When the Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company relocated northwards to Ellesmere Port in 1905, with them very nearly went the future prosperity of Wolverhampton Wanderers. It might not have seemed evident at the time, but of the 300 families that walked the 60 mile route of the Shropshire Union Canal just to stay in employment, one of them was the Cullis family who after settling in the Cheshire town in 1916 gave birth to their youngest (of ten), Stanley. From an early age he showed promise as a footballer, captaining all of the teams he played for and finding himself coveted by many top clubs in the area, but it was always his fathers hometown team that he was destined to play for, signing professional forms aged 17. His career from then on became legendary, captaining one of the great Wolves sides and becoming England’s youngest skipper aged 22 (an age which only Bobby Moore and Wayne Rooney have since surpassed, both by mere days). As with many of his generation, his playing years were interrupted by the Second World War, but his army life prepared him for a career after retiring from the pitch, when he managed the British Army side in internationals throughout Europe, achieving great success. After being discharged he resumed football, but numerous concussions from heading the old heavy balls of the era had taken their toll and he hung up his boots in 1947, becoming Wolves’ assistant-manager, and taking full control of the side little over 12 months later. Historians these days like to ignore his contribution to the game, both on and off the pitch, but his success off it was up there with the best, taking Wolves to league titles, FA Cup wins and being a key player in establishing the European Cup with his floodlit friendlies that captured the nations imagination at the dawn of the TV era. His and the clubs achievements eclipsed even that of the much-hyped Busby Babes. He now has a stand named after him, and a statue outside Molineux to commemorate his life, not bad for a boy who had grown up wearing clogs because his family were too poor to afford shoes!
Of course he isn’t the only famous football related person to come from Ellesmere Port, the great Joe Mercer hails from there as well, and actually grew up with Cullis, attending the same school, whilst Aston Villa (and ex-Wolves) chairman Doug Ellis grew up in the nearby village of Hooton, yet despite this footballing heritage, the town has never had a team bearing its name play at a higher level than Step 7 (except Ellesmere Port Town for a brief couple of years in the NPL during the early 70s). Works football has mostly always been the order of the day here, and it was from this that Vauxhall Motors FC formed in 1963 shortly after the car giant established its factory in the town. For years they were one of the strongest amateur sides in the area, before 1987 saw a new era for the club when they moved into the newly built Rivacre Park and joined the North-West Counties League. Their success since then has been almost continuous, moving up the football pyramid to where they currently play in the Blue Square North at Step 2.
It was here where I found them, and as they say in football, one mans misfortune is another’s opportunity. A fire had put the clubs floodlights out of action for several weeks, and with the nights drawing in they had had to move the kick-off for their game against Droylsden forward two hours to 1 o’clock. Fortunately for the club, the fire (accidental, no arson involved) had happened at a time when they had relatively few home games, and even more fortunate for myself, it was a day that Wolves’ home game against Arsenal had been moved to a 5:30pm kick-off for TV, so the chance of a double presented itself.
Whilst the Shropshire Union canal connects both Wolverhampton and Ellesmere Port (starting in the former, finishing in the latter) the week long trip that the workers of the Corrugated Iron Company endured over 100 years ago is made somewhat easier these days by the motorcar and the A41 which also runs through both, and the journey northwards went fairly well with little traffic on the road. Situated in the west of the town, just the other side of the M53 from the Vauxhall plant, Rivacre Park is named after the suburb it stands in, and is a model development, having been opened by Bobby Robson whilst he was still England manager. Set back from the road, with ample parking, the clubhouse is before you actually go in (slightly annoying when you prefer to see the ground and then get a drink!), with the turnstiles just beyond at the near end of the ground. Once inside, this is where a large changing room block sits with most of the clubs facilities including shop and refreshment room (which with a redundant bar does look like it might have once been, or planned to be(?) the clubhouse). There is a large expanse of hard standing at this end, which runs around the other three sides, whilst in the centre of the near side sits two small covered terraces next to each other. At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking it’s one long terrace, but they are truncated in the middle, with merely the roof fascias connected. Opposite sits the Main Stand, which as with the terraces looks on first glance a fairly typical stand from the late 80s, but on closer inspection the steps actually run right up to the roof, with the rear few fenced off so that you don’t bang your head when standing up! Perhaps it was once planned to be bigger than it is, but the 350 seats here are enough to hold most attendances even without the terrace opposite. A single step of tarmac provides slightly elevated viewing at the far end, whilst the other main point of interest are the floodlights, which whilst obviously not in use today, have an eclectically arranged bunch of lamps at the top of each stanchion.
Droylsden were the visitors for this match and with the teams at the opposite ends of the table, then on paper it should have been a relatively easy win for oddly nicknamed ‘Bloods’, but it was the hosts who nearly went ahead in just the first minute when they had a shot cleared off the line from a corner. It was a hectic start, and from that initial excitement, it was disappointment for the Motormen when good work down the right from Droylsden’s no. 11, who saw his cross headed home by the unmarked Tony Gray with just two minutes gone. Vauxhall hit back at this, and were unlucky not to be playing against 10 men when Steve Halford was booked on 20 minutes for hauling down Josh Hine on the break, when as last man a red seemed almost inevitable. Fortunately for the Bloods, the foul was on the edge of the box, and the home side could do nothing with the resulting free kick, so it seemed harsh when 5 minutes later the visitors went 2-0 up from a similarly placed free-kick of their own, Gray grabbing his second when he hit the ball low, straight through the wall and into the bottom corner. After a downpour at half-time, the second half was played in a less inspiring fashion, the hosts pulling a goal back early on thanks to Josh Wilson who headed home from a corner, but they couldn’t seriously threaten the visiting ‘keeper after that, and the game petered out into a 2-1 win for Droylsden as the on-off rain returned.
With the final whistle blown, then it was a quick escape back to the car to set off on the journey home. Other than the slip-roads at Junctions 7 & 8 of the M53 being closed, then the journey back went fairly well, taking roughly 90 minutes and arriving into Wolverhampton with time to make the pub before heading to the second game of the afternoon. Unfortunately Wolves have somewhat let their standards slip since the days of Stan Cullis, and the result against a class Arsenal team shall be glossed over here (it wasn't good!), but overall it had been a good day out and a nice chance to do a ground that sees me hit a landmark of 200 grounds visited for a match. In truth it isn’t the most inspiring of grounds, but it more than meets the clubs demands and is a well looked after, neat and tidy venue with scope for development should they ever need it. The club themselves are independent of the car firm these days, but bearing their name and badge the links are still strong as are the towns links with Wolverhampton, with many of the streets named after various Black Country localities, so perhaps an appropriate ground to have visited for a figure I’d been looking forward to reaching for some time.
All material copyright © T.S. Rigby, 2009