Late winning goals. You really can’t beat them, can you? Well – maybe you can. Maybe if it is a late goal, in a local derby. Now, that is really something.
Steve Bull knew the odd bit about scoring goals. Late ones as well. That last-gasp winner against West Bromwich Albion on his first return to the Hawthorns in 1989 really should have been made into a feature film. Working title:˜Limbs.”
That wasn’t his only derby demolition job mind you.
Fast forward almost six-and-a-half years, and there was a similarly dramatic end to an action-packed local shindig, this time on home soil.
March 23rd, 1996. Twenty-five years ago and a thrilling rollercoaster ride of an afternoon comprising Wolves and Birmingham City.
One which would finish with the vast majority of that Molineux audience in complete delirium as their hero notched a clinical late winner before tearing down the side of the pitch to savour the moment in front of the distraught visiting supporters.
One of those Molineux moments which has certainly stood the test of time. You might even say it was unstoppa-bull. Unforgetta-bull.
To set the scene for this particular battle for Midlands bragging rights it is worth a cursory look back to the Wolves/Blues rivalry of the time.
Of course Wolves have Albion, and Blues have Villa. Those are the really tasty ones. Peak derby antagonism.
At this stage however, while Wolves and Albion had settled into a rhythm of fairly regular mid-Nineties Championship skulduggery, Blues and Villa were midway through a nine-year hiatus of not playing each other.
And Wolves and Blues emerged as a fairly lively rivalry.
Charles Ross, a lifelong Wolves fan who has lived in Birmingham since the mid- Eighties, edited the ‘A Load of Bull’ fanzine for many years, the title of which is of course a homage to the Molineux legend.
“Derbies can define a season – as a fan, you live for derby day and, hopefully, the bragging rights after,” says Ross.
“With our descent in the mid-Eighties, we’d lost having the derbies.
“Come our return in 1989/90 to the second tier, we couldn’t wait for the Albion games: it wasn’t just beating them, twice, that mattered. It was the how. And the who – Bully.
“Albion were relegated the following season, joining Blues in the third tier, which, with Villa firmly ensconced in the top flight, meant that we didn’t have a derby in 1991/92.
“Blues, however, made it back for the following season. And here it began.
“It’s fair to say that both sets of fans “enjoy” a derby, and are up for it.
“In the absence of Albion for Wolves, and of Villa for Blues – we’d have to make do with each other.
“And, on a glorious September day in 1992 at St Andrews, we did for them – 4-0 with a Darren Roberts hat-trick.
“That was when it really started. We’d humiliated them. On their own patch.
“There was no going back after that.”
The players, especially those of a local persuasion, were also quick to grasp the growing status surrounding what has generally been a lower-ranked derby.
“I think Wolves and Blues developed into a big derby and rivalry at that time, a bit like Wolves and Villa has in recent years” Bull suggests.
“For me any sort of derby game, whoever it was against, was a good one.
“Not just Albion, Blues, Villa, even games against Walsall, Port Vale, Stoke – they always seemed to be really full-blooded ones where you needed to roll your sleeves up and the tackles were flying in left, right and centre.”
“Derby games were great and I used to love them,” adds Andy Thompson, Bully’s partner-in-crime on the day they made the short journey up the A41 to join Wolves from Albion almost ten years prior to the focus of this piece.
“Blues had a decent side and they were always good games with a special atmosphere and a bit of niggle to them as well.
Plenty of passion too with the crowd getting involved, and Barry Fry was in charge of Blues for this one and you always knew what you were going to get against one of his teams – a tough afternoon.
“No matter where ourselves and Blues were in the league, you always knew it was going to be a right old battle and could never predict which way the result would go.”
Bear in mind this was still a few years before the war of words between Wolves and the Second City properly cranked into action when Martin Grainger described Kevin Muscat as “probably the most hated man in football” after a few lively scrapes between the Australian and several Blues players.
The almost desperate determination from both clubs to escape the second tier and reach the Holy Grail of the Premier League merely stirred the pot even further. Familiarity breeds contempt? The teams always knew an awful lot about each other, that’s for sure.
This was the fourth meeting in just three months following a FA Cup third round tie and replay – which Wolves won 2-1 – and the league fixture at St Andrews less than weeks earlier which Blues won 2-0.
Wolves boss Mark McGhee had been sniping with opposite number Fry about who would finish higher in the league. Just in case, you know, the game needed any more build-up.
So yes, in fair Molineux we lay our scene a quarter of a century ago – over 26,000 inside including a full complement of away fans – the place was absolutely crackling.
And it was the visitors who drew first blood.
Paul Devlin was barely a month into his Blues career, joining his home city club from Notts County boasting bags of pace and ability, and, perhaps like Bull on the opposition, a raw eye for goal and fierce determination initially nurtured in non-league.
Devlin started this game well, a lovely first time finish after Jonathan Hunt had kept the ball in out wide and teed up Kevin Francis for the lay-off.
That was nothing to how well he had started his Blues career though. That 2-0 win just a few weeks earlier? Devlin scored both, one from the penalty spot and the other courtesy of a delicate near post flick.
“The win at St Andrew’s was my second game for Blues so to score twice got me off to a flyer,” he recalls.
“And I remember that first goal at Molineux well.
“Jonathan Hunt did really well down the left, Big Kev helped it into my path and I caught it with a nice side foot into the corner.”
Wolves tried to respond, Bull setting off on one of his trademark runs before unleashing a low drive which flew back off the inside of the post, but it was Don Goodman who popped up with the equaliser, a low drive which was followed by a Roger Milla style corner flag celebration in front of the South Bank.
Into the second half then, and Bull again going close, a shot from outside the box that flashed past the post.
“Thinking back, it was one of those games and one of those days where I just felt I was never going to score,” the great man recalls.
“I had chance after chance, but whatever I did, nothing was coming of them.”
Hold that thought, Bully. Hold that thought.
Kevin Francis was also having one of those days, skying a shot over the bar from about eight yards as Blues looked to regain the lead.
But, after Jamie Smith had been denied a first Wolves goal by the woodwork, and Bull had been denied by Bart Griemink, Francis was very soon involved in the game’s big controversy, failing to the floor in the penalty area with Dean Richards in close proximity.
It is perhaps somewhat refreshing that even now, 25 years on, all respective parties are sticking up ‘for their own’ about that particular incident. Old habits die hard!
“When Kevin Francis swung at the ball and missed it altogether and got a penalty I was thinking ‘here we go, we’re going to lose this and I haven’t even contributed’,” says Bull.
“He didn’t even appeal,” adds Thompson with a chuckle. “He was probably too embarrassed!”
“When you look back at it,” begins Devlin. “It looks like Big Kev had completely missed the ball, but I think there is a slight clip on his foot from Dean, and that led to the penalty.”
Cue the carnage. Pandemonium. Not for Devlin, though. Calmest man in Molineux as he took a lengthy run up and fiercely smashed the ball into the top of the net. 2-1 Blues. Four goals in two games against Wolves across just three weeks for Devlin. He would also grab another during his second spell at St Andrew’s with an equaliser in a 2-2 draw in March, 2002. The less said about that particular time the better.
This one wasn’t over however, and was also soon 2-2. Even though Devlin’s penalty was converted with only six minutes remaining.
If the late, great Richards had clipped Francis – who went on to work as a Police Officer in Canada – then he soon made up for it by charging into the box at the other end of the pitch, seemingly getting fouled but while on the floor helping the ball on which was then handled by future Wolf, Gary Breen.
The final whistle was looming. Step forward, the penalty king. Yes, that’s you Andy Thompson.
He never missed, did he? Well once or twice. Against Stoke, as he recalls, another in the fourth division. And the Sheffield Wednesday FA Cup shootout. He scored hatfuls, however. Mr Reliable from 12 yards.
Yet Thompson had also missed in that 2-0 defeat just a few weeks previously, not that he can remember.
“Did I?” he replies. “I remember the other misses but can’t remember missing against Blues?”
YouTube footage refreshes the memory. Thompson had cheekily rolled the penalty into the empty net on claiming to have heard the whistle as Griemink was tapping his boots against the post.
That didn’t stand, there would have been uproar, and his genuine effort was saved, the Blues keeper guessing right and palming away Thompson’s powerful spot kick.
Now came take two at Molineux. Three if you count the one into the empty net.
“Even though I have now discovered I missed against Blues a few weeks earlier, I wouldn’t have hesitated about taking one again,” Thompson recalls.
“I would still have been confident, even though I think there were always a few nerves when you take a penalty.
“For me it was all about making a decision about where I was going to put it, knowing that if I hit it well enough and hard enough, even if the keeper guessed right it was going to be difficult to stop.
“I know nowadays players might wait and sometimes go for a delicate sidefoot or a little dink but I always felt that with enough power and the right direction I would be o-k.
“Another thing that has changed since then is the analysis side.
“Back in the day we didn’t have access to what there is now, knowing which way goalkeepers regularly dived, but I would always have a look at the keeper before making my decision.
“I mainly went to the keeper’s right, but if I had a few in a row then I would often mix it up.
“The main thing was that once I decided where I was going I stuck to it and didn’t change my mind.”
This time Thompson scored, albeit going for a very similar part of the goal as at St Andrew’s, but on this occasion the power was too much for Griemink to keep out.
Two apiece. Probably a fair result all things considered. Wolves hadn’t been at their best but still had a point. Blues’ disappointment at twice letting their lead slip was probably negated by being a couple of healthy clearances away from gleaning a quickfire four points out of six from their Midlands neighbours.
And then, in the very last minute, the ball dropped for Simon Osborn in the centre circle.
We say ‘dropped’, he did it well to win it in the first place, but then it sat up perfectly.
For a creative midfielder of his ilk, the sight of a rampaging Bull a bit further ahead, always appealed to Osborn’s talent on the ball and his sense of adventure.
“I have said it so many times, that if centre forwards don’t make runs then midfield players can’t make passes,” Osborn explains.
“We live and die by what strikers do, and in Bully, I always knew what he was looking for.
“It was a big part of my game at Wolves to try and play him in – for me as a central midfielder you can keep it neat and tidy but if you are not creating anything then it is a bit of a false economy.
“I would often take a chance or two with a through ball and more often than not the defender would clear it and everyone would have a moan!
“But I always knew that if it came off just once, and you gave Bully that opportunity, more often than not he would score.
“On this particular occasion, there might have been 95 minutes gone or whatever, but we all know what Bully is like – he would play on as long as it needed and always felt he would get one more chance.
“It sat up nicely for me so I played it over the defender, and from there it was all about Steve and what he could do.”
Indeed it was. And when you look back at the footage, there are surely few centre forwards in football at that time and even now who would have scored from that position.
Take it away, maestro!
“All the gaffers I have played for used to tell me to keep playing to the final whistle, keep chasing lost causes, and if there was a ball over the top I would find something from somewhere even if I was breathing out of my backside,” says Bull.
“Both Ozzy (Simon Osborn) and Cooky (Paul Cook) were players at Wolves who could pick a pass and I’d be on the last man’s shoulder looking to get in behind.
“With this one the ball was actually moving away from goal, and I knew Michael Johnson was right alongside me, so I needed to hit it quickly.
“Throughout my career I always tried to strike the ball early when I could, catching the keeper before he had settled himself and had more chance of making a save.
“By the time I hit it I was at full stretch and more or less lying down, and from there I saw it skidding away, past the keeper and into the bottom corner, despite a desperate lunge from a Blues defender.
“With my natural instinct as a goalscorer, in every situation I just tried to do whatever it took to score, and for this one it paid off.
“It was an incredible feeling to see it finish up in the bottom corner – and after that I just legged it!”
‘Legged it’ is pretty much the perfect description.
Think running for a bus to avoid being late for a first day at work, the tapes going up for the opening of the Next sale, Roger Black pounding along the back straight of an Olympic final.
That was Bull that day, celebratory fist flailing, Wolves fans losing it. One of THOSE moments in time.
“Adrenalin, that’s what that was,” Bull recalls.
“You don’t plan to run the length of the pitch in front of the opposition fans although they had been giving me stick all game, just as you’d expect from a derby.
“For me it was enjoying the goal, a bit of fun and mickey-taking – they gave it me, I gave it them back!
“I will say it killed me to get back to the centre circle after that celebration and took more out of me than scoring the goal itself.
“I was still buzzing coming off the pitch a few minutes later and I remember Barry Fry coming over telling me I would get him the sack one day!”
“A little bit special,” was the Osborn verdict, shaped by a very satisfying assist for the winner.
“When you contribute in a game, especially so late on, it is a great feeling, and you come off the pitch with that extra buzz.
“People always remember the last few minutes of a game that little bit more, especially one like that, a big derby in front of a full house.
“Most importantly was that we got the win, and that always made the Saturday evening a hell of a lot better that’s for sure.”
Of course for every set of elated winners, there has to be a team of despondent losers, and, for Devlin’s part, he could have done no more than notch two goals.
Even amid his devastation at the time, the Blues man admits to a strong feeling of professional admiration towards his goalscoring opposite number, which has remained to this day.
“That day Bully did just what Bully had done over so many years,” he says ruefully.
“I’m not a Wolves fan but Bully was always a bit of a favourite of mine in the way he played the game, how brave he was, quick, direct.
“He was a local lad like myself, and I remember saying when I left Birmingham the first time under Trevor Francis, that I would have liked to have stayed and tried to do a similar thing for Blues like Bully had for Wolves.
“I would never have scored anything like the number of goals that Bully got, but it would have been nice to get towards the 100 mark for Blues – it just wasn’t to be.
“And that game in particular was tough to take.
“Losing late on like that is devastating and feels like someone has ripped your lungs out.
“Getting beat is getting beat, but psychologically it is so much harder to take when it comes in the last minute.”
Another question: How difficult is it to take psychologically when your team turns it around to win in the last minute, but you have actually left your seat before it happens?
That was the fate which befell Charles Ross, albeit he had some very understandable mitigation.
“I sat in the South Bank those days and part of the joys of editing a fanzine was the need to leave a few minutes early, to get to the corner on the Waterloo Road, near where Billy Wright’s statue now is,” he recalls.
“That was to be ready to try to shift a few copies to fans leaving the game, and to meet the other sellers.
“I left after we went 2-1 behind, and as I was busy setting up on the corner – roars of encouragement rose from the Billy Wright. We must be on the attack!
“A few lads had exited – but stopped in their tracks. There’s an angle there, where you can see the penalty area down the North Bank end. I knew what this meant.
“Penalty to Wolves. As they punched the air, the roars came from inside. 2-2. I didn’t need to wait for the tannoy to tell me.
“And then comes another, sudden roar of encouragement from around Molineux. Of excitement. And then – for a fraction of a second – silence. A mass, collective, intake of breath.
“And then the explosion.
“I’ve never heard Molineux louder – and I wasn’t even inside!
“And then the tannoy announcement. Confirming what, in my wildly pulsating heart, I knew must be the case: ‘Goal to Wolves! Number 9….’ Of course. Who else?
“By then I’m simultaneously punching the air. And metaphorically kicking myself.
“As I scrabble to get a few copies out of waterproof bags to try to flog to some very happy Wolves fans streaming up Waterloo Road.
“Mind you, I can’t think of a more apt time to be stood outside Molineux shouting ‘A Load of Bull! Get yer Load of Bull!’ Blues had just got it. 3-2.
“If Bully’s last minute winner at the Hawthorns in 1989 was in many ways the greatest goal I ever saw – then his last minute winner at Molineux against Blues was the greatest goal I never saw.”
Meanwhile, when returning to Molineux for what was a usual slot of a post-match debrief with Radio Wolves presenters Bill Hatton and Steve Welch, Ross did at least get to view at first hand a very stoic and generous side to the Blues manager.
“Barry Fry was coming out after doing his press conference and a last minute defeat which must have hurt like hell,” Ross recalls.
“A young lad, maybe about ten, with Wolves scarf on, was waiting with his Dad for an autograph, and approached Barry to ask the question.
“He was superb, joking with the lad about it paining him to sign for a Wolves fan, and he did it all with such good grace.”
There was also at that time a mutual respect between the two sets of players in contrast perhaps to the animosity which was to follow in later years.
“All us knew what was expected for a local derby on the pitch where we’d be having a proper go at each other but off the pitch it was fine,” reveals Thompson.
“We all wanted to win the game, and that was what it was all about, but away from that we all got on o-k.”
The same goes for Devlin, now good pals with David Kelly from their time together at Sheffield United, as well as Steve Froggatt and Tony Daley.
“For those of us still around the local area we have been quite pally down the years,” says Devlin.
“I’m good mates with Ned, and have played golf with Thommo before – I was usually on the right wing and him at left back so we had some battles back in the day!
“We have a great craic when we meet up, and I remember a few years ago myself and Geoff Horsfield represented Blues in some sort of Mastermind quiz against Bully and Don Goodman which was great fun.
“It’s one of them, when we meet up we’ll chat about games and how we used to kick lumps out of each other but as you get older you mellow out a little bit.
“We’ll see each other at functions and have a beer or two but with how things have been for the last 12 months when we are able to meet up again I think it will be for more than a couple of beers this time!”
That 1995/96 season might not be one which crops up too often in those discussions between the former players, Blues finishing 15thin the table three points ahead of Wolves, who were 20th.
But the last gasp drama, the 267th of the 306 goals in the Bull collection, one of seven he pocketed against Birmingham, remains very much in the memory banks of those who witnessed it.
“Even when I watch the goal back these days the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” says Bull.
“In the last minute of a local derby, with that atmosphere, it was an above average goal that makes it into my top five I think!”
In Bully’s top five? There is plenty of stiff competition, but no one can argue with that. It was quite a day, and still, 25 years on, well worth another look.
The Silver anniversary of a Golden moment. With a Golden celebration to boot.