Johnny Phillips' Bitten By Wolves: Paul Butler on big money stars
In the third part of the Express & Star’s serialisation of Johnny Phillips’ new book Bitten By Wolves: Stories From The Soul Of Molineux, meets up with the captain of the team that ended 19 years of hurt, and learns of the dressing room failings he found on his arrival at the club.
“I got put up in The Mount Hotel, where we are now. Rachael Heyhoe Flint, God rest her soul, met me here and that was my first impression of Wolves.”
Paul Butler is sitting in the Great Hall of the grade-II listed hotel in Tettenhall.
It is still used today by the club as a base for players arriving in the city for the first time. That first impression he is talking about came in November 2000, when manager Colin Lee brought him to Molineux to bolster a struggling defence. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“I came down on loan from Sunderland, basically just to get some games as I’d been injured up there,” Butler says.
“I was put up in The Mount, then I got brought to the training ground the next morning. It was just a tennis club, there was nothing there at all really, just a couple of pitches. But what stuck out straight away to me was the high profile players – and I won’t mention any names – who weren’t doing anything.
“They were just happy to be on a joy-ride at the place, getting paid big money at the time – big, big money – and they just didn’t want to do the work. They were only here for the one thing, which was the money. You could smell that straight away and I remember talking to Colin, saying, ‘You’ve got problems in here’, and he said, ‘I know, that’s why I’ve brought you down, to sort it out!’ After the first couple of games there were issues.
“With the current team, if anybody is out of the side they’re supportive.
“In that period they weren’t and there were a lot of big name players not playing, and they were quite happy not to play, just sit on the medical bench and pull big money. It hurt, because I’d just come from the background of Sunderland – where it was a team of players like Micky Gray, Kevin Phillips, Niall Quinn, Nicky Summerbee, Chris Makin and Steve Bould – into a dressing room where they didn’t want to know. You could see Colin had a big issue on his hands.”
Lee’s time at the helm is a largely forgotten one. He got the job soon after Mark McGhee’s departure in November 1998, having served as an assistant to the Scot. After Lee’s own dismissal in December 2000, Dave Jones accepted the managerial challenge. It was a job that was becoming a poisoned chalice following the promotion failures of the 1990s.
One of Jones’s early decisions was to coax Butler back from Sunderland after his loan spell had ended to sign him on a permanent basis. Wolves stabilised over the remainder of the 2000/01 season to occupy an all too familiar mid-table position finishing 12th in the First Division, as it was then.
That summer, the purse strings were loosened and Jones was able to put his own stamp on the squad. Seven players left during the close season, with Mark Kennedy and Shaun Newton coming in. As the season progressed, other signings were made. Colin Cameron, Nathan Blake and Alex Rae arrived during the opening two months of the campaign, with Kenny Miller and Dean Sturridge joining them mid-season. Butler identified the new manager’s qualities immediately.
“His man-management. His judgment of players. He would go out personally and identify the players,” he explains. “He had a recruitment team but I can guarantee it was the character of the player that he wanted first.
“He would identify a player, even in a lower league game he could pick something out in a player that he could see and mould into something. It’s how he could get the team to work together.
“He would bring in characters that should never play with each other really and he got them working with each other. Even in the bad times where we got beaten in the play-offs and we were losing games he used to stay calm.
“I’ve probably seen him lose his head twice, maybe three times, in all the time I’ve known him. His man-management was good and he had good coaches around him.
“I always remember him saying, ‘Managers manage and coaches coach’.”
That play-off semi-final defeat to Norwich City at the end of the 2001/02 season went down as one of the most desperate moments for Wolves supporters in the club’s entire history.
It was not a low ebb – the 1980s provided that – but it was the manner of the failure that hit hard. Jones’s men had an 11-point lead over West Bromwich Albion in March, who had a game in hand, which was squandered with just seven games remaining.
Albion secured the second automatic promotion place with 89 points, finishing three clear of Wolves.
Losing out to sixth-placed Norwich City – who finished 11 points behind Wolves – in the play-offs was a bitter pill to swallow.
‘You’ve Let Us Down Again’ read a banner in the South Bank as the final whistle sounded against the East Anglian club. Speaking to Dave Jones several months after that, he revealed that he took umbrage to the banner.
“How could we have let them down again? We weren’t here before.” It was a fair point, but supporters had lost the ability to distinguish between this and previous failures. In their eyes, it was one more in a continuous run of setbacks.
Butler acknowledges that the manager and players had messed up in the final run-in but reveals that within the squad there was none of the resignation that had inevitably overcome supporters who had been scarred once too often.
“We had played so well to get where we did and then we just let ourselves down. We came back in to training after the summer and the fans were talking about that play-off semi-final as if the chance had gone.
“Sometimes it does go, but we just got our heads down.”
And what followed in 2002/03 proved to be the most memorable season of the decade…
Bitten by Wolves: Stories from the Soul of Molineux is on sale now at the Wolves club shop, Waterstones, WHSmith and Amazon.