October 18 1996 at Molineux
The event: October 19 at Molineux Wolverhampton v Port Vale, Division 1
Result: Wolves 0 Port Vale 1
“You’ll like Molineux,” they promised in the office. I was new. I was not to know Wolverhampton supporters took it all so seriously. In the week following this column I was obliged to appear on Midlands Today and argue with Mark McGhee over whether football ought to be entertaining
The Wolves Club-Call on Monday night took a surprising tone, I thought. Saturday’s game may have been a wash-out, yet we must surely agree: “It’s always interesting at Molineux!” Interesting? Did that man say “interesting”? I put down the phone with a huff, and with infinite weariness raised my eyebrows Gromit-fashion.
What a dispiriting experience Saturday was. How on earth was I talked into it? Even in my pristine ignorance, the prospect of Wolves v Port Vale had struck certain alarm gongs for me, and further doubts naturally arose when each of my regular footie hand-holders said, “Oh. Wolverhampton. Really?” and then made a big show of riffling in diaries and shaking their heads.
Yet stupidly I looked on the bright side. Wolves has a huge following and also a huge stadium with spanking yellow seats. They have a highly contrived strip (some might call it hideous), based on a stylised wolf-face, worn by a large percentage of the fans. So the occasion would be exciting, even if the football was not. Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when 25 minutes after kick-off, the plucky, expectant smile froze on my face and I finally admitted I had lost the will to live.
“Lacklustre” would be a misleadingly complimentary description of the play on Saturday, mainly because it’s got the word “lustre” in it. It was dreadful. In front of 23,000 people, 22 men gave a group impression of week-old kittens wrestling inside paper bags. Players would make short runs with the ball, fall over in the wet, and lose possession. “No, you take it. Honestly, I’d finished with it anyway,” was the hopeless tenor of play. Meanwhile an already phlegmatic crowd watched in damp, uncomfortable silence, as if in a state of collective grief. In terms of audience encouragement, in fact, Molineux was evidently the Glasgow Empire of football. Cheerleaders and free alcohol were urgently required.
It didn’t help the occasion, of course, that in matches elsewhere around the country, sensational events were unfolding. Wimbledon were running rings round Chelsea! Sunderland’s keeper was stretchered off! Here at Molineux, however, local hero Steve Bull failed to score, and it looked like a depressing nil-nil event until Port Vale’s Tony Naylor scored the winning (and only) goal in the 65th minute, and Wolverhampton’s already grey, settled gloom hardened at once to concrete. This was to be their fourth consecutive home defeat, and the death-knell of all hope.
Equalising seemed out of the question, so for the rest of the match, Wolves players resorted to that old Navajo trick of falling over and remaining prone longer than necessary, in the hope of free kicks. But this pathetic strategy was ignored by the ref, quite rightly. “Stop crying wolf, you lot!” I said, and chuckled — which I would like to point out was an example of a person making her own entertainment in very difficult circumstances.
I’d been told, of course, that the thing to know about Wolverhampton was their vaunting ambition to rejoin the top teams in the Premier League. Years ago they were top dogs; now they slink about with their tails dragging. So they make no secret of their expectations, and if promoted would not waste much time pretending it was a big surprise. They would bound forward with doggy eyes ablaze. Hence the outsize stadium, you see; hence the corporate identity and the queues at the club shop, and the video screens with action replays.
But apparently it’s just not working out as expected. Having a huge lovely yellow stadium is a touching act of faith, but it’s the equivalent of the young Biff Loman in Death of a Salesman printing “University of Virginia” on his sneakers, believing that he will thereby influence destiny. Acts of faith are not enough. Biff famously “flunks math”, and doesn’t get in, and the sneakers make no difference at all.
The Wolves Club Call, when I phoned up for the Port Vale post-mortem, did explain a few things, thankfully. Fourteen expensive Wolves players are currently face down on treatment tables (a troubling image, somehow), and the beleaguered manager Mark McGhee sounds deeply fed up in a Scottish sort of way.
“Do you expect supporters to put up with this kind of performance?” he was asked in a rather accusing tone on the Club Call, and with a strangled voice McGhee answered yes, actually, because he was doing his best. “What de youse want, blood?” was the martyred sub-text. Meanwhile his candid programme notes told us to support the selected team on Saturday — because, after all, “they don’t play badly deliberately”.
So this is what it’s like, then: the reality of football supporting at its lowest ebb. Damp and lonely on Saturday, I spent the first half dreaming about the sandwich in my pocket; and the second half calculating the walk to the station. All those old football-sociology theories about crowds and mobs were shattered for me: here were 23,000 people each sitting on their own, their only bond a desire to get home and forget it. A burst of “Hi Ho Wolverhampton” at half-time was not inspiring. Perhaps even the fanatics could hear, for once, that “Wolverhampton” does not rhyme with “sun is shining” by any stretch of the imagination.
Let’s hope some lean, fit wolves leap off those treatment tables shortly, and start running as a pack. Reading the fanzine (A Load of Bull) on the London train, I found an advertisement for a cassette collection of “Wolves related songs” which seem to indicate happier times. Entitled “Hark Now Hear the South Bank Sing”, this cassette includes such gems as “We’ll Drink a Drink a Drink to Stevie the King” and “Stevie Bull’s a Tatter”. And I can’t explain this, but it made me want to cry.