The Making Of John Richards

Fascinating New Slant On Master Marksman’s Journey To Wolverhampton

Charles Bamforth, who loves nothing more than to dive into the dusty Molineux archives, unearths new information on John Richards’s emergence as a potential star – and identifies a figure to whom a debt of gratitude was due.

Haydn Hill….a man we should remember with great fondness.

The 1936 Olympics in Berlin will always be remembered for the magnificent success of the American, Jesse Owens, in the face of the evils of Hitler and the Nazi movement.

For Derbyshire man Haydn Hill, though, it was his opportunity to represent Great Britain in the football tournament at the Games in the days when the players were strictly unpaid.
 
The country did not finish in the medal placings, with gold going to Italy, silver to Austria and bronze to Poland.
 
It is clear, however, that Hill was an accomplished goalkeeper, who not only played for prestigious amateur clubs Corinthian, Yorkshire Amateur and Dulwich Hamlet, with whom he won an FA Amateur Cup winners’ medal in 1937, but was also good enough to appear in four first-team games for Sheffield Wednesday in 1934-35 and 1935-36.
 
He also played for England’s amateur team eight times between 1935 and 1938. Oh, and he played for Dorset in Minor Counties cricket between 1948 and 1953.
 
All very impressive but why should we be interested in Haydn Hill, who died aged 79 in 1992? For one important reason: it was an idea by him and Gordon Jephcote in 1964 that ultimately led to John Richards joining Wolves.
 
At that time, Hill was senior mathematics master at Weymouth Grammar School. Jephcote was a PE master at Chesterfield Grammar School. They were concerned about sports snobbery in schools, in particular the tendency of grammar schools to insist upon rugby union being played at the expense of football.
 
Hill was chairman of a new organisation, the National Grammar Schools FA, and he was quoted as saying: “We aim to plug the gap between the 15-year-old and the 18-year-old. So many of these lads are lost to association football. I believe that football today is a worthwhile occupation for the grammar schoolboy. Football needs them. What we must do is guard against them losing their opportunities in education.”
 
Thus was launched the annual Festival of Soccer at Bognor Regis, the first staging coming in April, 1965. Within a few years, the name John Richards emerged by this route to surely become the greatest success story for the scheme.
 
John had loved football from a very young age in his native Warrington but had really given no thought to it as a career until being spotted for Wolves by Tony Penman in Bognor Regis as part of the Lancashire team.
 
“At the age of eight, I was desperate to play for the school team (Orford Junior School – later to become St Margaret’s Church of England Junior School), so I volunteered to go in goal as none of the other lads wanted to play there,” Richards said.
 
“If I recall, we lost our first game 6-0, so it wasn’t an auspicious start! The teacher in charge clearly realised that goalkeeping was not my forte, so when the opportunity arose, I was given the right-back position.
 
“The following season, I was moved to right-half and, in my last year at the school, I was inside-right and captain. I was also selected for the Warrington Juniors town team and captained the under-11s.
 
Steve Kindon, watched by John McAlle and Jim McCalliog, sets off towards the Crystal Palace goal at Selhurst Park.

“Steve Kindon was also in that team, as a left-winger. He and I were also selected for Warrington Juniors rugby league team – he was left-wing and I was right-wing.

“I went on to captain the Boteler Grammar School team and also St. Benedict’s Youth team. Boteler Grammar was a football-playing school. We didn’t play rugby union.
 
“We played against other grammar schools in South Lancashire/Cheshire, such as Sale, William Hulme, Lymm.  Locally, we also competed in the Warrington Schools Cup against other secondary schools.
 
“Steve chose to go to a different grammar school (Wade Deacon in Widnes) so he could continue playing rugby, although it was now rugby union for him.
 
“I played for Lancashire Grammar Schoolboys. My only memories are of playing in the tournament at Bognor Regis. I’m fairly certain we didn’t play any other games as a county team.
 
“The side were chosen after several trials to which the Boteler sports master (Richard ‘Dickie’ Stobbs) drove
several of us. One of the Lancashire centre-halves, from Liverpool, was John Lacy.”
 
Lacy became a student at the London School of Economics and was part of the London Universities side
coached by George Cohen. In due course, he joined Fulham and later Tottenham.
 
Richards’s progress took a different path. He did so well at Bognor that he was selected for the England Grammar Schools side in 1968-69.
 
“We played Wales at Reading and beat them 7-1, when I scored two. Then we played Scotland at Ibrox and lost 1-0.”
 
The England side against Wales read: S.K. Adlard (Lincolnshire), P.W. Dolby (Yorkshire), M. Hoban (Staffordshire), D. Shirley (Surrey), R. Graham (Northumberland), E.W. Salkeld (Yorkshire), H.G. Alexander (London), M. Spelman (Northumberland), K. Fear (Bristol), J.P. Richards (Lancashire), D. Watts (Leicestershire).
 
For the Scotland game, Fear was replaced by D. Raynor of Northumberland and Watts by Lancashire’s H. Smith. Doug Devlin, who would join Wolves, was in the Scotland side.
 
The young John Richards as Wolves fans first got to know him.

Of those players, only two, other than Richards, had a substantial career in the game. The first was Keith Fear, who is particularly remembered as a bearded Bristol City and Plymouth striker. The other we will get to a little later….

John Richards was now very much in the public eye but did he ever envisage becoming a professional footballer?
 
“I had never given it a thought,” he added. “Most players were signed up at 16, so it was not a consideration. I had had an interview at Chester Teacher Training College and was offered a place; I was going to do PE and maths.
 
“The college agreed to hold the offer open for 12 months once I had been given a 12-month contract by Wolves.”
 
As we all know, that contract was extended at Molineux and John Richards became one of the great Wolverhampton Wanderers goalscorers.
 
Had Haydn Hill and Gordon Jephcote not indirectly laid the opportunity before him, we can assume Richads would have played his football as a non-Leaguer in more humble and local surroundings.
 
As a schoolboy, he somehow also managed to fit in playing for Rylands Recreation in the Mid-Cheshire League. The club are known these days as Warrington Rylands and play in the top division of the Northern Premier League.
 
“We had some good players who looked after me,” he recalls. “I used to play on the right wing and was up against
some very seasoned older players – that taught me how to dodge heavy tackles!”
 
Let us take another look, however, at that England team who thrashed Wales. There at no 8 was a lad who, with different luck, could also have made it at Molineux.
 
In December 1968, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle wrote about the St Cuthbert’s Grammar School 18-year-old, Michael Spelman. He was torn between a career in law and one in professional football. He is quoted in the paper in relation to an ill-judged decision from 18 months earlier.
“I signed for Blackpool on a schools form as my father, who played for Leeds and Spurs, thought it would cool off the continuous spotting by League scouts,” he is reported to have said. “But I have seen very little of Blackpool.”
 
Spelman had recently joined prominent amateur club Whitley Bay and, as we have seen, was successfully in the frame for international recognition. In fact, the Reading Evening Post declared him the man of the match in that 7-1 thrashing of Wales. He scored the fifth and last goals, the first directly from a corner.
 
Quite how the Blackpool situation was rectified is unknown but, in November, 1969, Spelman signed a professional contract at Molineux. He had first come down in the September to play a couple of games for the reserves in the Central League and obviously did enough to earn a deal.
 
Those games were at Manchester United and Liverpool in the space of three days. The Wolves team who drew 2-2 at Old Trafford read: Alan Boswell, Gerry Taylor, Jim McVeigh, Kenny Hibbitt, David Woodfield, David Galvin, John Farrington, Mick Spelman, John Richards, Jimmy Seal (1), Bertie Lutton (1). The substitute was David Molyneux, who, in passing, we might note came from a mile or two up the road from Richards, in St Helens.
 
Spelman would play 19 times, plus four as substitute, in the second team that season, scoring just the once (in a 3-0 victory over Coventry). You can work out who scored the other two!
 
The following season was not as bright for Spelman, who played only seven Central League games, with a further three as sub, and netted another goal. His very last game was as substitute in a 1-1 draw at Everton on April 3, 1971.
 
A sign of the speed at which the personnel can change in football is provided by the starting 11 that day: John Oldfield, Gerry Taylor, John Rutter (another Warrington lad), Doug Devlin, John Holsgrove, David Woodfield, Alan Sunderland, Danny Hegan, Peter Eastoe, Paul Walker (1), Steve Daley.
Matured and already banging the goals in at first-team level….

That afternoon, Wolves thrashed Nottingham Forest 4-0 at Molineux at first-team level. Hughie Curran scored three and Bobby Gould one – all watched with doubtless admiration by the unused sub, John Richards.

Michael Spelman’s stint at the club ended with a free transfer. He joined Watford in August, 1971, but never made the Hornets’ first team.
 
Three months later, he impressed in a trial for Hartlepool and went on to have a five-year career there of some 120 senior appearances and four goals before a short loan spell with Darlington; a rugged existence in the old Fourth Division, then. How fortunes can change!
 
“Mick and I were very good pals at Wolves” says John Richards. “After our first year there, when we were in separate digs, we rented a house together in Bushbury which we shared with another young player, Mick Kent. We were in it for two years until Wolves released Mick. Alas, we didn’t keep in touch.”

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