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Wolverhampton Wanderers: the unsung hero

By Dan Wheeler



Wolverhampton Wanderers central defender Ron Flowers in training, circa 1960
Wolverhampton Wanderers central defender Ron Flowers in training, circa 1960

The iron gate to the field swings open arthritically, the piercing welcome from its hinges drowned out by a battering wind. It is cold and rain is definitely in the air. It is a typical autumnal afternoon in Yorkshire. A typical Mark Crook afternoon.

“I can see my father. He’s stood on the top pitch on the halfway line, shouting. He’s wearing a thick three-quarter-length coat, a flat cap and he's using his stick as a pointer.”

Peter Crook is standing with his sister Mary trading memories about the man who helped Wolverhampton Wanderers rule English football. “I can see so many players and so much ability,” Peter says. Mary nods. “He had an instinct. He could watch a young man play on the field and seemed to know whether he would make it or not.”

This is Cortonwood in the town of Wath. This is the nursery where Mark Crook educated his fledglings. This is all that remains of his legacy. The pavilion at the top of the field provides an appropriate microcosm of his memory: boarded up; daubed with graffiti; forgotten.

Chances are the mention of Mark Crook’s name would draw unanimous, blank looks among West Midlands football fans.

But what about Ron Flowers, Roy Swinbourne, Peter Knowles, Bob Hatton, and Alan Sunderland? They all played for Wolves thanks to Mark Crook. But you will not find his picture on the wall or in the museum at Molineux. On initial reflection, his anonymity is perhaps understandable.

Although a player at Molineux between 1929 and 1934, Mark Crook did not possess the talent that brands the memory but the players he discovered in thirty years working as a scout for Wolves certainly did and would leave such indelible impressions. A mining lad who successfully swapped the pits for the pitch, Mark retired from playing just after the war following a spell with Luton.

He returned to Yorkshire, opened up a fish and chip shop and soon turned his attention to scouting. Two nursery sides were set up, Wolves Juniors (for boys under seventeen) and Wath Wanderers (for those seventeen and older).

Mark’s principal scouting system tapped the rich seams of talent that ran through Sheffield, Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham with a wider network enveloping the North-east from Hull to Newcastle.

We are inside now, having walked the two hundred yards from the training ground to the Crook family home. The central heating is on and the kettle boiling. Much more comfortable and the memories much more confident in announcing themselves.

“Wolverhampton Wanderers meant a very great deal to him,” Mary confirmed. “Sometimes, his family came second but we accepted that that was Dad, that was what he did and that it was part of him. He told me it was more like a disease than a hobby. He was his own accountant, driver, trainer and booked all the accommodation and travel arrangements.”

So how did Mark Crook find players and what did he look for? A smile of recognition breaks out on Peter’s face. “I once went to Doncaster with him and he’d just walk on to the field, have a look round and say, there’s nothing for us here, let’s go. “He liked direct and skilful players but he couldn’t stand anyone who didn’t like to get stuck in.”

No nonsense, then. Mary unravels her father’s philosophy further. “He said speed and skill could be taught but not the feeling inside that makes someone a football player. He hadn’t to be very long with a youth before he had his character taped.”

Ron Flowers and Bob Hatton, two graduates of the Wath school of excellence, are united in their belief that their lives were changed by this instinct. For Flowers, it was in 1950 when he was going nowhere at Doncaster Rovers. “They were cruel days, really” he recalls. “As a fifteen-year-old playing for local clubs against miners wearing pit boots instead of football boots, it really toughened you up. I had the opportunity to play for Mark Crook with the Wolves Juniors at Wath. They had an intermediate league playing top clubs like Newcastle, Sunderland, Sheffield and Barnsley against boys your own age. Doncaster didn’t have that and my progress wasn’t getting very far because I wasn’t playing in the first team.”

Hatton was similarly plucked from obscurity in 1962. Six months out with a bout of peritonitis looked like permanently stalling his career but, not long after returning to action for his local side, he got a knock at his door.

He remembers it thus. “Jack Symonds, who worked for Mark Crook in the Hull area, came to see me and asked if I wanted to play for Wath Wanderers. I knew they played in the intermediate league and jumped at it with both hands. They made you feel important. One minute I was working in a bakery, the next being driven around thinking about what it would be like if we made it. It was a great incentive.”

Flowers remembers being similarly impressed by the set-up. “I just thought “hello? What’s happening to me?” We played on all the top pitches at St James” Park, Roker Park, Millmoor and Oakwell. It was like playing for the Wolves first team. The kit was immaculate.”

Peter and Mary continue to effuse, faces like children on Christmas morning. “The players stayed with miners” widows or with families of friends. I gave my bed up once,” Mary says. She helped with the admin; Peter the chauffeuring.

It was then that Bob Hatton’s grateful tribute came echoing back. “We looked forward to Friday nights, having a super meal put in front of us and preparing ourselves for the game the next day. Mark got the details just right and he knew how to look after us.”

Playing for Wath was just the initial step for the boys and their nascent skills but it was not long before the youngsters began to express themselves. Ron Flowers” chance came quickly.

“Mark had already come round and told us that Mr [Stan] Cullis [the Wolves manager] was coming up to see us and told us to be on our best. After the match, Mark came to see me and my father and said Mr Cullis had offered me a trial,” Flowers says. “It was at the Butler’s Brewery ground in Wolverhampton and after the game he offered me a contract. It was for pounds 7 in the playing season and pounds 6 for the close season.

“Mark said, ‘Bloody hell! Tha’ not turning that down are tha’?’. It was just before my 17th birthday. I was on cloud nine. Here I was, a little lad from a mining village with no real experience of life, never had any luxuries and all of a sudden I was joining the No 1 club in England and it was first-class all the way.”

Hatton had to be a little more patient. Like Flowers, who was converted from inside-forward to wing-half by Mark Crook, Hatton found himself hauled off his favoured wing for a more central role. Hatton says: “Mark thought I could be a striker, which was something I never envisaged, but he was insistent and, although I was pretty hopeless to start with, he kept on encouraging me and I started to score the odd goal.

“After a while, he told me that the youth team at Molineux needed a striker but he wanted me to go down there with a reputation and some goals under my belt. He wanted me to feel confident, which I wasn’t, but he kept telling me and telling me I was getting better. It was incredible because, for some reason, as soon as I got to Wolves the goals started to go in and, after three weeks of travelling down, I was offered a contract. I was so nervous I couldn’t hold the pen but it was a wonderful feeling.”

Ron Flowers and Bob Hatton went on to achieve their ambitions. Flowers captained England, winning 49 caps, and is considered one of Wolves” greatest players.

Together with Roy Swinbourne, who came down from Wath in 1944, he formed a pivotal part in a side that dominated the game for more than a decade – winning three league titles, two FA Cups (narrowly missing the double in 1960) as well as thrilling thousands in those heady, pioneering nights under the floodlights at Molineux when Europe’s finest, including Spartak Moscow and Honved, lost. The team of that era will be remembered as one of the most influential in history.

Hatton’s impact at Wolves was brief but significant. He scored on his Cup and League debuts and accrued an impressive record of eight goals in eleven games. However, he was not always a regular - a situation that forever clashed with his ambition.

Like his start at Wath, patience would again have to be Hatton’s most prominent virtue. It was not until he moved to Birmingham City in 1971 that he fully blossomed, banging in more than 70 goals in four seasons as part of arguably the best Blues side of modern times alongside the Latchfords, Gordon Taylor and a burgeoning Trevor Francis.

I knew about Flowers, Swinbourne, Hatton, and Knowles coming from Wath. I knew that it was a path taken by Jack Short, Steve Daley, and Alan Sunderland too. But what about those that slipped through the net? With opinion and subjectivity driving the game, there must have been inevitable losses for every gain. Peter”s brow furrows.

“I remember Mr Cullis coming up to me and saying “this player won”t do”. Alan Ball, he”s not good enough - my father didn’t like his players to be rejected.” Mary, too, was aware of the conflict that occasionally arose between the pair. I don’t think Dad and Stan Cullis were on the same wavelength. Dad became resigned to losing players but always tried his best to make sure they went on and had careers elsewhere.”

So Alan Ball could have played for Wolves. Peter continues: “Quite often, he”d go Newcastle way and he saw the Charltons, y”know, Jack and Bob. He thought they were great players What? Your father discovered the Charlton brothers? Well, if not discovered, then spotted. Yes, he saw them playing for local teams and went back to see them two or three times,” Mary confirms.

Bobby and Jackie Charlton could have played for Wolves? How come they didn’t? “Well, Spud Murphy [Manchester United manager] was prepared to offer them money and my father and Wolves wouldn’t entertain that but, yes, they could’ve been Wolves players.”

Peter’s tones are tinged with exasperation, even after all these years. Adding Messrs Ball and the Charltons to Wath’s alumni would have undoubtedly brought added glamour to Mark Crook’s CV but losing them should not detract from the radical impact he did have on Wolverhampton Wanderers.

While it would be a little myopic to suggest the success of the ‘50s would not have been achieved without Flowers and Swinbourne, their importance to that side cannot be overlooked.

Club historian John Hendley said: “It would’ve had a significant effect [to lose them]. The two were major influences. Flowers was one of the best and Swinbourne was a terrific goalscorer.”

A measure of the stature of any legacy is how deeply and far it runs and Mark Crook’s fingerprints cake memories like ivy over a wall. Alan Sunderland, part of Wolves’ League Cup triumph in 1974, wrote himself into Arsenal folklore in winning championships and two FA Cups in 1978 and 1979.

The man who won the League Cup for Wolves in 1980, Andy Gray, would probably never have played for the club had it not been for Wath Wanderers, as his then-record 1.5 million pounds fee was covered by the sale of Steve Daley to Manchester City.

Daley’s transfer money was not the only windfall put to good use, either. The cash from Bob Hatton’s move to Bolton in 1967 helped to finance the deal that brought Derek Dougan to Molineux - and he did rather well.

So why had Mark Crook’s story so far been left untold? Crucially, Mark did not have anyone to hand affairs over to when his deteriorating health ended his scouting in the mid-1970s. With no ascending apprentice, Wath Wanderers slipped into extinction shortly before Mark’s death in 1977.

That, coupled with no photographic evidence of life at Wath, ensured his efforts never made the history books.

But they are not irretrievably lost. John Hendley, acutely aware of Mark Crook’s importance to Wolves and to recognising his efforts, said: “Certainly, all Wolves fans should be grateful for his work and if you talk to anyone who watched Wolves in the ‘50s and ‘60s and saw the likes of Flowers, Swinbourne, Knowles and Hatton, they would echo that sentiment.”

Mark Crook’s lads are equally adamant. Flowers said: “He never had the adulation he should’ve had and I’m disappointed. In those days he did as much for Wolves as Stan Cullis, and that’s saying something. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for to Mark.”

Bob Hatton concurs, saying: “The records should show he was instrumental in bringing some top players to the club. He made a fantastic contribution, one that should never be forgotten.”

It will not be, with Wolves keen to right the oversight. Hendley said: “He does, without doubt, deserve something and maybe we can get a picture of Mark and some of the players he brought down here. He was a major influence in Wolves’ history and deserves any accolade we can give him.”

It is time to leave but I wanted to save the best news until last. But before I told them, I wanted to know what it would mean to the family to have Mark finally remembered. Peter’s eyes glisten, lids fighting to contain the tears. They cannot.

“I feel so emotional about what my Dad did - all those players he found,” Peter says. “He was an exceptional gentleman. I think he’d be very proud if he got any recognition but he’d take it in his stride.”

There soon will be a tribute in the museum at Molineux and when it is in place Mark Crook will be home again. And dare say they will be a smile, too, somewhere underneath that flat cap and overcoat prowling the touch lines of Cortonwood.