My grandfather passed away two and a half years ago, having supported his beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers for almost 70 years. Now, the club looks set to qualify for the Champions League and complete an incredible story, the early part of which coincided with the end of his lifelong following of the club…
He would have loved this.
Grandad was born in Crewe, about an hour and a half’s drive from Wolverhampton, in 1939. It was the start of the year in which the Second World War would break out. It was a time when, just a year before, Wolverhampton Wanderers had lost a title decider to Liverpool and talismanic captain Stan Cullis played his last game in the “old gold and black” grandad would refer to throughout my childhood. Soon, Cullis would take over as manager and lead the club through the most successful period in its 143-year history. So began an era jump-started by Cullis’s side ending the club’s 41-year wait for a major honour, beating Leicester in the FA Cup final in front of nearly 100,000 people at Wembley.
The rise of Wolves has been remarkable and struck a personal chord with me this season, heightened by Nuno Espírito Santo’s side’s near flawless return since football’s restart in the wake of pandemic-enforced suspension. In fact, the past few months have allowed me to take stock and think more about my paternal grandfather, who was as maniacal about football as is humanly possible.
Wolverhampton Wanderers is one of English football’s oldest clubs, established in 1877 and one of the founding members of the Football League a year later. The club sits joint 10th in the list of the most successful clubs in English football history, aptly alongside Nottingham Forest, who my Dad would go on to support and bask in the glory years under the legendary Brian Clough.
For the majority of the 19 years we shared, my abiding memories of grandad are of him demanding I turn the TV on for him (he never embraced ‘technology’) with sufficient time dedicated to sitting down and digesting the pre-match chat before the game — any game — started. It was a humorous irony that he always knew the time and channel for every match, but didn’t have the faintest idea of how to turn on the TV. He relied on his trusty newspaper — always The Daily Telegraph and latterly The Times, because of his obsession with Henry Winter’s writing — to scour the TV guide in advance and plan the next day’s viewing.
Football was an addiction for him. So was Wolverhampton Wanderers. His father, my great grandfather, shared my name and by all accounts instilled in him a love of Wolves from an early age. He carried this passion with him and maintained his support for more than seven decades to his passing, on Christmas Day, 2017.
One of the last times I spoke to him, he was ill in hospital and incapable of holding meaningful conversation. I jokingly mentioned how well Wolves were doing as this was the first time I’d seen him since returning from my first term at university in the U.S. ‘Number one’, he gestured, holding a single finger aloft; alluding to the fact that his team were runaway leaders of the Championship.
The day after he died, the annual family gathering on Boxing Day didn’t feel the same without his notoriously relentless thirst for two things: red wine and football. I had always been happy to oblige. For football-related context — he would have stressed the importance of including this — his beloved Wolves drew 2-2 at Millwall, a hard-earned point to keep them top of the Championship in what would ultimately be a dominant season; confirming the club’s return to the Premier League for the first time in six years. Again, he would have emphasised the significance of including such details.
There are countless other stories. Grandad had a knack for repeating the same tale as if it was being told for the first time. One detailed how he used to sneak off to meet his uncle and get the train from Crewe to Wolverhampton, so he could crowd-surf his way to the front of the Molineux terraces and watch captain Billy Wright lead the club’s charge through the 50s and 60s. Billy was his all-time favourite player, from the day he attended his first game aged 13.
Another story (my favourite) placed things into historical context and blew my mind as to how long he’d maintained a connection to football, his club, and to the town of Crewe.
It took place even before he started getting the train south to Wolverhampton in the early 50s, when he was a young boy surviving in a town which became a significant bombing target for the German Luftwaffe. As he and his siblings tried to sleep, a late-night air raid included a shell dropping on the train tracks just outside their house. A sizeable piece of German bomb shrapnel flew through the window and into the bedroom.
Other tales come to mind and, inevitably, revolve around football. Grandad used to eulogise about the fabled team of the 1950s, as well as inviting me to sort through his box of memorabilia, made up largely of relics of cup successes in the subsequent two decades. Before I spoke on behalf of his grandchildren at his funeral, one of my younger cousins, Archie, walked up to the coffin and placed a vintage, mid-20th century style leather football on its top. It was moving beyond words.
My father was born just six miles from Crewe in the nearby town of Nantwich. I am yet to visit and will now be sure to do so in future. Lockdown has brought introspection and led to me increasingly developing a soft spot for Wolves. It feels like a tribute to his love of football that his club is among the best in the country again.
I wish I’d asked him more and been able to confidently pinpoint his most cherished moment as a Wolves fan. It would almost certainly have come a long time before I was born in 1998, around the middle of the Hayward years (lifelong Wolves fan Jack Hayward purchased the club in 1990) as Wolves drifted through a spell of relative mediocrity and a couple of play-off near-misses.
Undoubtedly, he would have revelled in watching the current team. He loved cultured, technical players, and so would have gushed about the passing range and long-range shooting prowess of Ruben Neves. He’d have had a soft spot for the leadership qualities and general likeability of Conor Coady. I can imagine him singing the praises of the much-lauded Raúl Jiménez, the man leading the line both in goalscoring terms and his tenacious, throwback style which incorporates a healthy dose of Mexican spice. This is, after all, a team that has done the double over back-to-back champions Manchester City and Pep Guardiola this season — someone who grandad always talked about glowingly as one of the greatest coaches of his, and perhaps any, lifetime.
When he passed away in hospital, Wolves were just seven months into the Nuno reign. Year on year, there has been a progression in achievement.
Having ended his debut season in England as champions, Nuno’s side ended their first back in the Premier League in 2018-19 with a seventh-place finish, securing their highest top-flight placing since 1979-80. It also qualified the club for the Europa League and its first European campaign since 1980-81.
This time around, with the season entering its belated closing stages, there are two main storylines yet to play out and to keep interest bubbling for the neutral. One of those is the relegation scrap; the other is the race for European qualification. Nuno’s team look refreshed and ready to take the next jump up once more, either via their league position or by winning the Europa League once it resumes in its new-look format in August.
However, such is Wolves’ rise under their charismatic manager — born on the African island of Sao Tomé, roughly the same size as Anglesey — players, staff and supporters alike will be looking up rather than down. With the verdict of Manchester City’s appeal of a two-year Champions League ban pending, the West Midlands club could feasibly qualify for European football’s premier competition for the first time since 1959-60, and the first time in its modern guise. Grandad would be beside himself.
The establishment of Wolves as a genuine contender for European qualification and potential to compete with the big hitters in the domestic game once more has been special. I wish he could have seen the fairytale ending.