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Johnny Phillips: Wolves fire was by no means the worst Molineux has faced

Last weekend’s blaze in the Billy Wright Stand may have jogged some memories among supporters old enough to remember the last time the stadium was involved in a fire.

WOLVERHAMPTON COPYRIGHT EXPRESS & STAR JAMIE RICKETTS 23/01/2022 - GV - Molineux - After a fire broke out in the early hours of Sunday morning. Taken at 8.30am Sunday..
WOLVERHAMPTON COPYRIGHT EXPRESS & STAR JAMIE RICKETTS 23/01/2022 - GV - Molineux - After a fire broke out in the early hours of Sunday morning. Taken at 8.30am Sunday..

Although the incident in the Sir Jack Hayward Suite has caused extensive damage, it was brought under control quickly and fire fighters were able to leave the scene a few hours after they arrived last Sunday morning.

Not so 30 years ago, when Molineux became the scene of one of domestic football’s most extraordinary stories. Wolves supporters waking up on the morning of Saturday, May 2, 1992, were greeted with the news that firefighters, police and the army had arrived at Molineux to pick up the pieces of a shocking break-in at the stadium.

The Waterloo Road Stand had been set alight overnight in an arson attack. Meanwhile, administration offices in the stand had been ransacked and explosive cartridges had been dug into the pitch. It cast a huge shadow over that afternoon’s Second Division promotion showdown against Middlesbrough, who were fighting Derby County for the last automatic promotion spot to reach the Premier League ahead of its inaugural season.

Wolves manager that day, Graham Turner, still has strong memories of the incident three decades on.

“It was an incredible situation,” he recalls. “The feeling was that if one of the players’ aluminium studs had made the right sort of contact with the cartridge tips in the pitch there was an outside chance they could have exploded. I was there all morning with the armed forces and the police, it was just unheard of. They found these cartridges just embedded in the turf.”

In total, 32 cartridges were discovered on the pitch by the bomb squad and it quickly became clear to Turner that there was a real doubt about whether the game could take place. In the pre-digital era with no internet or social media for updates, fans began calling the club for news. Turner took several of those calls in the club’s offices.

“At that stage you got involved in everything,” he adds. “I had gone in early after being alerted to what had happened. The search of the pitch was incredible. They went across the turf with metal detectors and partitioned the pitch off into sections and then marked off each one that they covered. Nobody was allowed onto the pitch until they had finished. The authorities dealt with it very well.”

One of the offices ransacked by the intruders was that of club secretary, Keith Pearson, who had been working at Wolves since 1977. Pearson had seen plenty of highs and more frequent lows during a turbulent decade in the 80s, but the arson attack and pitch intrusion was a new one even for him.

“Keith was terrific at his job, so full of enthusiasm for the club in those very difficult times,” Turner explains. “From a manager’s point of view, you need a good relationship with what would now be the chief executive but in those days would be the club secretary. We got on ever so well, Keith was so helpful at a difficult time for me when I first went into the club, as I wasn’t exactly first choice. When you think of the state of the ground back in those days it was a horrendous time for the club but by then it was starting to come right again after the promotions.”

It was not the first time the Waterloo Road Stand had been damaged. Three years earlier some home supporters put the dressing room windows in when Wolves lost the Sherpa Van Trophy semi-final to Torquay United.

“The old dressing room backed straight on to the road,” Turner explains. “I remember the players, who were already dejected that they’d missed out on Wembley again, sat there with glass in their hair. It all ended well though, as we got promoted again.”

Molineux at the time of that Middlesbrough match in 1992 represented a snapshot of several eras. The Waterloo Road Stand, which had been closed to spectators since the mid-80s, and huge South Bank harked back to the glory days. The John Ireland Stand, marooned 50 yards from the touchline, illustrated the folly of poor financial decisions which bankrupted the club. Yet, rising proudly in place of the North Bank was the new Stan Cullis Stand, which was nearing completion. It was the first tangible sign of Sir Jack Hayward’s investment, which would extend to redevelopments on two other sides of the ground before the new Molineux was officially opened with a prestige friendly against Honved in December the following year.

“When Sir Jack went in his first thoughts were to rebuild the ground totally,” Turner continues. “He asked me to keep my powder dry with transfers as the money was needed for getting the club right and getting the ground up to standard again, and they did a terrific job with that.”

After a significant clear-up operation the Middlesbrough game was given the go-ahead with a huge police presence inside and outside Molineux. One theory being explored by the authorities was that the IRA was responsible for the attack. This was six years before the Good Friday Agreement and mainland terror attacks were a feature of The Troubles. Other rumours of who was to blame ran wild among supporters, especially as the Waterloo Road Stand was being demolished soon after the season’s conclusion.

Five thousand travelling Boro fans made the trip down from the North-East for the game, and there were several clashes between rival supporters before, during and after the match, with a total of 38 arrests. The violence even extended to the pitch, with Middlesbrough eventually winning 2-1 with 10 men and securing a famous promotion.

Sir Jack offered a £100,000 reward for any information that would bring the culprits to account, but despite a lengthy investigation the perpetrators were never found. The day Molineux came under attack remains one of Wolverhampton’s most infamous unsolved crimes.

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