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Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Embrace Euro journeys, they don’t happen often

By Johnny Phillips | Wolves | Published:

Whatever the merits of debating Wolves’ involvement in European competition this season – and the effects on the domestic campaign – for many of the squad, playing in the Europa League will rank as one of life’s great achievements.

Wolves great Kenny Hibbitt is denied in their 1972 clash with Juventus in the Uefa Cup – Wolves took along John Charles as a guest to the tie with the Italian giants

Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio may be among those with extensive experience in European competition but, for most of the squad, participation in the tournament is ground-breaking. It was perhaps fitting, then, that last week several of the last group of players to represent the club in Europe assembled for one of their famous charity events.

The Wolves Former Players’ Association golf day has earned a reputation as a great sporting and social gathering, and this year’s version at Oxley Park was a resounding success. Steve Daley, who scored a crucial goal against Ferencvaros that helped take Wolves into the 1972 Uefa Cup final, and Steve Kindon compered the event, which raised £6,000 for local charities.

Chatting to those who competed for Wolves in Europe, it was clear just how much they treasured the experience.

“It followed on from the great team of the 1950s, Billy Wright’s team had started the European games under the floodlights,” said ‘70s hero John Richards. “Molineux had a special atmosphere of its own on midweek nights. We always did well away and we knew full well that coming back to Molineux with that atmosphere and the fans’ support we were always going to be difficult to beat. Players like Derek Dougan and Mike Bailey were about 10 years older than some of us, but when we went away together we just gelled, so it made us closer as a team.”

When Wolves reached the Uefa Cup final, the draw pitched them against some memorable opponents, including a third-round trip behind the Iron Curtain to play Carl Zeiss Jena in East Germany. “Places like Jena stick out,” Richards continued. “It was unbelievable, you couldn’t imagine what it was like in the Eastern bloc: So austere, armed police around the pitch and everything was so grey.”

“It was a bit frightening,” goalkeeper Phil Parkes added. “You always felt like someone was following you or watching you. But that was the only place we didn’t like, being in Europe was just a great experience, that’s what you played for.

“When we played Juventus [in the quarter-final] Bill McGarry, the manager, took John Charles along as our guest. He was an absolute legend there and it was unbelievable to see the respect he had from the Italians. It was a clever thing to do as they idolised him. I’ll always remember, the day before the match in Turin we trained on the pitch and we had to wait for Juventus to finish their session first.

Hibbitt was one of the greats at the Wolves Former Players’ Association golf day

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“There were about 2,000 people there watching. John Charles is walking along the touchline with Derek Dougan and they all started clapping and cheering. The Doog looked up and waved and John just said, ‘It’s me they’re waving at’.”

For local lad Geoff Palmer, qualifying for the 1980/81 Uefa Cup was up there with the highlights of his Wolves career. “The club were doing well at the time, finishing sixth in League and winning the League Cup in 1980,” he explained. “We played in Eindhoven. It was something totally different in terms of formations, players, and the surroundings, it was exceptional. One of the biggest things was that Emlyn Hughes was our captain.

“It stood out just how well respected he was when we went abroad, everyone knew who he was. He’d played for England and won in Europe with Liverpool. It was just another game for him, but to us lads who hadn’t played in Europe before he was a calming influence.

“To play alongside a guy like him was fantastic. I’ve always been a Wolves fan from five or six years of age. I was at the Torino game the other night, it brings back memories having the crowd with you like that, they were good days.”

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Parkes believes the current players, who are yet to record a league win, can cope with the extra work load.

“Times have changed, the travelling is a lot better now, and they’ve got so many physios to look after them,” he said.

“We just had one trainer. It was McGarry and his assistant Sammy Chung who took the team and then Toby Anderson was the trainer who had to look after the lot of us.”

“They’ve got to this stage a lot quicker than anyone expected, they did so well last year,” added Richards. “I expected them to do well in the Europa League preliminaries. It’s going to be tougher now in the group stages but I think they have the qualities to get past these teams.

“I’ve got a lot of pals who are supporters, and they just love it. There is a buzz and positivity in the city that wasn’t there five or 10 years ago. Even compared to the teams that got into the Premier League in the past there’s a belief in the players, the manager and the owners that is going to take us a long way.”

Palmer believes the challenges should inspire everyone.

“They’ve got an exceptional team down here now, playing some lovely football. I hear people say they don’t want the Europa League, well why not? That’s why we have got these players at this football club because they want to better themselves. It’s a fantastic experience for them.”

A win against Chelsea today would alleviate some of the concerns, but those who have lived that European dream in the past are convinced that this is a season to be embraced.

Johnny Phillips

By Johnny Phillips

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday pundit, giving his thoughts on football across the country

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