A step down from the Cobblers to Wolves? It was Chard times then!

Ah, the late 1980’s.

The era of perms and mullets, Kylie & Jason, or should that be Scott and Charlene, shell suits and white socks, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Dirty Dancing, and Arsenal’s “it’s up for grabs now”.

And, most importantly of all, the Wolves’ revival...writes Paul Berry.

After twice almost going out of business, plummeting to the Fourth Division and losing to Chorley in front of millions, Wolves were, in the words of a famous piece of vinyl released prior to the 1988 Sherpa Van Trophy Final, “on the winning track.”

Fans who had been fortunate to be spoiled on the superheroes of the Fifties, or the legends of the Seventies, were once again savouring a squad to make them proud.

Yes, even whilst nestling in the lower divisions and playing in front of a half-open Molineux.

The goals of Bull and Mutch, the set piece magnificence of Thompson and Dennison, the crunching tackles of Downing and Robinson, the leadership of Robertson and Streete, the so much missed Mark Kendall.

Wolves during that time was about way more than just the sum of its parts.

And the unstoppable momentum of success wasn’t just down to those grabbing the headlines in a squad meticulously assembled and developed by Graham Turner.

There were other more perhaps unassuming contributions, but equally important and equally noteworthy in keeping results ticking over, and ensuring the revival remained upwardly mobile.

Players who came and went, whose stays might have been fleeting, but, just like a holiday romance, had some fun along the way and left happy memories behind.

Phil Chard, who celebrated his 60th birthday last month, was 27 years of age when he signed for Wolves, just before the transfer deadline of March, 1988.

A seasoned professional, he had chalked up almost 300 career appearances with Peterborough and home town club Northampton, having as a youngster spent time on the books of Nottingham Forest, under Clough and Taylor no less.

It was actually a step down for Chard to make when targeted by Turner to strengthen a Wolves squad which was on a seemingly inexorable path to promotion as the season neared its conclusion.

The previous year, when Wolves’ late resurgence culminated in play-off misery against Aldershot, Northampton had stormed to the Fourth Division title with a nine-point cushion and an overall tally of 99.

Indeed, Chard had actually scored for Northampton from fully 35 yards in a 1-1 draw at Molineux in the February of that season, just as the Wolves revival was clicking into gear.

Just over a year on from that game, which was also part of Mick Holmes’ record-equalling goalscoring streak for Wolves, Chard was on the move.

“It was just before transfer deadline when I was called into the office at Northampton by the manager, Graham Carr,” Chard recalls.

“He told me that Wolves had shown an interest, and then I should probably go for it.

“It felt a bit strange, to go from a club which was trying to get up into what is now to the Championship, to a team a division below.

“But then maybe not when it was Wolves.

“I’d been following their progress and there was every chance they were getting promoted that season, infact there was no doubt about it.

“All I had to do was go and watch a game to see their capabilities, and Molineux was a very different place than the old County Ground at Northampton.

“You could see Wolves were on the up, just like we had been at Northampton, but unfortunately we were going through one of those scenarios after that title win where the team was starting to break up.

“Trevor Morley had left, Ian Benjamin too, and Richard Hill had already gone, which was a shame because with that squad we had momentum and could have maybe gone back-to-back with promotions.

“With what you could see was happening at Wolves, it didn’t need much persuasion for me to decide to go.

“There was the same momentum that had been at Northampton, and as soon as I arrived I could see a similar feel around the squad and in the dressing room.”

Chard certainly hit the ground running after checking in at Molineux courtesy of a debut goal in a 5-3 home win against Darlington. “A corner came over which was flicked on and I volleyed it home inside the six yard box,” he remembers.

Wolves were in those final throes of ultimately a comfortable Division Four title, and Chard started both the away win at Newport which clinched promotion and the home game against Hartlepool which sealed top spot.

There was however a spot of misfortune, not for the first time in Chard’s career, in that a solitary appearance in the preliminary round of the Sherpa Van Trophy for Northampton ruled him out of any participation for Wolves in the tournament, which would reach a glorious finale with victory against Burnley at Wembley in front of a crowd of 80, 841.

He isn’t bitter, not least as the move to Molineux had already afforded him the chance to grace the Twin Towers a month earlier.

“Wolves went to Wembley twice at the end of that season, and while I was cup tied for the Sherpa Van Trophy, I played in the Centenary tournament when we lost on penalties to Everton,” says Chard.

“It was fantastic to play there, even in a shorter game, and gave me an experience I will never forget.

“And even to be there for the Sherpa Van Trophy final, even though I couldn’t play, it was still a great day.

“What an atmosphere there was at Wembley, a full house with so many Wolves fans.

“I remember we all had some really smart silver suits, and did a lap of honour at the end, and it was a fantastic result for the lads on the day.”

Football however, isn’t always a Disney fairy-tale.

A year later, that same Sherpa Van Trophy would provide Chard with one of the most disappointing experiences of his 18 months at Molineux.

He started the first leg of the Area Final away at Torquay, a 2-1 win thanks to some late Bully magic, but was then an unused substitute as Wolves were somehow beaten 2-0 in the return at home in what is probably still one of the most crushing Molineux defeats of the last four decades.

“Oh boy, I can still remember the dressing room after that second leg,” says Chard.

“It was like a big hole had opened up and swallowed us all up – it was so disappointing.”

Yet that crushing agony was at least more short-lived than the more painful blow which Chard had suffered earlier in the campaign to cut a swathe through his first full season at Wolves.

Having retained his place from arriving at the back end of the previous season, Chard had started the first 14 games, only for a Blackpool player to fall awkwardly on his right leg after a challenge, prompting him to hear a ‘pop’.

Initial scans and an arthroscopy failed to reveal the problem, and so Chard returned to training, only to suffer a reoccurrence within a few days.

That then led to an absence of 17 weeks, much of which was spent working on his rehabilitation at Lilleshall, at that time the main base for professional athletes recovering from injury.

That appearance against Torquay was one of a few made by Chard after he returned to fitness, and he even got the chance to wear the famous ‘Number 9’ shirt of Mr Bull for the final game of the season at Wigan, when both the normal incumbent and Andy Mutch were away on England ‘B’ duty.

At Wembley in 1988

The back-to-back titles, a hat trick for Chard if you include Northampton, set him up for a first crack at life in the second tier, and, ultimately, it proved a step too far.

He did make several appearances, and was also sat on the bench for the electric second leg of the League Cup tie with Aston Villa, but by October, partly due to personal reasons and partly the demands of the level, he had moved on, back for a second spell with Northampton.

“I think circumstances at the time meant I needed a change, and, to be honest, I had probably reached my level,” Chard explains.

“At that age especially, one of the problems that was showing up was that my pace just wasn’t quick enough.

“As you go higher up the leagues, pace becomes more of an issue and while I had a great engine, I could pass, I could tackle, the lack of pace was a flaw because I just didn’t have it in my locker.

“I remember one of the things that also highlighted the difference to the top players was when I spent that time at Lilleshall.

“I thought I was fairly fit for the level I was playing at, but John Barnes and Alan Hansen were there from Liverpool at the time undergoing treatment for injuries.

“It came to a point where we all had to go out onto the field and do some running and I could not believe the level of their fitness – it was absolutely incredible.

“Even for someone like me who thought he was fairly fit, those guys were on a completely different level.”

In an 18-month Wolves’ stay, Chard had chalked up 38 appearances – mainly in midfield but one or two at right back – chipping in with a none-too-shabby return of five goals.

Even though he wasn’t a fully paid-up member of the much-famed ‘Tuesday Club’, when players would disappear after training to enjoy a few well-earned beers, he loved being around such a vibrant dressing room at the time, and looks back on Wolves with great affection.

“I still have the feeling of really enjoying my time at Wolves, even as short as it was and with the injury for three or four months of it as well,” Chard recalls.

“It was such a positive time for me and for Wolves, and a great club to be involved with.

“I wasn’t a socialite I have to say, so I wouldn’t be one of those who went out clubbing or anything, I preferred the peace and quiet at home!

“But it was a great dressing room and one I really enjoyed being involved with.

“We had some really strong players – Bully and Mutchy up front, Ally Rob and Floyd Streete at the back, Thommo, Gary Bellamy, all through the squad just a really good bunch.

“It all added up to the best three years of my career with Northampton just before, and it is very rare you are involved with two different teams who are successful in that way.

“For much of the rest of my career I’d end up being in teams fighting relegation or just in a mediocre position seeing the season out, so those three years really stood out.

“Wolves are obviously a bigger club with such a history and they were building something again which I could see was very much on its way.

“And with the players they had, you couldn’t see anything but success going forward, and once the club got on a roll it just kept going.”

There was still time remaining in Chard’s career to renew another Wolves link, which had first come to the fore before his playing days had even kicked off.

As a 17-year-old at Peterborough, his manager was a certain John Barnwell, and one Thursday, he was called into the office to be told he was about to make his debut, alongside Barry Butlin up front.

Only problem was, by the time the game came around on the Saturday, Barnwell had resigned to join Wolves!

Chard was no longer named in the starting line-up, and had to wait for a few more months for his big moment.

And then, at the tail end of his career, when Chard had taken over as Player Manager with Northampton during a difficult time in the Cobblers’ history, the manager who guided Wolves to their most recent major trophy back in 1980 was soon back on the scene.

“I had always planned to stay in the game after I finished playing, and even at Northampton before coming to Wolves I had done my coaching badges, and was then involved at the Centre of Excellence at Wolves,” Chard explains.

“The fact that a managerial role came along a bit quicker than expected was partly due to the circumstances that Northampton found themselves in.

“The club went into administration, and had to let a lot of good pros leave and bring on the youngsters, and we also had a transfer embargo as well.

“When I first took over we only had a few games to the end of the season and couldn’t get relegated, but then the job became something more permanent, and the next season proved quite a struggle.

“The Board agreed to find some support for me, and brought in Barney to help me out, and we managed to stay up on the last day, coming back from a 2-0 half time deficit against Shrewsbury to win 3-2.

“But that season took a hell of a lot out of me, and I was also really struggling with an injury which was later found to be a broken bone in my vertebrae.

“Barney coming in as assistant was great because he had the knowledge and the contacts which were invaluable, and he could give me advice.

“But shortly into the following season, results weren’t great and I got the bullet, with John taking over.

“Even then it was quite tricky, as I was retained just as a player, and had to go back into the dressing room when I had spent over a year saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the players and dealing with various issues as happens at any club.

“By the end of the season, my career in the professional game was over, and I moved into non-league instead.”

Even with non-league, Chard’s football days were now numbered.

His long-standing and nagging injury was still proving troublesome as he combined playing for Kettering with a new start as a car salesman, and he found juggling both, while providing for a young family, a serious challenge.

Those responsibilities, and a desire to spend more time with family rather than travelling up and down the country every weekend, also suppressed any real desire to continue with top-level coaching, and so when Chard finally hung up his boots, it was for a new life away from senior football.

That having been said, he continued coaching young players, setting up a coaching academy which actually took him into schools for delivery, eventually leading him to his current role, as a full-time PE teacher at a primary school in Northampton.

“It can be difficult coming out a job that you have set your heart on doing for the rest of your life,” he explains.

“A lot of ex-players tell me they miss the playing side but I haven’t massively missed the actual games.

“For me I have missed the camaraderie and the laughter, the hard work, the buzz of euphoria when you all go back into the dressing room at the end of a really tough session.

“So yes, it’s the laughter and the team bonding, that is what I miss most from football.”

Chard turned 60 last month, but new challenges are always over the horizon, not least working in education during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is so different at the moment, and I’m not sure there is just a normal PE session as things stand,” he says.

“I have been talking to the kids, and saying how, even at my age, there have never been any circumstances like these before in the whole of my lifetime – there is nothing to measure it against.

“It is probably going to change a lot of things moving forward, but we all have to stay safe, follow the rules and next year we will hopefully come out the other side of it.

“And then we will all be able to kick on, take some positives and make strides forward.”

Amen to that.

In the meantime, Chard continues to stay in touch with football, particularly the results of his beloved Cobblers, and also Wolves.

“What a time Wolves are having at the moment and what a job Nuno has done over the last few years,” he enthuses.

“Maybe we helped out just a little bit with what we did back then given how things had been for Wolves a few years beforehand.

“But Wolves is such a big club isn’t it? They are back where they should be and having the success that they deserve.”

It is perhaps Chard’s humility and modesty that there are very few parents of the pupils he teaches who are aware of what was a very successful career in the game.

One or two Northampton and Wolves fans have clocked him, and maybe several more have googled that career history!

“It is so far back though, well in the past, and football has changed so much in the period,” Chard insists.

“You can’t rest on your laurels, you have to move forward in life, to move on, and change.

“There are very few people who are fortunate enough to stay involved in the game beyond playing for the rest of their working life.”

The late 1980’s. The time when a great football club came back from the brink and enjoyed an exhilarating revival thanks to the remarkable efforts of a manager, staff and players who captured the imagination – and eternal gratitude - of a long-suffering fanbase.

With an air of calm and unassuming humility, just how he played the game all the way back then, Chard remains proud just to have been a part of it.

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