Golden Nights That Deserved A Happier Ending
John Lalley concludes his in-depth look at the fortunes of Wolverhampton Wanderers in major European competition. On August 20, we posted his excellent piece on the club’s travels in the 1950s and early 1960s. Now, with his stirring part two, we fast-forward just over a decade…..
Competitive European football returned to Molineux in 1971-72 after a traumatic ten-year absence.
During the barren decade, the fortunes of the club had sharply declined, including two seasons spent playing second-tier football after relegation in 1965.
Ronnie Allen, who had achieved much in returning the club to stability after the demise of Stan Cullis, lost the manager’s job in September, 1968, and many Wolves fans believed this was a harsh way to reward a man who had achieved promotion in his first full season in the post. He then steered Wolves to survival the following year but a mere two wins in the opening 11 games of 1968-69 before the infamous 6-0 Alun Evans-inspired Molineux rout inflicted by Liverpool finally made up the mind of John Ireland.
The chairman had been a long-time admirer of Ipswich boss Bill McGarry and finally managed to lure him to Molineux.
McGarry was no overnight success, though. Wolves limped to a final 18th position and, although some improvement was evident in the following season, the Ireland-McGarry axis would still have been significantly unimpressed with a 13th-place finish. And the reputation of both men was very much on the line when the 1970-71 season opened with three successive defeats.
But, from then on, the team responded magnificently to finish fourth and, for what it was worth, win the Texaco Cup by beating Hearts in a two-leg final which overall attracted almost 55,000 spectators. If nothing else, the experience appeared to suggest that cup football and participation in the latter stages of a competition still stirred the pulses. Thus, qualification for the newly-formed UEFA Cup, a replacement for the Inter Cities Fairs Cup, promised to be a diverting pastime.
In reality, the tournament was to provide Wolves fans with some of the most exhilarating football experienced in years, with the team quite splendidly showcasing their skills against some quality foreign opposition and rekindling pleasant memories of previous years.
This talented group of performers were constantly being reminded of the heroics of their peerless predecessors from the 1950s but responded superbly and deserved so much more than to fall as they did amid extreme disappointment and anti-climax.
Despite what at the time seemed to be avid interest, the Molineux attendances for these fixtures were perplexing. The semi-final against Ferencvaros attracted fewer spectators (28,262) than the Texaco final had the year before. The first leg of the final against Tottenham was played out in front of an astonishingly meagre crowd of 38,362, with only the visit of the Italian aristocrats of Juventus attracting an attendance in excess of 40,000.
Almost 40 years on, it remains inexplicable. Only five days after the Tottenham game, Molineux was filled to bursting when, officially at least, 53,379 crammed into the ground for a League match against Leeds. That evening, a gate was broken down, allowing many others to gain entry without bothering the turnstile operators and raising the actual attendance to anybody’s guess.
Strange, but the people of Wolverhampton seemed to find the vicarious thrill of seeing Leeds denied the Championship a more appealing prospect than watching their own team vying to win a major European competition.
The run began with Molineux’s first European fixture since the defeat against Rangers in 1961. Portugal’s Academica Coimbra were easily dispatched 3-0 with, of all people, John McAlle scoring the first goal before the old firm of Richards and Dougan added others, The Doog embarking on a club record haul of nine European goals in a season.
The 3-0 victory made the second leg a formality. Academica were making their third sortie into European competition and had not conceded a single goal on home territory in any previous tie but Wolves romped home in Portugal as well despite having Danny Hegan sent off for retaliation early in the second half.
Bizarrely, McAlle was again on the score sheet but it was Dougan who stole the show. He rattled in a hat-trick, just as he had at Molineux the previous Saturday against Nottingham Forest. A 7-1 aggregate win made for an emphatic start.
Less than a month later, Wolves were again prolific on their travels. This time it was in Holland as three goals in the last half hour secured a comfortable victory over second-round opponents ADO Den Haag.
The second leg at Molineux was a cakewalk, always remembered for the implosion of the opposition in gifting Wolves a remarkable three own goals in a 4-0 victory.
After opening the scoring himself, Dougan typically couldn’t mind his own business when Kees Weimar slid home the first free gift. With the opponent sprawled out on the turf at the North Bank end, Doog ruffled the hair of the prostrate defender, possibly in sympathy, but central defender Aad Mansveld took exception and sent Dougan crashing to the ground with a hefty shove. Inevitably, a few minutes later, it was Mansveld himself scoring at the wrong end and this time Dougan sensibly kept his opinions and his hands to himself!
Wolves warmed up for the brutal cold weather that awaited them in East Germany for their third-round encounter by enjoying superb League victories over Derby and Arsenal. Both games survive for posterity through TV footage and even now you never tire of taking a look.
After a couple of Richards goals saw off champions-to-be Derby – and how they were to thank Wolves in that Leeds game a few months later – Arsenal were thrashed 5-1, with Dave Wagstaffe’s brilliant strike past a flailing Bob Wilson still a topic of conversation today. They were two great performances, fabulously entertaining and indications that Wolves really meant business.
The trip behind the Iron Curtain was for a match played on a Wednesday afternoon and, with no live radio coverage on offer, office and factory folk in Wolverhampton scurried away from their duties trying to glean snippets of information about the game against Carl Zeiss Jena.
It transpired that Richards had scored early on a snow-covered pitch in a small, basic stadium populated by around 10,000 – the attendance boosted by a hardy few from Wolverhampton, who created their own bit of history. The two-day trip organised by the Wolves Development Association was the first time a football supporters’ tour to East Germany was allowed.
This first-leg win had an increasing number of fans believing that Wolves had the potential to go all the way in this tournament. The players had adapted brilliantly in away ties, scoring heavily and defending doggedly before sweeping aside the opposition with real panache under the Molineux lights.
There was no travel hangover for the team either. Three days after returning from such an arduous journey, they breezed into The Hawthorns to beat Albion 3-2 in a pulsating match. It was a titanic struggle which said a great deal about the conditioning and fitness of the players under Bill McGarry, God rest his soul.
Poor old Bill…….to put it mildly, few Wolves players had the volcanic boss at the top of their Christmas card list. But, at that time and for a couple of years, his team were winning games and at times playing some scintillating football.
There is a great photograph in the match programme for the return game with Carl Zeiss. McGarry is pictured on the bench in Germany bellowing instructions with his balding head protected from the falling snowflakes by a giant towel. He looks like a cross between a belligerent ‘hoodie’ and the Sheikh of Araby. No, not everyone’s cup of tea was Bill but, for the enjoyment Wolves doled out between 1972 and 1974, I for one remember him fondly – even if so many of his players do not!
The three unanswered goals in the return leg meant Wolves looked forward to the quarter-final, having scored 18 goals and conceded just two. In the process, Dougan had already overtaken Peter Broadbent as the club’s most prolific scorer in competitive European football. It was great stuff.
No doubt the tie that stirred the greatest interest was the pairing with Juventus. They were the most successful outfit in Italian football and sat top of Serie A when Wolves visited Turin in March.
The draw in Italy was a magnificent result, especially as by now Wolves were operating without skipper Mike Bailey, who was injured in January in the FA Cup tie against Leicester.
The club pulled off an engaging PR manoeuvre by taking the legendary John Charles on the trip as an ambassador/adviser to liaise with the club where he stood as one of the greatest heroes of all time. The Welsh giant sat on the touchline alongside Bailey and an agitated McGarry and acted as interpreter when the Wolves boss was banished from the bench after the referee took exception to one explosion too many from Bill’s extensive repertoire of raving belligerence.
But, seething as he was at having been forced to view the rest of the game in the company of the local Carabinieri, McGarry must have been immensely proud and satisfied at what he witnessed. Such was the frustration of the home side that their 25-year-old midfielder, one Fabio Capello, apparently lost his cool with Phil Parkes. Lofty was enraged and, with characteristic forthrightness, threatened Capello with the direst retribution imaginable when the Italian showed his face at Molineux.
As Capello is only now getting to grips with the English language, it’s safe to assume that, nearly 40 years back, he would have experienced a spot of bother trying to decipher Lofty’s high-pitched West Bromwich linguistic tones. Just the same, I’d wager that he may just have caught the gist of the keeper’s intentions.
To his immense frustration, though, Parkes was informed by John Charles that, in view of the 1-1 draw, Capello and a number of the Juve big guns would not be making the trip to Wolverhampton – and so it proved. Lofty simply had to settle for his win bonus instead.
Danny Hegan, admirably deputising for Bailey, enjoyed his best moment in a Wolves shirt to register the first goal in the return with a remarkably inventive long-range effort which effectively summed up the genius of a career wasted.
Dougan’s ninth goal of the UEFA campaign, from a Wagstaffe corner, sealed a deserved win despite a late strike from 1966 World Cup finalist Helmut Haller, who himself had displeased the Juventus management by seeking out the fleshpots of Wolverhampton to do some ‘refuelling’ and broken curfew in the process.
It was a great night for the 40,000-plus there to witness it but, in truth, John Charles had been proved right; Juventus had come to fulfil the fixture but much of their stomach for battle had remained behind in Turin.
Parksey might have been left grumbling that he didn’t get the chance to settle the Capello account but he excelled himself in the semi-final against Ferencvaros.
In the first leg in Budapest, the home side overhauled an early Wolves goal by Richards to lead 2-1 at half time. Istvan Szoke had already scored from the spot and, when another penalty was awarded after the interval, for the first time in the entire European adventure, Wolves faced the real prospect of elimination. Cue Parkes, who though initially moving the wrong way, stuck out a big left boot to divert Szoke’s effort away from danger. Frank Munro headed a priceless late equaliser to leave Wolves in pole position to reach the final.
Maybe the disappointing attendance at Molineux for the return could be partially explained by the assumption that many considered the job effectively done. And when Steve Daley, playing in place of the injured Wagstaffe, scored in the first minute, no doubt thousands more felt the same.
Munro added a second before half-time and Wolves were cruising but it took another Parkes penalty save to preserve the advantage. And, when the Hungarians did reduce the arrears, the final stages were tense indeed. But overall there was no denying the merit of Wolves’ aggregate triumph.
To the keen disappointment of most Wolves fans, the opponents in the final would be Tottenham, who had successfully defended a slender 2-1 first-leg advantage to overcome AC Milan at the San Siro. Almost immediately, there was a sense of unease.
The final ranks as just about the biggest anti-climax I have experienced in 50 years of following the club. It was a filthy night at Molineux, dank and uninviting, but that surely did not explain the paltry attendance of 38,362.
As the rain steadily grew heavier, many fans at the front of the South Bank followed the usual inclement weather Molineux ritual and retreated for cover under the huge grey roof at the back of the massive old terrace. Very soon, I was standing almost in isolation, able to move yards along the steps without disturbing any other spectator. It was akin to being at a Central League match and the lack of expectancy and passion tallied with a run-of-the-mill reserve game.
The view for the few of us who remained at the front was excellent; completely unimpeded. But there was little sense of occasion and the atmosphere was zero. I struggled to convince myself that this mundane chore was masquerading as a European final. After all the anticipation over many months, this was a savage disappointment. Wolves had waged a magnificent campaign across the continent and it had been a truly heroic journey to reach the last stage, so our players deserved better. I sensed before a ball was kicked in anger against Spurs that our number was up. It was flat and lifeless and, to this day, I still struggle to understand why.
I had taken it for granted that Molineux would be an absolute cauldron of partisan commitment that night, a chance to rekindle the pride and the passion of those floodlit epics from 20 years before. Instead, the event took on the mantle of a routine meeting between a couple of top-end First Division teams who were well used to sharing each others’ company.
Familiarity almost bred contempt. There was nothing special. Just about the only discernable difference was that Spurs wore their white shorts in place of the navy that they always did during their great European nights back in the early sixties. As novelties go, that was about the height of it.
As the years have passed, Wolves fans have continued to speculate that, in all probability, had the opposition been continental rather than home-based, Wolves would have prevailed. Maybe. Having seen off Juventus in such style, the prospect of facing AC Milan would not have frightened anyone at Molineux.
Against English opposition, Bailey’s continued absence was a critical blow. No Wolves player would have relished the challenge more than the captain. The chance to end a drought of a dozen seasons without a major trophy by locking horns against Alan Mullery, the player Spurs boss Bill Nicholson had plumped for after thinking long and hard about recruiting Bailey from Charlton Athletic a few years previously, would have inspired him. Bailey might just have made that difference.
Disproportionate volumes of blame flew in Phil Parkes’ direction after Martin Chivers won the tie for Spurs with a couple of monumental long-range strikes. Lofty was the fall guy. A scapegoat had to be found and, almost 40 years on, he still takes it all in his affable giant stride. ‘ Seen it, done it, heard it all, got the t-shirt,’ is his response to the constant reminders of that night. Modesty prevents him from citing his heroics in the semi-final.
For many, the final encapsulated their perception of Parkes’ Molineux career –often inspired but haphazard when it really mattered. Fate was to deal him an even crueller hand when injury cost him his Wembley place in 1974. The disappointment sits easily on his broad shoulders, he doesn’t do regret and recrimination regarding football. He enjoyed it too much for that.
Bill Nicholson was a ruthlessly honest man and,when he said that Wolves were the better side in the second leg at White Hart Lane, he meant it. But Wagstaffe’s screamer to equalise Mullery’s opener was not enough and a wonderful interlude in Wolves’ history faded into ultimate disappointment and no little frustration.
After such a major heartbreak, it was a genuine achievement to finish fifth the following season and, in so doing, earn another chance in Europe. But after easily eliminating Belenenses of Portugal in the first round, Wolves capitulated in East Germany, losing 3-0 to Locomotiv of Leipzig.
The Molineux return was fabulous, with Wolves tearing their opponents to pieces to win 4-1, only to be eliminated on the away goals ruling. A paltry 14,530 fans attended, continuing the puzzling trend of apathy regarding these matches.
History almost repeated itself the following year. Qualifying as League Cup holders, Wolves started in Portugal yet again and were hammered 4-1 in Porto before another sparse Molineux crowd witnessed another pulsating counter attack. The team were possibly even more impressive than they had been when thrashing Locomotiv but a 3-1 win with Dougan weighing in with a nostalgic last European goal was not enough, even if honour had been restored.
It was not until 1980, on the strength of another League Cup triumph, that Wolves competed again in Europe. It was to Holland not Portugal this time but, despite a glorious towering header from Andy Gray, they slipped to a 3-1 defeat against PSV Eindhoven.
The second leg at Molineux was overshadowed, quite literally, by a power failure which plunged the stadium into darkness. Those of us in attendance enjoyed the sense of novelty but, looking back, it was almost a message from the soothsayer to warn us that, very soon, Wolverhampton Wanderers, European football pioneers and three-time Champions of England, were set on a dark path.
The 1-0 win on the night was not enough, although it meant that 12 successive home wins against foreign opposition had been secured – quite an achievement. Playing in Europe had been an exciting adventure that deserved a better ending. Maybe we might try it again in the not too distant future.
* Our additional thanks for the loan of keepsakes used in this feature go to Bob Adams and Gwilym Machin.