Molineux was a mishmash of misery and magnanimity on Saturday. Looking at the fixtures over Christmas, Wolverhampton Wanderers could have licked their lips at the prospect of six points from home games against two sides below them.
They got none – beaten 3-0 by Peterborough on Boxing Day and now 2-0 by Ipswich Town. They entered the year 16th in the Premier League and facing Chelsea. They leave it 17th in the Championship.
They are in supposedly good company. Bolton and Blackburn, who came down with them, are also in the bottom half of the division, parachutes notwithstanding or perhaps not opening in straitened times. Those two have changed manager once or twice since. Wolves did in February after a 5-1 home defeat by West Bromwich Albion. Mick McCarthy was sacked after six years in which he took them to the top flight at the third attempt but could not get them to finish higher than 15th. His assistant, Terry Connor, invited to revive them, took four points from the last 13 games.
Now managing Ipswich, McCarthy, reunited with Connor, was well remembered by Wolves fans struggling to see a brighter future in Stale Solbakken. Last month, after a ninth game without a win, the Norwegian had paint poured over his car. Three wins in the next four games resprayed his image but he may have been relieved to see Alex McLeish go to Nottingham Forest.
Solbakken took the rap after the Boxing Day defeat . "Mentally we were weak," he said. "We didn't look lively and that disturbs me. It is my responsibility. You can explain it when one or two players have a bad day with the ball but I think I saw seven, eight or nine." On Saturday it was more like 13, all except Carl Ikeme in goal. "I think at the moment we look a little bit scared," he said. Time and again the crowd groaned as defenders cleared aimlessly and conceded possession.
The second goal, beyond the hour, was a case in point. Bradley Orr returned it first time to send DJ Campbell haring beyond the central defence which, half an hour earlier, had stood off to let Aaron Cresswell complete a concerted assault with an astute finish. Campbell's goal was his 10th in 16 games on loan from Queens Park Rangers. Solbakken's response was a triple substitution. The crowd's, to the removal of Kevin Doyle, was a chorus of "You don't know what you're doing" and boos such as had assailed the manager at half-time and did so again at the end. It was a capacity crowd, too, the first of the season and 7,000 above the previous average. There was a feeling of last chance about it.
McCarthy by contrast might have been a favourite uncle returning as Father Christmas. He shook hands with divot menders (Hoe! Hoe!) and kissed tea ladies. He was regaled with warmth, applauded as he turned left for the alien dugout and later given a standing ovation by those who stayed beyond disappointment to give it. He was possibly as near to being touched as he is likely to admit. "My last game here I had to go out of the back door. Today was a lasting memory, on the pitch having won and being applauded off. It was lovely and thank you for all who did that for me. The ones who were singing to get me out are doing it for Stale now. Be careful: you might get what you wish for."
As a son of Barnsley, McCarthy may have been early aware of the noble Duke of York. Before Wolves he marched Sunderland up and back in shorter order. His start with Ipswich promises another reprise – seven wins in 12 games that have taken them within a point of Wolves, who may be wishing now they had gone firmer on Steve Bruce before settling for Connor.
On Saturday McCarthy was in the odd position of knowing more than Solbakken about Wolves and less about his own side than about his opponents. Seven of Wolves' starting XI were his signings; six started his last match as their manager.
Typically, though, his new charges knew what they were about. Wolves' front men, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Doyle, got little service or sight of goal; the sometimes influential captain, Karl Henry, was overrun by Guirane N'Daw and Andy Drury in midfield; and the centre-backs, Roger Johnson and Christophe Berra, lacked the strut they had under McCarthy. Solbakken has tried to introduce zonal marking. On Saturday no one was in the zone. With the six points Wolves may mentally have banked before Christmas they would have been close to the play-offs. Their programme unusually gave the dates. They may be of greater interest to McCarthy.
Last summer, after Solbakken was engaged, Wolves made all but £20m from selling Steven Fletcher and Matt Jarvis. They splashed out £20,000 on Jamie Tank, a Walsall defender who has yet to play. Stale? Scared? The month has surely come for the club to restate its ambition.
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image: © Danny Molyneux