Wolves nostalgia: The South Bank’s last stand
For some, maybe it was just a terrace. Somewhere to stand and watch a game of football.
For others, it was a bit more special. A place where they saw Wolves for the very first time. Where they shared precious memories with family and friends. And painful ones too. Memories which have lasted for a lifetime.
For Shaun Bradbury, its final day provided a career highlight which others could not even begin to dream of.
May 1st will mark the 30th anniversary of the final day of the South Bank as a standing terrace.
Wolves, 12th in the table, welcomed Millwall, seventh and still in with a chance of reaching the play-offs, to Molineux.
The Millwall boss? A certain Mick McCarthy, in his first full season in management. Who had Alex Rae in the centre of his midfield.
However, it was Graham Turner’s Wolves who rounded off their home programme on a high with a convincing 3-1 win.
Bradbury, not long turned 19, was making his league debut up front, almost 18 months after his previous start and full debut in a League Cup tie away at Shrewsbury.
He was deputising for an injured striker by the name of Steve Bull, and, within the first half an hour, produced a passable imitation of the great man with two superb and powerful right-foot finishes.
Mark Burke added a third before Malcolm Allen’s second half consolation but overall, the day belonged to a young blonde-haired striker who lit up Molineux.
“I had been with the first team squad for a few days so I knew I would be involved, but I presumed off the bench,” Bradbury, now 49, recalls.
“But Graham called me into his office an hour before the game to tell me I was starting.
“I wasn’t nervous at all, I was buzzing, I felt confident and just remember thinking I would get chances.
“With the first real touches I had, I turned with the ball and hit the first from about 20 yards past Kasey Keller.
“And for the second one, Mutchy (Andy Mutch) played me through, and I just smashed it in again.”
Simple but also skilful. What an impact.
And yet, aside from Bradbury’s heroics, it was perhaps a poignant day as the vast expanse of terrace – once with the ability to hold just over 30,000 fans which is a similar figure to Molineux’s entire current capacity – was occupied in its previous guise for one final time.
It was of course the North Bank at the opposite end of the ground, which had been regarded as the main ‘home end’, at least up until that terrace and the Waterloo Road Stand were closed in 1985 for safety reasons following the tragic fire at Bradford’s Valley Parade.
The South Bank had played host to both home and away fans up until that point, long before the days of segregation, and after the closure of those other two stands, would perhaps become synonymous with Wolves’ late Eighties revival as the stadium was otherwise crumbling at the seams.
With the newly constructed John Ireland Stand situated so far away from the pitch, the South Bank increased in popularity and became the ‘home’ for the Turner years and the impressive exploits of Bull, Mutch and company.
There was a ‘no man’s land’ in the middle, allowing for home fans to occupy the ‘left side’, nearest Waterloo Road, and the visiting contingent the ‘right side’, next to the subway.
Apart from the odd occasion when home fans filled the entirety of the terrace, with tuneful ‘left side’ and ‘right side’ banter never too far away.
Lifelong Wolves fan Jon Healey had been a ball boy for several years but then, once deemed too ageing for that particular pastime, was deployed in that no-man’s land to retrieve the ball from any wayward shots or clearances.
It made for a unique viewing experience, not to mention having to dodge the odd 50p coin being launched between rival fans.
“It was a privilege to have what was probably the best seat (or in reality, barrier) in the house, as Bully, Mutch and (Robbie) Dennison were rattling the goals in and dragging Wolves back to respectability,” Healey recalls.
“I understand that the South Bank was one of the biggest terraces in the country, and a serious energy would be created, especially when the away team brought a good following.
“Bully liked nothing better than beating the centre back, slotting it home and wheeling away to the Wolves end, and, for me to witness so many strikes up close, is something I’ll never forget.
“There would be the odd game when the ball never actually made it into no man’s land, so there wasn’t really any work for me to do. I couldn’t really complain, with free entry to the match!
“It would be great to see the capacity of the South Bank increased in future years, so that even more Wolves fans can have a similar vantage point to that which I enjoyed for a few seasons around 30 years ago.”
Healey also has memories of less notable moments.
Molineux fell so silent when Paul Stancliffe scored an own goal in the chaotic 5-0 defeat to Barnsley in 1991 that he heard the big defender mutter an expletive before turning to walk back to take his position at the restart.
The South Bank, however, has witnessed far more illustrious events than that, not to mention some high-profile visitors.
Wolves owner Sir Jack Hayward not only stood on the terrace for its last dance in that Millwall game, but also surprised fans on an earlier occasion, paying his way on to the South Bank – through the Senior Citizens turnstile - to gauge fan feedback in a game against Grimsby during a turbulent time for Turner and the team.
Any hopes of keeping a low profile were dashed, when long-serving Express & Star photographer Dave Bagnall, who has captured games at Molineux for over four decades, snapped the picture.
“A steward tipped me off that Sir Jack was on the South Bank,” Bagnall recalls.
“I managed to get the picture that nobody else got, and I think it would have been front page the next day.
“It wasn’t a posed pic, it was just a natural one of Sir Jack, and somebody told me later on that he quite liked it!”
Bagnall always enjoyed photographing the South Bank, and, even as a boyhood Tottenham fan thanks largely to their 1960/61 league and cup double, the terrace has a special place etched into his own footballing memoirs.
“I had an attachment to the South Bank as a kid, because I stood in there for the first two games of football I ever went to, the first one being against Everton,” he continues.
“It was an amazing experience, with all the chants in there, everyone wearing flat caps.
“When it went dark, all you could see were people lighting cigarettes in the stands, every few seconds.
“I always used to love photographing the South Bank, it was actually quite easy as because the pitch is relatively high, you actually looked down on the first row of people.
“The faces are closer together on a terrace than they are in a stand where people are seated, and it gives you a better picture with all the different expressions.
“The South Bank was always so good to get that crowd reaction, and if something major happened on the pitch, I always tried to focus on them to get that instant response.”
But what of those fans who occupied that terrace, week-in, week-out? Those who could potentially have found themselves as the focus of the roaming Bagnall lens? There are so many stories, so many supporters for whom the South Bank became something of a ritual, a rite of passage.
Jolyon Birkett, now in his early fifties, first stood on the South Bank as a youngster when Geoff Palmer’s penalty helped secure a draw against European champions Liverpool on the opening day of the 1981/82 season.
“My first impressions, which never changed, were the way the roof amplified the singing and noise, making 300 sound like 3,000, the smell of beer on people’s
breath and the urine trough like the Grand Union Canal,” Birkett, in some detail, recollects.
“Packed home ends, packed away ends, and atmospheres to die for, especially for a boggle-eyed ten-year old.
“With the away fans close enough to see the whites of their eyes, and a sound that would leave my eyes still ringing in school on Monday, I was hooked.
“As a kid, you experienced so many wondrous and unimaginable things on the South Bank that you’d never seen before.
“The South Bank was a lawless haven where you could let rip for the first time and go home with eyes like saucers for the things you had seen, where fun had no boundaries.
“Outrageous and booze-fuelled behaviour by grown adults, getting pushed onto barriers with crowd surges and loving it, catching glimpses of older kids from school and getting a wink off them which made you feel ace – feeling part of something massive for the first time, and a sense of belonging that you would never lose.
“Wolves were in such a bad place for a time, I remember a League Cup game against Plymouth when there were less than 3,000 there and they had brought 400.
“We sat on the floor at the back of the South Bank to watch the match and there wasn’t a single person in our way.
“But then, Turner, Hayward, Bull and Mutch arrived and the South Bank got jumping again.
“Fifty goals in consecutive seasons for Stephen George Bull still amazes me, and the tide had turned for the club, the ground, and the whole town.”
It certainly had, and by the time the South Bank as a terrace came to an end, Wolves were a very different proposition.
Back in the equivalent of the Championship, and back knocking on the door of the Premier League, even though it would take plenty more pain and another decade to bang it down, and all this in a plush new gold and black Molineux, the house that Sir Jack built.
The previously unused stands had already been replaced, the North Bank by the Stan Cullis Stand which opened for the 1992/93 season, and the Waterloo Road by the Billy Wright, which opened for business in August 1993.
And the South Bank, six months after its final day, would re-open in December as the entirety of the new Molineux was officially launched via a friendly against Honved, bringing back memories of the famous floodlit fixtures of the 1950s.
But of course, every last chapter needs a decent storyline. A fitting finale. And that takes us neatly back to Bradbury.
Born in Birmingham but then living in Telford from an early age, Bradbury was scouted and taken on as an apprentice by Wolves in the late 1980s.
He gives great credit to Turner for helping him progress through the ranks to then handing him the chance to enjoy such a memorable afternoon.
It was obviously a very different era back then. The lack of mobile phones meant Bradbury couldn’t even tell his parents he was starting.
But there was enough time, long before the arrival of stricter betting regulations, for a few of the younger players in the squad to have a flutter on him popping up with the first goal. Kerching!
It was a goal, indeed goals, that were relished on the terraces not just by those young pundits but also none other than Sir Jack himself, who liked nothing more than seeing one of the club’s young players grasping their opportunity.
“I remember Sir Jack was celebrating the goals, and it was such a big day for me personally,” says Bradbury.
“I hadn’t played too much leading up to the game, and was cramping up, so I came off after an hour or so.
“Graham told me to go and get a shower but I’m pretty sure he brought me off because he wanted me to enjoy the applause from the fans.
“He was a class act, and it didn’t really help me when he left the club.
“I wish I had played a lot more after that start, but it never happened, and while I enjoyed some great times at non-league level, it would have been great to have played more for Wolves.”
Bradbury did make one more appearance, defeat at Derby in the following game on the final day of the season, and while he would never again hit the heights as on that May afternoon at Molineux, a prolific career in non-league included a particularly successful six years with Chasetown.
Thoughts of that Wolves brace however, are never too far away, even Across The Pond, where Bradbury now resides with wife Julie and nine-year-old daughter Brooke.
Having previously worked as a carpenter, including at Jaguar’s engine plant on the M54, years of holidaying in Florida prompted the family to take the plunge and head for the Sunshine State permanently back in 2016.
“We just fancied a change so decided to move and start a business, a jewellery and clothing store,” Bradbury explains.
“I enjoy the lifestyle out here, and obviously the weather and the beaches, but I still follow Wolves' results.
“I have a lot of mates from Telford who go home and away and still keep in touch with a few of the younger pros from my time with messages now and again.
“And that game against Millwall will always be such a big day for me personally – it was special to play in the last home game in front of the South Bank.”
There is also another very poignant memory of that day, almost three decades ago.
Among Bagnall’s pictures as he documented the end of a Molineux era, is one which has former Wolves press officer and club historian John ‘Fozzie’ Hendley, front and centre.
Fozzie himself occupied a no man’s land when standing in the disused North Bank to return the ball when needed but, no surprise given his role as a Wolves history connoisseur, wanted to spend the South Bank’s final day right there, in amongst it on the terrace. Over five years on from Fozzie's passing, Bagnall's snapshot remains a lingering legacy of his adulation of Wolves.
And that is what it's all about. What it has always been about. As so often at football clubs, it’s about more than just results. It’s about those experiences with friends and family, meeting new people, celebrating with strangers, or howling at the moon. A way of life, sharing the ups and the downs that football continually and inevitably delivers.
At a risk of causing controversy, the South Bank is now considered very much the home end, to which managers and players tend to gravitate after big wins, where crowd banners and flag campaigns are so often concentrated.
But to an extent, it will never be quite the same.
Time moves on, football progresses, improvements become necessary, and atmospheres change.
The memories though, will always remain. And the fans, will never forget.
“When the South Bank went, for me it never felt as good again,” Birkett concludes.
“On that huge, ramshackle expanse, you had control over your Saturday 3 o’clock experience and no one could, or wanted, to stop you.
“Happy days and great memories of when we were kings – long live the South Bank!”