1979-80: When Wolverhampton Wanderers roared back into the top-flight

Words by Simon Hart Illustration by Philippe Fenner
August 10, 2018
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“I‘m delighted for Wolves. The club have been brave in their appointments, signings and building programme. They deserve better times and they look like being on their way.” These words might have been written today about the Chinese-owned, Portuguese-driven Wolverhampton Wanderers of Fosun, Nuno Espírito Santo and, pulling the odd string here and there, Jorge Mendes.

Instead, they were written about a different Wolves team – the one which in 1980 secured the club’s last top-half finish in the top flight of English football, the very target that some consider within the reach of Nuno’s men in this coming campaign. Not unlike this summer, when the arrivals of players like João Moutinho, Rui Patrício, and new record signing Adama Traoré have created a strong swirl of optimism, Wolves entered the autumn of 1979 with their own big-name signings: Emlyn Hughes from Liverpool, seeking an Old-Gold swansong in his 33rd year, and crucially Andy Gray, recruited in early September for a British-record fee of £1,469,000 from Aston Villa.

Gray’s debut was against Everton – his future club and, incidentally, the first opponents for Wolves back in the Premier League this Saturday. He marked it with a goal in a 3-2 Goodison victory, then struck another in a 3-1 home win over hitherto unbeaten Manchester United that led TV sports reporter Gary Newbon to write about those “better times” ahead in his column in the Wolverhampton Express & Star.

In the short term at least the optimism was borne out: Wolves went and won 3-2 at Highbury the next weekend, with Gray scoring again, and the following spring earned the club’s last top-six finish in the elite division and, moreover, their last major trophy in the form of the League Cup.

Longer term, the future was less rosy. Within six years, Wolves had fallen through the floor of English football, landing three storeys below in the fourth division. For a club that spent only three seasons outside the top flight between 1932 and 1980, winning three league titles in the 1950s, it was some collapse. In the Premier League era, by contrast, they have spent only four seasons among the elite – with 15th place their best finish. “They had a fantastic history with fantastic players and it was sad to see the demise,” reflects Kenny Hibbitt, a Molineux stalwart of the 1970s, as he looks back on that period.

First, the shimmer of success at the start of a troubled decade. Hibbitt, the club’s second-highest appearance-maker, begins with the immediate impact made by Gray and his fellow new face, Hughes. “Andy was very infectious – he walked in the dressing room and he infected everybody with his passion and commitment,” says Hibbitt, now a Premier League referees’ assessor. “Emlyn was similar to Andy with his enthusiasm,” he adds of the 32-year-old recruit from Anfield. “The first season he won the League Cup which he’d never done with Liverpool.”

Gray’s arrival had followed the sale of Steve Daley to Manchester City for a record fee of £1,437,500 on 5 September 1979. The Scot signed from Aston Villa just three days later, though only after Wolves manager John Barnwell had told his board – to quote Gray’s autobiography – “that if they didn’t sign me he’d walk out” after a specialist advised that they abandon the deal after the player’s medical had raised concerns over the state of his knee (then still recovering from a third operation).

Gray, desperate to escape his previous manager, Ron Saunders at Villa, had consulted Bill Shankly and heard only good things about Barnwell, a former Arsenal and Nottingham Forest midfielder and later chief executive of the League Managers’ Association. “He was a great player, a midfield player, a passer,” Hibbitt says of his old manager. “He loved me and [fellow midfielder] Willie Carr because we used to play a similar type of game.”

Barnwell’s faith in Gray paid dividends on 15 March 1980, when he delivered the only goal of the League Cup final against Nottingham Forest, the holders and reigning European champions. The 24-year-old prodded the ball into an empty net after Forest defender David Needham had mistakenly diverted Peter Daniel’s diagonal long ball past the outrushing Peter Shilton on the edge of their box.

The Times described Wolves as an “unexceptional team” and focused its credit on Hughes’s defensive work at the other end. “Wolves spent £1.5m for Gray’s goal,” said the paper, “but it was Hughes who had the knowledge and courage to defend it.” On the final whistle the veteran lay in an embrace on the Wembley turf with the afro-haired George Berry, his fellow centre-back. (The German birthplace on Berry’s passport, incidentally, was the closest Wolves got to a foreign player back then.)

Although Wolves reached the FA Cup semi-finals the next season, losing to Tottenham Hotspur in a replay, a downward trajectory had begun: relegation came in 1982 and although they bounced straight back, they dropped again in 1984. And they kept on dropping. It is fascinating to recall the details of the implosion that followed at a club whose troubles – two brushes with bankruptcy and a spell of Saudi ownership – presaged the kind of saga that would become commonplace in the Premier League era.

“Changes probably needed to be made on the field of play,” begins Hibbitt who, with Geoff Palmer, Derek Parkin and John Richards, was one of four survivors of the club’s previous League Cup triumph in 1974. Other key men like midfielder Carr had reached 30. “There were quite a few of us getting on a little bit. We should have moved on and brought some younger players in but it didn’t happen and we just fell away.”

For Hibbitt, it did not help that Barnwell “lost his way slightly” after a serious car accident in 1979, where he suffered a fractured skull. It meant that his assistant, Richie Barker, assumed a more hands-on role for a spell in which he had a damaging dispute with Dave Thomas, the winger recruited from Everton in October that year to supply Gray.

He recalls: “John Barnwell said, ‘I’m going to bring Andy Gray in and then I’m going to bring Dave Thomas in to give him some crosses. Unfortunately David fell out with Richie Barker.” Barker had taken objection to Thomas playing in moulded studs and with his socks rolled down. “He was treated awfully by Barker, telling him he had to wear pads and studs and he’d never done that in his career,” adds Hibbitt. “It meant Andy didn’t get the supply he needed.” (He left for Everton for a knockdown £250,000 in November 1983 having averaged a goal every 3.5 matches.)

Off the field, meanwhile, the building of the £2m John Ireland stand, which opened in 1979 with 10,000 seats and over 40 executive boxes, had come at a significant cost – in more ways than one. “We’d had a fantastic atmosphere at Molineux and that played a big part in our home games,” explains Hibbitt, “but we just lost that closeness to the fans. I remember Butch Wilkins saying, ‘We used to be afraid of coming to Molineux but now with that stand being built it’s open and we feel confident of taking points off you”. I said to John Barnwell it was going to cost us a lot of points and it did. It cost us our First Division status.”

It was meant to be the start of a £10m wider stadium redevelopment project. Instead, by summer 1982, it was announced that Wolves had debts of £2.6m. After a brief interim period in which Doug Ellis – in between two spells at Aston Villa – ran the club, a consortium headed by Derek Dougan, Wolves’s former striker, rescued the club three minutes before the Football League and Official Receiver’s deadline.

More trouble lay around the corner, however, as Dougan’s consortium featured two brothers from Saudi Arabia, Mahmud and Mohammad Bhatti of the company Allied Properties, who wished to redevelop the Molineux site, building a supermarket on land next to the ground, but had their plans for a new stadium and leisure park in the city centre rejected by the council. By 1985/86, with two stands closed for safety reasons, Wolves were playing to an average crowd of 4,020 – and falling into the Fourth Division.

Fast forward to the present and Molineux’s future is a matter of debate once more, Wolves’ owners having voiced the concern that its capacity and location might not meet their ambition. This led to almost 18,000 fans responding this week to an Express & Star online poll about the future of their famous old home. If that is a concern for some (two-thirds of respondents wish to stay), it is the solitary cloud on the horizon entering 2018/19.

Hibbitt, who played 574 times for the club, including in a UEFA Cup final, is hopeful it will remain that way. “I think there are special times ahead for us now and it’s been a long time coming. I’ve been working in the Premier League for the last 15 years and I know how difficult it is to establish yourself now because there are so many international players in the league from all around the world but Wolves have got really great optimism. There’s something happening at the club, they want to see the club get into a position looking to the top ten and maybe the following season, a little bit more.”

Better times, as Gary Newbon wrote all those years ago, really do seem to be on their way.

Seasons Of My Life: The Kenny Hibbitt Story (GP Books) is out now.

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