The date was Sunday, May 22nd 2011. The day and indeed the whole week prior to it was the closest, most intriguing Barclays Premier League survival battle in years – possibly ever.
The publicity and anticipation spread worldwide. For one day, the eyes of the footballing enthusiast were drawn away from the Manchester United’s and the Chelsea’s and lay firmly fixated upon the ‘Big Five’ all attempting to steer themselves clear of the two remaining relegation places.
Occupying the position of the often mentioned ‘neutral’ was the majority of the world’s football audience. Up against them were the brave few, the loyal supporters of Wigan Athletic, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Birmingham City, Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers. Unfortunately for the minority (myself included) there was no anti-climax. Gary Linekar told of how the situation at the foot of the most prestigious league in the world changed a pulsating fourteen times over the 90 minutes. And the nation ‘did an Oasis’ and duly went mad for it! Pundits, presenters and fans alike couldn’t get enough of the drama and emotion that ebbed and flowed throughout the day. As they say, brilliant for the neutral isn’t it? However, spare a thought for those of us who, with every fibre of our being, went to hell and back on that fateful day.
It is something that I will tell a thousand times in my lifetime. Nothing I have ever experienced or been apart of could hold a candle to the rollercoaster of emotions I and 26,000 others rode on that day. The phone calls, the text messages, people with radios, Facebook statuses, Blackberry updates, mini portions of the crowd exploding into random fits of jubilation – there was no hiding from our current predicament.
I won’t bore you with facts and figures from that day, that has been done time and again. Needless to say we survived. WE, being Wolverhampton Wanderers. Whether it was my natural analyst instinct or just me being a general miser, but when the final whistle came and we learned of our fate, amidst all the scenes of unbridled joy; strangers hugging and kissing one another, raucous chanting, fist pumping and ‘We shall not be moved’ – I sat, slumped into my seat in the Southbank (Jack Harris Stand) Molineux pondering how all of this seemed a charade, a papering over of the cracks compared to the big picture.
While others (fans and players alike) mindlessly celebrated our survival I was already on the outside looking in. Considering Wolves were the only side to have home advantage on the final day, Wolves had the easiest opponent ‘on paper’ and Wolves were two places above the drop-zone. At 4pm GMT our fate was well and truly in our own hands for the first time all season. We seemingly endeavored to do our best to throw it all away!
Take the skin of your teeth, and shed a few more layers. Wolverhampton Wanderers were a mere three minutes from being relegated from the English Premier League. That was until Irish international winger Stephen Hunt pulled the proverbial rabbit from the hat and curled a sweet left footed shot past the spectating Paul Robinson. Almost all of the 28,000 in that famous golden stadium saw it as the great escape, a last ditch dramatic goal had seen us survive on the final day of the season and even sweeter was the fact that it sent our local rivals Birmingham City down in our place. But it wasn’t ‘our place’, it should never have been. I could not help distance myself from the euphoria and see it for what it truly was. In the wider picture we had lost ANOTHER ‘winnable’ home game against a team around us terms of league position. For 45 minutes our best available team, in the manager’s eyes at least, had bottled it on the big stage when it really mattered most. Our salvation was shamefully reliant upon others when it was comfortably in our own hands before kickoff. The whole situation stank of more of the same to me.
Take away the fact that it was the final curtain of a record breaking Premier League season. Remove the hype, anticipation and pressure and it was bleak evidence of more of the same from Mick McCarthy’s Wolves. Beyond the glitz and glamour of the occasion it was another failure to win a game that really mattered. The path to survival is no secret, it has been passed down through generations year after year in football. You have to beat the teams around you. All this adds to the frustration of the loyalist and the baffling, enigmatic query of how and why can a Wolverhampton Wanderers team who have beaten Chelsea, Manchester United, Man City and Liverpool in one season, not beat the likes of Wigan Athletic, West Ham and Blackburn at home!?
It’s the age old adage. If you’d have said to me at the start of the campaign that my team would beat the Premier League’s top 3, Liverpool at Anfield as well as beat all of their four Midlands rivals in one season I’d have checked your pulse before taking it hands down! But to do all of this and still be three minutes away from relegation seems absurd. We didn’t send out our special squadron for these games, it was the same personnel — give or take — that played throughout the season. The same defenders that shut out Rooney and Drogba were made to look like amateurs by the likes of Jason Roberts and Luke Varney — with all due respect. The same front line that put three past Tottenham, scored five goals in total against Man City and combine to slay the undefeated Manchester United, were shut out by the leaky back four of Wigan and West Ham. Even Newton and Galileo would struggle with this one. It just doesn’t add up. While it entertainingly baffles the media and sporting pundits, it frustratingly grates on those of us who entrust our money, our faith and for the most part our livelihood in these players.
Remarkably all of this went through my mind in about ten minutes after the final whistle on that day. Personally, I foretell more of the same in the seasons to come. The buck stops with the manager.
“You can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can’t tell him a lot!”
It’s as if it was written for Mick McCarthy. A man who has divided opinion in the city of Wolverhampton to massive proportions. The grumpy, stuck in his ways northerner that antagonises fans, makes life difficult for the media and has little time for anybody else’s opinion. Some say he’s a magician, ‘Magic Mick’ ‘Super Mick’, while others say he’s lost it, ‘McClueless’. His guard to the media is one thing but it is shown far too often to his own supporters, and the paying public see his self pride masquerading as ignorance. Do his ethics about work rate and ‘putting a shift in’ speak volumes about his character and mentality, or do they mean he has no time for skill, flair and genuine footballing ability? Does his first order of business to release Paul Ince and public rejection of bringing back old favorites Lescott and Keane support a ‘young ‘n’ hungry’ policy and vision for the future, or do they highlight his inability to handle personalities bigger than his own and inadequacy when it comes to managing ‘top’ players. If you heard his interviews or team talks you’d think he was setting up a workforce of 11 men to go working on the rail road, rather than trying to win a football game. Too often it seems that personality and likeability win the day over genuine footballing talent.
Most importantly, and one query that Mr Chairman must consider in the coming months, is regardless of whether Mick is the saviour having guided Wolves to successive survivals and beaten the well documented ‘second season syndrome’, is it a case of ‘thank you very much but goodbye’? Have Wolverhampton Wanderers come as far as they will go under the current regime. With the stadium development, £20 million or so seemingly wasted this season and a progressive attitude coming from the owner, he must decide whether Mick McCarthy will buy into his vision for the future to take a club of esteemed tradition to the next level, or will they forever be the ‘backs against the wall’ underdog, relegation fodder that Mick McCarthy seems to relish.