David Cameron Walker

Archive for the ‘Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Category

Jackett Up

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Football - Football League One - Wolverhampton Wanderers head coach Kenny JackettGiven just how hideous the last two seasons have been, the past 12 months have gone just about as well as could be expected for Wolverhampton Wanderers. League One champions with two games to go; the best defensive record in the Football League (and best goals conceded per game ratio of the country’s top five league), plus a raft of club records smashed, including a run of nine consecutive league wins.

And who do we have to thank for this? Well, it’s in no small part due to the management of head coach Kenny Jackett, who has not only managed to halt a vicious downward spiral, but somehow reverse it and return the club from whence it came. So, just how well has Jackett done this season?

Transfers: 9/10

On the face of it, this has been Jackett’s strongest suit. Well, I say Jackett, but he has been working alongside ‘Head of Football Development and Recruitment’ Kevin Thelwell since last summer’s restructuring of the management team. Since Jackett took over, seven first team players have come into the first team, and only one of them so far could be categorised as anything other than a success; Leon Clarke’s one goal in 12 appearances so far belying the £750,000 spent on, at the time, League One’s leading goal scorer.

While 6 out of 7 signings is an unqualified success there are still those Wolves fans that have a few questions regarding scouting system. Of those seven signings, three of them have been among the best players in League One (the aforementioned Clarke in addition to Sheffield United’s Kevin McDonald and Wigan Athletic’s Nouha Dicko who had been on loan at Rotherham), while another two had worked with Jackett in the past; Sam Ricketts was an integral part of Kenny Jackett’s early Swansea sides, while James Henry spent four years under Jackett’s tutelage at Millwall. While Jackett should be applauded for the way he has integrated the players into the team, transfers next season will surely be harder to come by as Jackett’s little black book becomes smaller and we become a smaller fish in a bigger pond.

Signings:

Sam Ricketts: adds experience and leadership to the backline, along with an unexpected attacking threat

Kevin McDonald: an absolute class act. Too good for League One, could probably play in the Premier League if he really wants it

Scott Golbourne: solved the long-standing left-back problem, a solid presence in defence

James Henry: added an attacking threat we were missing down the right hand side, and chipped in with some invaluable goals

Michael Jacobs: a revelation since being played behind the striker. Drifts past defenders with ease

Nouha Dicko: 12 goals in 15 starts since signing says it all

Leon Clarke: ironically not settled in yet. Doesn’t necessarily fit the system

Squad Management 10/10

The team that finished the League One season is completely different to the side that was relegated from the Championship twelve months ago. Jackett has overseen a complete overhaul of the squad; six of the seven signings have become first team regulars, while Jack Price come through the youth ranks to play an important role. Add to that Danny Batth finally being given a run in the first team and Richard Stearman re-integrated following last season’s loan spell at Ipswich Town and goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, winger Bakary Sako, and to a lesser extent Irish defender Matt Doherty and midfielder David Edwards, are the only regular starters this season who also played last year.

Jackett has also overseen an awful lot of talent leave the squad. Within days of his appointment, it was announced that the club were seeking buyers for Karl Henry (gone to QPR), Roger Johnson (on loan at West Ham), Stephen Ward (on loan at Brighton) and Jamie O’Hara (currently earning £30,000 a week for the odd under-21 appearance).

In addition, except Sako, all of Ståle Solbakken’s signings have left the club on loan, meaning potentially quite a headache this summer as they all reconvene on the club. Jackett also made the decision to let our four strikers leave in January, as Leigh Griffiths joined Celtic, and Kevin Doyle, Jake Cassidy and Bjōrn Sigurðarson joined QPR, Tranmere Rovers and Molde on loan respectively. With the likes of Kevin Foley, George Elokobi and O’Hara seemingly frozen out, defender Richard Stearman and David Edwards are the only players in contention who are left from our Premier League days.

Tactics 7/10

Our season has almost been split into three different sections. We started it by winning games but not playing well, reliant on the likes of Doyle, Sako and Griffiths for individual moments to win games. Then, as Jackett’s team started to take shape, we went through a period over Christmas of playing well but not necessarily winning. And then, it was almost as if a switch was flicked, and things started to come together. It was of no coincidence that this came as Jackett settled on the 4-2-3-1 formation that so many clubs are using. Earlier in the season, we were using a more old-fashioned 4-4-2 formation, happy to concede possession in the middle in the knowledge that our forward players would be good enough to create chances.

Our best performances have come when Jack Price and Kevin McDonald have provided the solid base in midfield for Bakary Sako, James Henry and Michael Jacobs to create chances for a lone-forward. When one or more of these players hasn’t been available, a slight change to a 4-1-4-1 formation has been necessary, with two box-to-box midfielders in Welsh duo Lee Evans and Dave Edwards playing ahead of the immaculate McDonald.

There did appear to be a potential fly in the ointment as Leon Clarke was signed, playing his first match as a withdrawn forward, not unlike how Kevin Doyle was used at the start of the season. But, an injury to Clarke forced Jackett back to the 4-2-3-1 that had been so successful, although questions remain as to how both Clarke and Nouha Dicko will be utlised next season.

In-Game Management 5/10

This has arguably been Jackett’s biggest downside this season. I struggle to remember a match where he has made a significant change to turn a match in our favour (although this is arguably more difficult to achieve when your team is winning most games), but half-time substitutions in the home games against Leyton Orient and Rotherham made life a little bit harder than they might have needed to be.

Jackett doesn’t seem to be a fan of unnecessary substitutions, preferring to let those who start the game finish it. This was particularly frustrating during our March Madness, when earlier postponed fixtures resulted in a run of nine games in four weeks, yet even when games were won early there was a reluctance to change; during this period, six players started all nine matches, with five of them playing every minute. Indeed, since the start of 2014, Danny Batth has played every minute of every game, while Richard Stearman, Kevin McDonald, Sam Ricketts, Scott Golbourne and Michael Jacobs have missed just 456 minutes between them, being substituted off just four times in total.

Youth 7/10

There isn’t a football fan in the country who doesn’t want to see a squad full of players who the club has developed, and Wolves fans have probably seen more than most this season. On average this term, each match day squad has featured 8.45 players who have come through our youth and Under-21 teams (although this figure does include Lee Evans and Matt Doherty who were signed aged 18 from Bohemians and Newport County respectively. Without these two, the average falls to 7.12 – still a respectable number), something the club is rightly proud of; 21 Wolves-developed players have featured in match day squads this season.

But, the key phrase is ‘featured in match day squads’. Over half of the starts from Wolves-developed players this season have come from Danny Batth and goalkeeper Carl Ikeme. Young midfielder Jack Price is the other player to have started more than 20 games this season. In comparison, defender Ethan Ebanks-Landell has sat on the substitutes’ bench 22 times this season, striker Liam McAlinden has watched 18 games, and goalkeeper Aaron McCarey 31 (admittedly, it’s sometimes a necessary evil to have a young goalkeeper on the bench every game).

Whether these statistics say more about the lack of squad depth at the club rather than the quality of youth players is a question to be asked. But, they have pushed their way past a number of players with Premier League experience; the likes of George Elokobi and Kevin Foley are clearly now deemed surplus to requirements.

Club Fit 10/10

Last summer, Kenny Jackett walked into a broken club. Slowly but surely, he has rebuilt the club’s relationship with the fans, making appearances at fan events early on and making little changes, such as having the players applaud the supporters before every game. He has helped bring a respectability to the club’s management structure, especially after the previous failed appointments (Terry Connor, Ståle Solbakken and the disastrous Dean Saunders), while his working relationship with Kevin Thelwell has seen the focus move away from the 3Ms (Mick McCarthy, club owner Steve Morgan and CEO Jez Moxey) and focus on the 2Ks.

Results 9/10

When it comes down to it, a manager is judged on results, and no-one can question these this season. The best defensive record in the country, the league wrapped up with two games to play and the 100-point barrier surely to be broken. While some may point to the wealth of riches available to Jackett (this was surely a joke piece?), this is never any guarantee of success – you only have to look at the way that QPR, a club in a very similar position, have fallen away in the Championship to see this. Maybe there have been some disappointing results in cup competitions (Notts County, Morecombe and Oldham knocking us out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, League Cup and FA Cup respectively), promotion was always the aim. Now, the work begins to ensure as successful a season next time around.

Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger

Tom tweets at @toomb306

All Change at Molineux

Friday, February 7th, 2014

LC

It’s amazing what one result can do for a football fan’s outlook on life. I started penning a piece for WAGU! just before Christmas, which would have been one of those really annoying articles about how a team at the top of league (well, Wolves were second at the time) should be doing better. In the next five games, we won just one and have slipped out of the promotion places, behind Brentford and Leyton Orient. But, sometimes a 90-minute performance can resurrect not only a team, but also the support for that team.

Finally, it appears that boss Kenny Jackett has found a group of players and a system that suits this squad. In January an excellent 2-0 win over Preston was the follow-up to a meek surrender in Gillingham, live on Sky the previous week. The starting lineup for last weeks victory over 10-man Bradford City was unrecognisable in comparison to the team that so meekly surrendered it’s Championship place. Of Dean Saunders’ last three Wolves starting XIs, only a handful are even close to being in contention for Saturday’s trip to Stevenage. Almost bizarrely, one of the players with the most chance will be Nouha Dicko, signed permanently from Wigan Athletic this week (he played a handful of games on loan last season).

Of those 15 players, five remain at the club; five are out on loan*; two returned to their parent clubs; one was sold and two left due to the end of their contract. Joining Dicko at the Compton training ground is Bakary Sako, surprisingly unsold in January, along with Jamie O’Hara (40 minutes in a Wolves shirt this season), Matt Doherty (injured since November) and George Elokobi (one league start this season). Elokobi is clearly unwanted (and many Wolves fans have long believed that even this level is too high for a player of his limited ability), while O’Hara is frozen out

In fact, there are only five outfield players who are anywhere near our current first team who had played for the club more than fifteen times before the start of this season: Sako, Richard Stearman, David Davis and David Edwards are four of them. Bizarrely, the last is actually Leon Clarke, signed a week ago, but is actually our fifth most experience player, in terms of Wolves appearances.  Of those five, Sako has been at the club for 18 months, Clarke has a gap of seven years between his 83rd and 84th appearances, and Davis in the first team squad for just under two years. Kenny Jackett has overseen a huge upheaval of the playing staff, and it is small wonder that the squad is only just starting to gel.

The win against Preston was the first time that we have played well for 90 minutes. Previous good performances have generally lasted for only 45-minutes before going pear-shaped, the Christmas period top-of-the-table clash with Leyton Orient being a perfect example – we were excellent for 45-minutes before an enforced change and an improvement from Orient saw a 1-1 draw. But, with Jackett’s signings bedding in, the signs are there for an improved second half of the season.

And Jackett’s signings have been good. In fact they’ve been better than good. Of Jackett’s eight permanent signings, there are question marks over only two of them. And they only signed in January. Every other signing is getting better and better. It’s difficult to judge given that three of the last five seasons have been spent in the Premier League, but most of Jackett’s signings seem to be the best we’ve made in a long time. He has finally plugged the left back and right wing positions that have plagued the club for longer than I care to remember with the consistency of Scott Golbourne and trickery of James Henry respectively, while Kevin McDonald is absolutely exquisite in the middle of the park. Add to this Sam Ricketts who is our best defender whether on the left, right or in the center and the exciting Michael Jacobs, and Jackett has replaced the nucleus of the team (many of whom have extensive Premier League experience) with better players.

Arguably the final position he needed to recruit was upfront. And he has definitely change that around – in the final days of the transfer window, out went the £6m Kevin Doyle, £2.4m Björn Sigurðarson and leading scorer Leigh Griffiths. This had been the position Jackett had the most trouble with. Griffiths scored a goal for every 147 minutes on the pitch, but didn’t contribute a huge amount elsewhere. Doyle had obvious quality, but a goal return of 3 in 23 wasn’t enough, while Sigurðarson never really got a run in his favoured position. If Nouha Dicko and Leon Clarke prove to be the forwards who manage to combine goals with all-round play, Wolves fans should have a lot to look forward to between now and May.

*Wolves are a League 1 club with nine players out on loan. Of those, one has taken four points from Juventus in the Champions League group stage, one is in the League Cup semi-finals, another has 23 starts for a team in the Championship play-offs, one is playing in the Norwegian top flight and a further two are at French top-flight clubs. Wolves are a League 1 club.

Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger

Tom tweets at @toomb306

Are Wolves Breaking Bad?

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

BakarySakoFor 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

A New Season, A New Era

Monday, July 22nd, 2013

KJ

For me, the first 15 years of being a Wolves supporter were pretty simple. We would be one of the favourites for promotion, waste a load of Sir Jack Hayward’s money on overpriced flops, but ultimately finish around mid-table. In 2003, we managed promotion to the Promised Land of the Premier League, but that lasted just a season.

The last five years though have been somewhat more exciting. Winning the Championship in 2009 saw the promotion that so many Wolves fans had been expecting for so long. This was followed by two seasons of survival, including home and away victories over Tottenham, defeats of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea at home (given the other sport this summer, I should point out that this win was the same day as England won the Ashes in Australia), and a famous win at Anfield. Two seasons of survival, coupled with signings with Premier League experience in Roger Johnson and Jamie O’Hara and many felt it was the time to become established as a Premier League club. Seven points from the first three games the following season saw us sitting on the top of the Premier League, albeit only for a couple of hours.

But, we took only 18 points from the next 35 games, and finished bottom of the Premier League with Terry Connor in charge. The new manager, tasked with returning us to the Promised Land was Ståle Solbakken. But, a run of poor results led to the club’s management bottling it, and sacking the Norwegian, replacing him within a couple of days with Dean Saunders. While the appointment of Terry Connor was a shocker, Dean Saunders was an even worse decision, winning just five of his 25 games in charge. The prospect of relegation was in everyone’s minds at the time of Solbakken’s dismissal, but Saunders made it a reality. The club had gone from top of the Premier League to League 1 in 617 days, or 81 games. This time included 46 defeats, just 17 victories and an impressive four managers.

Now, for the second time in twelve months we are facing a new season in a new division with a new man at the helm. Kenny Jackett has arrived, together with an apparent new focus. Jackett is not a ‘Manager’; he is a ‘Head Coach’. What this actually means in real terms, no-one is quite sure of, but it is an apparent attempt to modernise the structure of the club. Whereas previously, Steve Morgan was the club’s owner, and Jez Moxey handled the day to day running of the club, Kevin Thelwell is taking a step forward and is the new Head of Football Development and Recruitment. One can’t help but think that Morgan and Moxey have taken a glance 12 miles to the South East, and are trying to replicate the success seen at the Hawthorns. West Brom have seen managers come and go, but they have the structure to support this, with Dan Ashworth (before his appointment as the FA’s director of elite development) arguably the most important person in their management team.

And so, we move onto the forthcoming season. Personally, I’ve only ever seen one Kenny Jackett side play – a 5-0 win at Molineux that happened right at the beginning of the slide (I missed both games v Millwall last season for work related reasons) – and so have very little idea what to expect. What is certain is that a number of the scapegoats for the disastrous two seasons will not be present. The so-called ‘Gang of Four’ are all (hopefully) being shipped out. The aforementioned Roger Johnson and Jamie O’Hara, together with Karl ‘former club captain and occasional liability’ Henry and Stephen ‘scorer of THAT winner at Anfield’ Ward were all left behind as Jackett took a youthful squad on a pre-season tour of Scotland, and none have been issue a squad number. Johnson and O’Hara are seen to represent the rot that set in just after they signed. These two players joined, on presumably large wages, with Johnson assuming the club captaincy before he’d pulled on a Wolves shirt.  How much this affected a dressing room that had been together for the previous two years, no-one really knows, but the dynamics were definitely affected. One casualty of their arrival was Karl Henry, demoted to vice-captain. He has always split the fans – some viewing him a vital midfield snotter, who breaks up play. Others focus on his lack of offensive ability (although I’m sure a number of professionals think he is more than offensive enough), pointing out his solitary goal in the last four seasons. But, even his most ardent of supporters is agreed that it is time for him to move on, and he is thought to have been one of the chief revolters of Solbakken (again, I’m sure that a number of professionals in the game think he is more than revolting enough). Quite what Stephen Ward has done wrong, no-one is quite sure. Maybe he’s seen as being too representative of Mick McCarthy’s reign; maybe Kenny Jackett just doesn’t like people with big noses.

With those four frozen out, and possibly Bakary Sako following them, who does this leave? We still have a number of players left with Premier League experience; the returning Wayne Hennessey, George Elokobi, Richard Stearman, Kevin Foley and David Edwards have 342 top-flight games between them, while Kevin Doyle is a player that you all know about. But, Hennessey excluded, none of the others are guaranteed to be in the first team. Instead, it is likely to be a season of transition, as a number of youth players are given the chance to stake their claim. Matt Doherty, Jake Cassidy and David Davis are expected to keep the first team places they gained last season, while Danny Batth, Jamie Reckord, Jack Price, Zeli Ismail, Liam McAlinden and Lee Evans are set to challenge for the first team squad.

This youth will need to be supplemented by experience, not least from new signing Sam Ricketts. But the most intriguing addition to the squad is a player who was signed two and a half years ago, but is the current Scottish Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year (incidentally the third player to have ties with Wolves to win the award – any guesses?). Griffiths has had something of a chequered past; not being viewed as good enough to secure a place while in the Premier League, he has spent much of his time on loan in Scotland, scoring 23 goals last season. But he is not without controversy, having been suspended by Hibs for twice making offensive gestures to his own fans, before being charged by police over making an offensive comment on Twitter. But, desperate times and all that; the 23 SPL goals he scored last season, in addition to the two goals and two assists in three pre-season friendlies mean that he is the strong favourite with the bookies to be the leading scorer in League 1 next season (if you do fancy a flutter on this, I’d recommend you avoid Griffiths, and instead look to his probable strike partner. Björn Sigurðarson is best priced 34-1 and may well be worth a couple of quid).

To sum this piece up, no-one has a clue what’s going to happen. The bookies have us as favourites for the new season, but given the amount of changes that are occurring this summer, I’m not sure we’d be a good bet (personally, I’d be looking at Peterborough). The Wolves of this season will be very different to the Wolves of previous years. Instead, we will have a group of youngsters who are all desperate for their chance to wear the Old Gold. After the turbulence of the past couple of seasons, a boring season of transition will do me just fine.

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

Tom tweets at @toomb306

Wolves’ Double Dip Relegation

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

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 WAGU!, 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

Wolves: on the threshold of disaster

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

It’s been a while since my last piece on here, developing a five point plan for Ståle Solbakken at Wolves. And guess how many of those points he took on board? Not a single one of them. Now I reckon he ignored my plans for one of three reasons. Firstly, I don’t know what I’m talking about. This one is perhaps fair enough. The second reason is that he doesn’t actually read this website, but we know that’s not true. Anyone who’s anyone reads WAGU! on a regular basis, and I can see you there nodding your head in agreement. The third possible reason for him ignoring my advice was that he was sacked six days later. In hindsight, that is probably the primary reason.

Since my last blog on here, at the turn of New Year, Wolves have played 12 games of football (eleven in the league, one in the FA Cup). Guess how many of those we’ve won? Well done, the answer is one. One bloody match in twelve; a grand total of eight points from the 33 on offer in that period. That is relegation form. Add that to the three wins in fifteen at the back end of 2012, it’s no surprise to see Wolves firmly ensconced in the bottom three of the Championship, fighting our fourth relegation battle in four seasons.

Yet, we have a new manager, former Welsh international and Liverpool and Aston Villa signing Dean Saunders, poached from Doncaster Rovers, who incidentally, he took down last season. Since Saunders has been appointed, his record reads played eleven, won one, drawn five, lost five. Our honeymoon period under Saunders was over before the vows had been exchanged (by the way, this is the second successive season in which we’ve changed managers during the winter months. The replacement managers have taken twelve points from 24 games, losing over half of them. God bless Terry Connor).

I have always maintained that sacking a manager is an amalgamation of two very different decisions – the decision to release the current manager from his contract, and then the decision to employ a new one. If you get the second decision wrong, it makes no difference if you were right to make the first decision. And so far, the jury is definitely out on that second decision. At a recent Fans’ Parliament meeting (effectively a meeting of the management team of the club and a selection of around 40 fan representatives), club owner Steve Morgan admitted that Dean Saunders had been the only man on his shortlist.

Yes, you read that right; so convinced that Steve Morgan was that Saunders was the right man for the job, he didn’t even stop to consider anyone else (Sean O’Driscoll was the fans’ choice – a Wolves fan as a boy, who had done solid jobs at all of his prior clubs and is doing so again at Bristol City. But more on them later…). This came on the basis of a recommendation from Wrexham’s owner, and Saunders former employer. And then strangely, Doncaster’s owner also backed up this reference, despite apparently not wanting Saunders to leave. But, unsurprisingly, we got our man.

And has he made a difference? Well, perhaps initial signs were promising, with the odd good 20 minutes of football here and there, but never enough to actually buy a win. There was a definite change in style, gone are the slow build-ups of the Solbakken era – when even your silky skilled left winger hoofs it long at every opportunity, you know there has been a change of regime. In fact, perhaps Saunders has even read my recommendations in that earlier blog. We’ve signed a left back, the youngster Jack Robinson on loan from Liverpool while Kaspars Gorkšs has arrived on loan from Reading and youngster Matt Doherty appears to have made the right back spot his own; Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Kevin Doyle are no longer our automatic pairing upfront, with Jake Cassidy recalled from his loan spell at Tranmere Rovers and Björn Sigurðarson gaining a modicum of fitness; and for one game, Tongo Doumbia was given the freedom to roam forward. But, they didn’t work, so maybe I was right in the opening paragraph; I don’t know what I’m talking about…

But, despite my best laid plans, things have not taken a turn for the better. On Saturday, Wolves are facing bottom of the table Bristol City, in what is a classic relegation six pointer. Earlier in the season, we beat them 4-1 at Ashton Gate, in what can only be described as a ‘comfortable’ victory (in fact, it’s the only time we’ve won a league game by more than two goals since beating Blackpool 4-0 more than two years ago). Yet, we are going into it with a feeling of trepidation – surely every Wolves fan will look at the two dugouts and wonder ‘what might have been’. A loss and we are rock bottom in the league going into the Easter period. Surely a team full of players who have spent the previous three seasons in the Premier League should not be able to find themselves in this situation. Nothing less than a win will be good enough; a tall order considering the Molineux crowd have seen just four home league victories in over 15 months.

There is currently a sign outside Molineux saying ‘tough times don’t last; tough people do’. It’s about time the players bought into this message, and there is no better place to start than at home to bottom of the league.

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

Tom tweets at @toomb306

Out with the new, in with the old?

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

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

Jay tweets at @JayStringer & also writes HERE.

A five point plan for Stale

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Well, I guess I was right. Ståle Solbakken was still Wolves manager at Christmas. Away wins at Bristol City and Blackpool and a home derby victory against Birmingham City ensured a degree of respectability at Christmas. Well, at least we’d pulled away from the relegation zone and you could just sense the smallest hint of optimism for the second half of the season.

But then came the Scrooges of Peterborough and a 3-0 home defeat to a team in the relegation zone. Yet, this was by no means the worst Wolves have played under Solbakken – we actually showed some attacking intent in the second half, but alas, to no avail. And to compound the pressure on Solbakken, Saturday was the return of the Mick, as McCarthy’s Ipswich helped themselves to a 2-0 win against a hapless team. Two Christmas home games to teams in the bottom five of the division, and we have an aggregate 5-0 loss…

So, what does Ståle need to do to turn things around. Here are my suggestions…

1. Scrap the zonal marking and replace the defence

Despite having one of the worst defences in the country last season, we are still paying pretty much the same players in defensive positions as when we were relegated – Kevin Foley, Christophe Berra, Roger Johnson and Stephen Ward. While Johnson has improved immeasurably on last season’s rank disappointment, as a unit they are poor. At a recent fans’ forum, Solbakken claimed that new defenders were not needed as we were now defending differently, using a zonal system. Now, I’ve nothing against zonal marking at all, but at times you need to recognise the limitations of your defenders. Both Johnson and Berra are old fashioned British centre halves, at their happiest in a physical battle with a big striker. Perhaps marking zonally is a little advanced for these defenders…

2. Buy a bloody left back

I genuinely cannot remember the last time Wolves did not need a left back. George Elokobi is as rubbish as he is injured (and he’s very injured at the moment), leaving us just with Stephen Ward. Ward is an interesting one – signed as a striker on the cheap in McCarthy’s first season, he promptly won Championship Player of the Month on the basis of three goals in four games. It took him 3 years, 10 months and 9 days before he scored again. He played much of the following season as a left winger, before moving even further back to left back the season after as we won promotion, a position he’s stuck to ever since.

While he has battled admirably there, it’s clear he’s not a natural in this position and for us to not have a single player in competition for his place highlights our weakness in this position. Our lack of a left back has long been a standing joke amongst Wolves fans – as soon as anyone new joins the club, whether player or not, the first question anyone asks is ‘can he play left back?’  For once, it would be nice if the answer could be ‘yes’.

3. Give up on Kevin Doyle and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake

Sylvan Ebanks-Blake had won two Championship Golden Boots before Wolves’ promotion. We added Kevin Doyle to the strike force, in the hope that they would fire us to safety. As it happens, Ebanks-Blake never really took to the Premier League, while Doyle was superb in his first season before having his confidence eroded away from him. But the biggest problem was that at no point did they ever look like a partnership. I could probably count on one hand the number of games that they’ve played well together; hell, I could probably count on one hand the number of times they’ve passed to each other in their time at the club. They are both fine strikers in their own right, but should never be both on the pitch at the same time.

4. Push Tongo Doumbia further forward

Splitting Doyle and Ebanks-Blake would mean Solbakken moving away from his favoured 4-4-2 formation, and allow Tongo Doumbia to push further forward. There seems to be an assumption that any big African central midfielder is a defensive player, something Yaya Touré suffered from early in his time at Manchester City.

Tongo has the ability to frighten the life out of opposition defenders – when he puts his mind to it, he can glide past tackles and score goals. Yet, he’s pigeon holed as a defensive player when he doesn’t have a defensive bone in his body. Even though both him and Karl Henry play regularly, opposition attacking midfielders have all the time in the world to dictate play. Dropping one of the strikers, bringing in an extra midfielder and pushing Doumbia further forward would add stability to the team, and free up Bakary Sako and Björn Sigurðarson on the flanks from the defensive duties they ignore anyway.

5. Give the fans something, anything to hold on to

I take a look at the teams ‘struggling’ in the Premier League (three years out of the Football League has really destroyed my knowledge of it), and you see the odd reason for optimism. Liverpool have their philosophy (for philosophy, read ‘Lack of Plan B’), Aston Villa have a team full of promising youngsters. But at Wolves, there’s nothing.

The only youth team players involved are the 26 year old Carl Ikeme and David Davis who is failing to live up to their promise of last season. Sometimes you have teams with solid defences who struggle to score goals – we’ve conceded more than 11 other teams in the league. Conversely, sometimes teams score by the bucket load, but concede as well – only five Championship teams have scored fewer goals than Wolves.

The defence is poor, the strikers don’t score enough and the midfield doesn’t contribute enough to either. There are precisely two causes for any optimism – Carl Ikeme is now well established as goalkeeper and could well be in the running to become the third Wolves academy product to get in the Championship team of the year in the last four seasons we’ve been in the Football League (Matt ‘would be England’s Number One if not for horrific injuries’ Murray won in 2006/07 and his successor in goal, Wayne Hennessey also succeeded him as the Championship’s top goalkeeper the following season.)

The only outfield player to really have any credit in the bank at the moment is the new signing Bakary Sako – a £3 million signing from St. Etienne with 9 assists and 6 goals from his 22 matches this season, although even he hasn’t scored for eight games as he appears to dislike the English winter. At the moment, neither Ståle nor the team are giving the fans any reason for optimism – this needs to change.

Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger

Tom tweets at @toomb306

Stale’s Going Nowhere

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

As usual, I was listening to WAGU! on my Tuesday evening journey home from work, wondering why they got rid of the Alan Johnston Paint Trophy and hoping against hope that Wolves would get a mention. As soon as the hardest managers were mentioned, I smiled, knowing that this surely had to be about Ståle Solbakken punching a hole in the dugout following Craig Mackail-Smith’s equaliser for Brighton on Saturday. While that was amusing, a large part of me wished Solbakken’s fist had made contact with Karl Henry’s face following his stupid red card mere minutes later.

But, what really surprised me was the news on the pod of David’s bet that Solbakken would still be manager come Boxing Day. Well David you can probably call up your mate and collect your £10 now – the chances of Solbakken being sacked before then are incredibly low. First of all, Wolves are not a sacking club. I was pleasantly surprised to realise that only two managers have been sacked in the last decade; ironically the only two Wolves managers to get us into the fabled land of the Premier League.

Dave Jones was the first – after the club catastrophically blew up in 2001/02 season (ten points clear at the top of the Division One only to eventually finish third. To make matters worse, the two teams who beat us to promotion were West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City. Just take a moment to comprehend that – not only do your team blow a ten point lead, but then the two teams to take advantage of this are your two closest, fiercest rivals. It still pains me to think about it), he eventually won the 2003 Playoffs only to finish bottom of the Premier League and be sacked with the club languishing back in the Division One.

As at Southampton, Jones was succeeded, by former England coach Glenn Hoddle. Hoddle came with much reputation, but was a huge disappointment – Tomasz ‘the final piece of the jigsaw’ Frankowski cost £1.4 million, scored precisely no goals and was subsequently shipped out. Finishing outside the playoffs, Hoddle cowardly resigned on the same day that Portugal knocked England out of the 2006 World Cup. I remember sitting, watching Steven Gerrard et al. miss penalties, more worried about the future of my club.

Of course, I didn’t need to be worried as in came Mick McCarthy who turned around a club who could easily have been on a slippery downward slope, winning the Championship in his third season. Two survivals followed, before a 5-1 home defeat to West Brom (yes, them again) hammered the final nail in the coffin, nine months later than it should have been. Terry Connor took over, guiding the club to four points from thirteen games, failing to pick up a single win. Even he wasn’t sacked, instead staying help Solbakken settle in, before finally departing a couple of months into the season.

I guess the point of that history lesson is to emphasise that Wolves are not a sacking club, something that has arguably been to its detriment over the years. But, it is slightly worrying that people are already talking about the possibility of Solbakken leaving. What has gone wrong at the club, currently without a win in six games and languishing in the bottom half of the table?

Obviously, the results haven’t been brilliant, but this is almost certainly coming from a change in playing style that the current squad is not used to. They have spent the past five years playing at a quick tempo, looking to get the ball wide to the wingers then into the box as quickly as possible. But, Ståle is revolutionising the tactics, asking the central midfielders to get on the ball and keep possession. The big question is whether the current crop of players has the aptitude to play like this – there is still a lot of dross in a big squad. Every Wolves fan can tick off two or three players who weren’t considered good enough last time we were in the Championship, yet are somehow still in the squad.

Also mentioned on the podcast was the lack of pace in the team, and this is a large problem, something that hopefully Solbakken will be able to rectify in January. I look at other teams in the Championship, teams with players whose talent could be described as ‘mercurial’.  Players who may not be the most consistent, but can spark something brilliant out of nothing. Mick McCarthy built a squad of hardworking players who would ‘put a shift in’, but aren’t necessarily the most talented. It’s is something Solbakken is clearly trying to change – Bakary Sako has moments of brilliance and will probably score or assist well over half of our goals this season, but isn’t the quickest. Unfortunately, new boy Razak Boukari has suffered with injuries since joining – he could potentially be the player we seek.

But, Solbakken still has the fans onside. Yes, there’s the odd fan who gazes at East Anglia, hoping to hear one of McCarthy’s one liners, but generally it is the board that has the ire of the fans. Having sold Michael Kightly, Matt Jarvis and Steven Fletcher to Premier League clubs, every fan expected a little more money to be spent in the summer. Instead, we made a £14 million profit on transfers, which may look decent on paper, but nothing compared to the riches on offer to next season’s Premier League clubs benefiting from a massive new TV deal.

On Saturday we have a tough trip to Watford (and apologies to all Wolves fans as we’ve lost every away match I’ve attended this season – I’m half tempted to sell my ticket…), but after that is a run of three home games in four. While every game in this division is tough (and I think many Wolves fans had forgotten just how difficult this league is), it would take a startlingly poor run of results between now and Christmas for the WAGU! coffers to be depleted.

Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger

Tom tweets at @toomb306

Ståle: One Month In

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Pre-season, I wrote that Wolves fans don’t really know what to expect this season; a new manager in Ståle Solbakken had already arrived, swiftly followed by a number of changes to the playing staff.

While the general feeling around England appears to be that Wolves did well out of the transfer dealings, with over £23 million brought in for the likes of Steven Fletcher, Matt Jarvis, Adlene Guedioura and Michael Kightly. Yet, despite Steve Morgan’s promise of a ‘treasure chest’, a relatively small amount of £9 million has subsequently been spent. In addition, with every match Fletcher plays for Sunderland, he appears to be more and more of a bargain for the Black Cats. I’ve long argued that he was undervalued, and was very disappointed we didn’t hold out for at least an equivalent fee to the one paid by Tottenham Hotspur to the newly relegated Charlton Athletic for Darren Bent.

But, enough about players who have left; eight players joined the club in the summer, and are taking various amounts of time settling in. The undoubted start so far has been the Malian international Tongo Doumbia. A powerful box to box midfielder whose long legs eat up the pitch, it is disappointing he is only on a season long loan; if he continues with these levels of performances, he will surely have Premier League suitors come next summer. A partnership with Karl Henry could be the platform for the rest of the season.

The rest of the new boys have not settled quite so quickly, with Bakary Sako probably the pick with two goals and two assists in his first three games, from left wing. On the other flank is Polish international Słavomir Peszko, who may not have the explosive pace of Sako or other new winger Razak Boukari, but links up cleverly with Kevin Doyle and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake upfront, who appear to re-finding their feet in the Championship.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect in terms of signing players has been the lack of defensive signings. Solbakken claimed to have seen all 38 Premier League games last season, covering a grand total of 82 goals conceded and just four clean sheets. Yet despite this, just £500,000 has been spent on one defender, Georg Margreitter, whose better half is Austrian tennis player, the world number 35 Tamira Paszek but has played just one League Cup so far. With a defence that is used to conceding goals, it is of no surprise that Carl Ikeme is yet to keep a clean sheet, even if the big Nigerian goalkeeper and rejuvenated Roger Johnson have arguably been the pick of the players so far this season.

The attitude of the players is still important – the players are used to losing, having lost 23 matches last season. In fact, if there’s a stat needed to indicate exactly the problem Solbakken is faced with, it’s that the 3-1 home win against Barnsley on August 21st was the club’s first home win of 2012. Our previous home win (and this includes cup games and friendlies) was on the 4th December against Sunderland, meaning a grand total of 261 days passed without a home win. It is not just a change in personnel that Solbakken has presided over, he needs to change the players heads, and get them believing that games can be won again.

So, has Solbakken made any changes tactically? He is not doing anything overly special, generally favouring a standard 4-4-2 formation with two wingers and two battling central midfielders. The big problem that there has been so far is the integration of the new signings into the squad. Most games have seen three new signings played across the midfield and with two of them not speaking English they are still finding their way in a new league.

Overall, I’ve been reasonably impressed with Ståle Solbakken, who has shown his ruthless side with the recent termination of Terry Connor’s contract. All of his new signings have impressed in bursts, and there is general excitement around the club. But, we have six games to be played in the next 20 days; if we come through that and are still in the top half, many fans will be happy. But, Wolves fans are notoriously fickle, and a few defeats in this period could see the Norwegian under pressure.

Written by Tom Bason, We Are Going Up’s Wolverhampton Wanderers blogger

Tom tweets at @toomb306