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Robbie Dennison: 'The ground was falling apart, you were training in a car park. But that just creates spirit at a club'

Ex-NI ace Robbie Dennison on his 10-year stay at Wolves, and rooming with young Frank Lampard

Familiar colours: Robbie Dennison proudly shows off his Wolves shirt from the 1988 Sherpa Vans trophy final
Familiar colours: Robbie Dennison proudly shows off his Wolves shirt from the 1988 Sherpa Vans trophy final
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

As the Crusaders players first took to the Molineux pitch on Wednesday evening, some 24 hours before taking on Wolves in the Europa League, defender Sean Ward did so with his mobile phone in his hand, videoing the pristine Premier League facilities for posterity.

The first ground purpose-built for a football league club back in 1889 did not always inspire such awe and wonder though, as one of the club's 1980s cult heroes, Robbie Dennison, can attest.

A midfielder capped 18 times by Northern Ireland, Dennison grew up just outside Lurgan, part of a family that spawned two international sportsmen, with brother David going on to play cricket for Ireland.

And his nephew, Gary Hamilton, manages the club he grew up supporting, Glenavon.

As a youngster, he'd never thought of football as a career, not in those long days knocking a ball around from morning until night, not when he made his debut for Glenavon as a 16-year-old, and certainly not when he was still plying his trade in the Irish League some six years later.

A tricky left winger with an eye for goal, a move across the water seemed inevitable. Instead, the wait was almost interminable.

Trials at Brighton, Chelsea and Oxford United came and went, and the young Dennison debated whether, alongside playing for Glenavon, sorting the wages in a Lurgan factory was to be his career path.

On run: Robbie Dennison in action for Wolves against Manchester City at Molineux in 1995
On run: Robbie Dennison in action for Wolves against Manchester City at Molineux in 1995

"It was a frustrating time, an anxious one," he admits.

"I was 22. When you get to that age, you do start to think that your chance has gone.

"But there was a testimonial game at Glenavon and (current Northern Ireland assistant boss) Jimmy Nicholl, who was at West Brom at the time, came over to play. He went back to the Hawthorns and recommended me to (former Manchester United and Leeds midfielder) Johnny Giles, who was manager then.

"It was all very fortunate because not many players get over at that age. It sort of felt like the last chance saloon for me by that stage but you need a bit of luck in life, don't you?"

West Brom proved to be something of a false start. As his contract wound down in 1987, a deadline day move to Wolves for a fee in the region of £20k offered a lifeline.

"This was back when the transfer deadline was always 5pm on the third Thursday in March," Dennison remembers.

"Ron Saunders, who was manager of West Brom at the time, pulled us in, probably about two o'clock in the afternoon.

"I knew that I wasn't his type of player so I'd be looking for a new club either way or back to Ireland.

"I tried to have a bit of a laugh and a joke about it which Ron obviously didn't appreciate. I won't repeat what he said but basically it was get over to Wolves and don't come back."

Time was of the essence but, just 10 miles across the Black Country, at least the journey was short. Or it should have been.

"I didn't even know where Wolves was," Dennison laughs. "I came out of the office and (future England midfielder) Carlton Palmer just happened to be sitting there. I had to ask him how I got there. Thankfully he took me across because otherwise I still don't know if I'd have gotten there in time."

A club that had suffered recent financial turmoil, those first training sessions after the switch were behind a stand in the car park, a couple hundred fans watching on as players tiptoed around pot-holes and tried to avoid the large areas of flooding if there'd been rain the night before.

"The place was falling down around you," he laughs fondly. "There'd been a few tough years financially, they'd almost gone out of business. The club were just starting to get back on track, in the old Fourth Division (League 2). But the ground was falling apart, you were scrambling for kit, training in the car park. But that's what creates a spirit at a club and we had plenty of spirit in those days.

"If there'd been a big-time Charlie there, they wouldn't have lasted two minutes, not with those facilities."

While money was tight, Dennison wasn't the only recent recruit. Indeed, he'd followed two more signings from West Brom six months prior, Steve Bull and Andy Thompson. The trio, who would amass well over 1,000 appearances for the club, were central to a revitalisation that included back-to-back promotions.

Main attraction: Robbie Dennison with a group of Wolves supporters from Northern Ireland
Main attraction: Robbie Dennison with a group of Wolves supporters from Northern Ireland

Dennison jokes that the difference between goals and assists is that while he and Thompson are fondly remembered, Bull has an OBE and a stand named after him. It's in jest though. Even after an international career that saw him go up against the likes of Robert Prosinecki, Paolo Maldini and Emilio Butrageuno, Bull's single-minded goalscoring was one of the most impressive things Dennison ever saw on the pitch.

"We have a laugh with Bully but his record for Wolves will never be beaten," he says. "Everyone has their different jobs to do.

"Bully's job was to score goals and he'd push you out of the way to do it."

While even the likes of Joao Moutinho and Reuben Neves will always be playing for second place in Wolves fans' hearts, it was Dennison, not Bull, that claimed the glory when the side were at Wembley in the 1988 Sherpa Vans trophy final.

The side had played at the home of English football not long prior in a centenary tournament - Dennison scored that day, smashing a strike into the opposite top corner against no less a figure than Neville Southall - but it was the afternoon they lifted what is now the EFL trophy that stirs the emotions.

In front of more than 80,000 - a record for the competition that stood until earlier this year when Sunderland met Portsmouth - Wolves confirmed their upward trajectory with a 2-0 win over Burnley.

Dennison, whose efforts from similar positions had been so bad in training that week that his manager tried to relieve him of dead ball duties, curled in the second from a free-kick just outside the box. The victory saw Wolves bequeathed a mini-bus for a prize but it was the silverware, alongside the Fourth Division title in the same season, that made fans believe the dark days of recent years were over.

Until Wily Boly powered a header past Hugo Lloris in the Premier League meeting with Spurs last December, Dennison remained the last player to score at Wembley wearing the gold and black.

"Yeah, I've no records left now," he laughs, once again with heavy self-deprecation. "Whenever I was a kid, the FA Cup final was the major thing, watching the sides run out at Wembley. Not in an FA Cup final, but to do that yourself, it's a fantastic feeling. You want to win the game but you'd be lying if you were to deny it's nice to have it on the CV that you scored.

"When you look back, to be able to show those videos to people, it's nice."

As the 1980s gave way to the '90s, Wolves were transformed, in no small part by the financial injection provided by lifelong fan Sir Jack Hayward, but Dennison's days as a first-team regular were nearing an end.

Graham Taylor came in, fresh off his unseemly parting with England, and preferred the likes of Tony Daley and Steve Froggart, but still gave Dennison enough games to warrant an extension and ultimately a testimonial. When the end came, then under Mark McGhee, it was 1997.

"I felt really lucky to play for a club like that for 10 years. You know that it's going to come to an end but you just don't want it too. It's a tough thing, it's never nice," he said.

"But I was 34 when I left, and halfway through that last season I'd had to prepare myself."

His subsequent trail around the leagues did bring him one unlikely room-mate. Two players at opposite ends of their careers, both he and Frank Lampard were loaned to Swansea, a double room together in a hotel that was home for a few months.

"I'm glad to see he's not struggling anyway," jokes Dennison of the recently-appointed Chelsea manager, now back at Stamford Bridge after a legendary playing career in west London.

"He was a kid at that stage and West Ham loaned him out. I think he stayed three months, I was there two. He was a really nice lad but if you'd told me all the things he'd achieve, that would have been hard for anyone to predict I think."

Sometimes amazing journeys start from unlikely beginnings. Dennison's Wolves career is testament to that.

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