Johnny Phillips' Bitten By Wolves: When Wolves handed out contracts on BBC One...

In the first part of the Express & Star’s serialisation of Johnny Phillips’ new book Bitten By Wolves: Stories From The Soul Of Molineux, the author travels to Ireland to meet a former striker who was thrust into the television limelight during the most turbulent period in the club’s entire history

Young Irishman Derek Ryan’s career cliffhanger under then boss Tommy Docherty was made part of a BBC documentary
Young Irishman Derek Ryan’s career cliffhanger under then boss Tommy Docherty was made part of a BBC documentary

On the opening day of the 1984/85 season, one of the more colourful scenes in Wolves’ history was played out.

Three months earlier, in May, the club had suffered the first of three successive relegations, which took the team from the top to the bottom division in just over two years.

Under the management of former Manchester United boss Tommy Docherty, the hope was that the Second Division team could bounce straight back to the top tier.

Sheffield United were the opponents in front of 14,908 spectators at Molineux on August 25.

Sat next to Docherty in the home dugout was a highly-rated teenage substitute named Derek Ryan, who did not even have a professional contract.

Next to Ryan was a BBC reporter and his cameraman. As the game progressed, the reporter conducted an interview with the manager and his young hopeful, who had never kicked a ball in professional football.

“It’s not normal for an apprentice to go on as a substitute, is it?” asked the reporter.

“You’re not a normal player, are you Derek?” Docherty replied, as Ryan smiled self-consciously.

“He’s a good player for an apprentice, that’s why he’s sitting here today.”

After 57 minutes, the 17-year-old replaced Alan Ainscow, for his first appearance in senior football. For three months the BBC film crew followed Ryan and Steve Blackwell, a fellow apprentice and Wolves supporter, as they tried to earn a contract at the club.

Bitten By Wolves

The filming was for a documentary entitled Moment Of Truth, screened in 1985. The half-hour programme ended with the pair being called into the manager’s office to find out if they had earned professional terms.

A dramatic voice over announced, “Derek Ryan will sign professional or get the sack” as he walked down the corridor to Docherty’s office.

It was a fascinating insight into the state of the club at the time, and the trials and tribulations of young players trying to make the grade.

The contrasts between then and now are stark.

It was a scenario that could not be further removed from the current recruitment set up at the club. There was certainly no Jorge Mendes to call upon, as Wolves looked to pick up untapped talent.

Almost 35 years have passed since that debut, when we meet up on the east coast of Ireland, just north of Dublin, to discuss the career path that eventually brought Ryan home.

There are three parts to Ryan’s story. It is one of potential and hope. Then of setbacks and rejection. And, finally, of fulfilment. Ryan has chosen a scenic spot for a chat, close to his home on the outskirts of north Dublin, where he grew up. Sitting down on the terrace of the Shoreline Hotel in Donabate, overlooking the Irish Sea and the coast down towards Malahide and the Howth cliffs, he tells the story of a great schoolboy football career.

“I started playing for St Kevin’s, who were a really successful team round here, at under-14s. Once you play for them you’ve got people watching you. I got selected for the Dublin under-15s team, I started scoring a few goals and you’ve got different people watching their games too. Eddie Corcoran was the scout here who spotted me, he was Wolves’ scout over here back in my day.

“I played one particular game for St Kevin’s against Home Farm, and that was a big derby match. We hammered them 5-1 and I had one of those games where it was just brilliant, nothing could go wrong. I scored four and won a penalty. Eddie was there that day, he’d probably seen me a few times.

“I remember I came home from Mass one Sunday morning and he was sitting in the front room talking to my dad. He told us he was with Wolves and asked if I wanted to go over and have a trial.”

Ryan had become an Ireland schoolboy international by the time of his trials, in 1982, and was well known in football circles in his country. He travelled to England on his own as a nervous but hopeful schoolboy, knowing that his whole future in the game lay ahead.

“It was exciting. I stayed in digs by the Connaught Hotel with Tim Flowers for a week. I would have done that maybe three times during the school holidays in 1982. At 16 you were allowed to sign as an apprentice, but I was only 15 when I went on a trial.

“I was there in October, when Graham Hawkins was manager, and John Jarman was the coach looking after us. He called me into the office and said I’d done well and that they’d like me to come back and sign for them on a two-year apprenticeship when I was old enough.

“I went back and signed terms the day after my 16th birthday, on January 3, 1983.”

Ryan settled in quickly. He got on with his apprenticeship as the first team won promotion from the Second Division in May 1983. The following season, as Wolves struggled in the top flight, the Irishman continued to progress. “By the start of 1984 I’d been there a year and was starting to play regular reserve team football, scoring quite a few goals,” he explains. “Then the following season I came back after the summer break and started well again in pre-season. Doc was manager by now, and he moved me from a striker to a winger.”

As well as a new manager, there was a BBC Manchester television crew on the scene, who had been given permission by Docherty to follow the progress of Ryan and Blackwell.

“Doc called me into the office one day and said that they wanted to do a documentary about the club, and about the kids at the club,” Ryan recalls. “It was all based on a final decision of, ‘Did you or didn’t you make it?’ He said there was a few bob in it for the club and he asked if I was ok with that, and I said it was no problem.”

So how did the prospect of being joined on the substitutes’ bench go down?

“I was more nervous about the football, wondering whether or not I was going to get on, than bothering about a camera,” Ryan adds. “I remember the ground back then. There were huge spaces between the pitch and the stands.

“It wasn’t so bad at the goal ends, but on the sides it was ridiculous.”

Ryan’s debut ended in a 2-2 draw. And he did get that professional contract.

His career was up and running, but it would not be long before the travails of playing for Wolves in the mid-Eighties would emerge…

n Bitten by Wolves: Stories from the Soul of Molineux is released next week and will be stocked at the Wolves club shop, Waterstones, WHSmith and Amazon.

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