One of the biggest drawbacks to having a charmed childhood is the lurking suspicion that, sooner or later, things are going to go wrong. As a baby-boomer in the UK, I benefited from the post-war sense of social cohesion, abetted by the introduction of the National Health Service and the Education Act. Not that I took much advantage of the latter, being more interested in the emergence of Rock ‘n’ Roll and the considerable fortunes of the then best club football team in the world – Wolverhampton Wanderers.
For those doubters, or those with little sense of history, I would merely point out that during the 1950s, Wolves won the First Division title three times and finished second twice, and lifted the FA Cup in 1960, missing out on that then elusive League/Cup ‘double’ by one point. During the same decade, Wolves also introduced floodlit football to England, with scintillating televised victories at Molineux against the Moscow giants, Dynamo and Spartak, the Hungarian maestros Honved, and even better, prevailed in a home and away tie against the dominant team in the European Cup, Real Madrid (the ever conservative Football League authorities chose not to enter a English team for the first few years).
Since this is principally an athletics blog, I would equate my opening caveat to those supremely talented youngsters who win the National Youths Cross Country, and are subsequently never heard of again. Because yes, friends, it all fell apart at the end of the decade. Buddy Holly died in February 1959, and after that Cup victory in May 1960, Wolves also crashed to earth and never won anything remotely serious again (I don’t count two League Cup victories, welcome though they were, against recent European champions Nottingham Forest, and the little outfit currently flying high in the Premiership, Manchester City).
However, those of you with a passing interest in football, or even a wanton desire to dress up in old gold and black (‘who’s the team with best attack?’) may have noticed that the Wolves team is currently some 12 points ahead in the EFL/Championship, a hitherto unprecedented lead with the season barely half completed. In short, it would take a catastrophe of Trumpian proportions for the lads not to graduate to the top tier come May.
Since I still have family in the West Midlands, not least my 99 year old ma, I get back as frequently as I can, occasionally coinciding with a home game. Or as mother so graciously puts it, ‘You’ve only come to watch the bloody Wolves’. Only kidding, ma! But what a joy it has been (after almost 60 years); because they are not simply winning, and winning and winning, they are doing it with tremendous style, a product entirely down to the employment of philosopher/king Nuňo Espiritu Santo, a previously little known Portuguese coach. He has introduced to the team a coterie of young compatriots, who don’t even need to wear gold to demonstrate the dynamic quality of their play.
Since I was travelling in the early part of this season, and long used to false dawns, the initial victories had only made me suspicious. So it was with some intrigue that I settled into an armchair in my local pub, in British West Hampstead three months ago to watch, with mounting astonishment, what turned into an elegant dissection of Fulham, a decent team, by two goals to nil. It could easily have been four.
I should mention here that there was a hint of the disaster to come back in 1959 when Wolves did finally represent England in the European Cup. They lost 9-2 on aggregate to a Barcelona team playing football, the like of which was unknown in England (except when Hungary won 6-3 at Wembley in 1953).
I have written about Barça elsewhere* but their display at Molineux six decades ago made them firm favourites with me; and even more so, in the wake of the Johan Cruyff era, when Barça and subsequently the Spanish national team quite simply reinvented football. So, I am proud to say that the Wolves’ victory against Fulham was like watching the chicos from Camp Nou in action.
And thus it has been in every other game I’ve watched, either at Molineux or on TV. And such is the calm, sedate presence and measured opinions delivered by Nuňo that a hack for the local paper, the Express & Star even described the manager’s press conference’ utterances as like a koan, which is a Zen statement. Which makes it all the more incomprehensible that Nuňo has been sent to the stands twice in recent games…. by the same referee. Maybe he just doesn’t like Portuguese? But we do; because the style of football is light years away from the long-ball game which characterised the fifties’ team.
There is not much connected with Wolverhampton that has ever been described as beautiful. But the way this Wolves team plays is a golden exception. Long may it last.