Monday, May 21, 2007

Dancing With Wolves

There are some football clubs, as we've discussed on here before, that could be described as "cursed". Newcastle United and Manchester City fall into this category, but none are quite as cursed as Wolverhampton Wanderers. As more or less anyone in football or the football media will tell you, Wolves are a "big" club. It was their incursions into midweek European matches and their assertion that they were the biggest club in Europe that hurried along the coming about of the European Cup. As recently as the early 1980s, they were making the FA Cup semi-finals and finishing in a UEFA Cup place in the league.

The football recession of the mid-1980s hit them harder than most, though. Between 1984 and 1986, they plummeted from the top division to the bottom, and came within hours of bankruptcy on several occasions. The signing of Steve Bull from West Bromwich Albion for £50,000 proved to be the catalyst for a mini-revival that saw them promoted back to the old Second Division by the summer of 1988. Jack Hayward stepped in to buy the club in 1990. A lifelong Wolves fan and one of the richest men in Britain, Hayward seemed to be the answer to their dreams, and Molineux was completely rebuilt by 1994 - one of the first in Britain to be brought fully into line with the demands of the modern era. On the pitch, however, things weren't going according to plan. Hayward had allowed big spending on the team itself and, under former England manager Graham Taylor, they narrowly missed out on promotion in the play-offs in 1995. The following year, they were almost relegated and before long Wolves annual failure to make the Premier League had become something of a national joke. Successive high profile managers tried and failed to take them up, to the point that Hayward came to the conclusion that he was being milked like "a golden tit" and pulled the plug, forcing them to cut their cloth accordingly.

Surprisingly, this coincided with them finally getting promotion to the Premiership through the play-offs. Under Dave Jones, they shot up the Division One table in the second half of the 2002-2003 season and into the Premiership via the play-offs. Once in the Premiership (and having decided not to break the budget on new players), they gave a reasonably decent account of themselves and, although relegated, they managed thirty-three points (the same as also relegated Leeds United and Leicester City, they finished bottom on goal difference) - better total than many newly-promoted teams have managed in recent years. They failed to build on this extra income, however, and had managed little better than mid-table this season, when they finished in fifth place and got themselves back into the play-offs, where they were unfortunate to lose both of their first choice goalkeepers for the matches against West Bromwich Albion and had to throw in seventeen year-old rookie Wayne Hennessey. They lost 4-2 on aggregate.

This morning, it was confirmed that they have finally been sold to multi-millionaire Steve Morgan for the princely sum of £10. It's very easy to dislike Jack Hayward (his politics are certainly to the wrong side of dodgy - he has made sizeable donations to the United Kingdom Independence Part, believed to be between twenty-five and fifty thousand pounds), but there can be little question that he has always had, in football terms, the best interests of Wolves at heart. The sale sounds like the bargain of the century, but the key clause of it is that Morgan has to invest £30m on "the good of the club", and for that we can probably read "the team". Given that they have been running a relatively even financial keel for the last couple of years or so, it seems likely that they will start next season amongst the favourites to go up automatically, though there will obviously be questions over how well they'll be able to cope with the new found pressure. They gave the impression of being cursed throughout the 1980s and 1990s - now that most people have got over the idea that Wolves have some sort of "automatic" right to a place in the Premiership, the time could finally be right to do fulfil the promise that they've offered fleeting glimpses of for the last decade and a half or so and actually establish themselves as a successful top flight club. You never know - this time, they might just do it.


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