Wolves kick off again at Leicester on Saturday, with fans hoping for an exciting and positive start to the season. It was 25 years ago that an opening day trip to Grimsby provided a seriously memorable afternoon. The hat trick hero (Steve Bull), the hat trick assist hero (Steve Froggatt) and the debutant (Serge Romano) look back.
The first day of the football season. Always a special one. Packed with excitement and anticipation.
The first and last time that all teams are equal. Even if fans’ expectations are perhaps not quite as equal.
But the hope. For any supporter of any team, there is always hope on the first day of the season. Along, usually, with sunshine.
Wolves and Grimsby were separated by 79 league positions back in May as the Mariners navigated out of the Football League.
Twenty-five years ago they occupied the same division. The Championship, of course. The division Wolves took so long to escape.
Rewind specifically to August 17th, 1996. Not so long after a glorious summer when England went so close at the European Championships on home soil. Three Lions on a shirt and all that.
Once more the expectation, and the hope. And once more, a penalty shootout defeat against Germany.
August 17th, 1996 was the day when of England’s finest David Beckham launched his pitching wedge from his own half and chipped the ball perfectly over the head of Wimbledon goalkeeper Neil Sullivan to dip underneath the crossbar.
At Blundell Park, it wasn’t a Beckham, but a Bull who was hogging the headlines.
“Grimsby, blimey,” Wolves’ record goalscorer recalls to the Express & Star.
“We always seemed to go to Grimsby on a Tuesday night, when it was freezing cold, and lose 1-0.
“We came out that day, first game of the season, and it was red hot.
“We were like, ‘this ain’t Grimsby’, but it turned into an unbelievable afternoon.”
It was manager Mark McGhee’s first full season at the Molineux helm having raised eyebrows by leaving Leicester for Wolves the preceding December.
His formation for that season’s opener raised one or two eyebrows as well, as a Wolves team which had become famed for no-nonsense direct attacking understandably using the devastating predatory talents of Bull – switched to five at the back.
Or, more to the point, three at the back, as Steve Froggatt explains.
“We’d had a chat at the start of that season and I’d said to Mark that sometimes I could play as a winger and be really isolated,” says Froggatt.
“There are times as a winger you could go through a game and barely get a kick of the ball through no fault of your own.
“I had said to Mark I really wanted to try to be more involved in games, and his decision to go with that formation when I moved to wing back was one which achieved that.
“At times it worked really well, especially on that day at Grimsby, when the way we played made it feel like I was playing as a left winger even though I was strictly a wing back.”
The three centre backs, ahead of the arrival of Keith Curle the following month, comprised Mark Venus, Dean Richards and Mark Atkins with, in the opposite wing back role to Froggatt, a debutant Frenchman by the name of Serge Romano.
“I was playing in France at the time (with FC Martigues) but had previously been at Metz and one of my friends in the team there was Eric Black,” Romano, then 32, reveals.
“Eric had spoken to the coach at Wolves (McGhee), who was looking for a right back or right midfielder and so I went on trial for three weeks.
“After that I signed a contract, this was my first time playing elsewhere in Europe, and I made my debut in that game at Grimsby.”
There was a lively atmosphere for Romano’s English bow and the Wolves fans were in full voice situated behind the goal the team attacked in the first half.
Grimsby, who had experienced England midfielder Neil Webb making his debut, produced the first chance but Kingsley Black was denied by a fine save from Mike Stowell.
Yet by half time, Wolves were two goals to the good, emphatically delivered in front of the delirious travelling hordes with thanks to the Froggatt and Bull show.
The midfield triumvirate was made up of Andy Thompson, Steve Corica and Simon Osborn, and the latter’s trademark pass set Froggatt away down the left.
Skipping comfortably past Grimsby player manager Brian Laws, those travelling fans were on their feet just in time to see his low cross expertly guided home by the outside of Bull’s right foot.
Then, on the stroke of half time, Froggatt’s precision delivery over the top was met with a customary first time Bull finish beyond keeper Jason Pearcey. Happy days.
It was an explosive start to the season from the legendary number nine, in keeping with so many of his opening days which saw him notch 11 goals from 12 appearances in Wolves’ seasonal curtain-raisers.
“When it came to the first day of the season I just couldn’t wait,” the great man explains.
“It had been six weeks solid of training including running until we dropped, getting to the edge of physical exhaustion every single day.
“It had to be done, and you just had to get through it, and then get out there on the first day and put all that training into practice.
“That first day was, how shall I say, like a red rag to a bull!
“I just wanted to score goals, that was my main attribute, and obviously while I was a team player I was selfish when it came to scoring goals.
“It’s all I wanted to do, so getting those two in the first half in front of all our fans with the sun in their eyes – I couldn’t wait to celebrate!”
Bull was indebted to Froggatt that day, not only for that first half brace but then, after Clive Mendonca had struck to give Grimsby hope, flying down the wing again and picking him out for a quick touch and customary bullet-like finish into the bottom corner.
“Froggy was instrumental for me that day – strikers thrive on service and Froggy always gave me that,” says Bull.
But if it was vintage Bull, it was also vintage Froggatt.
It felt like he had already been around forever – probably because he burst onto the scene with Aston Villa at just 18, but at that point he was still only 23.
Dropping the shoulder and flying down the wing, packed with pace, poise and purpose, and then proving clever enough to not just throw the ball in but to shape his cross to pick out the likes of Bull.
The mutual appreciation society? It was definitely mutual.
“Do you know what? I think Bully was a far better striker than he was actually given credit for,” says Froggatt.
“By that I mean we know he was brilliant and scored all those goals, but I think his footballing ability was better than a lot of people even thought.
“He was a predator in the box, but he just knew which runs to make and where to position himself, and that made him so easy to pick out.
“Those goals that day at Grimsby? All of them were down to his smart movement and clinical finishing.
“And as a striker, what a way to start your season.
“A hat trick on the first day, away from home, absolutely brilliant, and Bully was buzzing.
“He was just perfect to play alongside, and has been a good friend of mine ever since and always will be.”
Romano can’t actually remember much of his debut – “so much time has passed” – but he certainly remembers Bull.
“A good character and a great player,” he recalls.
And the 3-1 win was a perfect way to launch a new campaign, which Froggatt believes was so important.
As with pretty much every season of that era, Wolves kicked off among the promotion favourites, and were right up there for so long until tailing away at the end to finish third.
“A good start was always so important, especially for a team like ours with the pressure and expectation from supporters,” adds Froggatt.
“A ropey start would have put us under some right pressure, and you never want to find yourself struggling after the first four or five games.
“As it was we won the first game, probably got fans thinking ‘this is our year’ and sadly went on to disappoint them all over again.”
It did go on to become ‘one of those Wolves seasons’ which almost seemed to define that era.
So much promise, but ultimately so much pain.
For Romano, Grimsby would prove his first and last start as he made just a handful of appearances, as, despite his clear technical ability, he found the style of play in England very different to what he was used to.
“It was certainly more physical and more tough and I found it difficult,” he admits.
“I really felt I was better as a midfielder at that time but Wolves needed a right back or a wing back.
“But even if I didn’t play many games, I remember the club in a nice way and it was still a good experience for me.
“The spirit of the people in England is very good and so I still enjoyed my time, even though I wanted to play more games.”
The tweaked formation and counter-attacking prowess saw McGhee’s team particularly impressive away from home, winning 12 games and picking up more points on the road than at Molineux.
Well in contention for automatic promotion for much of the season, a dip towards the end and a run of just two wins from eight saw Barnsley take second spot behind runaway champions Bolton.
A third place finish was Wolves’ highest since last being in the top flight in 1983/84, but ultimately it meant nothing after another agonising play-off semi-final defeat at the hands of eventual winners Crystal Palace.
“That was always the way wasn’t it?” asks Bull. “So near but yet so far.
“I would never call it a regret because I loved my time at Wolves but just not quite being able to get the club into the Premier League was always the frustration.
“We tried as hard as we could – we all did – and we got as high in the table as we could, but we always seemed to miss out.
“Whether it was through injuries, bad luck, maybe not strengthening the squad, it was always just falling at the last hurdle.
“Everything seems to happen for a reason in life, and I will always remember my career with so much enjoyment despite the disappointments.”
That hat-trick was the catalyst for a particularly significant season for Bull, whose overall haul of 23 goals was his highest in six years.
He was on target at The Hawthorns in that famous 4-2 victory when strike partner Iwan Roberts was the hat trick hero before later notching the only goal of the game at Manchester City to nudge past Tony Brown and become the Midlands’ record goalscorer.
There were also goals in both league games against Birmingham City, and a dramatic late winner at Sheffield United but still, agonisingly, no promotion.
“I was devastated for Bully at that time, I know what a legend he is and how much he deserved, even once, to pull on a gold shirt in the Premier League,” adds Froggatt, whom, talking of opening days, actually scored on his Wolves debut against Reading in the 1994/95 season.
“That would have been perfect, the pinnacle for him, but it never happened.
“We finished third that year we started out at Grimsby, but I also remember my first season (1994/95) when we were absolutely flying for so long.
“Injuries robbed us in the end, and not just normal injuries but horrific ones.
“I got snapped in half at Reading, Dales (Tony Daley) had a double cruciate, Geoff Thomas had a bad one, and it really affected us.
“Even then, we ended up in the play-offs and then had that incident at Bolton with John McGinlay on David Kelly and you just wonder how much bad luck we could have in one season.
“In my case, Wolves is probably the one club I look back on with a bit of regret, even though I loved my time there.
“Later on at Coventry I got in the England squad and was on the bench for the Euro play-off with Scotland while at the start of my career with Villa I played a lot of games in a team which finished as runners-up in the Premier League and won the League Cup.
“I only left that team to come to Wolves because of Graham Taylor and the ambition to get the team into the Premier League.
“That was it, the whole motivation, and I was gutted it didn’t happen.
“There was an enormous amount of experience in that squad, the likes of Bully, Geoff – they weren’t just good footballers but great lads and I was still young and really looked up to them.
“We’re all in our mid to late Forties or Fifties now and, when we meet up, we still talk about that time.
“It is great to see Wolves up there now but it still irks all of us that it wasn’t us that first took the team into the Premier League.
“I know fans sometimes think that players don’t care, but even all these years on, we still care, and still wonder how on earth we didn’t manage it.”
Moving forward from that 1996/97 campaign life was never quite the same again.
Bull’s hat trick at Grimsby was his first for three years and the 17thof his 18 for Wolves as he moved into the latter stages of his career, and he would never make the play-offs again.
Romano returned to play in France, but even his short cameo was to prove beneficial, as, while in Wolverhampton, he started the qualifications which have led to an extensive coaching career which is still going strong.
He has coached and managed in France, managed in China and worked as assistant with the national team in Qatar, been assistant to Philippe Montanier at Nottingham Forest, and now, for the last three years, has been number two with the Algerian national team, which includes Adlene Guedioura.
That has included Algeria winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019, a title they will defend next January, whilst they launch their World Cup qualifying campaign next month.
Froggatt meanwhile, who would go on to chalk up over a century of appearances in Wolves colours including the FA Cup Semi-Final at Arsenal where Bull came off the bench, was sold despite making an impressive start to the 1998/99 season.
“I was still a baby when Wolves sold me, just 24, and not even close to getting into my prime,” he recalls.
“I was gutted at the time, but I think Sir Jack (Hayward) wanted to bring some money in and selling myself and Robbie (Keane) could do that.
“I had only signed a one-year contract the previous season but I started like a house on fire and was keen to sit down and sign something long-term.
“We were putting together a serious team, the likes of Robbie and Dean Richards who you could build a team around, but in the end it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Wolves did finally make it to the Promised Land, twice reaching the Premier League for one and three years respectively before now looking established and very much at home as Saturday’s trip to Leicester launches a fourth successive campaign at the top level.
They also now have an excellent opening day record to protect, unbeaten in their last eight, similar to the purple patch including Grimsby which came in the middle of a run of eight wins from nine on the season curtain-raisers and an unbeaten run of 12.
And of course, this day a quarter of a century ago provided Wolves with some far fonder memories of Grimsby than just the excellent fish and chips served not far from the stadium.
It was one of those incredible awaydays, although the exuberance of some among the excitable away following did ever so slightly spill over.
Keith Evans, now 50, travelled with Hatherton Wolves that day, including a memorable pre-match stop in Brigg.
“It was such an incredible atmosphere that day, and Bully getting two goals in the first half just made it even better,” he recalls.
“I was actually sat on the front row, I think for the only time ever at an away game, and I remember chatting to the mates I was with at half time and agreeing that if Bully got his hat trick we would hop over the small fence and just celebrate on the side of the pitch.
“It was only supposed to be a bit of fun, and, of course, Bully got this third at the other end of the pitch and off I went, just over the fence, and doing a bit of dancing.
“All of a sudden I looked behind, and no one had followed me, and then I felt the long arm of a steward on my shoulder!
“To be fair he was great, he understood the mood of the fans that day, and just very politely told me that I needed to leave.
“I actually walked across the front of the Wolves fans with my arm around him – it must have been the friendliest ejection from a stadium ever – but I just waited outside for a bit and they opened the gates for fans to leave so I was back in for the last few minutes.
“It was a great day, although I learned my lesson about encroaching on the pitch, and not believing anything my mates ever told me!”
So many fans have stories from away trips. Opening day trips, the start of another ten months of fluctuating fortunes. Many probably from that day in Grimsby.
And memories. They carry every bit the same power for players as they do for supporters.
For Froggatt, one of the rare moments of happiness during a pandemic which has seen him suffer his own personal heartache with the loss of his mum, has been re-runs of games put on by his former clubs and seeing those Grimsby highlights once again.
“It is 21 years since the end of my career which is incredible but I had some lovely messages off Wolves fans who had maybe forgotten what sort of player I was or new fans saying it looked like I did o-k!”
Bull, meanwhile, has a painting by well-known artist Louise Cobbold on his wall at home depicting his trademark aeroplane hat trick celebration which: “whenever I see it I think of that great day at Grimsby.”
Ah, the aeroplane. We almost forgot. The hat trick celebration which became as ironic as it was actually completely unplanned!
“I have absolutely no idea where that came from,” Bull admits.
“My celebration used to just be the one finger in the air, Alan Shearer style, but after one of my first hat tricks I just remember thinking I needed to do something different.
“I stuck my arms out, started doing the aeroplane, and once I’d done it once I just thought let’s see how far we can go with it!”
What a celebration. What a day. What a start. And now, it all starts for Wolves once again.
Everyone equal, so much hope, so much anticipation, especially after such a long time without fans inside stadia due to the pandemic.
So much to look forward to on Saturday – friendships renewed, moments shared, emotions roused.
And who knows? Perhaps another famous Wolves number nine getting in amongst the goals.