LA Story Set To Run And Run

Epic Adventure That Has Had A Massive Reach

Derek Dougan plays up to his showman image while Bobby Thomson cradles the silverware following Wolves’ famous win over Aberdeen in Los Angeles.

So how big was the end-of-season trip undertaken by Wolves’ squad of promotion winners in 1967?

In time-span and travelling, it was colossal….14 games and close to eight weeks on the back of finishing as Second Division runners-up to Coventry over 42 League matches. But that is only part of it.

The retrospective magnitude of their endeavours has been much greater still. Their triumphant campaign as Los Angeles Wolves under Ronnie Allen was the catalyst for the emergence of professional football in the United States and Canada, where the staging of a World Cup and growth of the MLS are spectacular beacons of the game’s development.

Even many Wolves fans will be unaware of the full tale of how their club prevailed on the other side of the Atlantic the small matter of 56 summers ago. But 100-plus invited guests at a premiere in Wolverhampton’s Arena Theatre this weekend can now spread the word on a brilliant film documentary that will be heading the way of the wider supporter base this winter.

Wolves’ commercial staff were sufficiently interested in a visit to these shores by American broadcaster Laurence Scott last year as to hit on the concept of creating a screen record of the tour.

Scott’s interviewing of Phil Parkes and others planted the seed of an idea and the club’s general manager for marketing and commercial growth Russell Jones shared with us on Friday night the thought that spearheading the export of the sport to America should be seen as Wolves’ third biggest achievement of all time behind being founder members of the Football League and, some 70 years later, pioneers of European competition. Major potential was spotted, not least with the LA area being home to 11.8m inhabitants.

Les Wilson, born in Manchester but raised from the age of seven in Canada until being spotted by Stan Cullis and Joe Gardiner in 1963, was one of four players interviewed for the project and summed up on screen from his home in Vancouver: “The LA Wolves were the spark for soccer on this continent.”

Others of considerable influence share the sentiment of the utility man who played 114 Wanderers games in League and domesic cups and then went on to highlight a brilliant career in coaching and adminstration by leading Canada as team manager to the World Cup finals in Mexico in 1986.

Alan Rothenberg was a 28-year-old attorney in 1967 and says on film now, in his dotage, that he had neither played the sport nor watched a game under that code until being summoned to help oil the wheels of the United Soccer Association League – the competition in which Wolves had been invited to participate. So consumed was he by the spectacle that he later became president of US Soccer.

Rothenberg was interviewed by a camera crew who left no stone unturned after leaving Molineux for Southern California late last winter.  Also targeted was Kevin Baxter, the chief sports writer of the LA Times, who said: “Soccer then (1967) was not even a secondary sport here. It was not on a lot of people’s radar.”

What about the on-field fare, then? If you are one of those who believe end-of-season games are glorified kickabouts designed to make money, look at the footage of Wolves’ extraordinary 6-5 win over Aberdeen in the final of this tournament and see how much it clearly meant to the victorious players.

Gemma Frith, a full-time presenter and producer at Wolves, pictured hosting the premiere.

Derek Dougan sprints like someone half his age in celebration of the golden-goal winner, pursuing noted speedster Bobby Thomson for half the length of the pitch after the full-back’s cross had led to an own goal from Ally Shewan.

Another long dash sees an occupant of the Wolves bench join the on-pitch melee. One of the scorers, Peter Knowles, crawled up on his hands and knees at the presentation ceremony later – but, knowing him, that might have been characteristic crowd-pleasing as much as the exhaustion of playing 122 minutes on a stifling mid-July night in the LA Coliseum! 

Jack Kent Cooke, the business magnate who bought the franchise that had gold and black ribbons attached to it, said of the final at the time: “I was warned constantly that soccer is a dull game but there’s not a writer in Hollywood who could have written the script for this.”

We hear his voice and the Potteries tones of Allen in the high-class 30-minute production and have reported on here before that Kent Cooke so fell in love with Wolves that he wanted to buy them. Well, as the guests heard at the premiere, anyone who didn’t enjoy that final just wouldn’t like football at all. 

He didn’t succeed, of course, but, boy, did he help put on a show for his guests in Tinsel Town. The players became friends of The Monkees thanks to the boyhood bond between Davy Jones and Dave Wagstaffe, and Tommy Steele, Maureen O’Hara and Charlie Chaplin’s daughter were others they met or saw.

“Being introduced to these movie stars and singers……it was a dream,” Wilson added. Parkes’s take on the lifestyle was: “We lived in a different world. You needed t-shirts, shorts, flip-flops and you were sorted. There wasn’t much about Wolverhampton I missed, to be honest….even less about West Bromwich, where I was from. I didn’t want to come home.”

And to think the players threatened to miss it all after a mix-up in communication between manager Allen and chairman John Ireland led to a row over expenses payments!

‘When LA Wolves Conquered The USA’ also contains interviews with Gerry Taylor and Terry Wharton, the half-time walk-on that was captured at the home game against Bournemouth last season summing up the pride they and the also-present Parkes, gold and black scarves round their necks, felt at being part of the story.

The three local lads took their places on stage for a question-and-answer session following a screening that also contained interviews with two of the beaten Aberdeen side, keeper Bobby Clark and defender Jim Whyte. How good it would have been to have had Frank Munro around for his thoughts, too. He scored a hat-trick for Aberdeen on that crazy night. There might have been more input from north of the border anyway but efforts to find a slot to visit Wolves winger Paddy Buckley at his home near Edinburgh failed after he had agreed to be part of the production.

The Wolves meet The Monkees. Davy Jones (in the long trousers) pictured with (from left) Les Wilson, Dave Wagstaffe, Ernie Hunt, Graham Hawkins and Bobby Thomson in Los Angeles.

One other notable who did make the cut, though, was an LA-based football fan who had been taken to some of the games as a youngster by his dad. The final product is intoxicating.

“We at Wolves Studios have done several films and, for example, we lived Raul’s recovery with him,” said Molineux-based Yannie Makarounas. “We knew that story. This time, we were learning as we went along.”

He and his colleagues received a public thank-you for their efforts from Terry Wharton at the end of the evening. “It’s a wonderful film,” the former winger said.

Also among the gathering at the Arena were Wolves chairman Jeff Shi, John Richards, Steve Daley, Richard Skirrow, TV crews from Sky Sports and the BBC (Parkes had also been interviewed at Molineux by ITV at teatime), relatives/spouses of Bobby Thomson, Dave Wagstaffe, Mike Bailey and Barry Stobart, and a cross-section from supporter groups including Albert and Muriel Bates, Jason Guy and Manny Singh Kang.

Special mention should be made of Jutta Dougan, who flew in from Munich on the day with her youngest son, Nick. The Dougans’ eldest son, Wolverhampton-based Alexander, was also in attendance.

The film was due to be published on Wolves’ official website imminently but the club have entered into ‘exciting’ negotiations with a company interested in purchasing it for their documentary stockpile – one who would insist on having a window of exclusivity first.

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