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Wolves to California dreamin’ for former Wolves midfielder Paul Dougherty

It is 40 years since a young wide-eyed 16-year-old signed apprentice forms at Wolves at the start of a footballing journey which he could never have predicted. Eventually Paul Dougherty became one of the many to make the move from Molineux to go and play in America. And he never looked back.

At Montreal Impact
At Montreal Impact

It’s not quite on a par with the Spanish waiter whom, on seeing a retired George Best entertaining Miss World in his hotel room about to crack open a couple of bottles of champagne, uttered the immortal words: “Where did it all go wrong?”

But to ask Paul Dougherty whether he regrets leaving Wolves to go and play in the United States at the start of the Steve Bull-inspired late Eighties revival is probably approaching the same ballpark.

Because the former Molineux midfielder has now spent the best part of 35 years Stateside, bar regular trips back to England, and is now settled, staying classy, in San Diego.

“I love it here,” says Dougherty.

“The weather is great all year long, I can go to the beach, get out biking and surfing and other ocean sports, and just stay really healthy, still playing a bit of football.

“I live on the north side of San Diego and it’s a beautiful place, like a hidden gem of America because we are over on the West Coast although more people are finding about it now.

“So, any regrets about coming out here? No, not really!

“It was a very different style of football back in England and very physical at that time but I might have fitted in with Bully and that revival as I was always very fit and would have worked hard getting about the pitch.

“But had I stayed at Wolves I don’t think I would have developed half as much as a player as I did by coming over to America.”

Dougherty’s last appearance for Wolves came in a 2-0 defeat at Hereford on Boxing Day in 1986.

Baptism of fire: Paul Dougherty made his debut for Wolves in a Black Country derby against fierce rivals Albion in the 1983-84 season.

Nine days earlier he had been part of the team which defeated Bournemouth 4-3 in a Freight Rover Trophy tie watched by a Molineux audience of just 1, 923.

On that night he scored his fourth and fifth, and final, goals for Wolves, as Bull notched his third and fourth in the very early stages of blowing all the records away enroute to 306.

For Dougherty, it was a nice way to round off a spell at Molineux which began when first spotted playing in his native Leamington Spa in the Mid-Warwickshire League by Wolves scout John Hannah at the age of around 13.

Alongside others recruited at a similar time such as Tim Flowers and Billy Livingstone, Dougherty would get across for training twice a week after school, travelling by train and often returning home for 11pm.

The dedication paid dividends as, despite strong competition, and despite his lack of height often providing challenges, the diminutive Dougherty was taken on full-time as a 16-year-old trainee, 40 years ago this month!

And then, towards the end of the 1983/84 season, with Wolves perilously close to relegation from the top division, he landed his debut.

Not that he had too much time to prepare for it!

Under Graham Hawkins, Dougherty thought he was heading out of the club and wouldn’t be getting a new deal at the end of that campaign.

However, after Hawkins, who had guided Wolves to promotion the previous season, was relieved of his duties, his assistant Jim Barron was handed the temporary reins and decided to shake things up a little bit.

Against West Bromwich Albion, no less.

“The teamsheet used to go up on a Friday afternoon and remember, at this stage I hadn’t been in a squad, and I wasn’t in it,” Dougherty explains.

“I actually went out on the night, although I wasn’t drinking and was in bed by 11pm.

“It still meant I slept in a bit on the Saturday and then just made my way to Molineux on the bus as normal to watch the game.

“When I got to the bus stop one of the scouts was there to meet me which was a little bit strange and I remember asking him what was going on.

“He just told me to get in the dressing room as quickly as I could and once I sat down, the team was read out and I was in it – I was as surprised as anything!

“Straightaway I thought I needed to let my Mum know but Jim had told them the night before, so she was already on her way with one of my brothers.

“Then I had that hour of anticipation before getting out there and doing my very best to make sure I enjoyed it.

“Your debut only happens once, doesn’t it? I maybe had a few nerves but I also felt confident and that I had nothing to lose.

“So much so that in the early stages of the game I was taking corners from both sides using both my right and left foot!

“I remember playing in a three-man midfield up against players like Steve Hunt and Tony Morley – I think Steve played for England a few weeks after.

“It was a tough test but I did o-k and a couple of the Sunday papers actually gave me Man of the Match, so I kept the cuttings and used them as part of my application to join San Diego when I first went out to the States!

“Getting up in the morning and travelling to the stadium with absolutely no idea, it turned out to be one of the best days of my life.”

The big derby ended as a goalless draw, and while the team bowed out unceremoniously from the top-flight over the remainder of the season, Dougherty did well.

That short spell, and the second-tier season immediately after, perhaps suited his game more than the lower league campaigns which followed.

At the start of the 1984/85 season Dougherty scored twice in the first three games, initially in a 3-2 defeat against a Leeds United side featuring Wolves current technical director Scott Sellars and play-off winning defender Denis Irwin.

And then, against Manchester City in a 2-0 win in which the other entry on the scoresheet read: ‘M. McCarthy, own goal’.

“There’s a quiz question for you – did Mick McCarthy ever score for Wolves?” laughs Dougherty.

“That was a nice goal which I’ve still got on video, a Cruyff turn onto my left foot and shot into the bottom corner.”

Generally, it was a hugely difficult time at Wolves, shown by the fact that Dougherty and Geoff Palmer are the only two Molineux Men to have represented the club in all four divisions.

During relegation upon relegation, Dougherty managed to maintain his focus and try and shut out some of the off-field issues that enveloped the club which eventually nearly went out of business for a second time in four years.

“People maybe could see how bad things were going when they came to us from other clubs, but I’d been there a while, so nothing was really a shock to me,” he recalls.

“I suppose I was happy enough because when I moved up from being an apprentice, I no longer had to all those duties and clean up what was effectively becoming a bit of a dump in terms of the facilities.

“What you could see was that the players that were coming in were not as good as those who were leaving.

“I remember we had some good and experienced players like Alan Ainscow, Andy King and Tony Towner, but when they and others left, we had problems and just started to fade away.”

Dougherty had a short spell on loan with Torquay during his time at Molineux but eventually, after making 47 Wolves appearances and scoring five goals, he was attracted by the idea of a fresh challenge Across the Pond.

Having read about former Brighton and Nottingham Forest striker Peter Ward enjoying the second phase of his career over in America, Dougherty managed to land a deal with San Diego Sockers, having sorted an agreement to leave with caretaker Wolves boss Brian Little.

When Graham Turner was brought in to replace Little, he was also happy to sanction Dougherty’s departure, although when seeing the extent of the job on his hands – notably the FA Cup loss to Chorley – the manager had second thoughts.

For Dougherty however, his heart was set, and he wasn’t for turning, heading over at the age of 20 for a completely new start.

Initially it was to play indoors, a style of play and arena which suited his low centre of gravity and ability to move the ball quickly.

With fiancee Angela in California

His height – 5ft 2in – which earned him the well-known nickname of ‘Pee Wee’, has never been something he has shied away from discussing, b it was certainly well suited to the indoor game.

“It’s nice for me to see how the sport has changed over the years and I think there is more football played now,” Dougherty insists.

“Back in the day if you were 6ft 2in and strong and could whack the ball 50 yards down the pitch you would have a huge head start but now you need to have more.

“For me, I knew that if anyone got close to me, they would be able to knock me off the ball, so I had to adapt, and play smarter.

“Other players might be more able to hold people off but for me it was about moving the ball quickly, knowing where the options were and looking to pass it forward without losing possession.

“I was decent enough over the first 15 or 20 yards but then probably one of the slowest over 40 because my little legs just couldn’t keep up!

“It was why going to America and initially playing indoors really suited me.

“At Wolves we used to play five-a-sides in the gym up at the old Molineux Hotel and I loved that, getting plenty of touches on the ball, the quick passing.

“Going to America was quite strange at first because I went from Molineux where two stands were closed and the John Ireland Stand was miles from the pitch to really enclosed indoor arenas with 12,000 fans packed in right on top of you creating a fantastic atmosphere.

“It was a different world, but one I really enjoyed right from the start.”

It was also a different world in terms of team’s success, with Dougherty moving from a slide down the division with Wolves to becoming a serial Championship winner with San Diego.

Over the next almost 20 years he moved across the country to play for many different clubs, both indoors and outdoors, when the indoor season had finished.

Miami, Buffalo, Tampa Bay, Montreal, New York, Houston, Chicago, Colorado and Pittsburgh were among the ports of call before eventually returning to San Diego.

Outdoor-wise Dougherty also featured in the MLS (Major League Soccer) and was part of a

Chicago Fire squad including the likes of current Leeds boss Jesse Marsch and former Manchester United assistant Chris Armas that reached the semi-finals of the Concacaf Champions League.

“I scored a penalty in the shootout in that game but we lost and the team which won ended up playing Real Madrid,” he says.

“We played against some big teams in the MLS including AC Milan, Benfica and the Scottish national team which is why I feel I probably played at a higher level than if I had stayed in England.”

Dougherty was also able to benefit from playing alongside plenty of talented team-mates and a spell at New York Metro Stars (now New York Red Bulls) featured lining up alongside American superstars Tim Howard and Alexei Lalas.

There were, however, a couple of occasions when Dougherty might have moved back to England, not through any desire to return home but more a case of circumstances.

In those days the American leagues were more volatile, at times they looked like they may collapse, and teams often would often disband, and so on a couple of occasions Dougherty returned home for unsuccessful trials with Wolves and Albion.

He would have gone to play for Kenny Hibbitt at Walsall if a better deal had been forthcoming and did play a game for Cheltenham in the Conference, but ultimately always managed to keep going in America where his playing career eventually took a natural step into coaching.

His coaching CV includes working across different ages of the men’s and academy systems with clubs such as San Diego Flash, La Jolla Nomads and the University of California as well as a successful stint in the Women’s Professional League with San Diego Sea Lions.

With all the travelling during his time with a player he was always keen to return back to San Diego and is now coaching the Palomar College men’s team in University football.

“Travelling around as I have with both the playing and the coaching has given me some great life experiences as well as the football,” says Dougherty, now 56.

“The job I have now is a couple of hours a day, so I still have plenty of time to myself whilst I also still play indoors for fun with a few of the guys here and sometimes make up the numbers for an eleven-a-side outdoors.

“Life is great and I really couldn’t be happier.”

Dougherty noted with interest reports that Wolves had been close to heading to America this summer at a time when his own profile has probably been enhanced by the team being more upwardly mobile in recent years.

“There was a time when if people found out I played for Wolves they wouldn’t have known much about them but now they really sit up and take notice,” he reveals.

That is probably also helped by the existence of a sizeable Portuguese element among the fishing community of San Diego, with whom Dougherty has watched several international fixtures and who certainly have an interest in Wolves given the Iberian influence now at Molineux.

For the man himself, Wolves remain a staple and enjoyable watch with so many matches screened in America, although his club contacts with former team-mates such as Tim Flowers and Derek Ryan have diminished over time.

Dougherty remains extremely proud to have played for the club, even with that bitter-sweet distinction of appearing in all four divisions, and savoured the support he received from the terraces.

“I always felt the support from the crowd, if I was on the subs bench warming up, I would always hear ‘go on Pee Wee’ and so on!

“I made sure I gave my very best effort for the club every time I went on the pitch and even if I wasn’t on my best form, I would be giving my all.

“Being the smallest player on the field I always felt I had to try and do that little bit more than everyone else!

“But the fans were always very good to me, and I will always be proud to have played for Wolves.”

It is around a decade since he managed to take in a Wolves game, he tends to get back once every three years or so and is due back imminently to catch up with his Mum in Leamington but obviously at a time when there are no fixtures.

After that it will be back to San Diego, back to the all-round warm and temperate climate, the beach, the ocean sports, fiancée Angie - to whom he recently became engaged - and a challenging and fulfilling job which he really enjoys.

So Paul, where exactly did it all go wrong?!

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