For some clubs, an international break can often be more of a hindrance than a help, and no club knows this more than Wolverhampton Wanderers. Two years ago, Mick McCarthy’s side entered the first international break of the season sat just outside of the Champions League places, above Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal in the Premier League table.
An opening day win over Blackburn Rovers was followed by the defeat of Fulham at Molineux. A week later and creditable draw at Aston Villa was secured. Then came the international break. The first game back was a defeat at White Hart Lane. The following week, QPR played us off the park, before defeat to Liverpool. After seven points and two clean sheets from three games before the break (P3 W2 D1 L0 F4 A1 Pts7), the club only secured three more victories and two more clean sheets in the remaining 35 games (P35 W3 D8 L23 F36 A82 Pts18).
Then, just over a year later, Wolves entered another international break. On 6th October 2013, we achieved (what we thought at the time was) a very good 1-0 win over Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park. Blackburn had been relegated alongside Wolves, and to be honest had taken an awful of the national media flak that could have been aimed at the Molineux hierarchy.
But, we expected Blackburn to be one of our promotion rivals and to beat them in their own back yard was a good result. That win sent us third in the league, with everyone around the club expecting a full frontal attack on the top two of Cardiff and Leicester City. But again, we returned from the international break with a poor display in a loss at Huddersfield Town. The next game was at home to Bolton Wanderers, a club whom many Wolves fans despise, dating back to issues regarding John McGinlay, a stray fist and a Division One playoff semi-final in the mid-1990s. To make matters worse, it was former Wolves youth team player Mark Davies who scored the stoppage time equaliser as Wolves forgot how to play football in the second half.
The Wolves of Ståle Solbakken wouldn’t win again until after the next international break at the end of November; a miserable run of nine games without a victory that saw the club careering down yet another league table. In both of our two relegation seasons it is possible to note the moment where fortunes changed. Both seasons saw us go into international breaks at the right end of the table, only to go on an awful run of form after it. So, I think you might be able to understand why I’m a little apprehensive about the postponement of the Carlisle United match last weekend due to international call-ups.
The one mitigating factor about last weekend is that it isn’t an official international break – this in itself shows how far we have fallen. But with players in the Welsh, Scottish and Irish national squads, along with a handful of youngsters away with the Under-21s, our first team had been severely depleted, and so the postponement was inevitable. This was more than demonstrated in the disappointing defeat on penalties suffered against Notts County last Tuesday, who out passed us, out fought us and out thought us. They were clearly the better side on the night, and we were fortunate to get as far as the penalty shootout.
That goalkeeper Carl Ikeme was the only player to come away from the match with any credit at all says it all. But this has been a recurring theme this season. Ask any Wolves fan to name their player of the season so far, and they would name Ikeme in their top two. In fact, if we were to poll all fans now, I’ve no doubt Ikeme would run away with the award.
For a team in third place, whose budget dwarfs those clubs around them, performances, especially at home, haven’t been great. Away from home, perhaps where there is less pressure from the fans, the results have been good (an opening day draw in Preston being the only points dropped so far) but home performances have been questionable. Anyone with a Sky box could see the way that Crawley dominated a live Friday night game at Molineux, before Swindon were oh so unluckly not to travel back to Wiltshire with three points. This reached a nadir with a 1-0 home defeat to local rivals Walsall who thoroughly deserved the victory.
Kenny Jackett seems to purposefully aiming to promote from within where he can – Ikeme, Danny Batth, Zeli Ismail, David Davis and Jack Price are all youth team players who have featured on a regular basis, while Jake Cassidy, Matt Doherty and Lee Evans were signed as youngsters – at times there has been a lack of quality and experience on the pitch. The last two results have highlighted just how reliant on Kevin Doyle we are. When Doyle has been missing, the front two have become increasingly isolated from the midfield, leading to a fragmented offensive line-up with little cohesion. The difference between the first half and second half performances in the game against Sheffield United are a perfect example of the difference Doyle makes to the team.
And then there’s Bakary Sako. A player who joined Wolves expecting to be in the Premier League, not League One and who has missed three games this season amid talks of transfer bids from Nottingham Forest. On his day, Sako is capable of doing things that no other player in the division can do – see his rocket against Sheffield United for proof (and he assisted the opener). But for the first 45 minutes he was the worst player on the pitch, with his head and his feet playing different matches. If Sako were to leave, or suffer a case of the Stephen Fletchers (also known as #headsgone syndrome), we do not have an adequate replacement.
At the moment, Kenny Jackett is doing a solid, but unspectacular job. The majority of Wolves fans want to get out of League One with the minimum of fuss, and this seems to be the Jackett way. The number of youth prospects he has blooded is promising, but the question at the moment is how long will he continue to keep to his word about the unquestionably talented, but potentially problematic Jamie O’Hara, currently playing for the under 21 side? At what point do the declining performances necessitate the decision to bring O’Hara back into the first team, a decision that all Wolves fan would have been dead against a couple of months ago, but even now some are starting to change their mind?
In the midfield, youngsters Price and Evans have impressed but cannot be expected to play consistently for a full season, while Kevin McDonald looks a good player but so far has failed to dominate and dictate games in the way that we would have hoped. In some ways, Jackett may find it difficult to win over all fans – promotion is expected and is the bare minimum of a successful season. If we are still in League One next season, he has failed in his remit. If he achieves promotion, this will not be a cause for celebration. In the eyes of the club and the fans, that will be the moment when his real job starts.
Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger
Tom tweets at @toomb306