Only a few days on from the funeral of Paul Darby comes news of the sad passing-away at 79 of Keith Pearson, a man very well known to the physio and countless others. David Instone looks back at the long-serving secretary’s life and career.
Football folk of the 1980s and early 1990s could barely have imagined a Wolverhampton Wanderers without Keith Pearson and, as it transpired, we nearly lost both.
Two lapses into Receivership gave Wolves the dubious honour of being the first of the true giants of the English game to flirt with going bump.
That they didn’t was in no small part down to Keith Pearson, a chartered accountant best known as club secretary for around a decade up to November, 1994. He was also a director from 1992.
If anyone played a bigger part in keeping Wolves afloat and alive in those most fraught of days, I didn’t meet him or her.
I wrote in the Sporting Star as he left that the fans never sang his name and he didn’t score a single goal but no-one could have done more for the club.
Long before the landscape was changed for ever by the amassed fortunes of Sir Jack Hayward and Steve Morgan and then the corporate wealth of the Fosun Group, Pearson was the glue that held together an altogether different Wolves. He prevented things unravelling totally and possibly fatally.
Unlike those benefactors, he didn’t write cheques drawn on his own account and, sometimes, he couldn’t write them on behalf of the club either. They kept bouncing. But he knew what it was like to organise a whip-round to persuade the milkman not to remove this particular stop-off in Waterloo Road from his round.
Greg Fellows tells the story of how an unpaid mid-1980s bill prompted the coach company to pull the plug on taking the reserves to Grimsby one night, so, at the shortest of notice, he drove a minibus crammed with 11 players and the team kit.
Fellows, all 20st of him and a member of the backroom team during the Tommy Docherty era, had to name himself as substitute – and go on for the final minutes – but laughs as he recounts that the Wolves cubs won, were treated to fish and chips on the way home and he is still owed £36 after paying for them out of his own pocket.
Keith Pearson, initially appointed as club accountant during Sammy Chung’s reign as manager, knew this hand-to-mouth existence only too well. He was once sacked along with all other administrative staff and, another time during the struggles, found it all too much to bear and resigned. Thankfully, he was persuaded by his staff – that was basically Dot Wooldridge and Joyce Sutherland, with Mel Bird in the ticket office and Bill Pilbeam tending to the pitch – to reconsider. What a relief!
Wolves had an extremely small pack in those days and he was very much the leader of it off the field, instantly identifiable by those at other clubs, at the Football League and FA and among a dwindling supporter base.
Keith could be excused some moody Monday mornings – he had good reason to suffer one or two under the weight of Official Receivers, relegations and final demands – but a smiling face and cheerful welcome were much more famliar characteristics. And, accomplished and popular as he was in his job, he was worth his weight in Wolverhampton Wanderers gold.
Survival was achieved, the good times returned and he was able to savour them at close quarters, the Bhattis passing the baton to the Gallaghers in a complex deal that also led to considerable input from Wolverhampton Council and the Asda officials overseeing the development of that massive superstore in the so-called Molineux Triangle.
Pearson was a hugely vital cog at the heart of it all and the climb back was as quick as the descent had been. He looked happy and smart in his grey Wembley ‘team’ suit at the Sherpa Van Trophy final and his Stafford roots and base made him the natural choice for choosing somewhere the senior club management could go to celebrate the winning of Third Division promotion in 1989 on the Monday night chief rivals Port Vale lost unexpectedly at home.
Keith, who had taken over as secretary in early 1985 when Peter Redfearn left to join Marks & Spencer, was upgraded to company secretary in 1990 after Sir Jack’s takeover and played a major part in the planning of the stadium overhaul from 1991 to 1993. With this return to respectability and good health came a further widening of his circle of employees, key contacts and even friends.
But the frustrating wait for promotion and the move away from the tight-knit homeliness of the adversity years and towards a new Molineux feeling of corporatism contributed to his shock replacement a third of the way through Graham Taylor’s only full season at the helm.
My surprise when this news was fed to me one Friday morning by commercial director David Clayton was clearly felt many times over by Pearson, who was still upset when I visited him at home a few days later. This was no departure by mutual consent.
We wondered whether he might further immerse himself at this point in his love of cricket, his gentle afternoons as an all-rounder with Milford Hall – the delightful venue where Wolves went and played a game more than once – also being supplemented by a growing interest in golf.
But, in Derby County, there was a nearby club who had noted his experience in stadium development and they appointed him in 1996 shortly before vacating the Baseball Ground for state-of-the-art Pride Park.
There was a substantial and somewhat depressing list around that time of individuals leaving Molineux – often through being seen as surplus to requirements – and going on to savour the buzz of the Premier League elsewhere.
Pearson, far from seeking a quieter life, joined that group and remained in the East Midlands for ten years as the Rams went up under Jim Smith. While Wolves remained as frustrated onlookers, top-flight consolidation was achieved impressively in the East Midlands. For someone whose only O level pass had been in geography, this was an exciting new world!
Retirement eventually came after Wolves reached the Premier League for the first time and he became an occasional leisure-time visitor again to Molineux.
His golf – initially at Kingstone on the way to Uttoxeter and then nearer home at Ingestre Park – improved, too, his time on the football pitch having largely been spent as a referee in local leagues after he qualified in his teens.
His wonderful work at Wolves is what set him apart in our eyes, though, and he will be remembered as one of the last of the traditional club secretaries; one concerned with fixtures, liaising with match officials, keeping financial records and, with the background he had in industry before applying for a Wolves job he saw advertised in the Express & Star, preparing accounts and cash flows.
No wonder he found a friend in Richard Skirrow, who has been a brilliant support mechanism to him in his recent years of poor health.
The three of us have had a couple of coffee meetings in the last three years, one of which provided the reminder that Keith once turned down the chance to switch to Albion. And Richard did much by providing a news flow to him, taking him books and programmes to read and even joining him for walks over Cannock Chase.
What a tough act the older man was to follow and how well Wolves have been served in this position over the decades.