BY RYAN PLANT
When John Barnwell’s Wolverhampton Wanderers met Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest at Wembley in the 1979-80 League Cup final, the odds were stacked in Forest’s favour. However, Clough’s star-studded side, which later that year won the European Cup, could not force their way past the often-impenetrable Wolves central defensive duo of Emlyn Hughes and George Berry and succumbed to a 1-0 defeat.
Paul Bradshaw was in goal that day, with Geoff Palmer and Derek Parkin as full-backs; the latter made over 600 appearances in Old Gold and still holds the club’s record for the most appearances to this day. In Peter Daniel, Kenny Hibbitt and Willie Carr, Barnwell possessed a hard-working midfield that allowed Andy Gray and John Richards to press high up the pitch in attack.
In fact, the signing of Gray reflected Wolves’ cavalier approach that saw their fans witness an impressive charge to the UEFA Cup final in 1972 and victory against Manchester City in the League Cup final in 1974. After midfielder Steve Daley was sold to City for £1,437,500, only three days later Barnwell signed Gray for £1,150,000, making him the most expensive player in British football at the time. He was then paraded on the pitch at Molineux before a home game against Crystal Palace; this came after the signing of Hughes from Liverpool and winger David Thomas from Everton, who rejected the chance to join Manchester United in favour of Wolves.
Barnwell’s side finished sixth in the First Division at the end of the 1979-80 season, and the club’s League Cup victory meant Wolves would be back in Europe the following campaign. Richards, Gray and Hibbitt all finished the season with double figures in the goal stakes and Hughes captained England, following in the footsteps of the great Billy Wright.
Anticipation must have been high ahead of the 1980-81 season. Sadly, things went horribly wrong on all fronts; Wolves finished 18th in the league, failed to retain the club’s League Cup crown after defeat to Cambridge United and lost in the first round of the UEFA Cup to PSV Eindhoven. A narrow defeat in the FA Cup semi-final to Tottenham Hotspur rubbed further salt into the wounds after the imperious Hughes departed the club for Rotherham United.
Unfortunately for Wolves’ fans, the following season did little to rectify the troubles of the season before. During the course of the campaign, three managers oversaw a poor season at Molineux; Barnwell was sacked in November 1981, Ian Ross acted as caretaker manager before Ian Greaves took charge in February 1982. He arrived after Alex Ferguson, then of Aberdeen, rejected the chance to move to England and the great Michel Platini turned down an offer to move to the West Midlands.
Greaves’ side fell five points short of safety and were relegated to the Second Division. The team were also knocked out of the FA Cup and League Cup in the opening rounds. After club stalwarts Parkin, Berry and Carr left Molineux, Wolves’ fans would be forgiven for not entering the 1982-83 season with such optimism post relegation.
However, an excellent campaign saw Wolves promoted back to the top tier at the first attempt. New manager Graham Hawkins relied on the goals and experience of Gray and Hibbitt, along with new signings Alan Dodd and goalkeeper John Burridge in defence. But off the pitch, problems were mounting. Soaring interest rates and the cost of building a new stand at Molineux meant that the club were £2.5million in debt. Former player, Derek Dougan, headed a consortium that saved the club from extinction less than a day before it went into the hands of the official receiver; the club was in dire straits led by former (and indeed later) Aston Villa Chairman, Doug Ellis.
Worse still, before Wolves’ return to the top flight, in the summer of 1983 ‘King John’ Richards left Wolves for Maritimo of Portugal. He scored 194 goals in 486 games in the Old Gold, and had played for England. After his former strike partner Gray left for Everton, Wolves found goals in the First Division hard to come by, and scored just 27 during the whole 1983-84 league season. Hawkins’ side limped to just 29 points, and finished in last place; victory against Liverpool at Anfield remained the only high point of a disastrous campaign, which led to the arrival of Tommy Docherty as manager as Wolves once again prepared for life in the second tier.
As was the case in 1982-83, the club’s stay in the Second Division lasted only a season – but this time, it did not end with promotion. Docherty’s side plummeted down the table after a promising, albeit inconsistent start to the campaign that began with six wins out of 16. A run of two wins in 26 later, which included a run of seven defeats in a row in December 1984, meant that Wolves finished the season with just 33 points and were relegated for the second season in row. The last fixture against Huddersfield Town saw an attendance of just 4,422 – the smallest Molineux had seen for 60 years.
When Dougan resigned from the position that helped him save the club that he had starred at in the 1970s, the players were left wondering whether they would be paid or not. As Wolves’ financial troubles grew, the terrible fire disaster at Bradford City’s Valley Parade meant that every football stadium in the country came under scrutiny. The Waterloo Road Stand and North Bank terracing at Molineux had to be closed until they met the new required safety standards.
Wolves’ owners, the Bhatti brothers, faced severe financial difficulties and once again the club were flirting with closure as the players prepared for the 1985-86 season in the third tier. The trouble behind the scenes had a catastrophic effect on the pitch as an astounding 33 new players could not stop Wolves from being relegated at the end of the third season in succession. Sammy Chapman’s side finished in 23rd place and were knocked out in the early rounds of every cup competition they entered after he replaced Billy McGarry as manager, who lasted just 61 days in charge. Only 1,618 fans watched a defeat to Torquay, the lowest attendance at Molineux since 1891.
There was talk around this time that Wolverhampton Wanderers, a founder member of the Football League, could lose their status in the competition because of the ongoing financial difficulties. Once again, for the third time in the 1980s, the club was saved from extinction at the eleventh hour; this time by the Asda supermarket chain, Gallagher Estates Limited and the Wolverhampton town council. A shake-up behind the scenes meant that Richard Homden and Jack Harris were to lead a consortium that oversaw the running of the club. The new president was Sir Jack Hayward OBE, a millionaire and lifelong supporter that saved Wolves with money out of his own pocket.
Brian Little was appointed as manager and given the unenviable task of earning promotion from the Fourth Division. Things got worse before they got better; Little departed in October 1986 and was replaced by Graham Turner, who became the 11th full-time manager at Molineux in ten years. If Turner did not realise the size of the task ahead before his arrival, a shocking 3-0 defeat at the hands of non-league Chorley in the FA Cup indicated just how far Wolves had dropped from their League Cup success less than a decade previous. Two new signings from West Bromwich Albion, Andy Thompson and Steve Bull, featured in the Old Gold’s abysmal display; the latter was to become a huge favourite at Molineux after a fourth-place finish in the league was confirmed.
The 1987-88 and 1988-89 seasons proved to be memorable as Wolves embarked on a journey back up the English football ladder. In 1988, Wolves won the double as they romped to the Fourth Division title with 90 points before winning the Sherpa Van Trophy at Wembley – Bull scored an incredible 52 goals in all competitions, and scored 50 the following campaign to become the first player since George Camsell in 1928 to score a century of goals in two seasons. His goals helped his team to the Third Division title with virtually the same squad of players a year later.
Having become the first club side to win the Fourth and Third Division titles consecutively, Wolves played out an uninspiring yet safe return to the Second Division, finishing tenth at the end of the 1989-90 season. The following campaign Turner led his side to 12th place, once again without the danger of relegation to put an end to years of uncertainty and poor performances on and off the pitch. In 1991, Hayward began to invest in redeveloping the long-neglected terraces at Molineux, erecting a new stand named after former player and manager, Stan Cullis. Sir Jack also promised manager Turner funds to invest in new players, as he set about forcing a return to the top tier for the club he had supported for nearly all his life. It had certainly been an eventful few years for one of English football’s oldest clubs.
FOLLOW RYAN ON TWITTER @ryanplant1998