A special look back with a Wolves and England great
Fifty years on from England’s historic World Cup triumph, we are taking a closer look at the career of the Wolves legend who was involved in the squad of 22 during that glorious summer.
With his 105 England appearances, only the great Billy Wright has won more international caps than Ron Flowers as a Wolves player.
The fiftieth anniversary of England’s greatest moment is fast approaching and it will doubtless bring back some happy memories for Ron even though he didn’t kick a ball in anger during that unforgettable summer of ’66.
Ron, who celebrates his 82nd birthday in July, won his 49th and final cap less than a fortnight before the 1966 World Cup got underway in England.
Although he didn’t take part in any of the six games that England played in the competition, he remained as a squad member of the 22 man party, offering advice and the experience that comes from playing at the highest level on both domestic and international fronts.
The Edlington born half-back’s first full international had come in May 1955 – a 1-0 reversal against France in Paris.
It was a game he admits, to this day, that didn’t see him producing his best form. Indeed it was to be three years down the line before he got a second chance – this after England’s failure to inspire in the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden.
In his book ‘For Wolves and England’, Ron wrote of his unhappy national debut when a hostile crowd proved to be a disturbing aspect: “Every footballer knows when he is playing badly. No one has to tell him. And the more I struggled against the Frenchmen, the poorer became my performance. All my confidence oozed from me. It was as if someone had squeezed from me my zest for the game, and I found myself treating the ball as if it were a red-hot cinder.”
A Villa Park date against Wales late in 1958 saw him capture his second cap with the game finishing at 2-2 with Wolves team-mate Peter Broadbent getting both of England’s goals.
And this time Ron obviously impressed for he was to play in the next 39 England fixtures.
His total of taking part in 40 consecutive games is an England record bettered only by his skipper at both club and international level, Billy Wright. Ron actually started 39 times and came on as a substitute against Mexico in 1959 six games into the run.
In all he played against 23 different opponents including Hungary, Argentina, Bulgaria and Brazil in the 1962 World Cup Finals in Chile.
One record that Ron shares with current international Wayne Rooney is that of converting six penalties in succession for his country. In all he scored a creditable ten goals for England – six from the spot, one from a free-kick and three from open play. His first two, a brace against the USA in Los Angeles, were both long range ‘screamers’.
Hijs final game for his country took place in Oslo just 12 days before the 1966 Finals began. The Norwegians were thrashed 6-1 so although Ron wasn’t to play against Uruguay, France, Mexico, Argentina, Portugal or West Germany as the country went football mad, at least he wound up his own international career in fine style.
Ron Flowers gently picks up the blue tracksuit upon which the Three Lions of England are meticulously embroidered.
As if reading our thoughts, he quickly lets out a hearty laugh. “There’s no way I’d fit it in now!”
It is tiny! Whilst Flowers, at the grand age of nearly 82, has no necessity to ever wear the tracksuit again, it is difficult to imagine how his powerful frame would ever have fitted around its contours back in his all-conquering heyday.
The tracksuits were standard issue for the 22 England footballers selected to form the squad for 1966 and the first – and still only – occasion the World Cup Finals have been staged on British soil.
Such a small tracksuit for such a huge event and, ultimately, a monumental achievement which, half a century on, is still to be repeated.
The 50th anniversary of England’s solitary World Cup triumph comes on July 30th of this year when the 4-2 Wembley win against West Germany will again be remembered, and treasured.
There remains one more chance, one more opportunity, to break the long and unwanted sequence, and just maybe by the time the half century landmark comes around Roy Hodgson’s class of 2016 will have secured success at the European Championships.
Or even have just reached the final.
Whatever happens those heroes of ’66 will be lauded again throughout the summer, and so they should be.
A series of official events are planned to mark the occasion, whilst last weekend almost all of the remaining members of the squad met up in Staffordshire for their annual gathering of golf and good company!
Flowers, one member of that illustrious band of 22, didn’t actually get to kick a ball at the 1966 tournament, and indeed he was destined never to add to the 49 caps – and ten goals – he had secured in an England shirt prior to the tournament.
But he was there, not only as the only Wolves representative within that victorious group but also the sole West Midlands’ influence among Alf Ramsey’s boys of ’66.
It is not a criticism of modern footballers to compare and contrast the relative riches available in the current era that were not enjoyed by Flowers and company half a century ago. That’s just life, and a measure of how the game – and society – has changed.
But suffice to say when received cheerfully into the welcoming home of Ron and his lovely wife Yvonne, you would find it difficult to believe that here was a man who reached the pinnacle of his sport for club and country. There are no real signs of the trappings which would adorn a top player in the modern era, and no photos or reflections on the times he shone for Wolves and England.
There is such a modesty and humility to Flowers that people who were fortunate to see him play and meet him during Wolves’ Golden Era will always talk about, and one which has certainly not diminished with the long passing of time.
It is perhaps here that I should declare an interest.
As a boy, I would always buy my own football boots from Ron Flowers Sports, the shop still running in Queen Street under Ron’s son Glenn.
I had never seen Ron play but, with my Mum a lifelong Wolves supporter, there was only one place I would be taken to pick up some kit!
There was something strangely surreal, if not slightly nerve-wracking, about having my feet measured by a guy who I knew to be such a Wolves and England hero – and was yet so friendly, jovial, and down-to-earth!
Fast forward then to a (good) few years later, to December, 2008, and Wolves faced a pre-Christmas fixture away at Doncaster Rovers.
Ron was with grandson Harry, a Doncaster fan, and asked if there was any chance he could pop into the Wolves dressing room after Neill Collins’ last gasp header had secured the team a vital three points.
“Too right there is,” was the jist of the immediate response from an eager Mick McCarthy who quickly welcomed Ron and Harry in to chat to the players.
And what advice Flowers could give.
No fewer than 512 appearances for Wolves putting him fifth in the all-time list, a key influence in the club’s only three top division titles to date, as well as the 1960 FA Cup.
On top of that an England career which, he duly admits, was launched with something of an inauspicious start.
It was alongside Wolves team-mates Bert Williams, Billy Wright and Dennis Wilshaw that Flowers made his international bow, against France, in 1955.
“I shouldn’t have played really because I was injured,” he recalls.
“You would play through injuries to play for England – and that is what I did.
“But I ended up paying for it because I had one game and then had to wait a few years for my next one.
“Did it inspire me to come back? No I don’t think it did. Because I felt I had let people down.
“People who wanted me to do well, like the trainer Joe Gardiner at Wolves, and Jack Dowen.
“I felt it was my fault, and I didn’t quite come back the same player after….”
At Wolves, Flowers’ game was based on looking for a pass down the channels for the “flyers” as he calls them - wingers of the ilk of Johnny Hancocks and Jimmy Mullen.
With England, the alternative style of the wing wizardry of Stanley Matthews meant he wanted the ball played in to his feet.
It was a nuance which Flowers did ultimately adapt to, and so when his next chance came along, late in 1958, he grabbed it with both hands.
Forty successive England appearances ensued, no mean achievement in any era, and, having been spotted taking penalties in training by then manager Walter Winterbottom, scored his first six in succession, a feat matched only by a certain Wayne Rooney.
There were ten goals in all, including two at the 1962 World Cup in Chile which made him England’s leading scorer in the competition, and also his country’s first ever goal in European Championships action, in the qualifier against France later that same year.
And then, onto that magical summer 50 years ago which culminated in the historic triumph.
In an initial squad of 26 which met up at Lilleshall for pre-tournament training, Flowers kept his place, and was England’s eldest player, named in the final 22 who headed to Hendon Hall which was to be their World Cup base.
He admits he had plenty of confidence in the team’s chances, even before coming through the group stages and quarter and semi finals against Argentina and Portugal.
“I knew what the team was capable of, and I didn’t think there was anyone who could touch us,” says Flowers.
“Providing things went as they should – and you never know in football!
“There was some very good players in that squad, and we had Greavsie, the goal machine, who couldn’t get back in after getting injured.
“How could you leave him out? But then Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt did so well.
“I just thought there was no one to beat us, and the lads went onto the field thinking like that.
“They had that air about them, a cockiness if you like.
“I wasn’t in the team, but you supported whoever got picked – you went with them and you backed them.”
And so Flowers patiently waited for an opening, an opportunity, to try and play his part as history beckoned.
Then, on the night before the final, he was put on standby by Alf Ramsey as Jack Charlton was despatched to bed with a chest cold.
Although the man himself never allowed himself to get too excited!
“I knew Jack would play,” Flowers recalls with a wry smile.
“He had a bit of a chest cold and went to bed early with his medicine.
“But he wasn’t going to miss playing in a World Cup Final at Wembley -he’d have played with one leg.
“I did think what I might do if I did play but I’d seen Jack and knew he’d be o-k and he was right as rain in the morning.
“Alf never got too excited, he was always steady and didn’t really show any emotion.
“He just told me what the situation was and I went off to bed – it didn’t really bother me.
“But I knew I didn’t have much of a chance, I knew Jack would be o-k.”
So to the game itself, and what transpired to be a momentous day, and a momentous victory.
Flowers was among those players in the stand who had been told by Ramsey to make sure they were pitchside at full time, whatever the result.
Little did they know as they made their way to the tunnel with England 2-1 up, that a late West Germany equaliser meant they would have a longer spell on the bench than they thought, taking in extra time as well.
As the full time whistle sounds the unmoved Ramsey remains in his seat, but Flowers can be seen jumping up from the bench, arms aloft, in celebration of England’s finest hour.
“It had been Alf’s idea, no matter what, that he wanted all of us downstairs at full time,” he recalls.
“He made arrangements with the Commissionaire to open the door and show us down the steps onto the field because he wanted us all on the benches when the match finished.
“’We are a team’ he would say. ‘They are not the team and the rest the reserves – we are one’.
“And so everything was done together - you didn’t go off in little pockets of two or three – ‘all in it together’ was Alf’s attitude.”
Unfortunately, at that stage, there was no ‘all in it together’ when it came to the World Cup winning medals, with only the starting eleven receiving a treasured gong.
FIFA however put that right in 2009, when Flowers and many other squad members travelled to Downing Street to pick up their accolades from then Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
That medal now boasts pride of place in the Wolves Museum, with other equally priceless memorabilia scattered around amongst the proud Flowers family.
Fifty years is a very long time, and surely some of the memories of incidents and events will fade, but clearly the team bond and togetherness does not.
Only last weekend, the annual get-together of the historic squad – and their wives – once again took place with a game of golf at Brocton Hall and stay at Acton Trussell’s Moat House Hotel.
“We meet every year for a couple of days for a game of golf and a meal or two,” Flowers explains.
“We enjoy each other’s company, have a few drinks, take the mickey out of one another, going through old times.
“It may be a bit quieter than it used to be but that camaraderie is always there, the camaraderie which I remember from 1966, which was one of the main reasons behind the success.”
It is a camaraderie Flowers also shared with his all-conquering club team-mates in the years prior to ’66, and there is a fondness from Wolves fans young and old which remains as steadfast as those memories of England’s ground-breaking triumph.
At the recent End of Season dinner, the applause was long and loud as Flowers, with customary modesty and almost humble reluctance, stood to receive the deserved adulation of other guests.
“There is so much love around for you from people at Wolves,” our interviewer Mikey Burrows asks the man always affectionately known as ‘Big Ron’ by club historian Graham Hughes.
“Do you feel that?”
Flowers is almost lost for words. “I do……” he says before trailing off.
“All we did was play to the best of our ability, and that was Stan’s attitude.
“If you gave it neck you’d be out, but if you kept going and did what you were told, if it didn’t come off he would take the blame.”
As ever, any personal tribute or praise neatly thumped to the boundary with the team ethic viewed as far more pertinent, a trait of all those who masterminded Wolves’ Golden Generation.
With that, a fascinating hour is at an end.
As we leave conversation turns to the tweed jacket worn by Flowers on cup final day as he was captured by the cameras jumping for joy after the final whistle.
Yvonne laughs. Turns out she later took it to a charity shop with some other clothing, and Ron spotted it on offer in the window! The lucky purchaser probably never knew what a collector's item they had snapped up.
Still, he will always have that tracksuit, and he will always have the memories. One of only 22 through the history of English football that can boast those……