The fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers are delirious right now. Premier League giants are no longer visiting Molineux expecting a guaranteed victory, but are instead arriving for a battle, filled with pace, frantic action and fury.
Wolverhampton before a game is like a scene from a Brazilian carnival. Sure, it is too cold in the West Midlands for party goers to prance around the Hogshead pub in swimming attire and flip-flops as if they were at a Bloco Carnavalesco in Rio de Janeiro, but a sea of Old Gold shirts, flags and scarves fills the newly-developed Molineux Subway leading up to Sir Jack Hayward’s emblematic statue.
There was a time, though, that Molineux’s faithful did not want to fill the terraces; before Hayward had a chance to finance his boyhood club’s promotion to the top flight. A time when multi-million-pound investment was a wild dream, a thrill enjoyed by very few sets of fans.
The redevelopment of the Molineux Street Stand in 1979 left the club in financial ruin. Difficulties in paying back the loans that were needed to fund the venture led to receivership and relegation to the Second Division in 1982, before a consortium led by Derek Dougan – who had played for the club for eight years, and won the 1974 League Cup – and Mahmud & Mohammed Bhatti of Saudi Arabia saved the day, for the time being.
The group funded an immediate return to the First Division but they failed to continue to invest, leading to three consecutive relegations and widespread protests as the once ‘Champions of the World’ in 1954, per the Daily Mail, fell into the fourth tier.
With the club again in receivership, Wolverhampton City Council purchased Molineux, and a local developer paid off the club’s debts in return for planning permission to develop the land adjacent to the stadium. Times were still hard, though, and manager Graham Turner struggled for inspiration on the pitch.
The first round of the 1986/87 FA Cup was filled with titanic names of bygone eras, not least Wolves. Blackpool, the winners of the most storied final in the tournament’s history, were soundly beaten 3-0 by Middlesbrough. Bolton Wanderers needed two replays to scrape past Halifax Town, and Burnley suffered a 3-0 loss to AFC Telford United, but Wolves’ well-chronicled defeat against fellow non-league residents Chorley was the most shocking and embarrassing of them all.
Usually, Burnley’s humbling defeat would be the most talked about result, but Wolves reached their nadir; the point at which Molineux’s devoted following truly realised how far the club had fallen. Only six years previous, record-signing Andy Gray had headed in John Barnwell’s side’s winner in the League Cup final against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.
Wolves’ first ever appearance in the first round of the competition was a 6-0 defeat to Rotherham United, and they tested the waters again as a fourth-tier outfit; a tie against Chorley at Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park should not have been a problem. But, Turner’s side battled for a 1-1 draw and a replay at Molineux, which finished the same after Paul Moss scored a delicate chip to equalise for the Magpies.
Turner’s players had missed their chance to save face, and the pressure was on them when the two sides returned to Bolton on 24 November 1986, two days after suffering a 3-0 home loss to Wrexham – Steve Bull made his debut in Old Gold that night.
The Tipton-born striker, who went on to become the club’s all-time top scorer with 306 goals in 561 appearances, watched on, ineligible after signing from West Bromwich Albion. His new side fell behind when Charlie Cooper put the minnows ahead after rounding the goalkeeper, Vince Bartram, who had rashly charged out of his penalty area in an attempt to clear a loose ball; he must have been wondering why he chose to move between the West Midlands rivals.
Mark Edwards doubled Ken Wright’s Magpies’ lead on the hour with a chip as Bartram, again, found himself in uncharted territory, before Cooper broke past the Wolves defence and scored into the bottom corner as he raced into the penalty area for his second goal and his side’s third.
For Turner’s side, as Chorley celebrated a famous win, it was time for reflection. Under the headline ‘FOOLS GOLD’, he admitted to the Daily Mirror that he was not surprised by the result, and that the opposition’s unknowns were better technically and physically than his flagging group of misfits – his bout of flu was not a worthy excuse for such an atrocious series of performances, then.
Fast forward 30 years and think of the qualities associated with Nuno Espírito Santo’s Premier League Wolves side. His squad is filled with young, exciting talent and seasoned internationals in every department, even on the substitutes’ bench. By contrast, in 1986, Billy Wright, who made 490 appearances for Wolves and 105 for England – 90 as captain – predicted a dark future at Molineux, saying: “The club has no money to buy young players, good ones won’t join a Fourth Division team, and if they sign old ones there is no long-term future.”
Thankfully, the only way was up. Turner led Wolves, helped by Bull’s unprecedented goalscoring talents, back to the second tier, before Hayward took over and presided over years of stability before promotion back to the top flight was eventually achieved in 2003.
By Ryan Plant
Part of our Magic of the Cup series