In the spring of 1980, Wolverhampton Wanderers won the League Cup final at Wembley shortly before finishing sixth in the old First Division, the top flight. They were, as former Wolves striker Mel Eves says, a ‘strong team at a club with a great tradition’.
Six years earlier, Wolves had beaten Manchester City to record their first League Cup triumph, which came two years after they had reached the UEFA Cup final where Wolves lost to Tottenham over two legs. Old gold was a bankable quantity.
Andy Gray’s winner against Nottingham Forest in 1980 took Wolves into Europe again. The club had a powerful continental connection dating back to 1954 when Wolves hosted the great Hungarians, Honved, and sparked the idea in the French sports newspaper L’Equipe of a European Cup.
Yet when Eves scored the only goal against PSV Eindhoven at Molineux in the second leg of their Uefa Cup first-round tie in October 1980, no one expected that would be the last time Wolves played in Europe.
That, however, was what happened as they went down 3-2 on aggregate and only now is the club beginning to look like it could return to that level.
As the 1980s unfolded and Wolves collapsed, the absence of European football was the least of Molineux’s concerns. By 1986, Wolves were in the old Fourth Division. It turned out that Eves’s goal against PSV was something of a last hurrah.
‘I remember the lights went out in the second half,’ says Eves, not talking metaphorically.
‘We had to go off for a while. I’d scored, it was 1-0 and we thought we’d get the second to put us through.
‘The atmosphere was great and we had half-chances. The ball seemed to keep flying across the PSV six-yard box. At the end we felt pretty frustrated. After the goal, we’d battered them.’
Having lost 3-1 in Eindhoven a fortnight earlier, 2-0 would have taken John Barnwell’s team into the second round, where PSV met Hamburg.
‘Dutch football was on a high in the 1970s going into the 1980s,’ Eves adds. ‘You had the Johan Cruyff influence and everyone loved Dutch football. PSV were a big club and when the draw was made we knew it would be difficult.’
The Van der Kerkhof twins, Willy and Rene, were the stand-out names in the PSV side. Both were Holland internationals — though only Willy played against Wolves.
‘But we were fairly confident,’ Eves says. ‘We were a good team going forward, we had flair players and the coach, Richie Barker, had us very well drilled defensively. We worked a lot on the training ground on team shape and defending from the front.
‘We played pretty well in Eindhoven, but we gave away a silly penalty, a bit naive really, then they got another with a screamer from 25 yards. From our perspective, those were two bad goals.’
But Gray, who had joined Wolves for a British record £1.5million from Aston Villa in 1979, got a valuable away goal, which had made the score 1-1 early in the second half. That brought hope to Molineux for the return leg.
‘We’d more than matched them but came away having lost 3-1,’ Eves says. ‘Then we just couldn’t get the second goal in the second leg and the season was a bit of a disappointment after that.’
From sixth in 1980, Wolves were 18th in 1981 and relegated in 1982. They came back up immediately but then went straight down, the first of three successive relegations from 1984.
Saddled with unsustainable debt caused by stadium expansion, among other things, Wolves almost folded in 1982 and a ‘crazy fire sale’, as Eves puts it, ensued: ‘Andy Gray was sold to Everton for £250,000! He’d cost £1.5m.’
Eves stayed until 1984, when he was another talent sold off, to Sheffield United. He had made more than 200 appearances for his local club.
He was 24 when the PSV tie took place. Born near Walsall, he had stayed on at school until he was 18 and joined Wolves. He was a versatile forward who played for England B aged 21.
‘I didn’t come from a football family but I came from a Wolves-supporting family,’ he says. ‘I was brought up on tales of Billy Wright and Bill Slater and the Wolves team of the 1950s.’
He feels Europe is ‘in the club’s DNA’ and says a return is the aim of the club’s Chinese owners, Fosun: ‘Get established in the Premier League, then push on.’
Given’s Fosun’s wealth, there is a serious chance this will occur. As a fan, Eves would be delighted; while he is happy to be the last Wolves player to score a goal in Europe, 39 years is long enough.