Clocking Up The Miles
Old Friends In Transit
They would love to have been gracing Molineux. Instead, they live largely within earshot of the stadium roar but play their football elsewhere.
Three or four times a week these past few seasons, Chapel Ash at breakfast time has been the meeting point for a small group of former Wolves youngsters who now earn a living in the lower divisions.
The longest-serving member of the ‘car school’ is goalkeeper Scott Brown, who spent several years in the system at his home-city club before moving to Cheltenham in 2004.
The 26-year-old from Tettenhall has played almost 150 games for the League Two Robins and been a virtual ever-present for the last three years since emerging from the shadow of another ex-Wolves man, Shane Higgs.
Soon after eight o’clock on another sun-kissed morning, he is joined by team-mate John Melligan, who has hopped on a bus from his home in Penn to make the rendezvous.
“I don’t drive. I won’t even sit in the front, so you can stay where you are,” ‘JJ’ tells me after we renew acquaintances.
“The lads take it in turns providing the wheels but have to miss me out!”
Talk along the Birmingham New Road towards the M5 homes in on the promotion journey Norwich completed on live TV last night.
JJ was around when Wolves went up in 2003, his only two first-team outings for them coming that season when he appeared as a late substitute in the November victories over Coventry and Nottingham Forest.
I ask him whether he remembers chipping the Coventry keeper from 25 yards in a friendly. He tells me he thought it was Bristol Rovers but smiles in the driver’s direction and announces: “It was some finish. Right in the top corner!
“Against Forest, we were 2-1 up with a couple of minutes to go and Ivar Ingimarsson was on the bench with me. I thought he was certain to go on and play in a defensive midfield role but Dave Jones sent me on instead. Michael Dawson was playing for them.
“Of course I wish things had gone better at Wolves. Youngsters sometimes need to be given a chance to stop their heads from going my down. And mine did.”
Dublin-born Melligan played in various Republic of Ireland age-group sides and had Andy Reid, Wes Hoolahan and the Sunderland pair of Thomas Butler and Sean Thornton for company when he won his solitary under-21 cap.
He was a room-mate of Kevin Muscat and Temuri Ketsbaia as his brief Molineux career was punctuated by a succession of loan moves, notably to Kidderminster, before it ended with a £25,000 move to Cheltenham just after Wolves’ return to the Championship. He has been back at Whaddon Road this season following two and a half years at Leyton Orient.
He has totalled some 330 professional games and we agree, as he prepares to flex his muscles in this continuing magnificent weather, that there must be worse ways to make a living.
Scott pulls over near the Toys R Us island at Oldbury and greets Keith Lowe, a defender who was blooded by Dave Jones and was also used at senior level at Molineux by Stuart Gray and Glenn Hoddle. Two Wolverhampton-born Wolves fans together.
Home now to the latter is the Potteries because of his fiancee’s work in the medical profession but he’s proud that he is always at junction two on time. “I think he brings his sleeping bag and stays over here,” chirps JJ, looking up momentarily from The Sun.
Lowe has been out for a month with a twisted knee and the physio’s table beckons again – hence the group’s need to be in at 9.30am rather than half an hour later. But he is on a high.
Not only did he collect the Fans’ Player of the Year award on Saturday, there has also been a new arrival in the household. He passes back his mobile to show off a photo of the puppy he and Sophie had driven to Essex to fetch on Bank Holiday Monday.
Brown is also a little lighter in the wallet. He successfully bid £200 at the weekend do for a signed, framed photograph of Gordon Banks’s famous save from Pele and explains that he has to make a detour this morning from the training ground to the stadium to pay for it.
Also now on board is Dudley-based winger Brian ‘Junior’ Smikle, a one-time Albion reserve who has had a decent first season. It’s next stop Cheltenham for the five of us.
Against the soundtracks of Radio 1, the conversation bounces around from Real v Barca to Osama Bin Laden to the Royal Wedding to weekend social events to Sunday’s Black Country derby.
“I was with Keith Downing and John Ward on Sunday at the wedding of our youth physio,” Scott adds. “It will be strange for Keith going back to Molineux and being in the away dug-out.”
He confirms he will be at the game as well and, looking in the mirror for a reaction from Junior, says: “I’ll be wearing my Wolves shirt with ‘We hate the Baggies’ on the back!”
Training is short and sharp; fun six-a-sides. The pitches are hard and, with a small squad, no threat of relegation and relatively little for the division’s 18th-placed side to play for in their last game, a halt is called after 75 minutes.
Lowe has the Banks-Pele keepsake at his feet on the return journey. Melligan still has Britain’s top-selling daily paper on his knees.
Tomorrow is a day off, Thursday and Friday will be spent in detailed preparation for the weekend, then the car school – at least the Brown-Melligan part of it – will convene ready for picking up the coach off the M6 at Walsall for Stockport v Cheltenham.
Ashley Vincent (now at Colchester), Michael Townsend (Hereford), Chris Westwood, Graham Ward and Cheltenham’s Birmingham-based defender Martin Riley are other one-time Molineux hopefuls to have trodden this well-worn path to the edge of the Cotswolds.
Even with lads who haven’t made it with them, Wolves have continued to kick-start some enduring careers, as further underlined by Sammy Clingan, Stephen Gleeson, Jermain Easter and Ryan Green.
For Melligan, though, change is in the air. His contract runs out in the summer and you suspect he senses a fresh challenge after often being used by his manager Mark Yates as a substitute.
“First of all, I’m looking forward to a rest,” he adds. “I spent last summer playing back home for Dundalk, so I’ve had two years of continuous football.
“I’m not holding my breath over being offered anything by Cheltenham in the coming weeks and I may be looking elsewhere again.
“We’ve got a four-year-old son and obviously I have to think about the family. I know not having a car doesn’t help but I’m not worrying about it.”
Now 29, the 5ft 8in midfielder is surprised to learn that Sligo manager Paul Cook, who he saw close up in the last English close season, is a former Wolves player. In turn, I’m surprised that he had formed the impression the Liverpudlian was something of a hard man.
Lowe, now 25 and playing at right-back after a series of loan moves in addition to permanent stops at Kidderminster and Hereford, is almost certain to be with Brown and Smikle in the car school again next season.
He gathers his belongings, poses for pictures and bids us farewell, still proud that he played 16 first-team games for the club of his dreams.
By early afternoon, we’re back on the Tettenhall Road out of Wolverhampton. Scott has a picture to hang and might just be due a call from Mike Stowell, with whom he has remained in close contact.
He also occasionally cooks dinner for Wolves goalkeeper coach Pat Mountain, who he worked with at Cheltenham and who frequently does the M5 ‘commute’ in the opposite direction.
“I did live down there for 18 months or so and it’s a quiet town that goes wild for one week a year with the racing festival,” he says. “But my friends and family were up here, so I decided to come back.” Sundry past and present team-mates are glad he did.