Johnny Phillips: Walking the path of hope and despair is the definition of Wolfism

What it is to be a Wolves fan?

There was pure joy for Wolves fans following 
their stunning late rally at Villa, but the boot 
was on the other foot a week later at Leeds
There was pure joy for Wolves fans following their stunning late rally at Villa, but the boot was on the other foot a week later at Leeds

Why is it easier to doubt than trust? Is it a trait particular to Wolves fans or something that envelopes all supporters? Over successive weekends there have been two contrasting finishes. The extraordinary win at Villa Park followed by the gut-wrenching draw at Elland Road. Yet ask any supporter which of the two added time goals was more typical, the answer will be the Leeds equaliser rather than the Neves winner.

Former manager Dave Jones, who still lives locally and retains a great fondness for the club and its supporters, coined the term ‘Wolfism’ during his time here. “This club is an environment where, if we lose or draw, it’s not good enough,” he said. “It’s a win-or-nothing thing. We call it Wolfism.” The gist was that supporters reacted negatively to anything other than a victory, stemming from a conviction that it was all about to unravel.

Supporting any club involves the acquisition of scars. It’s the first blow which tends to stick. Personally, that came in front of a television set watching the famous vidiprinter on Grandstand, one November afternoon in the mid-1980s, and seeing FAC1 Rotherham 6 (six) Wolves 0 type out across the screen. That’s when it first genuinely dawned that this was not going to be an easy ride. Decades later, after another FA Cup heartbreak, this time at Wembley after the Watford semi-final, the context and the pain was totally different. As a club, Wolves were on the up and glory had been snatched away so cruelly. I remember seeing parents trudging forlornly back down Wembley Way to the tube station. Their children - as old as I was back in the days of the vidiprinter - going through the same process for the very first time. The realisation that this club we love will disappoint us.

Whatever the era, most supporters have been through it. Jeff Shi has spoken on more than one occasion about trust, bewildered at the hostility and suspicion he encounters on social media. Which is fair enough when Fosun’s ownership has brought such relative sustained success. But to understand the issue of trust, the Chairman must acknowledge what has gone before. In many ways, this is not unique to Wolves, but perhaps no other set of supporters has discovered as many ways to be scarred. The Bhattis brought abject misery, barely disguised contempt for the place as they ran the club down. There followed a saviour in Sir Jack Hayward, but the disappointment didn’t end. In a perverse way it was worse. Sir Jack offered hope where the Bhattis offered misery. But it was the hope that pained us. The waste, too, with the benefactor misguidedly making it a family affair instead of appointing the right people to run the club. Steve Morgan did bring acumen, initially, before that gave way to acrimony. Throughout it all, though, there were those amazing memories which make Wolves special. Bully’s 50 goals a season, twice. The Sherpa Van Trophy. The Millenium Stadium play-off final.

Supporting Wolves is a bit like having kids. A lot of it is a slog, getting through the week without dramas, arguments or crises. But it’s all worth it for the good days; the laughter, the happiness and the love. Those supporters who travelled to Villa Park a fortnight ago were on the right side of those contrasting fortunes. Eighty minutes of angst and turmoil followed by the most uplifting, joyous denouement anyone could wish for. Wolves: wreaking havoc with our emotions since the day we set eyes on them.

There’s a fragility about parenting, though. No matter how good it gets there’s an inescapable fear in the deep recess of the mind that it could go wrong, that something bad could happen. For the most part it does not invade daily life or play any significant role in how we live that life. But it is just there, tugging occasionally at the heart, a barely tangible fear that what we treasure most will be lost. It’s an imperfect analogy - life is far more important than a football team - but it’s the closest one that comes to mind about supporting Wolves. There’s always a fear.

During Nuno Espirito Santo’s first three seasons, the worries receded further. The memory of sitting outside a bar in the Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona, looking down a sun-kissed La Rambla painted gold and black with Wolves supporters enjoying one of Europe’s iconic cities will never fade. It felt like the middle of a great journey, gathering strength under an inspirational coach and group of players. And then a global pandemic arrived. Only Wolves. Ever since then, the doubts have resurfaced. The Bruno Lage chapter has largely been greeted with encouragement from Wolves fans but there is a realism that the team will not be challenging for Europe any time soon.

A long-standing family friend rang this week. As a kid, it was Mike who accompanied us to the games. He’d been to Leeds last Saturday, and the glass was half full. As it so often is with Wolves fans. So I asked what he thought characterised this particular fanbase. “The false dawns, I suppose,” he answered. “It’s like a mirage. You just know we’ll never get there.”

A mirage. It sounds so fatalistic but maybe that is exactly it. Mike started going to Molineux during the mid-1960s, after the great team of the previous decade had grown old together and not been adequately replaced, with only Broadbent and Flowers lingering on from the glory days. He’s seen more than most over the decades but was too young for that golden era. The fans who lived through the Fifties are few and far between these days, as time marches on. Perhaps it is only those who have witnessed Wolves at the very top who are truly content.

And the younger generations in years to come, are they condemned before their first walk through Molineux’s turnstiles? Just a handful of clubs dominate the trophies now, leaving the rest looking on enviously. Maybe one day the mirage could be replaced with a glorious reality. Or maybe we’ll just continue walking the path of hope and despair. But whatever the future, it is unthinkable to imagine following any other team.

Wolves might drag us up and, more often, down but it is precisely this humanity that grabs us. Wolves offers a reflection into our souls. We know Wolves too well. When the mirror is held up, there are moments we puff our chests out, proud at our own achievements. On other occasions we see the failings of a flawed individual and turn away. Through history this club has both puffed its chest out and shrunk in self-loathing. Wolves and its supporters. Almost a symbiotic relationship, not always mutually beneficial, but ultimately essential for both parties.

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