Healing Hands Were Part-Made In Wolverhampton

Molineux Roots Of Physio To The Stars

Lawrie Brown was one of the wronged other parties when unwittingly caught up in the scandal which resulted in Tommy Docherty being sacked as Manchester United manager a few days after lifting the FA Cup in 1977. But the physio’s three and a half decades in the treatment room and dug-out had many more highlights than low points, like a decade and more spent at Old Trafford, getting hands-on with Botham and Nureyev and even dancing with the Royal Ballet. There is a little-known Wolves angle, too, as David Instone was keen to explore.

Lawrie Brown with some of the souvenirs from his outstanding career.

Ever think your life is being governed by coincidences? At the Bolton v Wolves promotion clash in 1996-97, I was one of several journalists to duck as the ball flashed low over the press box and into the third safest pair of hands at Burnden Park that day after rival keepers Gavin Ward and Mike Stowell.

I turned round just in time to see cricketer Mike Watkinson produce a safe catch and over-arm throw that resulted in a quick restart.

The name of the same Lancashire and England all-rounder has popped up in conversation on Wolves Heroes business over these last few days but, first……. a rewind of several months to an even bigger coincidence.

For many years, our very good friend Les Wilson had been urging me to track down and interview Lawrie Brown, a late-1960s trainee, part-time physio of whom he has only good memories from their time together at Wolves.

As is the way of us on this website, I set about the task with a relish and, knowing Brown’s background with the England Test team, asked one or two Fleet Street cricket writers if they had contact details for him.

The trail stayed cold, though, as it did when I was sent by the Daily Mail to a pre-Ashes 2013 Graeme Swann press conference that brought me face-to-face again with long-time England team manager Phil Neale, skipper of Worcestershire’s highly successful 1980s side.

He was keen to help but later apologised for being unable to do so and the search was indefinitely shelved until all our wishes were answered in the autumn in freakish circumstances.

Former Wolves secretary Richard Skirrow and I were on our way by train to Manchester for Paul Ince’s induction to football’s hall of fame when our conversation was joined by a passenger a few feet away who was heading for that day’s play between Lancashire and Warwickshire.

Suddenly, from the other side of the aisle, came the words: “I used to be the physio at Old Trafford.” And the penny dropped immediately – it was Lawrie Brown! He had just boarded the train at Macclesfield and was heading with wife Anne for a few days’ break in Yorkshire.

I immediately regaled him with the tale of how I had largely abandoned a mission to trace him for interview purposes and was rather disarmed and embarrassed by the response: “Well, I’m in the phone book!”

Maybe it required knowledge of which town or city he was in to look him up – or would a comprehensive Google search have done the trick? Anyway, Wolves Heroes had been blessed with an almighty slice of luck and planned a return visit to Macclesfield to chat at length with him.

Winter weather, Covid concerns and the operation Lawrie has recently had put us off until Friday, when he quickly apologised for having a poor memory for names – a point he underlined by referring to Derek Dooley when he meant Derek Dougan. But, sitting in the lounge of their 200-year-old home a few months on from his 80th birthday, he showed he has lots about him.

He and Anne, a talented artist, unfailingly answer their mobiles and have a presence on Facebook. He hasn’t stayed in touch with too many sporting figures from his past but the couple are very much ‘with it’. Indeed, it was she who shared, just as I was about to leave, the shocking news alert announcing Shane Warne’s sudden death at 52.

This particular story is best started with football and, in his soft Scottish tones, Lawrie was happy to talk me through his enviable but no doubt exhausting career. “I think it was 1967 when I arrived in Wolverhampton,” he said. “Among a few ex-PTIs from out of the forces, I had become qualified as a remedial gymnast in Wakefield in Yorkshire and spent a year or two working in a hospital up there afterwards.

“But I wanted to get into sports medicine, so I needed to know more. Not many physios, or trainers as they were more commonly known in football, were qualified…..there were Bertie Mee at Arsenal, Fred Street at Stoke and George Palmer at Wolves, but very few others.

George Palmer, the former Royal Navy man who gave Wolves a quarter of a century of service.

“I enrolled at Wolverhampton School of Physiotherapy at what I remember as the Royal Hospital. Not many establishments took male students for some reason…..the only places we could go was there, Glasgow or London.

“I hadn’t been there long when the principal spoke about getting me down to Molineux for a day to see the physio, George Palmer, at work. I made a nuisance of myself to make sure that came about and then asked if I could go back the next day as well.

“It sounds crazy but I went there almost every day and only went back to physio school to take others for lessons. I was still a student and therefore unpaid but I loved helping out and going in the dressing room at all the home games.

“There was one away match when I received a phone call and was asked if I could be ready to take Frank Munro to hospital for an x-ray when the squad arrived back. I remember big Frank was scared of needles and was worried he would need an injection before his x-ray.

“I didn’t go to away games – or, rather, I only went to one. Matt Busby and Denis Law were my heroes, so I was very fond of Manchester United and went to Wolves’ game there under my own steam. When the team coach pulled up, the lads saw me and I think it was Dave Wagstaffe who suggested I went in with them rather than pay to watch somewhere on my own.

“I found myself in the treatment room with United’s physio, Ted Dalton, and he asked me to stay in touch with regards to any job that might come up at the practice he ran in St John Street in central Manchester.

“Wolves had provided me with terrific experience and I felt comfortable in that environment but I went on to work at New Cross as a physio in the gyms and wards. I had married (Mary) while I was a student and we paid £275 for three condemned cottages to do up on the end of a terrace in New Mills a few miles south of Stockport, so it was natural I should see my future up there.

“Sadly, Ted died about a month after I met him at Old Trafford but I still wrote a letter to the practice and they told me to get up there as soon as I could as there was a position available.”  

The job of looking after United’s players was in the hands of a senior employee from the practice but Lawrie became more involved with the club as time went on. Staff were also kept busy by the Lancashire cricketers and stars who performed in the local theatres.

Dave Wagstaffe – friendly Mancunian.

“I used to admire how Denis Law seemed to hover in the air when he went up for headers and the only people I know who could do the same were the cast of the Royal Ballet, who I used to enjoy watching when they performed in Manchester,” he added.

“They had no physio travelling with them, so I picked up a lot of work and used to see the injured ones at night, mostly at the theatres after my football duties at United’s training ground, The Cliff, were over.

“Much later, in the 1980s, I actually danced with the Royal Ballet. They were holding a Christmas party in Covent Garden during a weekend I was in London with United and I went up with them, even if it was only for a few disco moves!”

Having inroads in cricket, football and theatreland sounds like a Lawrie-load of fun but it wasn’t quite the dream ticket. That dropped on the mat in June, 1970, when United invited him to go full-time with them.

“It’s a job I wanted so badly that I would have done it for nothing – until the money ran out anyway. So when Matt Busby asked me, I was absolutely thrilled.

“It could be a seven-days-a-week existence, though, because Sunday was an important day after a Saturday match and I also looked after the other sides, not just the first team. I even had one ex-player coming in with his greyhound, asking me to have a look at it.

“When our daughter was born, I remember being present for her and my wife until 8am and then going for a shave and on to work at United. It was very time-consuming and challenging but what an interesting career as well!

“Unfortunately, the club were at the start of a downward slope after all the glory of the 1960s, but it was still wonderful to be involved so closely with them. Sir Matt didn’t stay too long as manager and there were lean seasons on the pitch considering their history but I was there as they rebuilt and came back strong.”

Photos on the wall of the Browns’ home, which is on the site of an old hospital, highlight a working life well lived. There are close-ups of George Best, of some attention being given to a stricken Alan Gowling at White Hart Lane and a special thank-you from Martin Buchan. Lawrie tells me he is enjoying the recollections, which makes the Tommy Docherty issue much less of an elephant in the room than it might have been.

I venture an enquiry as to how comfortable he is talking about it and he replies: “Well, there has been a lot of water under the bridge since.

“He used to say he was going out somewhere on business and would then ring me later at The Cliff to suggest we had a catch-up at Old Trafford before the day was done.”

I sense I am being invited to fill in the gaps here by using my imagination as to how much of The Doc’s out-of-office business could be termed club-orientated and how much was distinctly extra-curricular. What clearly and rightly rankles is that so many references to Lawrie’s time at United are dominated by the break-up of his marriage to Mary. Somewhat buried away is the fact he was with the club for more than a decade, clearly a highly valued employee, and enjoyed the return to the big time that came with FA Cup glory and successive top-flight finishes of third and sixth just before Docherty’s off-field wanderings caught up with him in the early summer of 1977.

Difficult though it must have been, the physio stayed put through the subsequent Dave Sexton era and up to the reign of the seventh Old Trafford boss he had known, Ron Atkinson. Then the end came for him early in the 1980s in more conventional circumstances.

“The chairman called me in, thanked me for all my work and explained that Ron wanted to get rid of a lot of staff and take his own people in,” he added. “It was around the time Joe Jordan was being sold to AC Milan and I could have gone to Everton with Howard Kendall straightaway.

“But I started a practice in Manchester instead and Jackie Bond from Lancashire asked me very soon whether I would see to the players there.

“I was not sure I had the time and had never played cricket in my life, having been a sprinter and rugby union man when I was younger. But I decided I could give them some time in the morning at home games and then work at the practice before going back to the ground around 5pm.

“Like my other roles, it just seemed to grow and I did it for a couple of years before being asked in the mid-1980s if I would like to succeed Bernard Thomas as physio to the England team. He was a remedial gymnast as well.

“When I went into Old Trafford the next day, the chairman said ‘congratulations!’ and called it a great honour for the county. I said I hadn’t accepted and was taking some time to think it over. He went ballistic!

“Anyway, I did take it on, at a time when David Gower was still captain, and kept the Lancashire post as well as I was able to have some help. Cricketers were being encouraged to become fitter and I took some training as well as give treatment.

“Even so, I am astonished now when I am watching TV and see them all crowded on the balcony watching the play. It was nothing like that in my time – David used to tell me there was a warm-up run, some exercises and then they would divide into three nets to practise.

“It was a different pace from football with the long days of play and I learned on the job. One of my tasks was remembering to put the milk on Jack Russell’s Weetabix ten minutes before he came off the field and I got to know another side of Ian Botham. He trained much better on his own than in company because he had this image to live up to with the other players of not being bothered about training.

Lawrie and wife Anne on their travels

“I did only home Tests initially but received a parcel delivery one day and it was a blazer for a tour to the West Indies, so I realised there was going to be some travelling as well. It wasn’t a bad first place to visit, although they hammered us.”

Things did look up on the results front. Brown was on the all-conquering Ashes tour to Australia in 1986-87 and went to World Cups in India/Pakistan and Australasia as well as back to the Caribbean for a close-run Test series in 1990. A painting by wicketkeeper Russell of the historic moment England scored the winning runs in the first Test in Jamaica adorns the stairs wall.

This was one association that was brought to an end on Lawrie’s terms after more than six years ‘because I was tired and needed a break’. The split from Lancashire that followed a few seasons later was much less planned and provides us with one final coincidence.

Early in the 21st century, the previously mentioned Mike Watkinson was in management and still sufficiently influential at the county he had captained for five years to decide on change in the treatment room. Brown, who had also worked for Manchester City under Billy McNeill for a few weeks in the 1980s, was replaced by Dave Roberts and concentrated on private practice work in Stalybridge for the short time that remained before his retirement and move to Macclesfield 17 years ago.

“I had no contract at Manchester United or Lancashire, so that didn’t help me when I left the two clubs,” he said. “I obviously didn’t learn and was never going to be Businessman of the Year, so it was just as well I did okay as a physio.”

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