On too many occasions following my beloved Wolves, the going to the match has proved a much better experience than the match itself. Although it hasn’t always been like that
– Golden Wander –
The first time I saw the Wolves was a Tuesday night Texaco Cup game against Morton from the then Scottish First Division in November 1970. We had tickets in the old Waterloo Road stand, and as I climbed the wooden steps and the pitch came into view and the sheer noise of it all hit me, I admit I had an almost religious experience. It must have been akin to a pilgrim from the wilder extremes of Europe in the 12th Century seeing the magnificence of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for the first time. I bet it was the same hot dog salesmen.
I’ve since looked up the stats from that game and far from it being a heaving mass of 56,000 mad Scots and Englishmen that I had imagined, there were only 13,000 there. It was great though, especially under the floodlights. We lost 2.1. I came home singing “E for B and Bobby Gould” and was never quite the same again.
I went to a lot of games in those days, either with my dad or my brother Phil and looking back on it I was spoiled. We had a decent team back then: Phil Parkes, Holsgrove, Bailey, Wagstaffe and Dougan, and I saw Wolves win far more than we lost. Standouts were a 1.0 win against Liverpool with a beautifully taken free kick by that troubled genius Danny O’Hagan and a 5.1 thrashing of Man City with a hat-trick by the Doog and a brace from my hero John Richards. There was also the famous match in the snow when we beat the then double winners Arsenal 5.1 after being one down at half-time. That was a great day; I saw the film ‘300 Spartans’ at my brother’s house that night before settling down in front of Match of the Day. However, there were shadowy portents of things to come: a 2.2 draw against Spurs on the opening day of the 1971 season, after we had been 2.0 up, and a 1.1 draw against Everton who were much the better team; the shock of Joe Royal’s equalizer has stayed with me ever since.
In those days the drinking aspect of ‘the match’ was confined to sitting in the pub car park while my dad and his mates got a few under their belts. I contented myself with a Vimto and a packet of crisps, listening to the radio if I was lucky. It was only much later that the pub came to play its part.
Of course in those pre-Taylor Report days, drink did indeed flow inside the ground, and it seems that as Wolves’ endeavours on the pitch grew ever more grim, so our alcoholic intake increased.
One match against Man City in the 74-75 season was a case in point. I knew something was up when on taking our seats in the stand – it was only much later that I stood on the terraces – my brother nudged me. There sitting next to him was Willie Carr. With the flame-haired maestro injured we didn’t stand a chance. Dennis Tueart ran riot and we got stuffed 4.0. Thank God we had a bottle of brandy to hand.
By the time of the infamous Bhatti Brothers my brother and I were accompanied to the Wolves by his two sons. Our decline was perfectly illustrated by the two boys running unhindered along the side of the pitch, trying to outpace one of the opponent’s wingers. It was like watching park football and Molineux had turned into the House of Usher.
We had taken to driving to Wolverhampton, parking up and going for a pint of Banks’s bitter in the White Hart, which was all over filled ashtrays and chipped formica-topped tables. One time I went to see Wolves play Newcastle United with my eldest brother Rod, who managed to sweep a load of drinks off a table at the White Hart when putting on his coat. It was the most exciting, graceful thing we saw all day.
Molineux by then was in a sorry state, half of it closed for health and safety reasons. We watched from the North Bank under leaden skies and there wasn’t a sniff of a goal from either side all afternoon.
I also remember an away game versus Brentford in the old Third Division. It was the first game of the new season and things surely had to get better. But the omens were bad from the off. In the programme there was a blank, empty space where the picture of the new Wolves squad was meant to be, and it was noticeable that the players’ kit was now being sponsored by individuals and local companies, even down to their socks. Of course we lost and Chorley beckoned.
And then came Bully, and following the Wolves became fun again. Never has the club’s motto ‘Out of Darkness Cometh Light’ seemed so apt. By this time I was living in London and going to games due south. I was there at Leyton Orient – after a few at the William IV, a lovely old gin palace of a pub—when we won promotion from the Fourth Division and Bully was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of the fans, and at Southend when he was substituted by Graham Taylor for ‘tactical reasons’. And then there was Fulham. Craven Cottage was a disgrace. I can remember at half-time watching a tea trolley being trundled around the pitch by some old dear in a plastic overall. How quaint, I thought, I fancy a brew, but just as she got to the away end she stopped and turned around. The toilets were a joke, it rained and we got soaked, but it didn’t matter – we beat them 5.1. Actually, I quite liked going to see matches in West London as the pubs there served a lovely pint of Fullers London Pride and ESB.
I can’t remember much trouble at the grounds following the Wolves; in fact some experiences were quite lovely, for example, in one pub in West London the landlord gave me his cigarettes to keep when the fag machine failed. But Upton Park was scary, Charlton was depressing, Crystal Palace ditto, Watford was surreal – do you remember the allotments? – and at Loftus Road I once sat next to Kevin Rowland.
My experience of pubs in the Black Country was something of a blur, drinks were always rushed and there was lots of animated chat through a fug of smoke. The Waggon and Horses in Cradley Heath, as I remember, was a beauty, as was the Clarendon Hotel next to the Brewery with its stained glass windows, the Varsity, five-deep for a pint of lager was an experience as was the one where we were greeted at one pub with the legend ‘No Crackheads Here’ – nice pint though. Then there’s Wolverhampton’s Great Western, which I first heard of from a Sunderland supporter in the Pride of Spitalfields just off Brick Lane in London’s East End. He said that they served faggots, ‘pays’ and gravy and lovely beer and was near the railway station. I have since seen quite a few away supporters here; it’s a warped sense of pride that they can take in our glorious history, by looking at the pictures of the all-conquering teams of Stan Cullis hanging on the walls, before going on to beat us.
The Great Western is a cracker. It is slightly hidden away behind the railway station on the corner of Sun Street – an odd location as it’s usually raining, overcast or foggy when I’ve been there. Walking from the station you go past the old Low Level Station, which is now being redeveloped. It was once a temporary art gallery, a sort of Black Country Gare d’Orsay.
The pub serves lovely Holdens and Bathams and hot pork baps. It is made up of numerous little bars, all sporting train memorabilia and pictures of freight lorries. The front bar is a favourite as you can watch the barmaids deal with the pressing contingent of punters from all sides. You can imagine it must have been like that at Rourke’s Drift. The chanting inside the pub can also be reminiscent of the Anglo-Zulu Wars, although here it is usually led by a fat bloke in a too-tight replica shirt rather than one of King Cetshwayo’s generals.
Supporters who don’t go for a pint before the game – and they do exist – find it incomprehensible that people could still be in the pub, contemplating another pint, at 2.50pm. This, however, is all too true. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve fast-walked to the ground with a full bladder. It’s also true that I’ve never yet missed a kick-off. For this I have to thank my brother who is a Zen master of the ‘let’s-have-one-more’ approach to watching football. Somehow he always manages to take his seat just as the referee puts his whistle to his lips. Phil’s ability to make time stand still was amply illustrated when we played Burnley in the Sherpa Van Trophy final at Wembley in 1988. We were sat in his mate Slim’s car outside London’s Hoover Factory on Western Avenue – three and half miles away from the stadium – with 10 minutes to go and still made it in time.
A lot has happened since that glorious day in May when 80,841 spectators – an estimated 45,000 in gold and black – watched the Wolves beat Burnley 2.0 with goals by Andy Mutch and Robbie Dennison. We finally made it to the promised land in 2003, 19 years, 13 days, 23 hours and 50 minutes after being relegated from the old First Division. Unfortunately it was at that precise moment that Sir Jack ‘Golden Tit’ Hayward decided to turn off the tap and the team that Dave Jones took up was never really at the races. There were a few moments, namely beating Manchester United, but they were very few and far between.
The Hoddle reign is best forgotten, but Mick McCarthy’s first season rekindled my love for the club. It was great to see a young team, giving their all for the shirt. Even when we got thrashed by Southampton at home, the crowd knew that what was being displayed on the pitch was something we hadn’t seen for a long time, ‘passion’, and cheered accordingly. Of course, last season was like watching a loved one die a long, slow, painful death. I had to turn away from football completely for a while, the experience was so depressing and that defeat against the Albion at Molineux was the final straw. I watched the match in the Castle Hotel in Talgarth, just over the border in Wales. When the locals turned the channel over to watch the rugby, with 20 minutes to go, it was a blessed relief.
I have high hopes for this season though. After a bit of a shaky start, I think Stàle has started to get things on track and with Sako we have a folk hero in the making. At last we seem to have moved away from running ourselves into the ground, à la McCarthy’s mantra of ‘putting a shift in’, and starting to close down space and using the ball to our advantage instead of lumping it forward. I also like the fact that we now have a Norwegian set-up. Wolves have always had a good Viking following. I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s the weather or that the gloomy inclination of the Scandinavian character matches that of the average Wolves fan – if they ever film the Danish thriller ‘The Killing’ in the UK it has to be set in Tipton.
Now I’ve got a son of my own. He’s already a Young Wolf and is looking forward to going to his first game against Ipswich. I’ll take him to the Wolves shop and show him around the ground. Maybe we’ll get some autographs as I did when I was his age; John Richards and Jim McCalliog as you ask. I might even take him to the Great Western, where he’ll be told to sit still and have his pop and crisps. And so it goes.