2010 English Premier League Preview: Wolverhampton
Every now and then I creep out from the proverbial basement at my mother's house and play actual living, breathing media member. Sort of a reverse Superman, actually, where I play the Clark Kent role. Granted, if I were actually Superman it would be the worst comic book of all time.
Yes, even worse than Plastic Man.
On two separate occasions, ahead of the 2006 and 2010 World Cup I've had the good fortunate to chat with U.S. national team third string keeper Marcus Hahnemann on the grass at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. Based on the 12 or so minutes of interaction, he's a class act and all around good dude. It's nice, too, that's unlike other players who've spent plenty of time playing professionally in England, Hahnemann's remained a red-blooded, unabashed American. For more on this, read this candid interview with the Independent from earlier this year.
In May, instead of asking if Hahnemann is a top five death metal guitar soloists, there was one issue on my mind -- how exactly he understands Wolves' coach Mick McCarthy's thick Irish brogue.
Back in 2006 I remember sitting inside a cafe in Amsterdam watching France and Switzerland play out to a dull draw, with McCarthy's indecipherable commentary.
It went something like this: "Mbdbdb mfdfds mdndndmmd." Basically nine times worss than Ally McCoist on ESPN duty during the 2010 World Cup.
Bend an ear:
When I asked Hahnemann about this, he laughed and said he was able to understand McCarthy, which in-and-of itself, might be one of the toughest achievements in English football.
Coming a close second would be for Wolves to stick around in the Premier League for a third consecutive season, avoiding the drop in 2010-11.
In fact, Wolves might be in for the dreaded case of "second season syndrome," which afflicted Hahnemann's previous employers -- Reading. The Royals were a revelation in their first-ever top flight season in 2006-07, placing eighth after a record-setting promotion season in the Championship where it scored 99 goals en route to a record 106 points. A season later Steve Coppell's side lost all their mojo and crashed out the Prem, placing 18th.
Are Wolves in line for a similar fate?
The presence of Kevin Doyle -- barring a transfer -- doesn't exactly bode very well.
In Wolves' promotion season of 2008-09, where McCarthy guided them to a first place finish in the Championship, the buzz word around the Molineux was goals. Wolves pumped in 80 that year -- 26 more than second place Birmingham -- including 25 from Sylvan Ebanks-Blake alone.
Once again we saw a club that hit the bright lights of the Prem and it lose its nerve in front of goal. Wolves total League goals sunk to 32 -- lowest in the division -- lead by Doyle's nine. The fact that 35-year-old defender Joey Craddock was next on the list at five isn't a good sign.
Then again, it's probably unfair to compare the core of this Wolves team to that Reading team, which was actually quite a good "footballing" side. Wolves also haven't had any key de/'fections, like Reading did when Steve Sidwell(*) sold out to force a move to Chelsea. Wolves seem to have actually gotten better with the addition, coincidentally enough, of ex-Reading midfielder Stephen Hunt, last seen at Hull City.
(*) Guess it was karma for Reading fans that the ginger Sidwell's only impact at Chelsea was a hard foul on David Beckham in that dreadful, made-for-ESPN Los Angeles Galaxy debut.
Credit, though, McCarthy -- however difficult he might be to comprehend -- for changing his approach to a more pragmatic style, which didn't win any beauty contests but was enough to ensure survival.
After failing with a two-striker system, McCarthy went with a more defense-first approach in a 4-5-1. More importantly on Nov. 29 he replaced Wayne Hennessey in goal with Hahnemann, a move which didn't seem like a big deal at the time yet proved to be one of the most critical of the season. You could argue no player outside last year's Top Seven had as much an impact as Hahnemann down the stretch for his team's fortunes. On a personal level it was enough for Hahnemann to make the U.S. roster for South Africa, too.
When McCarthy put Hahnemann in goal, whether it was coincidence or not, it seemed to turn around Wolves' fortunes. Immediately Wolves won three of their first four matches with the Seattle native in goal. Later, beginning on March 27, Wolves posted clean sheets in three of four matches. Overall, in Hahnemann's 30 matches, the team allowed only 30 goals, compared to 26 in the first eight.
Quite a change.
It wasn't all Hahnemann. McCarthy settled on a defense of Ronald Zubar, Christophe Berra, Craddock and eventually George Elokobi over Stephen Ward. The mid-season addition of Algerian international Adlène Guedioura further solidified Wolves, and gave them a very defensive-minded holding duo with captain Karl Henry.
This year to solidify the defense McCarthy bought 6-foot-4 Belgian defender Jelle Van Damme, who most Americans know as the player Oguchi Onyewu took to court over an alleged racial slur.
Now the big question for Wolves heading into 2010-11 is if McCarthy can keep the positive vibes and overall togetherness which the team found in the final stages of last season and apply it over a full 38 games? We've seen this approach work in stretches for clubs, but eventually over time the team tunes out the coach or vice versa.
It's hard to find a motivational carrot when you're in Wolves situation as a coach. You can't, again, play the nobody believes in us/avoiding the drop card. Realistically this team isn't good enough to make a run at a Europa League spot. So McCarthy is in a tough position. Can he get the club to set its sights on 14th place? Will this team have the resolve to dig down, commit to defense and grind out results once again?
You hear that cheesy acting cliche, "What's my motivation?" all the time. That's what Wolves players might be asking themselves throughout the season. At best, for the time being, Wolves could follow the path of other promoted sides like Stoke City.
On the plus side, Wolves should have six highly charged local derbies this season with Aston Villa, Birmingham and the Black Country derby against West Brom. This is good for the fans in the stands. The players? We'll see.
Bottom line -- Wolves, even with the additions of Hunt and ex-Burnley forward Stephen Fletcher don't have a midfield with enough quality to take the game to opponents. On paper the team does have more of a glided edge and won't be solely reliant on Doyle, assuming he isn't sold. If 24-year-old Matthew Jarvis continues his upward trend and Ebanks-Blake ever figures out Premier League defenses, this team could improve closer to mid-table safety. More than likely, this team will be fighting to avoid the drop all season.