Bodyguard star Ayden Callaghan on his love for Wolves
When Wolves head out for their penultimate away game of the season at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon, one of their fans will be taking to a different kind of stage, just down the road from Molineux.
And while Ayden Callaghan’s focus will most definitely be very much on his acting role at the Grand Theatre, in the matinee which is also the penultimate Wolverhampton show of The Bodyguard musical, don’t rule out a sneaky look at his phone to see how Julen Lopetegui’s boys are getting on.
In much the same way as he used to check teletext in his early days of supporting Wolves in a non-league clubhouse after watching his Dad, or subscribed to the text update service back in the Noughties.
“I first signed up to that when Dean Sturridge first arrived,” recalls Callaghan of a time when he was at drama school and working at a cinema.
“He was scoring for fun and it felt like my phone was going off all the time!”
Fast forward to today, and, while the technology has changed, the desire and strong Wolves affiliation certainly hasn’t.
At the weekend, Callaghan was with the cast performing in Aberdeen, when news of what proved to be a survival-clinching victory against Aston Villa at Molineux came through.
“I had a couple of Villa fans next to me at the time, so it was even better to get that win,” Callaghan admits.
“I have to say I wasn’t feeling confident after the 6-0 defeat at Brighton.
“I feared it was going to be a bit miserable but the team did really well and it was a great result.”
By his own admission, Callaghan is not a dyed-in-the-wool Wolves fan who attends every game and, geographically, he has never lived in the area having been brought up in Buckinghamshire and now living in Lincoln.
But he attends games when he can and certainly lives and breathes all things Molineux, even when from a distance.
It has developed into a deep-rooted passion for Wolves that has remained undimmed for three-and-a-half decades from the day, as an eight-year-old, Callaghan was taken to his first ever match.
That match? The Sherpa Van Trophy final at Wembley between Wolves and Burnley. So not a bad place to start.
Callaghan’s father Patrick had played football at semi-professional level, including at Oxford City whose club secretary at the time was a Wolves fan.
One of Patrick’s brothers was a Burnley fan, so a trip to the Twin Towers to see the two lock horns was very much the order of the day.
“Dad thought I was old enough to go to my first game, and I can always remember walking down Wembley Way around lunchtime,” Callaghan explains.
“We must have arrived at the same time as the Wolves fans, because all I could see was this sea of gold.
“I remember asking my Dad what this was? ‘Wolverhampton Wanderers’, he replied. And I said I was going to support them that day.
“I remember it being very sunny, extraordinarily loud, the pitch being lush and having to stand on my seat to be able to see properly.
“It all stuck from there, and I didn’t understand at the time that Wolves were in the Fourth Division just going into the Third.
“My friends at school were supporting clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs.
“When I turned up wearing a Wolves shirt their reaction was like, ‘who’s that’?
“But I loved it, and all from that first game at Wembley.
“I’ve still got the programme - which I cherish - in one of my keepsake boxes and my Dad bought me the VHS of the game which I actually watched again a few years ago.
“I remember being struck by how physical the game was, and direct, and how it looked slower than today, as well as still being disappointed that Bully didn’t notch!”
There was a story behind that first ever Wolves shirt, which Callaghan’s father had to go to great lengths to acquire.
Because of course, back in the days before the internet, with Wolves occupying the lower reaches of the Football League, the only place to purchase replica kit, was from the club itself.
“Dad tells me this story of how he had to travel up one Christmas to the Wolves shop,” Callaghan explains.
“It’s normally a trip which would take an hour and 45, but because of some bad snow the roads were horrendous and it eventually turned into an eight or nine hour round trip.
“As a result, though, I ended up with a Wolves football, a kit, a boot bag and some form of jacket or training top, so it was worth it in the end!”
Since that day, and as Callaghan then moved into adulthood, he has become well versed in what the life of a Wolves fan entertains.
Namely being required to enjoy and endure such contrasting emotions, to meet Kipling’s imposters of triumph and disaster, and treat them both just the same.
Because of course, life at Molineux is never quite as smooth and serene as the sweetness and light of that day out at Wembley 35 years ago.
Callaghan particularly recalls fixtures against Port Vale and Stoke – when Neville Southall was in goal – not to mention, due to having family members supporting West Ham, sitting with some gleeful Hammers when Liam Brady found the net in the final game of his career, a 4-0 win against Wolves at Upton Park.
“It always felt like I saw the really tense and scrappy games, like we’d only score if the keeper smashed a clearance that rebounded back into the net off Michael Branch,” he laughs.
“I never seemed to go to the good ones.
“But when you love and support a football club that has more downs than ups, in a strange way I think it helps you form a stronger bond.
“I sometimes call myself a ‘foul weather fan’, because I don’t think I enjoy it as much when things are going really well as when we are having a real fight and battle to get through!
“When things are going well, I’m sometimes a little bit nervous about what is coming next!”
If ever there were two Wolves-related experiences to perfectly illustrate that gamut of emotions of following a football club, then how about the play-off final win against Sheffield United 20 years ago this month, and the FA Cup semi-final defeat against Watford in 2019.
As with all who need to possess a steely gold and black persuasion, Callaghan remembers both. Vividly.
“Watching Wolves is usually a nervy affair and a stressful experience,” he begins.
“It’s very rarely pleasant, enjoyable and relaxed.
“I couldn’t get to the play-off final, but wanted to be able to concentrate and watch it on my own so took myself off to a pub in Guildford with a big screen.
“It is one of the few times in my life as a Wolves fan that we had the game won by half time and it became a relaxing, and almost pleasantly boring, experience.
“I remember sitting in the pub watching and wondering if I would enjoy a feeling like that watching Wolves again!”
Probably not. And sadly, not in that semi-final, with Wolves squandering a 2-0 lead late on before being painfully stung by the Hornets during extra time. No wonder Callaghan has a natural caution.
“We were so in control and so on top in that game, we could have been out of sight,” he insists.
“But all of a sudden, we seemed to stop doing all the things we had been doing so well in the game.
“It felt like we started to defend our 18-yard box, inviting Watford forward to pump balls into the area and it gave them the initiative.
“Troy Deeney became a nightmare and (Gerard) Deulofeu came on and started getting on the ball and causing trouble.
“It very quickly moved from that feeling of thinking we were going to see Wolves in an FA Cup Final to ‘here we go again’, and that we were only going to beat ourselves as the game went away from us.
“When we left Wembley that day, I turned to the friend I was with and said it summed up my lifetime of supporting Wolves, in just one game, with all the different emotions.
“After we had been doing so well for the few years before, it almost became too good to be true, and we ended up with a glorious failure that we brought on ourselves.”
Amid all those incredibly mixed fortunes, however, there has been one more calm and composed presence connected to Callaghan’s support of all things Wolves. The friendship forged over the last decade with former defender and club captain, Jody Craddock.
Having first met at a charity event, the two became good friends which has extended to their families, and Callaghan is spending some of his time in Wolverhampton this week at home with the Craddock’s. And the tables will be turned with the former player watching Callaghan in action at the Grand, rather than the other way around!
“Jody is just one of life’s really good guys, isn’t he?” says Callaghan, who describes playing at Molineux in his testimonial match in 2014 as ‘one of the greatest experiences of my life’.
“We first met probably a year before his testimonial, got on really well and have stayed in touch ever since.
“He is such a great down to earth family man who was a great professional and a brilliant player and servant for Wolves.
“He and (wife) Shelley came to my wedding and I got to play in his testimonial which was such a fantastic day.
“It will be great to catch up, and to see his lads again, who were tiny when I first met them but are massive now!”
Talking of family, that is just as important to Callaghan.
He is married to the very successful presenter and actress Sarah Jane Honeywell, whose extensive CV includes appearing on the hugely successful CBeebies television station, several different roles in theatre, and currently fronting a show on BBC Radio Lincolnshire as well as running the ‘Curious Theatre School’, aiming to open up the world of creative arts to more young people.
The couple, who have two children, are clearly running a very creative house, and that now brings Callaghan to Wolverhampton.
Now 41, he has previously starred in soaps Emmerdale, as Miles de Souza, and Hollyoaks, as Joe Roscoe, as well as other TV appearances.
He also carries a strong love of the stage as well as screen, and, 12 years after appearing in Bedroom Farce directed by founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company Sir Peter Hall, he is now back treading the boards as ‘Frank Farmer’, the bodyguard played by Kevin Costner in the blockbuster film now adapted for the stage.
“Since last being on stage I’ve done a bit of TV work, had some time off, and then came the pandemic,” Callaghan outlines.
“I nearly did the Bodyguard last time out but it wasn’t the right time, but when it came up again, we had a few conversations about the project and everything felt good.
“I’m from the generation who remember The Bodyguard film as being a really big deal, and I watched it over and over again.
“To be able to take on this role and be a part of taking the production onto the stage is a privilege, every single night.
“Getting back into rehearsals was great, for me that’s one of the most lovely parts of being an actor.
“The nerves are always there, that’s just one of those things, and for the first couple of weeks you have that feeling of, ‘blimey, can I still do this’?
“But when you get back out there it genuinely feels as though you have never been away.
“Nothing beats getting on stage and playing to a packed house in a theatre when everybody is fully engaged – it’s one of the greatest buzzes you can have as an actor.
“The tour has been doing so well and we are playing to full houses pretty much every single night in every single venue.
“It really has been a brilliant experience, and with the Grand being such a beautiful theatre, I’m really enjoying being back on stage in Wolverhampton after a 12-year gap.”
While Wolves’ season may be coming to an end, the tour for the Bodyguard and the cast also featuring Pussycat Doll and Grammy-nominated singer Melody Thornton, will continue until the end of the year.
And, over the summer, Callaghan’s watching brief on Wolves will turn to the subject of what might happen in the transfer market to try and improve for next season and avoiding the brush with relegation worries this time around.
“It’s a relief that we got safe because there were periods during the season when I had a sinking feeling about what was going to happen,” he confesses.
“Given the investment over recent years and the size of the wage bill and so on, I think relegation could have been a real problem.
“It’s been a tough season to watch at times, and hopefully things are going to be sorted out and the gaffer (Lopetegui) is going to have chance to implement what he wants to do over the summer.
“Things have got a lot better since he arrived, but it was fairly quickly that we went from talking about a team regularly challenging for Europe – and even perhaps outside contenders for Champions League qualification – to one which all of a sudden looked like it might fall through the trap door.
“I think recruitment has been hit and miss, some signings have been sensational but with others we have not seen much of a return for the amount of money which has been spent.
“We are probably looking at a rebuild which is strange when you think about the level of investment, and we could also be looking at the departure of some key figures.
“Joao Moutinho is coming to the end of his career, but what an incredible privilege it has been to see him in a Wolves shirt as much as we have.
“Then there is Ruben Neves – is he going to be here? I hope so, but when you consider his ability there are going to be plenty of teams looking at him.
“Let’s hope it all goes well but to be honest I’d be happy with a boring season next time, perhaps mid-table - then after that maybe we can start dreaming again!”
And so, as Wolves aim to spring a surprise against Manchester United, Callaghan will be closer to home aiming to be as protective and resolute in his defensive bodyguard duties as Lopetegui’s back-line have been at Molineux in recent weeks.
Whilst also reflecting on a support of Wolves which has always managed to overcome any geographical or logistical divide.
“For me, I have always kind of enjoyed that ‘outside’ feeling of being a Wolves fan where I have lived,” he explains.
“It is different for me to everyone who has grown up in the area surrounded by Wolves fans, I felt like I was the only one and that gave me a sense of pride.
“They say, don’t they? That you don’t choose your football club, your football club chooses you.
“I think that is definitely what happened for me, on that day at Wembley all those years ago.”
• The Bodyguard continues at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre this Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening as well as a Saturday matinee. Visit the theatre’s website – grandtheatre.co.uk – or call 01902 429212 to book tickets.