RIP Johnny Kirkham
‘Like A Brother’, ‘You Couldn’t Help But Like Him’
What an endearing heartbeat there was to the Wolves side of the early 1960s.
Notwithstanding the fact that the club’s halcyon days had passed, we are still talking about a line-up who registered a third-place finish in the top flight and came again with one of fifth; all achieved with so many local lads.
Diminutive Norman Deeley, the two-goal hero of the FA Cup final victory over Blackburn, was from Wednesbury, as was the man who would soon occupy the opposite wing, Alan Hinton.
Ted Farmer was born in Rowley Regis, Gerry Harris’s first few steps were in Claverley, Tipton was Bobby Mason’s birthplace and George Showell, like Bill Shorthouse and Bert Williams before him, hailed from Bradley, Bilston. Full-back Bobby Thomson must have felt something of an outsider coming in all the way from Smethwick!
To this distinguished group, which also contained bit-part Black Country-based contributors John Harris and Clive Ford, and to which Darlaston boy Graham Hawkins made a longer-lasting impact soon afterwards, we can add Johnny Kirkham.
Like some of the others, this son of Wednesbury took his first gulps of air during the war and there are still enough of his contemporaries around as to guarantee considerable sadness at the news of his death on Thursday at the age of 79.
And something we should not forget is that he, albeit undecorated in terms of the League and Cup honours that were won by his predecessors, was a very decent player.
No-one made 112 appearances in Stan Cullis’s first team without possessing very considerable ability. Kirkham also represented England under-23s against Scotland and Wales in 1960-61 and emerged as a forceful wing-half when he had Freddie Goodwin and England internationals Ron Flowers and Eddie Clamp as competition. He could play!
Wolves caught him early, at 15, and had him safely signed as a professional during the year of the second of their three League title triumphs.
He was one of the younger members of the squad who famously snatched FA Youth Cup final glory from the jaws of defeat against Chelsea and Ted Farmer said: “He did a great job on Jimmy Greaves, especially in the second leg at Molineux.
“There was a bit of Ron Flowers about him and he had the sort of physique Stan Cullis liked in his half-backs. He was tall and strong but not as tough as another of the men he sometimes replaced, Eddie Clamp.
“I thought he would go on to have a really good career but the club started to struggle of course at times in the early 1960s. And one thing that might have held him back was his heading. I used to think he lost two inches when he jumped – he seemed to be hunched.”
Kirkham, who had also played for England Youths, might have been able to look back and say he was involved in a small way in the winning of the championship but the club missed out by a point in 1959-60, the campaign in which he made a memorable debut in a 3-2 autumn win at home to Manchester United.
Two more outings followed after Christmas and further progress was made the season after as he not only appeared 13 times, including the Charity Shield draw at Burnley, but scored five times – once at the start of a very brief FA Cup defence and twice in helping successfully turn round a first-leg European Cup Winners Cup deficit against FK Austria.
He had a half-season run in 1961-62 in the no 4 shirt previously occupied by Clamp but found deputising at left-half for Flowers brought him more luck – in the form of goals against Nottingham Forest (2) and Manchester United in the space of four days in early autumn and another in a spectacular 5-4 win at Chelsea in April.
We are indebted to our good friend John Lalley for informing us that the player was known as ‘Elvis’ among starry-eyed autograph hunters and that those good looks risked a little extra damage when he once took over in goal from the injured Geoff Sidebottom in a 5-0 crash at West Ham.
In his accustomed wing-half role, he became something close to a regular by playing 30 times in 1962-63, half as many in the following season and then as first-choice right-half in the latter months of the nightmare that was 1964-65 as Flowers switched to centre-half.
Kirkham was part of the major post-relegation clear-out, a small fee taking him to Third Division Peterborough in the same year that Wolves said goodbye to Fred Kemp, another of those who were high on the list to be told this upsetting news over the last 24 hours.
From Seattle, meanwhile, Alan Hinton told us: “John showed me the Wolves way. Wednesbury-born the same as me, he would catch the number 90 bus each day. He was like my big brother.”
Kirkham played exactly 100 League matches for Wolves and added another 48 at Posh from November, 1965 before joining Exeter on a free transfer for the 1968-69 season. By coincidence, his Grecians debut came in a 1-1 draw at London Road on the opening day – one of 32 Fourth Division matches he played.
The highlight of his time in Devon was scoring a winner in the dying minutes of extra-time in a League Cup second replay at Torquay after three matches against Plymouth had been goalless to that point. Johnny subsequently had a life-changing spell in South Africa with Durban Spurs as well as serving Horwich RMI in the non-League game here.
Terry Wharton, who also took the trail to the republic, found himself wistfully looking at a 1963-64 team photo yesterday and realising that 11 of his friends from that group had now departed. Only six, including himself, remained.
And Barry Stobart’s widow Maureen reflected: “We had some wonderful times together in South Africa, where Johnny and Barry played for Durban Spurs as they won the league that year – 1970, I think. Terry went after we left and was there at the same time as Johnny.
“He was a nice chap. You couldn’t help but like him. I feel sad and I know Barry would have done, too. I have been remembering all the happy times over the last day or two.
“John was always good company, easy-going. He loved his golf and a flutter on the horses. We had so many laughs, like spending Christmas Day on the beach. There are lots of good memories.
“He came to see Baz 20 or so years ago. Baz took him to Wolves and Graham Hughes gave them a lovely afternoon. He had dinner with us, then we took him to his sister’s in Wednesbury. We had a lovely time reminiscing. I felt he wished he was back in England but he never said so.”
Kirkham remarried in South Africa and we reported a decade or so ago how he had flown back here to give a kidney to his son Darrell, whose message to Maureen this week alerted us to the news of his death.
In recent years, Johnny returned to live in England after his wife passed away, basing himself with friends in Wigan, from where he later moved into a home.
Darrell, who has a sister Tracey in South Africa, tells us his father recently had a fall and a hip operation that led to an infection. We at Wolves Heroes send our deepest condolences to all family members and friends.