Wolves in sheep’s clothing

Jack Hayward spent lots of money preparing Wolves for the Premier League, but as Charles Ross discovers, you need more then just a fancy stadium to get there

If it was a difficult start to this season for Wolves, it was worse for Sir Jack Hayward. After selling Robbie Keane, we exited the Worthington Cup at the hands of the other Wanderers (Wycombe), and lost the second home league game to Walsall. Cue sporadic chants of “sack the board” and “where’s the money gone?” After a decade of Hayward’s involvement, the answer seems to be that the money – around £46 million of it – has gone on a fabulous new Molineux and on players not fit to grace it.

Hayward bought the club for £2.1 million in the summer of 1990. Wolves had just finished tenth in their first season back in what is now the First Division and Steve Bull had played for England in the World Cup. Hayward promised to “throw millions at it until the men in white coats come to take me away”. A capacity crowd came along for Molineux’s official reopening in December 1993 for a friendly against Honved, the team Wolves had so famously beaten in the Fifties. For all that Ferenc Puskas and Billy Wright were pre­sent, Hayward was the star. He did a tour of the ground to rapturous and des­erved acclaim.

If money had hith­erto been the solution, it now became the problem. Sir Jack appointed his son Jonathan to the board in 1990 and made him chairman in 1992, effectively to run the show while he was resident in the Bahamas. The Hay­wards gave their managers money all right – we were regularly making annual losses of £5-£7 million, all underwritten by Sir Jack – but while our in­come fell behind Premiership lev­­els with each year of Sky money, there were few signs that Hayward’s investment was hav­ing the desired ef­fect on the pitch.

Eventually it all got too much and, after the play-off semi-final def­eat by Palace in 1997, the old boy snapped. “There’s been too much sloppiness and too much disregard for money,” he railed. “They’ve thought that the Golden Tit – me – would go on forever.” Jonathan was soon demoted to deputy chairman and dad took his seat. Former Wolves great John Richards was later promoted to managing director, and it became clear that the club was expected to become self-financing. Jonathan was removed by his father in the summer of 1998.

With the club now being run on a different basis, the mood has altered to a mixture of hostility, apathy and resignation from fans grown used to big name signings. I would argue that Sir Jack is now exercising a necessary, if unpopular, duty of care to ensure that Wolves are fit enough to survive his passing (he is 76 and has a history of serious heart problems – not surprising, really). Also on the board now is Derek Harrington, a business associate, who is in effect there to ensure that Sir Jack’s biggest mistake – letting his dicky, old gold heart rule his business head – is not repeated.

Hayward himself has said that all he ever wanted from Wolves was an emotional return. He’s had that all right, but hardly of the right sort since that night against Honved. One reason for that is simply the quality of the managers he has appointed. Graham Taylor was the right man, but at the wrong time (too soon after his England trauma), while Mark McGhee was the wrong man, full stop. Another is that, like Blackburn, the obvious wealth of Wolves’ owner has proved a double-edged sword for those put in charge of the team. After his departure, Taylor admitted: “I could never get the right team ethos at Wolverhampton – all they could talk about in the dressing room was how much money they were on.”

Too true. Crucially, too many signings were players who were on the way down, for whom a contract at Wolves would see them earning in three or four years what the average person makes in a lifetime. They didn’t even have to be regulars in the first team to stash their cash away. When they failed, they would com­plain about the “weight of expectancy” being all too much.

Given that Wolves haven’t played in the top flight since 1983-84 and that the last time we won the league or FA Cup was in 1960, I don’t think the fans can be accused of impatience. To go for more than 100 con­secutive First Division games with gates in excess of 20,000 suggests that Wolves fans are not, at the very least, fickle. And if an employee of any organisation is paid so handsomely, it’s usually on the basis that they will deliver results. I’ve no sympathy for the poor loves.

What we have undoubtedly suffered from is a culture of complacency (among players and fans alike in some cases). Allied to the club’s proud heritage, all Sir Jack’s millions have led to the assumption that a return to our “rightful place” is inevitable. There is, of course, no such thing. Wimbledon have got where they are and stayed there on merit. The same, sadly, goes for Wolves. We re­main fixated by local der­bies against West Brom, when what we should have in our sights are Manchester United, Sky and all the Prem­ier­­ship stands for. We need to be playing Aston Villa.

The medicine called reality now being forced down our throats is causing a few to choke, but it is necessary when you are treating cause rather than effect. This time, it seems it is being done bottom-up rather than top-down, with the long-term health of the club rather than a quick fix in mind.

Returning this particular patient to sustainable, Premiership health will certainly take time, which is one commodity Sir Jack Hayward cannot buy for himself. For all his 306 goals, it ran out on Steve Bull before he could score just once in the Premiership. If Sir Jack fails to see us play there, I for one will mourn that too. And fear for the future.

From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month