By David Instone
Has any club ever had a non-player, non-manager or non-benefactor who was as well known and as widely loved as this?
He never caused major ripples on the payroll and was not listed among the Wolves VIPs in the programme but gave loyal service for decades, lived to have a stand named after him and his death at 87 is now being mourned by the masses.
His passing-away was even announced on TV on Friday and what beautiful sentiments they were from Nuno and Conor Coady on Sky Sports before the game at Newcastle last night!
When Jez Moxey was appointed by Wolves in 2000, he surveyed the staff he inherited and asked what Graham Hughes’ role was.
Perhaps sensing that the new chief executive was wondering whether this was a cost that could be cut, the club owner told him: “Graham is indispensable. His position is non-negotiable.”
Two or three years later, with promotion to the Premier League at last secured and the pressure on to increase capacity, a supposedly makeshift stand was installed in the Molineux Alley corner of the ground and his name was the one chosen to adorn it. He just had that sort of effect on people.
Never did a gentler soul tread the corridors of Molineux and the streets of Codsall and Wolverhampton. In the 35-plus years I knew him, there was a bad word for no-one. He saw only good in others.
Which is why we have seen such an outpouring of tributes this weekend; a quite brilliant one from Paul Berry on the official club website and any number of supporting comments. Then there are all the texts: “Such sad news,” said Dean Edwards. Rob Kelly reflected: “A good man.” And from Graham’s good pal, Mike Stowell: “RIP Hughesie.”
There was satisfaction and relief in knowing that Steve Bull, the equally long-serving Claire Peters and others at the club had made the final hours easier with their presence and even helped hugely through adding a gold and black tint to his room at Compton. To use appropriate parlance, quite a few played a blinder right up to the final whistle.
Bully and Graham had a hugely enduring friendship but everyone who knew him liked him and we all have our memories. Now, where to start……
First of all, for someone from a generation for which recycling maybe didn’t come easily, he wasn’t afraid to use phrases over and over again. ‘Want a cup of tea?’ was a favourite, coffee never seeming to be part of his kitchen repertoire. ‘Town final’ was another, delivered at greater volume and reserved for when he returned to the ground with that day’s Express & Star. At times of self-deprecation, he would, to the inevitable chorus of groans, go off: ‘In the good old days….’ And, unlike some, he didn’t regard it as a faux pas if he mentioned the war!
In my case, there was often a follow-up question: ‘Got any books coming out?’ – a reminder of his enduring kindness and support. No Wolves publication appeared without Graham buying it, devouring it, cherishing it. He always wanted to buy the first copy, often the second, too, if there was a friend he thought would like it. His curiosity sometimes overtook him and, despite having been promised one, he went and purchased from the megastore. And he invariably loved what he read and saw.
His office under the Billy Wright Stand was an Aladdin’s Cave of books and other assorted memorabilia and he was immensely proud to be the owner of one of Ron Flowers’ old shirts and at least one half of the pair of boots Eddie Clamp told him he could have from his shed.
He urged me over and over to write a book taking in not only what went on within the walls of Molineux but also how the surrounding streets had changed. He loved anything about old-time public transport, which is why there are references to trams, trolley buses and trains in those magnificent showcases at the stadium that he started to fill after his good friend, Sir Jack, found a bit of spare cash and built a gleaming new ground that even a committed traditionalist like Graham adored.
It also explains why he was presented with two rare framed pictures of Codsall railway station, as well as a gold watch and a pennant, when health and safety kicked in and he (was) officially retired at 79 in the autumn of 2012, only for Moxey to accept in his speech that the same smiling face would be there the following Monday morning.
There was nothing Graham liked better than a home game against a Villa, a Preston or a Blackburn – fellow founder members of the Football League; ‘proper fixtures’, as he called them.
Despite watching at Molineux for the first time when Wolves beat Albion in 1941, he rarely joined in with the complaints frequently levelled at the modern game and, surprisingly, was more likely to bemoan what cricket had become while speaking longingly about the summer game in the past that he preferred.
Graham’s favourite Wolves player was Welsh international goalkeeper Cyril Sidlow, who also lived in Codsall, but Billy Wright inevitably pushed him close. They were more than just names on stands….that inspirational statue facing Waterloo Road had some Hughes fingerprints on it from during the design stage. He had been there at Wembley in 1959, after all, to witness the skipper’s 100th international cap, so he knew a thing about his gait and magnificence.
Despite his life-long devotion to Molineux, life did take Graham beyond these parts. He lived in the West Country for a few years, did his national service in Catterick in the early 1950s and loved a summer week at his sister’s in Eastbourne, complete with a visit to watch Sussex play in the county championship.
Having also worked as a contractor in the plumbing and heating department of the Express & Star, he started at Molineux part-time in 1983 in circumstances Dave Wagstaffe explained in his autobiography, Waggy’s Tales. Page 206 reveals how Graham walked in asking for a job, saying he was good at plumbing and maintenance. The Bhattis offered him £10 a week and he took it.
The arrangement became full-time in 1989 and, over the years, his duties broadened hugely to include general handyman tasks, going to the bank, fetching colleagues’ lunch from Asda and running other errands, looking after the dressing rooms, stocking and maintaining the trophy cabinets, serving as club historian and attending funerals and supporting bereaved relatives of Wolves favourites.
It’s quite a list but, above all, he was known as one of the welcoming, friendly first faces that visitors saw at the stadium – someone with the willingness and easy-going nature to want to make an outsider’s trip memorable by offering a quick behind-the scenes tour.
In more recent years, with his speed off the mark eaten away by time and with a walking frame necessary, meeting and greeting became ever more important, including on match-days when he was often in the vicinity of director John Bowater’s first-floor executive box in the main stand.
No wonder he was so well known, popular and valued. Quite simply, there won’t ever be another like this.