Wolverhampton Wanderers 0 Nottingham Forest 2
Saturday 20 January 2018
Plenty of nostalgia today. Not only was I back home for my Mum’s birthday and in the city where I lived for 14 years, but this also happened to be a re-run of the last top-flight game I saw at Molineux back in March 1984. On that occasion a Wolves team enduring a torrid season, rock-bottom of the League and destined to remain there, overturned the form-book somewhat with a dramatic last minute winner against Brian Clough’s Forest. (This rescued the game from complete torpor because it had been anything but dramatic up to that point.)
I went to the match with a friend from school, catching an Elcocks’ bus from their garage in Madeley. We stood in what was then known as the Enclosure, the paddock terrace in front of the Waterloo Road stand, behind the benches and beside the players’ tunnel. This was a good vantage point because there was no perimeter wall. Instead the terraces finished about three feet below pitch level, meaning that fans who wanted a worms’-eye view could lean on the very edge of the grass itself.
A Wolves fan from the Seventies wouldn’t recognise modern Molineux. If by the start of that decade a once extremely handsome and well-proportioned venue was starting to look decidedly shabby, by its end ill-considered redevelopment had torn the heart out of both the ground and the surrounding area. The present stadium has actually shifted position considerably, but unlike at Spurs this wasn’t heralded as a move. Wolves just pulled the whole decaying pile down in the early Nineties and started again.
That they needed to do so at all was down to a some costly mistakes. First, and most damaging, was the notion – engendered by a League Cup win, a couple of FA Cup semi-finals and a top six finish between 1978 and 1981 – that an upward trajectory could continue indefinitely. In inflationary times that meant throwing money around as though it was going out of fashion. Having received a rather generous £1.437,000 from Man City for Steve Daley in September 1979, Wolves immediately splashed out £1,490,000 on Villa’s turbulent front man Andy Gray. And learning that the venerable Molineux Street stand was unsafe, they decided to not just build a replacement but to scope out an entire stadium.
The cost of this stand – officially named the John Ireland Stand after Wolves’ 1950s chairman, but soon nicknamed Marshall’s Folly to pillory the chairman who built it – was extortionate. Coinciding with a downturn in the team’s success, it came very close to forcing the club out of business altogether. This in turn deposited them in Division Four at the start of 1986-87 and left Molineux a vast, crumbling mausoleum with the new stand and the vast 1930s-era South Bank terrace the only parts fit to use. Worse, in anticipation of a holistic rebuild that would enable them to improve the ground’s cramped frontage on Waterloo Road, Wolves built the new stand a considerable distance from the pitch.
The Molineux Street stand was an attractive 1932 structure with a vaulted roof, shaped to fit the long road that ran alongside and surrounded by terraced streets. But by the time Wolves and the council had finished with it the area resembled a bombsite. The new stand’s incongruously red seats gave a better view of the potholed car park than the deteriorating action on the field. Its shininess had the unwanted effect of emphasising the peeling paint, degrading asbestos and rusty corrugated iron of Molineux’s two end terraces, the North Bank and the South Bank. Their truncated ends were exposed by the building work and now ended awkwardly in mid-air.
Both these ends were well-loved. Of equal vintage and similar design, each featured a pitched and pillared ironwork roof, wooden steps to the rear (with a Stygian concourse underneath them) and concrete terraces in front. The North Bank was cosy and by the Eighties had a settled and reasonably placid clientele. The South Bank was much bigger, shared with away fans and a lot more anarchic. Before the development work, when the corner section curving round to Molineux Street was still in place, this was the biggest end terrace in the country. With its capacity of 32,500 it was bigger even than Villa’s monolithic Holte End. (It squeezed in an estimated 5000 extra on a wild evening in May 1972 when Wolves hosted Leeds in a title decider and the gates at the rear were forced.)
Not many people seemed to be going anywhere today. Stafford services was deserted as I made my usual breakfast stop, and in Telford it was snowing. Even the Wolverhampton ring road was unusually quiet.
Someone wise once said that the best football grounds are a stone’s throw from the tights counter in Marks & Spencer, and that’s certainly true of what the Sky generation now call The Mol. It dominates the centre of Wolverhampton, in it but slightly below, on the slopes of what was once the Victorian town’s pleasure grounds. In Marshall’s day the solid floodlights loomed over the town like beleaguered symbols of defiance and resilience. For years I walked past it almost daily and spent many a Saturday there. On most of them I saw Robert Plant.
Molineux today owes its existence to the largesse of Sir Jack Hayward, a Bahamas-based multi-millionaire who poured a considerable amount of his fortune into rebuilding the rundown old place into a modern all-seated stadium. (At the same time he set his sights on the Premier League and invested massive sums in players. This part of the project went less well.) The conversion to all-seater basically consisted of building a replica of the John Ireland stand opposite the original, finally moving the pitch, and putting a modest stand behind each goal. The cavernous South Bank was replaced by 6,000 seats built into the side of a suspiciously landscaped hill.
We sat in the Sir Jack Hayward Stand on Waterloo Road, more or less where we’d stood 30-odd years before, with the one-time North Bank to our left. In 2012, in a curious echo of the Marshall years, Wolves replaced this end of Hayward’s 1990s bowl conversion with a tall stand intended to form the first part of a total redevelopment, ran out of money and got relegated. As a result fans in its upper tier get an excellent view of the John Ireland Stand roof. Except that, in a vaguely Stalinist way, Ireland’s role in Wolves history has been airbrushed and his stand renamed after Steve Bull.
Flesh and wine
Down the years I’ve done more fleshing and wining round here than was probably wise. Molineux used to have a pub behind each stand – the Fox, the Feathers, the Hatherton, the one now called the Goalpost (I forget its old name). Most were relics of Victorian street corners, survivors from the terraced streets demolished in 1979. Just the latter two remain, seemingly on their last legs.
I also miss the burger and hot dog stalls that used to proliferate on the street corners around football grounds. Unsanitary things as they were, the smell of them and the taste of their awful cheap food slaked many a beer appetite and formed the backdrop of hundreds of anarchic afternoons. At some tipping point none of us noticed at the time, they were outlawed and replaced by big trailers, selling infinitely healthier and more hygienic but at the same time dearer and somehow less satisfying products.
Of the six of us sampling the unique ambience of the Goalpost pre-match, only three were regular Wolves fans (this made the eventual result something of an inevitability). At the end of the game I expect they wished we’d stopped there. I was ravenous by the time we left and sorted this out at the Masala Express van next to the infamous subway. Nostalgia for the past notwithstanding, pop up curry vendors are an amenity more grounds should have.
This pitched a Wolves side top of the league and unbeaten in 13 games against a Forest team looking for Aitor Karanka’s first win as manager. Of course this was only ever going to end one way, and it did. In an echo of 1984 the match itself was a flat affair. Individually the Wolves players were clearly better than Forest’s. But for whatever reason it didn’t happen for them today, and the niggling visitors took full advantage with two deflected goals following poorly-cleared set pieces. It might have been different if Worrall had been sent off on 19 minutes for attempting to take Jota’s leg off above the knee. But it wasn’t.
Mostly, however, today was about ex-Wolves centre forward, Cyrille Regis. As a footballer Cyrille was a hero to me in the 70s, as he was to many another boy. Later in life I came to respect the gentle, generous and principled man he also was. There was a minute’s applause for him before the match.
Teams and goals
Wolves: Ruddy, Bennett, Coady, Boly, Doherty (Costa 45), Saiss, Neves (Mir Vicente 78), Douglas (Gibbs-White 45), Cavaleiro, Bonatini, Jota. Unused subs: N.Diaye, Batth, Miranda, Norris.
Forest: Smith, Lichaj, Worrall, Mancienne, Fox, Bouchalakis, Cash, Bridcutt (Clough 69), Osborn, Dowell (Darikwa 83), Brereton. Unused subs: Mills, Traore, Carayol, Henderson, Vellios.
Goals: Dowell 40. Osborn 43