Small and exclusive though it is, the village of Brocton always seems to resonate with Wolves players from past decades.
Ask them where the annual pre-season slog for fitness was often based under Stan Cullis, Bill McGarry and others – and the name of this well-to-do dot on the Staffordshire map is likely to trip off the tongue when they mention the punishing Cannock Chase hills.
More fondly remembered perhaps are the golf days at nearby Brocton Hall, the delightful course at which many an afternoon was whiled away in the McGarry-Sammy Chung era in particular.
It was here that Ron Flowers heard while partnering former Wolves secretary Keith Pearson during a round in 2007 that he and the other non-playing reserves among England’s Boys of 66 were at last to be honoured with World Cup winners’ medals.
Pearson still had an ear to the ground in the game after his long and valuable Molineux service was followed by approaching a decade at Derby and had picked up on the fact that Richard Caborn and the FA were pushing hard to see Sir Alf Ramsey’s fringe men suitably decorated.
The precious keepsakes were duly presented in February, 2008, and Flowers was back with some of his fellow recipients in the glorious sunshine today at the club at which he and wife Yvonne are long-time members.
So keen were the couple to fully commit to the occasion that they checked into Acton Trussell’s Moat House Hotel despite living only half a mile away. No wonder! It wasn’t any ordinary old gathering.
This was a three-day reunion, 50 years on from wingless wonders, a Russian linesman and a young forward called Hurst; a nod to a glorious past, an embracing of enduring friendships and along the way a sad acknowledgement that they, reluctant national treasures, are getting older.
Not for the first time, Wolves Heroes felt privileged and honoured to be tipped off in secret about this meeting-up of stars who somehow manage to zoom in under the radar each year for dinner, a few drinks, 18 holes of friendly competition, a prize-giving ceremony and a good few more drinks.
There are occasions elsewhere at which the well-wishers and autograph hunters are able to turn out in force and you can imagine the nostalgia pieces that will hit our airwaves and sports pages at the end of July to celebrate a momentous anniversary in our sporting culture. But this get-together is private and keeping it that way is a delicate business.
Even the drivers who whisked the players from their hotel to the course this morning were not told who they were picking up and the Brocton membership seemed blissfully unaware of the legends in their midst. Monday morning is the quietest time of the week, so that’s when the ‘lads’ strode out – at least as far as their buggies!
A club official checked out my identity and purpose as soon as I even vaguely engaged in conversation with any of them……Gordon Banks, as it happens.
But it helps to have the 49-cap Ron Flowers in your camp and any initial awkwardness gave way to freedom for conversation with the man at the club captain’s side……a member called Brian Sumner who had turned up for a spot of practice with his irons and instead found himself somewhat bewildered at rubbing shoulders with men he is old enough to have idolised.
Sumner actually played school football with Kenny Hibbitt in their native Bradford. Today, he had to make do with getting close-up to Banks, George Cohen, Jack Charlton, Roger Hunt, Martin Peters and hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst from the 11 who memorably defeated West Germany in our finest football hour.
Bobby Charlton is due at the presentation function tonight after duty at both the FA Cup final and yesterday’s England v Turkey international and will also be greeted by Flowers (the oldest member of the group), George Eastham, Jimmy Armfield, Norman Hunter and Ian Callaghan.
This exclusive set have lost another dear friend in the last 12 months in Gerry Byrne and, in many cases, are fighting their own health or fitness battles. Cohen, one of the stars of the David Jason documentary that was switched on over dinner at the group’s hotel last night, is totally dependent on sticks, Banks has talked publicly in recent weeks about his struggle with cancer and even Peters, one of the babies of Alf’s squad, is sadly unwell.
Hunt has been heard to joke that failing joints and minds might make it more sensible for the golf to be confined to a putting competition in future! There is a serious note to this. Flowers, for example, turns 82 a couple of days before the 50th anniversary in two months’ time and even Hunter, this year’s organiser, has an age comfortably past the standard scratch score of this lovely venue.
Not even the players’ dear wives – also present this last couple of days – would say their menfolk are necessarily ‘still gleaming’ as the ’30 years of hurt’ stretches to the full half century.
How long beyond this summer’s clamour for reflective interviews they will keep this cherished two-night social gathering going is anyone’s guess.
Brocton Hall has hosted them in style for the last four years but they have been meeting up, unnoticed and untroubled, at various courses the length and breadth of the country for annual weekends like this for almost 40 years.
We trust it will all happen again next year and onwards into the future. Like the Jules Rimet Trophy, though, if it really is all over, it was fabulous while it was here.