In 1980 Wolverhampton Wanderers finished a very respectable sixth in the First Division. Star striker Andy Gray scored at Wembley against reigning European champions Nottingham Forest to bring the League Cup back to the “Black Country” and the club had made a welcome, if brief, return to European football.
But just four years later one of England’s most famous clubs was to embark on the type of descent that Eddie ‘The Eagle' Edwards would have been proud of, as a series of poor investments and general neglect left those in old gold staring into the abyss.
Wolves, for many, will always be viewed as a big club in English football. They were one of the twelve founders of the English Football League in 1888 they finished that inaugural season in a creditable third place and just a year later got to their first ever FA Cup final. In subsequent seasons they would go on to win three league titles, four FA Cups and two League Cups.
But without doubt the club's glory days were the 1950s, and league title wins in 1958 and 1959 saw the club become only the second English club after Manchester United to enter the newly formed European Cup. In 1960, Wolves were a whisker away from a hat-trick of titles and only just missed out on the first double of the twentieth century; finishing just one point behind Burnley, though they did win the FA Cup that year after beating Blackburn Rovers in the final.
However, if the 1950s were the golden years then the decades that followed provided the Molineux faithful with joy and despair in equal measure. The disappointment of relegation to the second tier of English football at the end of the 1960s – the first time out of the top flight in 30 years – was tempered by a return to the top flight in the 1970s, a top four league finish and an unsuccessful UEFA Cup final appearance in 1972. But once again, this blow was soon overcome thanks to a 2-1 Wembley victory over Manchester City in the League Cup final just two years later.
Wolves were relegated again in 1976, but were to bounce back at the first time of asking when they won the Second Division champions and by 1980 things were looking promising for the Wanderers once more.
However, with the arrival of the new decade came one of the most turbulent spells in the club’s long history which almost saw this giant of the game erased from the landscape once and for all.
Things had appeared reasonably stable, if unpredictable, on the pitch for Wolves as the 80s dawned, but events off the field were far from rosy as a combination of poorly planned ground improvements and controversial new owners sucked Wolves dry. This was just the beginning, as three consecutive relegations dumped them, penniless, into the fourth level of English football.
As enjoyable as it had been, in all honesty, the somewhat roller-coaster nature of Wolves’ football throughout much of the 60s and 70s had been something of a distraction from the bigger picture, as the club entered the turbulent decade that was to follow with very little forward planning in place.
As part of much needed redevelopment work the club had recently purchased a large number of terraced houses on the street that shares the name with their ground and set to work on a replacing the badly dated main stand. Its replacement, the John Ireland Stand, which finally opened in 1979, was impressive with 10,000 seats and over forty executive boxes, but it came at a price.
The project cost a staggering £3 million, at a time when the record transfer fee was £1.5 million. The League Cup win the following season might have overshadowed this huge outlay but, by the end of the following season, there was no sugar coathing the fact that the club was facing the very real possibility of bankruptcy.
In the summer of 1982 the full extent of Wolves’ woes were revealed when it was announced that the club had run up debts of £2.6 million and new investment was desperately needed in order to stave-off the inevitable meltdown. Initially it was reported that Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis wished to buy the club on the cheap, but with Wolves less than an hour away from going out of business, both Ellis and a group led by a certain Sir Jack Hayward were beaten by a consortium led by one-time Wolves legend Derek Dougan.
Dougan was seen as the saviour and was installed as Chief Executive at the club, but, in truth, he was nothing more than a mouth-piece of a more sinister and badly thought-out takeover which almost brought about the end for this famous old club.
The real players behind the deal were two brothers from Saudi Arabia, Mahmud and Mohammad Bhatti of the company Allied Properties. In all honesty, whoever had taken charge of the club would not have been able to halt the slide as Wolves were eventually relegated, but their lack of interest in the long term future of the club certainly didn't help matters and would probably hamper any further attempts to stop the rot.
Their arrival heralded little enthusiasm among the long-suffering supporters as the club’s fortunes looked far from secure. The Bhatti Brothers had pinned their hopes on one thing and one thing only, the massive redevelopment of the Molineux site. But plans for a new stadium and leisure park in the centre of town were rejected by the council. Whether they would have been able to raise the funds had the scheme been given the green light is still open to debate.
In January 1985, fan favourite Dougan eventually resigned his position in the boardroom, leaving the Bhatti brothers in total control of a club that was racing headlong towards English football's third tier. In May of that year, they finished bottom of the Second Division, not surprising really having won just eight games, and relegation was confirmed.
With debts starting to mount, due to the brothers having difficulty servicing the debt for the newly developed stand, the following season meant the situation became even worse, with no money whatsoever available for players who might just have been able to turn things around.
With former chief scout Sammy Chapman now in charge, Wolves's performances showed no sign of improving. They conceded seventeen goalsin the month of September alone and crowds fell to just 4,000. Worse still, following ground safety regulations that were introduced following the Valley Parade fire of May 1985, two old stands were now closed to the public with a third on the brink of collapse.
With only two sides of the ground open to the public and the new £3 million John Ireland Stand sticking out like a sore thumb, the club and its stadium were a mess as the inevitable happened. Wolves were relegated yet again, this time into Division Four of the Football League for the first time in the club’s history.
Understandably, discontent grew quickly among the club’s exasperated support, and even filtered down to members of satff and ex-players. Former manager Bill McGarry returned to Molineux in September 1985 to try and turn things around but quit just two months later, saying, “I am not going to be party to the killing of one of the finest clubs in the world.” Things had become so bad that supporters and local community leaders decided if the club was to be saved then urgent action needed to be taken.
Then came a turning point. A meeting was held at the Wolverhampton Civic Centre in 1986 and it was decided that the best way forward would be to encourage creditors to issue the club’s owners with a winding-up order, therefore forcing them to put it up for sale.
The words of the Mayor at the time, George Howells, described perfectly the precarious position the club now found itself in: “If the Bhattis could see Wolves off and develop that sacred piece of turf at Molineux for their own interests, they would do it.”
So on July 1986, with the club once again facing extinction, the very same authorities, who just months earlier looked to be behind the demise of Wolverhampton Wanderers, would eventually come to its rescue with a last-ditch proposal that would for the second time see the club hauled back from the brink.
It was agreed that Wolverhampton Council would purchase Molineux along with the land around the stadium, while a local property developer would pay off the club’s debts if planning permission was granted for a nearby Asda superstore to be built – a deal was struck and the club had been saved.
To the relief of Wolves supporters, the arrangement also meant that the Bhatti brothers’ era had finally came to an end after four long years with the pair disappearing back to Saudi Arabia. Even so, the club was still hanging by a thread and playing in a decaying stadium with three stands literally in ruins.
On the pitch Wolves were finally able to begin the long climb away from the basement of English football and even made the playoffs in 1987 after their first season in the league's lowest tier, eventually losing to Aldershot.
The following season Graham Turner's rejuvenated team regrouped to win Division Four and the Sherpa Van Trophy. It was just the boost the club needed and, powered by the strike force of Steve Bull and Andy Much, the Division Three championship followed just 12 months later as the consecutive relegations of the 1980s were matched by consecutive promotions in the 1990s.
Until the disastrous mid-1980s, Wolves had spent only two post-war seasons outside that top flight with their glorious past of the 1950s and 1960s offering something of a comfortable refuge during the difficult days.
And memories of past glories may even have produced delusions of grandeur for some at Molineux in recent years; but who can blame those who grew up surrounded by great memories of years gone by, when Wolves were beating all before them and blazing a trail in Europe’s most prestigious club competition, for believing they are a big club?
What happened to Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club should be a lesson for all, not just about the dark days of the mid-1980s, but the game today too. It’s a story of a club that spent money it didn’t really have in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses and stay in the big time at all costs, against the backdrop of owners who seldom seemed interested in anything but an end game of redeveloping the stadium and reaping the profits.
Their collapse in the 1980s also serves as something of a reminder to the wider world of the shocking state in which English football had found itself at the time, after years of neglect which had led the national game to become something of a stain on society rather than being something to feel part of.
But thanks to the efforts of long standing supporters, local authorities and the wider community, this grand old lady of English football lived on to fight another battle — of which there would be plenty more round the corner.