By David Instone
“I want to go on that pitch today. If I haven’t had the chance and we’re into the last few minutes, I need one of you lot to go down, even if you are not injured.”
So said Paul Darby to Floyd Streete and Gary Bellamy in the build-up to the 1988 Sherpa Van Trophy final.
As it turned out, the long-serving physio had it anything but easy as a serious ankle injury to Mick Holmes and a lesser knee problem for skipper Alistair Robertson kept him honest during Wolves’ meeting with Fourth Division rivals Burnley.
The day was one of the highlights of a Molineux backroom career of seven and a half years that contained two title successes, Wembley joy and the spectacular Sir Jack Hayward overhaul of a tumbledown stadium.
But football provided only part of the story of a man whose life we have been celebrating after it was cut short a month ago at the age of 66. There was a lot to it…..golf, music, years in retail, skiing, fishing, wine. The fact that he knew plenty about quite a bit helped see to it that he did much and travelled far.
Oxley-born Stephen Paul Darby – his second name took over in childhood because his mother disliked his first one being shortened to Steve – was a lifelong Wolves fan who moved with his parents to Great Wyrley as a youngster and served as a prefect at school.
A district and county level footballer, he obtained early employment in sales – initially of weighing scales and then of sofas in Beatties until finding that his colour blindness was something of a hindrance in dispensing advice on home furnishing.
He switched to the sports department of the town’s most familiar department store and was making strides in football at the same time, progressing to the position of manager at Chasetown (twice) and Shifnal.
He was a qualified FA coach when summoned to Wolves into his ‘dream job’ in the autumn of 1986 by Graham Turner, who had known him through Shropshire FA circles. He was actually on a coaching course at Lilleshall when he bailed out to be present at the birth of his son, Mark.
Work alongside his long-time friend Mick Rowe in the club’s Centres of Excellence and with the junior teams was included among his Molineux duties but Darby was mainly seen as the trusted healing hands there until Graham Taylor’s new broom swept clean in spring, 1994.
His achievements were considerable. How many games and goals fewer might Steve Bull have had against his name had it not been for the medical expertise of a man who, with Barry Powell, even served as the striker’s first agent? At the opposite end of the pitch, Mike Stowell would have missed out on his one England call-up but for him while countless other players had reasons for huge gratitude.
Keith Downing and Paul Cook were each rescued in so-called tongue-swallowing incidents, one in a game at Plymouth, the other at Molineux, and Andy Mutch once had his facial features returned to the right place in the blink of an eye. Worrying that Bully’s goal partner would turn pale if he saw how his dislocated nose had been spread sideways by a robust defender, Darby first ordered the Molineux mirrors to be covered over and then used the half-time interval to do the straightening-out before any protests could begin!
More than once, Turner despatched his longest dug-out colleague to scout future opponents or possible player targets and it was a reluctance to work only on treatment, rehabilitation and conditioning that prompted Paul to turn down an approach to join Liverpool’s medical department.
He was described at his civil funeral service on Friday as someone who loved to help others and no-one had a more graphic illustration of that trait than Mike Stowell. The keeper’s call-up for a mid-season England B trip to Algeria in 1990 was in danger of turning sour thanks to snow drifts around his home near Wheaton Aston until Darby arranged for two local farmers to crank up their tractor and tow him to the more accessible main roads.
Turner and his inner circle enjoyed an international trip of their own when travelling to the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and also saw several of Bully’s other England appearances closer to home.
My own impression of Darby, who was very much part of that trusted group, was how calm he always seemed to remain in his maelstrom of a job, whether we met in that corridor under the old Waterloo Road Stand or outside an unfamiliar dressing room on away days.
Bully called him a ‘legend of a man’ and was pleased to see that the sizeable gathering at Telford Crematorium also included Mick Rowe, late-1980s skipper Ally Robertson and Wolves’ goalkeeper coach from the same era, Peter Williams.
Elsewhere in the gathering were Claire Peters and Sarah Egerton, two utterly devoted members of Wolves’ administrative staff whose service began in the ‘old’ Molineux well over 30 years ago.
The golf world was represented and Paul would have loved the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews this weekend, having switched sports to great effect in the mid-1990s.
Ian Woosnam name-checked him for his off-course work with him following one tournament victory and Wolves fanatic Peter Baker and Birmingham-based Alison Nicholas are two others who frequently benefitted from his expertise.
He was ahead of his time in nutritional and conditioning advice and, as well as spending substantial spells in Spain and America, he ran a full-time golf academy in Staffordshire.
I visited him once at the St Thomas Priory Club near Rugeley and had a mid-winter coffee with him around the same time at South Staffs in Tettenhall, both meetings focusing on our collaboration on a possible book by him about his adopted sport.
Alas, despite the fact he himself was a single-figure-handicap player, the idea ran out of steam years ago – something that won’t surprise his family and friends. “He had fingers in a lot of pies,” said civil celebrant Clare Maceachen during the funeral service.
Try these…..at different times and maybe sometimes overlapping, he was asked to head up a 12-week golf TV programme filmed in Dubai, he managed the Elysium wellness clinic in Albrighton and, in recent years, had a gift shop in Ironbridge and ran a physiotherapy establishment back in Albrighton.
Hobby-wise, he loved fly fishing, became a proficient skier, loved holidaying in south west France, had shares in a vineyard, strummed away on his collection of guitars and included two Eagles gigs on his list of concerts and festivals attended.
“It was a rich and varied life,” added Mrs Maceachen, who went on to inform us he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August, 2020 and been in and out of hospital as well as undergoing chemotherapy. He had a cottage in Coalbrookdale as his last residence, having also lived in Badger, Newport and Albrighton in recent years.
The father-of-two, who married in 1979, became a father in 1984 and again in 1989 and divorced in the mid-1990s, was admitted to Severn Hospice in June and passed away on the 21st. He also had two grandchildren and is survived as well by his partner Carol, his sister Gail and brother-in-law Ian Carvey, who read a poem during the service.
They all had a close-up view of a life lived absolutely to the full.