League Champions. FA Cup winners. European pioneers. The litany of Wolverhampton Wanderers' achievements is as golden as their shirts, and Sir Jack Hayward is eager to update it before, as the 80-year-old chairman and owner puts it, "my time runs out". In the meantime he harbours a more prosaic aspiration for Wolves: "To be on the first page of the Premiership table on Ceefax."
That would, of course, mean his beloved club were in the top half of the league that some, including the ultra-patriotic Hayward, it is safe to say, regard as the greatest in the world. To one who spends much of his time scanning television text systems in Britain and surfing the static for "wireless commentaries" at his main home in the Bahamas, opening-page status would be cockle-warming news indeed.
Not that Britain's 231st richest man will settle indefinitely for respectability or survival. He is impatient for the sort of success on which Wolves feasted in the 1950s, yet if he were still young one suspects his ambition for his home-town team would be the same. "We have stay up this season because we must win the title and the Cup in the next few seasons," he says, adding that he is "deadly serious".
Dave Jones, the manager who restored Wolves to the élite division via the play-off final after a 19-year absence, might view such expectations as a tad unrealistic. Consolidation will be the name of his game, starting at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday, although the visit to Ewood Park will merely remind his employer of how canny stewardship and substantial investment can break the mould.
"I had great admiration and fondness for Jack Walker," the Black Country philanthropist says of the Lancashire club's late benefactor. "He was born and bred in the town, as I was in Wolverhampton, and spent his money there. And he had his due reward when they won the championship [in 1995]."
Fuelled by tea and surrounded by portraits of royalty - both of the Queen and the Molineux variety as represented by Billy Wright and Stan Cullis - Hayward warms to his theme. "I used to tell Jack and Lionel Pickering [Derby's formerly free-spending chairman]: 'One day the men in white coats are going to take us away. We'll probably share the same padded cell, so we ought to get to know each other'."
The price of his own madness, or devotion, has been upwards of £60m, on stadium and personnel, since buying control in 1990. Wolves were then in the former Second Division, having scraped the foot of the Fourth a few years earlier. It appeared all they had to do to regain their pre-eminence was throw money at the transfer market.
Thirteen years and myriad near-misses, managers and players later, Hayward was at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium in May to watch Wolves contest a Premiership place with Sheffield United. After "the humiliation" 12 months earlier of gifting an automatic promotion to neighbouring West Bromwich Albion, of all teams, he was taking nothing for granted. Even when they led 3-0 at half-time. "I just knew that Sheffield came from 2-0 down to beat Nottingham Forest in the semi-final. In fact, they got a penalty just after the interval. Matt Murray saved it, but if it had gone in, and they'd scored another quickly..."
Murray also prevented Paul Ince scoring an own goal. "I asked Matt what Paul said and it was: 'I'll love you forever, baby'," says Hayward. He laughs about it now and calls it the second-best day of his life; better than his wedding ("a very odd affair in South Africa") and just behind when he received his wings as a wartime pilot. But what if Wolves had failed again? "I'd probably be in a loony bin, gone mad. Halfway through last season I told Dave Jones and Jez Moxey [the chief executive]: 'I'll soon be 80 and I am not going to Gillingham, Rotherham or Grimsby again. I said if we didn't make it, I was going on the pitch to give it [the club] away. I think that frightened them."
Yet the humbler, less capacious venues are more of a throwback to the era after which Hayward seems to hanker. Top-level football has changed drastically since Wolves last dominated it in the mid-1950s. Does he like the way it has gone?
"Oh no, no, no. I still don't know the modern game, all this formations nonsense. I said to Graham Taylor when he was our manager: 'Have you ever thought of going back to the old-fashioned line-up: wing-halves, inside-forwards and so on?' Other teams would have been be so surprised, we'd be 3-0 up in 10 minutes"
Taylor might find more common ground with his "regret" that most modern players seem to care more about the colour of the money than the colour of the shirt. Hayward waxes wistful about "the calibre" of Wright, Cullis, Bill Slater and Ron Flowers, who had a "tremendous pride" in representing Wolves.
Asked how he might seek to instil his old-gold fervour in Jones' new recruits - who include Isaac Okoronkwo from Nigeria, Oleg Luzhny of Ukraine, Norway's Steffen Iversen, the Portuguese Silas, Cameroon's Henri Camara and plain old Jody Craddock from Sunderland - Hayward's reply eschews political correctness. "One problem is getting them to speak English. I greeted a bloke in the lobby one day. I was told it was Camara when it was actually [Carlos] Kameni. I welcomed him aboard. Then someone nudged me and said: 'He's not on board yet'."
The eccentric old buffer is also a hard-nosed operator who has built up a transport and utilities "empire" since arriving in the Caribbean in 1956. But even his financial clout looks slight next to Roman Abramovich at Chelsea. If Hayward feels any distaste for the Russian billionaire's almost vulgar spree, he hides it well. "I wish them luck. If the chap's got the money and wants to spend it, good luck to him."
That Wolves' own close-season expenditure has been relatively modest is not, he insists, down to any tightening of the purse strings. "No one has been stopped from buying. The manager says he wants a player from some place I've never heard of, and he goes for him. It's certainly done my geography good."
At least now that they are among Chelsea, Manchester United and company, Wolves will no longer find £1m added to the price of any player they covet, or be the team everyone wants to beat, as they were in the First Division. "That," says Hayward, supping from his cup with renewed relish, "will be rather enjoyable."
Not nearly so pleasurable, though, as seeing Wolves compete with United, Arsenal, Liverpool and the rest. As Sir Jack repeatedly observes, promotion was a long time coming and he will be a long time dead.
"The first page I read in my daily paper is the Obituaries. If I'm not in it, I have a good day. Time's running out, so my ambitions for this club really do have to be fulfilled in the next two or three years."Reuse content