A Watford Blast From The Past

Cup Cave-In Was Harrowing For Popular Defender

By Clive Corbett

Steve Sims (far left) and Kenny Jackett (one in from left) watch Andy Gray shoot in Wolves’ FA Cup draw at Watford early in 1981.

In the maelstrom of excitement building up to Wolves’ weekend Wembley visit, most attention has been on past semi-finals, including the miserable showing against Arsenal in 1998.

I would like to concentrate on the cup history between Wolves and Watford, though, especially a fifth-round Molineux encounter just over 39 years ago.

It was a particularly sad afternoon for John McAlle, who candidly said when I interviewed him for my Those Were The Days book that there had been frustrations leading to a rash challenge and a serious injury. More of that shortly….

First, a reminder that brings pain of a different kind…..on February 16, 1980, the Second Division Hornets stung top-flight Wolves with a 3-0 victory, all the goals coming in the last 17 minutes (two from Malcolm Poskett and one from Luther Blissett).

The reason why this is relevant to modern-day Wolves is that John Barnwell’s side had completed a thrilling aggregate victory over Swindon in the League Cup semi-final the previous Tuesday.

The euphoric midweek scenes were reminiscent of those that have greeted the two recent victories over Manchester United. But it transpired that overcoming Watford had been taken for granted by some.

To be fair, despite praising his players and clearly relishing the chance to puncture Nottingham Forest’s bid for a third successive League Cup triumph, manager John Barnwell did issue a warning against complacency. “All credit to the players,” he said, “they came back and showed a lot of character. I’m delighted for the supporters because we have at last produced something on our own ground which they can shout about.

“I said this was going to be a massive week for Wolverhampton Wanderers. We have taken the first step. This might seem a little bit hard, but enjoy tonight, then tomorrow we’ve got to start thinking about Saturday.”

He was, of course, referring to the Watford match but his warning appeared to go unheeded as the euphoria of securing a cup final place was blown away on the day Mick Kearns made a first start in goal in place of Paul Bradshaw.

The 3-0 defeat was made doubly worse by a sickening broken leg suffered by Wolves’ substitute, McAlle, in a challenge with centre-half Steve Sims. Barnwell commented at the time: “Football can deal out some incredibly cruel blows. He has probably made that tackle thousands of times in his career and come out of it without a scratch.

“There was no blame to be attributed anywhere. John had gone on to try to ginger things up and the injury resulted from his first tackle.

“But I know from his strength of character and his fitness that he will be back.”

McAlle was equally positive, saying shortly afterwards: “All I am concentrating on now is being fit for the start of next season. If the specialist allows me, I shall be at Wembley shouting the team to victory over Forest. What the team has achieved in the League Cup this season has been absolutely fantastic and I am very confident the lads can win the trophy.

“I have seen on television many times the incident where I fractured my leg. It was the kind of tackle I have made millions of times without suffering any injury. It is one of those things every professional footballer dreads happening but, if you worried about it, you would never make another tackle in your life.

John McAlle in action at Villa Park against a side containing Andy Gray as their no 9.

“Since the injury, I have received many get-well messages from supporters and players all over the country and would like to take this opportunity of thanking everybody for their kind thoughts.”

However, when I interviewed John for the book, he reflected differently. He generously shared his personal photographs of that sad late winter’s day and the start of his long road to recovery, photographer Bill Goulding having written on the back of one: ‘Bang goes the leg!’

The arrival of Emlyn Hughes the previous summer had begun to squeeze ‘Scouse’ out of a regular place in the starting line-up. He had starred just a week earlier in a 1-0 First Division win at Old Trafford, only to be dropped against Swindon and relegated to the bench for the Watford game.

McAlle explains: “The Saturday after United away, we played in the FA Cup against Watford and I was substitute. I was fuming about getting man of the match against United and being dropped against Swindon. I was dying to show him (Barnwell) what I was made of. I had just gone on when I went straight through Steve Sims.”

He also describes a strange reaction from the joint management team. “They kept me involved when we won the League Cup,” he added. “It was very enjoyable. But at that time only 12 players received a tankard. The whole squad gets them now.

“I asked Barny if there was any chance of getting me one and he said: ‘No chance’. That was it. Mind you, when I bust my leg, Richie (Barker) was the same. I was up in the Social Club one lunchtime, talking with a few other players. I had a big plaster on my leg and Richie says: ‘You get what you deserve in this game’. I thought: I deserve a broken leg?”

McAlle certainly did not merit that harsh fate and is regarded as one of the heroes of the 1974 League Cup final victory over Manchester City. But events against Watford were to deny him any chance of an active return to Wembley.

‘Scouse’ is a Hall of Fame inductee and sixth in the Wolves all-time appearance list on 509 games.

So, fast-forwarding, what about this year? Has Wolves’ time come? Their overall FA Cup record against Watford of four wins, two draws and just that one defeat in seven games (21 goals scored and seven conceded) should give rise to optimism over the outcome.

But performances against Huddersfield (twice) and Cardiff away remind us that Wolves must guard against complacency if they are to return to Wembley in a few weeks’ time for an even bigger date.

I know Nuno and the lads need no reminding of all that, so come on, me babbies, and no slip-ups please. This will be even tougher than United.

One of the men carrying our hopes this Sunday…..

*Clive Corbett is also the co-author with Steve Gordos of Golden Balls, The Story of Wolves’ Hat-Trick Heroes.