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Football: Baying Wolves at Richards' door

Football: Molineux managing director is bearing the brunt of supporters' frustration at dismal start to the season
THE GIANT bronze statue of Billy Wright outside the main entrance to Wolverhampton Wanderers is running away from Molineux. John Richards, who bore the brunt of the abuse from supporters who gathered around the monument to demonstrate after wretched recent results, is determined no one will be able to say that of his tenure as the First Division club's managing director.

In the pantheon of Wolves' folk heroes, the 48-year-old Richards holds a place alongside Wright and Steve Bull. His 194 goals in the gold and black included a League Cup winner at Wembley and earned him recognition by England. But all that counted for nothing, it seemed, when neighbouring Walsall won on the ground where Europe's finest once feared to tread.

Four days earlier, during the Worthington Cup capitulation to Second Division Wycombe, spectators stopped Richards in the stand at half-time, demanding to know what he proposed to do. "They were polite," he recalled. "It was a passionate discussion rather than a heated argument."

The atmosphere was more volatile after the Walsall embarrassment. Several hundred chanted "Where's the money gone?" - referring to the pounds 6m Wolves received from Coventry last month for Robbie Keane - before the cry went up: "We want Richards out." For one whose name used to rattle the rafters on the North Bank in a more positive context, it was, he admitted yesterday, a "very hurtful experience".

Was he tempted to get out before the vilification became any more unpleasant? "Absolutely not," Richards insisted. "I can understand and accept the frustrations, if not the violence and the aggression. That was frightening. It was upsetting for my wife, and I was just glad my daughter was at a wedding.

"But I wouldn't walk away. We've done the hard bit here, and taken the unpopular, difficult decisions which have got this club into a position where the future looks positive. I've had some wonderfully supportive letters and calls from fans saying `We're right behind you', but to those who were shouting for my head I'd just say that what we're doing is for the good of Wolves, and it is coming right."

It is easy, however, to see why some supporters find such optimism hard to stomach. Wolves, probably second only to Aston Villa in the Midlands in terms of crowd-pulling potential, are in their 11th season in the second grade and last played in the top flight 15 years ago. Traditionally they are "bigger" than Coventry, yet the Sky Blues now have their most treasured asset.

The critics have targeted Richards rather than the chairman whose millions restored Wolves to respectability, Sir Jack Hayward, or a relatively new manager, Colin Lee. "They know that without Sir Jack, Wolves might not even be here now. And they're right behind Colin. They needed someone to blame and I affect what happens here on a day-to-day basis, so I was a logical target."

His "crime" was to state during the summer that all of the pounds 6m from the sale of Keane would be spent on new players. Not only did he later amend that to a figure closer to pounds 4m, but there was no replacement striker on board when the Irish prodigy left.

"Football is a fluid business," Richards explained. "After my initial comments we signed Andy Sinton and Darren Bazeley, and everyone knows Bosman `free transfers' don't come without cost. We also added to the coaching staff and improved the contracts of some of our existing players.

"After Robbie went, the easiest thing for me would have been to say that all the money was there for Colin. But that wouldn't have been true. In fact, a large chunk of it is available and there will be signings, sooner rather than later."

Richards, who was invited to replace Wright on the board after the former England captain's death five years ago, took on his current role in 1997 with instructions from Sir Jack to stem the losses the club were incurring. But he believes that the perception of Wolves as having a bottomless pit of cash is still prevalent, both among clubs whose players they may want to buy and their own followers.

"Since we last played at Premiership level we've been to the bottom of the Fourth Division, in receivership twice and had a ground that was three- quarters derelict. Then, from 1993 to '97, money was no object with regard to getting into the Premier League. The club lost around pounds 24m over that period.

"Supporters became accustomed to free spending but, in truth, we were haemorrhaging money. That's why Sir Jack called himself `the Golden Tit'. Though he said it on the spur of the moment after we lost in the play- offs, money really was going out of this club at an alarming rate.

"He wanted me to prepare Wolves for the 21st century, so that the club aren't forever dependent on him. He has put something like pounds 46m into the ground and the team. That couldn't continue. Most of the fans understand that we're trying to lay the foundations for the future but, understandably, they also want success on the pitch."

Richards is confident Wolves are closer than his detractors think to balancing those aims; that Lee can build a team in the true sense of the word and that they will break even this season, all without straining unduly their owner's goodwill or wallet. Not that Sir Jack's love of his home-town team is waning. At 76, and with a pacemaker fitted after a triple heart by-pass, he still commutes to matches from the Bahamas.

"His energy is incredible," Richards beamed. "Already this season he has been to places like Tiverton and Telford watching friendlies, reserve and youth games. He even took a taxi to Coventry to see Robbie Keane play against Manchester United because he was proud that Wolves had developed such a talent.

"Sir Jack's commitment is total but, without being morbid, he wants Wolverhampton Wanderers to be solvent and to have a life after he's gone."