Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Gold Leaf

Once upon a time, the sort of fixture seen on the programme cover on the left was not uncommon. On their various forays into Europe, Wolves took on the likes of Porto, Barcelona, Rangers and PSV Eindhoven (they won the match against Juventus - 2-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate, in case you were wondering). The seeds for their slide into obscurity were sewn with the financially ruinous John Ireland Stand, built in 1980. By the mid-1980s, they were at the point of bankruptcy, and with three of the four stands at Molineux closed as unsafe, and this coincided with successive relegations from the First to the Fourth Division. A minor revival in their fortunes saw them re-established in (what is now known as) the Championship, when millionaire Jack Hayward purchased them in 1990. Off the pitch, all went well - Molineux was developed into arguably the best stadium outside the Premiership but, on the pitch, expectations rose as Hayward invested heavily in the team, and watching their over-paid stars repeatedly fail to get promotion became something of a national pastime.

By the start of this decade, Hayward had got sick of pouring money into the club. However, in 2003 they finally got into the Premiership through the play-offs. It was a short-lived stay (though they did take four points from Manchester United in the process) and, since their relegation back the following season, they've struggled to rise above mid-table. Prior to the start of this season, things looked pretty bleak in that particular corner of the Black Country. Kenny Miller, Colin Cameron, Joleon Lescott, Stefan Postma, Silas, Ioan Viorel Ganea, Maurice Ross, Mark Kennedy, Seol Ki-Hyeon, George Ndah, Paul Ince and Darren Anderton all left during the summer of 2006 (Lee Naylor followed soon afterwards), and only two of them (Naylor and Lescott) commanded a fee. On top of this, manager Glenn Hoddle quit at the start of July. Mick McCarthy, most recently seen taking charge of the almost impressively dreadful Sunderland team of last season, was appointed and took charge of a squad of just thirteen players. A mixture of loan signings, old stagers such as Gary Breen, off-cuts from other clubs and lower division players pointed to a struggle against relegation, but the players have, after an inconsistent start, started to come good. The final piece in the jigsaw was Michael Kightly, who was signed or a few coppers from Conference club Grays Athletic in the new year after a successful loan spell. They've won their last six matches in a row (as I write this, they're losing away to Coventry City, but we'll disregard that for a moment), and are currently in fourth place in the Championship - and still in with a chance of automatic promotion.

So, how much of this is down to McCarthy? He appears to be a somewhat schizophrenic manager - reaching the second round of the World Cup in Ireland in 2002 was preceded by two disastrous qualifying campaigns, both of which ended in ignominious failure. Likewise, he took Sunderland into the Premiership by a record points margin, but his team was hopelessly ill-equipped for the top division, and collapsed back down with a somewhat less welcome record of the lowest ever points margin. He has already worked a minor miracle this season, taking them into the play-off places, though the danger signs are there: they're desperately short on experience (which cost them dear in 2004), so if they were to get promoted the Wolves board may have to dig into their pockets just to give McCarthy so much as half a chance of keeping his team up next in the cold, hard climate of the Premiership. It's a mistake that the Sunderland board, crippled by over-burdening their club with lavish contracts that failed to deliver, made last season, and all three of the relegated clubs are finding that the Championship is a very tricky league to get out of these days. With the worst of their financial excesses, Wolves have proved that a good mix of players can still be assembled on a shoestring budget. Even if they don't go up this time around, they'll finish this season in a considerably fitter state than they finished last season in.


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