The Twohundredpercent Pre-Season Previews: Wolverhampton Wanderers
Time can be a great healer. A decade ago, Wolverhampton Wanderers continued to labour under the moniker of being “sleeping giants”. It was a nickname that contrasted strongly with what looked at the time like a near-pathological inability to scrap its way into the Premier League and an albatross around the necks of players charged with living up to these expectations. Over the last ten years or so, though, the monkey on the clubs back has started to work itself loose and Wolves feels like a very different club to that of ten years ago. The club finally made the Premier League in 2003, but this was one season stay wsd a brief one illuminated only by a surprise win against Manchester United. Their current stay in the top division, however, is about to start its third consecutive season and, with the club in one of the healthiest positions in which it has found itself for years, the question for Wolves supporters is perhaps that of whether the club now spend a more comfortable season in the Premier League which doesn’t require – as last season did – a late goal at the end of the final match in order to assure survival. Last season was too close for comfort, and it seems impossible to believe that the clubs owner, Steve Morgan hasn’t recognised and acted upon this over the summer.
Morgan, of course, was unsuccessful in his bid to take over Liverpool in 2007, and Wolves supporters have had plenty of cause to be grateful for this misjudgement on the part of the former Liverpool owner since then. Wolves, a club with a reasonably long history of occasional financial meltdown, have since become one of the most prudently run in the Premier League, and this has a very tangible outcome for supporters of the club. In a summer during which, for the second season in a row, the waters of the transfer market have been relatively calm, Wolves have been able to spend a little money on their team. The money spent on Roger Johnson and Jamie O’Hara (whose conversion of a loan deal to a permanent one is a sign in itself of the extent to which he impressed last season) isn’t an amount of money that will burst the bank, but it is an indication of a club that is, in comparison with many of its peers, upwardly mobile off the pitch. Its wage bill is under control, and there are plans to boost the capacity of Molineux to 31,700 and, if they can continue to fill the ground it seems likely to developed still further.
Manager Mick McCarthy’s job now is replicate this situation on the pitch. He has had something of a clear-out of what some may regard as the dead wood in the club’s playing staff over the course of the summer. Greg Halford, Marcus Hahnemann and David Jones have all been released, whilst Steven Mouyokolo, Danny Batth and Carl Ikeme have all been sent out on loan. As such, the Wolves squad this season looks a little leaner than last year, and the further good news for the supporters is that the players that impressed the most last season, Matt Jarvis and Steven Fletcher, will be staying for the coming season. The pressure on McCarthy, however, may rise this season. In their first two years back in the Premier League, the main aim of the club has been merely to survive and stabilise and McCarthy has managed what we may consider to be his main aim – to keep the club in the Premier League in the first place. This season, however, it hardly seems unreasonable to suggest that expectation levels within the club’s support may rise, and McCarthy, although still popular amongst the Wolves support, may have to improve upon being only just above the dotted line at the bottom of the table if he is to remain secure in the long-term.
There are two obvious clubs to look at if Wolverhampton Wanderers are to take that next step up. Their supporters will probably not thank me for mentioning their names, but both West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City provide templates of a sort of how Wolves could consolidate in the Premier League over the coming season. Whilst it is far from implausible to suggest that they could struggle again this season or only make modest progress in the league (after all, the team that only narrowly made the cut at the end of last season has hardly been completely rebuilt), the bottom half of last year’s Premier League was tight enough for the team that finished in seventeenth place last season to be able to dream of a top half finish. It seems likely that the middle third of the Premier League will be as congested this year as it was last year, and the lower end of this middle third certainly isn’t beyond this year’s Wolves team. As with so many others in this position, the glint of silverware may also catch the eyes of some at Molineux, and a run in a domestic cup competition wouldn’t seem to be completely out of the question. Mick McCarthy, though, is nothing if not a pragmatist and how seriously Wolves opt to take the cups may depend on how comfortable they are looking in the league. They may be financially healthy, but ongoing financial health depends, to a lesser or greater extent, on continuing participation in the Premier League, and this will surely remain the club’s greatest priority.
As such, the mood over Molineux over the last couple of years has been one of stoic realism. During the days of Sir Jack Wayward during the 1990s, expectation levels – in part fuelled by Hayward’s money, which was spent both on the team as well as on the ground itself, and in part by an obsession on the part of many quarters of the media with the club’s former status – were sky high. Years of what was perceived as underachievement, however, saw those expectations realigned, and Wolverhampton Wanderers seems much healthier for it. This club is quite clearly capable of better than it has managed since returning to the Premier League, but two years of modest league positions have further tempered the wilder ambitions of the support. The books, though, are balanced as well as any club in the division, and there is an understated confidence that the coming season might be one for a degree of improvement.
So, the glory days of the 1950s are unlikely ever to return to Molineux, but football has changed almost beyond recognition since then. Wolverhampton Wanderers, however, will start the new season with something of a spring in their collective step, and there are several signs to indicate that the green shoots of becoming a seasoned, established Premier League club are starting to show after two seasons that saw the club clinging onto that hard-earned place at English football’s top table. If this can be managed while redeveloping Molineux and continuing the clubs recent practice of sound financial management, there is no reason to believe that those shoots won’t become something altogether more substantial. This season may be a season too early for it to become clearly apparent, but this time Wolves might just about be back and here to stay.
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