I went down twice to Wolverhampton just before I was 18 but Stan Cullis had left and nobody could take a decision on me. I didn’t do too well – I had a bad cold at the second trial. But Mark went to the club, saw the secretary and told him that they shouldn’t release me. They worked out some sort of deal, so they could keep me at Wath and pay me something like £5 a week.
“It was Mark that turned me into a centre-half. I started at right-back but Mark said ‘what about playing centre-half? I want to make you captain and you can gauge things better from there.’
“We travelled to away games by coach, picking different players up along the way. At home, it was a sloping pitch. We were often playing uphill against a fierce wind. I recall one keeper not being strong enough to take kicks, so I took them. I hit one really high and it was blown right back for a corner. A 4-0 defeat would be a good result. Remember that we were playing the top youths from big northern clubs who were training full-time. You had to be strong-willed to survive at Wath.”
Galvin, then, was at Wath longer than most. Some were only there for shortish periods. One such was John Galley, the strapping centre-forward who made his bow at Molineux in the snow-ridden 1962-63 season and went on to excellent things with the nearest big club to Wath, Rotherham United.
“I was only there a month, before being taken on to the groundstaff at Wolves,” Galley said. “My father used to drive me up. It was only an hour from my home near Chesterfield. Ken Knighton was there and he and I were great pals. After moving to Wolves, we split up two girls on the dance floor one night and married them.” Both couples are still together.
Two great talents from the mid-1960s were old friends Bob Hatton and Gerry Taylor. Taylor takes up the Wath story: “Bob and I were playing amateur football in Hull, having previously played for Hull City’s ‘A’ team. We were spotted by Jack Symonds, who was a teacher in the city. Bob and I would take the train on a Friday evening to Doncaster and Mark would pick us up. We had nice digs. We played on the Saturday, then went home in the evening. We trained on our own in Hull. Bob worked for a bakery and I was doing an apprenticeship for an engineering company in the fish docks. I was only at Wath for two or three months.
“Mark Crook was a nice chap, very down-to-earth. He spoke his mind but certainly looked after us. Bob and I went to Wolves for a two-week trial around the time Stan Cullis left. Mark was sure we would be signed but Wolves’ policy was that they would not sign anyone until a new manager came in. Mark said: ‘Leave it with me. If Wolves don’t sign you, I know Sheffield Wednesday want you both’. We signed at Molineux in November, 1964.”
In a new crop soon after, we find Paul Walker. “I was an amateur at Bradford Park Avenue,” Walker told me. “I was coming off the pitch once and this little tubby bloke came up to me and said: ‘Tha shouldn’t be playing with this shower of s***. See me in t’car park after.’ He told me he would come and see me the following week at my mum and dad’s fish and chip shop at Kirkstall, near Headingley. So I signed for Wath, although my parents wanted me to finish my ‘O’ Levels. I was only there a few months before signing full-time for Wolves.
“My dad leant me his car and I would go down to Wath with L Plates, driving Steve Downes and keeper Alan Aubrey. I hit a bus this once. When we got back to Leeds later that day, t’others scarpered. They didn’t want to face my dad seeing as there were bits hanging off the car.”
So was Mark Crook a good coach? I asked Paul. “Wor he ‘eck! Mal Graham was his coach. But Mark knew his football and he wor a nice warm person.
“Remember that we were up against top youths from the northern sides, like Frank Worthington at Beck Lane, Huddersfield, and Eddie Gray at Fullerton Park, Leeds. So many. If you did well, there would be a £5 note stuffed into your shoe!”
Walker’s pal Steve Downes was one of the Wath Wanderers that did not make it to Wolves and recalls: “Wolves Youth played a pre-season friendly against Pudsey Juniors, who I was playing for, and they suggested that some of us should go to Wath. I must have played about 15 games for the club with my friends Paul Walker, Dave Martin and Graham Price. Stuart Darfield and Paul went down to Molineux but I wasn’t invited. I don’t think I was ever seriously considered but I was quite happy to go home to Leeds, do my ‘A’ Levels, and then sign pro for Rotherham. I had a good career with them, Sheffield Wednesday, Chesterfield, Halifax and Blackburn.
“Mark Crook was small, squat and quite bluff. He was never cruel to anyone but he was really only interested in those who he could send down to Wolves.
“We had been the whipping boys in the Northern Intermediate League for years. But the side that I was in was quite a good one and we beat Leeds 1-0. They included Terry Yorath and Jimmy Lumsden and weren’t happy.
“Things at Wath were certainly on a shoe-string and it was freezing when we got changed in that cricket pavilion. The kit was decent, though.”
One of the North-Eastern lads who found their way to Wath was keeper Jeff Wealands. “I was at Wath for one season before being taken on as an apprentice at Molineux,” he said. “I was spotted by Wolves’ North East scout, Joe Mycock, and used to train at Darlington on a Tuesday and Thursday night.
“If the Saturday game was at Wath, I would travel down on the train on a Friday night and Mark picked me up at Doncaster station before I stayed the night in digs near the ground. If it was an away match, I would either get picked up en route or make my own way to the ground in my dad’s car. Others at Wath at the time included Mick Kent, Jimmy McVeigh and the winger Dave Jones.
“Mark Crook was a true Yorkshireman; blunt and to the point. He was only about 5ft 3in with a bald head which he always had covered with the obligatory checked flat cap. We once had a trialist playing who, in all fairness, was pretty bad. The lad was trying his best but obviously way out of his comfort zone. Mark was pacing up and down saying to all who would listen ‘This lad’s useless. Can’t control the ball, can’t head it, can’t tackle. What a waste of time!’ He then turned to a couple and asked: ‘What do you think of him?’ They looked aghast and said: ‘We think our son is a good player.’”
In the final years of Wath Wanderers, nuggets continued to be thrown up for the old gold, among them Alan Sunderland, Steve Daley and Jimmy Seal. But everything runs its course. Mark Crook called it a day and Wath were no more.
Several years ago, BBC Radio WM did a fascinating piece on the club, followed by an article on the topic from the same journalist Dan Wheeler. Jane Whitlam’s late father and her Aunt Mary painted poignant images of their dad.
Peter told Dan: “I can see my father. He’s stood on the top pitch on the half-way line, shouting. He’s wearing a thick, three-quarter-length coat, a flat cap and he’s using his stick as a pointer.
“I once went to Doncaster with him and he’d just walk on to the field, have a look round and say: ‘There’s nothing for us here, let’s go.’ He liked direct and skilful players but couldn’t stand anyone who didn’t like to get stuck in.”
Mary added: “He had an instinct. He could watch a young man play on the field and seemed to know whether he would make it or not. He said speed and skill could be taught but not the feeling inside that makes someone a football player. He hadn’t to be very long with a youth before he had his character taped.
“He told me it was more like a disease than a hobby. He was his own accountant, driver, trainer and booked all the accommodation and travel arrangements. The players stayed with miners’ widows or with families of friends. I gave my bed up once.”
Wath Wanderers were clearly a family in every sense of the term. And the beneficiaries were Wolverhampton Wanderers.
* Thanks to John Moralee of Wath for his great help in the writing of this article for Wolves Heroes.