Football: FA Cup Sixth Round: Wanderers find path to a new golden age: Ian Ridley tells how once great Wolves are reacquainting themselves with success

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The Independent Online
IT IS as if English football is reasserting its traditions; as if it is pointing out that the stunning new stadiums and prosperous Premiership future are to be enjoyed, but that the greed creed must not submerge its soul.

This season's FA Cup competition seems to have been a reminder to the elite of where, and who, the game has come from. Half of the Premiership teams have been eliminated by teams from the Football League in one of recent memory's most fascinating tournaments and next weekend has the potential for more high jinx.

Then, all four quarter-finals pit Premiership against First Division, represented by the Wanderers of Bolton and Wolverhampton, by the valiants of Charlton Athletic and the top-hatters of Luton, 18 appearances in the final between them. And countless mentions in the folklore of the competition. From Bolton's Fifties finals - lost to Matthews, won by Lofthouse - through Charlton's ball-bursting finals of '46 (lost) and '47 (won) to Roy Dwight, uncle of Elton John, distressingly breaking his leg in Luton's 1959 cause.

Perhaps the greatest of these are the Wolves. Four-times winners, the last time in 1960, four further times finalists, they recalled an Old Gold past when they won their fifth-round replay at Ipswich in midweek by 2-1 to earn a tie a week today at Chelsea. Seemingly Eighties casualties when they lost to Chorley in the Cup - Chorley some mistake we thought when we heard the 3-0 scoreline - and apparently going out of business, they have become the nouveau riche of the Nineties.

But out of darkness cometh light, as their motto has it; a good year indeed, as proclaimed by the legend on their shirts of the sponsoring tyre company with its headquarters in the town. There, in the stand at Ipswich, was Billy Wright, the famous Cup-lifting centre-half (1949) and England captain, who married one of the Beverley Sisters (the middle one, wasn't it?), and is now a director of the club. Sky television captured his delight at the final whistle, then replayed it to him: 'Is that me? I think I am a bit pleased, aren't I?' he beamed on to the satellite.

The match had even thrown up a tabloid hero in the goalscoring 23-year-old Lee Mills, deputising for the injured Steve Bull and Cyrille Regis, who was a clerk in Barnsley until a year ago. It was, too, a match that illustrated the deep and lasting appeal of the Cup; quite often ordinary in quality but with the tense thrill of

sudden-death football. An electronic clock counting down seemed to invest the most innocuous incident with an extraordinary significance.

Six times, in between listening to World Service bulletins at his home on Grand Bahama, the club's benefactor and president, Sir Jack Hayward, telephoned Portman Road for news. He was unable to be there in person as he was preparing to host on Monday a lunch for the Queen. 'Tell one,' you imagine the conversation going, 'when does Bully expect to have the brace removed from his left knee?'

The entrepreneur Sir Jack has invested some pounds 25m in his home- town football club since those dark days of 1986 when the club's slide stopped just short of the Vauxhall Conference. There have been the debts to pay off, running costs, the investment in new players and, of course, the financing of the monument that is Molineux now. 'There was a time when you used to meet players down the motorway somewhere, to keep them as far away from Molineux as possible,' says the club's manager, Graham Turner. 'Now you bring them here to see it and you have got a good chance of signing them.'

The 28,000-seat stadium is both future and past. Its pristine, towering grandstands bear the name of former greats including Stan Cullis and Jack Harris, a tribute to the president's feeling for the club and also his own lack of ego. Only a dining-room named after him tells overtly of his presence. You can get anything you want at Sir Jack's restaurant.

The morning after the night before, both ground and town are abuzz with good humour. On the ring road a pedestrian wearing a West Bromwich Albion shirt is now more at risk from the traffic than from any angry Wolves fan. Inside the Billy Wright Stand, which houses the administrative offices, the phone trills incessantly, sure sign of a successful football club. 'I'm afraid we have only 2,500 tickets for the Chelsea match, which will go on sale tomorrow to season-ticket holders,' the receptionist repeats.

Here, glass cabinets contain memorabilia of the Cup conquests, including the original ball from the 1893 final in which Wolves beat Everton 1-0. A few miles away, near the site of the club's original ground at Blakenall, a row of terraced houses were built to form Wanderers Avenue at that time, with stone statues of the FA Cup above the doors, Mike Collett's loving Guinness Record of the FA Cup (Guinness publishing, pounds 14.99) reveals.

Sadly, in the pebble dash towards home improvement, they are now gone - 'sorry about that', says a resident, when you enquire - though the names of the winning team are retained on plaques above the dwellings: Rose Villas, Baugh Villas, Swift Villas, Malpas Villas and so on they read going up the street. More, though, can be found around the corner in the Dudley Road near the Fighting Cocks pub, the book says. Unfortunately, the Fighting Cocks has been knocked down ready for a supermarket.

A more acceptable improvement is to be found back in Graham Turner's office, now swishness itself, though he misses the leaks from the old one, he says with a smile. A poster of Kipling's 'If' hangs on the wall - 'every manager should have one,' he says - next to another of the aggressive, winning coaching philosophy of the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi. 'Given to me by the president', he adds with another smile.

He deserves to be able to smile after all that has happened. For a start, he had just taken over at the time of that Chorley defeat. 'The low point of my managerial career. There was an acceptance that the club was going out of business. It seemed the final nail in the coffin,' he recalls. 'But it turned out to be the time that everybody's attention focused on the problems of the club and from then on we haven't really looked back. Progress over the last seven years has been remarkable, although I know a lot of people won't agree.'

The last sentence betrays the trials of the season. So high was early expectation at its inception after the signings of Geoff Thomas from Crystal Palace - injured all season - David Kelly from Newcastle and Kevin Keen from West Ham, that a poor start led to calls for his sacking from a sizeable chunk of the support. Sir Jack even told the local Express and Star that a change of manager might indeed be the answer, though it was too soon to tell. Rumours continue even now that Graham Taylor will be hired, though the former England manager has told at least one close contact that he believes Turner to be doing a good job and would not like to be appointed on the back of his sacking.

'This is a club with a great tradition. That's why there is such an expectation and impatience about the place,' Turner says. 'We have been in the Second Division for a long time, everybody naturally wants to be in the Premier and that's where the pressure comes from.' It is the tired frustration familiar to all who think themselves in the last few miles of a journey.

Turner is aware of the Derby precedent: that such a Cup run will count for nothing if the priority of the play-offs is not fulfilled. Who remembers that County reached the sixth round last season? All know that, when expensive ambition was not realised, Arthur Cox felt moved to resign as manager. Not that Turner will quit. 'It's such a great club, you wouldn't want to walk away from it,' he says. 'Whatever we do, I want to be pleased with the way we play,' he adds, and indeed there is a pleasing aspect to them at present, even if they incurred further the displeasure of their support by losing at home to West Bromwich Albion last Saturday to present their nearest rivals with a double. 'Going to Ipswich and winning after that summed up our season,' Turner says.

The signings of Darren Ferguson - what better Cup story could there be should Wolves progress to a final against his father Alex's Manchester United? - and Chris Marsden have given them a new competitiveness in their five-man midfield, even if Ferguson is still finding his feet. Coupled with a three-man defence, the system seems well suited to winning away.

The signing on loan from Aston Villa of Guy Whittingham, available against Chelsea, could also give them a scoring potential to rival Bull's, 'psychologically a great name to have on your team sheet', according to Turner. They should have nothing to fear from Chelsea, he believes, and will go there relaxed after the same preparation as for Ipswich: a day's golf near Blackpool and a morning's training on the beach.

He is not certain as to why so many supposedly mighty should have fallen this year, except that he has great respect for the standards of his division. A greater familiarity through not only the live action but also the magazine analysis of Sky TV? 'Perhaps. But I don't watch many of their games live. It's a waste of time unless you have got several million to spend.'

Given the draw, it is still possible that four Premiership sides could contest the semi-finals; that, anyway, everyone is merely competing to become the losing finalists to Manchester United. Unless the West Indies suddenly enter the FA Cup, that is.

But, admittedly with the help of a wealthy backer, Wolves seem to have been chosen by football's gods to point out to the modern the value of the ancient. Theirs, it appears, is an example to the game's culture itself of how a feel for the past can plot a path to the future. A Cup to cheer, indeed.

(Photograph omitted)

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