15th March this year marked the 40th anniversary of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ victory in the 1980 League Cup final.
It was the club’s ninth major trophy in their 103-year history, and their seventh since the Second World War. Forty years on, it remains the last piece of major silverware to be won by the club, and in retrospect appears to be a defining moment in Wolves’ history.
The triumph marked the end of Wolves’ golden age, the thirty-five years since the end of the war in which the club had lifted three First Division titles and four domestic cups. Simultaneously, it marked the beginning of three-and-a-half decades of decline and a much less successful era in the club’s history.
The decade preceding the 1980 cup final was a tale of two halves for Wolverhampton Wanderers. The early Seventies saw a side forged by manager Bill McGarry emerge from the shadows of the famous team of the 1950s to etch their own names into Molineux folklore.
1972 saw Wolves finish as runners-up in the first ever edition of the UEFA Cup. Although losing to Spurs in a two-legged final, the team recorded memorable victories against the likes of Juventus and Ferencvaros along the way, echoing the famous flood-lit matches of the 1950s.
The UEFA Cup run was bookmarked by fourth and fifth place finishes in the league in 1971 and ’73, which saw Wolves establish themselves as a force in English football at a time of intense competition.
The period of resurrection was capped off with a 2-1 win at Wembley in the 1974 League Cup. Goals from Kenny Hibbitt and John Richards saw Wolves beat the much fancied Manchester City side, which boasted the talents such as Colin Bell and Francis Lee, to claim their first major trophy in fourteen years and gain UEFA Cup qualification for the third time in four seasons.
Sadly, however, the Cup win proved to be the peak for the early 70s side, as just two years later the club were relegated to the Second Division for only the second time in forty-three years.
The fall from grace saw Bill McGarry’s tenure at the club come to an end after eight years as manager, as well as the departure of some of the more senior members of the squad who had reached the twilight of their careers.
The slide was quickly arrested under new manager Sammy Chung, with Wolves returning to the top flight at the first attempt, taking the Second Division title with them.
Wolves experienced an underwhelming return to the First Division but crucially avoided relegation in their first season back. However, a poor start to the 1978/79 season saw Chung dismissed and John Barnwell bought in as his replacement.
Barnwell steered the club to safety once more and in the summer of 1979 set about recruiting players who could lead Wolves up the table.
The first key signing was that of Emlyn Hughes, the man who had captained Liverpool to numerous major honours throughout the 1970s. Signed for his experience and leadership skills, Hughes was immediately made captain upon his arrival at Molineux.
Following Hughes, in September ’79 striker Andy Gray (of Sky Sports fame) arrived from local rivals Aston Villa for a British transfer record fee of £1.49m.
Despite drawing lower league opposition in the first few rounds of the competition, all bar one of Wolves’ ties were decided via replays. Even in the semi-finals they were beaten 2-1 by Swindon Town in the first-leg, before overturning the deficit with a 3-1 victory in second-leg.
Their opponents in the final were Brian Clough’s now legendary Nottingham Forest side. Forest had been promoted to First Division alongside Wolves in 1977 (in fact they had only gone up in 3rd place on the final day of the season). Since then, however, Forest had experienced a meteoric rise.
A first ever League Championship arrived in 1978, just a season after their narrow promotion, followed by an even more incredible European Cup triumph one year later. In addition to these titles, they had also won the previous two League Cup finals and so unsurprisingly were overwhelming favourites to retain their title for a third year in a row.
The game itself was billed as the Battle of the Million Pound Strikers, with Wolves’ Andy Gray and Forest’s Trevor Francis leading the lines.
The first half was a largely balanced affair with neither team taking the initiative. Wolves arguably went into the break the happier with their sharp defending quashing the threat presented by Francis and the rest of Forest’s attacking talent.
In the second half, a tactical switch saw Peter Daniel move wide to limit the influence of Forest’s star winger John Robertson, whilst Kenny Hibbit was moved to the middle to provide extra support for the striker
This switch was soon to have a decisive influence on the match. In the 67th minute a Peter Daniel through-ball from the halfway line drew Forest and England keeper Peter Shilton off his line. With his eyes on the ball Shilton collided with teammate David Needham, who was also guilty of ball-watching.
Calamity ensued, with the ball deflecting off of Needham as both players fell to the ground, leaving Andy Gray unmarked to score the easiest of tap-ins to send Wolves into a 1-0 lead.
The final quarter of the match saw some excellent defending from Wolves as they consistently nullified Forest’s attacking threat.
Wolves were able to see the game out and the one goal proved enough to seal another victory at Wembley. The achievement was of particular significance to the two summer signings Hughes and Gray.
For Hughes, he had won the only trophy that had alluded him at Liverpool. Whilst for Andy Gray, a winning goal at Wembley duly justified the million-pound fee that the club had parted with to secure his services.
The silverware was the cherry on top of an excellent season for Wolves. A 6th place finish in the league was their highest in seven years and the cup victory meant that they had qualified for European football after five years away.
In many ways, the cup final should have been the start of new era of success for Wolves. Alongside their improving team, the club had completed the first phase of a planned stadium redevelopment with the shiny new 9,400-seater John Ireland Stand costing the club £2.5M.
Sadly however, it proved to be nothing more than a false dawn. On the pitch, Wolves’ promising form of the 1979/80 season was followed by an underwhelming 18th place finish in 1981.
Off the pitch, the club was unravelling faster than the team. The recession of the early 1980s saw a rise in inflation and a fall in match-day attendances. These factors made it increasingly difficult for the club to repay the loans they had taken out to fund the new stand.
The situation worsened in 1982 with the club suffering both relegation and receivership. Liquidation was only narrowly avoided through a last-minute takeover by a consortium led by former player Derek Dougan and financed by the elusive Bhatti Brothers.
The new regime briefly bought a new lease of life with Wolves repeating their achievement of 1977 by securing an immediate return to the top flight. Sadly, this proved to be yet another false dawn. The club endured a miserable season back in the First Division, finishing rock bottom and suffering yet another relegation.
Things would only get worse for the Wolves. A lack of investment from the Bhatti’s saw the club fall like a stone. Relegation from the First Division in 1984 was followed by relegation from the Second Division in 1985 and a third successive relegation in 1986.
The club went into receivership once more in 1986, with only a last-minute deal from Wolverhampton City Council saving the club from extinction.
To add to the mounting problems, two of the ground’s stands were closed due to safety concerns, meaning that by the time Wolves kicked-off their inaugural Fourth Division campaign they were playing to a quite literally half-empty stadium.
Fortunately, 1986 would prove to be the lowest ebb Wolves would sink to. The appointment of boyhood fan Graham Turner as manager in October and the arrival of the club’s future record goal-scorer Steve Bull in November heralded the beginning of Wolves’ revival.
Back-to-back promotions in 1988 and ’89 saw the Old Gold climb back to the Second Division, and the purchase of the club by Sir Jack Hayward in 1990 saw the much-needed redevelopment of Molineux.
Despite the new cash injection from Hayward, Wolves’ revival stuttered. Continuously coming out on the wrong side of promotion battles, the side became something of a second-tier staple.
A return to the top-flight was finally sealed via the play-offs, but the club were unable to cement their place in the Premiership, going down after just a season.
Even after another promotion in 2009, the club were never able to reach the heights they had last hit in 1980, instead spending three seasons battling for survival at the foot of the table.
Indeed, until the purchase of the club by the investment conglomerate Fosun International, the club never looked likely to ever be able to challenge among the top teams in English football.
However, the Fosun-financed and Nuno-led revolution at Wolves has led the club back towards the summit of English football. A 7th place finish last season was the team’s highest in the footballing pyramid since that cup winning season, and earned the club a return to European football for the first time since 1980.
Despite the recent revival, the fact remains that four decades have passed since that victorious Wembley visit and Wolves are still hunting for another chance to end their barren spell.
For now at least, the 1980 League Cup remains Wolves’ last major honours, and stands as a poignant moment in the club’s history, the end of the glory years and the beginning of the wilderness years.
The Old Gold faithful will be hoping that the current revival is not another false dawn and is instead the genesis of a new golden era. Should the current season be permitted to eventually restart, perhaps this season’s Europa League campaign will offer the chance of silverware