They left it late at Molineux last night. Two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the Championship match between Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bakary Sako swept the ball into the roof of the Watford goal to earn Wolves a point, but this was a match the result of which proved to be more useful to the two clubs’ rivals at the top and foot of the league table than to those on the pitch or in the stands. Watford remain in the hunt for a place in the Premier League, but for the home side this was a result which marked a fifteenth without a win, a run which sees the club entrenched in the relegation places at the bottom of the Championship, and with their rivals all now having an opportunity to leapfrog over them. If Barnsley and Peterborough United, the only clubs now below Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Championship table, were to win their matches against Bolton Wanderers and Peterborough United this afternoon, the club relegated from the Premier League at the end of last season would sink to its very bottom.
What is most unusual about the decline of Wolverhampton Wanderers is that there is no financial crisis going on to accompany the club’s slump. Indeed, Wolves have been financially successful enough over the last two or three years to have remained profitable as a business until an inevitable – but not unmanageable – loss this season, and Molineux itself has been partly renovated, increasing its capacity to 31,700 seats, a number which looks particularly optimistic when compared with the attendance for last night’s match, which amounted to just 18,571 people. Some older supporters, who remember the dark days of the mid-1980s, when a similarly precipitous fall through the divisions was accompanied by financial crisis after financial crisis, the Bhatti brothers and, eventually, the appointment of receivers and near extinction in 1986, may at least seek solace from the fact that the club at least remains financially stable at the moment. Over the last twenty years or so, however, Molineux has been rebuilt, expectations have risen, football in a general sense has become less tolerant of a lack of success on the pitch, and, unsurprisingly, those feeling the heat the most over the club’s recent the decline have been been its chairman Steve Morgan and its CEO Jez Moxey.
Morgan, who made his fortune through the Redrow construction company, took control of the club in 2007 from its previous sugar daddy Sir Jack Hayward for a nominal amount of £10, on the proviso that he invested £30m into the club. Since taking ownership of it, it won the Championship in 2009 and then had three seasons in the Premier League, although the second of these was only secured by a single, solitary point, before relegation at the end of last season. Over the last two seasons Wolves have won just fourteen league matches, five last season, and nine this time around. Mick McCarthy, the manager who had taken the club into the Premier League in the first place, was eventually relieved of his responsibilities in February of last year, but the club made the near-incomprehensible decision to replace him with the inexperienced Terry Connor, who demonstrated an object lesson in the Peter Principle – which states that in any hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence – in failing to win any of his thirteen matches in charge of the club.
The end of Wolves’ Premier League adventure was supposed to bring a new beginning. Stale Solbakken had survived a heart attack which ended his playing career and had won the Danish Superliga five times in succession with FC Copenhagen, but his 2011/12 season had been a disappointing one in a new position at 1 FC Koln in Germany, where just eight wins in thirty-five matches had seen him replaced before the end of the season. His appointment at Molineux was an imaginative one, but after a mixed start the team’s confidence seemed to plummet after a six-nil defeat at Chelsea in the League Cup in September, and Solbakken also left the club after Wolves were knocked out of the FA Cup in the Third Round by Luton Town of the Blue Square Bet Premier. His replacement, Dean Saunders, had first grabbed attention in taking Wrexham to second place in the Blue Square Bet Premier in 2011 amid the absolute chaos which ended in the club being acquired by its supporters trust. Ten games into last season, however, Saunders jumped ship to go to Doncaster Rovers, but they were relegated from the Championship at the end of last season. This season, however, Saunders had managed to revive the club’s fortunes and they were joint top of the League One table when he left Doncaster to go to Molineux instead.
Saunders’ time in charge of the club has not been particularly auspicious either. He has failed to win any of his nine matches in charge of the club, and at this stage of the season a club in a position as precarious as that in which Wolves find themselves at present cannot afford to be continuing to drop points at home. The discontent at Molineux led to a “fans parliament” being held last week at which Morgan and Moxey answered questions about the club’s current position. Morgan told those assembled that £72.9m had been spent on players since he took the club over, with an overall net spend of £36m having been managed, and that, perhaps more importantly than this, that, ‘If they [supporters protesting for the removal of Morgan and/or Moxey] want to drive me out of the club I will go.’ He also added that the club is set to lose £6.5m over the course of this season, an unsurprising figure considering the loss of revenue following the club’s relegation from the Premier League and the fact that, in spite of its lowly league position, it is still believed to have one of the highest annual wage bills in the Championship.
More troubling than this, perhaps, was the feeling to come from this parliament that there is little cohesive strategy in place in order to lift the club from its torpor. Over the last year and a half or so, Wolves have replaced a manager who had been with five years experience, and one who had taken the club into the Premier League in the first place, with one with no first hand managerial experience and who had been at the club for such a long time that it is impossible to see how he might have been able to bring any new ideas to the table in order to keep it in the Premier League. When that failed, he was replaced with a coach from continental Europe who had been successful in the past but had no experience of English football and who was not given the financial support to overhaul a team that was clearly demoralised by its Premier League relegation season. When that failed, he was replaced by a manager on a roll at his previous club, but who had overseen their relegation there in the first place. This decision, according to all the evidence that is available to us, is also failing.
But are McCarthy, Connor, Solbakken and Saunders all somehow incompetent? There comes a point at which attention has to turn to the players themselves and their current levels of under-performance mean that there . The grim truth of the matter is, however, that Wolverhampton Wanderers are stuck with what they have until the end of this season. Replacing Saunders would likely achieve very little – just as replacing Solbakken has achieved very little – so somehow this manager has to lift the players enough to arrest this decline. The importance of doing so cannot be overstated. Whilst relegation from the Premier League comes at a clear financial cost to a club, parachute payments soften the blow to an extent. The same cannot be said of relegation from the Championship into League One. The club will continue to receive its Premier League parachute payments for a further three years, but other revenues will drop dramatically with further relegation and a club which is forecasting a loss of £6.5m for this season will only see those losses grow if relegated again.
Whichever division Wolverhampton Wanderers find themselves in come the end of this season, what is clear is that the club needs a clear-out at the end of this season and it would be surprising to see too many of this season’s team were starting next time around, although it might be the terms of their contracts that come to dictate what happens to many of them next. What Wolverhampton Wanderers need is a period of stability – a manager in place who is given the time, space and financial backing to build the strategy that has apparently been lacking from the club over the last couple of years. Perhaps the man for that job is Dean Saunders, perhaps it isn’t, and much will depend on whether he can get lift his team from the apparent psychological trough in which it currently finds itself. Whether this rebuilding is something which will have to take place in the Championship or League One is a question that cannot be answered yet, though.
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