Wolves Relegated: The Rise and Demise of Wolverhampton Wanderers
With the writing on the wall, the fat lady singing, the curtain falling and just about every other damning cliché being bandied about the Black Country club, Wolverhampton Wanderers has been officially relegated from the Premier League.
Faced with a mission near enough impossible to prevent the inevitable, Wolves hosted a Manchester City side knowing that only a win could prolong their Premier League status for at least one more week. As if the contest was not pivotal enough, a 4-4 draw between Manchester United and Everton earlier in the day meant a victory for City would reduce the gap at the top of the EPL to just three points.
The game itself was as predicted. Manchester City enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and flowed front to back and left to right and did everything but score in the opening exchanges with the busy Sergio Aguero firing wide of both posts on numerous occasions. Euro 2012 prospect Joe Hart was called into action to parry a stinging drive from David Davis out for a corner whilst Wolves’ stand-in keeper Dorus De Vries enjoyed an impressive Premier League debut deputising for the formerly ever present Wayne Hennessey to keep Tevez, Aguero, Nasri and Silva at bay.
Wolves was characteristically dogged, determined and refused to back down to the evidently superior opposition. Sergio Aguero finally latched on to a bending through ball that City had tried and failed with three times previously and calmly slid home the opener in the first half. After Joe Hart was required at full stretch to palm away a Stephen Fletcher header in the second half, Samir Nasri added a second after Carlos Tevez carved open the Wolves back four with a perfect through ball. With an option to increase what could be a very important goal difference advantage, as testament to Wolves’ advances Roberto Mancini went conservative, replacing two attacking midfielders with holders De Jong and Toure and introduced Adam Johnson to bolster the midfield in place of Carlos Tevez still searching for the sharpness lost on his recent golfing excursions.
As the heavens opened to wash away the fledgling traces of Wolves’ Premier League existence, those who have suffered most of all this season, the fans, rose in solidarity promising to “keep the gold flag flying high” before breaking out into a humorous rendition of “Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Barn-se-ley, que sera sera” for which they received a respectful ovation from their visitors.
So the worst fears were realised this evening as another record breaking home loss confirmed what most of the footballing community has known for some time, that Wolverhampton Wanderers were relegated from the Premier League. Just as supporters were sold the dream of the ‘3 year plan’ that Mick McCarthy oversaw to lift them out of the Championship, it has taken the same period of time to throw it all away and return to the second tier of English football.
Almost three years today since a Kyel Reid strike at Oakwell confirmed the Championship crown for Wolverhampton as their sizeable travelling contingent partied in Barnsley with the communal message of “we shall not be moved” was retorted, so the same loyal following must come to terms with an upcoming 46 game calendar without a Rooney, Van Persie or Frank Lampard in sight.
Dotted in between the misery, over the past three seasons Wolves’ fans have been treated to some unforgettable moments. The first season they rode on the adrenaline of being ‘the new boys’ as new signings Kevin Doyle, Nenad Milijas and Ronald Zubar became instant hits in getting over the first hurdle and achieving the never before seen survival in the top flight. After arriving for £7 million from recently relegated Reading, Kevin Doyle ploughed a lone furrow up front to great effect as Mick McCarthy mastered a conservative 4-5-1 system which was essential to their success. In a season containing a home and away double scalp of high flying Tottenham Hotspur, Wolves finished one above the promised land of 17th position as Portsmouth, Burnley and Hull slipped into the land of no return. For all his ailments, there was a lot not to be liked about manager Mick McCarthy but whether it was more luck than judgment or not it didn’t matter, he had kept Wolves up and insured a second consecutive Premier League season for the first time ever. Goals from Kevin Doyle and Adlene Guedioura sweetened the final day celebrations as a victory over Sunderland was coupled with more “we shall not be moved” chants in the jubilation of the occasion.
So following a promotion and an important consolidation in the top flight, Wolves fans were left salivating at the prospects of a club that appeared to be going places. Owner Steve Morgan opened the cheque book to purchase three Steven/Stephen’s; Fletcher, Hunt and Muoyokolo albeit from recently relegated sides to bolster Wolves’ ever improving squad.
In another first, after the two clubs had yo-yo’d past each other for the best part of 7 years Wolves were joined in the top flight by bitter local rivals West Bromwich Albion and along with Aston Villa and Birmingham City resulted in four West Midlands teams in the same division for the first time in forever to add extra spice to a season which was highly anticipated. And the bragging rights came well and truly sprinkled with gold and black confetti as they endeavoured to beat all of their local rivals once without losing in the six meetings to come out on top of that ghost league. In addition to the local success came the nationwide plaudits as Wolves enjoyed victories over Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and eventual champions Manchester United in the same season. Unfortunately what happened in between the furore of the giant killings and the ecstasy of elevated local pride was of little worth. So hard it was to believe that even with such an impressive derby day record and victories over some of the world’s elite clubs that Wolves top flight status was preserved with just three minutes to spare in the season finale… With five clubs in the unwelcome hunt of filling the final two relegation spots Wolves were in the best position sitting highest in the table and were the only side with a home game on this significant day. So it was that Mick McCarthy as farfetched as it seems did his best to take Wolves down after an entire weeks preparation and his words of wisdom resulted in Wolves being 3-0 down to Blackburn Rovers by half time and well and truly out of it. In the end it was a Roman Pavlyuchenko goal for Tottenham that saved Wolves’ skin and relegated Birmingham City at the death. For this reason alone to suggest that Mick McCarthy had kept Wolves up again was perhaps a little tainted, even more so considering that the goal scoring exploits of Steven Fletcher that almost single handedly shot Wolves to survival would have gone unseen as he had spent most of his time that season languishing on the bench and it was only when Mick’s hand was forced with a Kevin Doyle injury did the Scottish talisman take centre stage. It was by this point that the cracks that many had already identified with the Wolves hardnosed manager started to appear. In addition to ignoring an obvious goal threat in Fletcher for the best part of the season, the crowd pleasers in the squad those with a natural flair and creative spark; David Jones, Adlene Guedioura, Nenad Milijas and exciting new signing Adam Hammill were forced to take a back seat to the grafters and workhorses in the team who possessed significantly less footballing ability. Calls of favouritism were rife as selections were thrown into question week after week and a hefty percentage of the paying public considered the drama of final day too close for comfort and that with Martin O’Neill, Mark Hughes and Sam Allardyce all unemployed at the time, a change was now due.
Heading into an unprecedented third consecutive season in the Premier League Mick McCarthy was handed a lifeline by the Wolves’ hierarchy but it came with a warning that ‘it must not happen again’ as Wolves’ fans were told that they had learned from their mistakes. This is the point circa June 2011 when fundamental flaws running throughout the club began to filter into the public knowledge for which an entire season was to be based upon.
Despite the divided opinion on the management and moreover the direction of the club as a whole, Wolves fans were united in the fact that in the wake of their third season in the top flight that they were now becoming an attractive proposition to ‘better’ players from ‘bigger’ clubs. By hook or crook they had overcome the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’ that had captured the likes of Reading, Hull City and West Bromwich Albion in the past and they waited with anticipation as to how the board would act upon the lessons that had supposedly been learned. Cue the lies, misdirected comments and baffling decisions that have lead us to this fateful day. Two season of consolidation was enough time to assess who was fit for the big league and who wasn’t going to make the cut in a club with ambitions to become a mid-table outfit. The public presumed that money would be spent, ties would be cut and the necessary changed would be made to ensure another relegation scrap was to be avoided, neither occurred. Wolves continued their questionable transfer policy of purchasing recently relegated players after taking an entire summer to add their one new face to the squad in the form of central defender Roger Johnson from Birmingham City in what was reported to be another £7 million acquisition. In addition to the frustrating lack of transfer activity came the questionable decision which has since resulted in crippling the previously laid plans and expectations for the club. Owner Steve Morgan, a mogul of the property sector laid out plans to expand the Molineux stadium. His intentions were thrown into question as a previously sound relationship with his supporters was now tarnished by a decision to spend money not on players to improve the team but on the needless expansion of a stadium which they rarely filled to capacity anyway! Once again fans were sold this new policy under a ’10 year’ image as design plan to make Wolverhampton Wanderers a force in European football. From this point on things began to downward spiral.
In a season which the only positives have been not losing in the north east and north London as well as being prematurely top of the table for about an hour and a half after three games, the misery has steadily compounded as the cracks widened until they became painstakingly obvious whilst the heartbeat of the club, its fans, have been forced to sit back and accept it, powerless to resist.
The picture was a great deal rosier after three weeks gaining seven points from their first three games but even creditable draws at Arsenal and Tottenham were marred by the inability to beat the three newly promoted sides at home and failure to get results against the teams in and around where you aspire to be. The manager came under increasing scrutiny as his ethics and principles on hard work and ‘putting a shift in’ were passed off as plain ignorance as he continually overlooked the likes of Adam Hammill, Adlene Guedioura and Nenad Milijas who had showcased the ability to make the much needed difference in the sparse game time they were afforded. Even with losing streaks building and abject performances on a regular basis, the same nucleus of players whose contribution or lack thereof to the situation were afforded a frustrating immunity week in week out. It was evidently not working, the league table was proof enough but still no changes were made and no new approaches taken. The fans frustration was compounded when in the midst of another relegation dogfight, in which the entire squad should be utilised and were required to chip in, the club began to loan out the competition for places and those players whom the fans craved to see more of were no essentially labelled surplus to requirement as they were shipped out to the Championship where by January those with any shred of hindsight could see the whole club was heading.
Supporters frustrations turned towards the clubs owner and chief executive as opinions were firmly polarised with the sections calling for McCarthy’s head before it was too late, were growing by the week. Post-match protests were organised and opinions voiced on why the money that could have been used to better the ailing squad was sat wasting in bricks and mortar as the club appeared to have lost touch with those it should hold most dearest as a divisional sense of ‘them and us’ began to grow.
Rumours of dressing room unrest began to circulate as the clubs only action of the summer to chase, purchase and pander to Roger Johnson by immediately making him team captain was having a negative effect on the squad. Fans began to clash with players after games questioning their lack of endeavour and effort on which the team was built whilst other players’ wives were stoking the fires on social media sites with comments against the fans and management. The situation in and around Molineux was an embarrassing disaster which would have only one conclusion.
Mick McCarthy’s tenure came to a miserable end following an miserable and unforgiveable 5-1 derby day humiliation at home to West Bromwich Albion but with the season now in mid-February and obvious candidates Hughes and O’Neill now off the market, it all appeared too little far too late. Although nobody expected what was to follow in the fortnight prior to Mick McCarthy’s sacking. It was hard to imagine the club could sink much lower in the opinions of its supporters, until they became the laughing stock of the entire league. Another memorable quote from Steve Morgan in relation to the vacant managers position was that with only 13 games to go “this is not a job for a novice” a fallacy that Wolves’ fans will not let him live down. Together with his chief executive Jez Moxey, Morgan set about on a two week recruitment process in which experienced managers with admirable Premier League track records were interviewed then seemingly overlooked. Steve Bruce missed out without explanation and fan favourite Alan Curbishley was offered a misguided deal until the end of the season which lacked ambition and direction and was duly rejected. The result of the appointment that of course was “not a job for a novice” was Wolves assistant manager Terry Connor. It had taken the board two weeks to appoint a man who was already employed with the club but had never managed in his career – both ironic and contradictory I’m sure you will agree. The unpopular Moxey then took to the national press to tell of how they believed Connor was “the right man for the job” despite the fact they had interviewed at least five other candidates, offering the job to two of them. How the board expected the fans that had access to this knowledge to believe what they were being fed I cannot explain.
The road since has been tumultuous. The board’s decision to jump over the fence before knowing what was on the other side has done little to adhere them to the fans especially after the man that very few believed was good enough for the survival stretch has proved his doubters right by obtaining just two points from ten games. Records were being broken left, right and centre including most successive home losses in the clubs history and worst start to a Premier League managerial role – a post taken ironically from his mentor Mick McCarthy during his spell at Sunderland. From this you will see the patterns that are emerging. Wolves’ supporters saw the appointment of Terry Connor as a cheap option and as waving a white flag, mortifyingly accepting relegation as early as February. The chasm between the clubs hierarchy and its supporters is widening as those who feel cheated and dismayed have little trust or faith left in the board to whom they voiced their opinions directly after the Manchester City game.
Wolves did two things in the summer, neither has paid off. Roger Johnson has effectively infected the squad; firstly he was reported to management for turning up inebriated to training, his wife was involved in a war of words with interim manager Connor over his absence from the starting line-up and he hasn’t featured since a public spat with goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey on the pitch during the Bolton Wanderers game. Leading by example he most certainly is not! The biggest irony of all and the second failure that the majority could see coming a mile off was the newly renovated Northbank end of the ground which features 3,000 or so extra seats which will remain predominantly empty as attendances rapidly decline in next year’s Npower Championship conquest.
Everyone has their own opinions and visions as to where to go from here. Wolves have found themselves in an unacceptable position having built a solid platform and foundation they have effectively wasted any progress made in the past three years by falling out of the top flight with nothing more than a whimper.
There are those that have openly expressed that relegation is not the end of the world and that we are well equipped to bounce straight back whilst others will argue that that feat is much easier said than done especially where Wolves are concerned. West Ham United are living proof that the Championship can be an unforgiving league with everybody out to get the teams that feel they have a divine right to play above that level. Similar if not bigger clubs than Wolverhampton Wanderers have gone down and down again rather than straight back up; Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and now Portsmouth to name but a few have all proven that history counts for very little in this ‘what have you done for me lately?’ footballing climate. After 19 long seasons outside of the top flight, Wolves broke the curse but fell short at the first hurdle in 2004 and then took another 5 years to get back to the promised land, more fuel to the fires that suggest an immediate return is improbable.
Management wise, many will crave the young up and coming names such as Clark and Poyet, whilst others will see the experience of Bruce or Curbishley at this level as essential in the current plight. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer currently residing over proceedings at Molde in Norway is another outsider that would bring a new style of football and a fresh overview from the recent honesty and endeavour policies which the current squad operate under. There are the radical few that believe that it matters little who the manager is whilst the club is in the hands of the seemingly deceitful Chief executive and owner whose false faces and readings from the book of sporting clichés have left them beyond redemption as those fans attempt to hit them where it apparently hurts the most, their pockets.
If their planning for life beyond McCarthy is the template then the immediate future looks anything but assured for newly relegated Wolverhampton. Their supporters will have to come to terms with the fact that they will once more be playing one level below rivals Albion and Villa and quite possibly Birmingham too to complete the rout. Terry Connor will most likely be kept on as manager and supporters will be forced to swallow such bitter pills of excuses as “he’s familiar with the squad” and “he’s learned a lot from his recent experiences”. It is safe to presume that attendances will slump and those who do return will demand immediate success as patience is now a non-entity following a disastrous past six months.
Out of darkness, cometh light. . . we will just have to wait and see. What will be, will be.