x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Wolverhampton Wanderers are staring into the abyss

Wolves, who had grand plans to expand and establish themselves in the Premier League, now face the prospect of a second successive relegation after a disastrous 18 months of poor managerial choices and terrible results.  

Wolves manager Dean Saunders sees the club struggling at the wrong end of the Championship.
Wolves manager Dean Saunders sees the club struggling at the wrong end of the Championship.

The August league table rarely has much meaning. In and around Wolverhampton, however, they could be forgiven for framing one particular issue of the early-season standings.

On Saturday, August 21, 2011, Wolverhampton Wanderers' 2-0 win over Fulham put them second, level on points with the English Premier League leaders Manchester City.

They were a profitable, prosperous club with their record £7 million (Dh5.5 m) buy Roger Johnson installed as the new captain and a scheme to expand Molineux, their home since 1889. The Stan Cullis Stand was being redeveloped as part of a multimillion pound scheme. There were provisional plans to expand in every direction and turn Molineux into a 50,000-seater stadium.

They were a club going places. Downwards, it soon transpired.

"The last 18 months have been [rubbish]," the owner Steve Morgan said bluntly this week. Their journey from the top two of the Premier League to the bottom three of the Championship was completed when Wolves entered the relegation zone.

A side tipped for promotion this season instead face the prospect of back-to-back relegations. Whereas, two years ago, Wolves hoped that the great superpower of English football in the 1950s would reach heights they had not touched for at least three decades, if not five, instead they are at their lowest ebb since they suffered three consecutive relegations in the 1980s.

So how did it come to this? Some would argue the first mistake was made in May 2011. Mick McCarthy, the architect of promotion in 2009, had kept Wolves up in successive seasons but, after a flirtation with relegation, was retained and backed in the transfer market.

But signing Johnson proved an awful decision and, after a fine start to last season, Wolves soon faded.

After a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool last January, Morgan went into the dressing room to tell the players their performance was "unacceptable". While he was right, his actions also undermined McCarthy. Two games later, following a 5-1 defeat to local rivals West Bromwich Albion, the long-serving manager was dismissed.

Then the problems really began. Morgan had never appointed a manager. The evidence is that he still cannot pick one. Jez Moxey, the chief executive, said the relegation battle was "not a job for a novice". Wolves appointed one, promoting McCarthy's assistant, the unfortunate Terry Connor. He did not win a game.

Meanwhile, the experienced Steve Bruce, who thought he had got the job, has gone on to mastermind Hull City's promotion bid this season.

Last summer, following demotion, Wolves could have had the pick of many a proven Championship manager. Instead, they opted for Stale Solbakken, the former Norway midfielder who had coached Copenhagen and Cologne.

"The man is a winner," Morgan said. So it seemed. Four successive victories, early in the season, plus a group of players with promotions on their CVs and with money to spend after Wolves banked £25m from the sale of three of McCarthy buys, Steven Fletcher, Matt Jarvis and Michael Kightly, all boded well. Instead, it proved another false dawn. Solbakken's signings and McCarthy's remaining men underachieved alike, Wolves slid down the table and after January's FA Cup exit to non-league Luton Town, the Norwegian was sacked.

"The performances were just not acceptable for Wolves and we had no alternative but to make the change," Morgan said.

That change was to bring in Dean Saunders, relegated to League One last season with Doncaster Rovers, but a bubbly character charged with lifting the mood at a depressed club and intent on restoring McCarthy's no-frills style of football, instead of Solbakken's passing game.

But eight games into his reign, Saunders is still awaiting his first victory. His rhetoric, often over the top, has been mocked while his team continue to drop. They face Watford, second in the division, tonight with fans planning a protest and the league table looking increasingly embarrassing.

McCarthy, appointed by Ipswich Town when they had taken just seven points from their first 13 games, have overhauled his former employers. Sean O'Driscoll, the Wolves fan ignored for Saunders but then given the job at seemingly-doomed Bristol City, is now breathing down their necks. Bruce's Hull have been a real surprise package. Meanwhile, Morgan, the builder whose expertise may lie on the construction site, has postponed the expansion of the Steve Bull Stand.

No wonder: Wolves' local derby next season could be Walsall, not their high-flying rivals West Bromwich Albion. They will scarcely require the extra seats. Indeed, Morgan has offered to vacate his.

"If they want to drive me out of the club I will go," he told angry supporters at a fans' parliament on Wednesday. Results, he said, have taken a toll. "I couldn't be more unhappy - there is a cloud over my life at the moment."

And, indeed, one over Wolverhampton. "I am sorry about the position we are in," Morgan said.

Others are not accepting his apologies. Wolves' stark decline is because they just can't appoint the right manager and as a result, with a mere 12 victories in 72 league games, cannot win matches.

And so they stand on the brink of the double drop. Eighteen months after they were twinned with Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, they could become the first club since City in the 1990s to go from the top flight to the third tier in successive seasons.

*******

Relegation can become a habit, as Wolverhampton Wanderers are discovering.

A division below them, Portsmouth are on the brink of being demoted for the third time in four seasons.

Having gone into administration during their final Premier League campaign, in 2009/10, they did so again last season and are set to make the quickest decent from first to fourth division since Wolves themselves in the 1980s.

Sunday’s Capital One Cup finalists Bradford City were relegated three times in seven seasons while a recent trend has been for exiles from the Premier League to suffer a second relegation in either their second, third or fourth year in the Championship.

They include Leeds United, who went down to League One in 2007 and Charlton Athletic and Southampton (both 2009).

And yet the great difference is that Wolves are not in financial trouble. They have had a net spend of around £35 million (Dh196m) in the owner Steve Morgan’s five-year reign, stand to lose £6.5m this year and turnover is set to halve to £30m. Yet their poorer financial figures are a consequence of footballing failings, rather than vice versa.

The stark warning, however, is that next year could be different.

“We have players on big salaries and are going to lose an absolute fortune,” Morgan said.

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