As their battered minibus, its rusted exhaust belching fumes, entered the German carnival city of Meinz, its passengers – nursing hangovers from the boozy bierkeller excesses of the night before – sensed something was awry.
Posters that appeared to adorn every street stirred the first feelings of unease among the rag-tag band of green-gilled Sunday footballers.
“Can you believe it!” said one, craning at a flyer through dirty windows. “That’s a bloody coincidence. Wolves are playing here today, too.”
Panic – cold and skin crawling – surfaced as the bus edged through massed ranks of chanting supporters evidently marching to the same ground where Oxbarn FC, languishing in Wolverhampton Sunday League’s seventh tier, had organised a kick-about with fellow devotees of mud and nettles pub football.
It was to be the culmination of an alcohol-drenched stag trip to celebrate the impending weddings of two Oxbarn squad members.
Loud expletives of disbelief surfaced as the dented bus pulled-up outside what the players believed would be their opponents’ park pitch. It was the 20,000 capacity Stadion an der Bleichstraße – and long ribbons of supporters were already forming outside turnstiles.
The penny dropped loudly, the thud hollow and harrowing.
Oxbarn, a team that plied their trade on Wenlock Avenue’s uneven turf, had become the unwitting victims of football’s greatest blunder; a case of mistaken identity so bizarre there were once plans to make a big screen blockbuster about the calamity.
With World Cup fever rampant, Oxbarn’s story is a strange, even surreal, example of the perils and pitfalls that lurk in football’s basement.
Oxbarn had been pitted against SVW Mainz, at the time in the Bundesliga’s top division. And the honed athletes of SVW Mainz believed the pot-bellied pilgrims of football at its most part-time were mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers, who had reached the Uefa Cup final the year before.
They even laid on a marching band and post-match civic reception.
The 1973 episode was of its time. Today – an age when social media has removed the shackles that bound overseas communication – it would not happen.
Back then, Oxbarn posted a hopeful letter to the Mayor of Mainz, an ancient city on the banks of the Rhine, enquiring if any local team fancied a game.
Manager Ronnie Parker penned the request, starting the note: “We are a team in Wolverhampton...”
The excited Mainz burgher got the wrong end of the stick, translating the communication as: “We are THE team in Wolverhampton...”
He believed the letter had been sent by Wolves and made lavish, hasty plans for a sporting extravaganza.
The result was a football David and Goliath clash like no other, but there was to be no Biblical miracle for the Oxbarn boys.
They were 10-0 down at half-time and had shipped 21 goals by the time the whistle finally blew.
“They say Germans don’t have a sense of humour,” Oxbarn full-back John Shorthouse said decades after the drubbing.
“But in the second half the crowd began breaking into ironic cheers every time we got the ball into the other half. Actually, they cheered when we made a successful pass.”
Speaking from his home in the sleepy Shropshire village of Beckbury, John – nephew of Wolves legend Bill Shorthouse – once again tasted the embarrassment of those tortuous 90 minutes. The taste was still bitter.
“They didn’t cheer much,” he said matter-of-factly. “And, to be fair, they stopped celebrating after the 14th goal.”
He had a lame excuse for Oxbarn’s performance. “It wasn’t our strongest side, some of our best players couldn’t get time off work. And we’d been on the pop the night before.”
John, who is sadly no longer with us, recalled the terror that engulfed the ill-prepared team minutes before kick-off. He said: “We just sat in silence on the bus watching all these people file into the ground.
“Then someone piped-up, ‘We’re going to have to tell them’. I told everyone to keep their mouths shut. They’d rolled out the red carpet, really gone to town.”
Within minutes – perhaps seconds – of the start, the truth became painfully apparent to SVW Mainz and their fans.
Oxbarn’s false hope that they may give their lofty opponents “a game” were mercilessly dashed.
“They didn’t ease off, they didn’t take it easy,” said John. “They had a towering forward called Adolf – seriously, Adolf – who ran rings round us. I couldn’t even get close enough to kick him. He was good.
“God knows how many he scored, but he hit the back of the net with one bullet-header from outside the box and we just watched it fly in, with ‘what the hell was that?’ expressions – even the goalkeeper.”
It all proved too much for keeper Roger Titley, who possibly required long-term medical treatment for back injuries sustained through retrieving the ball from netting.
When goal number 17 was hammered home, Roger’s gallows humour surfaced.
“We trotted back to the centre circle and realised something was missing – the ball,” John laughed. “Roger had hidden it up the back of his jumper. He was just fed-up with fishing it out of the net.
“The fans didn’t get that, they didn’t like that.”
Titley was not the only player to mentally unravel during the shambles.
“Quite a few of us didn’t want to go out for the second half and needed a lot of persuading,” said John. “They were begging us, saying, ‘you’ve got to do it’.”
The post-match reception, featuring a lot of guests in a lot of gilt civic chains, did little to restore Black Country pride.
John admitted Oxbarn players soothed the pain of the ceaseless punishment they’d received through alcohol. Lots of alcohol. Some were rolling drunk.
“Tell you what,” John winked. “We beat them at the drinking game hands down. Those Mainz players couldn’t hold their booze, probably because they were professional athletes. Mind you, one of our lads was sick on the bus.
“I remember standing swaying at a banquet table heaving with food and looking at these huge ham hocks that were piled-up.
“I was wondering if you were supposed to take the whole thing or cut pieces off. This German defender – built like an outhouse – strode over, picked up a hock, slammed it on my plate, looked me in the eye and said, ‘Eat – eat it all’. I ate it all.”
There’s a sobering footnote to the farcical football story.
Bill McGarry, firebrand manager of a Wolves side that oozed Old Gold greats such as Kenny Hibbitt, John Richards and Derek Dougan, was, reportedly, the only man who didn’t find the 21-0 loss amusing.
He allegedly raged over the result and vowed to restore Wolverhampton honour by taking his Molineux side to Mainz.
It never happened. Perhaps, again, the message became mangled.
As for Oxbarn, under John Shorthouse, who took over the managerial hot-seat, they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, learned to live with the cruel jokes and went from strength to strength, eventually gaining promotion to the Sunday league’s top division.
They also gave overseas fixtures a wide berth and took a little more care over the wording of official letters.
But they’ll be remembered as the English pub team who condemned football to coming home with a pronounced limp.