Former Wolves man Neil Masters on what might have been at Molineux
Without even breaking stride, Neil Masters moved into the ball and caught it perfectly on the half volley with his left foot.
It’s little wonder he was nicknamed ‘Rhino’ in tribute to his shooting ability.
His powerful strike shot smashed against the crossbar, dislodging a flurry of snow which fell from the woodwork, before the ball pretty much bounced off Kevin Keen and into the net.
Wolves 3, Birmingham 0. Job done. And for Masters, perhaps a glimpse of the sort of bad luck and misfortune which was to afflict his time at Molineux. Even if it did end up in a goal.
“I think that’s probably what Wolves fans remember me most for,” he recalls.
“A shot which hit the crossbar and dislodged a load of snow!”
He does himself a disservice, but it could certainly have been so different.
The Neil Masters story is one of those ‘nearly men’ tales of a career which promised so much, was brimful of potential, but ultimately never managed to realise it.
And it was all through absolutely no fault of his own.
A string of ill-timed injuries, and some incorrect medical decisions in treating them, combined to derail a life in football launched with Saturday’s opponents Bournemouth from where Masters moved – with great anticipation and excitement – to Wolves.
But an abundance of regular and serious knee issues limited his impact at Molineux to just 12 appearances in four-and-a-half seasons, after which he managed to make another 11 with Gillingham before rounding off his playing career with Moss UK in Norway.
Then moving into coaching and scouting, Norway has been home for the last 22 years, including a strong motivation to help young players with the same dreams and aspirations that he had, to be better prepared to deal with the obstacles and the pitfalls.
Even thinking back to those days at Wolves can be difficult – he has never ever been back to Molineux – but now, having turned 50 last year, and over a quarter of a century since leaving, he finally feels ready.
Ready not just to return for a game at Molineux but also, in an ideal world, to embark on a new chapter in England.
“I’m not going to deny that I struggled with what happened to me,” he begins.
“Even when I think about it now, I sometimes struggle.
“From being on the edge of something special, with Wolves and being called up for the Northern Ireland squad, it all went wrong.
“I’ve found it difficult and have never been back to Wolves, it’s not so much that I think Wolves owe me something, but I owe Wolves something as well.
“The staff were great with me when I was there, I met some lovely people, and the fans were the same, apart from when we lost at home to West Brom which was understandable.
“But the support for someone like me overall with what I went through just wasn’t in place like it is now, I had no help at all."
Yet, amid the pain and the misery there were at least fleeting spells of joy which Masters was able to enjoy during his playing days.
That came particularly on the South Coast, with a first taste of senior football under top level managers in Harry Redknapp and Tony Pulis.
Born in Ballymena in Northern Ireland, Masters was spotted playing for Lisburn Youth which secured a trial with Bournemouth and then, a few months later, the offer of a scholarship.
“I looked at my Mum and Dad and it took all of two or three seconds to decide I wanted to go,” says Masters, a deep love of football and determination to become a professional immediately banishing any thoughts of potential homesickness at crossing the Irish Sea.
Bournemouth were in the third tier at the time, and Masters made his debut at 16 before going on to chalk up a half century of appearances.
“Harry Redknapp and Tony Pulis were very different personalities, but both were brilliant for me,” he recalls of the managers in charge during his spell with the Cherries.
“Harry was building a cracking team, and I remember Jamie (Redknapp) was there at the time and we’d stay out after training, pinging 20 to 30-yard passes to each other.
“Harry gave me a few harsh words when I needed them, that’s for sure, but when he said, ‘you’ve got a future son if you keep working hard’, that was good enough for me.
“With Tony it was his man management skills which stood out.
“The way he managed made you feel you could run through brick walls for him.
“And he was heavily involved in helping me deal with all the interest that came ahead of my move to Wolves.”
It was towards the end of 1991 that Masters, in a rich vein of form, was attracting plenty of attention from the higher echelons both in England and North of the Border.
So much so that, a 3-0 win against Bristol Rovers, a week before Christmas, would prove his final swansong in a Bournemouth shirt.
“I was aware that there was a fair bit of interest and that scouts were watching but I was playing so well and enjoying my football so much that all I was thinking about was the next game,” says Masters.
“On the morning of that Rovers game I remember Tony called me and told me to bring a shirt and tie for after the game, when we ended up getting on a plane and flying to Aberdeen.
“I met Willie Miller and Roy Aitken up there and they really sold the club to me, before I asked for 24 hours to think about it.
“I chatted to my parents and the people around me and I had decided to sign, until at 6 o’clock the following morning Tony called me again.
“This time he told me a Championship club was interested and, while I had been hoping for the Premier League, he said he would take me for talks.
“He wouldn’t tell me which club it was, so we drove all the way up from Bournemouth, and then I remember coming to a T-junction and seeing the stadium in the distance.
“As soon as I set eyes on Molineux, I knew I wanted to join.
“I met Graham Turner, who asked me a few questions and told me his plans, and walked out of the tunnel and onto the pitch.
“At that moment I knew I would be able to perform there, I wasn’t daunted, and when I read about the history of the club, I remember imagining just what it would be like to be a part of that history in helping take Wolves into the Premier League.”
Masters was delighted to complete the move for a sum of £300,000. At 21, he had the world at his feet, and, with thanks to those already in situe at Molineux, he settled quickly ahead of a debut away at Tranmere on the December 27th.
“I met some magnificent people in my first week, and one of the first of those was Rachael Heyhoe Flint,” he recalls.
“She was an absolute princess, she looked after me and, while I was in the hotel, was helping me look for places to live.
“Then I remember meeting the legend that is Billy Wright, then Sir Jack (Hayward), and Graham Hughes.
“Hughsie – what an absolute gentleman. When I had all my issues with injuries he was there, every single day, asking me how I was - I will never ever forget Hughsie, that’s for sure.
“On the pitch I had a few days training before my debut at Tranmere, which was another incredible experience.
“In the hotel on the night Bully (Steve Bull) asked to come and chat with the lads, senior players just as Geoff Thomas and David Kelly, helping me to settle and get to know everyone.
“Then driving in on the bus, I’d been used to crowds of maybe four to five thousand at Bournemouth, but it looked like there were over 6,000 Wolves fans alone.
“I think it was one of Tranmere’s biggest ever crowds, and walking out to warm up in front of a sea of gold in that away end just blew me away.
“I then managed to get an assist by heading the ball into Bully’s path for him to score, and when I ran after him to celebrate, I think he ended up almost pushing me into the away end!
“We couldn’t quite win the game, it finished 1-1, but I then went up to a box to do an interview with about eight or nine reporters – at Bournemouth I’d been used to only one!”
Sadly however, the injuries soon took hold.
Masters was rested from the game with Oxford the following day, but picked up an injury in training before returning to the starting line-up for derbies with Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion.
After that though he needed surgery to repair a damaged cartilage, and fears he was rushed back into training too quickly, prompting further problems and another operation.
During this time, he had been called up by Bryan Hamilton into the senior Northern Ireland squad for a fixture against Portugal, only for injury to force his withdrawal.
And, as the Wolves managers switched from Turner to Graham Taylor, and then Mark McGhee, what didn’t change was Masters’ misfortune.
After taking part in McGhee’s first training session, he felt good, only for his knee to seize up on the coach back to Molineux to the extent that he pretty much had to be carried off by John De Wolf.
More surgery followed, and his fighting instincts to carry on kicked in, but after being reunited with Pulis at Gillingham, another problem when he had to be carried off by the manager and three supporters on a makeshift stretcher, he knew the end was nigh.
“I had snapped my patella tendon, but even then the surgeon said I would be out for a long time but could still play again,” Masters explains.
“I was back on crutches, doing my own thing with the recovery, plenty of blood, sweat and tears, and managed to go and play in Norway.
“A couple more injuries followed, and by that time, when it was getting to a stage where I might end up struggling to walk, I decided that was it.
“I wanted to be able to enjoy my kids growing up and not constantly having problems.”
After hanging up his boots Masters became a coach with Rygge FK in the Norwegian Fourth Division, also then later working in player development with younger talent.
“It is good that the support is there for players now that wasn’t in my day,” he says.
“I had nothing to fall back on when I had to finish, there was no education at that time.
“It has given me the motivation to help younger players moving forward, to make sure they have that education and have the right insurance in place should the worst happen.
“It is all better now in that respect, that’s for sure.”
Masters has also been doing some scouting in Norway, both for Redknapp when was at Portsmouth, and also Bournemouth, for his good mate Steve Fletcher.
At one stage he spotted and recommended the qualities of both Martin Odegaard and a certain Erling Haaland, although perhaps both were always destined for bigger things.
“I first saw Haaland play when he was 15, and could tell straightaway that he had talent,” said Masters.
“He was such a beast, who loved scoring goals, and, even back then, you could see what he was going to go on to be.”
Via that work Masters also got to meet with legendary Cherries’ boss Eddie Howe, now doing an equally excellent job with Newcastle, remembering particularly his ‘phenomenal attention to detail’.
Another young player who will also be able to benefit from Masters’ life experience and expertise is his own son James, currently enrolled in Robbie Fowler’s Academy in Liverpool.
“He’s got a decent left foot, just like his ‘Da’,” laughs Masters, who also has another son, Kristoffer.
“James has been there for six months and is really enjoying it, hopefully he’s got a chance to become a pro.”
And Dad would love the opportunity at some stage to also return to England to take the next step on his own career, in trying to help young players.
He has thoroughly enjoyed living in Norway – “baltic in the Winter and lovely in the Summer” – but feels the time is now right.
“My kids have grown up here and I’ve had some really good coaching experience but now I’d love to try and put that to good use back in England,” he says.
“If there are any opportunities in coaching or player development, I really feel that with everything that happened to me I would have something to offer and I’d love to get involved.”
There is certainly a sense of some unfinished business for Masters, a desire to try and create some happier memories than those experienced for the large part of his career at Molineux.
Even though, when fit, and available, he was always very happy to be a part of the Wolves pack.
“I loved playing for Wolves and was very proud to play for Wolves,” he recalls.
“And having come through and played a lot of games for Bournemouth, the two coming up against each other will always be a special fixture to me.
“There are obviously mixed memories when I look back, and a mixture of frustration and disappointment with how it all turned out.
“All I ever wanted to do was just play football mate, you know?”