One again Wolves fans find themselves thinking of what could have been and dreaming of what could be.
But this isn’t a sob story. It’s not a plea for pity. Wolves have deserved everything, and the fans have been dragged along for bad measure. Division four, two bouts of bankruptcy, two stands closed by health and safety. A club that passed up on Duncan Edwards and childhood Wolves fan George Best. A club that lined up a deal for a young Franny Lee only to change their minds. A club that tapped up Jock Stein from Hibs only to lose him to Celtic, and lured Alex Ferguson from Aberdeen only to blow the interview.
And now this latest fine mess.
First, what could have been.
Wolves won promotion under Mick McCarthy on the mantra of ‘young and hungry’. Hard working players with a point to prove. However, for all the praise the team took for it’s worth ethic, the secret weapon was that the team could play a bit of football. Michael Kightly, David Jones, Matt Jarvis (a one trick pony, but boy, what a trick) and Kevin Foley were all good on the ball, and after promotion McCarthy added Kevin Doyle, Nenad Milijas, Andrew Surman. A year later we saw the additions both Steve Fletcher and Jamie O’Hara. The foundations were there to grow as a footballing team as well as a hard-working on, but somewhere along the way the priorities shifted and McCarthy learned the wrong lessons. Slowly the decent footabllers were marginalised, sold or worked into the ground. Milijas couldn’t get a game ahead of Dave Edwards, David Jones was allowed to run down his contract and leave after asking for a payrise. Surman was sold to Nowrich. Gifted youngsters like Elliot Bennett were allowed to leave and Mark Davies had already been escorted to Bolton. Slowly graft and sweat became the teams only defining traits, and there’s a point when those legs become tired and grafting becomes plodding.
Steve Morgan wanted something new. As Wolves had faded away he’d seen the emergence of Swansea and the steady survival of Wigan. Teams who played good football and did so with cheaper players scouted from abroad. He appointed Stale Solbakken, a manager with a good pedigree and a lot of tactical knowledge, and gave him the brief to, well, deliver everything and now.
What they perhaps neglected to tell the Norwegian was that he was going to have to work with the same faded and broken team that had just spent a year finding new and exciting ways to fail. I would love to know Solbakken’s thoughts in those early months, as it became obvious that there was to be no clearout, and that his job depended on being able to convert a team of grafters into Barcelona. He was set up for either brilliant success or total failure, and was given no options between. I wonder also how isolated he was at the start? He came in on his own -with two coaches appointed later- and worked with Terry Connor. It must have been hard to convince players of his methods and tactics when he had nobody else to support him.
Solbakken showed promising signs in the transfer market, and it’s only injury that blots the record. Sako has shone very brightly in this division, and both Peszko and Boukari looked positive before suffering long term injuries. Doumbia has both amazed and frustrated, and Sigurdarson has shown flashes of he player he could become.
I wanted Solbakken to succeed. I wanted a team who played a modern zonal style, who played with their brains, and broke teams down with passing and patience. But the stark facts are that he didn’t deliver. He wasn’t helped, and he perhaps never stood a chance, but he did himself no favours by simply failing to pick up points. As with Glenn Hoddle several years ago, he leaves the club with the vague impression that he was the right idea at the wrong time. The lasting memories of both managers will be limp, lifeless football and of men unable to convey their ideas to the players in gold.
Dean Saunders was not on my list. Truth be told, he wasn’t on the list of any Wolves fan that I spoke to. There was a simple and predictable list of names that rarely went beyond Sean O’Driscoll and Gus Poyet. It felt like the right time for O’Driscoll. He is both a Wolves fan and a coach that can combine attractive football with the realities of such a harsh league. It helped that he was available, and that the only competition for his signature was the team at the foot of the table.
It became clear that the fairytale wasn’t going to happen and Saunders was rushed in with a speed that would have been far better received last season. To my mind there is nothing about his record that suggests he is the man for the job –though a passing resemblance to Bruce Springsteen gives me years worth of “Wolves Boss” material- and his teams aren’t known for their football.
And yet, and yet.
Saunders cut an impressive figure at the press conference. He said all the right things. He spoke of harsh lessons, of players needing to start working harder, and of cutting loose any dead wood. Steve Morgan’s comments were also key; he spoke of Saunders’ lower leagues experience as being important to him being able to manage in the championship. Perhaps he is right, and Solbakken lacked that basic understanding.
In truth both managers said more or less the same things in their opening press conferences, but they said them in different ways. Solbakken is quiet, measured and cerebral. Saunders is an entertainer who knows how to connect with people, and more importantly understands the mindset of midlands football fans.
What I realise looking back over my time following the club is that perhaps Saunders fits the Wolves DNA in a way that Solbakken never could. Wolves fans need to hear certain things- they need to see certain things. The club is bigger than the City, and the two feed off each other. Far more than any politician or celebrity, the City of Wolverhampton get’s it’s self-esteem from it’s famous old football club, and they need a strong figure at the helm.
Some football clubs need coaches and some need managers. Roy Hodgson is a perfect fit for Fulham or Albion, but never connected with Liverpool. Celtic fans need a manager that embodies the club in some way, a talisman they can rally around. Mark Hughes was never as comfortable in his own skin at Fulham or QPR as he was at Blackburn. Wolves, I realise now, are perhaps a club that need a leader. They need a Mick McCarthy type, the man who leads by example and gives the fans the simple and clear comments that they trust. They also need a plan B for when belief in that leader runs out.
Perhaps Saunders can be that leader. The same fans that were talking down Saunders on Sunday are now telling me how much they liked his press conference. There is already a different feel in the air, and I think we might see a sharp increase in attendances for the honeymoon period.
My concern is that the club has once again sacrificed long-term development for short-term gain. As much as Saunders seems to “get” the club, I would rather they had stayed the course. Where would Wolves be now if Solbakken had been given everything he needed last summer? Where will Wolves be in five years now compared to what they could have been after five years of the Norwegian’s project?
Time will tell.
Written by Jay Stringer, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger