Fame Was Fleeting For Winger Unlucky To Miss Out At Wembley
Middlesbrough and England had a player of the same surname who has a statue standing in his memory outside the Riverside Stadium. We are sadly much too late to think about interviewing the unrelated Gerry Mannion but that hasn’t stopped Charles Bamforth compiling this tribute to a player he remembers fondly from his youth. There is an extra bond, too – their Lancashire roots!
Easter Monday, 1963 was without doubt one of the happiest days of my young life. April 15 that year was the day I made my ‘debut’ at Molineux – not on the pitch, sadly, but as an excited ten-year-old sitting in the Molineux Street wing stand and being thrilled by a 3-1 victory for my heroes against Aston Villa.
It was on the journey home to near Wigan that something happened that I have seldom thought about since. We stopped at Keele Services on the M6 and I was tucking into a jam doughnut, still proudly wearing my gold and black hooped scarf, when a genial man beamed at me.
I forget his exact words but I remember he told us he was a relative (father? uncle?) of Gerry Mannion. Although I had already started my obsessive researching on Wolverhampton Wanderers, here was an ex-Wolf I had not yet done my homework on; a winger who hailed from just seven miles away from us and one who, with a different throw of the dice, could surely have become one of the Molineux greats.
Gerard Patrick Mannion was born on December 21, 1939, in Burtonwood, home in the Second World War to the American Air Force. His prowess in local football at school in nearby Newton-le-Willows and then in the Lancashire Youth side caught the eye of legendary Wolves chief scout George Noakes.
Mannion joined the club as an amateur in 1957 and, by November of that year, had been selected to play for the England youth team against Belgium at Hillsborough.
The Sports Argus spoke of him being ‘a real flyer and his crosses are near-perfect.’ They pointed out that he had played only two third-team games in the Birmingham League up to that point, one of those on September 27 at Atherstone in this side: Geoff SIDEBOTTOM, Granville PALIN, Len ASHURST, John KIRKHAM, John TIMMINS, Alan JACKSON, Gerry MANNION, Ian HALL, Ted FARMER, Cliff DURANDT, Les COCKER.
A couple of months later, Mannion was returning from another England youth appearance, this time in Luxemburg. He had a nasty rash on his face and neck and said to the Argus “I think it must have been the change of water.”
The good news, though, was that Wolves, who tended to avoid rushing their youngsters, were about to sign the apprentice tool maker as a part-time professional. He penned the forms on November 29.
Mannion was fit to take his place on the right wing against Stoke in the third round of the FA Youth Cup in the first week of December. The side had a great run and a header by Mannion past Dave Gaskell in the last minute of the semi-final second leg against Manchester United at Molineux clinched the victory that took take them to that legendary 7-6 aggregate final triumph over Chelsea.
What agony for young Mannion, though. An injury prevented him from playing in the final, with Des Horne shifting to the right flank and Brian Perry coming in on the left in the first leg at Stamford Bridge. David ‘Slipper’ Read was on the right wing for the Molineux return, with Horne back on the left.
Missing out was the first of two terrible disappointments for Gerry Mannion. Of course, Wolves had a massive stock of players in those days and, at the start of 1958-59, he was still very much a third-teamer.
On October 4, Mannion was on the right wing in a game at Halesowen, by now with colleagues such as Fred Davies, Phil Kelly, and John Harris. The Central League side that day had Mickey Lill in the no 7 shirt while Norman Deeley was in the first-team slot, so it must have been a surprise just two days later for Gerry to see his name on the senior team sheet for the Charity Shield match at Bolton. The Wolves side read: Malcolm FINLAYSON, Eddie STUART, Gerry HARRIS, Ron FLOWERS, Billy WRIGHT, Eddie CLAMP, Gerry MANNION, Cliff DURANDT, Jimmy MURRAY, Bobby MASON, Des HORNE.
Then what? It was straight back to the Birmingham League, now alongside Noel Dwyer and Barry Stobart.
Fast forward to February, 1960 and a debate in the Argus about why Wolves had decided to let Mickey Lill go to Everton. He was a winger who had struck 12 goals in 18 Division One games the previous season but the reality was that Wolves had wingers aplenty coming through.
The same newspaper used its February 20 issue to mention the case of Des Horne but also quoted Wolves as saying, “We had to make room for Mannion, not to mention Terry Wharton”. Two lads from my native Lancashire!
Mannion was not far away from the top team and was certainly too good now for third-team football. Cutting to another piece in the Argus in March, 1960: “’He is too good to clog,’ an experienced Birmingham League full-back said. ‘He gave me the complete run-around. If I went to the right, he went to the left. If I went to the left, he went to the right. If I stood still, he pushed it right between my legs. I knew the only way to stop him was to boot him but I just could not do it. Gerry is too good a player to treat like that. He must have a great future in the game. I only hope I don’t have to meet him again’.”
On March 5, 1960, Gerry Mannion finally got his First Division chance, away to one of the clubs closest to his birthplace, Manchester United. Wolves won 2-0 and the Sunday Mercury hailed ‘graduation day,’ not only for the winger but also for Barry Stobart at centre-forward.
Mannion had a hand in both goals, one scored by Stobart. The report went on: “They displayed a maturity beyond their ages. The way Mannion outpaced and out-thought Joe Carolan was one of the features of the game.”
Although he was left out of the following week’s FA Cup tie at Leicester, with Deeley reverting to the right wing and Horne going in on the left, Gerry was back for the following League game against Preston at Molineux and remained in the side right up to the last week of the season.
He struck two goals in a 6-1 home win against Burnley (who would pip Wolves to the championship title) and went one better the following week by doing all the scoring in a 3-0 win at Leeds. There was just one for Mannion in the next game, a 5-0 slaughter of West Ham at Molineux, then the goals dried up.
Before Gerry became a regular scorer, he was in the no 7 shirt at The Hawthorns for the FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa. A Deeley goal from the left flank secured the win and the Sunday Mercury said Mannion could look back on the game with the same satisfaction that Jimmy Mullen had 21 years earlier.
The reference was to how 16-year-old Mullen had taken the no 11 shirt for the Cup semi-final against Grimsby in 1939. The Mercury wrote: “Mannion’s strength on the ball and speed made it a worrying afternoon for John Neal.” Legendary writer Sam Leitch said in the Daily Herald that Mannion was the star player on show. “Smoothly, surely, he prowled his way through the elbowing surge – a pale-faced boy who certainly deserves to play at Wembley in his second Cup tie.”
It did not happen. Like Mullen, who missed out to Stan “Dizzy” Burton for the final in 1939, Gerry Mannion was in for a shock.
For the last game of the season at Chelsea, manager Stan Cullis opted to bring back Des Horne on the left flank, with Deeley switching to the right again. Not only that, the manager also dropped Bobby Mason, who had played in most of the games that season, and brought back young Barry Stobart.
Cullis was quoted as saying that Mannion and Mason were not dropped, merely rested. But Horne hit two of the goals in a 5-1 victory at Stamford Bridge and it made for a nerve-wracking pre-Wembley week for the two displaced players.
Bill Holden predicted in the Daily Mirror that both would be back for the final. The young winger was cheered to receive the news that he had been selected for the England under-23 tour to East Germany, Poland, and Israel. Imagine his response, then, when he heard he was not in the side for the final against Blackburn.
There were no substitutes in those days, of course. You were either in the side or in your suit on the sidelines. Peter Lorenzo wrote in the Daily Herald how hugely unlucky Mannion was.
He just had to get on with his life and career, though, so it must have been gratifying to score with a header on his under-23 debut in Warsaw. The Coventry Evening Telegraph reported that he had a quiet game in the no 7 jersey, the England side who won 3-2 reading: Tony MACEDO (Fulham), John ANGUS (Burnley), Mick McNEIL (Middlesbrough), Maurice SETTERS (Manchester United), Brian MILLER (Burnley), Tony KAY (Sheffield Wednesday), Gerry MANNION (Wolves), George EASTHAM (Newcastle), Ray POINTER (Burnley), Peter DOBING (Blackburn), Edwin HOLLIDAY (Middlesbrough).
Remember that Mannion had played only a dozen first-team games at that point, scoring at the very healthy rate of once every two appearances.
He would also have been buoyed to read the comments of Billy Wright in the News Chronicle of May 3, four days before the 3-0 final victory.
“I first saw Gerry Mannion on the Co-op ground at Wolverhampton three years ago. I went down one evening with George Noakes to watch a practice match for the club’s young amateurs. As we reached the pitch, the slim outside-right was putting the ball down for a corner. George tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘Just watch this.’ The lad sent the ball curling away beyond the far post. For a 16-year-old, this was an impressive display of power …most young players of this age are lucky if they can reach the near post. George rated Mannion one of his best finds.
“As Gerry started training with us each day, I began to see that he had a ball ability far in advance of the lads of his age. Better indeed than my old friend Jimmy Mullen had shown at a similar age. His control at speed – and he is very fast indeed – is exceptional. His shooting on the half volley reminds me of Johnny Hancocks. And he can head the ball better than most wingers.
“In the dressing room, he is a very quiet, shy lad. And like many others who come to Molineux, he found the full-time training programme very tough. He took some time to accustom himself.
“Gerry, I think, would be the first to admit that he is not yet the finished product. His immaturity shows when he goes into his shell for spells on the wing, just like Horne. But keep an eye on this pair….they could be great!”
And so to the pre-season of 1960-61. He was back in the first team for the annual Colours v Whites public practice match, after which Joe Hulme in The People was critical. “He is inclined to hold the ball too long,” he wrote.
Mannion did not start the season in the first team. Although he managed a few senior appearances, including the first leg of the European Cup Winners Cup tie away to FK Austria, he was mostly in the Central League side.
And, on December 11, he was back in the third team alongside Bob Wilson and Ken Knighton in the Midland Intermediate League, with ‘Slipper’ Read in the reserves for their 9-0 second-team thumping of Chesterfield.
All told that season, Mannion played only seven First Division games and scored a solitary goal, having also made the side who drew 2-2 at Burnley in the Charity Shield. But his scintillating arrival on the first-team scene was very much in the past and he asked for a transfer.
As always with Wolves, exciting new wingers were emerging, not least Wharton and his friend Alan Hinton. Alan remembers Mannion well and says: “Gerry was on the right wing, so he had Terry Wharton for competition. That was okay by me! Gerry was a good team-mate, had red hair and crossed a good ball.”
West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Stoke and Luton were all looking at the 21-year-old, a player that none other than Stanley Matthews had predicted to be a future England international. No offers were forthcoming, however, and Mannion asked the club to lower the requested fee. Eventually, in September, 1961, Norwich came in with a bid of £16,000 and Mannion was on his way to Norfolk.
He had a memorable start there, being part of the Canaries side who became the second winners of the League Cup by beating Rochdale 4-0 over two legs. So, there was a cup final appearance and win at last for him, albeit in the days before the final was at Wembley.
Over the next seven seasons, Mannion featured 100 times in League and cups and struck 17 goals for a middle-of-the-road Second Division side. Sadly, he was not the most popular man with the supporters and, in December, 1963, asked for a transfer after losing his place to Ron Barnes.
But manager Ron Ashman was nonetheless a believer, although the player had his brushes with authority. He received a 14-day ban after being dismissed for thumping a Manchester City player in Norwich’s 2-1 FA Cup fifth-round win at Maine Road in March, 1963. The opponent who had been niggling him was none other than David Wagstaffe!
And earlier that season he was fined £5 following an incident in a game against Grimsby. A bottle was thrown on to the pitch and Gerry chucked it back and hit a spectator.
On transfer deadline day in 1964, he turned down a move to Cardiff ‘for domestic reasons’ and the Daily Mirror reported some months later that Mannion ‘had the largest-size boots in football and the biggest number of critics.”
Among his colleagues under the supportive Ron Ashman was a young Hugh Curran. Another was his old colleague at Molineux, Phil Kelly.
His fortunes took a massive dip in November of 1965, though, when he broke his leg in training. Those exciting days at Molineux must have seemed an awfully long time ago.
Finally, in January of 1968, his Norwich career came to an end when he signed for Chester around the same time as Graham Turner. The club soon had to seek re-election, though, and the winger managed only half a dozen (goalless) appearances.
He returned to these parts in July, 1969 when he went on a free transfer to Kidderminster, from where he arrived at Atherstone in November, 1971. A career that started with such a bang had fizzled out into obscurity.
Even more sadly, Gerry Mannion died on June 15, 1994, aged only 54.