At the end of last season Wolverhampton Wanderers became the first club to be relegated in two successive seasons from the top division of English football on two separate occasions, and while younger supporters continue to scream for the heads of owner Steve Morgan and Chief Executive Jez Moxey, older supporters may be forgiven a chill running down their spine as they contemplate the fact that things could yet get worse for the Black Country club before they improve. After all, they have been here before before. At the end of the 1983/84 season, the club began a precipitous drop that ended with Wolves playing in the Fourth Division of the Football League, but the 1980s were not supposed to be like this for a club that had tasted huge, if sporadic, success in its past. The 1980s started with grand schemes and big ideas, but within six years the club would be approaching bankruptcy for the second time, playing at a ground that that three sides closed for being unsafe.
For younger readers, it is worth a reminder that, at the time, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC was still considered, especially by those of a certain age, to be one of England’s great clubs. In the five decades leading up to 1982, the club had spent just three years below the top flight, won the First Division championships three times (and were its runners-up on a further five occasions), the FA Cup and League Cup twice each and even reached the final of the UEFA Cup once, in 1972. By the end of the 1970s, however, Molineux, the club’s home stadium, was in need of upgrading with one stand in particular, the iconic Molineux Road Stand, being in desperate need of renovation. The introduction of the Safety of Sports Grounds Act finally proved to be the tipping point for this stand, in 1978 plans were drawn up to replace it.
The club purchased seventy-one terraced houses on Molineux Street and set to work on its replacement, which opened in August 1979. The John Ireland Stand was impressive, with 9,500 seats and forty-two executive boxes, but it was also, at a cost which has been reported as being as high as £3m (more than twice the record British transfer fee at the time of its opening), ruinously expensive. The end of the stand’s first season brought the League Cup to Molineux, but this proved to be a false dawn at the start of a new decade and by the end of the 1981/82 season the club was facing relegation to Division Two and the very real possibility of bankruptcy. That summer, former Aston Villa owner Doug Ellis had called in the Official Receiver after an audit revealed the club had run up debts of £2.6 million. It was suggested that Ellis – along with another star of this series, the former Walsall owner Ken Wheldon – wished to buy it on the cheap from the Receiver, but with the club less than thirty minutes from extinction, both they and a group led by a certain Sir Jack Hayward were beaten by a consortium fronted by former player Derek Dougan.
The former Molineux legend Dougan was installed as the Chief Executive of the club, but Dougan was merely the public face of the takeover. The powers behind the throne were the financiers of the deal, two Saudi brothers, Mahmud and Mohammad Bhatti of the company Allied Properties, and whilst Wolves were indeed saved in the summer of 1982, just four years later the club would be in an unprecedented state of decay, with the Receivers at the club’s door for a second time. Their first season saw the club return to the First Division in second place, but the following season saw the start of a heady decline, failing to win any of their first fourteen matches and finishing bottom of the table at the end of the season, despite causing the surprise result of the season in winning away to the champions – and soon to be European champions – Liverpool in the league in January 1984.
Off the pitch, meanwhile, the club rapidly sank back into decline. The Bhatti Brothers had pinned their hopes on a massive redevelopment of the Molineux site, which is in easy walking distance of Wolverhampton town centre, but the local council rejected their planning application, at least in part because of their desire to build a supermarket on land adjacent to the ground which was then determined to be used for “leisure purposes only,” although it has subsequently been suggested that even if planning permission had been granted to the brothers, they wouldn’t have been able to borrow the money to see the project through. Derek Dougan, meanwhile, left the club in January 1985, leaving the increasingly disinterested looking Bhatti brothers in control of a club that was plummeting towards the Third Division of the Football League. In May of that year, they finished bottom of the Second Division, with just eight wins from forty-two league matches.
The following season, however, things only went from worse to catastrophic. With debts starting to mount as a result of the brothers having difficulty servicing the debt for The John Ireland Stand and with investment in the team cut to the bone, the team, by now under the managership of former chief scout Sammy Chapman, was labouring in the Third Division, and Wolves conceded seventeen goals in five matches in the month of September alone as crowds plummeted to an average for the season of just over 4,000 people. Worse still, two of the Molineux stands were condemned in the sudden rush towards some degree of ground safety that followed the Valley Parade fire of May 1985, leaving the ground with only two open with one of them, the ruinous John Ireland Stand, thirty yards from the pitch with a blank expanse of grass in front of it. At the end of the 1985/86 season, the club was relegated yet again, this time into Division Four of the Football League, having finished the season in twenty-third place in the Third Division.
Throughout these two seasons, discontent understandably had been growing amongst the club’s support. Former manager Bill McGarry had returned to Molineux in September 1985 but quit two months later, saying, “I am not going to be party to the killing of one of the finest clubs in the world,” whilst supporters would later protest alongside those of Walsall – it was feared that their owner Ken Wheldon wanted to merge the two clubs – in the town centre, whilst a protest meeting attended by seven hundred people at the Wolverhampton Civic Centre would end with agreement that the best way forward would be to encourage creditors to take out a winding-up order against the company that owned the club, forcing it up for sale again. The Mayor Councillor of the town at the time, George Howells, said at the time, “If the Bhattis could see Wolves off and develop that sacred piece of turf at Molineux for their own interests, they would do it.” The meeting was also attended by, amongst others, another former Wolves legend, John Richards, and Councillor John Bird, the leader of Wolverhampton Council and the man who would eventually be one of the main forces behind saving the club.
In July 1986, with the club facing extinction, the huge South Bank terrace at one end of the ground was also closed on safety grounds by the local authorities. It would be those very same authorities, however, that would come to rescue the club. On the second of July 1986 the official receiver was called in at Molineux again, and this time the situation seemed even worse than it had four years previously. The club had debts of almost £2m, a level of debt that was hopelessly unmanageable for a club on its way into the Division Four of the Football League, but again a last minute rescue deal was put together to save the club. Wolverhampton Council, led by Councillor Bird, purchased Molineux along with land surrounding the stadium itself, while a local property development company, Gallagher Estates Limited, in conjunction with the Asda supermarket chain, agreed to pay off the club’s outstanding debts if planning permission was granted by the council for a superstore on the land adjacent to the stadium, while the Molineux Hotel – a grade two listed building which the club owned and had previously used as a social club but had been derelict since 1979 – and the club’s Castlecroft training ground were sold off to the council for £1.1m.
Mahmud and Mohammad Bhatti were finally shuffled out of Molineux after four years, then, and somehow or other Wolverhampton Wanderers was saved for a second time. The club failed to win promotion straight back into the Third Division – they lost in the play-offs to Aldershot at the end of the 1986/87 season – but at least a little pride had been restored in the club. A new striker, a local lad by the name of Steve Bull, signed for £50,000 from rivals West Bromwich Albion in November 1986 and started scoring at a frightening rate, and in 1988 and 1989 the club won back to back league titles to get back into the second tier of the English game by the end of a roller-coaster of a decade. Thanks to the intervention of a man who had been previously been thwarted in his attempts to by the club but would go on to become its benefactor for many years, Sir Jack Hayward, Molineux was restored to being one of the most modern stadia in the country at the start of the 1990s, even if the team has never quite regained the glories of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
The fate of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club in the early to mid-1980s was in many respects a parable for the times. The club had been required to spend money that it didn’t really have during an era before television money offered a financial buffer to clubs in the top division on a new stand because so little improvements had been made to its ground for so long. Against this backdrop came the Bhatti Brothers, who seldom seemed particularly interested in anything but an end game of redeveloping Molineux and profiting from it, but they were eventually undone by the continuing decline of the club on the pitch, a decline which was hastened by the general malaise that was spreading rapidly across the whole of English football at the time. And perhaps it was, albeit in a perverse way, appropriate that this decline should have been mirrored at one of its great names, a founder member of the Football League in 1888 and a club which just six years before its near demise in 1986 had been lifting a major trophy in the Wembley sunshine. The collapse of Wolverhampton Wanderers served in some respects to warn the wider world of the shocking state in which English football had found itself by the middle of the 1980s. The start of next season will go some way towards indicating whether the more recent decline of this club has been arrested, but older supporters of Wolverhampton Wanderers will already be aware that when a football club is in a downward spiral, things can always get worse before they get better.
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