If England had not won the World Cup in 1966, it’s difficult to believe that David Wagstaffe would not have been capped for his country. But after Alf Ramsey’s side lifted the Jules Rimet trophy on home soil without deploying specialist wingers in the later stages of the tournament, the dogmatic, recently knighted coach stuck to his guns and the enchantingly gifted Wolverhampton Wanderers flankman, who spent a dozen years at Molineux after commencing his career with Manchester City, was condemned to the international wilderness.
Certainly Wagstaffe in full flight would have graced any stage. A devastating dribbler with a distinctive scurrying style, typically he would be hunched over the ball close to the left touchline before dropping a shoulder and setting off on one of his coruscating trademark runs. Beautifully balanced, nimble enough to bewilder close markers with sleight of foot and sudden changes of direction in congested areas, and capable of scorching bursts of acceleration over short distances, he was also a tantalising crosser, with Wolves strikers Derek Dougan and John Richards the principal beneficiaries of his precise delivery.
Locating the net himself was not a speciality – he contributed only 31 goals in more than 400 senior outings for the Black Countrymen – though he contributed occasional classics, such as the 35-yard piledriver in the 5-1 home thrashing of Arsenal in November 1971 which won Match of the Day’s goal of the month competition.
Ironically, there had been no shortage of Wagstaffe strikes in his days as a centre-forward for Manchester Schoolboys, but he had been converted to a left-sider by the time he enlisted as an amateur at Maine Road in June 1958 and went on to collect England youth caps in that role.
Having turned professional in May 1960, he made his senior debut four months later, revelling in being a member of the same forward line as the dazzling young Denis Law, and he prevailed in the contest with Clive Colbridge for City’s number-11 shirt.
In 1961/62, with Law departed, Wagstaffe was ever-present in Les McDowall’s ordinary side and a season later suffered the gloom of relegation. Having demonstrated his versatility by switching to the right flank, and after 161 appearances for his home-town club, the vastly promising 21-year-old was sold to top-flight Wolves for £30,000 on Boxing Day 1964.
Alas, he had joined another outfit on the slide, destined for demotion that spring, but Wagstaffe emerged vividly as one of his new club’s key performers and he enjoyed life in the second tier, sparkling under the easygoing regime of Ronnie Allen and returning his best seasonal tally of nine goals.
By 1966/67 he was approaching his prime, meshing effectively with fellow attackers Peter Knowles, Ernie Hunt, Hugh McIlmoyle and, by campaign’s end, the prolific Dougan. He didn’t miss a match as Wolves earned promotion as runners-up to Midlands rivals Coventry City, then he continued to thrive in the elite division, even though he didn’t like Bill McGarry, an abrasive disciplinarian for whom the genial Allen was dismissed in 1968.
But although Wagstaffe described the new manager as domineering and obnoxious, he continued to play magnificently and knew his greatest success during the McGarry era. Still that elusive full England call never arrived – but he did win his sole senior representative honour, being selected on the left flank for the Football League’s 3-2 victory over the Scottish League at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, in March 1972.
Club-wise, there was more joy. In 1971 he was integral to Wolves’ fourth-place finish in the title race, which earned them a berth in the Uefa Cup, then he excelled in the European competition as Juventus and Ferencvaros were conquered on the way to the final. There the glory ended, despite a Wagstaffe goal in the 1-1 second-leg encounter with Tottenham at White Hart Lane, as Spurs had triumphed 2-1 in the earlier Molineux clash.
However, the first and only major trophy of his career was not to be long delayed, Wolves beating Manchester City 2-1 in the 1974 League Cup final, although his Wembley experience was tempered by severe pain from a damaged thigh muscle – this after he had been less than upfront about his fitness when quizzed by the anxious McGarry before the match.
Thereafter there was a niggling hangover from playing when injured, and there was never again quite the same captivating flow to his game. He slipped from first-team contention and in January 1976, aged 32, he joined Blackburn Rovers, newly promoted from the Third Division, at first on loan.
Now he embarked on an entertaining Indian summer, regaining the confidence under Ewood Park boss Jim Smith. Wagstaffe was a good-natured fellow who liked a drink and a bet, in moderation, but who also had a nervous aspect to his character which could be heightened by perceived harassment, which he never received from Smith.
Though his pace had declined he was still capable of telling midfield scheming, his accurate and imaginative passing delighting Rovers fans as he brought much-needed experience to an initially toiling team which he helped lift to fifth place in the table in 1977/78.
Perversely, as he was far more sinned against than sinning, that October he became the first British player to receive a red card, picking up two yellows against Orient at Brisbane Road.
Wagstaffe, who began running a hotel on Blackpool promenade while at Blackburn, joined the Third Division Seasiders briefly in August 1978 before a fleeting return to Ewood Park in the following spring was ended by injury, after he had taken his total of League appearances to 564.
Later he worked in the building trade, became steward of a Conservative Club in Blackpool, then returned to Molineux, where he managed Waggy’s Bar in the Stan Cullis Stand.
David Wagstaffe, footballer; born Manchester 5 April 1943; played for Manchester City 1960-64, Wolverhampton Wanderers 1964-76, Blackburn Rovers 1976-78 and 1979, Blackpool 1978-79; died Wolverhampton 6 August 2013.