An impressive first performance at Old Trafford under Gary O’Neil has raised the optimism levels ahead of his Molineux bow this weekend. A repeat of the positive atmosphere, and result, from a home opener 30 years ago would do just fine!


There are several non-negotiables when it comes to Wolves’ first home game of the season.

Firstly, the weather.  It has to be hot.  It’s all about perspiration and not precipitation.

Then, the replica kits.  If that weather is indeed favourable, or, to be fair, even if it’s not, what better sight is there on an August Saturday afternoon than a plethora of gold shirts streaming down Waterloo Road towards Molineux.  Another given.

The atmosphere? It has to be crackling.  Even if the first home game follows an away defeat, just as this year, even if the previous season was something of a letdown, it’s still a day of hope and not fear, expectation and anticipation.  Come on boys.  This is our year.

And then, the new signings. Whoever they are, opening day brings a proliferation of stirring support and vociferous acclaim. Make them feel at home.  They might even get a song.

It’s fair to say there haven’t been too many new faces at Molineux this summer, and perhaps there won’t be any at all named in the starting line-up for Saturday’s home curtain-raiser against Brighton.  

What Wolves do have, however, is a new man in the dugout, with Head Coach Gary O’Neil, a previous visitor to WV1 as both player and manager, hoping to build on such a positive start against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Monday night.

It’s not often every piece of the jigsaw comes together and the different notes join in perfect harmony, but that is exactly what happened some 30 years ago this Monday just gone.

Saturday, August 14th, 1993.  Wolves against Bristol City in the Endsleigh League Division One.

The sense of excitement and buzz around Molineux was palpable.

It was a new-look Molineux as well, or at least, a heavily tweaked one.

The house that Sir Jack built, or was in the process of building, was taking shape, with £14million worth of improvements nearing their conclusion. The Stan Cullis Stand was already up and running, the Billy Wright Stand opened its doors for the first time ahead of an official launch for the following home game against Millwall, and the South Bank was in the process of construction ahead of the revamped stadium’s overall official opening against Honved three months later.

A number of former Wolves heroes were invited to game, John Richards and Roy Swinbourne among just two of those joining the then director Wright in enjoying some hospitality, and the scene was very much set.

To provide some context, this was Wolves’ fifth successive season back in the second tier after the wonderfully masterminded and acclaimed revival with back-to-back promotions from the old Fourth Division.

Previous finishes of 10th, 12th, 11th and 11th suggested Graham Turner’s squad had found stability at the higher level, but without finding the spark or consistency to make a sustained push for Sir Jack’s holy grail, of the Premier League.

But now, all of a sudden, the purse strings had been seriously loosened.

England midfielder Geoff Thomas had arrived from Crystal Palace, Republic of Ireland striker David Kelly from Newcastle, Kevin Keen from West Ham, and footballing royalty in the experience of the legendary Cyrille Regis answering the call for his fourth assignment in the West Midlands.

Wolves had been splashing the cash – those four deals comprised almost £3million in transfer fees alone – and experienced defender Peter Shirtliff also checked in a few days later.

David Instone was the Wolves reporter with the Express & Star at the time, and remembers the sense of excitement that those high quality arrivals promised.

“If you look back now those figures for the transfer fees don’t look anything special, but at the time – for a club in the equivalent of the Championship – they were pretty spectacular,” Instone recalls.

“They were signing top players in terms of bringing in Geoff Thomas, who amongst others had been linked with Manchester City and Sheffield Wednesday, David Kelly from Newcastle and Kevin Keen from West Ham.

“It was a big step up in relation to the sort of signings they had been making for the previous two or three years.

“I think the completion or near completion of the stadium redevelopment helped with the spending on players.

“Prior to that, the redevelopment had been a priority which I think was the right decision, to help get the club stabilised and much more respectable again after years of the ground being an embarrassment.

“The work took a lot of time, energy and money but, with it being nearly finished, I think they could see the end in sight and it was all systems go for the team.

“What was also important was that the signings, and Geoff, David, Kevin in particular had come in quite early, with Cyrille then a week or so before the first game and Peter not long after.”

Those arrivals had certainly heightened the excitement and expectation levels, and the players themselves shared that sense of anticipation at joining a squad already featuring the likes of Mike Stowell, Derek Mountfield, Paul Cook, Paul Birch and Steve Bull.

There was certainly no doubting for Thomas, who had been sold from the moment he visited Molineux and first met with Wright.

“Billy was an icon of football, not just Wolves, to meet him the day I signed was amazing,” he recalls.

“To have people of his stature walking around the club gave it a real sense of history, and then there was the legend that was Graham (Hughes), making us tea – the whole club was like a family.

“It felt as if Wolves was a club that was going places, the year before Blackburn had come in for me for £3million and we can all remember what they went on to do.

“But I thought Wolves could be the next Blackburn, at least in being able to get to the Premier League and be in the top half.

“I was in the period of my career when I really had to make the right choice, and I spoke to a lot of big clubs, but Wolves just felt like the whole package, an up and coming club which I was confident I would be able to influence positively.”

For Kelly, who had just top scored with 28 goals and been named Newcastle’s Player of the Year as the Toon stormed to the second tier title, the arrival of Peter Beardsley, with Andy Cole already in situ, meant his opportunities under Kevin Keegan were going to be limited.

“Once I knew the situation with Newcastle, it turned out to be a very quick conversation with Graham Turner, and I remember giving Bully a call on my way down,” he says.

“Everybody knows I’m an Albion fan, but I loved it at Wolves with such a brilliant dressing room, good managers in Graham Turner and Taylor, good coaching staff and such massive support home and away.”

Keen had similar thoughts about heading to Wolves, ready for a new adventure after so long at West Ham where he had come through as an apprentice, whilst Regis and Shirtliff added some more much-valued experience.

And so, to opening day, in fair Molineux, where we lay our scene.

Thomas – also adorning the programme cover – Keen and Kelly were all named in the starting line-up, and Regis came on from the substitutes bench.

“I will always remember it was a bright sunny day, and the Bristol City fans were also optimistic with a full away end, which made for a great atmosphere,” Thomas recalls.

“It just felt that day like something was ready to take off.”

And yet, for all the understandable excitement around the new faces, it was a very familiar one who kick-started Wolves’ season that sunny Molineux afternoon.

Stephen George Bull just loved it when the new season came around.  In 12 seasons, he scored 11 goals on the opening day.  It was a similar just under goal-a-game ratio if you count just the first home game of the campaign.  Anyone got a time machine?

“When it came to the first few games of the season I just couldn’t wait,” Bull explains.

“Pre-season 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!”

Pun very much intended.  He was also fulfilling a prediction made by Instone, sat in the press box with Paul Davenport, the Express & Star’s Stafford Rangers correspondent, who had accompanied him to Molineux.

“Bully always seemed to come out firing at the start of every season, so I remember telling Paul he would score inside the first 20 minutes,” Instone recalls.

It took him just 14.

Keen flicked on a Mike Stowell clearance, Bull outmuscled two defenders to get the ball under control and then despatched it line an arrow into the top corner.  Standard.

Kelly’s attempted pass to Keen for a potentially easy second was then too strong, before City equalised through Martin Scott in the second half.

Midway through the second period Mountfield headed in Birch’s cross before Mark Venus saw red, dismissed by referee David Elleray after a challenge on the halfway line.

It was Wolves’ day however, and the lively crowd were able to relax and enjoy the moment thanks to the old one-two-three – a fantastic crossfield pass from Cook, left foot cross from Keen and first time close-range finish from Bull.  As simple as it was beautifully effective.

And so, the vast majority of the 21,052 crowd exited Molineux happily. Full of hope and expectation.  It had been a memorable afternoon.

Although for Instone, not without its controversy.

“I was in the foyer at Molineux after the game, and the then physio Paul Darby, who I got on really well with, was waving the Sporting Star – or the Pink as many people called it – at me,” he remembers.

“The headline was all about Mark Venus being sent off, and Paul was suggesting that was all a bit negative given Wolves had won the game.

“It was a fair point, and I wasn’t too happy with the people back at Queen Street at the time.

“Sendings off were certainly rarer in those days than they are now, so it was a story, but it felt like they could have split the headline more between the red card and the fact that Wolves had won the game.”

It was perhaps a sign of the times as, by that season, Instone’s relationship with manager Turner – now thankfully restored – wasn’t going too well.

After several years of working together very constructively, the tension and expectation linked with the quest to reach the Premier League had taken its toll.

“There was a deterioration in our relationship and a frostiness which led to me being frozen out,” says Instone.

“But I think the money that Graham was given that season brought a pressure of its own kind – it brought opportunity but also pressure.

“For a while there had been those splits between fans – some thinking Graham needed more time given what he had achieved and others thinking it had stagnated and needed some fresh impetus.

“I was in the latter camp but that doesn’t take anything away from the fantastic job he had done over the years and he was very much liked and respected by the Hayward family and Jack Harris.”

There was certainly pressure and expectation – just as there is now – but, as O’Neil sets out this weekend on a Molineux journey which he hopes will be a long and successful one, few would have thought considering the optimism and football on show 30 years ago that the win over Bristol City would herald Turner’s final opening day at the controls.

So much of that – as the man himself reflects – was down to some key injuries which derailed many a Wolves promotion push through the 1990s.

“I could always understand that the ground redevelopment was much needed and a priority, and the message to me was to keep my powder dry, until I was given some money to spend,” Turner recalls.

“When the moment came, I thought I had spent it wisely, with Geoff, Ned Kelly, Kevin Keen, Peter Shirtliff and Cyrille.

“Things were looking good, especially on that opening day, but for anyone wanting to sabotage that team, the two players you would take out would be Bully and Geoff.

“That is exactly what happened with injury, losing Geoff at Sunderland and then Bully later on against Port Vale in the FA Cup.

“They were two really influential players, and it affected what we were trying to do.

“As one of the new signings, Geoff had been brilliant, but the lad went right through him at Sunderland and I can still remember seeing his knee opened up back on the table in the dressing room.

“He was already becoming such a key figure, and that was a massive blow.”

Wolves hadn’t been completely all-conquering after the opening day win, and the victory over Sunderland when Thomas picked up the injury after a challenge from Lee Howey, left them seventh in the table.

But the new Molineux leader had been growing in stature, and had notched four goals from midfield in his first eight appearances.

“I don’t have many regrets from football, but what happened at Wolves was one of them,” says Thomas.

“I had scored a goal that I was really proud of, celebrated with the fans, and then came something completely out of my control, with a blatant bad foul.

“I pretty much had to sit out for the next two seasons trying to get my knee right and I look back with so much regret that I couldn’t play a part in the next step for Wolves.”

And, ultimately, the same feeling applies to Turner.

Wolves enjoyed an impressive run to the FA Cup quarter finals, but a narrow defeat to Premier League Chelsea was followed barely 48 hours later by a 3-0 reverse at Portsmouth.

By this time Wolves were 13th in the table, having drawn 13 of their 33 fixtures, but it was a verbal dressing down dished out by chairman Jonathan Hayward to the players that finally convinced Turner it was time to go.

After seven-and-a-half years at the helm, and some incredible memories involved in bringing Wolves back from the brink, he tendered his resignation.

“It was my seventh season and the crowd had become restless, so it was a difficult situation,” Turner recalls.

“I’d always got on well with Jonathan and Sir Jack but there was an undercurrent creeping in and I could understand that anxiety around wanting to get to the Premier League.

“When we played Portsmouth we just never turned up, I think the lads were still down after Chelsea and everything that went with it.

“But Jonathan coming in and berating the players, when they really couldn’t have felt any worse, I just felt that was the end.

“I don’t think you can ever have a chairman or director or anyone from the outside coming in and subjecting the players to that, particularly under those circumstances.

“I asked Jonathan if I could go and see him the next day, and turned up at his flat at Molineux at 8am to say I was resigning.

“It had been four years for me having a go and trying to get over that final hurdle, but I still felt bitter and it hurt because we had injuries to those two key players.

“Having said that, I could understand it, and when I look back now, all I see is good times.

“It was a broken down stadium in the Fourth Division when I arrived, and a magnificent one in the Championship when I left, and while I wasn’t responsible for that I will always feel a sense of pride in helping the club achieve respectability again.”

And so, as so often happens, opening day optimism gradually gave way to hard-nosed realism, and that memorable August afternoon turned into a disappointing false dawn.

It would be another decade, and another four managers, until Wolves finally made it to the Promised Land, which would also prove an equally fleeting and frustrating glimpse of hope.

Still, the rest of the season is always for another day.  The first priority is a positive launchpad to the Molineux campaign, in what is a difficult opening assignment against Brighton.

For all the non-negotiables mentioned above, the weather, the colour, the atmosphere, the occasion, there is one which towers above them and therefore matters the most.

A win.   

Let the Gazball continue!