When Prime Ministers want to connect to the masses, they sometimes use the analogy of a football manager to describe their jobs. The reverse cannot be said of football managers. Perhaps a more appropriate comparison is that of a naval commander: what a club needs is a steady but resilient ship and the man to deliver that is the manager.
Whatever Mick McCarthy lacked in tactical nous and technical ability, he had in abundance the dour humour, honesty and realistic outlook that can galvanise a team beyond any of the weaknesses of its individual members. Gallows humour? It was often this alone that saved face during those lonely autumn minutes of Match of the Day. His admission that he was not, in fact, Merlin the Magician upon his appointment may have had many board members swallowing their knuckles while his post-match interview following a defeat against Reading could only be diplomatically described as blue.
But these qualities positioned McCarthy at the bow of the ship: honestly confronting whatever stormy waters threatened to sink his team with the fortitude of a wizened sailor. He dealt with whatever blows the Premier League landed his team like the man on the street copes with a poor hand dealt in life. He was the everyman of top flight managers.
The effect of McCarthy’s candid demeanour could be seen on the pitch. His was indeed a team in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. The shortcomings of a player, of which there were often many, could be masked by the effort of his counterparts, or the now proverbial “putting in a shift”. The boat travelled, however slowly, not because of a the strength of a few oarsman but because everyone pulled together and with the same momentum.
Victories against Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool in 2010/2011 took the romance of the underdog to another level. These were the battles that won the war against Second Season Syndrome, a curse worse than scurvy, not because of the points they accumulated but because of the belief they created. On their own, each of these surprise wins would have been an anomaly but together, they suggested this particular team, at this moment in time, could perform at a level previously unimaginable: a heady euphoria for Wolves fans.
Preparations for McCarthy’s third Premier League season with Wolves would have seemed to be plain sailing. Although a poor last-minute survival offered drama and short-term relief, McCarthy seemed to notice the worrying weaknesses; he addressed the ever problematic defence by signing Roger Johnson, an experienced defender with a not insubstantial price tag.
What happened next remains a mystery to the watching football world but given the grounds on which McCarthy’s achievements had been based thus far, it may have proved to be his undoing.
By replacing the ever-loyal Karl Henry as skipper, McCarthy appeared to pull up the anchor to set sail for unknown waters with an untested hand at the rudder. Johnson’s own reaction to being given the armband suggested his surprise at the switch, while McCarthy’s reasoning was somewhat vague. Added to the arbitrariness was some of Johnson’s less desirable qualities; allowing a player who turns up to training somewhat worse the wear to be deputising for the manager on the field of play only makes the decision to appoint him even more questionable.
But more importantly was the effect it had on the rest of the team. Friction between Wayne Hennessey and Johnson on the pitch was one public example of the discord behind the scenes, blamed on the pressure caused by the club’s precarious league position. From a team built on graft and honesty, Wolves became a club destroyed from within. The steady, balanced ship hadn’t hit an iceberg; it was floundering from the decks to the bilge.
But the inevitable relegation that followed by no means put Wolves in a unique position. Regardless of the disagreements or divisions at the club, and ignoring the lacklustre performances just months before, the new season typically began with renewed hope. Holes in the hull of this shell-shocked team had been hastily repaired but before long, the sticking plaster started to come loose. There is a precedent for relegated teams to continue into footballing oblivion; immediate promotion is unusual, and Wolves may well be in the ugly throes of a transition that will eventually lead to a resurrection.
But the season so far has felt worse. Notwithstanding the recognition that one-time Premier League status does not guarantee performances in the Championship, Wolves look ship-wrecked. No more is the familiar team of crew-mates bound together like brothers at sea. And the spirit sank with the ship.
Stale Solbakken, frankly, has a horrible job. He must slop out the ship until it can be reinforced but it isn’t easy when it is leaking more than the Titanic. Without a bucket big enough, he’ll go down too but if he can harness the pain, the hurt and the fear of the abyss, he might find himself accompanied on board. If the answer exists, it won’t be found out in the field. These are essentially the same players who executed four giant-killings two years ago, and talent doesn’t disappear overnight. The answer has to be found in the mentality of those charged with keeping the boat afloat. Football: it’s about more than the feet kicking the ball and the best managers know that.