The 1980s had started well for Wolves. They won the League Cup at Wembley in March 1980, with £1.49m record signing Andy Gray scoring the winner against Nottingham Forest, and went on to finish sixth in the First Division that season. The future was looking bright under manager John Barnwell. Yet the foundations for a decade of decay had already been established.
The club had spent as much as £3m on the new John Ireland Stand at Molineux – more than twice the British transfer record when it opened in 1979 – and debts started to mount when they were relegated in 1982. A consortium fronted by club legend Derek Dougan stepped in to save the day. Enter the Bhatti brothers, Mahmud and Mohammad Bhatti, who were the “financial muscle” behind the takeover deal. The mere mention of the siblings probably brings Wolves fans out in a cold sweat. The Saudi Arabian brothers did little in their reign of terror to help the ailing club. By 1986, Wolves were struggling to stay in business.
Promotion to the top flight in 1983 was a rare bright spot, a false dawn before the darkness descended. They were relegated in 1984 with just six wins in 42 matches and the hits just kept on coming. Eight league wins in the 1984-85 campaign saw the famous old club drop into the Third Division. Unable to slow the momentum, Wolves fell into the fourth tier at the end of the 1985-86 season. Having beaten the reigning European champions in the League Cup final in 1980, they were now in the basement of English football.
By this point, the club’s very existence was in danger. Attendances dropped as Wolves were forced to close two stands due to safety orders. With the receivers called in during the summer of 1986, the future of the club was in question. Fortunately, the tide started to turn. Wolverhampton council purchased Molineux, and Asda cleared the club’s debts on the basis that they could build a superstore beside the ground. The club was saved, but it would take a lot of work to change the team’s fortunes on the pitch.
Graham Turner stepped into this mess in October 1986 a month after he had been sacked by Aston Villa. He quickly discovered the size of the job on his hands when Wolves drew Multipart Northern Premier League club Chorley in the first round of the FA Cup. The part-timers had never been beyond the first round in their 103-year history, but that was about to change.
Chorley’s big game almost didn’t happen. The draw had originally paired them with Halifax, but it turned out that Darlington had been placed in the southern section of the draw accidentally. Cue red faces and a hasty retreat from the FA’s bigwigs. Eventually, Chorley were drawn at home to Wolves.
This caused further headaches. Chorley’s ground, Victory Park, was being redeveloped so the tie was moved to Burnden Park in Bolton. On Saturday 15 November, a crowd of 4,887 fans watched on as the teams played out a 1-1 draw. Andy Mutch gave Wolves the lead in the 47th minute, but Paul Moss headed an equaliser just 90 seconds later to force a replay.
It looked as if the non-league outfit had blown their chance, with Wolves expected to win the replay, but Chorley manager Ken Wright – who is now the club’s chairman – had other ideas. “We have nothing to fear about going to Molineux,” he said. “We can win it.”
Ian Senior, who played in goal for Chorley throughout the tie, backs up the words of his manager. “I didn’t have a great deal to do in the first match,” he says, looking back on the game some 35 years later. “It opened our eyes to the chances of getting a result.”
The replay at Molineux was a personal triumph for the fireman in Chorley’s goal. “It was a howling night,” he says. “I ended up wearing two different jerseys, as I had to change at half-time because the first one was drenched.” Constant attacks from Wolves made sure Senior was a lot warmer than the 4,790 shivering fans in attendance.
Matt Forman headed Wolves into the lead, but painter and decorator Moss once again levelled matters, beating the offside trap before chipping over Vince Bartram. From then on in, it was a “backs-against-the-wall night” says Senior. He made saves from Mutch, Steve Stoutt and Keith Lockhart as Chorley held on for a second replay a week later. “We managed to scrape the draw,” he admits.
So it was back to Burnden Park on Monday 25 November for the final part of the trilogy. A crowd of 5,421 witnessed the giant being felled on an unforgettable night for Chorley, their 3-0 win ending the 300-minute marathon. “It was a remarkably comfortable win,” says Senior. Salesman Charlie Cooper scored twice, either side of a strike from Edwards. “My players had more heart and determination,” said Wright on the night. “We’ve never been frightened of them over the three matches and there was no question we played the better football tonight.”
The new Wolves manager could only agree. “It was like men against boys,” said Turner. “Chorley were fitter, stronger and had more ability. I’m getting the brunt of criticism but this is just the culmination of four or five years during which the club has been badly organised.” He even found time for a joke about his new job, saying: “The highlight of my year was three weeks out of work and cutting the grass at home. I hadn’t a worry then.”
The obituaries were being written for Wolves in the press. “Starvation led Wolves to the slaughter,” said the Guardian, Stephen Bierley concluding the club “nowadays are no more than sheep in Wolves’ clothing.” The club’s former skipper, Billy Wright, was distraught, saying: “Graham Turner has a hell of a job on his hands and this has to be the lowest point in the club’s history.”
In the next round, Chorley earned a creditable draw against Preston at Ewood Park in front of 15,133 fans before losing the replay 5-0 on Preston’s plastic pitch three days later. Despite the heavy defeat, Senior remembers the Cup run fondly, especially the Wolves trilogy. “It’s without doubt the highlight of my football career. Such fabulous memories. My scrapbook is something to be seen. There must be 12 to 15 pages on that one game.”
The memories are not so golden for Wolves fans, but hope was just around the corner. A few days before the first Chorley match, Turner had signed Andy Thompson and an unknown striker called Steve Bull from local rivals West Brom. They were not eligible for the cup ties, but would soon make their mark. Turner turned the ship around, with Bull and Mutch forming a beautiful relationship, and Molineux developing into a fine stadium. The John Ireland Stand, once drain on finances, was renamed after Steve Bull in 2003. The defeat to Chorley was the darkness before the dawn.