With help from Jim Brown and others at the Coventry City Former Players Association, Charles Bamforth tells the story of an Ulster-born hopeful with an accent from across the water who had to leave Molineux to find first-team football.
“Jimmy Hill told me he would get me into the Northern Ireland side if I signed a two-year contract at Coventry City. That would have been a dream come true, to have played for my country.”
It didn’t happen and if it had, Danny Blanchflower, Jimmy McIlroy, Harry Gregg and others would have been mightily puzzled by their new colleague’s accent. To this day, Bob Allen retains a very distinct Welsh lilt.
He was born in Belfast in January, 1939. Tragically, his father died in 1941. “My mother was Welsh, so she took us to live in Denbigh, where my grandparents were,” he said.
Allen played for the Denbigh boys team that won the Welsh Youth Cup and, at the age of 15, was playing for Denbigh Town. “We played at the mental hospital grounds. In my first game, I chased a through ball and poked it past the keeper, who punched me in the stomach. I can remember coming round and looking up at a sea of faces looking down at me. My team-mates had already sorted out the goalie!
“Somehow, I had got into the grammar school and was playing for Blackburn Rovers youths alongside the likes of Peter Dobing. Then, one Saturday, there was a conflict. We had a new headmaster up from South Wales, a man who clearly preferred rugby. I was supposed to be playing for Blackburn in an FA Youth Cup game against Manchester United but a teacher had written to Rovers and said I was unavailable as I would be playing for the school that day.
“The week before, I had got a knock playing for Denbigh but still showed up for the school game and, limping or not, scored our only goal. On the Monday, the headmaster called me into his study and said I had let the school down and he was taking away my prefect’s badge. I told him where he could stick his school and left!
“It took me six months to get a job, which I did eventually in the treasurer’s office of Denbighshire Council. It was quite a trek to get there, with a bicycle ride, leaving my bike at my grandparents’ house and then a 10-mile bus ride.
“Every day, my mother would pack me off with egg sandwiches, which I hated. I was invited for trials at Everton and went with a pal. We were in a game against a team of Geordies and it went really well. Around that time, Eddie Spicer, the former Liverpool player, was keen to get me to Anfield, but I turned him down, saying I was committed to Everton.
“In fact, I never heard anything more from Goodison Park, which is when my pal, Emyr ap Iowerth, who would captain the Wales amateur side, told me he was off to Wolves for a trial. He asked if they minded him taking a pal along for the ride.
“It was quite a trip by train in those days but we did it and I did things that day that George Best would have been proud of. As luck would have it, Stan Cullis was watching. At the end, he asked me if I wanted to sign for Wolves.
“I told him I couldn’t as I had a job in Denbigh. He told me I should chuck it. I said I didn’t even have a suitcase, so he said he would sort one out for me – and he did. Emyr was not picked up.
“I signed as a professional for Wolves in September, 1957. There were 48 professionals and four teams in which they could play, so the competition was intense.
“I started in the fourth team and was scoring goals. Soon it was the third team and more goals. Before the end of the season, I was in the Central League side, playing against Manchester City, Sheffield Wednesday, and Aston Villa. One memorable day, I was 12th man for the first team, at West Brom.
“In those days, the reserve was just that and not a substitute. I reckon they only gave me the chance because, if someone had been taken ill, they could easily have brought over someone from Wolverhampton in good time. No matter, I felt very important sitting on the bench.
“I played alongside the likes of Fred Davies, Ted Farmer, Cliff Durandt and Des Horne and remember a young Len Ashurst from Liverpool being at Wolves. He had a crew-cut and looked like an American. You never got past him in training but, of course, he went off to Sunderland.
“By now, I was doing my National Service in Gloucestershire and it was a trek to get to Wolverhampton. To this day, I resent the fact Stan Cullis did not play me for the longest time whereas others on National Service were getting a chance.
“In that first season, he had called me into his office and told me I needed to start doing things the Wolves way. His idea of running up and down the South Bank with 20-pound weights on your back did not match my style. I did not have that physique. And I was a ball player, not suited to the long ball.
“At Coventry, Dietmar Bruck labelled me a ‘classy player’ but that was not what Cullis saw me as. At the end of 1958-59, I turned up at Molineux where they were holding a presentation of the League Championship trophy. In the foyer, there was a noticeboard and on it they posted the retained list. If your name wasn’t there, you were on your way. My name was not on it.
“I was now at RAF Bridgnorth, where a man who would become a legend at Coventry, George Curtis, had just arrived. He urged me to go for a trial to Highfield Road and we travelled on a freezing day in January on his motorbike.
“By the time we arrived, I thought rigor mortis had set in but somehow I managed to impress. The manager was Billy Frith and he did not give me much opportunity. He preferred the older players, such as Bill Myerscough, the former Villa forward from the 1957 FA Cup Final, and Stewart Imlach.”
Little over a year later, Bob’s opportunity arose. Another ex-Wolves man from North Wales, Ron Hewitt, had a spinal injury and the utility forward was given a League debut at Bradford City and, in his own words, was ‘a lamb to the slaughter against a tough team of huge players who relentlessly bore down on you in the old Third Division’.
Bob Allen played at inside left in a 4-1 defeat. Come November of 1961, though, and a certain Jimmy Hill had arrived on the scene. He held a trial game so he could assess his squad. “We were short a centre-half, so I volunteered to play there. I gave Myerscough and some of the others a good kicking, which prompted Jimmy to say: ‘Hey, I do want some players to be fit for Saturday!’
“Whereas I had been an attacking inside-forward, I now started to play midfield and was a good passer. Hill seemed to like what he saw and never dropped me. But I was starting to think about my future and, without telling anybody, I had been down to be interviewed at a teacher training college in Cardiff.
“I had no idea if I would be accepted, having abruptly left school with half a dozen O Levels (at two attempts). However, in the April, a letter arrived offering me a place on a three-year course.
“I had a difficult choice to make and went to see the manager, which is when Jimmy Hill offered me that two-year contract and a promise that I would get into the Northern Ireland team. But my mother had other ideas. She never wanted me to be a footballer. She only ever came once to watch me and I was knocked out. I can remember coming round and thinking to myself: ‘Mam, for God’s sake, don’t come on to the pitch.’
“I took the college offer and left Coventry after 25 first-team games and two goals. I played a few games for Nuneaton Borough but went on to play for ten years at Abergavenny Thursdays. They played on Tuesdays!
“I was paid as much there as I had received at Highfield Road. We had a good footballing team but seemed to always finish behind Swansea Reserves, who I guess were younger and fitter. Then it was to Bridgend, where we won the Welsh League, and finally Sully. I played until I was 48.
“I started off as a PE teacher, then took another course and started to teach special needs kids. I became the senior teacher in a school of 1,700 boys.
“My first school was in Bromyard near the Herefordshire/Worcestershire border. I was newly-married and took my wife up there to look around and she cried all the way home. So, I moved to a school in her native Cardiff. I was very disenchanted with one of my schools where they basically segregated the English-speaking and Welsh-speaking children. The headmistress insisted that the Welsh children should not speak to those who could not speak the language, which I considered to be apartheid.
“I went on to the toughest school in Cardiff, where I taught maths but did a lot of administration, including being the cane man! I made sure a punished lad did not need to report to me more than once – things are very different now!
“I retired in 1993 and went to live in Dinas Powys, near Cardiff, where I still am, now widowed. I was player-manager for the village team. My son played but he preferred golf and represented Wales under-18s. These days, he lives in St Albans and spends more time ferrying his daughters around. One of them fences for England and the other is into gymnastics.”