Great Football League Teams 26: Wolverhampton Wanderers, 1982-3
First: a word of qualification. The 1983-4 season that saw Wolverhampton Wanderers promoted back into Division 1 was a shocker. After an encouraging 1-1 draw with a then dominant Liverpool at Molineux in the season opener, the club failed to win until mid November, clocking up an ignominious run of 14 matches without a victory from the start of the season – 16 if you count a double header against Preston in the League Cup. Indeed, if Wolves fans thought it couldn’t get any worse than that, they were deeply mistaken – two successive relegations were to follow, leaving the once proud Old Gold in Division 4, financial catastrophe stalking them at every turn and occupying a worn out shell of a ground.
So, given what followed, the engineers of this rather more successful season are perhaps fortunate to be granted the label “great”. Even in these months, performances could be patchy – Wanderers limping to promotion after a 5-0 defeat at Leicester on February 6 (the Foxes had already triumphed 3-0 at Molineux earlier in the season) – a result that signalled a run of only 3 wins in 15 and an inability to convert draws into wins that had seen them tie 9 out of 11 matches in the Spring.
But credit still needs to be extended for this was a good Wolves side that prevailed out of adversity in 1982-3. Immediately before the start of the campaign, a takeover led by club legend Derek Dougan had saved the club even if it did prove to be something of an economic false dawn, leaving the decidedly shady Bhatti Brothers in nominal charge – the Bhattis as owners rivalled Thomas Pynchon and J. D. Salinger in the profile stakes.
The presence of Andy Gray on the wage bill was a likely cause of the balance-sheet malaise. The only man to win Young Player and Player of the Year awards was a talent of course – and it was his goal that saw off Nottingham Forest in the 1980 League Cup final – but the bustling Scot’s time in the West Midlands was, for the most part a disappointment, perhaps exemplified by his modest tally of 10 goals this Division 2 season, albeit having missed the first couple of months through injury. Of course the rest is history with Gray excelling as Everton stormed to the Division 1 title in 1985, even if a little bit of prehistoric banter has sullied his reputation more recently.
It was Gray’s gnarled strike partners Mel Eves and Wayne Clarke who were to prove the more effective – the older man scoring 18 times and the youngster Clarke, just 21 at the season commencement, hitting 12 and proving himself to be an accomplished target man. Wanderers enjoyed two bright patches that would leave them in the kind of comfortable position that forgave the poor run in. A feat of five winning games in September and October was repeated over the ever vital Christmas period – most notably a televised 4-0 romp over Queen’s Park Rangers – a commanding performance that would nevertheless not impact on the Londoners’ march to the title (for an account of this, see episode 7 in our Great Teams series).
Kenny Hibbitt, a storied player that non-Wolves fans often mistake for Dougan, had collected a UEFA Cup runners-up medal in 1972; the Black Country men losing 1-0 to fellow countrymen Spurs. Hibbitt and fellow long servant Geoff Palmer were crucial in holding together a side stewarded by am inexperienced manager in Graham Hawkins and if the cornucopia of draws in March and April were nervy, it was perhaps due to their influence that more defeats were avoided. Indeed, despite the odd ricket, the ridiculously evergreen John Burridge was an important presence between the sticks – Wolves were “Budgie”‘s sixth club in a career that would see him represent 29 different jerseys – finally signing on the dotted line for Blyth Spartans in 1997.
But as Clarke proved, it wasn’t all about the oldies. John Pender, just 19, took a grip of a first team shirt from the start of the season and proved himself to be a centre back of no little elegance. To his right, John Humphrey was ever present at right back – the Paddington born star exemplary in his solidity and showing the first signs of a talent that would see him feature in Charlton’s return to top flight football a few years later. Perhaps mindful of the back line’s green-ness, Hawkins supplemented matters by adding Alan Dodd, a £40,000 buy from Stoke in November – Pender’s fellow rookie Rob Coy having been deemed too raw. Dodd, a veteran of almost 350 games in front of the Boothen End, provided an injection of security.
An entertaining 2-2 draw with an improving Newcastle on the final day saw Wolves celebrate promotion in front of 22,446. Sadly, the cataclysms to come have overshadowed their achievements.