Airwolf '90: The story of Wolves' famous flights to Newcastle
Johnny Phillips on the amazing tale of Wolves' airlift to Newcastle for a memorable game between the teams on New Year's Day 1990
Last Updated: 27/10/19 12:13pm
In an extract from Johnny Phillips' new book 'Bitten by Wolves' he tells the tale of Wolves' 4-1 win at Newcastle on New Year's Day 1990 - English football's most ambitious airlift.
"Chaos is a very good word," says Albert Bates. The chairman of the Wolverhampton Wanderers Official Supporters' Club (WWOSC) is in his late 70s now. He is sitting in his living room, alongside his wife Muriel, the secretary and treasurer of the organisation. It is a place that was once the fulcrum of the most ambitious away day ever attempted in this country. A time when almost 1,000 supporters were airlifted to a football match, and witnessed their hero run amok. "Chaos, because we didn't anticipate anything going so manic. We thought it was wishful thinking, to jump on a plane."
Christmas-time fixtures remain the most popular matches of the season. The Premier League fixtures in 2018/19 bestowed two trips to London on Nuno Espirito Santo's side. A 1-1 draw at Fulham was followed by a memorable 3-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley. It made the hassles of away travel worth it for the 3,000 or so Wolves supporters who took in both games. The festive period often brings families and friends together, but it is also a time when travelling to the match can be difficult, with public transport regularly shut down. On New Year's Day 1990, Wolves fans embarked on the most ambitious day of travel ever undertaken by a group of supporters in this country. This is their story.
The WWOSC was formed in 1984. Its early years were spent battling against the regime of the Bhatti Brothers as Wolves lurched from one crisis to the next, eventually going into receivership as a Fourth Division club. By the 1989/90 season the club was riding the crest of a wave. Graham Turner's team, fuelled by the astonishing scoring feats of striker Steve Bull, had just won back-to-back promotions as Fourth and Third Division title winners. Wolves were now holding their own in the Second Division and, whilst never likely to challenge for a third automatic promotion in a division of big hitters like Leeds United, Newcastle United, West Ham United and Sunderland, they were pulling off some decent results.
Wolves had been taking a healthy away following to matches for the past two seasons. A trip to Newcastle on 1 January was an exciting prospect, but for many supporters the prospect of a long drive or coach journey to Tyneside the morning after the New Year's Eve festivities was deeply unappealing.
George Dawidow was 38 at the time, and running a successful business as a bedding manufacturer. A home and away diehard, he was determined not to miss the trip, so got together with some friends, months in advance of the fixture, to plot a course to the North East. "A five-and-a-half hour journey on a coach? That was a bit too much for us with all the alcohol so we thought about a plane," he explains. Crucial to their plans was Albert, then working as a technical sales engineer for Dana Spicer.
"I had contacts within the air industry, not directly with aircraft, but with support equipment at the airports," says Albert. "They naturally assumed I might know somebody who'd give them the opportunity of flying to Newcastle. That's how it kicked off, three or four businessmen asking if I could organise something for them because they didn't fancy a five or six hour drive having been on the pop the night before."
Albert made some enquiries and came back with a cost well in excess of £300. For a while the idea seemed to have stalled, but days later the businessmen returned and said there were a few more people interested in flying. When Albert made some more enquiries, the cost came down again, but still there did not seem to be enough people involved to make it a commercially viable prospect.
It was at this point Albert received an unexpected phone call at his home. "It was from an ex-pilot called 'Rick', whom we didn't know. He rang here completely out of the blue, there was no intermediary, unless someone within the airline industry said there's an opportunity to charter an aircraft and gave him our number. He said he had heard we were looking for a plane.
"At that time we said we weren't really, but he said not to turn people away, if the word gets out and we get enough people then logic says the price will tumble and we might find ourselves being able to put the aircraft on."
'Rick' was Ian Rixon, a former Dan Air pilot who had set up his own business, Farnborough Executive Aviation, as a charter broker.
"So we put an advertisement in the Wolves programme as the official supporters' club, so that people would know this wasn't some kind of crank or anything like that, because quite frankly that's the way we looked at it. It went manic, just jumping - 30 people, 40, 50 and so on. I was getting rather concerned because we kept ringing this guy 'Rick'," Albert continues.
"He kept reassuring us that, however many it was, he would match the number of fans with the plane. And I took him at his word, because he knew his business. When it got to 80 he said, 'I can get you a Boeing 737 airliner for that number of people', and the price came down again. The plane, as it turned out, was based at Birmingham so it was only taking into account the price of the seats from there and the landing fees and so forth. Then it spiralled beyond that, the grapevine became enormous when people knew that there was a jet airliner going. Another lot came on and the numbers grew very quickly."
The numbers kept on growing. One plane became two, then three, then four and so on. Eventually enough supporters had signed up for the trip to fill six planes. Rixon had chartered the Boeings from Monarch Airlines. Suspicions had been raised at the top of the company.
"The doorbell went here one day and it turned out to be two directors from Monarch Airlines who had come to see us," Albert says. "They were well dressed and presentable, and asked if they could have a word with us. They said that on average they might get around 300 enquiries a day to charter an airline, and if two of them come off they've had a good day. They said, 'Then Mr Bloggs walks in off the street and charters the entire fleet, none of us believed that was possible'."
The Bates's home in Penn had become a hive of activity. Supporters were turning up at the door at all times of the day trying to pay for a seat on the trip.
"I was dressed in my nightie and dressing gown and all I was doing was opening my door to men," remembers Muriel. "There were men coming in and men going out, cars pulling in and cars pulling out. They wore my carpet out, literally. I wrote them all receipts with their names and addresses and phone numbers so it took a lot of time to do things, and they'd just be waiting in our living room.
"At one point, when we checked, we had around £75,000 in cash," Bates reveals. "A lot of it we didn't know who it belonged to, we must have had envelopes all stuffed with money. We were getting phone calls day and night saying, 'Have you had my money?' We were trying to match people to postcodes. It spiralled to a stupid level where we couldn't keep the money here any longer, it had got out of control from our point of view.
"We'd get calls from people all over the country wanting to join up with various relatives and friends. Monarch sent us all the tickets and asked us to do the manifest for each aircraft because we knew who the people were; all the families and who mixed with who. We were writing out manifests trying to colour code families to bring them together on the bloody airplanes because they were joining up late. It was a nightmare trying to bring the people together and move them around to balance everything out."
As for the money, depositing it securely was not going to be straight forward. "I stuffed it in a Tesco carrier bag and we went up town on the bus with all this money," Albert continues. "We got to the bank and to my shock there was a very large queue waiting to get to the windows. I couldn't stand there with a big bag of money so I ran to one of the windows, tapped on it and said, 'Would you be kind enough to take this money?'.
"The manager came across then and they opened the window and glanced down into the bag. The girl at the counter was shocked. She said, 'Oh my God, we've got to count it!' We had to prove the money was genuine and where we had got it from. The whole thing was staggering, there is no other word for it."
Albert and Muriel were essentially doing the job of a travel agent, without all the insurance and protection that the industry demanded. The couple had to re-mortgage their house as a guarantee that they would not default on the trip.
"From an operational point of view, it went crazy," Albert recalls. "Birmingham Airport asked me to go and see them as they had concerns. I'd asked for 10-minute departure slots to get each plane away. They said the departure lounge could only hold 300 people and we had over 900 people coming and they couldn't really accommodate them. They said that people travelling on New Year's Day were concerned that they were going to be mixing with football fans. I said, 'Do you think these people are a bunch of loonies? They're going to a football match to enjoy it'.
"We had to organise coaches at this end and that end to get the fans to the airport and back from the ground, so that caused a lot of problems," Muriel adds. "Twenty-six coaches we took to Birmingham and we had to organise another 26 coaches at the other end in Newcastle."
Despite all these considerable obstacles, 'Airwolf 90' - as it became known - took place amidst huge publicity. What started off as a half-hearted enquiry from a handful of fans who didn't fancy a long drive with a hangover, turned into the most spectacular day of travel in the history of English football. Eight planes took off from Birmingham Airport on the morning of New Year's Day. Nine-hundred-and-twenty-eight supporters travelled on six Monarch Airlines Boeing 737s and 757s organised by the WWOSC, along with a propeller plane chartered by independent supporters' group Hatherton Wolves and a private jet that took the owners, the Gallagher Brothers, and their family and friends.
Television news crews from BBC Midlands and Central Television also joined the trip, with their filming making national and international news reports later that day. Amongst the first fans who appeared on the reports were a couple stood in the check-in hall at Birmingham Airport dressed as Sylvester The Cat and Tweetie Pie - it was George and his wife, Anne Dawidow, who died some years later.
"We thought we'd stay in and have a quiet night and see the new year in," George recalls. "Famous last words! About half past 12 the next-door neighbour came round. He worked for a big brewery. He turned up with three cases of vintage this, that and the other. So then it's quarter to five in the morning and we're totally green, both of us! We had a taxi booked for half past seven. We got to the ground at a quarter to eight, arrived at the North Bank car park and there was nobody in fancy dress besides us pair.
"So there's me - the prat dressed as a cat - and Tweetie Pie. The idea was that I was in black and white like the Geordies and she was in gold like the Wolves. Everybody is taking the mickey. We were absolutely green. The coach journey to Birmingham Airport was an event just to try and keep ourselves straight."
They need not have feared. On arrival at the airport there was an assorted collection of fancy dress reindeer, snowmen, tigers, bears, chickens and a pink panther. As fans congregated on the tarmac before climbing the steps to board the plane, they were vox-popped by the television reporters. One of those was Johnny Martin, a 23-year-old carpenter who caused much amusement on the day when he told his inquisitor, 'I've never flown before and I'm frightened to death. My girlfriend bought me this ticket and I didn't know anything about it!'.
Well, 29 years on, he has a confession to make. There may have been some artistic license at play for the cameras. "I've got to put my hands up, there was no girlfriend, to be fair. My mum had helped me pay for the ticket," Johnny reveals. "Don't tell my dad that either! There wasn't a girlfriend, and I had a bit of a tan too as I'd just come back from holiday."
For Johnny and his friends, getting on the trip was at the forefront of their minds as soon as they heard about the flights.
"Going up to the Wolves week in, week out, somebody said there was a plane going so we thought about how we could get on it. We were all in our early 20s so there was a question of whether or not we could afford it. I was an apprentice in a joinery shop earning 30-odd quid a week. We were like, 'It doesn't matter. It's the Wolves. We're going out for a party.'"
There was one supporter who stole the show that afternoon. Kevin Round was a 29-year-old holiday rep who had been working in Tenerife. He arrived at Birmingham Airport in a Santa Claus outfit and was immediately targeted by the television crews. He gave what turned out to be a prescient interview for BBC Midlands just before boarding the plane.
"Over Christmas I talked to a lot of managers - Kenny Dalglish, Alex Ferguson - and they all wanted the same thing for Christmas. They all wanted Stevie Bull. And I'm very, very sorry, but Santa is a Wolves fan and there is no way they're getting him. And I think a hat-trick today would go down very nicely," he said at the time. 'Santa is a Wolves fan' was quickly adopted as the anthem of the day amongst the travelling hoards.
"It all started the night before, in actual fact," says Kevin, looking back today, "at a New Year's Eve party with my mates. We all ended up getting very drunk and woke up in the morning with little time to prepare. I was already dressed as Santa so it seemed the appropriate thing to go in."
Kevin was relieved when he walked into the airport and saw, amongst others, Sylvester and Tweetie Pie. "I felt at home! It was a great crack. The amount of people that went was unbelievable. We were very proud to be part of it. We got up so late we missed the coaches from the Wolves ground to the airport so we had to get somebody else to take us. We weren't doing very well altogether at that stage. The airport staff and the stewards were really good, they got into the spirit of it. I think we behaved impeccably. We drank a lot, we enjoyed ourselves and had a great day and we were a credit to the town, the way we behaved."
George, Johnny, Kevin and several other supporters who made the trip almost 29 years ago have gathered at The Lych Gate Tavern ahead of a Wolves home game. They were contacted with the help of other fans after messages were put out on social media seeking to track them down for this story. Another supporter who got in touch was Ron Westwood. He saw an image of his dad in the appeal, which came from the Central News piece at the time.
"I went with my dad, bless him, he's no longer with us now," says Ron, who was a 34-year-old Royal Mail manager at the time. "So the memories are bitter-sweet really. My old man was with me and we had a great time, so to do it together was special. We'd go all over the country watching Wolves but nothing would cap that. Just the uniqueness of it. I vividly remember on the plane, at take-off, all the Wolves fans singing 'Going up, going up, going up!' You just couldn't bottle the atmosphere that day. I wish I could, I'd have made a fortune by now."
"When the plane took off, all the stewardesses were really nervous about all these football hooligans on board," George adds. "But within 20 minutes they're singing and dancing up and down the aisles joining in the fun. The pilot came out and congratulated us; he said he might become a Wolves fan himself. We got to the airport at Newcastle and the planes were offloading, Santa was doing his routine, and I must praise the Geordie copper in charge of the day up in Newcastle. He was a lovely character, made us all feel welcome, treated us like royalty. We had a cavalcade down to the ground and got there about one o'clock, in good time."
Another who arrived early at St James' Park was Kevin Walters. He was nine years old at the time and was the Wolves mascot for the day. "I remember getting there and being given a tour of the ground, the trophy room and then meeting the players as they started to arrive," he says. "When you're meeting Steve Bull, who you were watching week in and week out at the time banging all the goals in, it was amazing just to go and shake his hand. Andy Mutch and Paul Cook were another two of my favourites at the time. It was fantastic."
The players, unlike the supporters, had taken a more conventional journey to Newcastle, arriving by coach early the day before. Crucial to their hopes was Bull. He had made his England debut the previous May, as a Third Division player, and scored his country's second goal in a 2-0 win over Scotland at Hampden Park. This was a World Cup season, with Bull firmly in England manager Bobby Robson's thoughts for a place at Italia 90. The 24-year-old forward had scored 10 goals in 20 games during that Second Division season, but had only scored one in his last four going into the trip to Newcastle.
Wolves occupied 10th place in the table at the time, five points behind Newcastle who sat in the last play-off position. What had been a routine day of preparation, took an eventful turn as the night wore on.
"We had our pasta and all our carbs to get ready for the next day, and come eight o'clock we were playing cards," Bull explains. "The gaffer [Graham Turner] got up and said, 'Oi, I want you in bed by five past 12. Ring the missus and wish her a Happy New Year, five past 12', and he walks off. We were sitting there thinking about playing cards for four hours and then he turned around and said, 'You can have a couple of halves'.
"So what did we do? A couple of halves of what? A few halves later I'm ringing the missus at 12 o'clock, half cut, wishing her a happy New Year, and she's saying, 'What are you doing, have you had a drink? Get to bed'. There was a handful of us. I can't name names, but Cookie [Paul Cook] was in there, Mutchy was in there and Thommo was in there!"
Andy Thompson remembers having to convince Bull to stay within the confines of the hotel. "Bully ordered a taxi from reception to go out in Newcastle," he reveals. "I had to tell him to cancel it. It was alright having a couple of drinks in the hotel but to go out in Newcastle itself was something else. I wouldn't say he was the ringleader, but he did get carried away and he just wanted to go out."
"We were there in our Wolves tracksuits and I said to Thommo, 'Are we going clubbing?' He was saying we couldn't but I was feeling bulletproof by now," Bull adds. "In the end we finished off another bottle of wine and went up to bed. We woke up the next morning thinking, 'What have we done?' It was just one of those spur-of-the-moment things. That was the last time we ever did it and, to be fair, it paid off."
So were the guilty players struggling to conceal their late night?
"We were a little bit sheepish because we'd had more than we should have had, but the manager never said anything to us," Thompson recalls.
"Yeah, yeah, blurry eyed, checking the breath," Bull continues. "When the gaffer got up and said we had to go for a walk to get some fresh air, then come back and go through some set-plays on the board, that was when reality kicked in and we thought about the 3,000 fans coming up here to watch us. 'What have we done?' But then we got out there in the freezing cold, looked over to the fans and your inner self comes out and we just got on with it."
The highlight of a drab goalless first half was a penalty save from Wolves 'keeper Mark Kendall. Half-time proved more entertaining as Kevin, still in his Santa outfit, managed to get onto the pitch to rally the Wolves support.
"I just got on and everyone thought I was part of it. I wasn't being a hooligan," he recalls. "I walked around, shook a few hands, patted a few divots down and got involved. There was no bother at all. I did a little bit of singing, I had some help up onto one of the barriers to do a bit of singing. It was nice that all the fans were singing 'Santa is a Wolves fan', which was great, it was just absolutely tremendous."
The second half unfolded in a way no Wolves fan could have expected. Bull completed a nine-minute hat-trick to put Wolves three up with less than an hour played. Newcastle pulled one back before Bull added a fourth. All in front of the watching England manager.
"It was unreal, and one of the big factors was that we were playing towards our own fans," Bull says. "It was like something drawing us towards the goal. I think there were two left footers in that lot you know, that's my standing foot! I couldn't believe it. People ask me which was the best goal out of the lot of them and I always say the third one, the hat-trick goal. I didn't find out until after the game that he [Robson] was there so it was a good job I put in a good second-half performance."
For Bull, the display put him at the forefront of the England manager's thinking. Five months later, in the final World Cup squad selection reckoning, it came down to a choice between the Wolves man and Arsenal's Alan Smith, a league title winner just 12 months earlier.
"I think it did a lot for me that day because Newcastle were high-flying then and one of the top teams in that league," Bull explains. "Bobby actually said to me, because I couldn't understand why he took me, that he picked me as a 'wild card' because nobody knew who I was and which division I'd come from. Most players play in their top division."
Kevin's optimistic prediction in front of the television cameras had come true. For fans of his generation, Bull was the best hero a supporter could wish for.
"He came and saved us really. When you've gone to Chorley and lost you know you're in trouble. When he arrived he turned the whole ship around and we started going in the right direction. That's why we've got a stand named after him and he's still involved with the club today. He's an absolute legend. He just did everything for us. He had the club heart. Numerous times he could have gone somewhere else and furthered his career, but he stayed with Wolves."
"An absolute legend," Johnny agrees. "We'd meet with our mates in The Goalpost pub opposite Molineux, have a pint, and the players would come in afterwards. On an away game, say we were up in Manchester, we'd rush to get back to The Goalpost because the Wolves coach would drop the lads off and they'd come in. Bully would be in there with them and you'd have a game of pool with the lads. It was like a dream.
"He was just sent to us - from the Albion of all places. Week in and week out, he was the heart and soul. For us, at our age, we were watching the boys on a Saturday and then playing football on a Sunday morning ourselves. That's what we lived for. They were exactly the same as us. The players were there trying their hardest. They were just normal lads. Now you see them earning hundreds of thousands of pounds, but Bully was there just having a game of pool and going for a pint. You grew up with them, it was the best time of my life. My wife won't mind me saying that because she knows it was the best time of my life."
The New Year's Day hangovers of players and supporters had long been forgotten by the final whistle at St James' Park. Whilst the players had to endure another long coach journey home, many of the fans on the terraces were looking forward to continuing the party on the return flight home. "At the end of the game this policeman got up on the barriers with a megaphone," George recalls. "We're all going mental, and he just got up and said, 'You've had a fantastic day but I'm going to have to keep you in while we clear the roads outside, but we'll get you back to the airport. And, by the way, who's this Stevie Bull?' And the place just erupted. It was brilliant, never to be forgotten. But Muriel and Albert, the work they did for that, was absolutely awesome.'
Despite the achievement of taking over 900 fans to the game without a hitch, Albert has one regret about the day. "When we got to Birmingham Airport there must have been 50 people or more standing outside hoping that somebody wouldn't turn up or that kind of thing," he explains. "There was just no way, but I went in and approached staff and believe it or not we actually got another aircraft. We got a plane to take those who were there, but they couldn't get a bloody crew together. It was so sad for them, they were there and we had a plane but we couldn't get them to the Newcastle game. That hurt."
George sums up the feelings of the lucky ones. Almost three decades on, the day is still at the forefront of his memory. "It will always be the best away match of my life. I've been on this planet 66 years and nothing will ever match that. I've been to Wembley three times and we've won on each occasion. Cardiff for the play-off final was a great day, but Airwolf 90 was really special."
Bull remains grateful to the supporters for making his day so memorable too. "After Christmas and New Year's Eve they've got no money left, but they forked out of their pockets and said, 'Go on, we'll go on the plane'. Six planes! That is unbelievable and it astounded us, every single one of the players and the manager."
Bull was the star of the show on the pitch, but there was one man who ensured the day captured the imagination beyond the local news and sports pages. For Kevin Round, the Tenerife club rep, wearing that Santa Claus outfit is something he will never regret. He has kept it to this day, and it will always be associated with English football's greatest-ever away day. "I didn't know how mad it was," he remembers. "Until my mate from New Zealand phoned me afterwards and said, 'I've just seen you on the telly!'"