As Bad As Things Got: Wolverhampton Wanderers, 24th November 1986
A powerhouse of English football in the 1950s, the club had been in decline since the professional game in England industrialised during the 1960s. In 1965, just six years after the club won its third Football League title and five years after they won the FA Cup, the club was relegated from the First Division for the first time since 1932, although they were promoted straight back the following season. This decline, however, was masked by a combination of outward ambition, and sporadic success, which the benefit of hindsight might now consider to have been no more than a series of false dawns. In 1972 they reached the UEFA Cup final, and they won the League Cup in both 1974 and 1980.
The background of those League Cup wins, however, was one of almost imperceptibly slow decay. Relegation followed again in 1977 – the club bounced straight back again – whilst the club’s iconic Molineux home was also starting to show its age. One stand in particular, the iconic multi-span roofed Molineux Road Stand, was in desperate need of renovation, and 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, while the way in which it was constructed – behind the old stand, which was subsequently demolished – left it thirty yards from the pitch itself.
The stand was a financial disaster for the club, and by the end of the 1981/82 season Wolves were 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, but Dougan was really only 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. 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.
Relegation from the First Division in 1984 turned out to tbe the first of three successive relegations for the club. Derek Dougan, meanwhile, left 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 for the first time in their history. In May 1985 they finished bottom of the Second Division, with just eight wins from forty-two league matches.
With debts continuing to mount and the brothers having difficulty servicing the debt for The John Ireland Stand, the team, by now under the managership of former chief scout Sammy Chapman, was labouring in the Third Division, conceding 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 ground safety that followed the Valley Parade fire of May 1985, leaving the ground with only two open. 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.
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 also come to rescue the club as it cascaded towards bankruptcy. 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 in 1986, but again a last minute rescue deal was put together to save it.
Wolverhampton Council 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.
Throughout the first part of the 1986/87 season, though, Wolves played like a team in transition. They won just one of their first four matches in Division Four, leaving them in 17th place in the table, but results started to pick up, and by the time that autumn started to turn to winter the team had a new manager in the form of Graham Turner, who arrived at the end of the first week in October, and was at least fairly stable in the middle of the Fourth Division. The draw for the First Round of the FA Cup, though, brought a potential banana skin in the form of a trip to Lancashire to play Chorley, of the Northern Premier League. It was a draw that nearly didn’t happen, though. Chorley were initially drawn to play Halifax Town before it was spotted that another club, Darlington, had erroneously been placed in the southern half of the draw. With this corrected, the draw had to be carried out again, and this time Chorley drew Wolves instead.
Chorley were, broadly speaking, an unknown quantity. They’d played county league football since switching from rugby to football in the 1880s, apart from two brief spells in the NPL during its earliest years, and had only been promoted back into it from the Cheshire League in 1982. Despite finishing in a highly creditable fourth place in their first season back in 1983, the club hadn’t really built on this success and they’d finished the 1985/86 season in twentieth place in that division. In the FA Cup, though, they’d reached the First Round for the first time since the 1938/39 season, beating Bootle, Emley, Marine and Southport, before losing at home to Altrincham.
The first match was switched from Chorley’s Victory Park to Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park because of concerns over the potential for crowd work, and ended in a 1-1 draw, with Andy Mutch opening the scoring for Wolves two minutes into the second half, but Paul Moss levelled for Chorley within two minutes. It was the first time that Wolves had failed to beat non-league opposition in the FA Cup since 1909 and most believed that Chorley had missed their best chance of causing an upset, but after a goal scored after half an hour by Matt Forman gave Wolves the lead in the replay at Molineux, Chorley levelled in the most bizarre of circumstances. Here’s Graham Turner, to explain what happened.
It was a strange story in the replay at Molineux – a ball boy played them onside for their equaliser. We were leading, no problems but it was pouring down with rain. We used to have ball boys around the pitch in yellow tops, just the other side of the barrier. The one kid was nearer the pitch than the barrier and the linesman glanced across. The Chorley forward was miles offside, but the ‘lino’ saw a yellow shirt he thought, but it was a ball boy, he admitted it afterwards. He allowed play to go on and they scored an equaliser.
For the remainder of the match, Wolves huffed and puffed at the Chorley defence, but couldn’t blow it down. It ended in a 1-1 draw and, in an era before penalty shootouts decided FA Cup matches, a toss of the coin at the end of the match determined that the second replay would be played at Burnden Park. On this occasion, Chorley didn’t need any luck. As Wolve floundered in the mud, two goals from Charlie Cooper and one from Mark Edwards gave Chorley a 3-0 win, the players a £120 win bonus – they were earning an average of around £25 per week at the time – and a place in the Second Round of the competition, where they drew a goalless local derby with Preston North End, this time in front of 15,000 people – three times the crowds that had watched either of the Wolves home matches – at Blackburn Rovers’ Ewood Park, before losing the the replay on Deepdale’s artificial pitch by five goals to nil.
For Wolverhampton Wanderers, however, this was the perhaps the most abject result in the history of the club, and the national press let them know it the following day. The Daily Mirror described Wolves as “The club dying of shame”, while the Guardian stated that “Starvation led Wolves to the slaughter.” The local paper, the Express & Star, was little kinder, it’s headline reading that the club was “Disgraced!”, and that “Wolves sink to a new low” and the Birmingham Evening Mail marked the result with an illustration of a wolf inside a coffin. Graham Turner, who, having been in the job for just a few weeks and with the fragile condition of the club being common knowledge, largely escaped widespread criticism of the result, told the Mirror that, “I could see it coming. We’ve had three chances to beat Chorley, but they were too strong physically for us. It was men against boys, and we were lucky to lose only 3-0.”
Yet even during these matches, the seeds of Wolves’ subsequent revival were present, even if no-one would have been able to see them at the time. Present at the second replay were Steve Bull and Andy Thompson, who’d recently signed for the club for a combined fee of £65,000 from West Bromwich Albion and had made their debuts in a league match against Wrexham two days earlier which had ended in a 3-0 defeat. They were ineligble to play in this cup match, but both would play significant roles in the next decade of the club’s history.
Bull would go on to play for the club until 1999 and would score a club record 306 goals for them. His first came eight days after the Chorley defeat, away to Cardiff City in the Associate Members Cup. Thompson would end up making 376 appearances for Wolves and would stay with the club until 1997. After missing out on promotion in the play-offs at the first attempt in 1987, Wolves were back in the Second Division by 1989, following two successive promotions. They remain – alongside Portsmouth, Burnley, Preston North End and Sheffield United – one of just five clubs to have been the champions of each of the top four divisions of English football.
Chorley, meanwhile, did have a brief upswing in their fortunes following this series of matches. They were promoted into the Football Conference in 1988 and stayed there for two years, whilst in the 1990/91 FA Cup they beat Bury in the First Round. This, however, would be their last appearance in the competition proper until 2018, while their wins against Wigan Athletic, Peterborough United and Derby County this season have been their first wins against Football League opposition since November 1990. Their one season of National League since 1990 ended in relegation at the end of last season.
The fate of Wolverhampton Wanderers during the first half of the 1980s might now be considered a parable for the state of football in this country at the time. The club had been required to spend money that it didn’t really have during an era before television money offered a financial buffer on a new stand because so few improvements had been made to its ground for so long. Against this backdrop of rapid change and financial instability came the Bhatti Brothers, who seldom seemed interested in anything but 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 a general malaise that had been allowed to fester for years throughout the whole of English football.
With Chorley now in the National League North and Wolves now established in the Premier League, the gap between these two clubs now is titanically greater than would even have been possible in 1986. As such, it seems highly unlikely that even a Wolves team that has been misfiring in recent weeks will have enough about it to see off non-league opposition this weekend. The 21st century version of Wolverhampton Wanderers would do well to bear in mond the lessons of November 1986.