Celebrating 125 years of Wolves at Molineux

Happy birthday to Wolverhampton Wanderer’s Molineux stadium which turns 125 years old today.

Built in 1889, the ground was named after Benjamin Molineux who, in 1744, purchased the land it is built on in order to construct himself a mansion.

This would not be the only grand development to grace his estate however, though little could he have known that the grounds around his great house would one day play host to one of the most pioneering clubs in the history of English and European football.

Gerry Cranham: The South Bank terrace at Molineux filled with fans in 1959.
Gerry Cranham: The South Bank terrace at Molineux filled with fans in 1959.

Wolves first came to the Molineux in 1889 as tenets of the Northampton Brewery and set about renovating the then multi-purpose site, which featured a cycling track, ice rink and boating lake, into becoming a venue for football. The inaugural match was played in the September of that year, and saw the new occupants beat Notts County 2-0 in front of 4,000 people. England made their first visit in 1891, as they thrashed Ireland 6-1 in a home international.

The club became their own landlords in 1923 when they purchased the freehold, and immediately put famed stadium architect Archibald Leitch to work on designing a new grandstand on the Waterloo Road side of the ground. Further expansions and developments followed in the proceeding decades, with the Molineux pitch soon surrounded by stands on all four sides, yet the most influential advance to the site’s infrastructure was still to come.

Mark Leech:  Andy Gray celebrates a goal for Wanderers as a toilet roll unravels in the goalmouth in 1979.
Mark Leech: Andy Gray celebrates a goal for Wanderers as a toilet roll unravels in the goalmouth in 1979.

Floodlights were installed in 1953 and immediately ushered in a brave new era of prestigious and lucrative continental competition.

Under their legendary manager, Stan Culis, Wolves rose to become the pre-eminent force in English football in the 50’s, and after a debut flood-lit win against South Africa, they looked across the channel to mainland Europe for opponents to face in a series of mid-week evening friendlies.

Mark Leech: Wolverhampton Wanderers squad pose with the Football League 2nd division trophy in 1977.
Mark Leech: Wolverhampton Wanderers squad pose with the Football League 2nd division trophy in 1977.

They were soon facing off against the powerhouses of their  day—Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Valencia, Spartak Moscow and Honved, where the likes of Ferenc Puskas and his fellow Hungarian superstars played their club football—and they conquered them all. In front of packed crowds and the cameras of the BBC, they earned themselves the unofficial  title of “Champions of the World” from the popular press.

Mark Leech: Fans fill the stand sat Molineux as Chelsea take on Wolves in 2003.
Mark Leech: Fans fill the stand sat Molineux as Chelsea take on Wolves in 2003.

However, seeing Culis’ patented “kick and rush” football overcome and dominate the cream of Europe and beyond—Racing Club of Argentina were also beaten under the lights of Molineux—was the final straw for Gabriel Hanot, then editor of L’Equipe, who lobbied the UEFA congress of 1995 to create a fully-fledged, European cup competition to properly decide who was the greatest team around. A few months later, at the start of the 1995-96 season, the aptly named European Cup was born.

Flight images: Molineux from above.
Flight images: Molineux from above.

Molineux had to wait until 1959 to compete in the tournament, yet Wolves’ return to European football was a glorious one, with Culis overseeing wins over Real, Spartak and Dynamo Kiev in front of their home support. And while the club never did rise again to become “Champions of the World” proper, their stadium did play host to the first ever UEFA Cup final in 1972 between Wolves and Tottenham Hotspur.

Back then, the two finalists played out a two-legged decider, home and away, but for once home advantage wasn’t enough to secure a win on  friendly soil, with Spurs grabbing a 2-1 first leg advantage. They went on to claim the cup with a 3-2 victory on aggregate.

Simon Stacpoole: General view of Molineux in 2011.
Simon Stacpoole: General view of Molineux in 2011.

The good times couldn’t last forever however, and as the club’s league status declined through relegation, so did their finances, and Molineux fell into disrepair during the 1980’s. The situation wasn’t helped by a number of ambitious redevelopment projects in the 70’s, that led to further debt burdened decline, rather than enhanced revenue, as the crowds deserted.

Construction costs almost sent Wolves into liquidation, and by 1986 only two areas of the ground remained open to those who still ventured through the turnstiles to watch the team played fourth tier football. Yet salvation was at hand thanks to a deal that saw the council buy the stadium while making a deal with national supermarket chain to build a supermarket nearby.

Following the conclusions of the Taylor Report, and a takeover by Sir Jack Hayward, the old terracing was demolished as the new owner sought to once again turn Molineux into a fitting arena for a team targeting the highest level in English football. The renovation work led to the building of the Stan Culis stand, the Billy Wright stand—named after Culis’ captain and match-winning half-back—and the Jack Harris stand, and the newly redeveloped stadium was officially opened with a match against Wolves’ old sparring partners, Honved.

Simon Stacpoole: The Billy Wright stand and statue in 2011.
Simon Stacpoole: The Billy Wright stand and statue in 2011.

Since then, Molineux has hosted England internationals, under-21 matches, concerts by the likes of Bon Jovi, and a temporary return to Premier League football.

Simon Stacpoole: General view of the Billy Wright stand in 2011.
Simon Stacpoole: General view of the Billy Wright stand in 2011.

Not bad for a ground that’s still going strong after 125 years of football.

Offside is the UK’s leading independent sports photography agency, home to an extensive collection of classic First Division and Premier League pictures as well as other images from across the world of sport. Explore Offside’s unique library at www.welloffside.com.

Follow Offside on Twitter at @welloffside.

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Author: gregianjohnson

Football writer for The Blizzard, FourFourTwo, The Mirror, Squawka and VICE amongst others. Follow me on Twitter at @gregianjohnson.

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