‘It was Christmas Eve babe’.  So sang the sadly departed Shane McGowan. Before continuing with the musical tale of memories of bickering with his partner as he slept off a binge in a New York drink tank.

There won’t be room for such fun and frivolity at Molineux this Christmas Eve.  Certainly not on the pitch, anyway. 

For the first time in 57 years, Wolves are playing on December 24th.  The Premier League and Sky Sports needed a game to drop into their schedule and, in their wisdom, Wolves against Chelsea is the one. You took my dreams from me, when I first found you.  

There has been mixed reaction amongst the Molineux faithful, many of whom prefer the traditional Boxing Day shindig for their festive footballing fix.  For the Chelsea fans racing up and down the motorway to get back in time to make sure they are fast asleep ahead of Santa’s arrival, there is even less peace on earth and goodwill to all broadcasters.  

What then, of the precedent for footy on Chrimbo Eve?  It was 1995 the last time a top-flight fixture took place on that particular date in the calendar, as Leeds beat Manchester United 3-1 with McAllister opening the scoring.  He wasn’t Home Alone.

For Wolves, it was back in 1966, an historic year in English football.   Christmas Eve football at that stage wasn’t a completely new phenomenon.  Wolves have actually played 13 times on Christmas Eve, and even had fixtures on Christmas Day, the most recent being in 1956, a 2-1 defeat at Charlton. The first one to take place on December 24th was all the way back in 1892, away at Nottingham Forest.  When you first took my hand on a cold Christmas Eve, you promised the Town Ground – Forest’s stadium back then – was waiting for me.

But back to the winter of ’66. When Wolves welcomed Derby County to Molineux.  Wolves were sitting pretty heading into the game, in third place in Division Two with games in hand on Ipswich and Carlisle above, whilst the Rams, less than five months before the transformative arrival of Brian Clough, were sixth from bottom.

A home banker perhaps?  Well not inside the first minute, when, as described by legendary Express & Star reporter Phil Morgan, ‘there was a shock opening after Wolves had lost the toss.’

He continued: ‘Defending the Hotel End, they were a goal down in 40 seconds, even quicker than their own success at Birmingham last week.’

The Derby goalscorer was Alan Durban, three seasons into an impressive decade with the Rams in which he would win a league title, and it was a dramatic start to a dramatic game which kept the festive audience of 24, 378 on the edge of their seats.

Wolves hit back to lead 3-1, were pegged back to 3-3 by half time, but then struck twice after the break to secure a 5-3 victory.

The goals that day came from Hughie McIlmoyle, back from injury, and two apiece – one in each half – from Terry Wharton and Bob Hatton, taking him to four in his first four Wolves appearances at the age of just 19.

As tradition would then have it, the two sides met again two days later, this time at the Baseball Ground, and Wolves won again, more comfortably, by three goals to nil.

The scorers? Hatton, McIlmoyle and Wharton.  When the band finished playing, they howled out for more.

As luck would have it, both Hatton and Wharton were at Molineux last week, on a stadium tour for Wolves Former Players’ Association organised by the club with FPA chairman John Richards.

Given it was nearly six decades ago, given their collective tally of appearances is well past a thousand, and goals into the hundreds, it is no surprise that neither can remember the specifics of that Christmas Eve afternoon.  Even though it must have provided some happy memories of their respective Molineux tenures.

“I’ve got a book with all the games I played in,” Wharton recalls.

“It shows the results and where we finished at the end of every season, appearances, goals and then who was transferred in and out.

“But no, I can’t remember that Christmas Eve game I have to say!”

“Me neither,” adds Bob.

“I remember scoring on my debut in the cup against Mansfield, and then on my league debut, inside 30 seconds, against Portsmouth.

“I do remember the one away at Derby on the Boxing Day.

“Obviously there weren’t so many cameras around in those days but it was a long distance effort, and I just booted the ball towards goal as hard as I could!

“The keeper was off his line and it dipped underneath the crossbar and my decent start to life at Wolves continued!”

Hatton probably does himself a disservice in terms of the quality of the finish, one of eight goals he notched during just 13 Wolves appearances.

A hard-working and instinctive finisher of a centre forward, he still purrs even now about the service he received from wing wizards Wharton and Dave Wagstaffe.  

And while, sitting in Wolves Museum sharing memories of bygone days after completion of the stadium tour, neither can remember that game in particular, they can recall what it was like to play those holiday double headers.

Both describe it as anything but a sacrifice.

“It was just a job, wasn’t it?” adds Wharton.

“Not only did I get those goals at Christmas that year, but I scored against Villa on Boxing Day a few years earlier – I must have liked playing in the holidays.

“But it didn’t matter that we were playing at Christmas, it wasn’t like we wanted to go out or anything. 

“And anyway, we used to have a booklet given to us as players which always said, ‘no dancing after Wednesday’.

“That meant not to go out from a Wednesday before a Saturday game, so we’d often go to the Queens (the ballroom & cinema in Queen Square) on a Monday and Wednesday and that would be it.”

No cars big as bars but plenty of rivers of gold!

“I do remember the one Christmas being in digs, which was probably that year of the Christmas Eve game,” added Hatton.

“I’d come down from Hull so was away from my family on Christmas Day, and was in digs in Richmond Road, living opposite Jim Marshall, who I think was Wolves chairman at the time.

“The fella who was running the digs, who I believe later went on to become Mayor of Wolverhampton (Tony Guy), cooked us a lovely Christmas dinner to enjoy in between the two games.”

Hatton, like defender Gerry Taylor, was scouted whilst representing Wath Wanderers, Wolves’ nursery club based in Yorkshire.  They signed professional terms on the very same day, and Taylor would break into the first team just a week after the Christmas Eve fixture, in a goalless draw with Ipswich.

For Hatton, now 76, playing alongside such illustrious team-mates – not just those wingers but also the likes of Mike Bailey, Ron Flowers, Bobby Thomson and Peter Knowles – was special.

But his hero?  That was the fella he lined up alongside on Christmas Eve.

“Yes, Hughie McIlmoyle was my hero when I started out,” he confirms.

“He’s a little bit older than me and I used to look up to him, he scored some fantastic goals.

“The way he could leap – Ronnie Allen used to call them treetop headers – and that was the key to his success.

“I used to ask him for advice, as a young centre forward I was always looking for tips, and in particular, how he could get that incredible height as he wasn’t the tallest.

“’Timing Bob,’ he would reply. ‘It’s all about the timing’.”

It was certainly all about the timing for the sharpshooting trio over that Derby double-header, providing all eight Wolves goals.

And yet, they were all on different journeys and trajectories when it came to their Wolves and footballing careers, and, within a year of this fixture, all had moved on.

McIlmoyle, now 83, would head to Bristol City after scoring 45 goals in 105 Wolves appearances, part of a career featuring three spells at Carlisle which have led to a statue in his honour at Brunton Park. 

For Hatton, he would actually leave Wolves at the time as his hero McIlmoyle, the following March, a few months before Wolves clinched promotion and celebrated by heading off on the tour of America which was featured in the club’s recently released ‘LA Wolves’ documentary.

He went on to enjoy a fantastic career, notably with Birmingham City and Blackpool, scoring over 200 goals in total, but looks back with a bit of disappointment in the largely self-inflicted way in which he departed Molineux.

“When you are 19 you are a little bit stupid aren’t you? You break into the first team and think you have made it.

“I remember going in to see Ronnie Allen, who was a super manager, and asking him why I wasn’t playing in the first team.

“He just told me to calm down, and that things were going to be o-k, but that Hughie was playing up front, doing well and scoring goals.

“I made a nuisance of myself and feel embarrassed even now just talking about it, but that’s how it was.

“As it turned out, they sold me before the March transfer deadline, and they sold Hughie, and that gave them the money to spend on £50,000 on the Doog (Derek Dougan), which is probably one of the best bits of business Wolves have ever done!

“I did my best, but I made mistakes, although I have so many fond memories here and it’s always so nice to come back and meet up with Wharty and the other guys again.”

Wharton, now 81, wasn’t too far behind in moving on, joining home-town club Bolton in the November of ’67, but with a more stacked Molineux CV than the other two, comprising 242 appearances and 79 goals.

And whilst he humbly plays down his contribution, he remains a hugely popular figure both at FPA events – where he now regularly finds himself centre stage – as well as out on the golf course and when among fans.

As was seen when he delivered a mock press conference in the Molineux press room during the tour, and received some pretty choice comments from the assembled ‘media’ – his FPA colleagues – there is a lot of fun to be had when Wharton is around, but also so much respect from those players who followed in his footsteps in the Sixties and Seventies.

And respect was something very much in evidence for Wolves among the opposition back around the time of that previous Christmas Eve clash.

For Derby’s Durban, who went on to add a second goal in that 5-3 defeat, going to play at Molineux at that time was a great challenge, and one which brought a special personal memory once Clough was in situe shortly afterwards.

“Going to play at Wolves back then was fantastic, because it was only a few years on from when they had been one of the top sides in the country,” he says.

“I think Eddie Thomas and myself both got 20 goals each that season, but we only just survived in the division, and it wasn’t until Cloughie arrived the following year that we got promoted, following Wolves.

“It wasn’t the day when I scored those goals, but another game I always remember about playing at Molineux.

“Just as we were walking out Cloughie said to me, ‘I want you to go out last’.

“I didn’t really understand what he meant, as I normally went out after the goalkeeper, third or fourth in the line.

“Anyway, I went out last, and, just as I was putting my foot on the pitch, there was a wallop and this big hand came on my shoulder.

“He said, ‘Ally, if Bailey finds Wagstaffe with a ball that has gone more than 30 yards this afternoon, yooou will come and sit with me’.

“Mike Bailey used to sweep this pass out to Waggy, and he was telling me in no uncertain terms that it couldn’t happen that day!

“Dougan always used to run down the inside left channel, and I only found out years after that he had also told the right back Ron Webster to go inside and play alongside Roy McFarland to try and stop that.

“We got a result that day, and I didn’t hear anything from Cloughie, apart from a thumbs up as I walked into the changing room after the game.

“It just summed him up, his attention to detail, and I always remember that day at Molineux when I think about Wolves.”

After finishing his career in playing and management, 82-year-old Durban settled in Shropshire, which has included playing tennis to a very high standard at Wolverhampton Lawn Tennis & Squash Club, just next to Wolves’ training ground.

As a result, he remains very much in touch with Wolves’ fortunes.

“I think if they hadn’t lost (Pedro) Neto to injury and with some of those VAR decisions, they’d be in the top eight,” he insists.

It’s probably a good job VAR wasn’t around back in 1966, but one person who was is Steve Gordos, there as a fan, who would later go on to be Sports Editor of the Express & Star as well as a dedicated Wolves historian, writing many books about the club’s trials and tribulations.

“I was at the game, it was on a Saturday, but my memory is a bit vague,” Gordos remembers.

“I just recall it being one of those games that gives you a warm glow when you win – a goal down in the first minute, establishing a two-goal lead, then losing it.

“When we won the return at Derby it looked like plain sailing to promotion but we failed to win in the next five games, drawing four, and Coventry took over at the top of the table.

“Then we strung together a 12-game unbeaten run of 11 wins and a draw to clinch promotion.

“If we had won the last game at Crystal Palace we would have gone up as champions, but we lost 4-1 and Coventry sneaked in.”

So, the last time Wolves played on Christmas Eve, back in ’66, promotion would follow an entertaining and winning afternoon at Molineux.

And the bells were ringing out, on Christmas Day.