Finding His Level

Opportunity Came Lower Down For Cullis Cub

Molineux-groomed Vic Cockcroft played in the First Division – but not for Wolves. Like many others, he had to escape the intense competition at the club to make his mark elsewhere. Charles Bamforth tells his story.

A classy-looking couple…..Vic Cockcroft and wife Jill in recent years.

“We had Eddie Stuart, George Showell, Gerry Harris, John Harris, Gwyn Jones and Phil Kelly, as well as Bobby Thomson coming through.

“Apart from the occasional trip with the first team as 12th man (there were no substitutes in those days, of course), it was second and third-team football.

“Vic, I would say to myself: ‘You’ve got to make a decision’. I realised I wasn’t as good a full-back as those players. It was time to move on.”

So it was that Vic Cockcroft left Molineux in July, 1962 after a professional career with Wolves that started when he signed full-time forms in December, 1959. He had gone to the club rather earlier, though.

“I was born at Harborne and played my early football with Ladywood Boys Club. I would go to Villa as a lad with my dad but was more interested in playing football or cricket.

“Harborne Cricket Club was a particularly good standard and Robin Stubbs, the former Birmingham centre-forward, played there. Coming home from an England Schoolboys trial game at Cadbury’s on the bus, I had a tap on the shoulder and was asked if I was interested in a trial at Wolves. I muttered a yes and forgot about it but he was soon knocking on our door.”

Wolves liked what they saw in the youngster and he was signed as an amateur, still living at home and pursuing a trade as an apprentice electrician.

“I would get a bus to Snow Hill to catch the train to Wolverhampton for training on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and afterwards would need to be at the station in Wolverhampton by 9.30 for the return journey,” he added.

“Even when I signed as a professional, I continued to live in Harborne, so it meant I didn’t really socialise with the other players. I do recall that Bill Slater, a lovely man who lived in Kings Heath, would often give me a lift home as he would pass the end of our road. I also remember how wonderful Ron Flowers was.”

The young full-back had undoubted talent. He was selected to play for The Rest against the England Youth side and was soon chosen at that age group for his country. In February of 1959, around the time of his 18th birthday, Vic was in this team against Scotland at Aberdeen: Peter Reader (West Ham), Dave Bacuzzi (Arsenal), Vic Cockcroft (Wolves), Nobby Stiles (Manchester United), Ken McCabe (Liverpool), Geoff Hurst (West Ham), Derek Woodley (West Ham), Tommy Spratt (Manchester United), Ernie Phythian (Bolton), John Hawksby (Leeds), Alan Hinton (Wolves).

Vic Cockcroft (far right back row) on England Youth duty. Alan Hinton is in front of him.

Afterwards, it was off to East Germany and Bulgaria. Hinton remembers those days fondly and told me: “Vic Cockcroft was a good player. He took no prisoners. I remember saying to him one day: ‘Hey, Vic, remember you’re on the same team as me today!’”

Cockcroft recalls how he heard about his international selection, adding: “I had a letter from Mr. Cullis: ‘You have been chosen to play for England.’ That was it. Very cold. And whereas Geoff Hurst and Nobby Stiles returned home to complete professional forms for their clubs, I had to wait nine months to sign.”

Testimony to the competition at Molineux was that the England Youth international managed fewer than half a dozen second-team games in the Central League in his final season, 1961-62.

By now, Bobby Thomson had surged through the ranks to the first team. Cockcroft was still plying his trade for the most part in the Midland Intermediate League alongside up-and-coming youngsters Clive Ford, John Galley and Peter Knowles.

It was time to move on and Dave Bowen of Northampton came knocking in July, 1962. “I think I received about £100 out of that transfer – enough for a hand-made sports jacket!” he says.

They were exciting days at the County Ground, though, with promotion from Division Three in Vic’s first season and promotion to the top flight in 1964-65.

He played 47 League games for the club over five seasons, including 17 in the elite division, and managed a solitary goal – in a 1-1 First Division draw away to a Nottingham Forest side who had Frank Wignall, John Barnwell and Alan Hinton in their forward line.

Tony Pritchett wrote in the Nottingham Football Post and News about the left-back ‘hammering in a terrific low shot from an angle which flashed into the net like a bullet past the astonished Grummitt.’

Other highlights for him in the Cobblers’ season in the sun were featuring in a win over West Ham, in a home draw with Manchester United and, against Arsenal in the club’s first ever home game in Division One, becoming the first used substitute in Northampton’s history.

​“I was much more involved in the social scene at Northampton than I had been at Wolves,” the player added.

“I was also close to the cricketers, including Hylton Ackerman and Colin Milburn. Colin called me from a tour he was on one time to sort out a car for him for when he returned. It was a Morris Oxford. Every time he got in or out, his ample frame would connect with the metal ring on the steering wheel that tooted the horn!

“I am still in touch with Graham Carr, who calls me with news of this and that player passing on. The likes of John Kurila. Very sad.

A sheepskin-collared Vic Cockcroft in 1962 with Cobblers colleagues including Graham Carr (in the middle) and John Kurila (far right).

“I had received a good offer from Port Elizabeth to join them in South Africa in 1965 but turned it down as I wanted the opportunity to play in Division One.”

Thus Cockcroft stayed at the club for two more seasons and was pondering opening a ladies’ hair salon before he found himself on the move again, in June of 1967, to Rochdale.

The Fourth Division club included another former Molineux youngster in their ranks in Laurie Calloway. “It was very cold up there, in terms of the atmosphere,” he said. “Northampton had been a very sociable community.”

It seems that it was also a cold-hearted place overall, for when Cockcroft arrived back late from one evening away game, he found that his possessions had been packed up and his suitcase plonked outside the digs where he had been staying.

He played in all but four of Rochdale’s League games in 1967-68 under Bob Stokoe but was soon loading his Austin A35 van and, with barely a cheerio, making his way to his next port of call, Kidderminster Harriers of the West Midlands League.

“I got an injury that finished me,” he said. “It was in one of the preliminary rounds of the FA Challenge Trophy at Hednesford in January, 1970. I did the cruciate ligament in my knee.

“I was in hospital and the consultant came by with his entourage. He picked up the chart at the end of the bed, muttered something about the injury and strolled on. Then he paused, came back and simply said: ‘Oh, by the way, don’t think you will ever play football again’. Once more, he walked off.

“So that was that. I was in plaster from my ankle to my thigh and had to go by bus from Harborne to the hospital in Birmingham. Time for a new career then and I went to work in several building societies and then a benefits office. I didn’t retire until I was into my 70s. These days, it’s a case of a little golf and swimming near where we live in Coventry.”

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