Gerry Harris: 1935 – 2020
Remarkable Output Of Lad Born To Farm
By David Instone
‘Among the best full-backs never to have won a senior international cap’ is one tribute that has been paid.
‘The most decorated Wolves left-back of all time’ is another to be going along with.
Ted Farmer, who loyally comes to the fore with valuable insights on sad occasions like this, described him as a man of steel whose role in the engine room built a platform for more celebrated Molineux figures.
The statistics in terms of games played are impressive rather than spectacular but consider this: more than 150 of Gerry Harris’s Wolves appearances were made in a side absolutely at the top of the English game – and at a time when they were conquering Europe, too.
So his was one of the first names Stan Cullis would write down in the very best Wolverhampton Wanderers teams in history.
This son of Claverley – the East Shropshire village situated half-way between Bridgnorth and Wolverhampton – repaid the manager’s faith handsomely by winning two League Championship medals and featuring in an FA Cup-winning side.
As we well know, there might have been a third Championship and the 20th century’s first League and Cup double to boot. Wolves were that good and Gerry was a stalwart part of the success. As someone too young to have seen him play more than a solitary game, I can safely assume he was some performer!
Life, however, might have taken a very different course. There may well have been no opportunity to shine at Molineux, no place for him in a distinguished line of succession and no honours, England under-23 caps among them.
A career on the land beckoned as his dad and three brothers were farm workers and this particular country lad flirted with rejection by Wolves before his magnificent adventure began.
One coach was distinctly unimpressed with his early efforts and it was perhaps only thanks to the selflessness of Bill Shorthouse that Harris was not shown the exit door.
Cullis heard the negative reports after his arrival in the club’s Wolverhampton Amateur League side but thankfully despatched Shorthouse and Billy Wright to watch him in a fixture at Banbury for a second opinion.
It was the last third team game of the season; a final check on some borderline cases, Harris included, before the club decided to release lads or sign them.
“Apparently, they went back and told him I should be in the first team,” Gerry told me some years ago. “I have always been so grateful to them for that, especially to Bill Shorthouse as he was recommending someone for his position.
“I’ve always been thankful for his honesty because I could have been a goner. It might have been straight back to the farm.”
With his card marked by two such respected pros, Cullis appears to have done some courting of the 20-year-old. Presumably tipped off that Harris had earlier attracted interest from Albion, he introduced him to Wolves’ first team in a friendly defeat at Notts County the day after making plans for him to attend the season-ending 3-3 draw at Sheffield United.
Gerry’s competitive first-team debut came in a home game against Luton in August, 1956. Wolves won but the fact they conceded four times in a nine-goal thriller might explain why Shorthouse was back in the no 3 shirt for the next six matches.
Then, the younger man took over for good, the mentor retired and Wolves got on with the business of becoming arguably the best club side in Europe.
Harris, having played 33 times in that breakthrough season, missed only three matches in 1957-58 as the club became League champions for the second time in five years and sat out a mere two 12 months later as the championship was retained.
Not bad for a young man who never even made the trip to Molineux until he went there for the trial for which he was invited after catching the eye of a scout – reportedly George Noakes – while playing for Claverley and then Bobbington.
Gerry informed me once that the family budget didn’t stretch to actually going to watch Wolves games but he had a determination to get in without paying.
When his class were asked as 15-year-olds what they wanted to do as careers, he was one of the few who didn’t say farming. He made it clear he wanted to play for Wolves, the club he supported from ten miles down the road.
Young Gerry could have been forgiven if he wasn’t quite as keen after his first night’s training. He and his dad travelled up the A454 by bus and he recalled: “I ran around the pitch for an hour and didn’t even see a ball!”
Harris’s job at Molineux after signing in 1953 was to ensure it was opposing right-wingers who didn’t see the ball, or at least do much with it, and he emerged as a highly formidable obstacle to their progress.
Ray Aggio and Les Wilson have both been in touch with us by email since news came of his passing at the age of 84 and have spoken of someone who was keen to help them develop.
The lesson was rather more painful in the case of the former forward, who was one of many talented youngsters to have to pursue a senior career elsewhere after finding the bar at Molineux set so high.
“Gerry always had time for me and was a terrific guy, one of the best men at Molineux,” Aggio wrote. “He was a buccaneering, powerful, take-no-prisoners defender. One winter, probably 1963, the ball was played up to me in a five-a-side game at West Park.
“I turned straight into Gerry’s barrel chest. The impact chipped two of my top teeth. They are still chipped today.”
Wilson fondly remembers being taught tricks of the full-back trade by him at a time when the mantel was being handed over.
Having played his first League game in 1956, Gerry played his last in a defeat at Bury in 1966 after Bobby Thomson had come through strongly earlier in the decade. Over some 20 years from the late 1940s, Wolves essentially had only four left-backs – Roy Pritchard, Shorthouse, Harris and Thomson.
Briefly, there had been the need for an initial to be used in line-ups as the unrelated John Harris staked his claim at full-back, too, Gerry’s last Molineux hurrah coming when he played more than 40 games in the 1964-65 relegation season. One of only two goals he scored in the first team was in the 4-3 home victory over West Ham that immediately preceded Cullis’s departure.
Harris joined Walsall a few weeks before the 1966 World Cup finals, played 15 senior matches for them and, with injuries mounting, wound down with Telford (then known as Wellingon Town) and as player-manager of Bridgnorth.
Post-Wolves life was spent back on the land and he remained proud in later years of the ‘three acres of lovely grass’ he had next to his house, where he had his son as a neighbour.
“I used to plough and cultivate every inch of it because I’m born and bred into farming,” Gerry told me in 2011. “I still do gardening jobs for four customers I’ve had for many years. The lad’s the same….always working. You have to keep going.”
What a journey it was from such rural roots to everything he saw; not only the trail-blazing glory at Molineux and the under-23 caps won against Bulgaria (at Chelsea), Rumania (at Wembley), Scotland (at Everton) and Wales (at Wrexham), but the overseas travels with Wolves as well.
He played in all eight games in which they have featured in the European Cup, toured South Africa in 1957, faced Real Madrid home and away (won one, drew one) and totalled 270 League and Cup games for the club.
He was one of the unsung heroes of the halcyon years and little seen at games or the ground in his final decades but there was surely so much he could have said.