Friday, April 6, 2012
Salvation beyond sinking Wolves
ESPN analyst Kevin Keegan is one of English football's most respected figures and he will be writing for ESPNsoccernet throughout the season. As a player, Kevin represented Liverpool with distinction, winning numerous titles in domestic and European football, and twice claiming the Ballon d'Or during his time at Hamburg. Kevin has also managed England, Newcastle United, Manchester City and Fulham.
Wolves midfielder Karl Henry said a couple of days ago that they "need a miracle" to stay up, and I can't disagree with him. It's difficult for their players to put a positive spin on things at the moment and, though I am surprised to hear some of them speaking like that, they're just being honest. You can understand their resignation and when you're talking about miracles with six games to go, it's not good. They've probably got to win four or five of those matches and, with Arsenal and Manchester City among their remaining fixtures, things don't look promising.
Frustrations boiled over last week when goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey and centre-back Roger Johnson clashed on the pitch and, as a manager, it's the last thing you want to see. When players from the same team get involved it's about anger and it's about disappointment, but it's hard enough to beat the 11 against you without falling out between yourselves. We've seen little bits of that creeping in at Manchester City recently, too, and it can be a bit demoralising for the other team members. It may not be the case, but it makes you think they might not quite be together.
Obviously people will point to the sacking of Mick McCarthy as a pivotal moment in Wolves' season and I do think the timing of the managerial change was all wrong. We obviously have the benefit of hindsight now, but with the fixtures Wolves had left, it was always going to be difficult for someone new to come in. If they were considering letting Mick go, they should have either made the decision to do so sooner or kept him on until the end of the season.
Terry Connor's appointment raised a few eyebrows but I can understand why they hired him as Mick's replacement: he knew the players, he knew their strengths and weaknesses and was prepared to take the challenge. It may now be seen to be the wrong move but, at the time, I didn't see it as a ridiculous choice by any means. The Wolves hierarchy must have believed he'd be able to do it otherwise they wouldn't have given him the job. On the other side of the coin, it is always a big ask for someone who's never managed before to lift the club from a precarious position, under a significant amount of pressure. It certainly seems now like it was too big an ask.
When a manager goes, there are two alternatives for clubs - they either promote from within or seek a completely fresh start with a new man. There's not a definitive right or wrong answer as to what's best, it varies from club to club and situation to situation.
While it has worked at Chelsea with Roberto Di Matteo - though he did have some prior experience - I think the pressure of a relegation scrap probably requires a new manager to come in and give the club a lift to be honest. When you're down at the bottom, it's a different kind of pressure - I know that from experience as, when I first took over at Newcastle in 1992, they were second from bottom. You start to look for easy games on the fixture list and quickly realise there aren't any. I think that's where Wolves are now. It'll be a big surprise now if they stay up and, if they somehow survive, it will be one of the greatest of the great escapes.
There will be a decision for Wolves to make at the end of the season about the manager's job, and whoever it is will almost certainly be managing a club in the Championship. Despite the run of results he's had, the fans have not turned on Terry Connor because he's Wolves through and through - he was there as a coach for over a decade before stepping up and they can see he's doing his best. If, and in all probability when, they go down, though, the board will need to weigh up whether to keep Terry or change things again. Once more, Jex Moxey and Steve Morgan will need to decide if they want to go with a pair of safe hands - perhaps someone like Alan Curbishley, who they reportedly approached before appointing Terry - or a new kid on the block, someone who will bring fresh ideas, and can understand new challenges like Twitter and social networking. It could be a decision that defines the future of the club.
One thing in Terry's favour is that Southampton and Reading are currently leading the race to win promotion to the Premier League and both clubs have young managers in Nigel Adkins and Brian McDermottt - the latter who, like Terry, was promoted from within after many years coaching at the Madejski Stadium. Another young coach whose name I've seen mentioned this week is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and I think he could do a great job somewhere like Wolves. He went back over to Molde from the Manchester United reserves and won them the Norwegian league title at the first time of asking, a fantastic achievement. He's obviously a big name from his time at Old Trafford and he will know a lot of players in Norway and Scandinavia as a whole - it doesn't sound far-fetched to me. The one question mark is that he's still an inexperienced manager.
While the managerial upheaval clearly unsettled things, it has undoubtedly been Wolves' results at home that have cost them dearly this season - it's a tough division home and away, so it's paramount you make those games count when the support is in your favour. When your main aim is to stay up, you don't expect to pick up loads of points away to the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal - it's how you perform in front of your own fans that makes the difference. Wolves' home form helped keep them afloat last season as they won eight games at Molineux; this time, it's just three victories so far, and none of those have been in 2012.
What they have done is claim a few decent results away from home at Tottenham, Newcastle and QPR in the past couple of months so they might actually be relieved to be taking on Stoke at the Britannia Stadium this weekend. None of the big teams - Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham - have won at Stoke this season but what will give Wolves hope is that the Potters lost at home to Sunderland, QPR and West Brom, teams you'd have expected to slip up there.
A point is no good for Wolves on Saturday. They simply have to win. Stoke are in that end-of-season limbo at the moment where they're not going to get relegated but they're also not going to make it into Europe. As a manager, I've experienced situations where you go into the final games of the season and there's nothing to play for and, hard as you try to motivate them, you do get the feeling that half of them are thinking about their holidays and when they can start rubbing on the Ambre Solaire. Even so, two or three places in the league can make a big difference financially to a club like Stoke, and Tony Pulis will be telling his players that there is still plenty to play for.
Nonetheless, I can actually see Wolves winning this one because their motivation should be stronger than Stoke's. They've got a desperation that Stoke don't have and I expect that could swing it for them - unless Peter Crouch fancies providing another goal of the season contender of course! However, I fear that even a win at the Britannia Stadium will not be enough to save Wolves from the drop this season.
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