King John Richards recalls Wolves' golden day, 40 years on
Forty years is a long time in football. An extraordinarily long time...writes Paul Berry.
You have to be of a certain age to even remember that far back!
On this day in 1980, Atomic by ‘Blondie’ was occupying top spot in the music charts, Margaret Thatcher was serving Prime Minister, a pint of milk cost 17p and beer 35p and Kristin Shepard was plotting to take a shot at JR Ewing on Dallas.
In football, Wolves were preparing to win their last major top flight trophy.
Saturday, March 15th. The League Cup Final in front of a Wembley crowd of 96, 527. Wolves tackling the holders, and also reigning European Champions, Nottingham Forest.
When John Richards and company trudged up to the Royal Box at full time, elated but also weary after withstanding a late Forest bombardment to safely protect Andy Gray’s tap-in, it was unimaginable that it would take another four decades - at least - for Wolves to taste major success again.
And that is in no way to denigrate some superb achievements from some fantastic Wolves managers in between times who provided fans with many seasons of joyous celebration.
Graham Turner, Steve Bull and co for the Wolves revival in the late Eighties, Mick McCarthy’s young and hungry brigade in 2008/09, Kenny Jackett and another revival in 2013/14, Nuno’s majestic group in 2017/18 – there have been numerous Championship and lower league titles to savour.
Matches to cherish, players to worship, awaydays to enjoy.
But perhaps now, and only now, has returned the tantalising prospect of Wolves being right back at the top table of English football and daring to dream of once again lifting one of the biggest trophies of them all.
“We knew at the time that we were an ageing team in 1980, and that perhaps that was as good as it would get for us at that time,” Richards recalls.
“But to think it would be this long before Wolves were seriously challenging for a major trophy – I would never have thought that.
“I mean, people thought it was a long time between the FA Cup in 1960 and us first winning the League Cup in ’74!
“Wolves is a big club, a worldwide name in the Fifties, Sixties and then the Seventies when I was playing, and it feels like that is starting to pick up again now, with all the coverage.
“All I hope now is that this team, a cracking team playing beautiful football, can go on and win something.
“They can beat anyone on their day, and they deserve to win something, and I think they have a real chance over the next couple of years to do it.”
More on that later.
For now though it is back to reflecting on one of the most celebrated Wolves careers of recent times, and particularly that League Cup win of 1980.
It is the time of year for special ‘King John’ anniversaries.
Forty years on Sunday since that League Cup win, a couple of weeks ago it was 50 years since he made his Wolves bow at West Bromwich Albion, and we meet for a cuppa at Perton Park Golf Club on the 46th anniversary of the 1974 League Cup success against Manchester City.
It even feels like it should be the anniversary of the old photograph I have retrieved whilst asking for an autograph outside the Waterloo Road Stand far too long ago to remember!
Rewind then back to 1980, when Wolves finished sixth in the top division, but found themselves taking on Brian Clough’s all-conquering Forest side also enroute at the time to retaining that European Cup.
“Yes Forest had a very good team, but so did we, even though as I have said it was a bit of an ageing team,” says Richards.
“When I look back at that team, and that game, we were so difficult to beat.
“We had a cracking defence – Geoff Palmer, Emlyn Hughes, George Berry in for the injured John McAlle, Derek Parkin, and behind them, in Paul Bradshaw, one of the most under-rated keepers of his day.
“They won it for us in the last 20 minutes no doubt about that, as Forest pushed for an equaliser, but up until then we had given as good as we got.
“We were so determined that day.
“Forest had already won it twice, they were there bouncing the ball up and down, Cloughie didn’t even lead the team out, but we needed that win.
“Tactically John Barnwell and Richie Barker got it spot on, putting Peter Daniel on the right, to nullify John Robertson.
“If Robertson got past Peter, he wasn’t going to get past Geoff, and if he did get past Geoff, there was Peter again.
“We didn’t see ourselves as underdogs, we always knew we had a chance, and even though there was relief at full time after coming through the bombardment, there was plenty of excitement as well.
“We had a great team spirit at that time as well.
“We’d only have about 15 or 16 players in the first team squad – a bit like the Nuno approach now – and it kept it all compact and tight, which helped that togetherness.
“I can’t see we had many disagreements in training and if there was one, with a mistimed tackle for example, it was over in a flash.
“Andy Gray used to get wound up a bit, George Berry as well, but sometimes you did it deliberately just to wind them up!
“We had that spirit, and while I wouldn’t say we were all pals who went out and socialised together, when we were training and playing, we were very much a team.”
Back then to the final, and, even before Gray had profited from the mix-up between Peter Shilton and David Needham midway through the second half, Richards felt he had opened the scoring, after Shilton mistimed a jump for the ball which ended up crossing the line.
Million dollar question, would VAR have awarded it!
“Maybe,” Richards laughs. “But with VAR I’d probably have lost a fair few others from my career!”
He did of course have one League Cup winning goal to treasure, the drilled, low finish that secured the 2-1 victory against Manchester City in 1974, and rid Wolves of the ‘nearly men’ tag which had seen them finish as beaten UEFA Cup finalists and FA and League Cup semi-finalists over the previous two seasons.
That cup final goal – which for Richards was actually surpassed by the importance of the winner in the second leg of the semi-final against Norwich – was the culmination of several years of impressive form.
It remains unthinkable that Richards may not actually have even become a footballer in the first place, plans to enrol at Teacher Training College in Chester only curtailed when Wolves spotted him in a representative fixture for England Schools.
His first appearance in a Wolves reserve fixture against Derby drew praise from then Chairman John Ireland, and chief scout Joe Gardiner helped to push the deal through.
That Hawthorns debut followed, as did plenty of learning behind the scenes, before the 1971/72 season and the UEFA Cup run, and then the 72/73 when Richards finished as the top scorer in England in all competitions, saw him burst to the fore.
The solitary England cap secured during this time should have been added to by many more, but at least club honours followed, with the two League Cups a fitting tribute to the Molineux decade.
A fitting tribute that Richards believes the current Wolves crop more than deserve to emulate.
“As good as we were in those years in the early Seventies, we did wonder if we were actually going to win anything,” says Richards.
“That is how I feel about this Wolves team – they deserve to win something because they are that good.
“You think back to the UEFA Cup run, which was great, but we lost in the final, and then we had the two semi-finals the following year.
“You don’t want to be remembered for semi-finals or qualifying for the Champions League, you want to get that winners’ medal like we had League Cup tankards back in ’74 and ’80.
“The one they could possibly win now, is the Europa League, and when you look at the teams which are in there, there is no reason why Wolves can’t.
“If they can compete as they have done with Liverpool, who are the European Champions, and Manchester City, Manchester United, you have to feel that they have got a chance.
“What’s great now is that the success of this team is not only bringing joy to the supporters, but it is sparking comparisons between these players and our successes back in the day.
“When we were playing it was all about comparing us to the team from the Fifties – which we came nowhere near to! – but now it is about comparing the likes of Jimenez, Jota and Neves to our team and our players.
“And I think that is great, because it brings us back into focus, it almost brings us back to life.
“It also reminds us just what a privilege it was to play for Wolves and to have the successes that we did.
“At the time it happened, it is just normal, you play football, try and win, and then get about your normal life without really having the time to enjoy and savour it.
“You don’t think about creating history, or a legacy, but as you grow older, and you meet and chat to supporters, you start to realise.
“For me now, that is the challenge ahead for these Wolves lads, and their potential to enjoy success.
“They need to make their place in the history of the club, and have those same sort of memories that we had - and the supporters had - all those years ago.”
Forty years, eh? It’s probably about time.
Author and journalist Paul Berry will be writing a series of features for the Express & Star looking back at the golden memories through Wolves' history.