Running with the Wolves

At AFL matches there is constant interaction with opposition supporters, especially if you sit in the outer. Pithy observations, insightful comments and a few good-natured jibes. Even if you sit in the members section you might strike the occasional interloper who was sneaked in as the guest of a fellow loyalist.

You encounter them on the train, on the concourse outside the stadium or on the paths leading to the station. On the whole, it works and there are very few unpleasant scenes. There might be a degree of ribbing from victorious opposition barrackers that gets on your goat, but we don’t need to be segregated.

At the Wolves versus Preston North End match in the English League One competition I had no contact at all with Wolves supporters until the very last moment of my time in Wolverhampton.

The day begins at eleven o’clock in the morning in the carpark at Deepdale, Preston’s home ground.  Fans mill about and talk in pairs and small groups. A fleet of buses is parked outside the Alan Kelly Town End Stand primed and ready to make the 300 kilometre round trip to the Midlands for this clash between Wolves (third) and Preston (fourth). The teams had met in the opening round of the season back in August and had fought out an intense scoreless draw. One man tells me 3,000 Preston fans are making the trip for what is their biggest game of the year so far.

My bus pulls out onto Deepdale Road to the strains of John Farnham’s You’re the Voice, courtesy of local radio station Smooth FM as background music for the journey. It’s good to see the boy from Noble Park garner some international recognition. An omen for today’s game? I feel like I’m part of a marauding band about to descend on an unsuspecting town to carry away the spoils of victory.

We journey south along the M6 through a winter landscape of green fields, hedges and lines of leafless trees. There are factories set in some of these fields away from the towns and I catch sight of the smokestacks of the Fiddlers Ferry coal-fired power station between Widnes and Warrington. The English live on a working island and they can be surprisingly unsentimental about their rural vistas.

My first rock record was Slade Alive by Slade, a live album that sold by the truckload in the UK and Australia in 1972. My first ever concert was Slade at the Melbourne Showgrounds in February of the following year. Slade come from Wolverhampton and are still performing today.

Wolverhampton Wanderers are back in League One for the first time since 1989. They have endured the dreaded double drop. Premier League 2011/12, relegated to the Championship and then relegated again to League One on the last day of the 2012/13 campaign. Like Preston, they were a foundation club in the first Football Association season in 1888/89. And like Preston, they had their golden era a long time ago. Wolves won three First Division titles in the fifties as well as FA Cups in 1949 and 1960. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant is one of their vice presidents. This year Wolves and Preston are deadly rivals for promotion to the Championship.

The buses line up in rows in the special lot reserved for visiting supporters’ coaches. Police halt  traffic on busy Stafford Road to enable us to cross safely. Then it’s a short stroll down a lane next to a campus of the University of Wolverhampton to Molineux, the home of Wolves. I had it in my mind to snap a photo of the Billy Wright statue, commemorating a local legend, perhaps even asking a home fan to pose with me, but the North End supporters are ushered by stewards to the gate reserved for the visitors. We are body searched and our bags checked before we enter the turnstiles. They are searching for weapons and flares.

“Ooh,” exclaims an elderly matron as a young male steward’s hands range from her shoulders to her calves. “This is loovely. I feel all excarted!”

Her friends laugh and perhaps reminisce on their younger days.

I seize a chicken balti flavoured pie and a cup of tea before the kick-off at three.

Molineux’s seats are orange and black, the colours of the club. Their distinctive motif, a simple black wolf head silhouette with white eyes, is highlighted several times in the colour pattern of the seats. Rather than having light towers in the four corners of the stadium, the club opts for rows of floodlights on the white-roofed stands of the opposite wings.

Surprisingly, Preston supporters are placed along one of the wings in the lower section of the Steve Bull Stand, as opposed to being confined behind one of the goals. I find out later why this is so. In England the pallid winter sunlight doesn’t pack a lot of punch, but where we are what sunlight there is shines right in our faces between a gap in the stands and we are forced to shield our eyes whenever play surges to our left. This lasts for almost the entire first half until twilight descends and the floodlights are activated.

And we stand. Nobody in the Preston section takes advantage of our yellow seats, while most home supporters remain seated for the entire match. This was exactly the case when Port Vale visited Deepdale a week ago.

There is action aplenty in the first half. Dave Edwards from Wolves lifts the ball above Preston keeper Declan Rudd and directs it toward the goal. Defender Jack King dives and clears it off the line in a nick of time. Preston’s Canadian striker Iain Hume scores from a Paul Gallagher cross but is ruled off side. The Wolves fans in the stand above let us know.

Wolves draw first blood after 27minutes when Edwards pounces on a turnover. They snare another one early in the second half. James Henry’s strike is parried on the line by Rudd and 19-year-old Lee Evans pokes it over the stranded keeper into the net.

The singing and chanting from the home fans takes on a triumphant air. When you’re leading 2-0 at home it’s like being 40 points up in an AFL match. It’s most unlikely that you’re going to lose from this point. While there is some desultory response from the Preston barrackers, the realisation has set in. This is not going to be a repeat of the heroic 1-0 away victory over Leyton Orient in November which was achieved when the Londoners sat at the top of the table. There is to be no triumphant return to Lancashire from the Black Country with the three priceless points. The Lilywhites have been so good on the road.  It is their first away defeat since going down to Crewe Alexandra back in October.

To Preston’s credit they make all the play in the last ten minutes. A consolation score effects goal difference, which may be vital to finish inside the promotion zone at the end of the season. I take special note of Preston Aussies Bailey Wright and Neil Kilkenny. Wright displays superior judgement in aerial contests and sets up play from defence with an assurance way beyond his 21 years. Kilkenny, ‘Killer’ to his teammates, is a livewire and combines well with Wright, displaying the experience he has gained from years of playing in England.

There is an announcement just before the close of play informing the away supporters that they will have to leave the stadium through the designated exit. Policemen mark the route. We trudge up the lane past the university and across Stafford Road, the traffic once again halted for us by police on point duty.

As the buses roll I am surprised that we are travelling on the wrong side of Stafford Road. The local constabulary have set up a roadblock to allow the coaches to make a hasty exit. We proceed to a roundabout before reverting to the left side for our journey out of town.

The mood is quiet on the bus as we sit in the traffic. Some review the game and lament the missed penalty for an alleged handball by a Wolverhampton defender in the box and the shot from Joe Garner that might just have crossed the line before it was punched away by Aaron McCarey. The packets of crisps are opened. Some passengers close their eyes and attempt to sleep.

It occurs to me that I never actually saw a Wolves supporter at close quarters or had any interaction with them. I saw only anonymous faces in the stands at long range. I never encountered fathers with their sons or overheard the conversations of people who turn up to every home game. We visitors were ushered in and hustled out. We waved the tickets we bought in advance and paid for our match day programs and refreshments before being summarily dismissed after the final whistle. It’s like opposing tribes which exist in parallel worlds but never meet.

This all changes just before we turn onto the A449 to head north to the M6. Two young men in Wolves scarves stand on the footpath outside the Curry Hut Indian take way. They are grinning broadly and waving goodbye to the buses.

It feels kind of right.


  1. Andrew Starkie says

    John, I don’t have time to read this now, but I will. It looks great. Have you read The Football Factory, or other books by London writer, John King? He now runs London Books, a publishing house devoted to London street writing. Might be right up your alley.

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Enjoyable read again John the non mixing of supporters is weird for a Aussie rules fan and ironic the banter and barracking between opposition supporters is 1 of the reasons I prefer SANFL over AFL with the staid church like atmosphere you get at footy park on some occasions
    What is the largest distance Preston will travel for a away game ? Closest venue ?
    Do the players go by coach as well and when do they travel ?
    Thanks John

  3. Peter Fuller says

    Thank you for an excellent match report, the more interesting for your observing as some-one unfamiliar with the game and the manner in which match day unfolds. That is of course how it is (would be?) for most of us irrespective of our varying levels of engagement with English football.
    I did want to hear an Epicure-style review of this mysterious delicacy, the chicken balti, as I’ve read about it on English websites – especially football ones.
    I have enjoyed your several reports, and commend your research efforts, noting that Wolves and Preston have both enjoyed eras of great success in the distant past.
    I was particularly interested in your reference to Tom Finney in an earlier post. He was among the last of the poorly-paid and exploited professionals in soccer and kept up his trade as a plumber, even while playing in the First Division and being a fixture in the England team.
    Could I also recommend to you and others “When Saturday Comes” (magazine and website). Its take on English football will resonate with Almanac enthsiasts

  4. Troy Hancox says

    Hi John,
    Great article!!
    My father’s birthplace…… my point of conceivement (BROMSGROVE-HE BLACK COUNTRY).
    Yes Wolves a very succesdful 50’s club, your story only touches the tip of their ice berg in 50’s.
    But, time goes on, memories are just that. memories.
    Steve Bull stand. Billy Wright, Steve Bull, Derek Dougan legands!
    Steve Bull played for England in 2nd division….. A west Brom academy youngster, transferred to big brother in Wolves (Wolves have a massive hatred of the Baggies)/
    Look up the “ELIMINATOR” on you tube……… song now banned at Mollinuex (pronounce mole and new) LOL

    There are sooooo many clubs, so close to each other in UK.
    In Midlands (Black Cuontry) to name a few, Birmingham (biggest county outside a London), Wolverhampton, Kiddeminster, West Brmich Albion, Aston Villa only 5km apart from each other……… not seem in OZ. closest we had was Woodville * West Torrens (now almagamated- Woodville raped, but thats another story)

    I so hunger for my beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers (WOLVES) to return to the top flight where they belong!

    PS…….. WE ARE WOLVES. OLD GOLD N BLACK….. not orange, nor yellow…….

    Thanks John, great story.
    All the best for the POSH mate.

    Kind Regards,

  5. Once again, great stuff John.

  6. John
    Only just caught up with your UK pieces and loved them. It’s amazing how much depth there is in the UK leagues (the saturation coverage of EPL tends to hide this fact).

    Interesting point about the supporter segregation and lack of interaction. When I went to Liverpool in August I saw the Reds play a League Cup game against Notts County. The visiting fans were there in droves and were wandering all over the docks and other tourist precincts in the afternoon before the game much like supporters of non-Victorian teams in Melbourne during grand Final week. It was a fun spectacle and I saw no hint of animosity between rival fans. Might this be because the visitors were so far below Liverpool in league rankings that they were considered no threat whereas the games you’ve attended are between close rivals?

    Your timing of your UK trip is a bit better then mine as far as the AFL is concerned. I suffered the misfortune of experiencing Richmond’s finals loss in Durham via a horrendous series of updates on my phone. Not recommended, but then again, probably not as traumatic as being there!

    Enjoy the rest of your trip.

Leave a Comment