Wolves’ double dip relegation


Just under a year ago, when I responded to a call on Twitter looking for a Wolves blogger for my favourite Football League podcast, I distinctly remember thinking, “there’s a fair chance we’ll only be in this division for one season anyway”. Never have I been so right and so so wrong at the same time.

In that first blog I wrote for We Are Going Up, I made the point that 40-1 was generally available from the bookies, but never did I actually imagine that we would end up with a double dip relegation (if, incidentally, anyone did get on that 40-1, congratulations.)

To be honest, I don’t really know where to start. The season started with so much optimism. It seems ridiculous to say that on 6th October, we won away at Blackburn Rovers to move to third in the table, equaling a club record of three consecutive away wins with clean sheets.

At that point we were flying. Matt Jarvis, Stephen Fletcher and Michael Kightly had all remained in the Premier League, but their replacements had started brightly. Bakary Sako was proving to be an adequate replacement for Jarvis, scoring three (including the Ewood Park winner) and claiming a further two assists in his first seven games for the club. On the other flank, Polish winger Słavomir Peszko worked diligently up and down the flank, linking nicely with Kevin Doyle. In short, it seemed like everything was falling into place.

Except one thing; this is a team full of losers. I don’t mean to sound aggressive, but the club had lost over half the games in the previous season. Losing was the default mode. In the early part of this season, when a game was lost, we’d always managed to bounce back and win the next game. But, after playing poorly in defeat away at Huddersfield, the opportunity to win the following match was thrown away with a last minute equaliser from former wolf Mark Davies at home to Bolton Wanderers. I don’t think at that moment anyone realised how important that goal was.

From that moment on, we didn’t win in the next seven games, and a defence that had been 90 minutes from setting a new club record had conceded 17 goals in nine games. With the club falling from 3rd to 19th, a win at Bristol City sparked a mini revival that saw the club win three in four, but then came the four defeats that would go on to define the season.

Having taken nine points from the previous four points, Wolves entered the Christmas period just six points away from the playoffs, and had two eminently winnable home games against two teams in the bottom five. The first of these was a disaster. At the time, we didn’t know that Peterborough were embarking on a run that would see them gain 41 points from 25 games (form that would have seen them comfortably in the playoffs over a full season), but to lose 3-0 at home was like a kick in the balls for the fans, so I can only imagine the impression it left on the players.

The following game, three days later, was a fixture that had been etched into the minds of all Wolves fans. The Return of the Mick, as Mick McCarthy returned to Molineux for the first time since his sacking the previous season. And of course, he was successful, with Ipswich easing to a 2-0 win. Defeat away at Crystal Palace the following week, and all of a sudden those three wins in four became three wins in 16. Still, at least we had a Cup game against a non-league side the following week….

Just two hours after the defeat to Luton Town, the first non-British born manager in Wolves’ illustrious history was sacked. At the time I wrote that I was worried that this meant the attempt to change the strategy of the club was over. Ståle Solbakken had come to England with his fancy Dan foreign ideas – keeping possession and marking zonally. Would we try and continue this, or would we go back to a blood and thunder typical British approach that had proved so effective under the first four years of Mick McCarthy?

Two days later, Dean Saunders was appointed manager, a man who had taken Doncaster Rovers down from the Championship last season but was well on the way to bringing them back up. It would later be confirmed, as initially suspected by most Wolves fans, that Saunders was the only man ever in the frame. This would perhaps be fair enough if it was José Mourinho, but for another manager to not even be considered, let alone spoken to smacks of a rushed decision. Considering the apparent failures of the club’s previous two managerial appointments, surely the board would do everything they could to get this decision right?

Yet this was a decision made by one man. No one will argue that the owner of the club has the right to appoint whoever he chooses, but given the pressure on the club to get this decision right, for it to fall on one man to make an instant decision was surely a mistake. Steve Morgan has done a lot of good for the club – the training ground is impressive, and has arguably contributed to the most promising crop of youngsters since the likes of Robbie Keane, Joleon Lescott and Keith Andrews were produced.

But he has also made a number of poor decisions. We have one brand new stand that highlights the inferiority of the rest of the ground, and even more so, the inferiority of the players playing in front of it. Could the £16 million spent on bricks and mortar have been invested on the playing staff? Financial Fair Play may have had something to say about this, but it is more than tempting to say that this is the result of having a builder as the club’s owner.

To give an idea of how the club has been mismanaged over the past couple of years, allow me to make a comparison. Take two clubs, both managed in the Premier League by old fashioned British managers. These two clubs sack these traditional managers, appoint their assistants on a full time basis and are thus relegated to the Championship. Both teams then appoint a bald Norwegian in order to establish a new continental style of football from which to launch a promotion bid. When this doesn’t work, both clubs appoint a manager who was relegated from the Championship last season, albeit under difficult circumstances.

Now, as this is about Wolves, obviously you recognised Mick McCarthy, Terry Connor, Ståle Solbakken and Dean Saunders there, but did you spot the other club? For Mick McCarthy, read Sam Allardyce, for Connor read Steve Kean, for Solbakken read Henning Berg, and finally for Saunders read Michael Appleton. Yet, given the attention, and dare I say abuse, received by Venky’s in the media, the extremely similar decisions made by Wolves’ management have gone largely unnoticed. There is of course one big difference between Blackburn and Wolves – Blackburn bit the bullet and made a decision, a decision largely vilified by the national newspapers, but they sacked Appleton, picking up 12 points from the remaining nine games to ease away from the relegation zone.

And this brings us neatly onto the reign of Dean Saunders, a man whose time at Wolves has been defined by a number of questionable decisions and ridiculous sound bites. At the time of Ståle Solbakken’s dismissal, Wolves had 31 points from 26 games, a record that over 46 games would have seen us gain 54 points and may or may not have seen relegation. Under Saunders, this falls to one point a game. I’m putting this so you are aware that Solbakken was not perfect, but given the relative success of his signings who stayed fit, I always felt was one transfer window away from being able to implement his style more successfully. But there is no question that over his 29 games in charge, he was unable to change the losing mentality of the players, and that at the time of dismissal, the results were awful. The question was, would the energetic, excitable and charismatic Dean Saunders be able to turn the boat around?

The answer was an emphatic no. Nine matches and two months went past before his first win. Again, like under Solbakken, there was a mini revival – four wins from five games and there was hope that a corner had been turned. But it wasn’t to be. Four defeats from the following five games culminated in a pathetic 2-1 reversal at home to Burnley which effectively sealed our fate, before the lid was nailed to the coffin with a 2-0 defeat to Brighton on the final day.

During that period, there was very little to get excited with. Peszko was frozen out, as was Christophe Berra who had already decided he was leaving when his contract expires at the end of the season. For some reason Ronald Zubar, whose one game under Saunders was a man of the match performance, had his contract cancelled, while Richard Stearman was allowed to join McCarthy’s revolution at Ipswich.

In came Kaspars Gorkšs on loan from Reading, who is patently no better than any of the three defenders mentioned previously, while two youngsters were brought in at fullback; Jack Robinson who impressed at left back on loan from Liverpool, and Matt Doherty, fresh from a loan spell at Bury came in at right back. Frustratingly, another young defender, Danny Batth who had done nothing wrong in his few appearances this season was left marooned on the bench.

Perhaps Saunders has been slightly unlucky with injuries over the last month or so, with Dave Edwards (who incidentally made more progress over six months under Solbakken than he did over four years under McCarthy) breaking his foot, while the only real goalscoring threat in the team, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake broke his leg before Bakary Sako damaged his hamstring. But, on the other hand, Saunders had the likes of Peszko, Stephen Hunt and Jamie O’Hara fit who missed most of the first half of the season.

Ah, Jamie O’Hara. If two players epitomize the frustration Wolves fans have with the players it is him and Roger Johnson. Both were brought in while in the Premier League, both set to be the players who would transform us from relegation battlers to a mid-table side. But, both were relegated (Johnson has now been relegated in three successive seasons) and neither have stepped up to play the sort of role their transfer fee and reputation should dictate.

It might be harsh to blame those two players, but they seem to bear the brunt of most Wolves fans’ frustration, not helped by their high profiles, and especially Jamie and Mrs. O’Hara’s tendencies to air their grievances on Twitter. This led to a spat between the travelling support at Brighton with O’Hara, who after being told he’s not worth £40,000 a week was first off down the tunnel while most other players (including the much maligned Johnson) came over to acknowledge the fans. O’Hara will surely be the first out the door this summer.

This brings us on to this summer. The one positive is the core group of youth players who are expected to play regularly this season. The likes of Jake Cassidy, Danny Batth, David Davis and Matt Doherty have all had successful spells in League One, while the Under 21 side did extremely well to qualify for the final stage ahead of the likes of Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Manchester City.

But the big question is, who will lead them? I fully expect Saunders to still be in charge in August; after all he left his Doncaster side top of League One. The problem is that Wolves fans are saying the same things as 12 months ago – there needs to be a clear out of the deadwood in the squad in order to allow the youngster to form the nucleus of the team. But, whether we can find clubs to take them, and whether the players will want to leave given how unlikely it is to find anyone who will match their current contracts is another question.

For the second summer in a row, Wolves are in a period of transition. Last summer a new strategy was implemented, but scrapped as soon as the going got tough. This summer, decisions need to be made. The fans already feel disenfranchised, with season ticket sales for next season already 33% down and unlikely to pick up before August. The pressure is on the club to regroup and halt the downward slide that has led to us becoming the first club to twice be relegated from the top flight down to the third division.

Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger & also writes for The Football Network

Tom tweets at @toomb306

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