How Injury Cost Noel Possible Crack As Bert’s Successor
Charles Bamforth loves writing about Wolves goalkeepers and loves delving into old newspapers to research his subjects. Full of curiosity about the life and career of one-time Molineux hopeful Noel Dwyer, he used his considerable access to press reports of decades gone by to come up with this highly detailed article.
The lot of a professional footballer can be a delicate affair, subject to the whims and caprices of health and managerial preferences and perceptions – and a very large slice of Lady Luck.
One needs only look to back on the career of one of the most dramatic of goalkeepers and how it interfaced with that of his competitors to get a feel for the very real ups and downs that make up a life in football.
Noel Dwyer was born on October 30, 1934, in Dublin. As a kid, he played for Stella Maris in Drumcondra, a club that also furnished the likes of Gerry Daly, Johnny Giles, Eamonn Dunphy and Wolves’ own Keith Andrews.
Noel soon started playing for Ormeau United in Belfast, where he caught the eye of Wolves’ Irish scout George Bendal. In August, 1953, the young Irishman came over for a month’s trial and impressed so quickly that he signed professional forms the next day.
This meant Wanderers had five professional keepers – the legendary Bert Williams, his hopeful deputies Dennis Parsons and Nigel Sims and 19-year-old Derek Parton. Doubtless Parton had high hopes of progressing at Molineux, having been loaned to Hereford the previous March, but manager Stan Cullis must have decided something had to give. As Dwyer came in, Parton was shown the door and made his debut for Wellington Town (now Telford United) that August on the same day that Dwyer was in Wolves’ third team for the Birmingham League fixture with Shrewsbury Reserves.
By 1956, Parton was at Bilston, then had unsuccessful trials with Aston Villa before going to Stourbridge, Kidderminster and Lockheed. At the start of 1961-62, he was second choice at Tamworth.
A year after signing, Dwyer was said by the Sports Argus to have ‘brought the house down’ with his performance in a match at Redditch. A year later, the same newspaper was whispering that the third choice ‘acrobatic’ 19-year-old would play for Eire one day.
Dwyer was quoted as saying he was ‘never happier than when hard-hitters Johnny Hancocks, Les Smith and Roy Swinbourne are banging shots away at me from all angles’.
In September, 1954, on Jack Mould’s ground, the Solihull Youth League XI were hosting a Wolves Youth XI. The Argus report read: “Dwyer, who carries a tremendous kick in either foot, cleared from the edge of the penalty area”. Apparently, it bounced once near the opposition penalty spot, the Solihull keeper managed to push it out, but only as far as “the Saltley boy, Atkinson”, who scored. That would be Ron.
Fast forward to November, 1955 and Dwyer was still only third choice at Molineux behind Williams and Sims. However, press reports spoke of him ‘performing miracles’ in the A team. And he caught the eye of some prominent people, not least England manager Walter Winterbottom.
Apparently, an England side preparing for a Wembley international against Spain had practised with a game behind closed doors at Molineux and Dwyer had played so well for Wolves that Winterbottom wanted to know more about him. Stan Cullis was obliged to tell him that Noel was Irish.
By September, 1956, the Sports Argus was puzzled why Wolves would need to sign a new keeper after only two weeks of the new season. But that is what they had done, signing Malcolm Finlayson from Millwall.
The explanation was that the ‘spring-heeled’ Dwyer had injured his shoulder in a practice match. Although it was only expected to keep him out for a week or two, Wolves decided to recruit just in case. The paper recorded that Finlayson had taken up a position as a salesman for a jam company over the summer and had declined Millwall’s offer to re-engage him because they would not let him sign part-time.
Finlayson went on to become a worthy successor to Williams – but what might have been if Dwyer had not got injured and taken longer to recover than predicted? The reports suggested he had been in line for an Irish cap before his injury. Then he got tonsilitis.
Another keeper’s name was cropping up in the third team by this time. That of Geoff Sidebottom. So as 1956-57 season was concluding, the Sports Argus was predicting a ‘rare old scrap’ for the role as Williams’ successor.
They reckoned it would be a straight fight between Finlayson and Dwyer. Perhaps they were premature with the other name they were mentioning in the same paragraph. “A third contender has entered the arena,” they wrote. “Five days before the end of the term, Fred Davies played his first game for Wolves in the Walsall Minor League. Yet he finished up with two Central League appearances.”
Fred would have to wait nearly five years to get the nod but, in August, 1957, Dwyer was being tipped by Tom Duckworth in the Argus to make his mark. And his chance finally arrived on September 23 at Villa.
Finlayson was injured, so Dwyer got the nod with the opposing goalmouth being manned by Nigel Sims, who had moved across the West Midlands in March, 1956 and appeared in Villa’s winning FA Cup final team just over a year later.
Bill Holden in the Daily Mirror said of Wolves’ 3-2 victory at Villa Park: “What a League debut for Noel Dwyer, 23! He had only one shot to stop – and he did so brilliantly”. It was not entirely an accurate statement. Not long before the end, Dwyer tripped future Wolves man Peter McParland, who had been let in by a careless Norman Deeley back pass and who scored the penalty.
Dwyer played five games that season and was never on the losing side. He had already represented the Republic of Ireland B team and had been a reserve for the full side before making his Wolves debut.
In November, 1957, when he had a run of three first-team matches, it was reported that he had become engaged to Jackie, 18-year-old daughter of one Cuthbert (Charlie) Phillips, mine host at the Butler’s Arms on Bushbury Lane, but better known as the former Wolves, Villa, Birmingham, and Wales forward. And then injury struck again.
At the start of 1958-59, Dwyer had another operation on his right shoulder and worked his way back to fitness with a five-week stay at the Patshull Rehabilitation Centre. In the October, Cullis was reported to have turned up to watch his return in Wolves’ fourth team.
This was the time Noel was handed his first benefit cheque for £750, long service being rewarded with such cheques in those maximum-wage days.
But, despite his five years of loyalty, it was announced that Wolves were prepared to part with him. Eight clubs turned up to watch him in a Central League game and he was quoted as saying: “These days, I’m only third choice behind Malcolm Finlayson and Geoff Sidebottom, so I would like to try my luck somewhere else”.
It must have been rumoured that he was not 100 per cent fit because Wolves declared: “We are prepared to let Dwyer have a complete medical check-up if any club asks for it”.
November, 1958 saw the 21-year-old Sidebottom make his debut away to Albion. It was quite an achievement for someone who only took up football aged 13 on doctor’s orders, to build up his strength after a long illness. The Sports Argus wrote: “Spare a thought for Dwyer. A year ago, it looked like he would oust Finlayson but then came a couple of injuries.”
The big opportunity for a fresh start came in December, 1958. West Ham manager Ted Fenton supposedly had eyes on Crystal Palace keeper Vic Rouse but Cullis had a word. It was agreed Dwyer would sign for the Hammers for £6,000 but that would be refundable and Dwyer would come back to Molineux if Fenton was not satisfied after a month.
The keeper took part in a closed-doors game and Hammers chairman Reg Pratt said they exposed him to the hardest kickers in the club and he came up smiling. (Think back to Hancocks, Smith and Swinbourne.) “I think Wolves and Mr Cullis have been magnificent over this matter,” said Pratt. And so, Dwyer became no 2 to long-serving Ernie Gregory with a view to taking over in due course.
In the following month, Dwyer made his debut in a friendly at Brighton in a line-up that makes for nostalgic reading: Dwyer, Bond, Cantwell, Malcolm, Brown, Moore, Grice, Woosnam, Keeble, Dick, Musgrove.
By the end of the term, Noel had played ten First Division games for the Hammers. The Daily Mirror was saying he was the season’s bargain buy, describing him as ‘a pouncing panther’. Ted Fenton was quoted as saying: “He’s just great; so alert and his terrific personality gives the lads confidence.”
Dwyer, having played brilliantly in a run-in that left Wolves as champions, earned his first Eire cap in a 3-2 win over Sweden at Dalymount Park alongside the likes of Noel Cantwell, Johnny Giles (who also debuted) and Charlie Hurley in a team managed by Everton boss Johnny Carey.
There can be no doubt Noel Dwyer was in his prime. A YouTube video of the Hammers game against Albion in September, 1959 has commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme speaking of him as a ‘great favourite’. There are certainly some fine saves, huge kicks and good throws. The goal he conceded was scored by future Wanderer David Burnside.
For some reason, though, negative reports started to appear in the papers concerning the keeper’s views on his old club. And he wasn’t the only one mouthing off.
In November, 1959, a News Chronicle report quoted Dennis Viollet as ‘virtually’ accusing Wolves of rough play. Stan Cullis said he had ceased to bother himself with what players wrote in the press. But, in the same article, Dwyer was reported to have said Wolves were a ‘mess’.
Dwyer accused Wolves of having fined him £20 for being ten minutes late for training. Cullis said that was untrue. The keeper also moaned that he had been paid only £100 out of a £300 transfer allowance. The club’s riposte was that he had played only five first-team and 66 reserve games yet had received a full £750 benefit. They pointed out that, before the war, he would have had to play 120 first-team games to qualify for that amount.
They also claimed Dwyer was injured in an unsanctioned scratch game in Ireland and was out for 12 months. The operations he needed apparently cost the club £450. He twice asked for transfers then withdrew those requests. And when he did leave, he received £100 and an accrued share (£50) of his second benefit. It was all very unfortunate.
With Wolves scheduled to play at Upton Park on November 21, Dwyer would need a fitness test to appear, but said: “It will be worth £200 to take both points from Wolves”. He denied he had ever played in a game without Wolves’ permission and that he was injured in Wolverhampton in pre-season training, not in Ireland. Noel failed the fitness test and Brian Rhodes was in goal for the Hammers in a game they won 3-2.
A week later, Peter Lorenzo was reporting in the Daily Herald that Wolves were threatening to take their former keeper to court. It didn’t happen but Dwyer had other worries. The week after the Wolves match, he was back in goal for West Ham at Sheffield Wednesday and had to pick the ball out of the net seven times. He reckoned that four of them were down to him.
But the real uproar came at and after the West Ham v Newcastle game on February 20, 1960. Dwyer conceded three goals in the first 27 minutes but, by half-time, the home team had clawed it back to 3-3. Then, in a span of five minutes after the interval, two Dwyer errors had given Newcastle a 5-3 win.
Bob Morley in the Sunday People had rated the keeper 6 out of 10 and wrote: “He seems to have lost his judgement of ground shots”. The big thorn for the Hammers was Newcastle’s George Eastham, who got a starring 9/10.
Dwyer was dropped for the second time that season and Fenton spoke of his loss of form. “He has not been playing well and the crowd have been getting at him,” he said. In a dozen first-team fixtures, he had conceded 39 goals. Noel Dwyer never played for West Ham’s first team again.
The search had begun for a replacement because, short of bringing back the veteran Gregory, the club only had young Brian Rhodes and England youth international Peter Reader, who had knee problems.
Ted Fenton looked at 21-year-old ex-paratrooper Peter Shearing, an amateur who had been a protege of Ted Ditchburn at Spurs and who was part of the Hendon team that would win the FA Amateur Cup that season. West Ham played him in a first team game against the British Olympic XI and Fenton would have played him in a Division One game against Blackburn if he had not got an aggravated thigh injury. Among their other possible targets was Leicester’s Dave Maclaren, who later played for Wolves.
There were others who were interested in Dwyer, notably Swansea. And he was still Eire’s first-choice man. Eventually, he signed at Vetch Field in August, 1960 for £3,000. He was an immediate success and they won the Welsh Cup in 1961 by beating Bangor 3-1.
In October, 1960, though, it had been reported that he intended to sue a national newspaper for libel. He did not go into detail and I can find no account of what ensued. One assumes it was to do with criticism following the Newcastle game.
Meanwhile, the Birmingham Post said that, when not in Swansea, Noel stayed with his father-in-law at The Cedar Tree pub in Aldridge. It must have been hugely disappointing, then, when Dwyer’s Swansea lost to Preston in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park in 1964.
He would no doubt have relished facing his old employers West Ham in the final. He had done so much to help get the Swans so far, including saving a Ronnie Moran penalty in the sixth-round victory at Liverpool.
It was a former West Ham man, Malcolm Allison, who forked out £7,500 to take Dwyer to Plymouth in January, 1965 to replace…..Dave Maclaren, who was heading to Molineux to sign.
Dwyer was part of the Pilgrims team that lost to Gordon Banks’s Leicester over two legs in the semi-finals of the League Cup but, in December, 1965, he was transferred to Charlton, only to retire fairly soon to follow his father-in-law’s profession.
To add to the five League games for Wolves, Dwyer played 36 for West Ham, 140 for Swansea, 26 for Plymouth and six for Charlton. He also earned 14 full caps for Eire.
Noel Dwyer died in December, 1992, almost six years to the day after his daughter Carol, a former page three model, married Frank Worthington.