There was a time when Brighton were very much Wolves’ bogey team.
During one spell Wolves went 13 games without success including nine consecutive defeats, and, prior to victories in the two most recent fixtures, the men in gold and black had won just four out of 33 meetings with the Seagulls.
Powerful striker Chris Iwelumo played for both Wolves and Brighton. And won promotion with both. Pretty quickly.
And, from the moment he checked in at Molineux in the summer of 2008, it had the complete opposite effect on Wolves as meeting Brighton had done for so many years.
Iwelumo went off like a train. He was a talisman. And part of a quartet of strikers also comprising perennial top scorer Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Andy Keogh and Sam Vokes which helped propel the club to the Championship title under Mick McCarthy.
Back in the summer of 2008, his was a name which didn’t perhaps feature too highly on the list of Wolves fans whose delight at McCarthy’s first season in charge and an unlikely play-off position had been tempered slightly by missing out on the top six on goal difference second time around.
The Scottish frontman had just come off the back of scoring ten goals for mid-table Charlton, also in the second tier, and was just about to turn 30.
But while it may not initially have looked a signing to set too many pulses racing – ultimately it would prove a masterstroke.
Iwelumo came off the bench on the opening day to help Wolves salvage a draw at Plymouth, scored twice on his full debut in the League Cup against Accrington Stanley and then another brace on his first league start against Sheffield Wednesday four days later.
He would score 15 goals in his first 16 games, an incredible return at any level let alone the Championship, and one which played a part in Wolves posting two explosive seven-game winning streaks as they blazed a trail at the top of the table.
Talk about hitting the ground running!
“I had finished up top scorer at Charlton that previous season, and all the way through (manager) Alan Pardew had been saying how he really needed me,” Iwelumo recalls.
“I was playing with a broken hand, broken nose, twists and sprains and whatever, I was like Man Friday, breaking down in training but still starting games.
“Then for the last game he started with Luke Varney and Andy Gray, and gave the impression in an interview after the game that they were his first-choice strikers.
“Anyway, I went off on holiday in the summer and was walking down to the pool one day and got a call from Mick McCarthy, saying he had been offered me by Charlton, who at that time were keen on a swap deal for defender Darren Ward.
“Mick told me he was surprised that I was available but I was like ‘happy days’, I was keen to move back to the Midlands area and it felt like a great move.
“I knew Mick from going up against his teams, including a game for Colchester against Wolves when he gave me a bit of stick for a handball when I scored a goal.
“The move didn’t go through quickly, there was a bit of confusion back at Charlton with Alan Pardew saying he didn’t want me to leave, and that even if I did there were other clubs interested along with Wolves.
“But there was only one place I wanted to go, I was banging on the manager’s door every day of the first week of pre-season asking to go to Wolves, and eventually the deal got done.”
It wasn’t just Iwelumo’s playing ability and the possibility of acting as a role model to earlier summer arrival Vokes that appealed to McCarthy, who had also brought in Richard Stearman and Dave Jones that summer.
With the exception of Jody Craddock, Wolves at the time were carrying a largely youthful squad, ‘young and hungry’ as the saying went, and Iwelumo’s experience was certainly an added bonus.
Not to mention an early role as social secretary, as just days after putting pen to paper he joined up with the pre-season tour in his native Scotland.
It is safe to say that Iwelumo’s first big night out with his new team-mates didn’t end quite in the way he might have expected.
“I knew a few of the lads already and I had roomed with Karl Henry at Stoke but straightaway I felt at home with the group,” he explains.
“I remember we had games against Dundee and Motherwell and then when we got back to the training camp, I think we all texted Mick at the same time with the words: ‘are we out’?
“He was laughing but said we could head out and with me being from Scotland I was able to sort a few places we could go.
“This is where it all got a bit messy because at that time, I had no idea what Jägermeister was.
“I don’t actually have a gullet, so anything I drink just goes straight down, and when the lads got on the ‘Jagers’ I was thinking ‘it’s alright this stuff!’
“Bang, bang, bang, down they go, nice and easy, and the last thing I remember is getting a wee bit lairy and standing up to make a speech because I wanted to tell the lads how welcome I had been made to feel.
“Next thing I am waking up the following morning, still fully clothed, face planting my pillow.
“Maybe I’d been trying to show off a bit as the new boy, but I never even got flashbacks from that night, that is how bad I was.
“Big Kemes – Carl Ikeme – looked after me – apparently I was sleeping on him in the taxi on the way back and then he pushed me to my room in a luggage rack and lifted me onto the bed.
“We had to be in the gym for 8.30 the next morning, and I remember an emergency call from Henry to reception – ‘we need Weetabix, we need Weetabix.’
“In between the reps and sets from Dales (Tony Daley), I was running out of the fire exit to be sick before coming back in to carry on.
“It’s safe to say it wasn’t my finest hour, although we played Kilmarnock a couple of days later and I scored twice so maybe it’s not always about proper preparation!”
As mentioned, Iwelumo’s early-season form alongside Ebanks-Blake up front was as devastating for his team as the Jagerbombs were on that first night out.
There were many highlights.
Somehow keeping pace with Matt Jarvis to convert his cross in the exhilarating first half demolition of Nottingham Forest, successive braces firstly when captain against Blackpool and then in a white-hot atmosphere at Sheffield United, scoring against Charlton after walking out with daughters Prisais and Novia as mascots.
And there was also a remarkable afternoon in Lancashire.
Mid-September, it was top-of-the-table Wolves travelling to third-place Preston, with both sides unbeaten.
Iwelumo had been injured in the build-up to the game, but such was his form – “the best of my career” – McCarthy was keen to get him back involved and so he took his place at Deepdale laden with Kinaesthetic tape to protect his knee.
With his burly 6ft 3in frame there was always the danger that Iwelumo could be typecast as ‘the big target man’, but this was a game where he showed he had far more in his locker with a hat trick made up of an overhead kick, close range predatory finish and clinical penalty.
Only problem was, he later got sent off after a clash with Sean St Ledger, with whom he shared an agent at the time.
And he’s still not happy, 13-and-a-half years later!
“Getting a three-game ban for that was farcical,” Iwelumo recalls.
“St Ledger kicked out at me and I maybe stepped over him which I shouldn’t have done and we went head-to-head.
“To be fair I caught up with Sean after the match and we went in to see the referee Martin Atkinson who listened to us and I really thought it would get overturned on appeal.
“It didn’t, and I had to serve a three-game ban, which included our first defeat of the season against Reading, but it was still a fantastic afternoon at Preston.
“That overhead kick? I mean, come on. Everyone knows how stiff I am – what was I even thinking?
“It was just one of many big games that season when everyone in the team was on it and we felt really comfortable.”
Iwelumo would go on and score another hat trick against Preston – for Burnley a couple of years later – but if that afternoon in Wolves’ colours had a ring of the surreal about it, it was merely the starter for what was to follow just three weeks later.
There are times when football is such a wonderful sport, offering up such perfectly timed stories, and Iwelumo landing his first ever senior international call-up at the age of 30 was most definitely one of those.
Even more so, when then coming off the bench for his debut with a World Cup qualifier against Norway delicately poised at 0-0, he found space at the far post to move in on a low cross from Gary Naysmith.
Unfortunately, a cruel plot twist was incoming. Agonisingly, excruciatingly, with an open goal at his mercy, Iwelumo diverted the ball wide of the target.
The game finished goalless and Iwelumo was suddenly the centre of the story for a very different reason. But he refused to hide away.
Despite being offered a route out of the back door to escape the waiting media, Iwelumo spent well over an hour chatting to the press before returning to Wolves – and an expectedly ‘warm’ dressing room welcome – several days later.
“I have never hidden away from anything and I had no intention of starting then,” he recalls.
“There are many highs and lows in football and from the high of making my debut I missed that chance but I just had to take it on the chin.
“I still remember it now, trying to adjust my feet just to tap the ball home and I was just a centimetre away from becoming a national hero!
“Everyone wants to pull on that jersey and represent their country and everyone wants to score for their country and there is nothing that would have made me prouder.
“It didn’t happen but that’s life – I don’t deny it was hard to deal with at the time and it has followed me ever since but I can’t carry it with me for the rest of my days.
“I remember Mick called me straight after the game and he was laughing and like, ‘******* hell Chris!’
“I needed that though, that sort of honesty and humour, I needed to get back into Wolves, and Mick told me to just get myself back and be ready.
“Of course there was stick, Neill Collins in particular hammered me relentlessly, but they knew how far they could go and they knew I would take it and I just got back out there and carried on scoring goals.”
Those goals did ultimately dry up over the last third of the campaign but Iwelumo had done more than enough damage to play his part in a brilliant team effort which clinched the Championship title.
He notched 16 goals in all competitions – agonisingly his league tally of 14 was one off netting a seasonal bonus – but promotion, the fifth of his career, finally secured a tilt at the Premier League.
Moving up a level wasn’t entirely plain sailing as striker Kevin Doyle was brought in as a club record signing and Iwelumo broke his metatarsal on the pre-season tour of Australia, but eventually his top flight bow did come, and he made 15 appearances in all.
He had however spent time with Bristol City on loan and would go on to join Wolves’ most recent opponents Burnley at the end of his second year at Molineux.
Looking back now, the memories remain as cherished and strong as ever, laced as they were with just a small tinge of regret.
“I always go through life saying not to have regrets – only regret the things you don’t do – but my own regret in football is that I left Wolves,” Iwelumo recalls.
“When Burnley put in an offer I went to see Mick and asked him whether I would be playing and as he was as honest as he always is, telling me I would start some games, be a substitute for others and not even on the bench for some.
“Burnley, in the Championship at that stage, had offered me a three-year contract and the chance to play regularly and I went there and did well and got a fair few goals.
“But the regret is whether I should have stayed and fought for my place at Wolves, in the Premier League.
“Maybe it would have been different, but at the same time I had a family to support and had been offered three years at a good club on the same money as the year I had remaining at Wolves, in a league where I knew I could still do well.
“I loved my time at Wolves though, and the group of players and staff at that time were unbelievable.
“I feel fortunate to have worked with those people – everyone knew each other and people couldn’t do enough for each other.
“They were such great characters, every single person, everyone had each other’s backs and you could see that on the pitch.
“We could mix it with the best of them, we could get the ball down and be creative and play and we could go direct as well.
“That squad mentality was so important, as we all knew we had to keep our standards so high and everyone would push each other.
“Andy Keogh was one of the best trainers I have ever seen – every single day of every single week – so I knew I couldn’t allow my levels to drop.
“And at the head of it all were Mick and TC (Terry Connor).
“As a man manager he was incredible, and what was particularly good about him and TC was that they trusted us as players.
“If we felt we needed to try something different on the pitch, he didn’t mind us doing it, and I remember times when a player might have questioned something he said and the next day he would come in and – in front of everyone – tell them they were right.
“I would say there are three managers from my career who I would always go to if I needed a bit of advice, and that would be Mick, Phil Parkinson and Tony Pulis.”
Of those five promotions for Iwelumo, Wolves was his only one from Championship to Premier League with Scunthorpe jumping from League Two to League One and Stoke, Colchester and Saturday’s opponents Brighton going from League One to Championship.
It was the back end of the 2003/04 season when Iwelumo joined Brighton on loan, forming an excellent partnership with Leon Knight, scoring four goals to help the team into the play-offs and then winning the late penalty which accounted for Bristol City at the Millennium Stadium.
“I loved my short time at Brighton with another great group of players,” he recalls.
Previous Wolves boss Mark McGhee was in charge, and Brighton offered Iwelumo a permanent two-year deal, but unable to quite get a deal over the line he decided to move to Alemania in Germany, where he played in the UEFA Cup.
In total Iwelumo represented 19 clubs during his career, making almost 550 appearances and plundering 120 goals.
Having been originally told after knee surgery he wouldn’t play beyond the age of 27, he retired when with Chester at 36, and it wasn’t until after turning 30 that he got to enjoy his international bow with Scotland and reach the Premier League. There’s no substitute for experience!
And upon hanging up those goalscoring boots, Iwelumo had options.
Having completed his coaching badges in a cohort alongside a certain Nuno Espirito Santo and fellow Scot Duncan Ferguson, he also picked up bits of media work and went on to graduate with a First-Class Honours degree in Professional Sports Writing & Broadcasting from Staffordshire University.
And then, when recently promoted Forest Green Rovers boss Rob Edwards moved from a role as Wolves Under-18 coach to work with the first team in 2015, Iwelumo interviewed extremely impressively to land the role as his successor.
Unfortunately though, it was to prove a short-lived appointment as Iwelumo, just over a week in, realised it wasn’t for him and, with his usual straight-forward honesty, decided to leave.
“I was really delighted to get that job and make a success of it but it was only when I started that I fully realised the true extent and the responsibilities involved,” he explains.
“Looking back, I felt I was ready but perhaps I needed to have shadowed a coach like Rob for a few weeks to really understand what it was all about.
“I had just become a Dad again to a daughter and I was leaving the house when she was asleep, and getting home when she was asleep, the sort of thing I had been doing for 20-odd years as a player.
“It also meant I would have had to turn my back on the media work and the degree I was doing.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made but Kevin Thelwell and Gareth Prosser were very understanding and deciding quickly meant that Jerry Gill was able to go straight in and do a good job there.”
It wasn’t, however, the end for Iwelumo and Wolves.
Opportunity knocked once again and in recent years he has become a regular pundit on the club’s Wolves TV channel alongside Mikey Burrows, including co-hosting the Old Gold Club podcast featuring fellow former players, and also working on many of the first team matches.
His Molineux duties form just part of an extensive media portfolio now also featuring matchday work with Stoke and punditry for talkSPORT, BBC Scotland and Sky Sports.
Juggling all that with family life can prove a bit of a challenge, but it’s one which, typically, the 43-year-old Iwelumo is relishing.
“I’m very busy and often all over the place with the media work but I’m really grateful for what I have and really enjoy it,” he explains.
“Being able to get back to Wolves as part of it is brilliant as I loved my time here and the fans were really good to me.
“Wolves is such a great club and I genuinely can’t thank them enough for the opportunities that have come my way, and those memories will always be there.
“Even though I was injured for the celebrations, the game against QPR when we sealed promotion and Doncaster where we got the trophy – they are still such special moments which were the result of such a massive all-round effort with so many people contributing.”
It certainly was a team effort, but Iwelumo’s contribution, for what effectively amounted to a bargain fee of £400,000, was one of the key cogs in the wheel especially in that blistering start to the season which paved the way for the overall success.
Big in stature and also in personality, his experience was also pivotal and he was never shy in coming forward with a forthright opinion or a timely word during any difficult spells on the pitch.
Iwelumo had the Midas Touch at Molineux, a golden goalscoring touch, and hopefully that influence continues from the press box today to ensure Wolves don’t face any threat of a return to the Brighton bogey of old!