A Notable Throw Of The Dice
Gift Of Goals Guaranteed ‘Fans Favourite’ Status
Charles Bamforth, a committed regular on the terraces around the time of Bobby Woodruff’s bright and breezy Wolves career, catches up with him on a lengthy California-to-Wales phone call and raises the subject of unusual hat-tricks, spectacular scorelines and even more spectacular ‘restarts’
“I didn’t like taking throw-ins at Highbury. There was so little room between the touchline and the step down to the terraces. I liked a few steps before my throw. It was okay for Malcom Macdonald, who threw from a standing start.”
Bobby Woodruff was talking of the battle for who could take the longest throw-in. Older Wolves supporters will recall the thrill on the Molineux terraces from 1964 to 1965-66 when the Wiltshire man hurled missiles into the penalty area, often with devastating effect on the opposition defence.
In December, 1970, BBC’s Grandstand programme held a competition to see who threw the furthest. Macdonald, then still at Luton, won with a distance of 113 feet, followed by Millwall’s Alan Garner (104ft) and Woodruff (103ft).
“It started as a youngster when they converted me to wing-half at Swindon. In those days, it was always the wing-half who took throws, not like today when it is whoever’s first to the ball.
“As I took them, the distance just got further and further and, in no time, I was reaching Ernie Hunt on the near post, and he would flick it to another forward with a goal frequently resulting.”
Bobby Woodruff was born in Highworth and represented Swindon Schoolboys. “We had a great run in the English Schools Shield in 1955-56. We reached the semi-final against Liverpool Boys at Goodison but lost. A couple of lads from the Swindon team, Allan Bates and David Hobbs, got England caps, but I didn’t.”
Neither Bates nor Hobbs would play League football but others in that England side would, notably Dave Gaskell, Warwick Rimmer, Barry Bridges and Willie Carlin. Representative honours or not, Woodruff clearly had determination and a passion for the game. Rather than watching his local professional club, he performed as a 15-year-old alongside much older players for Highworth Town in the Swindon & District League, at a time when the club were being promoted through the divisions and winning the Wiltshire Junior Cup.
Bobby was employed in a carpet factory (“and delivering newspapers before I went to work”) when he caught the attention of Swindon manager Bert Head. “I was 17 and, in February, 1959, was given my debut against Chesterfield in Division Three. Gordon Banks was in their goal and I played centre-forward.
“Bert had clearly decided that his youngsters were a better bet than his older professionals, so he progressively brought in several of us, including Ernie Hunt, Mike Summerbee, Don Rogers and John Trollope, who would go on to play so many games for the club. Ernie was a great friend – he was the best man at my wedding.”
Woodruff soon became a Robins regular, appearing 180 times and scoring 20 goals for a club who were promoted to the Second Division in 1962-63, and starting to attract attention. In March, 1964, he took a phone call from ‘a friend of the chairman’ of Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The suggestion was that he should ask for a transfer, which he did, and in due course he was summoned to face the club’s board of directors. “There must have been 20 of them. They wanted to know why I wanted to leave and I simply said I wanted to play at the top.
“I came out of the meeting and was duly summoned to Bert Head’s office. ‘So, who is to be, then? Spurs? Arsenal? Wolves?’ They all wanted me. I simply said: ‘Wolves’. I went up to Molineux on the Thursday, signed on the Friday and made my debut on the Saturday.”
That was March 7, with Wolves thrashing Birmingham 5-1 at Molineux. The Birmingham Weekly Mercury said: “His shrewd distribution and tremendous throws-in had made him a firm favourite with the crowd.” Not bad to become a favourite in just one game!
Wolves fielded: Fred DAVIES, George SHOWELL, Bobby THOMSON, Ron FLOWERS, David WOODFIELD, Bobby WOODRUFF, Terry WHARTON, Chris CROWE, Ray CRAWFORD, Peter BROADBENT, Dick LE FLEM. Wharton (2), Crawford, Flowers and Le Flem scored. Variously, the fee is quoted at £35,000, £37,000 and £40,000. Bobby would not know.
“Because I had asked for a transfer, I never saw any of it. You got a percentage if there was no request. Stan Cullis told me they would make sure I got something but I never did!
“Stan was old school. He sat in the directors’ box on match day and we seldom saw him at the training ground. One of the few times he came to Castlecroft, he collared me. He wondered why when I went down the left flank, I always pulled the ball back and passed with my right foot, not my left. I told him it was to make sure I found one of our players. He was not content with that and had me going down that left wing time after time and delivering with the left.
“I loved my time at Wolves. I got married in the May of the season I signed and we moved into a club house in Lodge Road, Oxley, right across the road from Ron Flowers. Later we moved to Fordhouses.
“It was a top club; wonderful training facilities, golf days at Royal Lytham. From my earliest days in football, I have played a lot of golf and got to play off a handicap of six when I was at Wolves. It was not a drinking club (unlike Cardiff, where I went later!). I was good friends with Terry Wharton and later Dave Wagstaffe.”
Then came relegation in 1964-65, with Andy Beattie in charge from the November. “He called me in and asked if I would mind playing up front. I told him I would play anywhere to get a game. And thus came my claim to fame – a hat-trick of headers against Sunderland. Of course, I had played as a striker sometimes for Swindon and always enjoyed it.”
Relegation or not, Woodruff scored 11 goals in 33 Division One games that term, as well as two in an FA Cup run that ended in the sixth round at the hands of champions Manchester United. “I started the next season alongside Hughie McIlmoyle up front and my third goal of the season was one of our three at The Dell. Unfortunately, Southampton put nine past our keeper Dave Maclaren.
“Only two players were not selected for the next week’s game against Bury, George Miller and me! My mate, Ernie Hunt, had just signed for the club, was on the bench at Southampton and took my no 8 shirt at Molineux the following Saturday. In fairness, I was not fit to play because of a bruised thigh.”
Wolves waved goodbye to Beattie after the 9-3 debacle, with Ronnie Allen replacing him in an acting capacity. On the following Monday, Maclaren, Joe Wilson, Thomson, Miller, Wharton and Wagstaffe were in the Central League side who drew 3-3 at Liverpool. Bobby was not there. Having lost his place through injury, he didn’t manage to oust his friend, Hunt, or indeed the newly-signed John Holsgrove, who was becoming established at left-half in succession to Miller.
Before October was out, Woodruff’s name was on the transfer list. But, on November 27, wearing the no 10 shirt in place of Peter Knowles, he enjoyed himself with two of the goals in an 8-2 drubbing of Portsmouth. It was quite a story for him to lose his place after Wolves shipped nine to one of the Hampshire maritime teams and then regain it for a slaughter of the other.
The day before the Pompey match, he had asked to come off the transfer list. However, it wasn’t long before the popular Woodruff said his goodbyes both to the appreciative fans at Molineux and to a club the Daily Mirror said had coveted him since his earliest days at Swindon.
It was his first boss, Bert Head, by now with Crystal Palace, who came calling, no doubt impressed by the player’s versatility and his 18 goals in 63 first-team games while in Wolverhampton.
“Bert had always been very good to me,” Bobby added. “I lost my father in 1960 and Bert took me under his wing. Now, late in May, 1966, he wanted me at Selhurst Park, where I was to continue playing up front. I was his first signing at Palace, where he had only been for a few weeks.”
The fee was £18,000 and the Woodruffs moved to Orpington. Bobby finished top scorer in his first two seasons and, by the time he was done in South London, had struck 48 goals in 125 appearances. In his third season, Palace were promoted to the top division – but the end of that campaign had to be completed without their popular front-runner. “We were playing Oxford and my former colleague at Wolves, Jimmy Barron, collided with me and I broke my collarbone,” he recalled.
In that top division season of 1969-70, Woodruff did get on to the team sheet, although Bert Head had signed the Dane, Per Bartram. One of his appearances was a goal-scoring day at centre-forward in early September against Gordon Banks, by now at Stoke. On the left wing was another former Wolves man, Mark Lazarus.
It was time to move again, though, and he added: “I became disheartened. Bert would leave forwards out for away games and pack the team with defenders.”
The next transfer was on account of a recommendation from another former Wolves keeper. “Cardiff’s Barrie Jones was injured and their team were up in Blackpool for a game. They were throwing ideas around for a replacement and Fred Davies put my name into the hat.”
Woodruff signed at Ninian Park in November, 1969 for £25,000. “The manager, Jimmy Scoular, was great. He wore a tracksuit and sat in the dug-out; a player’s manager.
“We moved to Wenvoe in the Vale of Glamorgan where Jimmy, Fred, John Toshack, Ian Gibson and others also had their homes. In fact, I have never left the area, although I did turn down the player-manager job at Exeter once because we didn’t want to move the kids – Robert, who played professionally and is now settled in Belgium, and Claire, who lives nearby. I mostly played at wing-half at Cardiff but filled in for Tosh or Brian Clark when they were out of sorts.”
Apart from Davies, other colleagues well known at Wolves were John Farrington and Billy Kellock. Bobby chuckles: “I broke up a hell of a fight once between Billy and Jimmy Hobby. Jimmy Scoular came up and had a go at me: ‘What are you doing, stopping them?!’
“Scoular was sacked and Frank O’Farrell came in. We called him Frank O’Failure! Up to him coming around Christmas, I had not missed a game. I was in for his first match, then he signed Willie Carlin and I never played for the club again.
“I had loved playing for Cardiff. Of course, we won the Welsh Cup every year bar one I was there, and we would go into the European Cup Winners Cup. In 1970-71, we reached the quarter-final and beat Real Madrid 1-0 at Ninian Park, only to lose 2-0 at the Bernabeu. We finished third in the Second Division that season when only the top two were promoted.”
Brian Harris, the ex-Everton player, asked Bobby if he would join him at Newport, and he did in August, 1974, for £5,000. One of his colleagues was a young Nigel Vaughan.
“But the game was up for me soon after,” he said. “I was having problems with my lower back. I went to Guy’s Hospital for tests. We were scheduled to play Reading on the Friday and the doctor came into the dressing room and said: ‘You can’t play’. A letter had come from Guy’s saying it would be very dangerous as my spine had been pulled out of line.
“I ended up having the lower vertebrae fused and of course never played again. I was in hospital for four months.”
Bobby can look back proudly on a career in which he hit 115 goals in 570 games. “I became a rep for a sports company based in Tonbridge but then went into social work in a centre for young offenders,” he added. “That was interesting, enjoyable work but, of course, difficult at times.
“I had been back to Cardiff as reserve and youth coach under Richie Morgan but did not have a good relationship with his successor, Len Ashurst.
“I was tempted to put up in the dressing room the photo of Len stood on the line for Sunderland when one of my headers went in on that day in 1965, but I thought better of it!”