On a fine spring Black Country day, those at Molineux witnessed not only unfamiliar conditions but a recently unfamiliar outcome. Wolverhampton Wanderers have been riding on a crest of a wave, crashing in results and performances that have swept Kenny Jackett's team to summit of League 1. Here they were looking to expand on the club's record breaking sequence of 9 consecutive wins and take any advantage that may present itself from the game between Leyton Orient and Brentford, the Black Country club's closest league rivals.
The day however, was to end in disappointment for the league leaders. In front of what was this season's 2nd largest Molineux crowd Shrewsbury Town frustrated their hosts, who showed none of the recent vibrancy, to the point that Jackett will no doubt view the result as another valuable point. Prior to kick off there was a warm welcome back to Molineux for the man who oversaw what is probably the most transformative period in Wolverhampton Wanderers history. Graham Turner managed the club from 1986 to 1994, a period in which he took training in the Molineux car park and a racecourse, as well as Wolves to a Wembley victory.
It was Turner who rejuvenated the club. Stealing Steve Bull, Andy Thompson and Robbie Dennison from West Brom, all of whom figured heavily in the clubs meteoric rise from the doldrums of English football’s 4th Division, to within touching distance of the top tier. And there are some comparisons to be made here with Wolves’ current plight.
At the start of the season many had Wolves as nailed on promotion favourites. With a large squad, swollen with talent and experienced professionals, a sure financial footing and the added benefit of a further Premier League parachute payment, who could argue? On the face of it, it didn’t seem fair.
However like Turner, Jackett took the helm at a club in crisis. Successive relegations and a litany of misguided decisions made by the Molineux hierarchy meant that this wasn’t to be the stroll in the park that most outside of Wolverhampton would assume. Instead some foresaw Wolves on the precipice of a further disaster and a prolonged spell outside of English football’s top 2 tiers.
But Jackett dealt with the issues early on, in a calm and considered approach, reminiscent of his predecessor Turner, but not without grit and steel. His eyes were clearly wide open when accepting the role at Wolves. Almost his first action was to banish some of the club main assets to training away from the 1st team. These players were identified by Jackett as having no part to play in his Wolves. It was a bold move to turn his back on what some saw as the pernicious presence of Johnson, Henry, O’Hara and Ward but he managed the situation in a faultlessly even handed manner, never apportioning blame. It was just the next step. Others moved on Tongo Doumbia to Valenciennes (on loan), Steven Hunt, Christophe Berra, Adam Hammill, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.
Whilst moving players on he also began to bring fresh faces in. Golbourne from Barnsley, McDonald from Sheffield United, Leigh Griffiths was dragged away from a Scottish loan posting for the first time in his Wolves career and Sam Ricketts arrived from Bolton. Some of the old Molineux guard remained, clearly those that Jackett felt he could rely on, in Stearman, Sako, Elokobi, Foley, Hennesey and most surprisingly Kevin Doyle. However the fact that only two of those remain as first choice players in March, shows the extent to which Jackett has made this team his own.
He also looked to the club’s academy, much overlooked in the past, for answers. There he found first teamers in waiting in Danny Batth and Jack Price. Also Evans, Ebanks-Landell and Doherty would get their opportunities as would McCary, McAllindon and Cassidy although to a lesser extent.
The malicious fug of spite that had hung over the club, the board, the players and the fans was beginning to clear. It seems to me this is almost entirely down to Kenny Jackett. Maybe the board deserve some credit for what at the time seemed an understated and if truth be told, underwhelming appointment. Probably that was exactly what was needed. Kenny Jackett was, it seems, exactly what was needed.
What has happened since has seen a renewed sense of belief flourishing from those who follow Wolverhampton Wanderers. Obviously League 1 is not where the fans want to be, but top is top and besides the grimness of the journey down, they seem to be enjoying this seasons ride with bumper away attendances all over the country. This is doubtless helped by the style of the football being played, not always a Wolverhampton speciality, which in some reckoning is some of the best since the 70s.
McDonald, Jacobs, Henry, Price, Batth, Sako and Dicko have all stood out at times this season. These, with the exception of Sako, are Jacketts men. But this Wolves is built on a strong and positive collective spirit and an honesty that the fans can relate to. Just as they did with Bull, Mutch, Dennison, Downing et al in Turner’s day.
So Jackett takes his Wolves to Crawley on Tuesday for a rearranged fixture looking to get back to winning ways in what is the final stretch of the season. Whatever the result on Tuesday at Broadfield, Wolves should have enough to gain an automatic promotion place, although it won’t be easy and Orient and Brentford seem certain to push them all the way.
If Wolves do gain promotion this season, Jackett rightly will deserve a large slice of the credit. The way he’s artfully brought players in, shipped players out, utilised the academy and developed his team into an effective, talented and stylish team, all whilst handling the famous Molineux expectation is admirable. Despite their pre-season billing as champions elect and Jackett’s effortless, unflappable demeanour, being in the Wolves hot seat is never an easy ride.