Wolverhampton Wanderers are one of the great old names of English football, and one that is generally associated with the upper echelons of the game. Wolves were one of the twelve founder members of the Football League, and have a long and proud history.
Wolves have won the title three times, the FA Cup four times, and the League Cup twice. They have won every competition that is currently contested in the English game and were the first club to win all four professional divisions.
The 1950s was Wolves’ golden era, as they spent a decade under Stan Cullis winning trophies and breaking new ground for the game. Cullis led the club to three league titles – they also finished runners-up twice – and the FA Cup, while they became one of the first English clubs to install floodlights, which they capitalised on in a big way. Between 1953 and 1956, the club arranged floodlit friendlies with top overseas clubs that were televised, which ultimately led to the creation of the European Cup in 1955. After winning the title in the 1958/59 season, Wolves competed in the following season’s European Cup, reaching the Quarter-Finals.
Wolves reached the Semi-Finals of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1961, but suffered relegation to the Second Division in 1965. The club returned to the top flight in 1967, which was to herald another successful period under manager Bill McGarry. After a fourth place finish, Wolves qualified for the inaugural UEFA Cup in 1971/72, and reached the final beating Juventus on the way. They met Tottenham Hotspur in the two-legged final, losing 3-2 on aggregate. Two years later, they bagged silverware again, this time lifting the League Cup, beating Manchester City 2-1 at Wembley.
In more recent times, Wolves have yo-yoed between the Championship and the Premier League. Nuno Espírito Santo seems to have re-established them in the top flight, and last season took them back into Europe, when they reached the Quarter-Finals of the Europa League.
But it isn’t all that long ago that Wolves were a byword for chaos and mismanagement. The 1980s weren’t great for English football generally, but for Wolves, the decade was a disaster.
However, the 1980s actually started brightly for Wolves. In 1980 they lifted the League Cup for a second time, beating reigning European champions Nottingham Forest 1-0 at Wembley thanks to a goal from Andy Gray, who was then the club’s and England’s record signing. They went on to finish the season in the top six, while the Molineux Street Stand had been redeveloped to kickstart the much needed modernisation of the club’s long-standing home.
However, the on-going modernisation programme and particularly loans taken out to redevelop the John Ireland Stand, combined with falling gates as a result of the early 1980s recession, growing hooliganism, and an unexpected relegation sent the club into financial meltdown. In 1982, Wolves went into receivership, which saw many players shipped out on free transfers. With the club on the brink of liquidation, legendary striker Derek Dougan came to the rescue, fronting a consortium backed by the Bhatti brothers of Allied Properties. However, this proved to be nothing more than a temporary fix.
Whilst Wolves immediately bounced back from relegation, their promotion just papered over some very serious cracks. The club was still financially unsustainable, and the Bhatti brothers became increasingly unwilling to provide finance leaving Wolves unable to compete at the top table. The result was an inevitable immediate relegation back to the Second Division after a nightmare campaign which saw them finish bottom of the table, the only highlights being a 3-1 win at local rivals West Bromwich Albion, and a shock 1-0 win over champions Liverpool at Anfield.
This second relegation led to a total meltdown, and two further consecutive relegations followed, while the threat of receivership remained omnipresent. By the summer of 1986, Wolves found themselves in the Fourth Division for the first time in the club’s history. The club’s decline looked terminal, and they once again collapsed into receivership.
However, this proved to be a watershed moment for the club, and although it may have not seemed the case at the time, it was a genuine turning point. Wolverhampton City Council acquired the Molineux stadium and surrounding land, and developer Gallagher Estates cleared the club’s outstanding debts in return for being granted planning permission to develop a site immediately adjacent to the stadium. Former Shrewsbury Town and Aston Villa manager Graham Turner arrived, and one of Turner’s first signings was a young striker named Steve Bull from local rivals West Bromwich Albion, whose goals were to underpin the club’s revival. Indeed, Bull went on to become the club’s all-time top goalscorer with 306 goals, including 52 during the 1987/88 season, and 18 hat-tricks.
Despite being promotion favourites, Wolves missed out in Turner’s first season in charge, losing in the play-offs to Aldershot. But the 1987/88 campaign saw them win the Fourth Division title and the Football League Trophy, which saw Wolves take an incredible 50,000 supporters to Wembley where they beat fellow sleeping giant Burnley 2-0.
The following season, Wolves won the Third Division title, and so by the turn of the new decade, the club found themselves back in the second tier, with the record-breaking Bull selected for England’s 1990 World Cup squad. And the club found itself on a much firmer financial footing when it was bought by lifelong supporter Sir Jack Hayward, who had made his fortune in property development. However, even with Hayward’s substantial financial backing, it was another thirteen years before Wolves returned to the top flight under Dave Jones after a nineteen year absence.
So while the latest generation of Wolves supporters are enjoying better days, those of my age will still recall with a shiver the days when the club were in freefall, heading towards English football’s basement, and going out of business was almost a daily threat. If you were looking for a modern day comparison, you could perhaps point to Portsmouth whose decline has been equally spectacular, their recovery less so.
In some respects, Wolves fans can probably look back on their revival under Graham Turner with some fondness, but I guess that they are probably grateful that their spectacular fall from grace occurred before the birth of Sky TV and Netflix.
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