Quite what this wizard of the wing – and that tag should probably have capital first letters given how firmly stuck to him it became – was doing playing in the Fourth Division at all is open to debate. No less a judge than Johnny Giles had taken him to Albion while they were struggling in the top flight and was probably not surprised that a man from the other side of the Irish border was still appearing in the higher reaches of the second grade a full ten years later, with 18 senior international caps to his name.
Some will remember the Wolves renaissance of the late 1980s as being all about Bull and Mutch. That is an affront to the contributions of any number of others, though, and high on that list of fellow cast members is the latest inductee to the club’s hall of fame from that lower-division generation.
Loyalty, longevity, quality and achievement are all part of the Dennison story after his Hawthorns flirtation with the Liverpools, Manchester Uniteds and Arsenals ended, following one or two heavy defeats, with the realisation he would be better served by a move elsewhere.
In the wake of Steve Bull, Andy Thompson and Alistair Robertson heading the same way, he made one of the shortest moves of all, nine miles or so up the A41 to launch his career afresh at the lower end of the Football League, even if he hadn’t known Wolverhampton was when told by Ron Saunders that he was free to go for talks shortly before the annual spring transfer deadline.
Just in time to make his debut at home to Swansea, a club he would later serve on loan, Dennison checked in for an initial £15,000 in March, 1987, with his fee later rising to £27,500. Not bad value, was he! He didn’t score in his first game but four of his team-mates did, which was pretty much the way of it during a run-in during which Graham Turner’s side swept aside all before them in a storming run of 15 victories in 19 games.
The 23-year-old was the 31st and last player introduced by Brian Little and then Turner in that bitter-sweet Division Four campaign; one that brought him a first goal in a Saturday lunchtime success at Tranmere and a first at Molineux when Torquay provided the opposition two weeks later. Both strikes proved to be match winners and underlined a key point; namely that he didn’t mind getting his hands and knees dirty at the earthier end of the professional game despite those earlier outings at Old Trafford, Villa Park and beyond.
It would be easy to assume that his sometimes languid style made him reluctant to get in among the muck and bullets on pitches that were a far cry from the ones we see today. But we shouldn’t forget that he had experienced a tough upbringing in the game in Glenavon and, having also sampled working life in an office, was more than ready to fight to nail down a regular place following his time on the fringes with Albion.
Having played a part in a failed attempt at staving off top-flight relegation across the patch, he had now stepped into and improved a winning team at Molineux – one with promotion on their minds. We will never know but maybe the play-off outcome might have been different had he set foot on the pitch in the away leg of the final against Aldershot after also missing the final two League games.
Abject Bank Holiday weekend disappointment came with huge consolation, though, even if we had to wait a few months to appreciate that another year in the Fourth Division was no disaster. Following an indifferent start, Wolves emerged in 1987-88 as a side way too good for the company
they were keeping and Dennison and friends were double winners, the midfielder’s goal contribution throwing up some interesting pointers. His total was a respectable eight, of which one came in a Littlewoods Cup victory at Manchester City, another in an FA Cup triumph away to Third Division Wigan and, most memorably, a last offering via a stunning free-kick in the Sherpa Van Trophy final against Burnley.
Spotting a theme here? A love of the grand stage? He had even scored from long range against Everton in an earlier visit to Wembley for a special short-form tournament staged to mark the Football League’s centenary, so he was no shrinking violet in the glare of the greater spotlight.
Dennison had by now started to make a mark with Northern Ireland as well and was not part of the trend at the time of players born in one country playing for another through family lineage. He was from Banbridge, 45 minutes from Belfast, had the accent to prove it and, as a talented cricketer himself, had a brother David who had gone a step further and pulled on his whites to represent their country.
The first of Robbie’s senior caps in what we might term the winter sport came under Billy Bingham against France in that memorable spring of 1988 and Wolves’ feat in becoming the first club to win the titles of all four divisions did nothing to diminish his popularity at Windsor Park and beyond.
His career remained on a sharp upward curve as the end of the decade approached and, by now wearing the no 11 shirt with which he is most closely associated, he reached double figures in the scoring stakes, including a championship-clinching equaliser at home to Sheffield United, as the Third Division crown was added every bit as comfortably as the lower-grade one was secured 12 months earlier.
It wasn’t just respectability that was achieved by this latest promotion. Another by-product was the presence of Albion on Wolves’ fixture list again and Dennison marked the resumption of the Black Country derby by rifling in an equaliser against his former employers on the Sunday lunchtime that Bully slammed in a late Smethwick End winner. Once more a case of big games, big moments, big contribution.
Team goals may have come at a steadier rate from then on at the higher level but the regular occupant of the left-wing role ensured his share remained high as he grew into more demanding challenges. He accumulated nine more as a 51-match ever-present in 1989-90 and even netted in a specially arranged friendly away to his first club Glenavon just before the next season started.
His first three and a bit years in gold and black had brought him virtually half of the career-long total of 353 Wolves appearances that mean only 21 men have played more games for the club than he has. Which tells us that sightings of him were considerably fewer at times as the 1990s progressed.
The second half of 1993 was particularly challenging as he, Andy Mutch and Andy Thompson were deemed surplus to requirements, only for two of the three to re-emerge with honours and the other to be sold to Premier League newcomers Swindon. Another good pal and loyal stalwart, Keith Downing, had moved on earlier that summer.
Dennison racked up some 30 outings under Graham Taylor in 1994-95 after the new manager’s failed gamble on the blistering speed and less reliable fitness of Steve Froggatt and Tony Daley but was decidedly short of first-team opportunities under the former England boss’s successor, Mark McGhee. There was one final pleasing run in the side up to the mid-point of 1996-97, though, and that provided the platform for him to score his 49th and final Wolves goal – a delicious curling left-
foot shot from near the corner of the penalty area in a televised Molineux trouncing of Manchester City.
What a pity he couldn’t have added a scoring flourish when he was given the chance to say farewell in a substitute appearance in the last League game of the season but his status as a Molineux legend is guaranteed. The testimonial, with a game against recent Premier League champions Blackburn,he was given in between those of former Albion team-mates Thompson and Bull underlines his long service and popularity, as do aspects of his post-career life.
Following spells with Hednesford and Graham Turner’s Hereford, he returned to the fold in a different guise by having a substantial spell as a summariser on local radio in the Molineux press box, the footballing loves of his offspring ensuring the club have remained very close to his heart before and since. Oh and there was that fond reunion at the stadium with then Chelsea manager Frank Lampard more than 20 years on from when they were room-mates while on loan to Swansea in the late 1990s.
Away from the game which also brought him Northern Ireland youth recognition against the likes of Terry Connor and Tommy Caton and a single B international cap, Halesowen-based Dennison underwent a gruelling 565-mile cycle ride in 2015 from Mizen Head to Malin in the Republic of Ireland in aid of Diabetes UK and has spent the last few years cheerfully putting those limbs to good use in his life as a postman.
What we can neither confirm nor deny is whether he still likes getting to his feet and giving us his best ‘Danny Boy’ rendition, as he did at one of his testimonial events. Not one of the many team-mates who heard that performance or the smaller group who will help him celebrate his forthcoming 60th birthday with a golf break across the water, though, will be anything other than thrilled that Robbie Dennison will be on a different type of stage at Molineux very soon and in this elite band of gold.
He is a quality guy as well as having been a quality player.