Bet you thought we'd use a picture of Bully, didn't you?
To domestic matters now, and a warm welcome back to Magic Spongers for Drew Kearns...
In a recent radio interview, Robert Plant, rock god and lifelong Wolves fan was asked to describe the best and worst aspects of supporting Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. He paused, thought and replied, “Realising you support Wolves… and realising you support Wolves”. The man has sung many lines, but never has he spoken truer words.
My life of turmoil as a Wolverhampton Wanderers supporter was a near miss. Both Liverpool and, inexplicably, Huddersfield Town vied for my affections. The former was due to the verve and swagger of a side winning trophies with players as immensely skilful as Barnes, Beardsley, Rush and McMahon. Huddersfield, however, was an education in the harsh realities of life. Due to ill health, Dad was unable to take me, his first son, to football on a regular basis, so kindly arranged for a neighbour with a spare season ticket to take me down the old Leeds Road ground every other week. What this must have felt like for my Dad I never knew, and maybe never will – his son going to watch Huddersfield Town.
On reflection, I suppose he knew I needed my football fix, and living in Ossett, a sleepy old mill town in West Yorkshire, the Terriers was the closest to football I was going to get. But neither the charm and history of the Kop, nor the ‘wonder’ of the Cowshed end in Huddersfield could divert my attentions away from Molineux. Once there, my heart wasn’t leaving.
My bedroom walls were beginning to be covered in Old Gold before 1990, but it was that year and that Wolves side which made me fall in love for the first time. The autumn of 1990, the season after the World Cup, Bobby’s battling boys, Gazza and those penalties. For Wolves it was the start of a brave new dawn. Sir Jack Hayward had taken over the club, saving it from almost certain failure. Molineux was dilapidated, a lopsided ground with only two stands open to the public. The club shop consisted of a Portakabin; facilities were non-existent. But for a seven-year old like me it was everything I could dream of. The smell of the cigarettes and Bovril, the noise, excitement and buzz before a game. Pushing through the turnstiles to walk out onto the South Bank terrace. Nothing in life back then could beat it. Although the ground has changed and the years have passed, very little even now comes close.
The game I remember the most from this year is a 2-2 draw against local rivals West Brom. The passion, heart and soul from players and fans alike was all I needed. I didn’t know what ‘this’ was, but I loved every bit of it. I’m pretty sure I still remember that as a certain winner was disallowed, the energy generated from this mass of people all focused on one moment was powerful stuff. The game was all anybody in the ground and on the pitch cared about for 90 minutes. The world outside Molineux wasn’t so much irrelevant, it simply didn’t exist. Going to football provides many things to many people, but thinking back the sheer escapism of it was probably what got me hooked. And I’ve been hooked ever since.
So what of these golden heroes to whom I owe this lifelong addiction? As was compulsory then, it was a simple 4-4-2. In goal, a true Wolves legend to me, Mike Stowell. A stalwart if ever there was one. The second best keeper I’ve seen play for us (no one will beat big Matt Murray, who all bias aside is the best keeper I will ever see play the game), but having ‘Mickey Stowell in our goal’ meant we had a chance of a clean sheet every game. In front of him the most notable defender was Andy Thompson. Unfortunately for ‘Thomo’, he will probably always be best remembered as ‘the other player’ to move from the Albion at the same time as a certain Steve Bull. But Thomo was class. A short, moustachioed full-back with fire in his left peg. Great crosses, great effort and almost perfect from the penalty spot.
Into midfield and the names roll off the tongue. Dennison, Birch, Downing and Cook.
Robbie Dennison from Northern Ireland was an old-school winger and scored in that 2-2 draw. His tremendous effort again made up for any shortfall in genuine quality or the ability to beat his man with a trick. Paul Birch, having arrived in January 1991, became the heartbeat of the team. The midfielder you loved having in your side; perpetual movement of feet and brain. Running, conducting and making the play happen around him. Seeking out the ball and using it to full effect. His continual movement was just as well, as you can’t stand still for long when you had a curly perm like he did – a sitting duck for the opposition’s brutes if ever there was one.
Paul Cook – Cookie – was the laid back ‘flair’ player in that Wolves side whose left foot was sweet enough to stand out on the muddiest of second-rate pitches. At times, he went beyond frustrating, but boy the lad could pass the ball. In the old Second Division you could forgive the occasional insipid 45 minutes if he could split a defence with 10 minutes to go, and more often than not he did just that. Then there was Keith ‘Psycho’ Downing, the hard man. My abiding memory of him is hearing, seeing and practically feeling the pain when he dislocated his shoulder away to Barnsley. The man didn’t so much as flinch. If it moved he’d kick it. If it didn’t, he’d kick it twice to make sure it would never move – awesome in every way. You can keep your Claude Makeleles, give me a Keith Downing every time.
And so to the front two. Steve Bull and Andy Mutch, the ultimate double act. Mutch was the composed, clever forward who could link the play from the rest of the team towards our goal machine wearing the number 9. Mutchie was the kind of player you couldn’t play a bad pass to – he’d do something with it regardless. I still vividly recall an impossible ‘flick on’ he achieved at Bramhall Lane. The ball was cleared from Stowell and basically came down with snow on it. Not only did he get his head on it, he deftly flicked it on with one twist of the neck. The ball easily ran on straight into the path of Bully, who didn’t even have to check his stride. The fact I can still remember a ‘flick on’ from all of 20 years ago should tell you all you need to know about Andy Mutch. Bully rightly got the headlines, but Mutch was the perfect player alongside him. An absolute pleasure to watch.
And so to Steve Bull. Many far more qualified people than me have written about the man. I will try, but only do so mindful of the enormity of the task. The story is a great one: signs from local rivals West Brom; spends over a decade scoring goals for Wolves. Statistics don’t explain how he played but anybody who scores 306 goals, 18 hat tricks, manages more than 50 goals in back to back seasons and ends an all-too brief international career with a ratio of one in three can’t be too shabby a player. As ex-Wolves manager Graham Turner said at the time: “People say Bully’s first touch isn’t all that good. This may be true. But to be fair, he scores with his second.”
Not many players before or since have had a specific celebration for hat tricks. A great regret of mine is never having witnessed a Bully hat trick, complete with aeroplane celebration. Football fans know the name and the hero status he created and now rightly still receives, however, for me, the goals were simply a bonus. As a seven-year-old boy falling in love with the game and indeed Wolverhampton Wanderers, it was Bully who led the way. Literally. He used to sprint out the tunnel and race across the half way line before every game. I’ve never seen anyone else do this. But what it did was show everybody that he meant business. He was ready. He wanted it. Just like the fans, the game about to be played was the most important thing in the world for him. It is this absolute commitment to wearing a Wolves shirt which I adored. Other strikers scored goals, some scored a lot, few scored as many as Steve Bull, but no other team had a Bully. No other side had a player who ran himself to a standstill every single game like Bull did. He played in the gold shirt like everybody standing on the South Bank would have, given the chance. He had his chance and he took it every time.
It’s unfair to his team mates to say that in 1990, Wolves were all about Steve Bull. But Bully showed me he cared as much as the fans. He cared as much as me. Nobody will compare for as long as I watch the game. This much I know. It’s not to say the current Wolves side want for this. They don’t. I love watching the side McCarthy has built. But Bully was different. When he ran tirelessly down the channels, we ran with him. When he got kicked, we hurt. When he scored, we celebrated together. To see, feel and share this energy from the South Bank as a young lad was very special. I feel incredibly lucky to have been a very small part of it and in debt to my Dad forever for taking me.
I go to Molineux now trying to share in something which could be described as similar. Soon, Molineux will be redeveloped again. When complete it will be the third version of the ground I will have watched my beloved Wanderers play in. Maybe one day I’ll take my son and see a game from what I will still call the South Bank and from there I’ll recount the sight of the number 9 sprinting out onto the pitch saluting the fans on the terrace, all bowing down as one chanting ‘Ooh Bully Bully’. I’ll tell him about Stowell, Thomo, Downing, Mutch and Bull. Hopefully the team at the time will inspire, excite and enthuse him, like the side of 1990 did for me. That was 21 years ago, and they all still mean absolutely everything to me.