What Might Have Been

Anniversary Of A Brilliant Career Being Sadly Wrecked

Roy Swinbourne.
Roy Swinbourne.

Much though we love seeing old photographs of grounds heaving with capacity crowds, it’s tempting to look back and wonder, on this Remembrance Day, whether the club’s history might have been richer still had health and safety been a recognised concept during Wolves’ glory years.

It was 60 years ago this weekend that Roy Swinbourne chased a routine ball to the byeline in the tight confines of Kenilworth Road during a game against Luton.

The centre-forward, unusually, didn’t score that day, which proved one to forget for Stan Cullis’s men as they were trounced 5-1 after winning seven and drawing one of their previous 13 First Division matches in 1955-56.

More costly, though, than the loss of points was that of the peak-form leader of their attack with an injury that was to start his drawn-out demise towards heart-breaking early retirement.

It is hard to overestimate what a player the Yorkshireman was at the time. In a scintillating early-season burst, he had scored 17 goals in only 14 matches and rattled in hat-tricks on three successive Saturdays, with Manchester City, Cardiff and Huddersfield the teams on the receiving end. He actually bagged four in the 7-2 Molineux trouncing of City.

A first England call-up appeared to be only a matter of time away, particularly as he had also netted 18 League and Cup goals in a 1954-55 campaign in which his other entries on the score-sheet included his famous brace in the victory over Honved, a goal in the win over Spartak and yet another treble – this time versus Maccabi.

He had even scored when winning his only England B cap and was informally tipped off that a senior summons was just around the corner. Then fate delivered the cruellest of hands.

“I chased a ball to the byeline and pulled a muscle in the back of my thigh,” he recalled of the Luton game. “A lot of reports said I was sidestepping the photographers but it was actually some youngsters I was struggling to avoid because it was a full house and they were sitting by the side of the pitch.”

Anyone who has been to Kenilworth Road can only wonder what it must have been like that day with 27,911 inside. Maybe if the crowd had been only 27,700, all the kids would have been on the terracing and a brilliant career would not have been cut down in its prime.

Swinbourne was sidelined for a month before returning for the December 3 trip to Preston, where Tommy Docherty was the closest witness in his moment of even greater grief.

He continued: “When I was challenged by him, my knee twisted under me quite badly. I’m sure it was caused by my muscle not having strengthened again properly following the earlier injury.”

Both cartilage and cruciate were damaged. Recovery from such setbacks was much less routine than it now is and the initial optimism of the doctor Wolves had with them at Deepdale proved overly positive.

Sadly, Swinbourne did not play again despite three operations and announced his retirement at the age of 27. He was little over three months past his 26th birthday when, as a one-club man, he played the last of his 230 League and Cup games.

The fact that he scored 114 goals in those appearances, which, remember, don’t include floodlit friendlies, demonstrates what an awesome force he was.

Roy chewing the fat in a social setting with Blly Wright and Bill Shorthouse.
Roy chewing the fat in a social setting with Blly Wright and Bill Shorthouse.

Okay, Roy received a League Championship winners’ medal in 1953-54 and had some pretty handy rivals for a place with the likes of Jimmy Murray and Dennis Wilshaw.

But is it beyond the realms of possibility to think that the Molineux trophy cabinet might have been better stocked still had fortune not smiled on their much-feared no 9.

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