Media Watch: John Wragg
Taylor Ally On Daley Exit – And Squash With Bill, Barney and Barker
We continue our popular Media Watch series by turning the spotlight on long-time Daily Express reporter John Wragg – a regular in the Molineux press box, and many others around the Midlands and beyond, for decades. ‘Wraggy’ has had a brilliant career in newspapers, dating back to his time at the Birmingham Post in the early 1970s, and is thrilled at seeing Wolves prospering again during his freelance years.
Q: How did it all start for you, John, as far as Wolves are concerned?
A: When I was a kid in the mining village of Piccadilly, not far from The Belfry and where the Villa training ground is now, I had two main mates, Mick Smith and Dave Barlow. Mick lived next door and was an Arsenal man. Dave was round the corner and supported Wolves and my team was Manchester United. I remember going to Molineux with Dave to an FA Cup replay against United one night. It was a packed ground, so much so that we had to climb up a floodlight pylon to see the game….well, some of it!
Q: That’s some introduction to the place. There were two famous Cup ties between the clubs at Molineux within a year of each other in the mid-1960s, both played in front of 53,000-plus crowds.
A: I think this one was 5-3 to United and George Best scored three but I’d have to check the detail. I can remember shuffling forward an inch at a time in a massive queue down that slope to get through the South Bank turnstiles. Dave and me were also at that famous Coventry v Wolves game (in 1967) when Highfield Road was packed and the clubs were first and second in the old Second Division and about to go up. Dave is still a Wolves fan, still going and enjoying the ride after all the hard years.
Q: Did you go to any of the big Wolves games in the early 1970s after you started working?
A: Yes and no. Dave and me went as fans to the League Cup final against Manchester City. I also remember working on the Birmingham Post sports desk the night(s) Wolves played Spurs in the UEFA Cup two-leg final and I was subbing the copy phoned in by our reporters, Randy Northam and Ian Willars. My first ‘working’ time at Molineux was for the Post and I remember the old ground, obviously. It had a small press box that had steps up to it and an even smaller press room where you had a cup of tea out of a massive pot and a slice, just one, of fruit cake.
Q: So you presumably wrote plenty about Bill McGarry’s exciting team?
A: I was working for the Daily Express when I got to know Bill McGarry, a tough geezer. I played him at squash – and lost. He was very good. And fit. That is a good combination. He was always looking for an argument, though, and the players often wound him up just to get the expected reaction. I coached John Barnwell at squash and he gave me a smack in the face with his racquet. There was blood everywhere and I’ve still got the scar. I coached Richie Barker, too. Don’t tell Barney….Richie was the better player!
The players I remember best, and got to know, were in the Wolves team of the 1970s; Dave Wagstaffe supplying the crosses for John Richards or The Doog, Phil Parkes, who I interviewed for retro football magazine Backpass, was a huge and very good goalkeeper, Kenny Hibbitt, long-legged, head always high, motored the midfield. I could go on…..Mike Bailey, Hugh Curran, Frank Munro, John McAlle and the slightly rogueish Danny Hegan. They were proper players who you got to know in an age that seems a lifetime ago now. I remember The Doog once being stretchered off because he’d got a bang on the nose. Always ready for a bit of theatre was Derek! Richards was a great goalscorer and, as I got to know, an excellent man.
Q: I believe you also had a privileged close-up on a story that was huge 40 years ago….
A: When Steve Daley joined Manchester City from Wolves, I was on the inside of that. I knew Malcolm Allison very well through ghosting his column for the Daily Star. I was in his office at Maine Road when his phone went. It was Richie Barker because I seem to remember Barney was still recovering from his car crash. Anyway, Mal puts the phone down and says to me: ‘You ain’t going to f—— believe this. Wolves want one and a half million for Daley. I ain’t paying that. They are having a laugh. I’ll go and see Swalesy (chairman Peter Swales) and tell him to forget the deal.’ About half an hour later, Malcolm comes back: ‘You ain’t gonna believe this one, John. Swalesy says: ‘Pay it, one and a half f—— million. So it’s on.’ And that’s how Steve Daley got to go to Man City, because of Peter Swales’ ego at paying a record transfer fee.
Q: Wolves have had some big personalities over the years, on and off the field. What other memories do you have of dealing with them?
A: I went over to Molineux once, when reporters could just turn up for a preview piece a day or two before a game, and Tommy Docherty gave me an exclusive – he was giving a debut to a goalkeeper on the Saturday, a 17-year-old Tim Flowers. The Doog would often just ring up with a story, whether true or not I don’t know, just to get Wolves some publicity. And of course I remember the grim years when Molineux was a slum, the press box was on the other side of the ground, and most of the place was closed down. I think we still went into the ‘closed’ main stand for post-match press conferences. I remember the grim corridors, wet floors and a press room where there was a bar for a whiskey, which was welcome because the place and situation was so awful.
Q: I am sure all you Midlands correspondents wanted Wolves back in the big time much quicker than they managed it. But there were highlights along the way and I remember you being fairly close at one point to going to interview Sir Jack in the Bahamas.
A: Bully was a favourite with us national journalists because, in night games, when deadlines were tight, he’d bang in two or three first-half goals to make it all a bit easier. We got on well and my favourite story of him is when he scored for England against Scotland on his debut at Hampden. For some reason, he wouldn’t talk to the media at the time. I think it might have been because of a family story the news boys had run but I happened to see him walking to the team bus after the match and got him to stop, with one foot on the coach. “I ain’t talking to the press, but I’ll talk to yo,” he said. An exclusive in the bag!
When Graham Taylor joined Wolves, I played a small part in that. Dave Harrison did the most work but I also had a word with Keith Pearson, the long-serving club secretary and a terrific bloke. Sir Jack had his doubts after watching the ‘Do I Not Like That?’ video and seeing Graham’s swearing. After he’d got the job, Graham asked me how things could be improved and I said the media access and info side of things could be better. With that in mind, I suggested that holding a press conference before a particularly big game would be useful. I got a puncture on the way and was very late. When I finally turned up, I got abuse because Graham had kept everyone waiting until I arrived: “You called this press conference, Wraggy, and you can’t turn up on time!” I also did an exclusive interview with Jonathan Hayward that Graham arranged. We met in that flat at Molineux and the content was explosive. Jonathan was so open when really he shouldn’t have been, that Graham made sure he never did another interview unchaperoned.
Q: What of the other managers in more recent times, John? We have had some high-profile guys here one way and another….
A: I got on well with Dave Jones, too. Sat in his Molineux office once, he poured his heart out about the accusations against him of child abuse at the time when he was Southampton boss. I think it was before Wolves played an FA Cup tie at Southampton. And I recall being at the training ground in the first few weeks of Dean Saunders’ reign and watching a fight between players – and not reporting it. Deano asked me not to report it because it would have been big headlines just a few days into what turned out to be a poor time for him at Wolves. He had enough to sort out, he said, and a story about a training ground punch-up would only add to the list of fires to put out. Nothing was ever said but, put it this way, whenever I rang Deano, I always got him, he always answered the question and was willing to steer me the correct way on any story I was working on. I think it’s called trust and respect. It’s hard-earned but worth its weight in gold.
Now we are on to Nuno and his fag break down in the corner of the ground before he met the media (briefly) in the Championship days. In the Mark McGhee years, when the squad trained at the tennis club, his wife baked cakes for the press to have with a cup of tea or coffee at pre-match press conferences.
It’s a different, smart Molineux now to the old, leaking shack we used to know. I hope they never move from the stadium because that position, on the edge of the city, gives you a little tingle as you drive past; the ground in it’s all modern shining golden glory and that wonderful Billy Wright statue outside. May the Wolves never go hungry again!