Having previously looked – and laughed – at a number of clubs experiencing swift and dramatic falls from grace in the past, it’s now time to move the goalposts slightly and focus attention on sides of yore who enjoyed (if that’s the right word to use in the circumstances) a sustained period of fluctuation bouncing around between the divisions. “Yo-yo Clubs,” I think is the popular vernacular.
As good a club as any to start with is Wolverhampton Wanderers. A founder member of the Football League. Wolves’ Golden Period occurred in the 1950s when, under the stewardship of the legendary Stan Cullis, the Molineux club took the league title three times and just missed out on ‘the Double’ in 1960 when runners-up in the league was coupled with an FA Cup success.
It was during this period that Wolves became instrumental in the establishment of European competition. As one of the pioneers of floodlights, the club held a series of high profile friendly matches against the likes of crack Hungarian side, Honved, and the success of these matches led to calls for organised European competitions. Wolves themselves competed in the European Cup in 1959-60, reaching the quarter-finals, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup a year later when they lost in the semi-finals.
For a while, Wolves were undoubtedly one of the very biggest sides in not only England, but Europe too, and while standards slipped in the mid-1960s to the extent that relegation was suffered in 1965, promotion was quickly achieved and top-flight status regained. The next ten years saw Wolves safely in mid-table in the First Division with some more cup runs to keep the faithful relatively happy but then in the mid-1970s once again relegation was suffered and the club subsequently embarked on a period that was anything but stable.
A famous last-day Molineux clash with Liverpool in May 1976 saw Wolves needing to win to avoid relegation while the Anfield men required a point to take the title. As every Koppite worth his or her salt knows, a Steve Kindon goal after a quarter of an hour gave the home side hope, before three Liverpool goals in the last 15 minutes swung the game and consigned Wolves to relegation.
1977 and a five-way battle for promotion from the Second Division went down to the wire with Wolves pipping Chelsea to the Second Division title and Nottingham Forest holding off Bolton and Blackpool for the third promotion slot. In 1978, Wolves were able to avoid immediate relegation only courtesy of a late surge of form and, again, in 1979 a relegation battle ensued and was eventually successful with an 18th-place finish in the 22-team table.
1979-80 was a much better season with Emlyn Hughes as the newly-installed captain leading the club to a sixth-place finish and the League Cup Final against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest side who were looking to take the trophy for the third consecutive season. On a drab March afternoon, a comical mix-up between Forest’s David Needham and ‘keeper Peter Shilton allowed Wolves striker, Andy Gray, to nip in and score the only goal of the game.
European football was thus back at Molineux and the FA Cup semi-final was reached and lost in 1980-81 before things really started to go pear-shaped. Financial squeezes were being placed upon the club, due partly to the decision made to invest in a large new stand that they were unable to fill in the middle of a recession, and on the field, the 1981-82 season was a disaster with relegation being confirmed well before the end of the miserable campaign.
1982-83 provided an unlikely respite when against all the odds immediate promotion was achieved as runners-up to Terry Venables’ Queens Park Rangers side. While Rangers and Venables would have a sterling 1983-84 season and finish in fifth place thus qualifying for the UEFA Cup, Wolves were disastrously relegated once again.
By now, the club was burning through managers with the successful and popular John Barnwell leaving in January 1982 to be replaced by Ian Greaves. Greaves lasted just six months before making way for Graham Hawkins who oversaw both the promotion and the relegation seasons of 1983 and 1984, before being sacked in favour of the legend that was Tommy Docherty.
Famous for the swashbuckling football played by his Chelsea and Manchester United sides in times gone by, Docherty was by now, unfortunately, a shadow of his former self and the 1984-85 season bore this out as the club finished rock bottom of the table and thus suffered a second successive relegation. Docherty was dragged kicking and screaming from the club and replaced by first Bill McGarry, who had been in charge when Wolves were relegated in 1976, and then Sammy Chapman, as the club tried desperately to get some sort of grip on the malaise that now gripped the club.
Unfortunately, Chapman soon proved to be as helpless and hapless as his recent predecessors and, unbelievably, Wolves were once more relegated. To suffer three successive demotions was at the time unprecedented and a very long way from the European campaign of just five seasons previously never mind the Glory Days of the Stan Cullis era.
The very survival of the club was at considerable risk for some time as the debts continued to pile up and the ground fell into disrepair. If the club’s faithful support thought they had reached their collective nadir, they were wrong. That was to come in an FA Cup game against non-league Chorley in the first round in November 1986. Drawn at home, Chorley opted to switch the tie to the neutral Burnden Park, home of Bolton Wanderers and were probably slightly unlucky to not get over the line at the first time of asking as the teams played out a 1-1 draw.
Expected to prevail in the Molineux replay a few days later, Wolves did at least up their game but another 1-1 draw was the best they could achieve. This meant a second replay and with Chorley winning the toss, the sides headed back to Bolton for a third go at deciding who would go through to the second round. This time out there were no doubts as the Northern League side comprehensively outplayed their illustrious opponents to prevail by a 3-0 scoreline that in no way flattered them.
From the embers of this disaster, though, came the first shoots of recovery. Following Sammy Chapman’s dismissal, Graham Turner, the former Aston Villa manager was appointed and just before the Chorley cup game, Turner signed Andy Thompson and a West Brom reserve called Steve Bull. Although Thompson and Bull were ineligible for the Chorley games, together with Bull’s strike partner, Andy Mutch, they would be instrumental in the club’s revival in the coming years.
The remainder of the 1986-87 season saw Wolves start to get their act together and although automatic promotion from the Fourth Division was missed out on, the final of the inaugural play-offs were reached. Unfortunately for the Molineux side, in the two-legged final, they fell 3-0 on aggregate to an Aldershot side they had finished two places and nine points ahead of in the regular season.
The next two seasons were the real deal, however, with Wolves taking the Fourth Division title in 1987-88 five points ahead of Cardiff City. This title success meant that Wolves became the first club to have been crowned champions of all four divisions at some point during their existence.
Wolves also reached the final of the Associate Members Trophy where they came up against fellow fallen giants, Burnley, then also of the Fourth Division, at Wembley before a crowd of over 80,000. A goal in either half without reply capped a memorable season for Wolves and the future was suddenly just a little brighter.
Although he didn’t score at Wembley, Steve Bull did manage to plunder 52 goals in all competitions that season with 34 of them coming in the league. The next season he was slightly off-form, though, and could only manage a paltry 50 in all competitions as Wolves swept through the Third Division and took their second successive title. Bull’s goal-scoring prowess was such that it got him into the England team as a third-flight player and he would go on to play in the World Cup in Italia ’90.
Lining up in the Second Division in time for the 1989-90 season, Wolves were expected to be back in the First sooner rather than later, but the fact of the matter is it took another 14 seasons before the promised land was finally reached. This was despite three playoff failures in the intervening years.
Once back in the top division, now rebranded as the Premier League, Wolves at once reverted to type and were instantly relegated after a single dismal season in 2003-04, finishing bottom with a poor return of 33 points. Six further seasons were required to once again win back premier status and after three years of struggle, a further relegation to the Championship was suffered in 2011-12 under the stewardship of Mick McCarthy and then Terry Connor.
The 2012-13 season started with Wolves expected to challenge once more for another quick or even instant return to the top table of English football under new manager, StÃ¥le Solbakken, but in shades of events twenty years earlier, the club fell once more into freefall with a second successive relegation being suffered. By the season’s close, Solbakken had been and gone as had his replacement, Dean Saunders, and so the mantle was handed over to Kenny Jackett with the clear remit of halting the malaise and getting Wolves back up the divisions.
This Jackett managed to achieve in his first season, taking the League One title and just missing out on the play-offs in the following 2014-15 Championship season. However, it was to take another three seasons and three managers before Wolves finally made it ‘home’ by taking the 2017-18 Championship title under Nuno EspÃrito Santo.
Tipped to struggle once again, Wolves exceeded all expectations to finish 7th in successive seasons and made it to the quarter-final of the 2019-20 Europa League.
Despite the departure of EspÃrito Santo for an ill-fated sojourn at Tottenham Hotspur, fans of the Molineux club will be justified in hoping that their club’s days as a yo-yo club are well and truly a thing of the past.