By David Instone
Restricted though we have been in our sightings of Martin Patching in the last decade or so, we know he never lost his love of everything gold and black.
He was born and raised in South Yorkshire and lived there at the end but his boyhood affections were very much directed towards Molineux, which made his fulfilling career in gold and black the happiest of developments.
Seriously interesting tales invariably came when he spoke, too, like his moral support for Bob Hazell on the international circuit, the scouting that helped Graham Taylor’s Watford bring Wolves down in a big 1980 FA Cup tie, the successful pro-footballer son of his who refused to recognise him and the life-or-death battle he successfully fought a decade and a half ago.
Conversations were never dull and there is much sadness among his 1970s team-mates now at his death at the age of 65.
“I’m very sorry to hear the news,” said Wolves Former Players Association chairman John Richards. “I knew him throughout his career at the club and played plenty of games with him. He was a good player, although other younger lads would have known him better than I did on a social level.”
Patching first played in the senior team here at 16 when he went on as substitute in a 5-1 home victory over Sheffield United, thus becoming one of the club’s youngest League debutants. His roots (and accent) made his big day in the autumn of 1975 bigger still.
It was the first of his 101 Wanderers appearances – a tally that included 30 games in the 1976-77 Second Division title-winning season under his favourite manager, Sammy Chung.
By then, ’Patch’ had been honoured by representation with England Youths and he was forceful in a 2017 article on this site in insisting that his Wolves and international team-mate Hazell was the first black professional player to appear for an England side and not, as some sources stated, Albion’s Laurie Cunningham.
The two Wolves lads were Three Lions under-18 colleagues as well as good mates and Martin – sufficiently highly rated in his formative years to also win England Schoolboy honours – even pointed us to the 1977 Express & Star photo-feature that hailed Hazell as the pioneer for the emerging group of black players thanks to an appearance against Wales, ironically at The Hawthorns.
Both were also members of the Wanderers side who reached the final of the 1975-76 FA Youth Cup. Alas their journey together to the so-called Little World Cup in Belgium at the end of the following season proved unsuccessful as the country failed to make it out of their group.
Patching struck a late winner at Bristol City in Wolves’ first game back in the top flight – an incredible West Country afternoon of four penalties – and played 36 games that season and 18 the one after.
“He was an outstanding talent and there wasn’t a player in that dressing room who didn’t like being in his company,” said Mel Eves. “I liked him a lot and, partly through seeing him in the press room at Watford more than once, stayed in touch with him up until around covid time.
“He could play right across midfield and score a goal, although the quality of players like Kenny Hibbitt and Steve Daley meant he often had to play wide. With his height, there was a bit of Declan Rice about him and it’s a given that he would play for those England age-group teams. He was that good so young, head and shoulders above me and others who were a bit older and he might have played so many more games if he hadn’t had his injury problems.”
Patching’s 11 entries on the score-sheet for Wolves included a winner against Newcastle, the first in a 2-1 victory over Manchester United on a day when Eves bagged the decider and the only goal away to Crystal Palace on the way to the 1979 FA Cup semi-final. He went on as sub amid that last-four disappointment at Villa Park.
The parting of the ways, though, came in late 1979 following one or two downturns in the battle to cement a regular place. Watford were then a Division Two club and not a particularly strong one at that but Patching overcame injury problems to compile a further 30 games and include a dramatic winner at home to League champions Liverpool in his Vicarage Road goal haul.
That the deciding moment of that game on the final day of 1982-83 came after the hero had announced it was his last appearance before retiring through serious knee trouble at 24 made him even more inclined to raise a glass that night. He was running The Red Lion in Berkhamstead by then as well as helping secure an unbelievable First Division runners-up finish for his club – that’s some Roy of The Rovers (Return?) story!
Readers who missed or have forgotten the contents of another Hornets story with a sting might enjoy clicking on Patching’s Revealing Insight – Wolves Heroes to remind themselves how Graham Taylor’s Watford benefitted from an inside-track scouting report before coming to Molineux and producing a shock 3-0 FA Cup round-five knockout at the expense of a side who had reached the League Cup final four nights earlier.
It stuck in Martin’s craw a little that the manager declined his request to be made captain for the day back on his old patch (pun intended). But the bond between the two was strong enough for him to be engaged in a scouting role during Taylor’s second Vicarage Road spell.
It was while home was in Hemel Hempstead that son Cauley arrived in 1994 and it would have been lovely to report that paternal guidance had helped the youngster in his own flourishing professional career.
Sadly, a subsequent split meant the two didn’t speak, the senior man joking as he proudly watched from afar (and occasionally in the flesh) as the goal total climbed in the colours of Fulham, Burton, Barnsley and Luton: “The last bit of his name must have been dropped off as it wouldn’t fit on the shirt. He was definitely Christened Cauley Woodrow Patching.”
The 29-year-old played and scored in his earlier years for England under-17s, under-20s and under-21s and, as a Luton player now under the management of Rob Edwards, will also have heard that his Uncle Keith was once invited for trials at Mansfield and Rotherham.
It was Keith who took his sibling to Rotherham for the first time and the fact the visitors for an FA Cup tie in 1968 were Wolves no doubt underpinned that first football love. Well, we are happily blessed here with an institution who have always had that ‘pull’ – just think London Wolves or the scattering of supporter organisations across Scandinavia for starters. ‘Patch’ certainly found it strong enough to draw him in long before he signed for the club in 1974.
What a contrast that surprise 1-0 Wanderers defeat at Millmoor 55 years ago was with a spectacular 2014 home win against the same opponents which, at 6-4, sounded more like a first set at Wimbledon than a Good Friday football fixture en route for League One promotion for both teams.
Wolves were then being managed by Kenny Jackett, a former Watford team-mate of Patching’s and, by coincidence, briefly a Rotherham boss a few years later.
Martin remained an occasional Millers watcher at the New York Stadium and saw Wolves there at least twice, having previously spent some years working at matches as a stats man and recorder for the Press Association.
We can’t let this tribute go by without recording how he also won his biggest battle in 2009; the fight to be announced as all clear following two major operations on a non-cancerous brain tumour considered serious enough to have left him facing the prospect of having only three months to live.
Although he somehow found the willpower and strength to participate in some long-distance runs for charity after that ordeal, we should perhaps also understand how his illness had left him determined to enjoy life with a cigarette and pint when he fancied one.
Our thanks also go to Shropshire-based photographers Terry Lake, who struck up a friendship with Martin long after his career on the touchline in the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, and David Bagnall for providing background information and this initial sad news 36 hours ago.