Wolverhampton Wanderers: Paul Lambert & A Clash Of Cultures
Expectations weren’t especially high before a ball was kicked last August, but even despite this last season was a distinctly underwhelming one for Wolverhampton Wanderers. Tentative optimism at the arrival of new Chinese owners in the Black Country was tempered by their counter-intuitive decision to hire Walter Zenga as head coach last summer, and those who held reservation over the former Italian national team goalkeeper’s suitability for the position likely felt vindicated when Zenga was removed from his position at the club at the end of October, with his team sitting in eighteenth place in the Championship table, having managed just four wins from their first fourteen matches of the season.
The appointment of Paul Lambert as his replacement seemed a somewhat more level-headed decision. Once widely praised for his stewarding of Norwich City into the Premier League, Lambert’s career had been on a downward curve since departing from Carrow Road for the bright lights of Villa Park at the end of the 2011/12 season. Considering the state that Aston Villa ended up in, there is a case for arguing that Lambert was as sinned against as sinning during just over two and a half years in charge of the club, and his subsequent underwhelming spell in charge of Blackburn Rovers should perhaps be similarly be viewed through the wider context of the condition of that football club at that time.
Come the end of the season, Wolves were in a better position than they had been at the time of Zenga’s departure, but not by a great deal. The club finished the season in fifteenth place in the Championship table, a comfortable sounding seven points above the relegation places, but there were spells when it looked as likely as not that Lambert’s team could be pulled into a relegation dogfight, and this ongoing torpor was only briefly enlivened by an FA Cup run that took in gravity-defying wins away to Stoke City and Liverpool followed by valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful, performance in being beaten at home by Chelsea. At least with relegation avoided, Wolves supporters might have hoped, Lambert might be given the wherewithal to build a team capable of challenging for promotion from what might well be an extremely competitive division next season.
For the third time in a year, however, the ominous rumbling of the managerial merry-go-round is in the air at Molineux, with rumours now circulating that Lambert is now likely to be leaving the club. So far, so familiar, we might think. The modus operandum of the modern football club owner without question leans towards the hair trigger and, whilst one might argue that Lambert was operating with one hand tied behind his back after taking over a squad shaped by somebody else, in a results-based business the grim truth of the matter is that giving managers a chance will always now take second place to an itchy trigger-finger. That seems to be the way of the modern game.
There seems, however, to be something else at play behind the scenes at Wolverhampton Wanderers, and it’s something that feels a little murkier than just being an everyday tale of an everyday plutocrat football club owner firing an everyday football club manager for failing to perform to expectations. Jeff Shi of Fosun International, the man running the show at Molineux at the moment, is said to be in reasonably close cahoots with Jorge Mendes’ Gestifute agency, and this, it seems has led to a dispute with Lambert over who gets the final say over transfer decisions this summer.
It goes without saying that Lambert has not been universally popular amongst Wolves supporters. The team’s improvement under him following his replacing of Zenga was not marked enough for there to be no ill-feeling at a club which feels as though it should be at least capable of challenging for a place in the Premier League. But there is an element of queasiness to be felt over suggestions of the closeness of the relationship between Shi and Mendes. Accusations of a clear conflict of interest can hardly feel wide of the mark when somebody who will profit from player transfers into Molineux is close to having the final say over which players the club purchases, and even those who may be prepared to overlook this (should the club be successful as a result of his interest) cannot overlook the fact that, of the twelve players brought in from Mendes’ stable last summer, only Helder Costa was an unqualified success in a team that stuttered and stalled its way through last season.
What we might be witnessing here, however, could easily be interpreted as a culture clash between the business practices of China and the the peculiar world of our perception of running a football club. In a fascinating article on the Policy Forum website this week, Salford University’s Simon Chadwick explained that:
Networks in Chinese culture are so fundamental to doing business that China even has a name for it: guanxi. The literal translation of guanxi is often difficult to pin down but is sometimes defined simply as ‘relationships and connections’. Guanxi is rather more profound than Westerners might imagine, based upon their own notion of ‘connections’. It is a form of reciprocation – what Westerners may call ‘a favour for a favour’. That is, Chinese business people will often give something to someone in return for, at a later date, being able to ask that person to give something back or to exert influence on their behalf.
Fosun owns a twenty per cent shareholding in Gestifute, and Jeff Shi might well argue that it’s hardly his fault if only a tiny number of people in the United Kingdom understand what guanxi is and that Wolverhampton Wanderers are now really a cog in a considerably bigger wheel which has a reach considerably beyond merely re-establishing Premier League football in this particular corner of the Black Country.
But this in itself raises questions for skeptical Wolves supporters. All this talk of being a cog in part of a bigger wheel is all very well, but cogs can be expendable. What happens if the model being used at Wolves turns out not to work? It’s hardly as though the club hasn’t had near-death experiences before, and the examples of the likes of Blackburn Rovers, Nottingham Forest and plenty of others beside offer salutory lessons in the risks of owners will no previous experience of the idiosyncrasies of running a football club, particularly in the Football League Championship, where the cloying scent of desperation hangs heavy in the air and the pot of goal at the end of the Premier League rainbow so close that it feels as though one could reach out and touch it. It’s a fertile division for bad decision-making to fester, and no-one is immune, in a competitive division, to the sort of meltdown that others – including, not so long ago, Wolverhampton Wanderers themselves – have experienced before. It may prove to be an interesting summer at Molineux.
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