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RIP Sammy Chapman – the man who made a family from ‘broken’ Wolves

Paying tribute to Sammy Chapman – from left, former first-team coach Greg Fellows, and ex-players Campbell Chapman, Dean Edwards and Micky Holmes.
The photographic display at Sammy’s funeral. Bottom left is Manchester United manager Matt Busby (far left) with a young Sammy, third from right.

A lovely man who treated his Wolves players like his adopted sons.

So said Campbell Chapman, in a touching tribute to his father Sammy.

The former Wolves manager was laid to rest today at a rain-soaked All Saints Church in the village of Trysull, south Staffordshire, and the atmosphere and company would have impressed the genial Northern Irishman.

Just as impressive, and reflecting the popularity and respect which this lovable football man was held in, were the distances some of his former charges travelled to pay their final respects – Vince Bartram from Southampton, Andy Mutch from Southport, Dean Edwards from Torquay, Micky Holmes from Leicestershire and ex-first-team coach Greg Fellows from Malaga, Spain. From Wolverhampton and surrounding areas came former Molineux vice-chairman Doug Hope, long-serving retired Wolves historian Graham Hughes, former Albion defender Des Lyttle and Nicky Clarke’s dad John. Mutch, Sammy’s biggest ‘find’ for Wolves, had even driven down on the first anniversary of his father-in-law’s death and his son’s birthday to be there.

He was funny; a great character who could talk the hind legs off a donkey,” recalled son Campbell, 56, who himself now lives in Atlanta, USA, while younger brother Cavan, 51, had flown in from Western Australia. “He always had a story and could relate to anyone at any time.”

Chapman senior died at the age of 81 on July 25 after a short illness, but there were plenty of smiles in church and the family wanted it to be a celebration of Sammy’s life. After all, the service re-united old team-mates from different corners of not only this country but Europe, the United States and Australia, something he would have been proud of.

Ironically, for someone who made a living for much of his life as a scout, Campbell recalls his dad being far from judgemental about his sons. “Football was something we always had in common,” he said. “Dad was a supporter of it and he was there all the time. His job as a scout was to judge players but we never felt we were being judged by him.”

Sammy was a Busby Babe, taken on by Manchester United from school in the early 1950s which led to an amusing anecdote connected to his love of the big screen. “He was very sought after when he was signed by Matt Busby,” said Campbell. “A notice was flashed up during a film ‘Is Sammy Chapman in the building? He is needed for a reserve game’. I think he waited until the film had finished before making his way to Old Trafford!”

Campbell recalled it was his father’s next move, to Portsmouth, where he met their mother Jeannie. It was also in the south coast city where forged a link that was to shape a hugely significant part of his future. There he met fellow Ulsterman and Pompey team-mate Derek Dougan, who was just 27 days his elder, and Hope revealed it was many years later, in 1982, The Doog invited Sammy to become Wolves chief scout.

For those of a younger generation, the cash-strapped Wolves of the early to mid-1980s were not shopping at Real Madrid or AC Milan like now. They were looking locally in non-league, and not even the top part-time clubs in the area such as Kidderminster or Telford, because they wouldn’t have been able to afford those players. Dean Edwards, for example, continued playing in the Wolverhampton Sunday League for Springvale after playing for Wolves first team on a Saturday because as a non-contract player, they couldn’t afford to put him on contract to stop him.

Sammy loved Wolves – he loved working for that club – and he loved the Wolverhampton area,” said Campbell. “He loved going into Willenhall Town or Bilston Town social clubs way after closing time with the excuse that Joey Owen had found a player in Hednesford’s reserves who was going to save us a fortune in the transfer market. He could talk football from morning to way after closing time.”

Sammy was well known for his funny sayings but there was no doubt he left those who were on the receiving end with a crisp mental image of what he meant. “If a goalkeeper couldn’t jump, he would say ‘he’s got diver’s boots on’, but I’ve never seen anyone wear diver’s boots,” said Campbell. “If a player was quick, he’d say they were like a jet, but I’ve never seen anyone out-run a jet, and if someone was really slow he’d say our mum was quicker, but we never saw her sprint. Another was ‘he plays like he’s a hammer thrower’. I never quite got that one but I think he meant the player was poorly skilled but physical and was more suited to throwing a hammer!

To my kids, he’d say ‘keep it close, Luke’ which was his way of saying ‘don’t dribble into the flowerbeds, and to my daughter Emma, ‘you have lovely feet’. He made her believe she had special feet.

He had a unique ability to simplify something and make it crystal clear what he meant without using football terminology. Sammy was hands-on and he’d always give you his opinion in such a way that that was often the end of the conversation.”

But if he had a laid-back approach, then his talent for spotting a footballer was razor sharp. During his time as manager, he brought Mutch, Bartram, Neil Edwards, Jon Purdie, John Morrissey and Dean Edwards to Molineux for nothing or next to nowt. After leaving the club in late 1986 to be chief scout at Leicester City under David Pleat, he recommended Lyttle, who signed, and a certain David Platt, who didn’t after the Foxes refused to pay £200,000 for him and he went to Villa instead. Mutch and Bartram went from non-league to play in the Premier League, while Morrissey enjoyed a long career in the second tier with Tranmere. He discovered Gary Blissett during his time as chief scout at Brentford, while a trip to see Campbell in the States unearthed Stern John, a striker he recommended to Nottingham Forest, where Platt – who remained a close friend and played golf with Campbell the day before the funeral – repaid the favour by appointing Sammy as chief scout.

There was a tale of Sammy addressing youngsters at one of the summer camps held by Campbell in the US that those ‘waifs and strays’ as Mutch referred to the wannabees Chapman assembled at Molineux would resonate with. “He never said to the kids ‘you’ll be an England international’, but he gave them an opportunity and he gave them the confidence to do it,” said Campbell.

There are countless amusing stories surrounding Sammy and we were lucky enough to hear a few. One involved a practice match at Molineux where winger Willie Raynes was showing the signs of being worse for wear the day after a session on the scrumpy the night before. ‘OK, Willie, hold it right there, I’m coming on for you!’ bellowed Sammy to the hungover wideman, while proceeding to remove his tracksuit bottoms and put on a vest.

Campbell was delighted so many from his father’s career attended the gathering. “Most of the people who meant a lot to him were here, such as the players that were there at Wolves,” said the former midfielder, who made 57 appearances in gold and black from 1984-86. “Cavan and I were his sons but these lads such as Vince Bartram, Micky Holmes, Andy Mutch and Jon Purdie were his adopted sons. He was like a parent to them because they were kids. He still talked about them as if it were yesterday when I used to come over and we’d sit and have a cup of tea in the garden and reflect.

I think he felt a sense of protection towards them, not ownership, but they had the opportunity to go through it and they did, and he was proved right (in his ability to spot them). My dad was always about beating the bookie – ‘if you give me those odds, I will take those and prove you wrong’. He scouted everywhere from Dudley to Telford to Willenhall to Scotland and Ireland, but he had so much patience that, when he spotted someone and there was a respect between them and he went for it, like an Andy Mutch, he had no doubts. He gave those players that confidence where there was no doubts, that they were going to do it.

I don’t think my dad knew how much he was appreciated; Wolves was a dark place, but he was the light in the dark. He would beam that place up with his personality and make people feel the importance of the club they were playing for – Wolves. It was still a big club with a big reputation, but internally, non-league was better – there was more money at Telford at that time. It was a broken club. What he did was keep it afloat and not let it sink, because it was close to sinking.

My dad was a lovely man. That’s how he described people – he’d say ‘oh so-and-so is a lovely man, and he was a lovely man, and that’s how people would describe him.”