Wolves face a pivotal few days on the hunt for some capital gains with Premier League assignments against Arsenal and Tottenham. Two club legends look back on clashes with the North London pair of yesteryear, including a very similar schedule 40 years ago this month!
London is calling for Wolves over the coming days, North London to be precise, with successive fixtures against Arsenal and Tottenham.
At Molineux tomorrow night, and then the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday afternoon, Wolves will go toe-to-toe with two of English football’s perennial biggest names as they aim to continue their gathering pursuit of the top six.
It is only in recent seasons that Wolves have once again established themselves at the top table of English football, not merely in surviving as they did so admirably for a couple of years under Mick McCarthy but knocking on the door of the upper echelons of the Premier League and making progress in cup competitions.
Incredibly, 40 years ago this month, almost to the week, Wolves also faced quickfire fixtures against Arsenal and Tottenham, both on the road.
Circumstances were very different at that time, and both were lost, 2-1 against the Gunners and 6-1 against Spurs.
Kenny Hibbitt scored for Wolves in both, at a time when Wolves’ most recent regular high- end finishes prior to now were on the brink of coming to an end.
The team of the Seventies, which thrilled and excited so many, was approaching the finale of its magical era.
The 1980 League Cup win, still Wolves’ most recent major trophy, and the sixth placed league finish a few months later which also remains the club’s best in almost 50 years, would prove to be the pinnacle.
This modern-day North London double and the same from four decades ago, lends itself to an examination of Wolves’ fortunes against the two during that period, and a look at the stats – namely the goalscorers – throws up two very familiar names.
Hibbitt notched 13 goals in games against Arsenal and Spurs, while John Richards struck 16.
King Kenny and King John. Wolves legends to this day, and such massive influences throughout that time, as those statistics demonstrate. And yet also maintaining such modesty and humility. Those royal titles were bestowed on them by the Molineux fanbase, and never chased or encouraged!
Sadly they could do little about those successive defeats at a time when Wolves were struggling, despite having opened the 1981/82 campaign with victory against European champions Liverpool.
“I certainly remember that 6-1 against Spurs,” Hibbitt recalls.
“Ian Greaves had just taken over as manager – it might even have been his first game – and we got hammered.
“My goal came from a free kick but it didn’t really matter when you think of the result, it was probably one of the only goals I ever scored that I didn’t feel ecstatic about.
“I always enjoyed scoring against Tottenham because I didn’t like them, and I didn’t like them purely because they were a pain in the backside for us over so many years!
“I liked Ian though, he worked so hard with us at a difficult time and we weren’t too far off staying up in the end.
“He was a great man manager, but that wasn’t a good day for him and it wasn’t a good day for us.”
“That game was embarrassing really,” adds Richards.
“It summed up the disappointment of that season, getting a good drubbing, but we had some decent players which made it frustrating.
“And as Ken says, Ian Greaves came in and was very enthusiastic, he loved the game and he could lift you as a player.
“We let him down and we let everyone down at Spurs that day.
“We shouldn’t have been losing to anyone by that sort of scoreline and were ashamed of the performance.”
There was, however, nothing to be ashamed of for Richards and Hibbitt and the rest of that squad who played their part in another golden era in Wolves’ history, despite a couple of relegations.
Hibbitt made a total of 574 appearances for the club, scoring 114 goals, and Richards’ tally of 194 from 487 games is the second highest in Wolves’ history. All for the measly sum of £5,000 which was Hibbitt’s transfer fee from Bradford Park Avenue with Richards coming through the ranks.
There were many other similar success stories within a squad which propelled Wolves back to the top end of English football, winning that 1980 League Cup under the management of John Barnwell by beating Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest 1-0 at Wembley, on the back of achieving the same feat six years previously by overcoming Manchester City 2-1 when Hibbitt and Richards grabbed the goals.
And yet, there could have been even more success. Which is where Tottenham and Arsenal once again rear their highly annoying heads.
There was the small matter of losing the UEFA Cup Final to Spurs 50 years ago, a League Cup semi-final defeat a year later and also the last four FA Cup replay defeat in 1981.
Add in a couple more FA Cup semi-final defeats to Arsenal in 1979, and Leeds back in 1973, and Wolves were in painfully tantalising sight of more silverware on top of the two Wembley triumphs.
And little wonder that, for footballing reasons at least, Richards and Hibbitt can’t stand Tottenham!
“When you look back, we could have been in five or six cup finals,” says Hibbitt.
“We had a lot of success, but could have had more.”
“You can see from all that why Spurs were our jinx team,” adds Richards.
“I always felt we had really close games against Arsenal and Spurs but Spurs in particular always seemed to turn us over when it came to the really big games.”
Taking the FA Cup semi-finals against the pair in chronological order, it was former Molineux man Alan Sunderland who did part of the damage in gunning down Wolves, joining Frank Stapleton on the scoresheet in a 2-0 victory.
“For whatever reason that semi-final at Villa Park was a bit of a disaster and we just didn’t turn up,” Richards recalls.
“The performance that day wasn’t there and we just weren’t firing.”
Hibbitt concurs. “The game just passed us by,” he admits.
The Spurs semi-final at Hillsborough a couple of years later was a different matter entirely.
Hibbitt had struck quickly to cancel out Steve Archibald’s early effort before later England and Wolves manager Glenn Hoddle restored Tottenham’s advantage with a free kick.
Then, with full time looming into view, Hibbitt tried to go past Hoddle and went to ground, referee Clive Thomas controversially awarded a penalty, and the nerveless Willie Carr stepped up to take the game into extra time.
Discussion around that penalty is one which has certainly stood the test of time.
“I remember thinking as I was getting up that it was a hell of a cheer from our fans behind that goal for a corner,” Hibbitt explains.
“Then John came over and said ‘Hibby, it’s a penalty and you’re taking it’.
“I replied by saying ‘no I wasn’t’, I was knackered!”
“He told me I’d have to take it and I said I wasn’t going to either,” Richards interjects.
Hibbitt continues: “We always had an understanding that if there was a situation where I didn’t fancy taking a penalty then Willie would step up.
“He literally had no nerves whatsoever.
“After that incident I got battered in the press and from the Tottenham fans and there were some terrible letters sent to me.
“I remember doing the interview after the game and being asked if Hoddle had got a touch on the ball and I said I think he did, which is why I thought it was going to be a corner.
“But I remember the next day, getting hold of some of the Sunday papers, and I opened the Express back page and it read: ‘Hibbitt – I dived.’
“It left me thinking what on earth that was about because after the game John Barnwell had told me not to speak to the national papers but to talk to the local press, which is what I did.
“They asked me if I knew it was the last minute and I said I knew it was towards the end of the game, and they asked me if I had to go down and I said I did because I fell over Glenn’s foot.
“The nationals had been standing behind me as I did the interview and what they got from that was me saying I had to go down because it was the last minute.
“I had certainly not said that I dived, and it did upset me, so I went to see John Barnwell about putting the record straight and he told me to leave it alone and just carry on and get ready for the replay.
“I remember the next league game we played at Tottenham, I was warming ‘Lofty’ (keeper Phil Parkes) up before the game and was getting booed every time I touched the ball.
“I pretended to fall over in the penalty box and the Spurs fans started laughing which seemed to break the ice but then after the game as I was walking to the coach there were about six fans waiting for me outside and I thought ‘ey up, here we go’.
“I invited them to come over and I sat on the wall and chatted to them about the incident at Hillsborough and they accepted I had fallen over Glenn’s back foot.
“They were as good as gold, they shook my hand and wished me all the best for the future.
“I was by myself walking out to the coach and a bit nervous wondering just what I had done to invite them for a conversation but it all worked out o-k in the end!”
What hadn’t worked out o-k was the replay after the initial 2-2 draw, bizarrely played at Highbury just a few miles from White Hart Lane with Spurs romping to a comfortable 3-0 win.
“You would think they would have found somewhere a bit more neutral than that wouldn’t you?” asks Richards.
“It was on their doorstep and such a long way for our fans to travel but we should also remember that Spurs had some very good players as well and, like Arsenal a couple of years earlier, went on to win the final.
“Our big chance that year was in extra time in the first game, having pulled it back to 2-2 with that penalty.
“We should have gone on and won it after that.”
Both Hibbitt and Richards had been on target across the two legs of the League Cup semi- final defeat against Tottenham in 1972, but the one that really stung was the UEFA Cup final against the same opposition earlier that calendar year.
And not so much due to the result – even though another odd-goal reverse over two legs was particularly hard to stomach – but the fact they had to meet Spurs in the final in the first place.
“Getting to a European final is what you dream of,” Richards explains.
“Everything was an adventure for us that year, it was the first time both Ken and myself had been abroad – he says he had only been to Morecambe and Blackpool before that.
“It had been absolutely fantastic beating teams we had only ever read about like Juventus and Ferencvaros, and we were looking forward to every game as we progressed through the rounds.
“We had probably taken everyone a little bit by surprise and Ferencvaros in the semi-final was a hell of a tie over the two legs, but to get to the final and then be facing Tottenham was a bit of an anti-climax – as it was for them as well.
“We were two teams that knew each other so well, they were always really tight games, and it just felt like we were playing each other in the league again.
“We lost that final by losing 2-1 at home, before we went and drew 1-1 away, infact we didn’t lose an away game throughout the run in the competition.
“For Wolves it was great to get to the final, a real achievement, but it just lost its focus and interest for a lot of people because it was against another team from England.”
“All the major newspaper people were based in London so the final got a lot of coverage for Tottenham down there but there wasn’t so much about us,” confirms Hibbitt.
“Spurs were up against Inter Milan in their semi-final and I imagine if Inter had gone through then it would have been very different in terms of the way everyone looked at the final and I am convinced we would have won it.
“I remember Tottenham’s manager Bill Nicholson coming into our dressing room after the second leg and telling us that the best team had lost.
“It is easy to say that after you have won the game but, knowing Bill, he was a great guy and a real football man, so I am sure that he meant it.”
As Richards recalls, there was at least one notable knockout victory against one of the North London pair, in a fixture which is very rarely found in the record books.
“Do you remember the third place FA Cup play-off against Arsenal?” he says.
“It was an experiment they did for a few years and we played it at the start of the 1973/74 season having lost our semi-final to Leeds with Arsenal having lost theirs to Sunderland.
“We played at Highbury and won 3-1, and the Doog (Derek Dougan) got a couple of goals.
“We were actually given tankards for it…” “I know,” interrupts Hibbitt. “I’ve still got mine,” pointing to his mantelpiece.
There were other positive memories against Arsenal as well.
“One of my best is from early in my career, in 1971, when we played them at Molineux in the November,” says Richards.
“Kenny had been a regular for a year or so already and I had just come in for my first real run in the team.
“Arsenal had done the league and FA Cup double the previous year, they had players like Bob Wilson, Bob McNab, Charlie George and Frank McLintock, and they were 1-0 up at half time.
“But we had a bit of a rollocking from Bill McGarry and went out and scored five in the second half including one from Ken – it was a great performance.
“I didn’t manage to get a goal but I nearly stole the Doog’s last one but I couldn’t quite get my toe on it!”
“Arsenal didn’t know what hit them that day,” adds Hibbitt.
“I remember it very clearly because I had scored after one of the best passes I ever received in my career, a crossfield ball from Waggy (Dave Wagstaffe).
“I was looking forward to getting back home to Bradford to watch it back on Match of the Day with my family – but a blizzard came in and I only got as far as Brownhills before having to turn around and go back to my digs.”
Hibbitt was actually surprised to discover he possessed such a good personal scoring record against Arsenal and Spurs, but not so about Richards – “John was that good he could score against anybody,” he declares.
“We had a good team and a very attacking team,” says Richards.
“That is why I think I managed to score a few against Arsenal and Tottenham and they were both attacking sides as well, so they were always quite open games.”
There were plenty of players whom the duo remember giving them particular challenges during those battles.
Pat Jennings represented both, and Richards describes him as the best goalkeeper he ever faced.
George and McNab – who later joined Wolves, are two Gunners he rated highly, whilst from Spurs he was always a fan of the industry of Steve Perryman and, across different phases of the era, Mike England, Martin Chivers, Ossie Ardiles, Ricky Villa and Hoddle.
The left-footed talents of Liam Brady and Graham Rix always greatly impressed Hibbitt, while the full back he found most troublesome when in direct competition? Kenny Sansom.
Just a mention of those illustrious names offers a reminder of the levels at which Wolves were operating for many years over the decade, but it was during this period 40 years ago that fortunes started unravelling.
For Richards, it was very much a case of ‘déjà vu’ from the events which transpired following the first League Cup success in ’74, but this time the ship could not be turned.
“What happened 40 years ago was a repeat of what had happened after winning the first League Cup and then getting relegated two years later,” he explains.
“And I think they were similar situations in that we still had good players, and the makings of a good team, but it was also an ageing team.
“The first time the likes of the Doog, Mike Bailey and Waggy were coming to the end of their careers and then after the 1980 win it was those such as myself and Ken.
“It was a transition where it needed some good young players to come in but that never really happened, and then the big investment in the new Stand then also really affected the playing side.”
“There should have been a bigger turnaround at that time, even if it meant myself and John going,” says Hibbitt.
“The recruitment wasn’t great, and those that did come in weren’t any better than what we had.
“The club has been to hell and back since then, going all the way down to the Fourth Division, and you have to give credit to those who picked it all up from there and started to bring them back.
“Things have changed dramatically over the last few years and Wolves is now again where I feel it should be, and the fans are happier than I have seen them for a long, long time.
“When I get back for games now and walking from the city centre to the stadium at twenty-to-three it is all gold and black again, the passion and commitment is there and fans know they are supporting one of the best sides in the country.”
“It does feel like we are a top ranked club again, rather than being in a pretend position or battling to stay in there,” adds Richards.
“And when you think of the local area, with recent years with the finishes in the Premier League and having a great run in Europe, it feels like we are the most fancied team in the Midlands again as well.”
The next step for the current Wolves crop to build on the recent resurgence would be to add another trophy to the cabinet – something Richards and Hibbitt would love nothing more.
The very fact Wolves are knocking on the door once again brings back conversation of that team of the Seventies, their personalities, their successes, and how they have remained so close through the years.
A truly special time.
“We were a group of young lads from different parts of the country who came together at the right time and mixed in with the experience of those such as the Doog, Waggy, Mike (Bailey) and Frank (Munro),” says Richards.
“We also benefitted from the legendary team of the Fifties, because that huge support had been there for that great team but they had then been through a quiet ten years in comparison to what had gone before.
“Suddenly the fans felt they had a team they could support and they got right behind us and as players we were like a family.
“I have got four brothers who I don’t see that regularly but when I do, it is like I have never been away, and that is how it is with us as former players.
“Kenny is like a brother to me in so many respects, and the other lads too, and we all feel very lucky to have been part of that time we had at Wolves.”
“Very proud as well,” Hibbitt chips in.
“We were all so very proud to have worn the gold and black shirts for that long, it was something I dreamt about as a kid.
“When we get together that team spirit, that feeling is still there, and it is something that will never, ever leave us.
“Wolves gave us a fantastic career, it was wonderful playing in front of superb crowds and, even now, when I watch a game at Molineux or on the TV and see the players walk out it gives me goosebumps.
“Molineux is such a special place to play, and what is happening now is great for the fans and great for the club and I hope they can continue the way they are going.”
Next on that journey is Arsenal tomorrow, Spurs on Sunday, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool and the rest still to come as Wolves mix it with the big boys in pursuit of a strong second half to the season.
And, in doing so, continue to revive memories of another Golden era when Richards, Hibbitt and company were the Kings of Molineux.