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Proud day tinged for Wolves hero

Sport | Published:

Thirty-five years ago birthday boy Gary Pierce earned his place in Wolves folklore to help Bill McGarry's side to League Cup glory at Wembley.

But one of the proudest days of his life is also tinged by loss.

Pierce auctioned off the red goalkeeping jersey he wore with such distinction at Wembley to the Royal School for the Deaf a few years ago.

The father-of-five's Wolverhampton born and bred daughter Vicky – 33 yesterday – is profoundly deaf and the £3,500 raised went to pay for care.

Pierce said: "I've still got my tankard though. I never found out why I wore red. I was just relieved to see it hanging on my peg in the dressing room!"

Twenty three on the day of the final, Pierce was every reporter's dream on that famous day on 2 March 1974. Bizarrely, he only watched the 2-1 victory against Manchester City for the first time last week.

Picked to replace Phil Parkes, who had broken his ankle, understudy Pierce was the hero as he thwarted the favourites.

He pulled off numerous saves to deny City's star-studded forward line of Mike Summerbee, Colin Bell, Francis Lee, Denis Law and Rodney Marsh.

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But the modest Lancastrian, later a Barnsley team-mate of current Wolves boss Mick McCarthy, reckons he was just lucky.

He said: "I fell down and the ball hit me! Frank Munro always used to say 'keep the ball away from Piercey and we'll be alright!'

"But, having watched it (DVD), the save from Marsh was probably the best of my career. I could have backheeled the one out from Franny Lee! Mind you, watching it now, Derek Parkin would have been sent off three times in today's game for tackles on Mike Summerbee early on!"

Signed the previous summer from Huddersfield, Pierce was only playing his 12th game for Wolves at Wembley.

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But he revealed the more senior players gradually got him prepared for the rigours of what lay ahead.

He said: "I remember we played Everton away and lost 2-1. I wasn't the best shot-stopper but my strongest asset was coming for crosses.

"I failed to come for one and they should've scored and Frank Munro gave me a right rollicking. Then I went for the next one, missed it and it was headed in.

"But Mike Bailey turned round and said 'well done' for coming for the cross, even though it ended in a goal.

"I think both Lofty (Parkes) and the gaffer knew he wasn't going to be fit for a while beforehand. But they kept it away from me.

"Eventually, Bill (McGarry) pulled me after training on the Thursday at 2pm on the beach at Worthing, where we were preparing for the final.

"I always remember I was wearing my Rupert Bear flared trousers! After that we trained on a bowling green in pumps to get us used to the Wembley surface and me used to the bounce."

While he had been nurtured to ease pre-match nerves, the tension got to more than one familiar senior player.

Pierce recalls: "Dave Wagstaffe was known as The Embassy Kid for always having a cigarette just before a game, but I always used to room with big Frank (Munro) and we must have had 40 fags between us the night before the final!"

"The following morning he said he thought we were going to lose 3-0. They allowed reporters to interview us in our rooms for 10 minutes and I think it was the only time we had breakfast in bed.

"There are two things I'll always remember about the final. I'll never forget going up Wembley Way – all you could see was gold and black everywhere.

"It brought it home to us how much it meant to the fans. But it was too much for one player. You couldn't talk to Waggy.

"He'd played 500 games and he was just full of nerves. "Then when we walked out of the tunnel and before we were introduced to the Duke of Kent, I noticed the crowd were singing happy birthday to me.

"I was still scared to death. After 15 minutes I punched a cross clear and it didn't go very far but big Frank turned to me and said 'keep coming' (for the ball). I settled into it.

"But so many players did so well that day – Mike Bailey played with a broken toe and was superb, John Richards hadn't done anything for weeks because of his pelvic problem.

"Yet that pass from Mike to Alan Sunderland and John's finish were outstanding.

"When we did come under the cosh, our two big central defenders (Munro and John McAlle) came to the fore."

Along with his former team-mates, Pierce has always been struck by the humility shown by the man he replaced in the final.

He said: "It must have been heartbreaking for Phil Parkes, but I've never known such a gentleman as Lofty.

"He gave me a big hug after the game and he was always upbeat with me.

"I think there was a mutual respect. He'd kept goal right through to the UEFA Cup final, then the following season he never conceded a goal in the FA Cup run until Billy Bremner scored in the semi-final, so I felt really privileged to be there."

Earnings in the 1970s were a far cry from today's telephone number salaries – Pierce signed for Huddersfield from Mossley in 1970 on £27.50 a week – but with a £40 win bonus!

The decade was also a more primitive age for footballing superstars – but players were less restrained off the pitch.

Pierce recalled one night when he, Parkes and Jim McCalliog were drinking in The Vine pub in Fordhouses when they "kidnapped" Wagstaffe – complete with slippers – in the boot of their car, taking him to Birmingham drinking after he'd only popped out to the shops.

To go with the Rupert Bear flares came the Orange VW Beetle that Wolves players of the day were given as sponsored cars. There was only one snag for Pierce though.

He said: "I couldn't drive, but I soon learned. The only trouble was whenever we went to a pub we had to park about four miles away so we weren't seen because the Beetles – we called them Love Bugs – had Wolves plastered down the side!"

After playing with McCarthy at Barnsley and a spell at Blackpool, Pierce retired from League football in 1983 to begin a trawl of Lancashire's Non-League circuit.

He started as a player with Wolves' future FA Cup opponents Chorley and then combined managing sides including Accrington Stanley, Congleton, Rossendale and Kendal with pioneering the first Football in the Community schools at Bolton, Bury and Rochdale in the late 1980s.

Still involved in football now, he coaches Bury's under-12 side twice a week and does his own private goalkeeping coaching.

But Pierce, who played 111 games for Wolves, is still remembered for his moment of glory.

He said: "I drink in a pub that's mainly (Manchester) City fans – the Church Inn in Bury – and recently they put the DVD of the final on."They were all saying 'that was the only game you ever played.'

"But what a game."

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