Wolves and Arsenal are separated by just one place and two points ahead of tomorrow night’s match-up at the Emirates as both push to book a spot in Europe.
Think back to the days of goalkeeper Vince Bartram’s career however, and a gap which is currently barely a small crack was more of a gaping chasm.
Bartram was at Molineux at a time when Wolves had just about avoided going out of business – twice – were struggling with a ramshackle stadium, needed to beg or borrow training facilities and had reached the depths of on-field despair with a triple relegation and cup exit to Chorley.
A few years later he would find himself within the Marble Halls of Highbury, part of a squad packed with internationals, winning a European competition and later the Premier League.
Quite a contrast.
And yet within that considerable disparity, Bartram identified something of a managerial resemblance.
The affable former gloveman, born in Birmingham and educated at Hagley RC School in Stourbridge, made only 10 appearances for Wolves during six years at Molineux and 12 with the Gunners over four years with the club.
The experiences gained however helped shape different stages of his career when he was the undoubted number one enjoying plenty of success with Bournemouth and Gillingham respectively.
The learning at both also involved working at close quarters with a host of managers, coaches and team-mates, and it is via the bosses – for all their many differences – that Bartram sees some common ground.
Graham Turner stands at number three in the all-time list of most games as a manager with 1659.
Arsene Wenger, with 1701, is a place ahead at number two, bettered only by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Turner and Wenger operated at very different levels, extraordinarily different, in terms of status, resources, approach and style of play.
Bartram played under both.
“Arsene Wenger came in towards the end of my time at Arsenal and I didn’t really play under him but could see how much he changed the club’s attitudes and approach,” he reports.
“He transformed the club on and off the pitch and that is why they went on to have the success that they did.
“When Graham Turner arrived at Wolves he brought in a very clear and direct style of play and at first it wasn’t to everyone’s liking.
“It suited the club and Ron Jukes and the scouting and recruitment team went out to get the right players to fit how Graham wanted to play and there was nothing wrong with that.
“If you have got Kendo (Mark Kendall) catching the ball, kicking a half volley, Mutchy (Andy Mutch) flicking it on and Bully (Steve Bull) sticking it away then why wouldn’t you do it?
“In football now a lot of teams are encouraged to play out from the back but I also think a lot of fans want to see the ball in the opposition penalty area with the excitement of chances being created and scoring goals.
“Whatever you do to get the ball up there is all about opinions.
“Graham had his approach and his philosophy, and it worked, and that is why I would say he transformed Wolves in a similar way that Arsene transformed Arsenal, although obviously at a very different level and in a very different way.”
There were, however, plenty of contrasts between the two clubs at the time, and also in Bartram’s own career when he represented both.
At Wolves, an untried and untested youngster picked up from non-league and not the tried and trusted route of coming through as a YTS.
A few years later, days after his 26th birthday infact, and by now an experienced keeper, Bartram landed a move to Arsenal, ready to embrace the added pressure and intensity of joining one of the leading lights in English football competing for silverware.
His form at Bournemouth post-Wolves had previously alerted the likes of Blackburn – then managed by Kenny Dalglish – and Nottingham Forest, and the Gunners weren’t the only ones setting their sights on his signature, with Leicester waiting in the wings.
But Arsenal won the day, bringing with it all the trimmings you would expect from a club so entrenched at the top end of the game.
“I had a choice between Arsenal and Leicester, whose manager was Brian Little who had given me my debut at Wolves,” Bartram recalls.
“I could have gone there and battled it out for the first team spot but, with absolutely no disrespect to Leicester, the chance of going to Arsenal and being number two to England’s goalkeeper David Seaman was too much of a pull.
“I went to Highbury and did the tour, I met George Graham, and eventually I tossed a coin with my wife Tracy and it came up Leicester, so we kept going until it came up as Arsenal!
“It was the chance to be involved with such a great club and to work with George, and later Bruce Rioch and Arsene, and particularly the goalkeeping coach Bob Wilson.
“I worked with Eric Steele at Wolves who went on to Manchester United and England and even he called Bob the ‘guru’ – he was a lovely guy and a great goalkeeping coach.
“There were a few little things at Arsenal, daft things almost, that made you realise you were playing for a top club.
“We used to go and get our blazers and suits from a place in London called Aquascutum which were really smart – that was something I had never done before.
“And then when we came onto the pitch before games, we would all run into the centre circle and wave to the crowd.
“I’m not sure if it was to wind the opposition up but I remember thinking if we’d have done this at Bournemouth, we’d have got pelters!
“It was at a different level, everything was magnified with the intensity and pressure, and losing hurt that little bit more but the winning? There was nothing like it.”
Bartram made 12 first team appearances for the Gunners, including big games away at Manchester United and Newcastle, and was on the bench for many more, including the ‘Nayim from the halfway line’ Cup Winners Cup final against Real Zaragoza.
Being around that squad, the likes of Adams and Bould, Vieira and Merson, Wright and Bergkamp, couldn’t fail to help Bartram improve both on and off the pitch, albeit eventually there would come a time when he felt he needed to move on and play.
He had spent time on loan with Huddersfield, and then Gillingham, before that switch became permanent, and he returned to being the first choice with all the expectation such a role involves.
“Being at Arsenal was like going to University in that it was the best experience possible in terms of learning but I needed to put it all into practice and go out and prove myself again,” Bartram explains.
“I wanted to be playing, to have that pressure, to go and pick up a paper on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning knowing I had helped contribute to earning three points and making a difference for the team in the league table.”
Returning to the lower leagues with Gillingham – albeit Bartram and that much-loved squad would later help them to promotion back into the second tier – perhaps brought back a few memories and parallels from how it all began, with Wolves as a youngster.
Life at Molineux in those days certainly didn’t involve neatly pressed suits and blazers, more a case of grab whatever training kit you could and find a place to sit in leaking dressing rooms at a stadium in desperate need of renovation.
Having been born in Birmingham, Bartram’s childhood allegiances were with a certain rival club just down the A41 although, in his defence, he admits he did celebrate Steve Bull’s last-minute winner at The Hawthorns in 1989.
By that point he was a Wolves player, having been spotted by then scouts Sammy Chapman and Tony Painter whilst playing in the same Oldswinford team as striker Neil Edwards.
His first year at Wolves was on non-contract forms as he combined completing his A-levels, but after signing as a professional, and just a couple of weeks after his 18th birthday, Bartram made his first team debut.
It came at Molineux against Cambridge in front of a crowd of 6,001, Wolves’ first ever game in the then Fourth Division after that disastrous hat trick of relegations.
Bartram was one of four young debutants selected by caretaker boss Little, part of a quartet also comprising Matt Forman, Matt Hellin and Darren Oldroyd who posed for a picture for the Express & Star to mark the occasion on the Friday.
Peter Zelem scored, but Wolves lost 2-1, at the start of a season which would get worse before it got better with the spectacular revival which soon put the team on spectacular course for lower league success.
“I remember the build-up to the Cambridge game and having that photo taken, and I did realise the importance of it all, but at that age I think I was still quite blasé about everything, even about having been taken on by Wolves in the first place,” Bartram recalls.
“I can’t remember much about the game apart from I think conceding a last-minute goal where I got lobbed after a ball over the top.
“On the Monday after, Brian Little pulled me and said it was too soon for me to be playing, that he was confident I was going to be a decent keeper but I wasn’t quite ready and he needed to bring someone in on loan.
“That wasn’t a problem to be honest, I was still very young and happy to just be at the club with the chance to learn and to develop.”
That loanee proved to be Eric Nixon, but with Manchester City not wanting him cup-tied, Bartram featured in both legs of a Littlewoods Cup exit against Lincoln City before the dreaded ignominy of the 3-0 FA Cup second replay defeat at Chorley following two 1-1 draws.
“That’s the one we probably shouldn’t talk about, isn’t it?” he says.
“But do you know what? When I look back now it was one of those experiences that you learn from and if you don’t go through setbacks like that then how do you really improve?
“After that day I went through my entire career without being on the end of a cup shock so did that experience make a positive difference? Maybe.
“You can often find positives out of even the worst situations and perhaps from a Wolves point of view that defeat also focused everyone at the club on what needed to be done.
“Without that defeat maybe things wouldn’t have improved so quickly afterwards but that result meant Wolves had hit rock bottom and was time to sink or swim.
“Fortunately, as we saw over the years which followed, they swam!”
By this point Bull had arrived as one of the clutch of new signings who would inspire the late Eighties’ revival, Turner was implementing his direct but hugely successful style of play, and as time developed Bartram was able to not only learn from goalkeeping coaches Peter Williams and then Steele, but also senior keepers such as Nixon, Mark Kendall and, towards the end, Mike Stowell.
Team spirit soared in tandem with league position, including the much famed ‘Tuesday Club’ social of ‘refreshment and refuelling’, and the superstition of Friday morning training on the North Bank Car Park.
They were good times, even for a young keeper not directly involved in the matchdays but always grateful to be learning his trade.
“I would never say Graham encouraged the drinking sessions but he knew they went on and what they did for the team spirit,” says Bartram.
“I was on the fringes of that side of it but what I do know is that that squad had a brilliant work ethic alongside that spirit, and Graham worked us all really hard.
“Those Tuesday afternoon running sessions were a tradition ahead of the Wednesday day off, and while Friday on the car park was generally a bit of fun, Graham was also very organised and we would always go inside straight afterwards for a team meeting.
“These days I can sit at a laptop and watch footage from football matches all over the world from Under-18s upwards whereas back then you’d be lucky to have a couple of goals from the opposition, but the scouts had always done good reports and the lads would be fully prepared when they went out.
“I always remember Thursday training as well, which would always be 9v9 with a series of different drills which always had a meaning and a purpose.
“Because we had three keepers at the time, I would often play outfield, and find myself marking Bully and Mutchy which was quite an experience.
“But it actually really helped me as well, both from trying to mark them but also listening to the advice I got from Kendo and Stowelley which told me what I should also be doing and how I should be giving instructions to defenders when playing in goal.
“So, while of course it was frustrating to be at Wolves for so long and not play that many games, those times helped me massively with my learning to go on and become the goalkeeper that I did.”
Bartram ultimately enjoyed a Wolves swansong by playing the final four games of the 1990/91 season, his first Championship experience, following injury to Stowell and poor form from Tony Lange which saw him called back from a loan with Albion.
It had been four-and-a-half years since his previous Wolves appearance, during which he had enjoyed first team football during loans with Blackpool and Cheltenham, but those final appearances including against Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Portsmouth, were a timely boost prior to moving on.
Wolves offered him a new contract and a decent payrise all things considered but Bartram’s mind was made up.
It was time to go out and play, a decision backed by Steele, and a tribunal set the fee of £65,000 for Bartram to join a Bournemouth side managed initially by Harry Redknapp and then Tony Pulis.
He barely missed a game in three years, making a name for himself to attract the attention which finally prompted the move to Arsenal and showed, as at Gillingham after leaving the Gunners, just what a good goalkeeper he was.
It was with the Gills, back working with Pulis, where Bartram was in goal and beaten by a last gasp equaliser from close friend Paul Dickov after which Manchester City went on to win on penalties in the League One play-off final in 1999.
Twelve months later they were back at Wembley in the play-off final again, this time beating Wigan after extra time and then going on to establish themselves in mid table at Championship level during which Bartram excelled.
It was only injury linked to a troublesome broken wrist that forced Bartram to hang up his gloves at the age of 35 in the early stages of 2004, after which he decided to take a complete break from football, going off to work as the deputy manager of a betting shop and then as in sales with a car firm.
Gradually, however, came the realisation that football was what he knows most, what he is best at, and Bartram spent time as a coach with Bournemouth and Portsmouth before, 12 years ago, landing a job as Academy goalkeeping coach with Southampton.
And the Saints is where he has remained to this day, where his role has now progressed from coaching academy goalkeepers to a greater focus on recruitment of players of all ages, from pre-academy at Under-7 level to seniors.
“It’s a job I really enjoy and hopefully one where I can have an influence,” Bartram explains.
“Off the pitch it is a very different game now – some of the academy lads weren’t even born when I retired and probably think I am a fossil and a dinosaur!
“But not much changes when it comes to goalkeeping when you talk about distances and positioning and it is always nice to be able to pass that experience on.”
It’s not just to Southampton’s emerging goalkeepers that Bartram can pass on his knowledge and expertise.
His two sons are also now goalkeepers, 19-year-old Miles playing for Christchurch along with some coaching after completing a scholarship with Eastleigh and 15-year-old Heath having had trials with several different academies.
All this on top of wife Tracy representing England at netball back in the day – the Bartram sporting vibe is certainly strong!
“Yes, we are definitely a sporting family and particularly a football family which we are talking about all the time,” the man himself confirms.
“Is it good for Miles and Heath to have a dad that used to play football? Do they listen to me? Difficult to know but I hope so and they are both really good lads which is the main thing.”
The family unit is strong, particularly strong, as just over a decade ago Tracy underwent treatment for breast cancer which thankfully proved successful.
She now works as a Communications Manager with the Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance and the couple have also supported cancer charities following an ordeal which has added some perspective on life which goes way beyond football.
“When something like that happens it really makes you realise what is important and that you have to live for today,” says Bartram.
“Tracy has been all clear for 12 years or so now, touch wood, and while we haven’t got fortunes in the bank when we have money, we spend it.
“We go on holidays and we enjoy ourselves, we live for the moment and make sure we enjoy ourselves because you never know what is around the corner.
“We appreciate what we have got, we look after the boys and we look after each other as a family, and while I wouldn’t wish what happened to Tracy on anyone, when you come out the other side it does give you added strength and a sense of perspective and togetherness.”
And a sense of perspective is also what Bartram carries with him when it comes to his footballing life.
Might he have wanted to make more appearances? Most players do, but there was certainly plenty of success and fond memories which have endured from all the clubs he turned out for.
“I had a 19-year career and played nearly 500 first team games in every league from the Premier League to the Conference and around 200 reserve games as well,” Bartram concludes.
“So I look back with a lot of pride, certainly way more so than any regrets.”
And while Wolves and Arsenal may not have provided too many of the appearances, the learning and experiences of life at two clubs now battling it out towards the upper echelons of the Premier League certainly played a major part in Bartram’s career.