David Cameron Walker

Posts Tagged ‘Stale Solbakken’

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

Winds of change swirl around Molineux

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

For the first summer since 2006, Wolves fans don’t know what to expect. That summer, Glenn Hoddle cowardly walked out of the club as England were being defeated by Portugal in the World Cup quarter finals, followed by a host of first team players including future England international Joleon Lescott.

Yet, the 2006/07 season which followed was a qualified success. A new, no-nonsense manager was appointed and Mick McCarthy inspired a young team to a fifth place finish in the Championship, only to have their playoff dreams shattered by local rivals West Bromwich Albion.

Fast-forward six years and back in the Championship, Jez Moxey was again searching for a new manager. This time, Wolves appointed the first non-British born manager in the club’s history. Enter the Norwegian Ståle Solbakken. With Solbakken announced before the end of the 2011/12 campaign, there was a feeling of optimism surrounding the club. Typically following a relegation, a new broom was required to brush away the deadwood in the squad.

Last week, the new squad numbers were released; if anything demonstrated the way that McCarthy failed to move the squad forward it’s that the only change in the numbers 1-11 from Wolves’ last season in the Championship was the departure of Neill Collins and addition of Steven Fletcher.

Yet, in the past week that optimism has disappeared. Most of the deadwood are still at the club; unsurprisingly the only players that are attracting interest are those who we want to keep. The undoubted star of the past 18 months was Steven Fletcher. Since Kevin Doyle was injured at the tail end of the 2010/11 season, Fletcher has scored 17 goals in 32 starts. If anyone out there is wondering why Sunderland are preparing to pay £12 million plus, the answer should be in that statistic. Yet Fletch has handed in a transfer request – ‘his head is gone.’

If that wasn’t bad enough, just a couple of days earlier Michael Kightly was sold to local(ish) rivals Stoke City. Kightly, signed from Grays Athletic for just £25,000, had just 12 months left on his contract and his refusal to sign an extension forced the club’s hand. This sale has left the fans with a bitter taste in their mouth. Kightly, such an important part of the team who won the Championship in 2008/09 started just 18 Premier League matches in three seasons as a series of injuries left him unavailable. There was a feeling he owed the club who had paid his wages and indeed gave him a new contract during this period.

Then, at the time of writing, it is reported that a £9 million bid from West Ham has been rejected for Matt Jarvis. Jarvis, who won an England cap 18 months ago, struggled with this new found attention as opposition defences realised he was Wolves’ primary creator last season. Nevertheless, despite having a poor season by his standards, he still at times was excellent. I will never forget the way he picked Chris Smalling apart time and time again at Old Trafford last season. While the final score was a 4-1 battering, it was of no surprise that a Jarvis cross and Fletcher header led to the consolation.

This is the big problem that Wolves’ management are facing; just a week to go until the start of the season and the futures of the best two attacking players are up in the air. Crucially, both have three and four years remaining on their contract respectively, but should they leave, prices of replacements will suddenly rise as clubs discover Solbakken has £20 million in his back pocket.

Three players have already arrived, the most exciting being Icelandic international Björn Sigurðarson, cousin of former Wolves and Aston Villa midfielder Joey  Guðjónsson. Sigurðarson is a quick and powerful forward, who arrives at the club having scored 11 goals in 13 games during the first half of Lillestrøm’s season in Norway. Also arriving are former West Ham forward Frank Nouble (seven career goals in 62 games – let’s hope he’s a late bloomer) and Malian midfielder Tongo Doumbia. Doumbia especially has already impressed in friendlies, and arrives on a 12 month loan from Rennes with a big reputation, not least due to the fact he had been initially expected to join Arsenal or West Bromwich Albion.

I don’t think any Wolves fan really knows what to expect from this coming season; the bookies have the club as third favourites for promotion, but for those with a wicked side, the 40-1 on relegation may be tempting. Even if we move into September with Fletcher and Jarvis in the Premier League, there is still a nucleus of players who should be good enough to stand firm in the Championship. The likes of Kevin Doyle, Dorus De Vries or Wayne Hennessey, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Jamie O’Hara and Roger Johnson, in theory at least, should be good enough to provide a run at the playoffs.

Perhaps crucially, the morale of the remaining players appears to be good, with plenty of ‘banter’ flying back and forth over their favoured mode of communication, Twitter. As ever, a solid start is vital, yet there is a growing feeling that the season will not start properly until the transfer window slams shut on September 1st.

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

Tom tweets at @toomb306