Backing Up Bert
Midlands ‘Tour’ Of Grocer-Keeper
He served Birmingham, Villa, Hereford, Kidderminster and Wellington Town, as well as Wolves, but Dennis Parsons required considerable patience along the way. Charles Bamforth tells the story of this post-war Molineux prospect and is planning a follow-up piece in the next week or two on a related subject.
A dispassionate assessment of the goalkeeper history of Wolverhampton Wanderers would most certainly identify Bert Williams as being the cream of the crop.
Yet ‘The Cat’ was not immune to injury, even if he was most certainly never subject to demotion based on form.
And so, over the years from September 1945, when he signed for the club, to April 1957, when he hung up his cap for the last time, a series of hopefuls competed for the privilege of stepping in for the great man when he was inconvenienced or with England.
One of those was at Wolves before Bert. Dennis Parsons, born in South Birmingham on May 29, 1925, was first spotted by Second Division Birmingham playing for the BSA bicycle factory team. He signed as an amateur but encountered huge competition and decided he was happier at Sparkhill United, where it was much easier to get a game.
The slim youngster was soon spotted by the Wolves, signed in November, 1944, and made his debut in the War League in April, 1945 against (of all clubs) Birmingham in a 2-1 victory. He did not appear in 1945-46, during which Williams was the key man, understudied by Cyril Sidlow and others, and in fact never added to that solitary outing in the competition for the club.
Parsons was keeper for the reserves in the annual pre-season game between the Colours and the Whites in 1945, though – a fixture notable for the appearance in the first team of Alan Steen, who had missed the previous two seasons as a prisoner of war in Germany.
There was to be no quick breakthrough at Molineux. Parsons was loaned to Merthyr Tydfil, a club founded in 1945 and who had one season in the Welsh League before joining the Southern League. It was useful grounding but it was more than four years after first signing professional forms at Wolves that he, now aged 23, finally got his first-team debut proper on December 27, 1948.
He had been third choice, also behind Ted Elliot, and did not have the debut he would have hoped for, with neighbours Aston Villa walloping the Wanderers 5-1 at Villa Park.
When Williams needed a stand-in later that season, it was Nigel Sims who got the nod. A season later, Parsons managed six games, with Sims having only one and, in 1950-51, there were six absences for Williams, with Parsons filling in each time.
But manager Stan Cullis clearly saw something to impress him and, with Williams unavailable for business reasons, Dennis travelled as the only goalkeeper in the squad for the long tour of South Africa in the summer of 1951 – and acquitted himself well.
He was therefore mightily frustrated to break his collar-bone in a collision with Roy Swinbourne when playing for the Whites against the Colours in 1951. Sims took over that day and stepped in when Williams had three brief absences from October to December.
But, after a 2-2 draw at Fulham with Sims in the green jersey, Parsons, who had played in the 1949 Charity Shield match against Portsmouth at Highbury, was to come in for his longest stint in the first team – a run of 11 games before the mighty Williams was ready to return.
And Parsons’ first-team career at Molineux was over at that point following 27 matches. He was frequently back in his native city as a spectator, the Birmingham papers talking of him pitching up in the enclosure at St Andrew’s more than once to cheer on his close pal, Ken Rowley, an ex-colleague at Wolves, by shouting: “Wake up there, Rowley.”
Back across the patch in Wolverhampton, he was frustrated and placed on the open-to-transfer list. The asking price was £5,000, a tidy sum in those days and one that dissuaded offers from the top four divisions.
Dennis was content to bide his time. There was interest from several non-League clubs but he was initially reluctant to drop out of the full-time game.
He was not going to starve, owning a grocer’s shop as he did on Montague Road in Smethwick that was run on a day-to-day basis by his Hall Green-based fiancée.
Within a month, though, the News Chronicle was reporting on the growing number of players who were opting to go into non-League, where they could earn well by coupling football with other employment.
At that time, burly Wolves full-back Angus “Jumbo” McLean left for Aberystwyth, where he had been offered a half share in a milk round. In doing so, he had turned down Reading and so did Parsons, who signed instead for Hereford on August 8, 1952, thus returning to the Southern League.
The arrangement was that he would train with Birmingham but not everyone was in agreement. “I can’t understand it,” Stan Cullis was quoted as saying. “They (such players) throw away an accrued share of benefit and 10 per cent of all earnings which Football League clubs pay to the Provident Fund.”
Parsons, though, was no mug. He had stipulated that if a League club came in for him, Hereford could not stand in his way. Their manager Alex Massie agreed to the condition and, only a month later, Aston Villa signed a cheque for £3,000 to take the keeper back to the First Division.
He still had one game left to play for The Bulls and, frustratingly, he was injured against Dartford, so it wasn’t until late October that he got into Villa’s reserves, at Stoke.
Before long, he had displaced Welsh international Keith Jones in the first team, with a Christmas Day debut against Charlton. The Liverpool Echo described him as “cool, resourceful and reliable, giving defenders confidence”.
Just as at Molineux, the competition was fierce. The Jones-Parsons rivalry was described as a seesaw, with each getting the nod intermittently. The legendary amateur international, Mike Pinner, was also vying for attention.
Invariably, Parsons was referred to in the Sports Argus as the ‘goalkeeper-grocer’ but, by April, 1956, he was described as the ‘forgotten man of the game’.
Keith Jones was firmly ensconced in the first team and Villa had signed two more keepers on transfer deadline day, Parsons’ old Molineux colleague, Nigel Sims, and Vincent McBride from Walsall.
Parsons was going to be fourth choice, so, after 41 first-team games for Villa, he was on his way again, this time to Kidderminster Harriers. He was released from there at the end of 1956-57 and joined Wellington Town (later to became Telford United).
He retired through injury in the same month that Wolves won the 1959-60 FA Cup and died in Solihull in 1980, aged only 54.