Media Watch: Steve Tongue

A Sentimental View From Afar – With An Orient(al) Flavour

Broadcaster, Fleet Street journalist, author, magazine editor…..there isn’t much Steve Tongue hasn’t done in his long career in football press boxes here and abroad. Wolves have played a significant part in his working life, so we decided to ask him to open up a little on the subject….

Billy Wright – an icon to so many.

Q: Steve, what are your earliest memories of Wolves?

A: Although I was born in London and the family team has always been Leyton Orient, we moved when I was very young to Leamington, where my dad had a job as a librarian. My third or fourth earliest game was Coventry v Walthamstow Avenue in the FA Cup in 1957. Avenue were our local amateur team in London but our few years in the Midlands coincided with Wolves’ golden era, so my first football kit happened to be the old gold in full Billy Wright style with the big black collar and cuffs, and hooped socks. Looking back, I’m surprised it was possible to buy a full kit at that time but some enterprising sportswear shop must have decided to, as my best friend over the road had the Wolves kit, too.

Q: Regrettably, though, it wasn’t enough to make you a Wolves fan for life?

A: I’m afraid I wasn’t even cheering for them in the 1960 FA Cup final, when I was nine. I tended to go for the underdogs, which meant Blackburn in this case. I’ve just been researching that period for a book and recalling how the Doog caused a sensation by asking Rovers for a transfer on the day before the game, which the Daily Sketch then called, rather unkindly, the Dustbin Final.

Q: Norman Deeley scored twice at Wembley that day, of course. And, like Bobby Mason, he later joined Orient. Did you see them play at Brisbane Road ?

A: Very much so. We’d moved back to London by that time and never missed a home game. I can still see Norman on his home debut, scoring direct from a corner against Sunderland in March, 1962 to earn a 1-1 draw, which you could say earned the Os promotion to the First Division for the only time. We ended up one point ahead of Sunderland, so if we’d lost that game, they would have gone up instead. As it was, he was able to enjoy one season back in the top division, and played in both games against Wolves. We actually started very well, beating West Ham, Manchester United and Everton (that season’s champions) in the first month. But, by the time Wolves came here in November, we were beginning to realise the squad wasn’t strong enough. Wolves won 4-0, though I’m interested to see that the crowd of about 16,000 was higher than the gate at Molineux for the return (13,739). That was a 2-1 home win, when I hope Norman and Bobby got a good reception.

Q: Is it fair to say that Bobby Mason’s career after Wolves took some surprise turns?

Bobby Mason in action at Arsenal. He later moved permanently to London’s East End

A: Bobby had signed just a few weeks earlier after making that strange move from Molineux to Chelmsford City of the Southern League. As Wolves Heroes has reported, players could move to a non-League club on a free transfer in those days. Orient picked him up later for about £12,000 but never saw the best of him in his two seasons. Norman also carried on for the following season back in Division Two and scored another famous goal. That was at home to our unloved neighbours West Ham in the FA Cup, in front of our highest-ever crowd of over 34,000. He headed us into the lead despite almost certainly being the smallest player on the pitch. But after we lost the replay, he was soon on his way back to the Midlands with Worcester City.

Q: Lots of people of a certain age have clear memories of the Dougan-Richards generation and, if you will forgive us for the reminder, John scored a Wolves hat-trick at Orient in 1976. Did you have any dealings with them or see them play much? 

A: I started reporting in 1973 for LBC, which had just begun broadcasting as the country’s first commercial radio station, and will always remember the week before going on air when we did a ‘dry run’ of the Saturday afternoon sports programme and I was sent to watch Wolves at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were rebuilding their main stand so the press were housed in a little box somewhere behind the corner flag, with the greyhound track between us and the pitch. Seeing anything that happened at the far end was a real challenge. I can only hope I got the score and scorers right (it was 2-2, with the Doog and John outscored by Jim McCalliog.)

Q: That was another happy period for Wolves….

A: Yes, I should also have been at the League Cup triumph later that season but our deputy sports editor was a Man City fan, who pulled rank and said he would be covering the final. So the result served him right really! But I did cover the 1980 League Cup final with Andy Gray’s winner, as well as earlier rounds at Palace and QPR. Plus, less happily for Wolves, I was at the two FA Cup semi-finals against Spurs the following season. Going back to Derek, I came into contact with him mainly in his role as PFA chairman. On one occasion, he kindly wrote an article for a magazine I edited called FOUL, which has been described as the first football fanzine. Eamonn Dunphy, the old Millwall player, had written a piece for us criticising the PFA, and Derek responded with spirit in a good old North-South Irish barney, for which neither of them asked a penny by the way. In my recent research, I have come across another piece Derek wrote – for an evening paper in 1982, when he ridiculed the proposed ground-share between Wolves and Walsall. He said: ‘It makes no practical sense, none at all. Walsall is eight miles from Molineux. The towns do not identify with their Black Country neighbour, so how could Walsall supporters feel at home at Molineux?’

Q: Alan Sunderland is one well-known Wolves player of that era who became a big success in the capital….did you see and know him at Arsenal? 

Alan Sunderland…before his move to Arsenal.

A: ‘Sundy’ contributed to one of the great commentary moments for a London radio station with that dramatic last-minute FA Cup final winner in 1979 after Man United had unexpectedly come back from 2-0 down. My other main memory of him is his habit of attempting to wind up any player who I was attempting to interview.

Q: Moving forward a decade or so, Steve, I know you covered England at home and abroad…..did you take in Steve Bull’s international career? 

A: I was covering England by then for the Sunday Correspondent, which lived just long enough to give me six of the best weeks of my life at Italia 90. So I saw all of Steve’s full international games, in one of which he caused a frantic rewrite. As with most games, we had to send the top couple of paragraphs of a match report before the final whistle, so I had just sent an intro detailing how Tunisia had disrupted England’s World Cup preparations by becoming the first African country in history to beat them etc etc. Then up popped Bully with an equaliser to prompt a hasty phone call to London.

Q: What about games you covered at Molineux? How far do you go back with those and do any particularly stand out?

A: I can’t put my finger on what would have been the first one, although there were certainly one or two in the bad old days when the John Ireland Stand was in use and not much else. The press box was set so far back that the view was almost as bad as that earlier game at Stamford Bridge. One visit I didn’t enjoy writing about was what The Independent headlined ‘A Clark and Bull story’ in December, 1987, when Orient (under Frank Clark) lost to two goals by Bully that took Wolves to the top of the Fourth Division table when we were right up there as well.

Q: Can you give us a ‘take’ from the capital on what the wider football community had been thinking as Wolves were hurtling towards oblivion in the 1980s?

A: It was probably along the lines of: ‘There but for the grace of God..’ Let’s be honest, football was pretty grim in the 1980s and many clubs had serious financial problems. I was living in Charlton when they had to leave The Valley altogether. Wolves were at least spared that fate. Tottenham and Chelsea also got into big financial trouble because of overspending on new stands, so the Molineux problems may have helped others to learn lessons.

Q: And did you share in the general dismay at how they failed to properly capitalise for so long on Sir Jack’s multi millions? It took them 13 years of his ownership to finally reach the Premier League – and then it was for only one season.

A: You have to have some sympathy for an owner who genuinely loves the club. Personally, I’m always happy to see a big club like Wolves come back where they belong (and would be with, say, Leeds) but I think supporters of smaller clubs like to see the big boys suffer a bit, too. If it’s any consolation, one of the themes of my books about London, Lancashire and now the Midlands has been that although every club has its ups and downs, in general the big clubs stay big and smaller ones stay small. So Wolves may briefly have been two divisions below Shrewsbury (1986-88) but were always a better bet in the long term.

A warm smile we shall never forget…..

Q: The club are flying now, of course, and I know you made several visits during their previous stays in the Premier League….

A: I had quite a long gap between visits and was suitably astonished by the great improvement at the new Molineux.  I definitely saw the astonishing win over Manchester United in February, 2011 which proved that bottom could actually beat top in the Premier League (at least they could then). I was very pleased for Mick McCarthy, who I’d got to know well when covering the Republic of Ireland for many years, but I had no idea that the next time I saw George Elokobi, who scored that day, he would be playing in the National League for Leyton Orient, where he became quite a cult hero! So you could say it’s all come full circle, some 60 years after getting that first old gold shirt.

Q: Great story! So what are you up to work-wise now?

The industrious Steve Tongue.

A: I’ve stopped doing match reports and tend to be looking at the past rather than the present. I did a book on David Beckham, a history of London clubs, then a follow-up on Lancashire clubs and am now doing the West Midlands version, with plenty about Wolves and their local rivals from the very earliest days. I also do an occasional piece with a London flavour for Backpass, the excellent retro football magazine – people like John Hollins, Martin Chivers, the Allen brothers. Oh, and an old Wolf (briefly) Mark Lazarus, who unfortunately didn’t enjoy his time at Molineux in 1961. He claimed that Stan Cullis broke an agreement that he could continue to live in Essex, where he had a new house and young baby.

*Steve Tongue is the author of “Turf Wars: A History of London Football” and “Lancashire Turf Wars”. His next book ‘West Midlands Turf Wars’ is due out next summer.