Cast Adrift – Then A Story Of Success
A Future Shaped By Some Molineux Shortcomings
Charles Bamforth is well used to locating long-lost members of the Molineux family. By way of a change, he turns the spotlight here on to a man he happened to encounter in their respective business lives – one with a fascinating tale to tell.
The Chinese know all about auspicious times; the best days, months and years to be part of something. I am not sure if they also have a concept of the exact opposite but that surely is how things were for the brief career of Richard Wood at Wolverhampton Wanderers.
He was the player on the lowest rung of the ladder at a club suffering the lowest ebb in their history.
“Football was my life from the moment I could walk really and it was all I was really good at,” he said. “My parents separated when I was five, so I used to grab a ball and escape from everything.
“Just me a ball and a bit of space to kick it. That was my solitude, escape and where I was happy. As a kid (he was born in March, 1969), I played with Stafford Eagles in the Sunday league and then at a higher grade with Stafford Town, always in central midfield.
“I was usually captain for my school team at Blessed William Howard in Stafford. Mr. Stewart, my teacher, was very supportive of me throughout my time there. He put me into the Staffordshire Under-19 schoolboy trials when I was only 15 and told me that if I got in, he would be sure to get me a trial at Wolves. I made sure I got picked!”
Richard Wood was not a Wolves supporter. Like most of us, his team of choice was determined by his genes.
“My father’s family were from near Dial Lane in Hill Top, West Bromwich and I would go to The Hawthorns when I stayed with him at the weekend,” he added. “Cunningham, Regis, Brown, Robson, Robertson, Johnston…..these were my heroes. I remember getting a letter from a Baggies scout before I joined Wolves but they never followed up.”
True to his word, Wood’s teacher contacted Molineux and got him that trial. “John Stewart knew the Wolves secretary, Keith Pearson, and I was asked to turn up for a game at Aston Villa’s training ground, Bodymoor Heath.
“I remember playing right midfield against Colin Gibson, just before he moved to Manchester United. I stayed with him all match, followed him everywhere and, for a young kid, must have shown I had some talent as I was offered a contract.
“It paid £37.50 a week but I didn’t care. It was real and it was happening for me. I was joining a professional football club. My dream had come true. Little did I know the reality was that I was going to fall somewhat short.”
That trial game was in the Midland Intermediate League on October 26, 1985. Villa won by a solitary goal but Wolves had seen enough to convince them of the merits of the youngster – no mean task because the manager who signed him, having a brief second tour of duty at Molineux, was the legendary task-master, Bill McGarry.
“I was only with the club for 18 months, yet I had four managers – McGarry, Sammy Chapman, Brian Little and Graham Turner,” Wood recalls.
Within two weeks of signing a two-year YTS contract – Wolves’ first because until then, there had been apprenticeships – Wood was named for the Central League clash at Port Vale. The side were a mixture of probables and possibles: Tim Flowers, Geoff Lomax, Richard Smith, Darren Wright, Mike Coady, Paul Dougherty, Richard Wood, P. Wood, Dean Edwards, J. Farmer, M. Gammaldi. Sub Henry Wright for P. Wood. Wright scored in a 2-1 defeat.
Richard remembers how all of this was (at the start at least) a dream very much coming true. “I left school with seven O levels and had enrolled at a college, studying woodwork and metalwork. I hated it, so I put every ounce of effort into my football.
“Darren Wright and Richard Smith were the last of the apprentices, so they were ahead of me. Chris Brindley joined after me. I remember after training having to clean the main changing room, clean the showers and bath, sweep up and mop, clean the boots and the boot room, but then that was what you did as a youngster, living the dream!
“During my time, there were only a handful of younger players and we used to mix with the full-time pros all the time, train with them and even follow them into town and sneak in for a game of snooker now and again.
“I used to get the train early in the morning from Stafford and then walk through the town centre to Molineux. I fondly remember Mrs Clamp, who used to clean the kit, and Bill Pilbeam, the groundsman. He was the salt of the earth, always happy to tell the players who (to his eyes) weren’t pulling their weight and what he thought of them!
“The odd-job man Graham Hughes – a wonderful chap who was really nice to me. Not everyone was like that, especially some of the professionals who liked to put you down and keep you in your place.
“There was a lot of pressure on them at the time, though, being bottom of the league. I suppose the last thing on their mind was trying to help a young kid. I guess, looking back, it was the best time of one’s life – but at a club encountering the worst part of its history.
“One member of staff seemed to like getting me to warm up, send me round the pitch and then laugh when the final whistle went as I was getting my tracksuit off.
“Looking back, I can see why they had some issues. If they had put as much effort into results-orientated activities as having a laugh at a young kid, things might have been different.
“Some players were great, though. In particular, I would mention Roger Eli, who went out of his way to be reassuring. Others were Vince Bartram and Geoff Palmer. The coach, Brian Little, was always supportive as well.
“I remember big Floyd Streete, who was a giant to me but always friendly. Tim Flowers was a character, Andy Mutch the team clown, Dean Edwards was okay, Nicky Clarke quite wild but very dedicated and a real winner.
“Paul Dougherty was great. He and I were fitness fanatics and I remember a few times when we would run to the training ground, train and then run back.
“‘Pee-wee’ was the kindest of all the pros and he even stayed at my house a few times instead of travelling home. I remember Ally Robertson, who was also a good guy who brought a professional attitude with him, joining Wolves at the latter end of his playing career and one morning he threw the keys of his Porsche to me and let me park it – an amazing experience when you’re 17.
“I played many reserve team matches but never really got the support and chance to play where I dreamed in central midfield. They pigeon-holed me as a right-back, which I hated.
“I hadn’t grown up playing in that position. But there again, I did train in the week and I suppose if I had shown the ability, they would have given me the chance.
“The club were a real shambles when I joined. It is not like today, when there is so much structure and organisation. In those days, you were very much alone.
“I had the belief but no structure to draw on. I needed someone to reassure me and tell me I was good.”
Richard chuckles: “With the right coaching and the opportunity to play centre-midfield, I could have been a Messi! I could do keepie-uppies as well as David Beckham.”
His point, though, is very important. Young players need guidance. Some need a firm hand, others a comforting arm round the shoulder. With a minimal staff, notably Sammy Chapman, Brian Little, Greg Fellows and physio Eddie Edwards, and a first team in such disarray, there was no proper support for the younger element.
And so Wood’s reply to his major memories includes: “I did a lot of cleaning. There was a lot to clean.
“You would arrive in a morning, turn the lights on and the cockroaches would go scurrying for a hiding place. Some players enjoyed putting them in other players’ socks.
“The best it got for me was being selected for the first-team squad once, for a cup match. I didn’t get on but I was a substitute and very excited.
“The only way was up at that time, so it was great to be there just as the upward bounce began with the arrival of Mr Bull. I had played in the reserves against Steve Bull and Andy Thompson when they were with West Brom, not long before they came to Wolves.
“Soon after they arrived, I had trained and was sweeping and mopping before starting to clean all the boots. So I was stretched pretty thin.
“Bully pitched up and told me he wanted me not only to clean his boots but also his rubbers. I told him that I was too busy and he should do them himself. I may have used an expletive. He chased me out on to the pitch as I ran like hell. It was probably the fastest I ever ran during my time at the club!
“I also remember a while later when I was using some of the language I had been picking up. I was in a heated conversation with another young player in the corridor. A door opened and Andy Gray’s head popped out. I can’t remember why he was there but he yelled that I swore worse than he did and should keep the noise down!
“My YTS contract was due to end in October 1987, so I went to see Graham Turner in the May as all the pros had finished for the season. I asked him if he would be taking me on as a professional in the October. He replied: ‘If you wait, maybe. But if you ask me now, no’.
“So, being a lonely and frustrated 18-year-old with no commitment from the club, I walked out. I guess I must have had fight and spirit but that was probably the wrong thing to say to a manager with so much on his mind.
“It was he, Barry Powell and physio Paul Darby who had started to return the professionalism to Wolverhampton Wanderers. I wish I’d had the opportunity to be part of it for longer.
“I had a trial straightaway with Crewe, who had a good record and better programme with young players. They were impressed and asked me to go back for another match but I was quite disillusioned with the whole experience.
“After that, I looked to get a job and joined Stafford Rangers, playing semi-pro for a few years. They were in the GM Conference, so it was quite a good standard. I remember playing one match with Gordon Hill, as well as Stan Collymore before he hit the big time.
“Eventually, I had to pack the game in with repeated hamstring problems, which are still an issue today. It all started at Wolves when I used a weight machine wrongly.
“Nobody showed me the right way, so I ended up with powerful quads but weakened hamstrings. I guess it was symbolic of how you made your own way at the club at the time.”
Richard Wood has had a remarkable career outside the game, starting with the NatWest bank in Stafford. After selling bathroom products for the Wellcome Foundation, he trained as a teacher at Wolverhampton Polytechnic before a fulfilling few years teaching primary school and special-needs children.
But frustrations with the National Curriculum – “too much talk about league tables and targets, which don’t bring out the best in kids” – led to him starting his own Muay Thai boxing business and the development of a grading programme for youngsters, alongside renowned coach and expert Tony Myers.
From there, it was on to Gloucester as the head of a centre for young offenders before returning to Stafford to become managing director of the Sheringham Films venture, which benefitted from financial input from Stoke City owner Peter Coates, of Bet365.
The director was Lee Murphy and the first film, Money Kills, went to the Cannes Festival. Check out IMDb and you will find an actor credit for Richard Wood.
Sheringham Films hooked up with Endemol, a media company delivering multi-platform entertainment content, not least Big Brother. Thence to Richard’s own company, Rocketeer, which builds on his belief in education and training and guides students in sixth form colleges, prisons and beyond in areas such as new business development.
I am sure much of Richard Wood’s cast-adrift experiences as an out-of-position youngster at an off-kilter football club must have fed his appreciation of a better way of developing talent. No time or experience is wasted.