First in series looking at the men in charge at Molineux
Managing a professional football team doesn’t seem like all that great a job to have. If you take a job in the Championship, based on current trends, you wouldn’t expect to last much more than a year. The LMA tell us that 70% of managers don’t get another opportunity anywhere after they leave their first job. Expectations at so many clubs are wildly out of kilter with reality. The rise of nutbar, unpredictable owners continues unabated. Even allowing for the fact that 95%+ of managers are former footballers themselves, would you fancy dealing with the current crop of players every single day? This is a world where someone like Ibrahim Keita has a semi-public strop about lack of gametime and his proposed new contract (he was last sighted at Doxa Proskinites in the Greek third tier, so that worked out well for him). The pressure to get results is ever-present and clouds everything else that you do. At every twist and turn, there’ll be some smartarse on the Internet telling you that you’re getting everything wrong and making cheap gags at your expense, even years after you’ve left.
Still, the competition to enter the managerial rat race remains a strong one. Even if you’re Sol Campbell and believe that people should hand you a job because you are Sol Campbell. Or if you’re Tony Adams and think that you can give Arsène Wenger a lecture on how to coach teams, which could only possibly be topped in the delusional stakes if Joe Mason were to say that he could teach Robert Lewandowski a thing or two about one-on-one finishing. Over the last 30 years, we’ve had a wide variety of managers at Wolves; from the broadly successful to the complete failures, those who were instantly likeable to the borderline certifiable. To fill the void in actual football this summer – the principal entertainment in the Confederations Cup to date has been the new and interesting ways they can manage to butcher the use of video technology despite having well over a decade’s worth of examples of how it works properly in other sports – we’ll be looking at everyone who’s taken the hotseat at Molineux in that 30 year period. The series will run in chronological order and hopefully it’ll be completed before the new season kicks off. Although that does kind of depend on whether I can keep my thoughts on a certain Welshman with a penchant for cheap shiny 1983-style suits down to 40,000 words or less. And he’s by no means the only one that I have some form of beef with. So, to kick us off:
#1: GRAHAM TURNER (SEP 1986 – MAR 1994)
First match: Wolves 2-1 Tranmere, 11 October 1986
Final match: Portsmouth 3-0 Wolves, 15 March 1994
Highest league finish: 10th, Division Two, 1989/90
Lowest league finish: 4th, Division Four, 1986/87
Record (league only): P383 W164 D102 L117 (win rate 42.82%)
For the first time in our history, we dropped into the fourth tier of English football at the end of the 1985/86 season, capping off a triple relegation. Top that if you can, Dean Saunders. I think he’d actually have it in him, and there are a number of clubs that I could hand pick where he could have a go. But it’ll have to wait until I win the EuroMillions and can go on a crusade of club wrecking unseen since the days of Ultimate Soccer Manager 2. With a crumbling, two-sided ground and the club teetering on the brink of receivership, the future looked bleak. Sammy Chapman left shortly before the start of 1986/87 and former Aston Villa forward Brian Little was placed in temporary charge in his first assignment as a manager. Little started the season in Division Four fairly well – picking up four wins and suffering just a solitary defeat in our opening eight games – yet the club declined to retain him on a longer term basis, instead appointing Graham Turner (it should be said, against the will of many fans who had wanted Little to be given a further chance to prove himself).
Turner had done superb work at Shrewsbury Town in his first managerial post (initially as player/manager); reaching two FA Cup quarter finals and establishing them in the second tier in his six years in charge. Surprisingly, Aston Villa appointed him in the summer of 1984 following the departure of European Cup winner Tony Barton, who admittedly was more the Roberto Di Matteo of his day rather than a particularly shrewd manager, and in his first season did at least steer Villa to a 10th placed finish in the First Division, the same position in which they’d finished the previous year. However, the following season was less successful as they finished 16th, just three points clear of relegation, and a disastrous start to the 1986/87 season – eventually seeing Villa relegated, which is always a tragedy – meant that Turner was sacked in September. Upon his arrival here, the pressure was immediately on in a dual sense; to pull us out of our lowest ebb, and to win over the fans who had wanted his predecessor to continue in situ, given the promising signs he had shown. It would be fair to say that his appointment was not treated with universal approval.
Clearly, building the Fourth Division team of lore – which any fan of that vintage can doubtless recite by heart – was absolutely key to Turner’s early success and represented some outstanding work for very little outlay (just as well, as we had less money than the protagonist at the beginning of Le Colonel Chabert. And yeah, you don’t get many references to semi-obscure Balzac novellas in your average retrospective on Wolves managers. Cherish it). We all know that Steve Bull was the absolute standout deal; to bring in a player from right on your own doorstep for such a paltry fee and for him to go on to achieve so much is simply the stuff of managerial dreams. But beyond that, it was truly exceptional for Turner to bring in all of Andy Thompson, Ally Robertson, Gary Bellamy, Keith Downing, Phil Robinson, Nigel Vaughan, Mark Venus and Robbie Dennison for a total sum of no more than a couple of hundred thousand pounds. The team spirit of those players – allied to the likes of Floyd Streete, Mark Kendall and Andy Mutch who predated the arrival of Turner – and their affinity to the fans was key to our resurgence through what was, without any sense of hyperbole, one of the most challenging periods in our entire history.
Later on, the signings of Mike Stowell and Paul Cook were astute acquisitions, although the latter remains one of the most astoundingly overrated Wolves players of (relatively) modern times. Whether it’s misty-eyed nostalgia or something else, I don’t know, but to hear people talk you’d think he was a left footed Scouse Xabi Alonso. Apparently he could pick out Bully from sixty yards, blindfolded, with his useless right peg tied up behind his back. Don’t get me wrong, on his day – and “his day” was not particularly often – he was pretty good, and for what we paid (around the £150,000 mark) he was a very decent signing, but the general reality was somewhat less exciting than people make out, which is why he ended up with us and went on to play for Burnley (when they were rubbish), Stockport and Tranmere. It was a great shame that Mark Burke’s talents were never properly utilised – for my money, a far better footballer than Cook – and it is debatable whether this should be a feather in Turner’s cap for spotting him, or a mark against the manager for failing to get the best out of him. Towards the end of his reign, Kevin Keen, David Kelly and Geoff Thomas all had the mark of quality about them when they arrived in the summer of 1993 and we will never know what would have happened if the latter hadn’t had his knee destroyed by Lee Howey. Outwith the outstanding Alex Rae almost a decade later, I don’t think we’ve since come close to having such a complete central midfielder on our books. The same could be applied to one of Turner’s final signings in Chris Marsden who joined us in January 1994, made an immediate impression but too succumbed to a serious injury and was subsequently never able to fulfil his potential here (potential that was made all too clear, were it not already obvious, when a full nine years later he was scoring against us in an FA Cup quarter final).
However, it was largely when more money was made available to Turner that his transfers seemed to come off the rails. Obviously, there were errors in the earlier days, as there are with all managers – Paul Jones (the outfield player) and Tim Steele are as inept a pair of widemen as you could wish to imagine – but as SkyBet are keen on telling us, it matters more when there’s money on it. Back in 1990, not only were the British public so deranged as to send Do The Bartman to the top of the charts (proof if anything that they should never be trusted with anything, ever), but £850,000 was a hell of a lot of money in terms of the English second tier. Especially in our circumstances, where we’d hardly spent anything for years and while Sir Jack Hayward was pushing a decent amount of cash our way, it wasn’t in the context of blowing the rest of the division away financially (that would come later, as we’ll see later in the series. And oh how fantastic the results were, as no-one said). To spend that kind of money on Rob Hindmarch and Kevin Ashley was absolute negligence on Turner’s part. Neither were as good as ageing, creaking players we already owned in Gary Bellamy and Brian Roberts. They certainly weren’t any quicker than either of those two; bear in mind that Hindmarch was 29 when he signed for us and Ashley was just 21. They both ran like Princess Anne. After a couple or seven G&Ts. If she were 94 years old. And wearing divers’ boots. Slow doesn’t cover it. I’ve seen Christopher Walken deliver lines quicker. Needless to say, they both flopped, horribly (though Hindmarch did at least get us a last minute equaliser at the Hawthorns, so thanks for that).
Derek Mountfield and Paul Birch both came in from Villa at reasonable expense yet neither seriously convinced in their time here. John Paskin was a truly risible forward, only saved from being the worst signing in that area by Turner by the incomprehensibly woeful Mike Small (mercifully, just a loan signing, though his ineptitude is burned into my retinas forever), and though they came at lowish cost, the names of Tony Lange, Lawrie Madden and Paul Stancliffe* will send a shudder down the spines of all that had the misfortune to watch them play. Paul Blades was another mid-range purchase with bottom end performances to show for it, while the only saving grace about Paul Edwards was that we somehow managed to palm him off to Albion once we’d realised how bad he was. For actual money as well. Funnily enough, they’ve never bought anyone from us since. It’s a 23 and a half year grudge to date, but I can’t blame them for it.
Oh, and he signed Darren Ferguson too. There’s simply no excuse for that.
*You can’t mention Paul Stancliffe and not reference his work of art against Barnsley. It’s impossible.
This was the late 80s and early 90s, a time when Beefeater Inns were still seen as relatively sophisticated, so you’re not going to get fancy football here. English football was still very much rooted in its Charles Hughes “Position of Maximum Opportunity” state and most teams played pretty much the same way. A bog standard 4-4-2, with one out-and-out winger (in our case, almost always Robbie Dennison), with a central midfielder tucked in on the opposite side (Phil Robinson, for example). A classic front two of Bull and Mutch were served, again in keeping with the time, with the aim of getting the ball forward to them as quickly as possible. There isn’t any inherent shame in that; for one, that was football at the time (and you could argue that if you get it right, the same principles can equally apply today, even in our technocratic age) and for another, you wouldn’t exactly expect the collection of defenders that we’d assembled to be passing the ball out from the back. Paul Cook was expected to provide the creative spark from midfield after his arrival and were you to rummage through old VHS tapes of Molinews (top punning work there, early 90s club shop people), I’m sure you could put together a lovely compilation of all the times he knocked the ball over the top for Bully to run on to and finish. The problem was that only worked for the 30% or so of games where he actually turned up and wasn’t a complete liability. Essentially, Turner never really moved away from this stock formula. It was the same from the day he arrived to the day he left.
Persona and Popularity
Above all, Turner always seemed extremely proud to be managing our club and of what he ended up building here. This was an era where media coverage of football was far more sparse and demure than it is today – even radio phone-ins didn’t seem to attract quite the spectrum of deranged lunatics that they do now – so there was no need for him to be giving a steady stream of soundbites to be pored over and analysed to the nth degree. He was a pragmatic manager, supportive of his players and keen to give them the praise when we played well rather than directing it towards himself.
In terms of popularity, as discussed previously it was not a happy fanbase when he took over and he had much to do to win them over, especially after an indifferent start. Once Bully started to fire, he could do little wrong in the fans’ eyes; after all, if you win two divisional titles and a cup, you’re bound to be looked upon kindly. As happens with virtually all managers who have a degree of success, that popularity dimmed as time went on, in our case during our time in the second tier. We had a reasonable enough first couple of seasons back at that level, though a dismal finish to 1990/91 where we picked up just six points from our final nine games didn’t reflect well on anyone. The pressure started to grow in 1991/92 as we went on a run of five successive defeats through November; speculation was rife that he was about to lose his job until Paul Birch saved him with a late goal against Grimsby to end that sequence. The damage was done though in terms of his standing among the fans; there was now a big divide between those who wanted him out and those who preferred to retain him, and that never really went away from then on. As time progressed, there was a growing frustration that our style of play remained fundamentally unchanged and we were never making any kind of a serious tilt at promotion.
Leaving aside the obvious highs of winning trophies – which we subsequently decided was horribly passé and that we needn’t bother doing that again for another couple of decades – doing the double over Albion upon our return to the second tier felt like a seismic event. The 4-1 win at Newcastle on New Year’s Day 1990 has passed into Wolves folklore while it was frankly bizarre (in a good way) to have us 4-0 up at half time at St Andrews in 1992 and moreover for Darren Roberts to be the hero. He probably should have quit there and then.
The lowest of the low is clearly getting drummed out of the FA Cup by Chorley in 1986, shortly after Turner arrived. It’s not especially fanciful to suggest that in this day and age, that result on its own could have cost him his job. Later on, throwing away a gilt-edged opportunity of a second successive Sherpa Van Trophy final at home to Torquay seriously stung and I’ve long since resolved to dump sugar in the fuel tank of Roger Hansbury’s car if I ever happen to discover where he lives. The aforementioned grim run of form in 1991/92 included a grim midweek home defeat against Bristol Rovers in front of fewer than 9,000 fans and the ongoing restlessness towards the end of Turner’s reign was perhaps borne out in the home FA Cup defeat to Bolton in January 1993, where depending who you believe, even Bully got booed (though my recollection is that it wasn’t specifically targeted in his direction).
How did it end?
Despite the fairly hefty expenditure in the summer of 1993 on Keen, Kelly and Thomas, the season didn’t start off all that well. Three successive defeats in August and September were followed up by a Glenn Hoddle-esque run of eight draws in ten games through October to December, leaving us marooned in mid-table. Four straight wins in December and January (plus knocking a very useful Crystal Palace team out of the FA Cup on our eventual way to the quarter finals) proved to be a false dawn as the wheels came off in February and March. We succumbed to four defeats in five league games, including a home loss to a truly terrible Albion team who ended up doing the double over us and avoiding the drop on goals scored (though at least it was Blues who went down instead, so it wasn’t all bad). We exited the cup at Stamford Bridge and two days later capitulated to a shocker of a 3-0 defeat at Fratton Park. That was the end for Turner as Jonathan Hayward sacked him on the team coach as we returned home, which was a little unnecessary. It was a sad way for it all to finish, though there was little doubt that his departure was overdue. The bar had been raised in terms of ambition and we were showing little sign of achieving the aims set by the board as the ground had now been fully rebuilt and funds were being injected into the playing squad. However, if any such thing exists in football, we arguably owed Turner that time after what he’d done for us and to at least grant him the opportunity to craft a team that hadn’t been put together with the change from 20 Superkings. He simply ran out of time in the end as we couldn’t wait forever, goodwill or not.
Turner moved on to Hereford United in the summer of 1995 where he suffered relegation to the Conference in 1996/97 yet retained his job by taking the novel approach of buying a majority shareholding in the club. That’s one way to ensure security as a manager. The Bulls returned to the Football League in 2007 after several near misses and Turner reprised his double promotion exploits from here by steering them into League One the following year. Unsurprisingly for a club with such a modest standing, this proved to be a level too far for them and they dropped back to the fourth tier the following year with Turner standing down as manager in April 2009, though continuing as chairman. The lure of management turned out to be too strong for him and in June 2010 he sold his shares in Hereford and returned to Shrewsbury as manager. One final promotion (to League One) followed in 2011/12 and though he kept them up for a year, relegation fears were never far from the agenda and he subsequently resigned and retired from management in January 2014 at the age of 66.
It’s a fairly obvious observation, but Turner left us in an immensely stronger position when he left than when he found us. Had we got that appointment wrong, who knows where we’d be now. Sure, we’re a biggish club with a lot of history behind us, but in 1986, with football itself being in the doldrums and us not being a million miles from outright oblivion, we were in a genuine state of peril. Turner rescued us from that.
It was a shame that he couldn’t see the job all the way through and it will remain a bit of a mystery as to what separated him from, for example, Dave Bassett. Both were similar kinds of managers with roughly approximate styles of football, both were promoted from the Third Division at the same time, yet Bassett was able to kick his (arguably inferior) team on to greater things while we got stuck in mid-table in the second tier for years, despite having Bully at our disposal for all that time. Was that, perversely, a hindrance to Turner in the end? That we had such a ready guarantee of goals up front that he never saw the need to change anything else about the team? Perhaps. Although he should have known better, it’s not like we didn’t have enough seasons to work out where the issues were. His post-Wolves career suggests that in all likelihood, it was the third and fourth tiers where his skills were best employed and he simply wasn’t equipped to make the step up. There’s no great shame in that. He was flawed, of course, like all managers, but he should never have to buy a drink in the Wolverhampton area ever again. Thanks for everything, GT.
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