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From non-league to Wolves first team in a week

Wolves' first ever visit to the Brentford Community Stadium on Saturday is bound to be a lively affair.

The atmosphere at the Bees new stadium was properly – well, buzzing – when they raised the curtain on this Premier League season, and the return of capacity crowds, by beating Arsenal on a bouncing Friday night last August.

Wolves will head South in excellent form and with revenge on their minds after one of the most disappointing displays of the season thus far against Brentford at Molineux earlier in the campaign.

Wolves and the Bees boast plenty of competitive recent history, with some big results on both sides dating back to the 2013/14 season when occupying the top two positions in League One.

Wolves were champions, and the Bees runners-up, with Kenny Jackett's team never looking back after a memorable Michael Jacobs-inspired 3-0 victory at Griffin Park in the February.

It is fair to say, however, that fixtures between the two haven't always been as exciting, meaningful or eagerly anticipated.

Back on the opening day of the 1985/86 season the two met up in the old Third Division, in front of a crowd of 5,576.

Neil Edwards

Brentford were in their eighth consecutive season of generally bobbing around mid-table in the third tier while Wolves were on a far more volatile trajectory, ultimately hurtling towards a third successive relegation to complete a descent from top to bottom in just three years.

While the 2-1 Bees' win may not have been anything massively to write home about, and was maybe a sign of another tough campaign ahead for Wolves, for several among the travelling squad on that day it meant far, far more.

There were four young debutants starting the game – Nicky Clarke, Johnny Morrissey, Jon Purdie and Neil Edwards – with another, Steve Stoutt, on the bench.

And for Edwards, Wolves' solitary scorer on the day, it marked the climax of an incredible and transformative few days.

'A week is a long time in football' is a phrase which could have been invented for the affable frontman, brought up a few miles up the A449 from Wolverhampton, in Wall Heath.

Tuesday night. Played for Oldswinford against Wolves in a pre-season friendly. Thursday. Signed for Wolves and trained with the team for the first time. Saturday. Made his professional debut and scored against Brentford. Craig David could write a song about it. And just tweak the title.

For Edwards though, a low maintenance character who has always been able to keep the ups and downs very much in perspective, he was able to take it all in his stride.

"My biggest concern was worrying about if my car would make it from Kingswinford to Wolves to get the coach on the Saturday morning," he says with a laugh.

"I remember being outside the stadium in my shiny yellow and blue club tracksuit and no one had a clue who I was.

"Fans who were waiting were asking me how I thought we would get on that day – 'we'll have to see what happens', I replied.

"Then, much to their surprise, I got on the coach with the squad and off we went to the game!"

Up against Sam Allardyce.

That August afternoon, as quickly and as unexpectedly as it arrived, was the product of Edwards pace, power and natural eye for goal as opposed to any high level of technical expertise honed within the youth system of a professional club.

While he most definitely shared 'every boy's dream' of wanting to play football and spent all the usual hours kicking a ball around his local park, for many years the extent of Edwards' ambition was to play for his local team, Kingswinford Colts.

His formative years were spent with Wordsley Wasps, along school pal Neil Perks, and then by 16 he was turning out for the senior side run by Neil's dad Malcolm in the Kidderminster League.

Then moving on to Oldswinford, Edwards soon became fairly hot property on the non-league scene even if, at the time, he wasn't massively aware of it.

A Wolves side strapped for cash and fresh from those back-to-back relegations were scouring the net for young talent, although an initial hope of checking out Edwards were dashed because he was away in Germany with Oldswinford's youth team.

Then came the pre-season friendly, and lining up against his home-town club.

"I didn't really go to Wolves games because I was always playing at weekends but my family and friends all went down," Edwards recalls.

"For me it was mainly about finishing my Tuesdays and Thursdays working as a roofer, grabbing some pie and chips and heading over to The Dell to train with Oldswinford.

Brentford vs Wolves programme

"I wasn't aware of Wolves' interest when we played that game, but what I do remember is having a few 'words' with Nicky Clarke who I was up against!

"It was in the clubhouse after that (Wolves manager) Sammy Chapman came over and said he wanted to sign me.

"I was actually on a roof in Coseley on the Thursday when I got the message that it had all been agreed and I went home to tell my Dad who was in bed as he worked nights.

"Then all of a sudden I am at Molineux, signing the paperwork and being given all the kit including a pair of Nike boots which I absolutely loved.

"I knew Wolves were in dire straits a little bit but I was only 19, and I hadn't got a clue what was going on really.

"It was all so new to me as while I had grown up wanting to play football I had never been at a professional club before and had no idea how it worked.

"I remember thinking that this sort of thing didn't really happen to a council house kid from Wall Heath!"

Indeed. This was not so much Roy of the Rovers but Neil of the Wolves. Although there was a reminder of very recent days gone by when the pre-match meal at the hotel pre-Brentford included an option of chips – his staple pre-match diet - which quickly vanished when spotted by the coaching staff.

Whilst those fans gathered at Molineux as the coach departed weren't aware of Edwards' identity the strong travelling contingent at Brentford – Wolves always travel well even when times are tough – were singing his name during the warm-up.

"There were a few experienced lads around the squad alongside us younger ones and I remember asking 'Kingy' (Andy King) what I was supposed to do when the fans were singing my name," he recalls.

"He told me to go up and give them a little round of applause and a wave to say thank you.

"There were a couple of thousand Wolves fans who had travelled for the game and I was a bit embarrassed by the attention – it was all a bit alien to me if I'm honest.

"But then like everyone says, as soon as the game started and I got out on that pitch I didn't notice much else and just concentrated on what I was doing.

"To go out there and get a goal, I have looked back at the picture in the programme a few times where I rounded the keeper, it was the best feeling.

"Memories like that will stay with me forever – they can't be beaten."

Up against Wolves defender Rob Hindmarch (who has since passed away)

Edwards made a considerable early impact in his Wolves career albeit at a time when the team was struggling.

Defying the rise in levels having moved from non-league he notched seven goals in 11 games at a time when fellow opening-day debutants Purdie and Clarke also opened their Wolves accounts early on.

What was the secret to bridging such a substantial gap so quickly?

"I am that kind of person who doesn't really get too fazed by anything," is the reply.

"But I am certainly not going to sit here and say I was a great player technically or had a great touch.

"The two things I do believe I had was raw pace – I could get to the ball first, and I was powerful.

"When I first started men's football at the age of 16 everyone would joke that I was so small and fast I could run through players legs after knocking the ball past them.

"By the time I got to Wolves I had been working as a roofer and was a lot stronger.

"And finding the back of the net was never a problem.

"I remember Tim Flowers, at Wolves at the time, doing an interview where he said he wasn't keen to get in the way of any of my shots because he didn't want to injure his hand!

"And that was me really.

"You hear a lot of talk in football about strikers placing the ball and picking their spot but for me it was always about just trying to hit the ball hard and low.

"Sometimes it might hit the keeper, sometimes it would go in, but the raw aggression I had and perhaps a natural instinct for finishing were the main attributes I had."

That Edwards was unable to build on such a stirring start at a time when Wolves most definitely needed him was down to one of those cruel twists of footballing fate and 'if only' moments.

Namely, injuries.

Scoring on his debut at Brentford

Cruciate knee ligament damage sustained against Walsall at the end of his scoring streak ruled Edwards out of the remainder of the 1985/86 season and, when returning the following campaign, he suffered a broken leg against Burnley after which he only made one further Wolves appearance.

During this time the management pendulum swung from Chapman, to Bill McGarry, back to Chapman and Brian Little in a spell of turbulence which only settled down when Graham Turner arrived, followed by those key signings including a certain other striker by the name of Steve Bull.

Edwards, however, believes the ship had already stabilised and was moving in the right direction under Little, and believes, that whilst he played under Turner and might have been in with a shout of a new contract without injuries, working with

Little might have been particularly beneficial as he himself had suffered a cruciate issue during his career.

The promise with which he launched his Wolves career, his attitude, enthusiasm and eye for goal surely lends itself to a tale of 'what might have been' when it comes to Edwards.

At one point he was playing out wide with Bull and Andy Mutch up front and Purdie on the opposite flank. At that stage, unsurprisingly, Wolves were banging the goals in.

But Edwards remains philosophical.

"It was what it was with the injuries, and there wasn't anything I could really do about it.

"I know some people found it very hard when they got injured and I understand that but I kind of just accepted it and got on with the treatment and trying to get back.

"I had never been injured before I went to Wolves, and so I just dusted myself down and picked myself up to fight and get back.

"If I'm honest the only thing I am really gutted about looking back, is wondering about just how far I might have gone in the game, how good I might have been.

"I had started so well at Wolves so with training every day, carrying on playing regularly, where might that have taken me?

"I only played one more game after the broken leg and then it was the end of my contract and that was it.

"I was gutted to leave and got upset as you do but that's life although there will always be that thought about what might have happened without the injuries."

Wolves didn't signal the conclusion of Edwards' football career but it was within the league set-up, albeit not for the want of trying.

He moved to Kettering Town whom in the 1988/89 season were pipped for the Conference title and a place in the Football League by Maidstone United, having also progressed to the fourth round of the FA Cup and a narrow defeat at Charlton, then in the top division.

Alan Buckley had been Edwards' manager at Kettering, and offered him the possibility of moving back into the league with Grimsby, but by this point he was settled in Northamptonshire and opted to stay put.

After finishing playing, which included further stints with Corby and Rothwell, he would spend the best part of another three decades in Kettering, completing engineering and electrician qualifications and working for many years at Weetabix.

More recently Edwards has moved to Hemel Hempstead and, at 55, has been able to semi retire, now working three days a week on his own business taking on handyman style tasks in the local area.

He is hoping to retune a much-loved musical sideline as well, having spent many years in a band as a lead singer and guitarist performing at weddings, parties and charity functions.

For many years he kept the football flames burning by turning out for Wolves Allstars, the team made up of former players involved in charity games to 'give back in gold and black'.

A knee replacement 18 months ago means his future involvement may be more in supporting from pitchside rather than tucking the goals away up front, but he remains in touch with many from his days at Molineux.

And, rest assured, while his total of 36 games and seven goals at Molineux may have been surpassed by many, the memories will never fade.

"I made a lot of great friends while I was at Wolves, and enjoyed every minute of it," he declares.

"I am still good friends with Purds (Purdie) and a few others and loved coming down to play for the Allstars.

"I loved playing for Wolves too, every minute of it, and even if I had only made a couple of appearances I would have felt that way.

"The Wolves fans were always unbelievable with me, and even if it wasn't with the same numbers as there are now, they always made so much noise.

"There were some brilliant times, even though the club were having difficulties, and nobody can ever take that away from me.

"To be at Wolves for three years was unbelievable, and I would always thank everyone who gave me the opportunity to do that – the club, the staff, my team-mates, the fans.

"I have done a few talks to young players and the one thing I always try and instil in them is that they always have to believe there is a chance.

"Just because they are 14 or 15, if they haven't been spotted, it doesn't mean the end, because I was 19 before I turned pro.

"Even if they haven't found a club by then, they should never give up, and keep believing in that dream."

For Edwards, he fulfilled that dream which, whilst sadly fleeting from a Wolves point of view, was certainly memorable, and one in which he made the journey from non-league to Football League so successfully within a matter of just days.

And it all began at Brentford.

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