Ricki’s Wolves

English football fan Greg Armstrong became a passionate follower of New Zealand football when, as a seven-year-old, he sat down in front of the TV to watch the All Whites take on Scotland at the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain. His affinity with Kiwi football was further enhanced when a member of the 1982 All Whites squad, Ricki Herbert, signed to play for Greg-s home club – Wolverhampton Wanderers. With Herbert now head coach at Wellington Phoenix FC, Greg has become a steadfast Phoenix supporter. Here he shares his memories of Herbert-s time with Wolves.

I OFTEN wonder what Ricki Herbert must have made of his time as a Wolverhampton Wanderers player.

Being a Wolves supporter in the mid-1980s certainly wasn-t pleasant. Three successive relegations, near bankruptcy, a dilapidated stadium and dwindling crowds made for a rather depressing atmosphere at Molineux on a match day. For older supporters, the glory years of the 1950s with frequent League and FA Cup triumphs and floodlit European games must have seemed a lifetime ago. Even the League Cup win in 1980 was becoming a distant memory. As a 10-year-old, it was a sobering first experience of watching football and supporting my team.

Wolves began the 1984/85 season in the old Division Two (what is now The Championship) following a humiliating last-place finish in the top division with just six victories all season. Legendary Scottish manager Tommy Docherty had taken over as manager, but, after a promising start, the now familiar slide down the table began.

Herbert-s arrival at Wolves was announced in the match-day programme for the home game with Wimbledon, two weeks before his actual debut. He had been touring Britain with the All Whites and Docherty, who had already worked with Ricki when manager at Sydney Olympic, decided to sign him after his performance in a game against Newcastle at St James- Park.

“He is very quick, good in the air and very determined,” commented Docherty. “He was always much too good for the game in Australia and I am surprised no one in this country has signed him before now. He will give us another option in a position where we vitally needed some cover. (Alan Dodd and John Pender were the only other central defenders at this time) If things go well for him, Ricki Herbert could make quite a name for himself in the game.”

Herbert was equally enthusiastic about the move: “The first problem will be to adjust to full-time training, but I don-t envisage any difficulties with that. I am looking forward to working again with Mr Docherty. He impressed me as a very good manager when we were together in Sydney and I was delighted he came in for me to play for Wolves. I cannot wait to start playing for Wolves on a regular basis. It has always been my ambition to play in the Football League and to do so with a club with such great traditions as this one is a tremendous thrill.”

Ricki made his Wolves debut on December 1, 1984 in a 1-0 home defeat against Brighton. In his programme notes for the following home game against Blackburn, Docherty said: “Our New Zealand signing Ricki Herbert has settled into the role (of sweeper) superbly and I reckon he is going to be a big success with the Wolves fans.”

While Ricki was undoubtedly popular on the terraces, putting in some sterling performances at centre-back, his appearance in the side coincided with a disastrous run of 19 league matches without a win, the team scoring just four goals in that time. Indeed, Ricki-s first victory in a Wolves shirt didn-t come until April 8, 1985 – 1-0 at Carlisle.

The team-s lack of firepower meant the defence was constantly under pressure, and the club once again finished bottom of the league, seven points from safety. It would be the first time the club had played in English football-s third flight for 61 years. Ricki had impressed though, making 25 league appearances and missing just one game.

In August 1985 the club survived another winding up order, and, after the fire at Bradford City-s Valley Parade stadium in May where 56 people tragically lost their lives, two sides of the Molineux ground were closed (the North Bank and Waterloo Road Stand) because of the potential fire risk. This made watching matches at Molineux a rather surreal experience for the fans and can hardly have been inspiring for the players.

Herbert began the new season at right-back but soon found himself in and out of the side as the calamitous results continued. Thirty goals were conceded in the first 10 games and a third successive relegation became inevitable. On and off the pitch, Wolves were a disaster. Following Docherty-s inevitable departure, Sammy Chapman temporarily took over as manager, to be replaced by Bill McGarry, who was managing the club for a second time. However, results didn-t improve and, after 61 days, Chapman was back in charge.

Financially, things were still desperate with stories of the players needing to have a whip-round at training to pay the club milkman. Rumours of a lack of professionalism among the players had also surfaced, with one player allegedly queuing up with supporters to buy a halftime burger! Crowds continued to plummet to less than three thousand, whilst a 6-0 hammering at Rotherham in the FA Cup was a definite lowlight on the pitch.

In such circumstances and with his international career suffering as a consequence, it is no wonder that Herbert asked to be placed on the transfer list in early 1986. His final game for Wolves came in a 1-1 draw at local rivals Walsall on February 9. A cold spell of weather now meant no games for almost a month, during which time Herbert received treatment on an ankle injury. However, on the eve of the Rotherham home game on March 8, the local Express and Star newspaper announced that Herbert, having received two offers to play back home in Auckland, would be leaving the club. Under the headline “Unhappy Herbert in Molineux walk-out”, he explained his reasons for leaving: “I-ve been looking to get away for a couple of months and believe it-s in my best interests to go…Going home is the only answer…. I don-t see eye to eye with the manager and when that happens, it-s no good banging your heads together. He-s given me explanations about why I-m in and out of the team and played in different positions, but I don-t find them satisfactory…By going home, I-m certainly not taking a backward step. The football over there is on a par with what I-ve played in here.”

The following Wednesday he returned home to New Zealand, having played 49 first-team games for the club. He got out just in time. Wolves were relegated again at the end of the season, conceding 98 goals and using 34 players along the way (including 18 debutants). Only victories in two of the final three games prevented a third successive bottom-placed finish, while the crowd of 2205 for the home game against Bury was the lowest in the club-s illustrious history. As this was the first game after Herbert-s departure, I like to think of this sparse crowd as a protest against his leaving.

Things could easily have worked out more successfully for Herbert in English football. In 1982 only work permit problems hindered his move to Southampton, a club that achieved great things in the early to mid-1980s, finishing second in the league to Liverpool and reaching two FA Cup semifinals. In many ways, Wolves was the right club at the wrong time for Herbert. I hope he still remembers his time at Wolverhampton fondly, as he was, and still is, respected by the fans for his performances, as well as being one of my childhood heroes. Being around the Wolves at that time was certainly an experience for everyone.