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75 years of living Wolves legend Phil Parkes

A milestone birthday when it is often time to look back and reflect.

Former Wolves goalkeeper Parkes, left, in a contretemps with footballing legend Pele during the shot-stopper’s time in the USA
Former Wolves goalkeeper Parkes, left, in a contretemps with footballing legend Pele during the shot-stopper’s time in the USA

Reflect on making 382 appearances between the sticks for Wolves – at one point 170 in succession – making him the club’s third used goalkeeper behind Mike Stowell (448) and Bert Williams (420).

Reflect on saving a penalty on his Wolves debut, two more during UEFA Cup semi-finals, reaching that UEFA Cup final, and a League Cup final, only to miss out with injury.

Reflect on rounding off a career in America in which he played with - and against - some of most iconic names in world football.

But with Phil Parkes, and his six-decade affiliation with Wolves, it is about reflecting on far more than just the football.

It is about memories on and off the pitch which see ‘Lofty’ – as nicknamed apparently for his lengthy kicking prowess as much as his height - still held in such high esteem and regarded with such fondness by former team-mates and Wolves fans alike.

Parkes, back row third from left, in a squad photo from the 1970s

And all those many stories and scrapes which will no doubt come to mind when he gets together for a party with family and friends this weekend.

Reflecting on the time the team were on a trip to Australia and inadvertently left Parkes behind in a bar, only to return to him two hours later, sat on his own, completely oblivious. “Are we going then?”

Reflecting on the many social occasions enjoyed by that team which spanned the 70s, and regularly being asked to embark on a detective mission of local hostelries – to track down near neighbour and Wolves colleague Danny Hegan.

Reflecting on life since hanging up his boots and for so long living barely a walking distance from Molineux in Fordhouses, once coming a cropper running for the bus and styling it out by standing up and walking off rather than experience the shame of hopping on.

Reflecting on so many wonderful friendships formed with such a special group of players, friendships which have continued and strengthened to this day.

“It’s great that we all get on so well, isn’t it?” Parkes, a member of Wolves Former Player Association’s committee, reflects ahead of his big birthday bonanza.

“Whenever we get together, we will chat about all our memories and all the funny stories – so many of us still live locally.

“It was Terry Wharton’s 80th birthday recently and we were talking about that penalty save against Preston on my debut, because we went on to win 3-2 and Terry got the winner!

“Richie (FPA Chairman John Richards) and Dales (FPA Vice-Chairman Steve Daley) do a great job with the Former Players’ Association and we still have our Golf Day at Oxley Park, which is where we all learned how to play.

“I still enjoy every couple of weeks heading into town to have a drink at McGhee’s Irish Bar and catch up with so many people I have met along the way.

“I always loved playing for the Wolves fans and always tried to make sure I turned up to do presentations and so on – I still do – because I think that’s important.

“The club has always been such a big part of my life.”

Whisper it quietly, but of course Parkes’s formative years were actually spent growing up within a stone’s throw of Wolves’ fiercest of rivals, West Bromwich Albion.

As a youngster he would head to the Hawthorns on a Saturday to watch the likes of Ronnie Allen – later his manager at Wolves – Derek Kevan and Ray Barlow.

Already a goalkeeper – “I was too lazy to run about” - he did go and train within Albion’s youth system one Monday night but didn’t really enjoy it.

But, still playing regularly at weekends for several different teams, at 14 Parkes was spotted by a Wolves scout – and, this time, it was different.

“There were about five coaches at every training session and a lot of the coaches were former players,” Parkes recalls.

“Bill Shorthouse, Joe Gardiner – these are Wolves legends – and Bill Crook, who played in the 1949 FA Cup Final winning team, they were all there.

“It just felt better, and like the players were really well looked after.”

Wolves Hall of Fame.

Taken on by Wolves after leaving school some six decades ago, Parkes spent two years playing as an amateur alongside a job in a steel construction factory before turning professional.

Working his way up from that Wolves’ amateur team, the fifth out of six the club fielded over a weekend, the departures of Jimmy Barron and Bob Knight left a young Parkes as the reserves’ keeper and cover to Fred Davies in the first team.

It was injury to Davies that handed Parkes his dramatic debut, at just 19, and he was back in the side for the final 13 games of the season as Wolves clinched promotion to the top division.

At the end of the campaign Wolves headed out Stateside, to turn out as Los Angeles Wolves in the United Soccer Association, a professional league which imported teams to represent American cites.

They won, beating Washington Whips, represented by Aberdeen, in the final, but for the young Parkes, it was win-win whatever the result.

“I’d never even left England before, I hadn’t even been to Wales,” he laughs.

“And them my first trip abroad was to Los Angeles!

“I was 19, spending nine weeks out in California, and to be honest I didn’t want to come home.”

Come home he did however, to enjoy several runs in the team as Wolves’ first choice number one, even still at such a tender age.

And then, from September 1970, embarked on the run of 127 consecutive league appearances, and 170 in all competitions, which remain club records to this day.

That’s despite the very best efforts of current Wolves captain Conor Coady, who reached 119 in the league after over two years as an ever-present before missing a game with Southampton towards the end of 2020.

“Conor’s the only one who’s got close and I’ve met him a few times and he’s a great bloke so I would have been happy if he’d done it,” says Parkes.

“Sooner or later records are there to be broken, aren’t they?”

Parkes pauses. And laughs. “Although maybe I was a little bit happy that it didn’t happen!

“It’s very different now with getting a decent run of games.

“I remember playing against Chelsea with a temperature of 104 because Gary (Pierce) was injured and Bill McGarry told me I had to play.

“I played with a broken finger against Bristol Rovers, and a broken toe against Burnley.

“They just stuck an injection in back in those days and you got on with it – that was just how it was!”

Overall, Parkes’s spell with Wolves was laced with so many good times, along with one or two nearly but not quite times.

After that initial burst of games in Division Two, his Wolves career was played out entirely in the top division, as during the other second tier season of his spell, Pierce was an ever present.

It was Pierce who stepped in and became the hero in the 1974 League Cup win over Manchester City, after Parkes broke his ankle in training following the semi-final win against Norwich having played in every single round previously.

“It was disappointing to miss the final, of course it was, but the only good thing about it was that I knew I had no chance to play,” he recalls.

With fellow keeper Matt Murray

“It wasn’t like I had pulled a muscle or something and was battling to be fit, I knew straightaway in my mind that it was going to rule me out.

“I was pleased for Gary, we got on well and are still in touch now, and he had a great game in the final.”

Parkes did make it all the way through the memorable UEFA Cup run of 1971/72 as Wolves blazed a European trail to the final which hasn’t been repeated since.

Trips to Portugal, the Netherlands, East Germany, Italy and Hungary were eye-openers in so many respects for a growing and tight-knit team.

So many tales so often told.

In Parkes’s case, from being refused when trying to buy some goalkeeping gloves ahead of the Carl Zeiss Zena game in East Germany, to being spat at by later England manager Fabio Capello during the draw in Juventus (Capello’s wisest move was not coming over to Molineux for the second leg), or having to help put a slightly worse-for-wear John Charles to bed after the Welsh legend travelled with the team for ambassadorial duties in Turin.

On the pitch he played his part in a superb team effort to reach the final, notably those penalty saves in each leg of the last four tie with Ferencvaros.

“I went the wrong way both times but saved them with my legs,” he laughs.

Then came the final, a disappointment not just because of the result but the identity of the opponents.

“Nothing against Tottenham who were a great team but for both of us to get to the final and play another English team took a bit of the gloss off it,” he explains.

“It wouldn’t have been so bad if it was a one-off match on a neutral ground, a bit of an occasion, but the two legs just felt like another couple of league games.

“Although we lost, we had some great trips in the competition and it was great to play the teams that we did so I think we can look back and be very proud of the achievement.”

That final did at least offer Parkes a route into the skilled after-dinner speaking routine of his close friend, Daley.

“There was a moment in the final when a Martin Chivers shot came back off the crossbar and Ralph Coates followed it up but Lofty made a superb save tipping it over the bar,” says Daley.

“I told him it was a brilliant save, to which he replied: ‘What do you mean Dales? I was still diving for the first one’.”

If that was among the highlights of Parkes’s Wolves career – the UEFA Cup run not Daley’s gag - and so too winning the Texaco Cup the previous year, they are memories he might not have enjoyed, should a move to Newcastle have materialised in the earlier stages of his Molineux tenure.

A friend knew then the long-serving Toon boss Joe Harvey whom, when seeing Parkes who had gone to a game and enquiring about why he wasn’t featuring at Wolves, made his move.

“He asked why I wasn’t playing and I said I’d been dropped,” Parkes reveals.

“He then asked if I would come and play for Newcastle and I said I probably would given I wasn’t getting a game at Wolves.

“The next day Ronnie Allen called me in and said they’d had an offer for me but he couldn’t say who from – well I knew didn’t I?

“He said it would be decided at a Board meeting and the Chairman John Ireland said I couldn’t go.

“A few weeks later I got back in the side and never looked back so it all worked out alright in the end!”

Phil Parkes at a charity golf day

How differently a career could have continued. A Sliding Doors moment for Parkes, who went on to chalk up all those appearances and, when he did leave, it was for America, after Wolves had brought in an excellent young keeper by the name of Paul Bradshaw.

There was still time for one moment of drama, and a final Wolves appearance, which also turned out alright in the end!

“I was signing for Vancouver Whitecaps and had taken all my kit from Wolves on the Friday ahead of flying out the following Wednesday,” he says.

“I was actually having a few drinks on the Friday night and got a call from (manager) Sammy Chung at about 8.30pm asking if I could play against West Ham the following day.

“I think there was an issue with Braddy being ill, but I really wasn’t keen as I had left and was worried about getting injured myself.

“I’d always got on well with Sammy, I really liked him, and he stuffed me really, because when I told him I was reluctant he said he was asking me as a friend.

“’You *******,’ I replied, he knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew I would do it for him.

“I turned up the next day and it wasn’t until 2.30pm that the decision was made and I went out to play, was awarded Man of the Match and we beat West Ham 2-1.

“It worked out great because otherwise my last game would have been a 2-0 defeat against Villa, when Colin Brazier scored an own goal when the ball bobbled off his shin and over my head!

“So, it was a good way to finish in the end.”

America was great for Parkes.

Across a seven year span he represented Vancouver, Chicago Sting, San Jose Earthquakes, Oklahoma City Slickers and Toronto Blizzard.

He turned out alongside George Best for San Jose – “the best I have ever played with or against” – and featured in a ‘Pick of the League’ side against a New York Cosmos to mark the legendary Franz Beckenbaeur’s farewell.

Talking of legends, one of the goals he conceded in the farewell friendly – was from the boot of a certain Pele!

“The stadium held 83,000, but they had only sold 50,000 tickets, and they wanted a full house,” Parkes recalls.

“Pele, who had retired by then, agreed to play 45 minutes and they sold the remaining tickets in a couple of hours.

“I’ve got a great picture of me and Pele, and the game was a great experience, as all of it was in America.

“When I was at Vancouver, there were a lot of British lads like Alan Ball, Kevin Hector, Trevor Whymark, Willie Johnston – we had a great team.

“Bruce Grobbelaar was just starting out in his career, and I could see how he was going to be a bit special – he was the fittest kid I had seen in my life.

“He lived in the same complex as me in Vancouver and he used to babysit my two lads – that’s probably why they’ve both turned out a bit daft!”

Family is very important to Parkes.

He is big in stature and big in personality but also big in heart.

He is extremely close to sons Greg and Dean, and particularly so since the loss of wife Maureen to cancer back in 2010.

Maureen had spent many years raising money for New Cross Hospital after a previous cancer diagnosis many years previously and, amid his devastation following her passing, Parkes vowed to continue that generosity.

Working closely with family friend Sheila Edwards, thousands more pounds have been raised to help provide equipment for the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, including funds from the FPA Golf Days.

“It is important for us all to keep Maureen’s memory going and raising money which will help other people who find themselves in the same position that she was,” adds Parkes.

Parkes has always remained settled in the local area and, with a passion for cricket, was a half decent bowler with Fordhouses long after his football career came to its conclusion.

He also spent 22 years as a roofer, working for the Cricket Club Chairman’s company, whilst enjoying several football coaching assignments alongside former team-mates Daley and Mel Eves for the likes of Bromsgrove, Telford and Willenhall Town.

He still watches football whenever he can, he is still close to many of his former team-mates particularly Daley and Phil Nicholls, whilst harbouring so many memories of others who have passed such as his long-term room-mate Frank Munro.

And he still enjoys sharing a pint with anyone of a Wolves’ persuasion, remaining such a hugely popular personality among the Molineux fanbase.

The ‘They Wore The Shirt’ tribute evening for Parkes organised by Wolves fan Steve Plant last November at which Grobbelaar was a surprise guest was an emotionally charged trip down Memory Lane both for supporters and that special squad of players.

Parkes may not have hit the pinnacle of the goalkeeping profession, racked up scores of England caps or a cabinet full of winners’ medals, but that doesn’t either reflect his level of consistency or ability and in any case, even with those club records of successive appearances, there is always more to a footballer than mere statistics.

Parkes always gave it everything when he stepped, gloveless, onto the pitch to guard that Wolves goal. Rain or shine, good, bad or indifferent.

And that is all the Wolves fans would ever ask for and why his popularity has endured, or even increased, up to now, his 75th birthday.

He remains a much-loved part of the Molineux furniture, with a personality as engaging and approachable as so many of the team-mates he played alongside, and one whose celebration will no doubt be toasted by plenty of supporters who continue to hold him in the highest affection.

That ‘save’ from John Ireland in denying Parkes a move to Newcastle and prolonging his Wolves career turned out to be one of his best.

Many happy returns Lofty. Have a good one!

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