A losing habit: Remembering Wolves’ three successive relegations in the 1980s
It's said that to do something once is a mistake, to do it twice is a pattern and to do it three times is a habit. So, it's fair to say that, by 1986, Wolverhampton Wanderers were on their way to a full-blown obsession. And like many addictions, it was leading them on a downward spiral.
After three successive relegations, things weren't looking so bright for the boys in gold on the eve of the 1986-87 season. And it wasn't just the prospect of away trips to the likes of Halifax and Aldershot just three years after taking their place in the top flight that was turning fans' stomachs.
At one stage that summer, it looked as though Wolves would be lucky to even take their place in the Fourth Division when they entered receivership with only weeks to go before the big kick off. Their fall from grace had been as incredible as it was abrupt.
As the 1980s began, Wolves were riding the crest of a wave.
They were dancing on the steps of Wembley in March, when an Andy Gray goal proved enough to defeat Brian Clough’s all-conquering Nottingham Forest 1-0 to lift the League Cup. The victory was doubly significant because ¬the Reds were aiming to win the competition for a third consecutive year and showed their penchant for keeping an iron-clad grip on their trophies by retaining the European Cup a couple of months later.
For Wolves, the victory – paired with a sixth-place league finish and European qualification – seemed to suggest good times were on the horizon at Molineux. Instead, it was simply a white elephant.
Despite success on the pitch, the club’s finances were growing increasingly precarious off it. Instead of indicating Wolves’ growth in stature, the new Molineux Street Stand which had been rebuilt in 1979 left the club haemorrhaging money. Unable to keep up with loan repayments for the development, Wolves were relegated in 1982 and faced liquidation.
Things were looking bleak until an eleventh-hour bid from a consortium fronted by club legend Derek Dougan, and funded by Saudi businessmen Mahmud and Mohammed Bhatti, saved the club. It felt like a lucky escape with immediate promotion back to the First Division confirming that things were back on track.
Only, they weren’t. Talisman Gray was sold to Everton, while cracks began to appear in the new owners’ business model, as Wolves accrued only 29 points from 42 matches to tumble back down to the second tier. While the club weren’t in the imminent danger that relegation threatened two seasons earlier, reports of a lack of investment rumbled on.
With former Scotland and Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty taking charge during the close season, Wolves hoped that having a wily operator in charge would be enough to keep them afloat in Division Two. However, even Docherty couldn’t stop the rot and a run of 21 matches without a win consigned the club to another bottom-placed finish.
By today’s standards, Docherty showed incredible staying power to see out the entirety of Wolves’ second successive relegation, but he departed in the summer to be replaced by former Molineux favourite Bill McGarry. If Docherty had the CV, McGarry paired vast experience with the adoration of Wolves’ fans, having led them to the UEFA Cup final and winning the League Cup during a successful eight-year stint at the helm in the 1960s and 1970s.
This time, McGarry’s tenure was decidedly shorter: only 61 days. His replacement, chief scout Sammy Chapman, was the next to take the hot seat, but he didn’t have what was required to stop the club’s slide to relegation number three. Their latest demise meant Wolves became only the second club in Football League history – after Bristol City two years earlier – to suffer the drop in three successive seasons.
Crowds dropped to as low as 4,000 as Wolves succumbed to yet another miserable fate, making the investment in the stand that triggered the troubles look even more foolish. Another winding-up order was issued in the summer of 1986 and an advert appeared in the Express & Star newspaper that declared ‘Club For Sale’, with the training ground, players and facilities at Molineux all on offer.
Luckily, buyers came forward. Wolverhampton City Council stepped in to buy the stadium and a local developer cleared the debts as part of a deal to build on the land opposite the ground. The unorthodox agreement saved the club and halted its fall towards non-league.
A poor start had fans worrying again, but the appointment of manager Graham Turner soon stemmed the tide, despite a humiliating FA Cup defeat to non-league Chorley in the tie’s third replay. But when Turner signed little-known striker Steve Bull from neighbours West Brom, Wolves started to move in the other direction – going on to chalk up almost as many victories as they had in the previous campaigns to finish just one point behind the automatic promotion places in fourth.
A play-off final against Aldershot was meant to be the reward for long-suffering Wolves supporters after the previous three seasons, but it wasn’t to be as the Shots ran out 3-0 aggregate winners. The fairytale recovery would have to wait.
That would come during the next two seasons, as Bull plundered 52 goals to lead Wolves to the Division Four title. He then repeated the trick the year after to net another half century on the way to another promotion back to the second division.
While a hat-trick of back-to-back promotions eluded them the following season – Bull only scoring a comparatively measly 27 goals – there were few groans from the home faithful. After all, when you’ve lived through a losing habit as damaging as Wolves had, just surviving is reason enough to celebrate.
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