Mention the words “pie and a pint” to football fans in a certain part of the Black Country and it is guaranteed to send a shiver down their spine.
Every derby rivalry has it’s jaw-dropping moments and for Wolves and West Bromwich Albion, it arrived before an FA Cup fourth-round tie between the two sides at Molineux in 2007.
FA Cup allocation rules meant Wolves had to give Albion more than 5,000 tickets for the game – putting them on the horns of a dilemma when police refused to allow them to be housed below home supporters in the Steve Bull Stand because of crowd trouble at previous big games.
Wolves instead handed over the whole of the Jack Harris Stand – known locally as the South Bank – which is the spiritual home of the club’s most boisterous, loyal fans. The decision sparked supporter outrage, accusations of “selling out” to the club’s bitterest rivals and also meant 3,000 season ticket holders were turfed out and replaced by Albion fans for the biggest game of the year.
Scrambling to repair the PR damage the club’s chief executive Jez Moxey offered fans impacted a free pie and pint by way of an apology for “lack of communication” around the issue. It did little to assuage the fury, with Albion fans taunting the home support about the offer throughout the game – which a far stronger Baggies side prevailed in 3-0.
To make matters worse, many came armed with Tesco carrier bags – striped blue and white like Albion’s home shirts back then – which they left on the seats. It was a calamitous error of judgement on Wolves’ behalf, later named one of the six worst decisions in the club’s history by local paper the Birmingham Mail.
Moxey later sent himself up for it in a club promotional video – depicted with a pie, pint and two Thomas the Tank Engine toys as a nod to his nickname as the “Fat Controller” of the club – but there was no washing away the indelible mark it left in this 138-year rivalry.
“There was a real sour taste in people’s mouths about that one,” Karl Henry, who played in midfield for Wolves that day, tells i.
“I do remember it sort of overshadowed the day but let’s be honest, no-one would have cared if we’d have won the game. Yeah, it wasn’t a great day to be part of.”
Henry is Wolverhampton born and bred and played 250 times for his boyhood club so is uniquely qualified to talk about what makes the Black Country derby one of the bitterest rivalries in English football.
“It’s a massive occasion, all the build-up, the interest. We hate them and they hate us,” he says, succinctly.
“They were intense weeks before the game and at the Hawthorns, as a Wolves player, you can 100% feel the antagonism. You’re going into the Lion’s Den, they give you all kinds of stick, and then you walk out at the Hawthorns and see the Wolves fans in their numbers.
“The atmosphere is just incredible and it’s one where I wish I was going to be part of it.”
There is an edge to this rivalry that has got sharper as time has progressed. A chunk of that is down to the fairytale story of Steve Bull, sold by Albion to Wolves in 1986 at the age of 21 after boss Ron Saunders told him that his first touch wasn’t good enough to play at the highest level.
Bull rolled up at a run down Molineux with his close friend Andy Thompson in an orange Ford Cortina, recalling that he spotted cockroaches in the kitchen on his first day. Wolves were in the doldrums, a fourth division club going nowhere and firmly in the shadow of neighbours who probably regarded Aston Villa as more fitting rivals.
Bull became a bona fide Wolves legend, breaking the club’s goalscoring record and almost single-handedly dragging the club back up through the divisions. His 306 goals included a pair of memorable Black Country derby winners.
Despite his Albion rejection Bull never stoked the fire of rivalry – indeed he once said his preference was for all the Midlands clubs to be in the top division – but by bringing the two clubs closer to parity he inadvertently sparked the animosity that surrounds Sunday’s game.
Albion undoubtedly have the edge and bragging rights in recent times. Few in the region need to be reminded that in 2002 it was the Baggies who profited when Wolves agonisingly stumbled in the Division One promotion run-in. They squandered the 10 point advantage they held over the Baggies with 10 games remaining and the fall-out at Molineux endured even though promotion was achieved the following season.
Wolves have just one win in the last 10 fixtures, with Albion also winning a Championship play-off duel in 2007 and inflicting a 5-1 Molineux defeat in 2012 that was to cost Mick McCarthy his job. Sales of the commemorative DVD put out by Albion a few days later were suitably brisk.
Wolves pain has been particularly pronounced at the Hawthorns, where they have not won since 1996. Supporters see Sunday as a chance to redress the balance and Henry senses a shift in power.
“What I’m excited about is the tide has turned. When I played for Wolves we were second best to them largely. I always felt we were up against it. They had the finance and they had our number,” he says.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to from a Wolves perspective says the same thing: we hope our quality shines through on the day. We feel like it’s our time now and I would love it if we could avenge the 5-1 defeat.”
There may be a gap between the two sides now but it is not a chasm, which is what adds intrigue to this fixture. Albion are in a state of flux off-the-field, up for sale and with a deeply unpopular owner in Guochuan Lai, but Carlos Corberan has them in contention for promotion from the Championship and playing a decent brand of football.
Wolves were widely tipped for relegation after a summer clear-out prompted by Financial Fair Play concerns and the departure of Julen Lopetegui but Gary O’Neil has been an inspired choice to replace him. They are ticking along very nicely.
“He has endeared himself to Wolves fans, he really has,” explains Henry, a former teammate of O’Neil’s at QPR.
“I love their intensity. He’s been incredible, he’s taken everyone by surprise. He’s really tactically astute, he’s a calming influence and has handled the adversity around refereeing decisions this season really well.
“When they took him on a lot of fans saw him as a stopgap appointment but he’s so much more than that.”
It was a measure of how much the game meant to the region that last week’s comeback win over Brentford – which set up Sunday’s game – was arguably one of the most important of O’Neil’s reign. In the eyes of many fans – Henry included – the importance O’Neil attached to the fixture illustrated that he “gets it” and understands the importance and significance of playing Albion in front of fans for the first time in 12 years (there was a pandemic behind-closed-doors double header in 2021).
“I’ve heard people say they’d take relegation as long as we beat West Brom,” Henry chuckles.
“That’s how serious it is, that’s how much people want to win this game.”