It is 20 years this week since Neil Emblen left Wolves – for the second time.
Not many players have enjoyed two separate playing stints at Molineux, and not many have proved as popular.
Even now, two decades on, there is still plenty of Wolves love on social media for the affable Emblen, and he has always been very well received on the occasions he has returned to hius
He is not a striker who notched goal after goal for the club, a goalkeeper who can dine out on a few penalty saves here and there, nor indeed someone who can boast a memorable matchwinner in a derby game or the like.
Yet he is certainly still held in very high affection by the Molineux faithful, perhaps for far more than the fact he chalked up 235 appearances in the six years of those two spells which leaves him just outside the top 50 of the club’s most-used players.
If Wolves in the 1990’s on the pitch was often characterised by tales of misfortune and play-off near misses, many of those involved at the sharp end are still remembered fondly.
Part of that was down to an approachability of those players in what was a different era, either out and about in the local community or even, after an important victory, enjoying a night out in the pubs and clubs.
“I lived locally during my time at Wolves and always made myself really approachable to fans,” Emblen explains.
“If I saw someone in the newsagent or the bakery or whatever, if I sensed they wanted to say something I would look at them and give them the opening!
“I always found it amazing that people wanted to speak to me and I would spend hours chatting to fans about my career, what was happening at the club, whatever they wanted to talk about.
“Some people vented at times, and I listened, and was always humble about everything when I was doing well and open to criticism if I wasn’t.
“I think everyone deserves each other’s time and, to me, I would give any time fans wanted as I kind of felt that they owned me.
“I was working for their club, although it really didn’t feel like a job.
“Back then we were able to get out on a Saturday night or a midweek if we’d had a good result so you would meet people in the bars and clubs and, again, I would be happy to talk.
“Yes you always had to realise that you were representing the club at all times and be aware of what people’s impression of you was but I always felt it was the right thing to be open and that will never change.”
On the pitch obviously made a difference.
Emblen was always one of those 100% players who could be relied upon to strain every sinew and leave everything out there, even on those days when things didn’t go to plan.
And that was whether at centre back of a two, in a three, centre midfield, out wide, even up front.
Utility man? You get the picture!
“I always knew the Wolves fans would get right behind me if I gave it everything,” says Emblen.
“I think that was through honesty and desire, running and tackling and closing down and being a nuisance on the field rather than quality and ability.
“Their affiliation came because I played like a Wolves fan who had been given a shirt and gave it everything, which is why I think the relationship is still as it is.”
Emblen is certainly doing himself a disservice there.
Alongside that attitude and determination came a high level of technical prowess in whatever position, ability to carry the ball forward with drive and purpose, eye for a goal which saw him notch 18 in Wolves’ colours and the nous to time his runs perfectly to do so.
Not to mention a keen footballing brain which has been put into good use since moving into various coaching roles since hanging up his boots, currently into a fourth season as assistant coach for Colorado Rapids in America’s MLS (Major League Soccer).
Going back to the very beginning, Emblen actually came in the professional game late.
His Dad Phil had been a successful non-league player and so both Emblen and brother Paul – who went on to play for Charlton, Brighton and Wycombe – were given a footballing grounding including playing for Dad’s team, Tonbridge Angels.
After a couple of pitstops around the non-league circuit it was at Sittingbourne where the scouts started pitching up with more regularity, and Millwall – with a certain boss by the name of Mick McCarthy – eventually took the plunge for a fee in the region of £200,000 back in November, 1993.
Emblen had been involved in other jobs outside of football but suddenly, at 22, had turned professional and incredibly, within just ten days of signing, made his Lions debut.
Experienced defender Pat Van Den Hauwe was ruled out of a game after his house was burgled on a Friday night, and Emblen stepped in.
Just eight months and 13 appearances later, Emblen had impressed sufficiently at Championship level to attract interest from Wolves, and for a fee of £600,000, he checked in at Molineux in the June of 1994.
They were exciting times under Graham Taylor – Steve Froggatt and Tony Daley also joined that summer, John De Wolf and Don Goodman a few months later – and hopes were high.
In pre-season, Emblen’s name appeared in a programme on a Scottish tour as Neil ‘Griblen’, prompting Taylor’s assistant Steve Harrison to christen him ‘Gribbers’, a moniker which stuck within the dressing room from that day forward.
It was probably far more pleasurable a term than some of those which might have been directed towards the new boy after he made his Wolves debut, on the opening day of 1994/95 as Reading visited Molineux.
There is nothing like getting a first touch early into a debut to settle in front of a sizeable and expectant home crowd – over 27,000 as it happened – but sadly for Emblen, this was nothing like a first touch!
“Stowelley (keeper Mike Stowell) threw the ball out to me and it was like, ‘great – a chance to get a few touches under my belt here’.
“I tried to roll it out of my feet to get a nice touch and show I could play it out from the back, but my foot literally rolled over the ball and I fell over.
“Straightaway I could hear the crowd sigh, as if to say, ‘wow – what on earth have we signed here?’”
It didn’t get much better for Emblen or Wolves that day and yet, somehow, despite having been played off the park by a Reading side who would win promotion that season, a goal from Froggatt secured an opening three points.
“I will be forever thankful to Stowelley for that day,” Emblen continues.
“I was absolutely horrendous, honestly, and every time they attacked it looked like I was going to cost us a goal.
“I am coaching now, and I think if I had seen myself produce that performance as a player I would have hauled myself off!
“I was so nervous having not had a great pre-season and picked up a hip flexor injury but Graham put me in especially as I had the experience of Peter Shirtliff alongside to help me through.
“I was awful, but Mike was brilliant, and so unbelievably we somehow won 1-0.”
Emblen was unsurprisingly dropped for the following game at Notts County but Taylor was not a manager to give up lightly and, after sending him on in midfield in an Anglo-Italian Cup tie at Lecce, threw him straight into the engine room for the following home game, against West Bromwich Albion!
It proved a masterstroke.
Emblen was inspired, Wolves were magnificent, and by the time he was substituted to a standing ovation five minutes from time, the team were 2-0 to the good and Black Country derby delight was secured.
“We were outstanding that day and should have won by four or five,” Emblen recalls.
“And it was a great day for me, coming so soon after my debut.
“I think I won the fans over that day, I felt like I could run through brick walls and all of a sudden they were singing my name and I was coming off to a standing ovation.
“I had been so bad in that first game, I heard a lot of sighs and my mate was in the stands listening to what was being said but the fans didn’t really get on to me.
“I suppose it did show some character from me to come back as well because I had been so bad on that first day and literally wanted the ground to swallow me up.
“For a few days afterwards I felt destroyed, but there were some great lads in that dressing room who really helped me through.
“People like Bully, Andy Thompson, Mark Venus, Robbie Dennison, Stowelley – they had been at the club a while and they got me back up again.
“I was trying to embed myself with those guys who had that affiliation, and from that point on, the Albion game, that was me off and running with the love affair with the club and affiliation with the fans which has just been amazing.”
Emblen’s two spells at Wolves were interrupted by what could almost be labelled an eight-month sabbatical with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.
Palace had just beaten Wolves in the play-off final to reach the Premier League and were looking to splash the cash with Emblen one of the more achievable targets on a lengthy shopping list.
By now Mark McGhee was Wolves manager, and had no particular inclination to sell Emblen, but an offer of £2million was simply too good to turn down.
Emblen himself had no real desire to depart Molineux, but there was also plenty to excite him about a return to his South London roots, complete with the emotional attachment of his Uncle being a Palace season ticket holder, and the prospect of Premier League football.
It was a tough season for Palace, they would eventually finish bottom, and for Emblen too, although despite a club not massively pulling together and not making the step-up successfully, he did get to taste the Premier League.
“It was a strange time with what was happening at Palace but I did get the chance to make 13 Premier League appearances and play at some decent grounds,” he recalls.
“For me though, the dressing room was nothing like it had been at Wolves, and I think it also showed to me that I wasn’t really a Premier League player.
“I think maybe if the team had done better and I had gone in there as a defender I could have been a small component and made a contribution.
“Playing in midfield, at that level, being expected to go in and help win games, I just wasn’t that type of player.
“My only real desire to play in the Premier League had been with Wolves, but there had been a nice side to the story in going back to my roots and my Uncle being a season ticket holder there.”
Emblen had stayed in touch with McGhee’s assistants Colin Lee and Mike Hickman and, as Palace plummeted back towards the Championship, suddenly the opportunity emerged on the March transfer deadline day to return to Molineux.
Palace still owed £900,000 of the transfer fee, and the clubs agreed for that to be written off so that Emblen could return after what almost seemed like an eight-month loan spell.
Never go back? Isn’t that what they say? Not for Emblen who would have ‘walked back up the M40’ to head back to Wolves.
Once again he impressed and yet, typifying perhaps that entire decade and beyond until the play-off success of 2003, Wolves still couldn’t push themselves over the finish line.
There were the much-documented play-off semi-final defeats at the hands of Bolton and Palace, several other near misses just outside the top six, but somehow such a talented group of players with so much spirit and togetherness couldn’t make it to the Premier League.
“Putting your finger on why we never got up is the hardest thing,” Emblen says.
“We always seemed to have a glut of bad injuries as well as times when we let ourselves down, particularly at Molineux.
“It always felt that we did well against the bigger teams, but the smaller teams would turn up at Molineux and it would be their cup final for the season and they would raise their game.
“It was everyone’s favourite away game, and no disrespect to clubs like Oldham, Port Vale, Stockport and Bury who were in the division at the time – they made it really hard for us and we seemed to struggle.
“There were actually times when our away record was better than our home!
“We had those couple of play-offs against Bolton and Palace and it just seemed both times that it wasn’t meant to be and we couldn’t quite make it.
“Everyone wanted that promotion so much but we just couldn’t deliver and that is the biggest regret of my time at Wolves – the fact I couldn’t help the team get into the Premier League.
“Seeing Wolves now as it has been for the last few seasons and the buzz around it and the excitement of the rumours about who might join the club – it’s amazing, and it’s all we ever wanted as players too.
“And that’s even if it meant a new group of players coming in to replace you because that always happens in football.
“Dave Jones brought in players like Paul ince and Colin Cameron after I left and
I looked at them and they were better players than me, the next level, and they ended up getting the promotion we all craved.
“I would have been so happy to have been just one of the players that got us there, I can’t tick that box which is the only blemish of my time at Wolves but hopefully the fans will always know that I gave it absolutely everything to try.”
There were many personal highlights for Emblen, not least among that collection of 18 goals.
Many came late in a game, including the much-remembered last gasp equaliser as Wolves came back from 2-0 down in added time to draw with Sheffield United.
“Another couple of minutes and we’d have got the winner,” he says with a laugh.
There was another equaliser and coming back from a two goal defeat to draw 3-3 at Luton, whilst Emblen’s favourite Wolves week undoubtedly came in his second spell with winning goals in successive midweek 1-0 victories against Fulham and Sheffield United, the latter marking the club’s 2000thleague game at Molineux.
What also stands out from Emblen’s time at Wolves is just how many of his team-mates have followed the same path into coaching and management, many across different continents and with considerable success.
Muscat, Robinson, Smith, Corica, Ferguson, Shirtliff, Keen, Stowell, Kelly, Venus – the list goes on.
“Of all those players, the one thing that shines through and especially when you go into coaching or management is that you have to really care about the game,” Emblen explains.
“As a player you only have to look after yourself, as a manager you have to manage up and understand the direction the board wants to go in and the finances and as manager and coach you have to look after a squad of individuals who all have their own agendas and their own issues.
“It is 24-7, but all those players mentioned always had that desire and were working hard to achieve their aims.
“It was in our DNA at the time and that is why we have all gone on and coached at a professional level.
“You have to be a really dedicated player to go on and become a really dedicated coach and it can be a tough job, so much harder than playing.
“You are constantly thinking about the next game or the next training session, planning for the opposition, keeping an eye on any tensions rising in the dressing room and whether you need to put out any fires.
“But I still love it, and I love my job out here in Colorado.
“I never felt like playing was a job and I don’t feel like coaching is a job.
“Every day is different, every fixture is played differently, it’s exciting and I feel blessed to still be involved.”
It has already been quite a journey for Emblen, quite literally.
After leaving Wolves he represented both Norwich and Walsall before heading Down Under to play in New Zealand, where he also started coaching, featuring plenty of success with both Waitakere United and Western Springs.
As well as being a Player/Coach at Club World Cups, Emblen has also enjoyed plenty of international experience, working under former Wolves defender Ricki Herbert with the New Zealand team and also leading them at the 2012 Olympics in London.
“Club World Cups and the Olympics came to me pretty early in my coaching career,” he points out.
“At London I was Head Coach of a New Zealand team including nine amateur players against a Brazil side who had Neymar in it!
“You never know when these opportunities are going to come along and I am grateful for each and every one of them.”
That includes now with Colorado Rapids, a team enjoying a promising season under Robin Fraser and aiming to continue on their current course and seal a home play-off fixture later this year.
There are sacrifices involved – the pandemic has been difficult and Emblen’s daughters Maisie and Rosie are back in New Zealand – but he keeps busy by watching plenty of football as part of his role involves scouting and presenting on the opposition ahead of Rapids’ fixtures.
And of course, with another former Wolves midfielder in Jack Price now captain at Colorado, there is always the chance for a spot of nostalgia, not just about all things Molineux but England’s incredible run to the final of Euro 2020.
“Pricey is in his fourth year with Colorado now, he arrived the same time as me, and he is an absolute genius as a player,” says Emblen.
“He still absolutely loves Wolves as well, and had the same sort of situation as me when he knew it was time to move on.
“Players like Ruben Neves were coming in, taking the club to new heights, but even though it was time to move on – like with me – it doesn’t change how you feel about Wolves.
“We always keep an eye on what is going on and have our days when we chat in Black Country accents and the other players are like ‘here we go, it’s the Wolves lads again’.
“it’s also nice to be able to chat about England as it’s been a bit strange being away and them doing so well in the tournament before the disappointment of the final.
“It has been great to enjoy England’s success as they went through and all the WhatsApp groups I have with people back home have been busy.
“From a coaching point of view, it has also been brilliant to look at the way Gareth Southgate has managed the team.
“The way he rotated players, or stuck with others because he knew they would come good, or knew he had so many dangerous weapons he could bring on off the bench.
“He has some very experienced assistants as well and I think they hardly put a foot wrong tactically throughout the tournament.
“After the Covid situation, it is fantastic to see how the country was enjoying itself again and getting behind the team, and the way they did they definitely deserved that support.
“It is just agonising that they couldn’t make that final step and overcome Italy in the final.”
So England’s wait moves on beyond 55 years, and it remains 20 years since Emblen left Wolves for the second time.
Talking of milestones, Emblen recently celebrated his 50thbirthday.
But still, that hunger and enthusiasm to be successful and help Colorado be successful remains as strong as ever.
So too, that combination of humility and approachability which helped make him so popular among Wolves fans alongside the drive and determination to move forward.
“I have always felt that if you are a good person and you work hard, then hopefully opportunities are always around the corner,” he insists.
“That is what my philosophy will always be.”
WITH THANKS FOR PHOTOS TO COLORADO RAPIDS