Just like every good story, this one starts with a girl. One I’ve been writing to over the last few weeks without necessarily getting the response I’d like. So, for my next We Are Going Up blog, I thought I’d write about the true love of my life.
Every club has had one. That player who doesn’t necessarily get the headlines, but all the fans know he’s the heartbeat of the side. For Wolves, it’s Bakary Sako who is getting linked to Premier League sides, and Danny Batth who is the local media’s wet dream; the young, locally born centre half who is vice captain. The sort of defender who puts his head where I wouldn’t want to put my feet. And to add to that, he displaced Roger ‘I won’t leave because I want to get paid’ Johnson from the team, one of the most unpopular players in Wolves’ history. But while these may get the attention and the plaudits, it’s Kevin McDonald who is arguably the most important player at the club.
He was signed last season from Sheffield United, a sale that derailed the Blades’ season before it had even begun. And he made a pretty good first impression; a driving run led to a handball and a last minute penalty winner against Crawley on his home debut, before scoring his first goal for the club in his first start the following week away at Port Vale. But, with Kenny Jackett unsure of his starting XI, McDonald suffered a little through changing formations and not having a regular partner in the middle of the park. Then Jackett settled on the 4-2-3-1 formation that secured the title, and McDonald and Jack Price’s passing ability controlled games. He finished the season in the League One team of the season (albeit ironically positioned in a diamond formation that did not suit him earlier in the season) and won the Wolves Player of the Year. To give you an idea of how highly he was rated, I questioned whether he was the best midfielder we’d had since Colin Cameron, Paul Ince and Alex Rae. And bear in mind that the period in between included three seasons in the Premier League, whereas McDonald had only ever played for the club in League One.
This season though, has been different. He started it with the same ease as last season, but as the club have stepped up a level, so has the tactical acumen of opposition managers. They are realising that if you stop McDonald, you stop Wolves. It’s similar to what has been seen with another player, someone I like to call the ‘Kevin McDonald of the Premier League’, a player who I’m sure has a poster of McDonald on his wall and goes to bed dreaming that he may one day be as good as his Scottish idol – Steven Gerrard. But while Gerrard is on the decline and may be reliant on Brendan Rodgers to find a way to keep his influence on games, I don’t think McDonald has this problem. He was foolishly quoted last season as saying he sometimes got bored in matches, that it was true. While this certainly appeared to be true from the sidelines, it was maybe not the most sensible thing to say. I expected him to be targeted by opposition midfielders after that comment, but maybe League One wasn’t quite as physical as I expected.
However, it’s just possible that he’s taken that attitude into this season. He needs to step up his game, and take more responsibility. I think that sometimes, when he’s playing in a midfield-3, he’s happy to lay the foundations for others to do the attacking bits. This worked to an extent last season when we had Michael Jacobs playing as the attacking player, but is less successful this season when his partners have been Lee Evans, whose main strength is his long distance passing, and Dave Edwards who’ll nick a few goals, but doesn’t have the ability to create chances himself. His best performance this season (that I’ve seen anyway) came in the second half performance away at Charlton Athletic. We played Jackett’s 4-2-3-1 formation, but losing 1-0 at half time, switched to 4-4-2. All of a sudden, it was just McDonald and Evans in central midfield, they didn’t have the luxury of the third man. And McDonald took that game by the scruff of its neck; he was absolutely magnificent in the second half, dominating the midfield and helping secure a 1-1 draw.
This was a hint of what he can do. There was a glimpse of it last week in the victory over Middlesbrough, when a glorious first touch beat his man, before he unleashed a thirty-yard, dipping half volley that clipped the top of the bar. It would have been a contender for goal of the season in any league. And this brings me onto another point – he scored more goals in his first 90 league appearances, albeit with Dundee, than he has done in the subsequent 200 games. It’s not always been easy at Wolves for him to score goals; he tends to play very deep, often between the centre backs. But a player of his quality should be influencing games more than he does, not always take the safe backwards option when on the ball. He’s 25, no longer the youngster he was when he had some issues at Burnley. On these very pages last season, I wrote that he could probably play in the Premier League if he really wants it. Now it’s about time for him to prove that he does.
Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger
Tom tweets at @toomb306