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Johnny Phillips: Ecstasy and agony... you can’t beat an away day!

“How much? £6.20?!” enquires the exasperated lad, thinking aloud, as he reads the bar prices.

Emirates Stadium in the Wolves end
Emirates Stadium in the Wolves end

Once upon a time there was a tavern. Tonight, it’s in the away end concourse at the Emirates Stadium and the drinks aren’t cheap.

Another inconvenient time and venue. Here we are on a work night, a school night, an everything except when football matches should be played night.

It’s half past seven on a Thursday – a Thursday – and, despite the hassle and cost, the visitors’ end is packed with Wolves fans. Again.

The original time for Arsenal away was an equally awkward 12.30pm during the Christmas holidays. Only once since November have the travelling Wanderers turned up for a game kicking off at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. The price of progress.

“We’re on our way, we’re on our way, to the Europe, we’re on our way.”

Concourses are becoming the modern day terraces. And this one is bouncing. Wolves fans have long enjoyed a reputation as some of English football’s great travellers in numbers. Determined to make the most of any day out. In any division. 10K2MK and all that.

The comedian Elis James tweeted last month, “I would class Wolves as one of the great limbs clubs” in response to a clip of supporters’ flailing arms and legs celebrating a Steve Bull goal at Newcastle in 1990.

That truly was the era of limbs. Crumbling terraces and a goalscoring local hero. Bully’s goals were made for it. Perhaps the benchmark for all limbs came on that glorious Sunday in the Smethwick End, 15 October, 1989.

That sort of chaotic euphoria is harder to achieve in the sanitised world of the 2021/22 Premier League but the Wolves following still manages these moments. At Villa, Manchester United and Spurs.

“He scores with his left foot, he scores with his right...”

They still sing about Bully. Nobody sings about Yogi Bear any more, though. Tonight’s hymn sheet is predominantly a reflection of this global team of exceptional talents.

“We’ve got Neves, Ruben Neves.”

Ah, yes, Neves, the embodiment of the day it all started going right. The how-have-we-ended-up-with-him?’ signing. They all want him now, and one day they’ll probably get him. Keeping such talent is still an unrealistic proposition, but Neves will always be the emblem of Wolves’ transition to the big time.

The game’s kicked off. We’ve barely settled in and then something happens down at the far end. Arsenal give it away.

Hwang Hee-Chan’s touch of precision and the net ripples. Limbs.

“De de-de-dah, de de-de-dah!”

Who’d have thought Espanyol’s PA announcer would have left such a legacy?

Arsenal are nothing. No threat, no songs, no atmosphere, no point.

Here we are in this delightfully mad season. The one which began on the back of a year of behind-closed-doors nothingness, with a couple of seemingly underwhelming summer signings given to a new head coach who’d been out of work for 12 months. We’re on our way, we’re on our way.

It’s half-time. Back on the concourse.

“He’s Korean, he’s only on-loan for the season.”

Wolves are fifth if it stays like this. Fifth! The £6.20 pints are flowing, where we used to raise a glass or two. Inject our veins with this intoxicating energy.

The second half starts but it’s all just stuck down their end now. The football doesn’t matter. It’s the score. 0-1. Just stay like that.

Everything is down their end, though. Just keep the ball. Why can’t we keep the ball? 1-1. Time for some defiance.

“And it’s Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton Wanderers!”

A point’s good, though, isn’t it? Still there, still fighting. Jonny is on.

“He drinks Estrella, he loves paella, the lad is…”

The singing suddenly stops. Here comes Rayan Ait-Nouri on a lung-busting run down the left. On and on he goes, then just teasingly rolls the ball into the path of Pedro Neto.

The game is there. How has it not gone in?

And then Arsenal score. Of course they do.

Five minutes into added time. A deflected cross which comes off the outstretched glove of the magnificent Jose Sa.

He doesn’t deserve that. Neither do the Wolves fans who, for the first time all night, are goaded by the previously silent local hoards.

This sterile bowl of corporate blandness has briefly come alive.

From fifth to seventh. The last train back to Wolverhampton leaves Euston at half-past 11.

Catch it and you’ll be back in town just after quarter past two in the morning.

For others it’s the coaches and a slow crawl up the Holloway Road – if it finally opens to match traffic – through the dark north London skies and on to the soul-destroying overnight road closures of the M1 and the M6.

And, yet, tomorrow the Wolves fans will be back down as London calls for another inconvenient instalment.

The travelling masses searching for some capital gains on a Sunday lunchtime at West Ham.

The pandemic blues have gone as once more a European dream might become a tantalising reality.

Wolves away in 2021/22.

Hassle, cost, delays, discomfort, pain, ecstasy, heartbreak.

And worth every single second.

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