Relegation has a habit of creeping up on you. Throughout the closing weeks of the season, the natural disposition of the football supporter is to look up the table, to calculate how many matches are going to result in three points, and often to studiously ignore the evidence of our own eyes. We know that the team has been out of sorts for most of the last eight months, but we hope amongst hopes that they will find reserves of something from somewhere and will manage to turn it around. Often they do. The prospect of the loss of a plump contract or a pay cut can have the most galvanising of effects on even the most languid of professional footballers. But sometimes they don’t, and that feeling of loss can feel like a kick to the stomach.
They’re not quite down yet, of course, but there was something about Wolverhampton Wanderers’ home defeat at the hands of Burnley last Saturday afternoon, a timidity in the performance of the players, which seemed to signal that they may already have accepted the fate of a second successive relegation, whilst the desperation of the pitch invasion at the end of the match, with indicated that next weekend’s trip to the south coast to play Brighton & Hove Albion will be little more than a rubber-stamping exercise. Wolves have been hanging around the relegation places in the Championship for much of the seasons, but the hope amongst hope of the supporters was that perhaps they hadn’t quite realised the gravity of their position, and that they could still clamber their way to safety. A home match against a Burnley side that went into the match just four points above them and whose players might well already be preparing for their summer holidays was, after all, a golden opportunity to keep themselves in the game.
This, however, was a Saturday afternoon that went from bad to worse, and then on to even worse still. The match was followed by a pitch invasion which saw some bad behaviour from a few – though nowhere near as much as you might believe if you were to base your assumptions solely on the breathless words of the press the following morning – but, on the whole, sheer anger and frustration from the majority that took the opportunity, at the end of the club’s last home league match of a second successive, dismal season, to vent their fury at those that have been running their club with such indistinction over the last couple of years or so.The club’s post-match statement on the matter – “The Club has contingencies in place to deal with every eventuality, including pitch incursions. The pitch was cleared relatively quickly and there were no reported injuries. There was one arrest. The Club will work with West Midlands Police to review all the footage relating to the post-match events.” – was, perhaps unsurprisingly, more focussed upon the tiny minority that did misbehave, rather than those that just wanted to – validly, as the league tables of the last two seasons have demonstrated – vent their anger against those that have put the club in that position in the first place.
And if things were bad at 5.30 on Saturday afternoon for the club’s supporters, they were considerably worse for them a couple of hours later after a Peterborough United team that did play as if avoiding relegation was something that they wanted to achieve rather than as a by-product of all standing on a football pitch at the same time beat Sheffield Wednesday at London Road, a result which leaves Wolves needing to win away to the division’s form team next weekend whilst also keeping its fingers crossed that their opponents at the bottom of the table lose, with even this potentially not being enough unless a gap in terms of goal difference can be made up as well. There are now concerns that next weekend’s trip to Brighton – to the seaside, on a Bank Holiday weekend, with relegation a near-certainty and the events of last weekend fresh in many minds – will only heap further embarrassment upon the club.
It is likely that the small number of people that were involved in behaviour that was beyond the realms of what could be considered acceptable in terms of making their feelings against the owners of the club will receive lengthy bans from Molineux, but there is also a feeling that, in turning the story of the end of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ season into a story of their disorder, they may also be letting Steve Morgan, the club’s owner, and Jez Moxey, its chief executive, off the hook. Their story is one that we will revisit on another occasion, but it is clear that a policy of under-investing in the team and making decisions with regard to managerial appointments that have failed at a serial level means that they will continue to be a target of supporters’ ire until the club is back on an even keel again, and it is also worth remembering that, whilst there are no signs of financial difficulty at Wolves at present and the club will continue to receive Premier League parachute payments for a further three years, relegation to League One will reduce revenue streams and that the club probably cannot afford to further alienate its support-base.
Perhaps, of course, manager Dean Saunders will manage to pull an iron from the fire at the Amex Community Stadium next week, and Wolves will earn a most unexpected of reprieves. The odds are firmly against this happening, but stranger things have certainly happened in the past. That the temperature at Molineux has risen to such a height over the last few weeks, however, is not surprising. This is a club that, just a couple of years ago, was being lauded for having maintained its Premier League status whilst not getting involved in the black hole of debt which seems to envelop so much of the bottom half of the Premier League. There is a point, however, when prudent financial management starts to look like something else altogether, and the owners of Wolverhampton Wanderers passed that point some time ago. In terms of symbolism, dropping down to the third tier of English football for the first time since 1989 would send out a clear a message as possible that they may that the club has been managed over the last two seasons has been failing. For now, though, there is a feeling of trepidation hanging over Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club, and a sense that, no matter how bad things might have felt last Saturday, things could be set to get considerably worse in a few days time.
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