Football: The knight of the deep pockets: As a new Endsleigh League season opens, Ian Ridley meets a fervent benefactor who has put Wolves at the door of the Premiership

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The Independent Online
TO PARAPHRASE Damon Runyon's paraphrasing of the Bible, the race is not always to the physically strong and the fiscally rich (to whit, Derby County). But it's a safe way to bet (Blackburn Rovers). Which is why Wolverhampton Wanderers have been installed as favourites for promotion to the Premiership from the Endsleigh League First Division.

Wolves begin their campaign on Saturday at home to Reading, newly promoted from the Second, and all appears to be in place. Graham Taylor has been recruited as manager on the strength of his club record of five promotions and taking two clubs to the top of the ladder, rather than his international record of taking a country down a rung or two. To the team which missed the play-offs by three points last season have been added Tony Daley and Steve Froggatt from Aston Villa for a combined pounds 2m and the promising defender Neil Emblen from Millwall for pounds 600,000.

Some 14,500 season tickets have been sold, generating pounds 2.5m, and a midweek friendly against Manchester United filled the beautifully reconstructed Molineux to its capacity of 28,500 and provided record receipts of pounds 225,000 for the Old Gold reserve.

The heaviest weight of evidence, though, for the belief that this season, surely, will be the one in which Wolves break through was to be found in the boardroom tea room and in the words of Sir Jack Hayward, the club's owner for the past four years and the man whose millions had made it all possible. He was replying to a question about his response should the manager come to him and say yet more money was needed for a new player to sustain a promotion challenge. 'I would say what I say to my son, Jonathan (the club chairman), when he comes to me and asks that question - this is blackmail. Then he says: 'Do you want to get into the Premiership?' and I say 'Yes.' Then he says: 'Do you want to win the FA Cup?' and I say 'Yes.' And then I say: 'Oh, go and buy him then.' '

Sir Jack is one of that breed of latter-day owners, rich men - like Jack Walker at Blackburn or Lionel Pickering at Derby - ready to throw money at their home-town club out of gratitude and sentiment, rather than ego. 'I don't know how clubs survive without a golden tit or a fairy godfather,' he says. Which is he? 'I suppose I am a bit of a tit.'

The boy from Dunstall, less than half a mile from Molineux, made his pile in business in South Africa and the United States, setting up home in Freeport, Grand Bahama, most of which he now owns and runs as a British colony with red telephone boxes and Hackney carriages on the streets. He expects to make at least 10 visits for matches this season.

Fiercely patriotic, he has bought Lundy Island for the National Trust and established a hospital on the Falklands. Outside Molineux, his Range Rover carries a bumper sticker: 'Buy abroad - sack a Brit.' He would not like Taylor to have signed Jurgen Klinsmann. 'I would have said: 'Graham, you should be able to find 11 players good enough from the Midlands.' '

He has insisted that the stadium retain its evocative name - 'I know it is Huguenot French, but nevertheless . . .' - rather than his own, and the stands be named after such as Stan Cullis and Billy Wright. The bust of him in the lobby and naming the club restaurant 'Sir Jack's' was not his doing, he says.

But though he may be a modest and charming benefactor, even if unrealistically anti- European, the toughness necessary in accruing financial fortunes comes through. At 71, he echoes Jack Walker in saying that time is running out for him to see his club among the elite. And though Graham Turner was offered the more civilised opportunity of revolver and whisky bottle six months ago, Sir Jack, you sense, was ready to mobilise the firing squad.

'Our fans kept on telling us that this man would not get us into the Premiership and I think they were right. They usually are. I never thought it would happen but I feel this awful responsibility to supporters. When the Queen came to the Bahamas, I told her - and football is not her favourite pastime - 'Ma'am, you must realise people live for this game.' '

He and the board had, too, listened to the fans in Turner's successor's appointment. They talked to the people's choice, Gerry Francis, but he turned them down; Bryan Robson wanted, says Sir Jack, to bring too many backroom people with him. 'Yes, I was worried, as was my wife, about Graham Taylor because of the television documentary. But my son said that I should meet him, as he is an awfully nice chap. And he is. He really has shaken this place up. I think the players are fitter than ever before. Jackie Shirtliff told me that she wanted to thank Graham after the club's tour of Scandinavia for giving her a new husband.'

Though he is mostly lauded in Wolverhampton, Sir Jack has had to contend with criticism that the money on the stadium might have been better spent on players. He was determined, though, that Molineux be finished for the all-seater deadline of this month and that its value in attracting the best players would then be seen. Besides which, he adds, plenty has been spent on players - 'some bloody awful ones'.

More recruits may soon be needed. Sir Jack believes that if all the squad are fit - already a forlorn hope since Daley's knee injury is likely to keep him out for three months - Wolves should be good enough to go up. 'God, we ought to, but then we thought that last year.'

Taylor appears to be returning to the instincts of his Watford days when he played direct, winged 4-4-2 (or 4-2-4) football aimed at quickly supplying two physical strikers. Steve Bull, especially, should be suited to the system with his liking for early service. His goal against United was an example of this.

But a partner for Bull may be a problem, with Lee Mills still looking raw, though balanced and talented, and David Kelly uncertain. In defence, meanwhile, as United's two

second-half goals to win last week's game revealed, a commanding centre-half may yet be needed to offset the vulnerability of the small, though gifted, youngster at right-back, Jamie Smith, and guileful Andy Thomspon on the left. The development of the inexperienced Emblen will be watched with interest.

Much will depend on Bull's goal tally and the durability in midfield of Geoff Thomas, who, at this level at least, looks comfortably classy. Turner's great misfortune was this pair's long absence through injury.

Still, there is always the willingness of Sir Jack to intervene, even if he believes that transfer fees and wages have become 'ludicrous'. Perhaps that comfort blanket was why Taylor was looking as relaxed last week as he looked harassed nine months ago, though, unlike his president, he was unusually reluctant to discuss the club, feeling 'no obligation to the national press any more'.

'Turnip, turnip give us a wave,' some in the crowd last week chanted, and Taylor did. But this vegetable patch may prove to be fertile.

(Photograph and table omitted)