No Oblivion for Wolves
We are delighted today to welcome back Ben Piggott, illustrator of the very fine images that adorn this site and a supporter of a club newly arrived in our midst, Wolverhampton Wanderers. Here, Ben conveys his mood as the Old Gold settle back among us. Ben previously authored an astute analysis of the Championship players who featured in last year’s UEFA European under-21 Championship for us and can be followed on Twitter at @Apt_Pseudonym.
Now, this’ll sound like I’m only saying it to suck up to a lower-league football blog, but I’m quite looking forward to getting back into the Championship. There’s a strong whiff of familiarity to the whole thing. As a 30-year-old Wolves fan, I’ve known many more seasons in the second tier than those in the promised land and there’s something to be said for a return to where, for now, the club probably belongs.
So it’s certainly not a sense of despair with which I greet the end of this season. To be honest, it’s something more akin to the feeling one has when a long-held suspicion is proven to be true. Last year, our tragicomic last-ditch escape – the glorious rally to snatch defeat from the jaws of defeat against Blackburn – was entirely deserved. We’d played much better all season than our results had warranted. This time around, the numbers didn’t lie. There have been very few highlights, and Match of the Day will remember us for a handful of sideshows more than our scant victories. Terry Connor’s teary-eyed post-match interview (he always looks like that), Karl Henry’s tasteful spat with @Joey7Barton, and Mick’s enthusiastic team-rotation against Man Utd a couple of years back are the things that’ll find their way into the montages.
The climate of imminent doom has been just as pervasive as it has been misguided, this season. The Molineux ‘faithful’ have been the target of many a wagged finger for their perceived (and actual) reluctance to support their players, but don’t mistake it for apathy, it’s just how we’re brought up. We can only do two acts: the dolorous hangdog or the indefatigable humorist, and this season has seen things parked in the former camp. The 3-1 defeat of Wigan in November was met by some bloke intoning the perennial Midlander lament ‘Yeah, but it was still roobish thaugh’. He had a point in some respects. The lack of structure and cohesion in our back four was just as much in evidence then as it has been all season, and the tendency of half of them to drop too deep while the other half ball-watched was a pretty representative case study.
Given that we’ve got what we deserved then, what’s next? Well, these days when only a handful of clubs can vie to win the Premier League and relegations can come like London buses, off-pitch stability is an increasingly important badge of honour for fans. Clubs are no longer falling over themselves to roll the dice and the spectres of those who dropped straight from the lower reaches of the Prem to those of the Championship – and beyond – should serve as a warning to anyone desperate to ‘bounce right back’. If you think of the top leagues as one big 92-team table rather than four, then Wolves would probably have found themselves in the conversation for the upper third of the Championship this season, and there’d be no shame in a repeat of that next term either. From a financial point of view, the club is very well run, debt free, with a manageable wage bill and sensible contracts (more of which mouthwatering fare later). The other side of that coin will always be the risk of underperformance on the pitch, however. Not every prudent club has the vindication that Swansea, Newcastle, or even West Brom have enjoyed, nor will their current upward trajectories necessarily be the outcome of such caution.
That aside, the one big fouling of the board’s bed sheet was the slapstick offing of McCarthy. That it was due did not make it timely. It was a lamentable muddle, certainly, but the argument could be made that a few weeks of being a laughing stock has put us in a relatively strong position now that things have come to their inevitable conclusion. Firstly, Wolves would have found themselves in a similar position to the current one had Mick stayed. Our form under him has received a revisionist whitewash during Terry Connor’s struggles. In Connor’s first 11 games we let in 30, while in McCarthy’s last 11 we shipped 23. Terry has brought in 4 points in those games, Mick brought in 7, from a possible 33. We were on the way down anyway, playing basic football and making basic errors.
Secondly, the seemingly panicked search for a replacement was in some ways perversely encouraging as well. While Curbishley’s refusal to sign up to the board’s cautious outlook was disappointing, the decision then not to knee-jerk Steve Bruce into office at least showed some stubbornness. Steve Morgan’s balancing of the sheets may not have brought the glory of 17th place, but it did leave us in a flexible position to recruit a decent young manager with some ideas instead of having parachuted somebody in on a fat contract and a sweaty reputation to fret over. Time will tell whether Solbakken will lead us to overachieve as his teams did in Norway and Denmark, or whether he will find himself at a club on a serious downturn, as he did more recently at Köln. He will at least have the ear of Jamie O’Hara, who recently delivered a minor roasting on Twitter to his teammates for not having heard of the man who won 60 caps for Norway and played in two major tournaments. A fan vote a few days before the announcement put Ole Gunnar Solskjær at the top of the wish list, so maybe that’s where the confusion arose.
My hope was that Connor be allowed to step down and return to a coaching role, and while that’s come to pass, it’s probably a temporary measure for continuity’s sake. It’s a shame, because while he must carry some blame for our inability to coach a succession of ordinary defenders, his approach to Roger Johnson’s recent indiscretions has been stout. While Johnson should have found himself collecting splinters months ago based on his form, the decision to bench our captain and force him to waste his Saturdays as much as the rest of the squad was preferable to letting him take his paycheck on a shopping trip every weekend. It showed that while he may have struggled with the football side of things, Connor is still making the right decisions off the pitch. Perhaps as a result of this, he seems to command a great deal of respect from the players, and that may prove to be the most important quality of whoever ends up as number two in the long run.
The reason for this is that despite spending a lot of money on very little talent under McCarthy, the club have been stricter than most in their insistence upon all staff contracts containing stern ‘flex downs’ in the event of relegation, and so we will need all the help we can get in keeping hold of our biggest assets. We have a number of fundamentally decent players in the squad who may well have gone under the radar thanks to their poor performances. That being the case, it’s tempting to assume a lack of interest from the league to which the players have just proved themselves to be ill-suited, but balancing the books means that we may have to be proactive in our deck-clearing.
The likelihood is that O’Hara, Jarvis, Fletcher and Doyle’s stock remains high enough that they will difficult to keep hold of, despite the former’s fragility and Nikica Jelavić having presumably cooled the ardour of the latter’s previous suitors. A clean slate will also be an opportunity to give Johnson and Stephen Hunt their carriage clocks. Both were in the Championship team of the year (‘TOY’ henceforth) in 2009 but now seem to be on downward trajectories. Also in the TOY that season were Richard Stearman and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, who will both be much more effective players upon returning to their level. Stearman has endured a torrid roasting in the top flight and will presumably be keen to remind fans of the pleasant surprise that he represented after arriving from Leicester.
To continue a theme, our 5th member of the well-worn rhetorical device that is the 2009 TOY was Michael Kightly. Having heard and made some very dark predictions about the possibility of even seeing him play for us again (or at all) over the last 12 months, his return and encouraging form since January have probably been the highlight of this season’s travails. If Kightly can stay in one piece then my touting of him for an England cap in years past may sound a little less fanciful, if still not entirely likely. Stripping away the bigger earners reveals a stratum of thoroughly capable Championship players beneath, from which a serviceable eleven can be assembled with one or two additions. A case in point would be Adlène Guedioura, who is too rough for the big league, but returns from loan with Nottingham Forest’s goal of the season award in his back pocket.
In the spirit of looking forward and planning for the future, my hope is that next year’s tilt will at least be peppered with some youthful brio. While the big league has its share of successful Compton graduates – Joleon Lescott, Robbie Keane, Mark Davies, Elliott Bennett, Keith Andrews – it’s been a while since there was a lasting breakthrough into our own first team. Anthony Forde and David Davis were among five first-team debutants this season, and there have been some encouraging loan spells as well, particularly Danny Batth, who has just won promotion with Sheffield Wednesday and can’t be much worse than this year’s back line. With the under 18s performing strongly in their Academy League, the hope is that next season will be an opportunity for message-board phenoms like Zeli Ishmael to push their claims as well.
So it’s not all bad then. The trip to Molineux will become more affordable, and complacent excoriations by MOTD’s powdered old-boys will be replaced by the earnest grumblings of serial club-legend Steve Claridge an hour later. We may even have picked up a few new fans along the way. After all, if there’s one thing the English public love, it’s a well-administered status-quo.