A blueprint to follow? Times are coming good for the Wolves – opposition focus
Friday, 16th Sep 2011 01:59 by Clive Whittingham
After securing a third season of Premiership football with a narrow escape last year Wolves are hoping sound financial management and astute player acquisitions will lead to a Stoke City type building programme in the coming years.
OverviewWell, I never thought I’d see the day when my club would be aspiring to be like Stoke and Wolves.
Stoke is the club stuck high on the hill in the soulless new ground next to the Harvester where they attack your goalkeeper on the pitch if you win (and then you get fined for protecting him) and then when they’ve finished they come outside and have a crack at the away supporters’ bus. Stoke is the team with the dire long ball game, and leg breaking tackles, and objectionable manager. Wolves isn’t much better. Wolves is the club where they used to attack you in the subways around the stadium but now make do with spitting on your head from the upper tier. Wolves is the club that missed promotion from the second tier every year amid a gnashing of teeth and screams of “we’re a big club you know.” These are places you forgo the final ten minutes of the match so you can get back to the station, get on an early train and get the hell out.
Well, not any more. A lot of those things may well still be true – and we’ll no doubt find out over the coming weeks – but Stoke and increasingly Wolves are now being held up as examples for clubs like QPR to follow. Well run clubs, with stable management in the boardroom and dugout, and teams that are competing in the Premiership without costing a fortune to assemble. Both the starting elevens have attracted their fair share of criticism for style of play (more than fair share Wolves fans will tell you) but while they’re staying in the Premiership and not spending trillions to do it who’s to argue?
Wolves’ balance sheet is the envy of most Premiership clubs outside the top four. When a player becomes available they’re not afraid to splash the cash – they paid £7m for Roger Johnson this summer and the same amount for Steven Fletcher a year ago – but there is no mass panic buying of players here and the books balance more than they do at most clubs by the end of the season. They’re able to fend off interest in their key players and add intelligently to the squad. Having survived their first season at this level and then just about scraped through the infamous difficult second season – made all the more difficult by a bad run of injuries – it would seem they’ve now done the hard part.
It wasn’t always like this. Long before QPR were relegated from the Premiership in 1996 and for some time after that Wolves were the perennial bookies favourite for promotion that always let the punters down. They weren’t afraid to throw money at players, or big name managers, but it was to no avail. Graham Taylor, fresh from the England job, couldn’t manage it and neither could Mark McGhee after he was poached from Leicester City. Colin Lee has never been able to manage his way out of a wet paper bag so the time spent with him in charge may as well have been spent fishing and although Mr Happy Dave Jones did get them up for one season it was only one season and relegation was swiftly followed by another ex-England manager Glenn Hoddle wasting all their parachute money for little return.
The large bed sheet, prepared especially for the occasion with poster paint, that simply said “you’ve let us down again” at the end of the Hoddle era rather summed it up.
But Wolves have turned things around in unlikely fashion. It used to be Jack Hayward’s millions that seemed to make their promotion a certainty every season, now they’ve achieved it and stayed up with more sensible long term vision from Steve Morgan. In 2010 Wolves actually posted a £9m profit with wages at just under 50% of turnover – for reference QPR’s turnover last season was £14m and their wage bill alone was £17m. They’re doing their ground up as well.
There’s a former international manager down in the dugout again, but it’s Ireland’s Mick McCarthy rather than Sven or Steve McLaren. McCarthy took Millwall to a play off for the Premiership and led them on numerous exciting cup runs, he was the last man to take Ireland to an international tournament, and he promoted Sunderland into the Premiership – but it’s the rows with Roy Keane, the record low top flight points haul at the Stadium of Light, and his unique turns of phrase he’s better known for.
He’ll care little about that, and having strengthened his team with two more astute signings this summer – Jamie O’Hara and Roger Johnson – will be confident of following Stoke up to the table to a point where avoiding relegation isn’t the first thought every August. QPR will hope they’re not too far behind.
InterviewLoftforWords’ man for all things Wolves is Tom ‘Trev’ Johnston – a man called Trev simply because seven Tom’s all moved onto the same University course at the same time. Trev kindly too five minutes out of his weekend to talk to LoftforWords and give us the inside track on the Wolves.
Tell us about Wolves' start to the season. It seemed to be going very well until the Spurs game.
In spite of the Spurs defeat (where we actually matched them for most of the game) we've made a good start and we definitely look better than last season. The main improvement that we've seen so far has been defensively, largely down to the signing of Roger Johnson. McCarthy made him captain and he is organising the defence well and seemingly bringing out the best in the other defenders.
What are the hopes and ambitions for this season? It is all about surviving again or is there more to it now? Mid-table (14th and above) is our ambition for the season. After making a few decent signings, we'd like to think that we can avoid relegation more comfortably this season, and we see Stoke as our model for success.
How did you rate Mick McCarthy's performance in the summer transfer window? Who did he bring in? Is the team still short in any areas? Has he done enough to avoid another relegation battle this year?
Wolves fans were delighted with the signings we did make - Dorus de Vries, Jamie O'Hara and Roger Johnson. Johnson in particular has really shone. The return to form and fitness of Steven Fletcher and Stephen Hunt should also help to keep us afloat. McCarthy would liked to have signed another central midfielder to compete with Karl Henry (we were in talks with Thomas Hitzlsperger) and also another left back, but he couldn't find any suitable targets. Money is available, so should someone become available, then it wouldn't be a surprise to see us sign a player or two in January to help us push towards mid-table obscurity.
What do you think of McCarthy as a manager in general?
McCarthy has done a terrific job at Wolves. When he came, Wolves were a shambles, we had no money and Jo Lescott had just left. We had a squad of only 16 first team players so he cobbled together a team of youngsters, loanees and lower league players (Michael Kightly from Grays, Stephen Ward from Bohemians). Somehow, he got us to fifth, the next season seventh and the next season we won the league. His spending increased after Steve Morgan took over, but this was largely on young players, who were a good long term investment. His no-nonsense approach has made him well liked by the fans, the media and the players. The only question marks over Mick are his pretty basic style of play (generally lacking in creativity) and whether or not he can take us to 'the next level' (copyright Charlton Athletic fans and Alan Curbishley).
Wolves gained a reputation as an overly physical side last season, was that justified? Have the tactics changed at all this season?
The MOTD highlights reel of Wolves players targeting Joey Barton in the third game of last season had a massive impact upon the public's perception of Wolves' style of play. The stats will tell you otherwise - the so called 'attractive' sides of Arsenal, Man City and Wigan actually had more yellow and red cards than us. Our style of play is certainly 'intense' - pressing opposition players high up the pitch and getting stuck in, but there is very rarely a malicious challenge.
At the same time they were praised for competing and doing well in most games but still ended up struggling against relegation, why was that?
At the start of last season, the bookies actually made us fourth favourites to go down, so you could argue that we did as well as was to be expected. I could trot out the usual excuses about injuries (Hunt, Craddock, Fletcher, Kightly, Zubar) were out for large portions of the season, which definitely had an impact on our performances but the league was also very strong. West Brom and Newcastle avoided relegation by a streak and Blackpool looked like they were going to for ages. This season, I'm a little worried by the strength of QPR's summer recruits, but I have a feeling that Norwich and Swansea will struggle, hopefully propping up the table for us.
Who's the star man, the weak link and the unsung hero or up and coming youngster we might not have heard about?
Matt Jarvis was our key attacking man last season with a very strong contribution from Kevin Doyle, but for this season I'd go with Roger Johnson. Karl Henry was relieved of the captaincy for this season and he's been getting a lot of stick from Wolves fans of late - very rarely manages a forward pass. As for unsung hero, it would have to be Stephen Ward. Bought as a 75K striker from the Irish league, he converted to left wing in the championship and now to left back in the Premier League. It's a tough place to learn how to be a defender but he's whole hearted, never stops running and will pretty play wherever Mick fancies.
Trev actually kept yours truly out of a very useful Sheffield five-a-side team for the best part of two years, keeping goal like a younger version of Tim Flowers. But I forgive him as he has helped me out with this. We’ll catch up again later in the season.
ManagerMy abiding memory of Mick McCarthy is a bit of an odd one. I mean there are certainly plenty to choose from – the whole Roy Keane thing, the strange dance down the touchline after Robbie Keane scored for Ireland against Germany, any one of his post match interviews, that time he seemed to be startled by a ghost on the touchline at Ewood Park . But no, the incident I remember him most for came in 2000 at the World Club Cup in Brazil.
McCarthy was employed by the BBC as a commentator for that tournament, the corporation's interest pricked by the rare presence of a British team. You may recall that Man Utd were corralled into going, and pulling out of the FA Cup, because of some perceived benefit we may or may not have been promised in our bid to stage the actual World Cup in Britain. One wonders just how many times we're going to have to be promised these benefits, not receive them, and then continue to believe the promises going forward? Anyway, a debate for another time.
Real Madrid , hotly tipped and underperforming as always, were playing a group game against Brazilian side Corinthians. Nicholas Anelka was upfront for the Spaniards and had belied his previous poor form for them by scoring two goals. However he ruined all his previous hard work by missing a late match deciding penalty – Dida, the keeper who saved it, moved on to AC Milan a short time later.
So far so unremarkable, but McCarthy was fuming up on the gantry. He was adamant that Anelka was not the designated penalty taker and had been the beneficiary (or victim as it turned out) of a charitable sympathy vote to try and get him a morale boosting hat trick. Now let's be fair, it's not the first time a player with a brace has been handed the penalty taking duties to seal a personal milestone – I will on occasions wake up sweating thinking about Fitz Hall's pathetic effort against Barnsley in 2009. And it must be said that even the organisers barely gave a fuck about the World Club Cup. And the Wolrd Club Cup, Real Madrid, Corinthians and Nicholas Anelka all had nothing to do with Mick McCarthy. To summarise – it didn't matter that he wasn't the designated penalty taker, and it didn't matter that he'd missed.
There was no telling McCarthy that though. On and on he went, at increasing volume and with growing fury in his tone, about how the decision to let Anelka take the kick had devalued the sport itself. In the end he seemed to be taking it as a personal affront that he’d been asked to attend and comment on a game where such nonsense took place.
And that's Mick. Mick is a man's man. Mick tells it exactly like it is, straight down the line, in a Yorkshire accent.
He's been a figure of fun for many down the years, and not just because he looks uncannily like Bert from Sesame Street. At Millwall, his first managerial job after a playing career that included long spells with Man City and Barnsley and shorter ones with Lyon and Celtic, he initially enjoyed great success. They became known as cup giant killers – slaying Arsenal and Chelsea and losing narrowly to QPR in the semi final in 1995 – and lost narrowly in the play offs for Premiership promotion in 1994 after finishing third. But as he upped and left for the Republic of Ireland job in 1996 the Lions side he left behind, saddled with ridiculously expensive Russian signings Sergei Yuran and Vassili Kulkov, went from the top of the First Division to relegation, blowing a 14 point cushion under his successor Jimmy Nicholl.
With Ireland , again, there were some fine achievements. They narrowly missed out on qualification for the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championships but did make the cut in 2002 – the last time they qualified for an international tournament. But having achieved that it all rather blew up in McCarthy's face. Roy Keane, the talismanic team captain from Man Utd, rebelled against the standard of the team's training facilities and preparations. In a show down with McCarthy in front of the rest of the squad Keane allegedly said: "You were a crap player, you are a crap manager. The only reason I have any dealings with you is because somehow you are the manager of my country. You're not even Irish, you English c***. You can stick it up your bollocks."
Back in club management he turned up at Sunderland and, yet again, started with early success. He rebuilt a team destroyed by the old fashioned management of Peter Reid and the disastrous decision to appoint Howard Wilkinson as a successor and although he couldn’t save them from a Premiership relegation in the first instance he did get them back up within two seasons. That’s not what he’s remembered for at the Stadium of Light though – no Sunderland’s embarrassing 2005/06 season spent as the Premiership whipping boys is another stick to beat him with.
But again at Wolves it’s hard to argue with his initial achievements. He took over a squad that had come to the end of its Premiership parachute payments, and had wasted two seasons of those with Glenn Hoddle in charge. He didn’t have enough senior pros to fill a team and subs bench when he arrived and yet here we are just over four years later with Wolves going into a third season as a Premiership side.
There will always be criticism of McCarthy, God knows I’ve dealt out a bit on LFW over the years, but it’s hard not to like him, or not admire the work he has done at Wolves who were perennial underachievers in the Championship/First Division for years and years under a succession of managers. His style of play may not be to everybody’s taste but he’s doing a good job here.
I think it was more than likely Arsenal who I was referring to when I first coined the phrase “all trinkets and no tree” with regards to their team. Wolves are probably as close to having the opposite problem as it’s possible to get.
For while Arsenal continue to assemble a collection of talented, tippy tappy, lightweight, short, attacking midfielders who put together beautiful approach play but rarely deliver with end product Wolves are the other way around. Arsenal have a beautiful array of baubles and decorations but no semblance of tree to hang them from – they lack an experienced goalkeeper, a physical centre half, an uncompromising central midfielder and a bruising centre forward to form a spine for their otherwise talented side. Wolves have a pretty formidable spine to their team, but are perhaps found wanting in the quality takes elsewhere.
One problem that’s existed at Arsenal for years and hamstrung Wolves last season does seem to have been addressed this summer. Even when Wolves were promoted from the Championship their centre halves were bullied by the meagre talents of Patrick Agyemang, Dexter Blackstock and Heidar Helguson in a 1-0 defeat at Loftus Road – Michael Mancienne and Richard Stearman are undoubtedly talented boys but they were/are easy to get at if you know how. Last season Wolves survived by the skin of their teeth on the final day despite a home defeat by hapless Blackburn. It was therefore no surprise to see Mick McCarthy move for Birmingham centre back Roger Johnson in the summer. A fee of £7m was agreed and seems a little excessive, but Johnson was excellent through the opening month for his new club and has brought a new air of steeliness to the back line. Not bad for a player John Gregory once threw out at Wycombe for not being good enough.
But Wolves certainly haven’t been short of muscle further up the middle of the pitch. Karl Henry, who almost signed for QPR from Stoke before choosing Molineux, received adverse publicity last season thanks to his physical approach to the game, and an early meeting with our own Joey Barton in particular. When his challenge on Bobby Zamora (a firm but fair one it should be said) broke the striker’s leg the Cottager’s Danny Murphy spoke out about the tactics employed by McCarthy and they battled with that thuggish tag all season. Interestingly as Wolves look to progress in possibly the same way Stoke have they’ve added some genuine quality to their midfield in the form of Jamie O’Hara who came in last season on loan and has now signed permanently. He’s an energetic presence but with his arrival fans are expecting more from Henry who doesn’t have the ability on the ball to deliver. On paper the midfield of those two with Matt Jarvis on one wing and Stephen Hunt on the other looks to be of a high quality but keeping them all free of injury and suspension at the same time is proving to be a challenge.
As is getting enough goals from their attack. On Monday night against Newcastle Jay Bothroyd did the hold up, lay off and aerial elements of the lone striker role superbly but missed chances to score the crucial only goal of the game. You can pretty much times that by an entire season to chart former Reading man Kevin Doyle’s time at Wolves. His line leading performances have drawn reported offers from bigger clubs, although whether or not they’re worthy of McCarthy’s “best centre forward performance there’s been at Molineux” praise that came after a goalless draw with Liverpool is open to debate. Doyle, and Wolves, simply don’t score enough goals and in attempting to correct that McCarthy has paired Doyle with another striker whose all round play is fine but whose goal scoring record is less than impressive - Steven Fletcher cost £7m from Burnley.
It’s that lack of goals which Rangers must take heart from. With Johnson in defence and some uncompromising tactics in use QPR will need to attack well and often to score here. The home defence will be well capable of coping with occasional counter attacks and unlikely to pour forward in search of goals should we hold it to 0-0 for any length of time. QPR should take a chance, the Wolves attack needs more chances to score than most Premiership sides and if Rangers can use their new found attacking ability from full back to pen back the genuine quality players they have in attacking wide areas (Jarvis, Hunt) then we’ve nothing to fear here. The key will be bravery, can QPR go to Molineux and attack as if Wolves were the away team? Three points await if they do.
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Photo: Action Images
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