by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
27 July 1958: The marriage of an England superstar and a singer in a top girl group brings a town to a standstill
Long before Becks and Posh tied the knot another wedding between an English footballing superstar and a member of a chart-topping all-girl group set England buzzing. Joy Beverley and Billy Wright were both at the very top of their professions when they got married and were both admired for their looks as much as their skills at their respective professions.
Joy Beverley was part of the Beverley Sisters, a group of three sisters, Babs and Teddie being the other two, who were all blond and glamorous and were internationally famous having been one of the first modern British acts to achieve recording success in America after they had toured in 1956 with Elvis Presley.
Billy Wright, captain of Wolves and England, was one of the most famous and respected players of his era. He had joined Wolves as an apprentice in 1938, aged just 14, but the club were initially unimpressed and were almost about to release him in 1939 but legend has it that his enthusiasm with a brush when sweeping the terraces meant the groundsman persuaded the club to keep him on. He went on to make his debut aged 15 during a 2-1 win in a wartime match against Notts County in 1939. With the intervention of the Second World War, and with Wright serving as a PT instructor in the army, it was not until the 1946 FA Cup that he made his official debut when he played against Welsh team Lovells Athletic on 5 January, and he finally made his league debut later that year with the resumption of league football. After the retirement of captain Stan Cullis at the end of that season, Billy Wright was appointed to the position and became the first Wolves captain to lift a piece of silverware in over 40 years when they won the FA Cup Final in 1949. This win was going to pave the way for Wolves to become one of the dominant English football sides during the 1950s, a decade in which Wright would become the team’s most important player. He would only miss 31 leagues games throughout the 1950s, and several of those absences were because of international call ups. During the fifties he was voted footballer of the year in 1952 and lifted the championship for Wolves in 1954, 1958 and 1959. In 1957 he finished second only to the legendary Alfredo di Stefano in the Ballon d’Or, the award given to Europe’s best player. In 1959 he was awarded the CBE for his services to the game.
Billy Wright also attained the honour of becoming the first person of any nationality to get 100 caps for his country. He had made his England debut in 1946 in an unofficial post-war ‘Victory’ game against Belgium, and he made his first appearance proper in a 7-2 win over Ireland in Belfast on 28 September that year. He was appointed England captain in 1948 and, apart from a very brief period in 1951, he became an automatic choice during the rest of his playing career, missing only 3 games in the 13 years he played for England. In 1953 he surpassed Bob Crompton’s 40 year old appearance record for England with his 42nd cap, and he reached his 100th cap against Scotland on 11 April 1959. In total he appeared for England 105 times, not missing a single one of all the 70 games played between October 1951 and May 1959, still a record for consecutive international appearances. He captained England on 90 occasions, a record only equaled by Bobby Moore. His captaincy included leading England in three World Cups in Brazil 1950, Switzerland 1954, and Sweden 1958, again a record. His last appearance for his country came in an 8-1 win over the USA on 28 May 1959 in Los Angeles.
When Joy and Billy got married there were no million pounds OK! magazine contracts and footballers’ wages were nowhere near what they are today. In 1958 the top wage was capped at £20 per week, so a glitzy wedding was probably never in consideration, but in all reality Billy and Joy were more modest than their modern counterparts and intended shunning any publicity as they planned to get wed privately at a registry office. On the morning of his wedding Wright caught a train to Bournemouth, where the Beverley Sisters had been booked for the summer season. Here he met up with Joy and the couple made their way to the registry office in nearby Poole. They noticed on their journey that there seemed to be an awful lot of traffic and when they got to their destination they realised their secret was out and found a crowd of thousands of people had come to wish them well, with people having climbed trees, lamposts and balancing precariously on widow ledges to get a view of the happy couple. After a 24-hour honeymoon in Stratford-on-Avon Billy was back training for Wolves, and Joy was back singing.
Shortly after his marriage, and at the very pinnacle of his career, Billy Wright announced his retirement at the age of 35. It speaks volumes about him that in over 600 games for club and country he was never cautioned once. Nearly 30,000 people came to see his final match on 8 August 1959, a then traditional pre-season training game between the Wolves’ first team and the reserves. After his retirement as a player Wolves offered him a job for life starting as assistant to Stan Cullis, but instead Wright took charge of the England youth team and under-23s with some acclaim and there was talk of him being the successor to Walter Winterbottom, then England’s manager. This changed though when Arsenal, the team that both he and Joy supported as youngsters, asked him to be their manager in 1962. He did this job for four years but was unable to revive the ailing London side, although he did implement a youth policy that would produce some future stars, like Charlie George and John Radford, who would play for the double-winning team managed by Bertie Mee. After being fired by Arsenal he left football for a successful career in television sport administration.
Billy Wright died on 3 September 1994. His funeral bought Wolverhampton city centre to a standstill when over 3000 people watched his cortege leave Wolves ground Molineux, where the recently built main stand had been named after him and a 15 foot bronze statue of him has since been erected. The cortege proceeded to the church where the service was being held. There in attendance amongst the 700 inside the church were the three Beverley Sisters and many greats of the game such as Stanley Matthews, Bobby Charlton, Tom Finney and Nat Lofthouse, as well as Wolves’ heroes past and present. Outside there were many hundreds more braving the heavy rain to pay their respects and follow the service being relayed on speakers. When the Beverley Sisters recording of Love Me Tender was played there was barely a single person present not moved to tears. Despite the rain the whole day was a fitting tribute to a man who achieved so much not just in football but as a person, and demonstrated that he still meant a lot to the people of Wolverhampton, even those who were not born when he was the leader of the club and his country.