Football / FA Cup Countdown: A Bullish company of Wolves: Meeting of Wanderers gives the Molineux men a chance to settle an old score. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
AS THE Wanderers of Wolverhampton and Bolton prepare to make their entrance for Sunday's fourth-round tie at Molineux, they may see a board fixed to the door leading to the pitch. Strategically placed, like the one advising 'This is Anfield', it warns: 'This is a hard-hat area.'

In the recent past, when lofted passes rained down and Steve Bull reigned supreme, the message might have been aimed at visiting defenders, with a line added to the effect that the long- ball game could damage their goal difference. These days Wolves are more refined - although Bull is still on the rampage - but the words on the exit are no less a sign of the times.

Molineux is being reconstructed, and not before time. During the Eighties, Wolves' ground symbolised their fall from 'Champions of the World' (as Fleet Street hailed them in the Fifties) to bankruptcy and the foot of the Fourth Division. Two sides were closed, rotting and rusting, and its remaining stand was so far from the pitch that spectators needed binoculars. It was, in Prince Charles's phrase, a monstrous carbuncle.

Enter, in 1990, Sir Jack Hayward, a multi-millionaire who, as a six- year-old, used to crawl under the turnstiles and join 50,000 others worshipping the Wolves of six decades ago. Now living in the Bahamas, he bought his first love and began making it a home fit for heroes again.

The Stan Cullis Stand, a stylish homage in old gold and black to Wolves' greatest manager, appeared this season where the North Bank once stood. The impressive curve of the Billy Wright Stand, named after the captain today's manager Graham Turner idolised as a boy, is already discernible amid the building site that is the old Waterloo Road Stand (hence the safety reminder). And the Jack Harris Stand is to replace the South Bank by December.

Molineux will then have a capacity of 29,000, all seated, and Wolves are negotiating with the Hungarian club Honved, floodlit foes from the Cullis-Wright era, to play in a celebration match. In the meantime, a presentation to the FA will press their case for hosting showpiece fixtures.

Quite apart from the pounds 10m put in by Sir Jack (plus pounds 2m from the Football Trust), the transformation has come at a price. Turner has not enjoyed the kind of backing for team-building which the managers of Derby and Blackburn have had from their benefactors, and the side now eighth in the First Division contains five who played for Wolves at the lowest level.

Despite the sometimes hurtful jibes of impatient fans, he is not resentful. 'We've come so far so quickly that expectations are inflated,' Turner said, recalling the defeatism and decay he found six and a half years back. 'But I felt sorry for the players with the lack of atmosphere and the state of the dressing-rooms. We knew we couldn't progress unless something was done to the ground.'

Jonathan Hayward, chairman, farmer and son of the owner, is restless to reach the Premier League but determined not to repeat the mistakes of the late 1970s which twice led them to the verge of extinction. 'Having built a stand for pounds 1.5m they sold Steve Daley for a similar sum,' he explained. 'Inexplicably, they then spent it on Andy Gray whereas if they'd banked it they could have paid for the stand.

'My father is not in Jack Walker's position, so until the stadium is completed we can't spend much on players. But the new ground has conference facilities, a restaurant and so on, all five minutes from the town centre, giving us the infrastructure to create substantial revenue.'

Such talk would have been highly fanciful in 1982, when crippling interest costs on the stand had led to the Receivers being called in. Sir Jack was set to take over but five minutes before the deadline, a rival consortium involving two Asian brothers called Bhatti and fronted by the ex- Molineux favourite Derek Dougan made a higher bid.

According to Keith Pearson, then club accountant and now secretary-director, 'everything was sweetness and light' in the Bhattis' first year as Wolves won promotion. 'They were pleasant enough to deal with but were businessmen rather than football people. At some stage they just decided to stop putting money in, and we went from First to Fourth in successive seasons.'

By 1986 support had dipped to 3,000 and they were again in liquidation. 'We couldn't even pay the milk bill,' Pearson remembered. 'I had a book of excuses for people who rang up and said 'Where's my cheque?'. I thought we were finished.'

This time a Birmingham company, Gallaghers, came to the rescue. While their interest was openly in property development, they were prepared to restore Wolves' credibility and gave Turner pounds 50,000 to buy a raw reserve striker from West Bromwich Albion.

'It was a lot of money in our position and after a few games the directors were wondering if I'd wasted it,' Turner admitted. 'Then the goals started going in.' And how. 'Bully' became a Black Country legend - as well as an England player - and Wolves devastating exponents of route- one football.

'It suited the players we had then,' he added. 'Now we've got people who can pass it, so we can't just lump it. But if you play everything in front of the back four, you'll never get anywhere. Paul Cook can hit a 40-yard pass right into Bully's path. If that's long- ball, I'm happy to play it.'

Bull has scored 12 times this season, including one in the 4-1 win at Watford which earned Wolves' first fourth-round place in 10 years. Like the fans who queued through the night to make the game a 19,000 sell-out, Pearson and Hayward expected to be playing Liverpool; Bolton's victory at Anfield has cost the club pounds 150,000 in television fees and ground advertising.

In a roundabout way, however, the tie offers Wolves an opportunity to purge the worst defeat in their history from their psyche. Early in the Turner era, days after he signed Bull, they were humbled 3-0 in a Cup replay by Chorley of the Northern Premier League . . . at Bolton.

'Many people thought that was the final nail in the coffin,' the manager reflected, 'yet in a way it focused everyone's minds on how low we'd sunk. Things improved gradually - and that night was the catalyst.'

Their Second Division opponents arrive on a high, but if Bull is in the mood for demolition they may wish they had packed their hard hats.

(Photograph omitted)

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