by Adam Bate
To put Mick McCarthy’s Wolverhampton Wanderers reign into perspective you need to go much further back than its beginning in 2006. You need to go back to 1989 – the year that Wolves won the old Division Three title.
Until McCarthy’s arrival at the club that was not only the last team to win a league title but it was also the last team that had a meaningful connection with the club’s supporters. It was the team of Steve Bull and a collection of other hard-working souls determined to give their all for the club despite being forced to train on the stadium car park because there was no training ground.
The facilities changed for the better when Sir Jack Hayward took the reins at Molineux in 1990 but somewhere along the way something more vital was lost. Wolves became a byword for big spending and bigger failures as the club became a victim of its own hubris.
Graham Taylor was indulged with the seven-figure signings of players such as Dean Richards, Steve Froggatt, Tony Daley, Don Goodman and Mark Atkins as Molineux heaved with expectation once more. In the 1994-95 season, Wolves’ average attendances were over 10,000 more than those at Sunderland, Derby, West Brom, Stoke or Bolton – but promotion did not come.
Mark McGhee followed and blew millions more before the spending reached an inglorious crescendo when Dave Jones splashed more than £13million in 2001 alone – only to see the disconnect between players and fans reach its nadir as the team collapsed in the run-in to allow rivals West Brom to claim promotion instead. The infamous ‘You’ve let us down again’ banner said it all.
By the time promotion finally came twelve months on, Hayward was spent-out and relegation was inevitable. Suddenly Wolves were saddled with an owner who’d lost interest and so it seemed strangely appropriate to go the whole hog and appoint a manager with little interest in the shape of Glenn Hoddle.
When the diffident Hoddle left the club in the lurch by quitting in the summer of 2006, Wolves were left with just nine fit players to report for pre-season training. Things appeared to have hit rock bottom.
This was the environment into which McCarthy walked and immediately set about scaling back ambitions by declaring he was no magician. Fans feared the worst but with a young and hungry agenda and a fierce work ethic, McCarthy went to work.
Karl Henry was his first signing – a £100k capture from Stoke’s reserves. Stephen Ward arrived from Bohemians for £150k and Michael Kightly was snapped up for just £25k from non-league Grays Athletic.
Of course, some of the freebies weren’t up to scratch but it was refreshing to see a Wolves team battling against the odds for the first time in a generation. An extraordinary 6-0 home defeat to Southampton summed up the mood at Molineux as the fans supported the players – not because of some lame gallows humour – but out of a genuine belief that the players were giving it everything.
Two years later, McCarthy took Wolves to the title in brilliant fashion. His young team – only two of the first XI were older than 24 – played with enthusiasm and gusto as Wolves’ wingers Kightly and Matt Jarvis tore defences apart on a regular basis. It was a team to bring pride back to a city.
That McCarthy should find himself sacked three years on, having twice kept the club in the Premier League, may seem strange to some. But for all the accusations that can be thrown at Wolves owner Steve Morgan, the claim of the Daily Mail’s Des Kelly that the club has shown “no loyalty” to McCarthy must be particularly galling.
There were difficult days in McCarthy’s second season at the club, after which the manager himself admitted that if the fans had been given the choice between keeping him or keeping misfit striker Freddy Eastwood – a divisive figure at the club, who had become a champion for disenchanted fans – it would have been the manager to go.
But Morgan backed his man. He did so again when McCarthy was labelled a disgrace to the Premier League for making 10 changes for a trip to Manchester United. And the owner still remained calm throughout Wolves’ second season in the top flight, despite Wolves picking up just nine points from the opening 14 games and eventually being just three minutes away from relegation on a traumatic final day.
Morgan and the fans have watched on as arch-rivals West Brom have prospered. Albion were supposed to be the neighbours with the tight budget; the epitome of the yo-yo club. And yet, while McCarthy trudged on against the backdrop of ludicrously ambitious stadium expansion plans, it was the Baggies who acted so ruthlessly in ditching Roberto di Matteo in favour of Roy Hodgson just months after the former had taken the club to promotion.
For McCarthy it has been a death by a thousand cuts. There have been the bizarre selection decisions, the limited tactics and the nonsensical formation changes. The nagging belief that while the club made big plans off-the-field, on it things were beginning to slide – as evidenced by the fact that despite spending well over £40million since promotion, eight of the Championship team still regularly featured in McCarthy’s starting XI this season.
All that remained was for a knockout blow to be delivered. And a 5-1 derby defeat to your rivals is just about as emphatic as it can get. It was an insipid effort that crystallised feeling as it showcased many of McCarthy’s failings and none of his strengths. The tactical flaws were there for all to see – starting with all three strikers for the first time ever in a game he could not afford to lose. But gone was the fight and commitment so clear to see in all of his finest Molineux moments.
It was a result that changed the debate. No longer could the issue remain about who could do better. It now had to be framed in terms of who could do worse.
That’s a sad way for things to end for Wolves’ most successful manager in a generation. But as Morgan himself put it: “We had little or no choice.”