Dave Wagstaffe – a true football great

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There are some footballers who just have it, who capture that part of us which will forever be child-like in our appreciation, who give the beautiful game the wonder which captures our hearts writes Martin Swain.

Dave Wagstaffe was one of those men. He was not Wolves' most successful player. Waggy won a promotion, a League Cup, and a runners-up medal from the now defunct UEFA Cup.

Nor could we say he was the club's greatest, not with a cast-list of such celebrated figures who piled up championships and international caps.

But Waggy was that little bit special; a footballer who for a generation of fans – and not necessarily just of gold and black persuasion – brought the promise of something exciting, something different and magical to their Saturday afternoons.

He was right for the times, of course. The Christmas of 1964 brought him to Molineux and 'I Feel Fine' was No.1 to provide a fitting signature launch to a Wolves career perfectly tailored to the changing mood of a nation caught up in the excitement of that decade.

He was a maverick, a scamp, a bit of old-fashioned working class kid of the street realising that the old days of deference were coming to an end. Even Bill McGarry, a manager he disliked and who evoked the same sternness that Stan Cullis brought to Molineux's corridors, turned a blind eye to Waggy's infamous fag in the toilets just before kick-off and usually at half time.

But perhaps the spirit and magic of Dave Wagstaffe is best captured in the recollections last night from a pal who spent his formative years in wide-eyed wonder at the winger who could send the North Bank the wrong way with one drop of his shoulder.

Recalling his debut against Aston Villa, he said: "Of course, this was in the days before Twitter or Facebook had even been thought of never mind invented and we turned up at Molineux on Boxing Day for the Villa game when they announced over the Tannoy: 'And at No.11 today, a change from the programme for Wolves, Dave Wagstaffe.'

"I can still hear the murmur that went round the ground. You can't imagine it now but that was the first we heard about it. I think they had only signed him that morning.


"I remember it so well because it would be the day one great Wolves career ended – Peter Broadbent played his last game – and another began. Because Waggy stepped out and held us spellbound that day and for the next 10 years. The pitch was frosty and hard as you can imagine but what balance – and his left foot was just magical. Mystical. Such a left foot. 'Wagstaffe – Dougan – Richards – goal!' We seemed to hear that all the time over the next 10 years.

"He used to get some terrible stick from defenders, so much so that the old chairman John Ireland even made a public appeal to referees for protection. But he never complained. He took it as part of the game. I'll always remember Dougan describing very accurately how Waggy would take a corner, with that shoulder hunched into position to control his delivery. It was, he said, just like watching Jonny Wilkinson take his penalties all those years later and he was right. Wonderful player. Just a wonderful player who lit up our lives. I don't think we could ever thank him enough for those memories."

It wasn't all sweetness and light; not a bit of it. For all the rosy glow of hindsight which his debut inspired, Wolves lost 1-0 that day and Wagstaffe's arrival from his home club Manchester City for a far-from-modest £30,000 coincided with the end of the Cullis era.

His finest performance, many reckoned, came in that away leg of the 1972 UEFA Cup final when that faultless left foot gave Wolves hope of overturning the decisive defeat in the home leg against Spurs with a quite stunning goal. Bill Nicholson, the double-winning legendary Tottenham manager, admitted afterwards the better team had lost and that Waggy had frightened the life out of him.


And there were the escapades and stories to go with his vibrant football, of course, vividly captured by the man himself in his autobiography 'Waggy's Tales.' Remember that summer tour to the States where the team played as 'Los Angeles Wolves' in a mini-season and word came back that the left winger was quitting the game to become – of all things – road manager to The Monkees?

It wasn't that far from truth either as the American pop band's lead singer, Dave Jones, was a schoolboy friend from Waggy's Manchester upbringing and the Wolves footballer was half tempted with a rock star lifestyle. Of course he was. But thankfully, he stayed to illuminate the first half of the Seventies before drifting into a retirement that, shorn of the millionaire's pile a player of his calibre would earn today, took him back to his own folk.

He ran a hotel in Blackpool, returned to this city to run pubs in Bushbury and Castlecroft and, naturally, Waggy's Bar at Molineux. He popped up running bars on caravan sites, managed Hednesford's ex-Serviceman's club, drove overnight for Kodak and ran a Ladbrokes branch at Fordhouses. These were humble postings for such a luxury talent but then Wagstaffe was a simple soul at heart, an allotment-loving man who on turning up at his great mate Dougan's house to find his garden overgrown, promptly spent the afternoon clearing it.

His final appearance at Molineux was to receive his induction to the club's Hall of Fame. As a member of the committee charged with the task of nominations, I won't be alone in thanking providence we got to him in the nick of time.

It was clear from that evening's reception just how cherished he is and always will be in the hearts and minds of Wolves fans. There was a genuine love for the old winger in the room as his teammates lined up to spill out their affectionate tributes.

Now Wolves have laid open their club's official Facebook and Twitter sites for supporters to leave their own testimonials. They may not have been around to trumpet his signing on that cold Boxing Day all those years ago.

But I'll wager his name will be all over the networks for the next few days.

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