Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Testing times at Wolves
Mick McCarthy had the secret. Dave Jones also, to a lesser extent, although he blew it big time one year before delivering the next. But several apparently worthy men before and in between them contrived to find different ways of missing out on promotion when the odds seemed to be stacked heavily in Wolverhampton Wanderers' favour.
Now Stale Solbakken finds himself carrying what some regard as the poisoned chalice as a demanding Molineux public wait to see whether the club's first foreign manager can once more bring them top-flight football. And the problem of restoring harmony to a splintered dressing room will go a long way to determining whether the Norwegian succeeds in his mission.
Winger Michael Kightly has already gone, snared by Stoke for £3 million; so have fringe men Adlene Guedioura and Sam Vokes. Steven Fletcher, Wolves' leading scorer for the last two seasons, and their 2011 Player of the Year Matt Jarvis, a once-capped England winger, want out also.
Less damagingly, central defender Christophe Berra is another seeking the exit. He has put in a transfer request as well and was booed before and after going on as a substitute in Saturday's utterly unconvincing Capital One Cup victory over Aldershot Town. We wait to hear the reception the two forwards are accorded if they pull on a gold shirt again. Patience isn't always in big supply in these parts.
Solbakken has admitted the whole club is unsettled. "It would be stupid to say everything is fine because it is not," he said. Hardly the best preparation, then, for the demanding Saturday lunchtime opener away to Leeds.
The former Cologne boss is going to have to earn his money pretty quickly. And that will probably mean proving he is an expert at spending other people's.
He and Wolves certainly have a chance because big bucks will be on the table if, as expected, Fletcher and Jarvis depart. West Ham, having swapped divisions with Wolves, are reported to have been rebuffed several days ago over a £6 million bid for Jarvis that had another £3 million attached in add-ons. Fletcher will command even more and Sunderland are hot on his trail, with Connor Wickham mooted as a possible makeweight in any deal.
Assuming Solbakken gets his hands on a generous slice of the windfall, he'll have every opportunity to make a quick, decisive impact.
He is already homing in on a £3 million deal at his former club for defender Pedro Geromel, whom he controversially made his captain last season at the expense of Lukas Podolski. Cologne, since relegated and now looking to cut costs, have had rival interest from Spain but apparently nothing as firm as that from Wolves.
So, with the closure of the window two and a half weeks away, how long can Solbakken's bosses play hard-ball over transfer-seeking players? The club's chief executive Jez Moxey is known to drive the hardest of bargains but will inevitably sense the potential perils of hanging on to players, even star ones, if they are going to be disaffected.
Better maybe to do business now and give McCarthy's permanent successor some decent elbow room for bringing in replacements.
History suggests Wolverhampton folk have found it easier getting toothpaste back into the tube than getting their team into the big league. In only two of their last 19 seasons in English football's second grade have Wolves succeeded in winning promotion. And that, particularly during the Graham Taylor and Mark McGhee eras, was often when Sir Jack Hayward was lavish in his expenditure on players.
The backcloth now is not unlike during the Hayward years. The man he hand-picked as the club's owner, Steve Morgan, is also intent on rebuilding Molineux, although the spectacular redevelopment through which this renowned builder plans to leave an imprint on the Wolverhampton skyline has temporarily been halted after phase one - namely the towering new Stan Cullis Stand, which was officially opened on Saturday.
Morgan is playing a balancing act of his own by juggling his resources between buying players and investing in bricks and mortar. The cynics suggest there won't be enough bums on those shiny new seats unless he delivers a winning team soon.
One of Solbakken's initial challenges is to rid his dressing room of the losing mentality it became saddled with during an attritional three-year stay in the Premier League.
McCarthy, who will now surely be seen as a potential promotion winner by other hungry clubs at this level, kept Wolves' head above the water line - just - for two and a half years. After a 5-1 humiliation at home to an upwardly mobile West Bromwich Albion in February had proved one defeat too many for him, they sank quicker than the Titanic, with Terry Connor the hapless officer in command.
No one at Molineux can deny, though, that McCarthy was outstanding in the manager's chair at this level. He was installed much later in his first summer than the current incumbent and barely had enough players to fill his first team-sheet.
Solbakken has also drafted in Bjorn Sigurdarson, Tongo Doumbia, Slavomir Peszko, Frank Nouble and Jamie Tank, so his hands haven't exactly been tied.
With a glut of new signings, though, come different problems, not least over bedding in. Life at Molineux is unlikely to be dull in the coming months.