The former England manager Graham Taylor’s words will resonate with anyone who met Graham Hughes, Wolves’ long-serving historian and dressing room attendant who died last week, at the age of 87. Taylor was asked for his thoughts ahead of Graham’s ‘retirement’ party at Molineux in 2012. He never really retired, though.
Graham gave a lifetime to Wolves. He leaves behind a lasting imprint. As a supporter then employee, his presence touched so many who follow the club’s fortunes and countless others who passed through Molineux’s main reception, where Graham’s one-man welcoming committee was the stuff of folklore.
Graham was a conversationalist, renowned for his stories. Delivered whether you wanted to hear them or not. There were many protestors among his colleagues but, in truth, everybody enjoyed his stories. There was a reason behind them. They were laced with history and information. Graham was educating, not storytelling. He wanted those who were employed at Molineux – as players, in the ticket office, the boardroom, wherever – to recognise just how important this club is.
It was a blessing to have been able to listen to some of these anecdotes first-hand, many of which were recorded during several interviews down the years.
Graham was a teenager when the country’s post-war football boom began. Wolves’ attendances would regularly top 50,000. The club was on its way to the greatest period in its history. Here is a tale from Christmas Day, 1948, when Aston Villa were the visitors to Molineux for a local derby.
“We cycled in from Codsall, which is five miles away, with my brother on the crossbar,” recalled Graham. “He put his foot on the front wheel and I went straight over the handlebars, there was blood everywhere. We were about 200 yards from the village doctor. I got into the surgery and he patched me up. My wheel was wobbling away but we still got to the match.”
Almost half a century on, Graham was knocked off his bike once more, as a Wolves employee, and saw the funny side when the players had a whip around for a hi-vis jacket alongside a new bike.
Graham’s stories spanned the generations. He bridged the gap between old and young. Informed and uninformed. Visitor and local. We were all equals. The way it should be.
“Wolves were the first club to sign a television deal, you know,” he explained. “When they played Honved (in 1954). They only had two cameras, like. They agreed on a match fee of £600 to televise the second half. I’ve still got the letter that Sir Stanley Rous had written down.”
Rous was Secretary of the FA at the time and, of course, Hughes witnessed those famous floodlit friendlies that were the precursor to the European Cup. Then, three decades later, the Rous Cup was contested between England and Scotland which brought Wolves to the fore once more, as Steve Bull scored on his international debut at Hampden Park, in 1989.
Graham was privy to the sights the rest of us don’t get to see. The dressing room and tunnel areas were his domain for many years. He had a fond recollection of a fierce rivalry where the main protagonists lightened the mood.
“We were playing the Albion once and all the crowd are singing, ‘Ooh Bully, Bully’ during the warm-ups. And Bob Taylor (Albion’s star striker) is coming down the tunnel as Bully was about to run out and he started doing it as well! People don’t see that. There’s none of the nastiness.”
Graham and Bully were great friends, with the club’s all-time leading scorer able to see his old mate one last time in his final hours. “Nothing was any trouble for him, you could ask him to do anything for you and he’d do it,” said Bully. “What he has done as a friend, and for this club, is unbelievable.”
One last story. It is the autumn of 2003. Bill Slater – the great Wolves captain who lifted the 1960 FA Cup at the end of the finest period in the club’s history – is standing in Molineux’s main reception with his grandson, a Manchester City fan. A couple of corridors away Kevin Keegan, City manager and two-time European footballer of the year, is in the visitors’ dressing room with his team. Graham knows this and he has that knack of judging the moment. Kick-off is still a good while away. He leads Slater and his grandson through the inner sanctum and knocks on the dressing room door. A member of the City backroom staff opens it. “Bill Slater would like some autographs,” announces Graham. And that is all Keegan needs to hear. “Bill Slater? Bring him in!” In walks Slater with his wide-eyed grandson, who not only collects the cherished autographs but leaves with some photographs with his heroes too.
What a scene that made. One of Wolves’ all-time greats, a two-time European footballer of the year, and a young football fan creating his first memories in football. And in among it, the man responsible for bringing them all together: Graham Hughes.
There was no cynicism attached to Graham. It was not in his soul. Players from all eras have lined up in their droves this week to pay tribute to a man they viewed as their “luxury”, during good times and bad. Molineux saw some pretty rough periods during Graham’s many years here – his service began in 1983, during the Bhattis’ reign. But whichever way the wind was blowing, Graham retained a remarkable faith in the goodness of people and a bright future.
A long-time friend, a Bristol Rovers fan, texted this week. He’d read about Graham’s passing. “Is this the lovely gentleman I met at the players’ bar at the Wolves vs Gas game a couple of years ago?” he asked. “He was so kind to me that night and great to chat to if it is. RIP.” That was Graham’s magic. The game in question was a League Cup third round tie at Molineux in September 2017, not especially memorable or noteworthy, but it stuck in the mind of this visiting fan who had managed to get a player’s complimentary ticket after the away end had sold out.
Football is tribal. Parochial. Them and us. Graham transcended all that. Wolves to his core, he took special pride in welcoming outsiders. Fans of other clubs. He cherished Wolves’ history and respected everyone else’s. The door was always open. He wanted to find common ground. Graham was a friend to all. He is irreplaceable.