Mike Stowell will be inducted into Wolves Hall of Fame at this year’s FPA Annual Dinner on April 28th. As part of a series of extended feature articles looking at the 2023 inductees, here are the words of David Instone, a member of the Hall of Fame committee.
Loyalty and durability are two words that spring quickly to mind when talking about Mike Stowell. There are countless others – dedicated, fun, brave and big, for example – but he is never going to be able to shake off that ‘long service’ tag and hopefully doesn’t want to.
Eleven and a bit years at Molineux yielded 448 first-team appearances. Even Bert Williams, with his 420, had to doff his cap to that achievement, only 11 men having ever played more Wolves games than the one who was bursting with pride when informed of his induction next week/month to their star-studded hall of fame.
Considering he was well past his 25th birthday when becoming a permanent £275,000 signing from Everton, Stowell amassed a colossal number of matches for the club and, as we now know, the switch from playing in the West Midlands to coaching in the East Midlands has brought a further demonstration of trusty, enduring duty.
We will leave, for another day, the debate around whether Stowell should have been fully introduced to backroom life here rather than being let go for nothing so Leicester could pick him up, via Bristol City, and capitalise on the fruits of labour that is now stretching towards 20 years, League Championship glory, FA Cup fame and all.
On the other side of the white line, we saw the same characteristic excellence in these parts. The Portsmouth-born, Lancashire-raised former BT engineer was always regarded as one of the top keepers in the second tier and would surely have attracted more admiring glances from clubs in the top flight had Wolves not forever appeared well set to join them.
Tall, commanding, vocal….’Mickey, Mickey, Mickey Stowell in our goal’ was a reassuring sight from the time he played seven games on loan from Everton in the latter stages of the Third Division title-winning season of 1988-89. Debut day, by the way, was at home to Bury and guess what? Steve Bull hit a hat-trick!
Unusually, as we came to learn, the temporary signing donned a cap in one or two of those early outings, then showed his face again at his parent club for one more season as stand-by for Neville Southall. The first of a thousand or more chats I had with him contained a sentiment that did not encourage thoughts of a quick return to these parts: “My ambition is to break properly into Everton’s first team,” he said. “I’ve played only one match for them so far but the experience I have gained out on loan in front of a big crowd at Wolves has been a big help.”
Graham Turner was not going to be easily deterred, though, and he committed what was a record Wolves fee for a keeper in the summer of 1990 to make him a permanent replacement for the also-loved Mark Kendall.
The bedding-in process was very smooth, Stowell reeling off more than 40 successive appearances in the side for starters in being named Player of the Year and drawing recognition from Graham Taylor. The new England manager named him in a B squad for a friendly in Algeria and was full of praise for him after he battled through heavy pre-Christmas snow to join up after others had decided the weather gave them a reason to opt out.
The journey from Wheaton Aston to Luton Airport took more than 30 hours, via an overnight stay at Walsall, and it would have been nice to say he was rewarded with game time after linking up with the likes of Bryan Robson, Ian Wright, Nigel Clough and Gordon Cowans. But he remained an unused substitute in a goalless draw played in driving rain.
Wolves physio Paul Darby went the extra mile, too, in helping enlist the help of two local farming brothers to tow the player’s car through the drifts. The inspiring story was one of the first examples of the media friendliness we were to become used to from Mike for more than a decade.
He didn’t miss a game in 1991-92 and forged a firm friendship at the club with John ‘Foz’ Hendley, the two providing a comic double act over the years with their pre-match chats on video that were played to the amusement of passengers on the supporters’ coaches to away games.
In time, the keeper would also become the natural choice as the Sporting Star’s player columnist at Molineux in succession to Steve Bull and David Kelly. It was another role he carried off brilliantly. Half an hour on the phone to him after training on a Thursday or Friday was guaranteed to lift spirits and add a silver lining to any clouds that may have been hovering.
As the reporter entrusted with ghost-writing his piece, I always tried to ensure we had the tone right; not to sound too flippant in print if times were tough on the pitch but mindful of reflecting some of the dressing-room banter that makes the football world tick. He would never fail to come up with a funny line or two, although his colleagues clearly thought he had overstepped once and, by way of revenge, homed in on the unattended clothes hanging on his peg and snipped off the ends of his sleeves and trouser legs. Oops….sorry, Mike!
Central TV were so taken with the ‘Pink’ column as to send Bob Hall to the Express & Star one week to film us chatting and it was noticeable how much at ease the keeper was both among strangers and in front of the camera. With such an affable nature and apparent lack of nerves, no wonder he looked calm amid the bedlam of match days and nights.
The disappointment, of course, was that the 1990s Wolves, with their magnificent rebuilt ground and Hayward funding, were unable to give Stowell and other deserving cases Premier League football. The apparently never-ending diet of Championship fare did become a little stodgy.
Injury let Paul Jones in between the posts for more than four months of 1992-93 and even the arrival at Molineux of several big-name signings from out of the clutches of Premier League clubs in the summer of 1993 could not bring about the desired step-up.
The senior keeper was an ever-present again in the 1993-94 campaign that brought the curtain down on the reign of the man who had signed him but ninth place in the table was an underwhelming outcome after the recruitment of Geoff Thomas, Kevin Keen, David Kelly, Peter Shirtliff, Darren Ferguson and Chris Marsden.
Taylor may have been impressed by Stowelly’s resourcefulness in digging a way out of his home to fulfil England duty but that didn’t mean the relationship between the two was above needing the occasional thaw. In his first and only full season in charge at Molineux, Taylor did what Turner never had done in choosing to hand the no 1 jersey elsewhere.
Injuries had previously necessitated a change but here we had Jones being preferred for a couple of months or so, although the manager confided in me at the time that he still suspected the established man was the better keeper and would come back stronger and prove it.
Jones ultimately had to move on to develop the fine career he was able to savour in the Premier League and with Wales, his main obstacle to a place at Molineux returning in good time to play in the FA Cup quarter-final for the second successive season and the play-offs and to then survive some bizarre goalkeeper thinking by Taylor’s successor, Mark McGhee.
The Scot decided a new man was needed and was strongly linked during or after Euro 96 with Neville Southall, Erik Thorstvedt, Tony Coton and Czech international Petr Kouba, as well as landing the club with a substantial bill for the non-signing of Zeljko Kalac from Leicester amid work permit problems.
Stowell could have been excused for lapsing into a state of insecurity but it was a case of ‘as you were’ as he recorded another ever-present season in 1996-97 and tasted play-off semi-final defeat for the second time. The only change to this small department of the squad saw Jones leave for Stockport for a pittance and the club rather flew by the seat of their pants in not having an experienced keeper to name among the permitted two substitutes.
Mike’s latest long unbroken run of games had gone past 125 by the time he lost his place to Hans Segers in the late winter of 1997-98 and, with it, the chance to step on to his biggest stage as a player. The ex-Wimbledon man, signed a few months earlier after being cleared of match-fixing charges, was selected ahead of him against Leeds and Arsenal in the quarter-final and semi-final of the FA Cup but there was Stowell, proud team man that he is, on the pitch to offer congratulations at Elland Road and commiserations at Villa Park.
Once more, he put personal disappointment and managerial wavering behind him to nail down a first-team place. He played all 52 games in League and cups in the 1998-99 season in which McGhee was replaced by his long-time assistant, Colin Lee, and the anti-climax of missing out on the play-offs by one place left him fearing that his Premier League dream was over.
Stowell was by now in his mid-30s and had a new rival to the shirt in the shape of Michael Oakes. Sure enough, the former Villa man took over from him 20 games into the following campaign and established such a firm grip on the position that there were no more than a couple of token cup appearances and one substitute outing for the veteran in the Molineux time he had left.
The massive gold and black (and green) part of his story ended with a free-transfer exit under Dave Jones in the summer of 2001. But what memories and highlights he left us with as he embarked on pastures new with Bristol City.
No less a man than Bert Williams had forecast in 2000 that Mike had enough about him to make a living in coaching rather than have to rely on the tried-and-tested routes many of the England star’s contemporaries had gone down by running pubs or calling in favours and asking for jobs among the supporter base.
Chris Evans had already offered a way into the development of others by having him work with some of the club’s youngsters and he further explored this new trade during an Ashton Gate stint that brought him two visits to Millennium Stadium finals – one won, one lost and both spent on the substitutes’ bench.
And so to Leicester and the start of an enduring marriage that has seen him work as goalkeeper coach, assistant manager, even caretaker boss on several occasions while Craig Levein, Rob Kelly, Martin Allen, Gary Megson, Ian Holloway, Nigel Pearson twice, Paulo Sousa, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Claude Puel, Claudio Ranieri, Craig Shakespeare and Brendan Rodgers have come or gone, or both, as his bosses.
It takes a special kind of guy to survive all that upheaval and those different personalities and the appearance on his CV of his part in Leicester’s FA Cup success and their unbelievable 5,000-1 Premier League title conquest of 2015-16 has made up for the lack of recognised honours during his playing days.
Throw in a long run in the Champions League and a stint as Denmark’s acting goalkeeper coach under recommendation from Kasper Schmeichel and it’s clear, if we didn’t already know, that we are talking about a blue-riband character.
Many of us will, of course, wish that such success had come to him here but, however much he may have seen the Molineux staff change on his visits with Leicester, he still feels a gold and black pull that is about much more than nostalgia.
His place in Wolves’ hall of fame can only strengthen the bond….Mike Stowell, we salute you for all you have done here and beyond.