Wolves’ season effectively ended several weeks ago, but supporters will not forgive any player who walks into The Hawthorns on Monday evening unaware of this fixture’s significance. An element of jeopardy has crept up on Nuno Espirito Santo and his players since the meek surrender to Burnley at Molineux last Sunday.
The defeat was one collapse too many in a season riddled with uncharacteristically inept performances. Teams are said to reflect their manager. Last Sunday Wolves looked tired and drained.
The longer this season goes on the more damaging it is becoming for the players, the management and supporters. There is a contractual obligation to finish it, but is there anything more than that? A defeat to Albion will not result in the chaos that followed the most infamous fixture between the two in modern times, when Wolves were dismantled 5-1 at Molineux on February 12, 2012, but it will do little to ease the building frustration of a disappointing campaign.
That Molineux defeat highlighted a lack of boardroom leadership that undid the stability created during the early part of Steve Morgan’s ownership of the club. Should Wolves lose on Monday night there will be no parallels. The emotion of 2012 will not affect the current situation. Back then mutinous fans made their feelings known from the stands. Morgan lost his cool in the directors’ box, hot-footing down to the changing rooms to admonish the players after a home defeat to Liverpool prior to the Albion capitulation.
Fosun’s ownership is entirely different. There are no fans to physically engage with at matches these days, but even if there were that is not their style. The truth that may not sit well with all supporters, but is worth mentioning, is that these owners do not react to terrace persuasion. Fosun will not take guidance from the mood of supporters, instead they speak to them on their own terms in a more measured manner.
Yet for the first time under Nuno there appears to be significant supporter unrest about the direction of the team. The notion of dismissing the head coach on the back of performances in the second half of season – let’s say that Southampton defeat in the FA Cup onwards – is nonsense. Certainly, the reality is that there are huge shortcomings to consider. The Burnley defeat touched a nerve – a collapse that has happened on more than one occasion in 2020/21. But the results that matter between now and the end of May will come from the medical department. If the remaining players can get through until the summer without picking up long-term injuries then that is a quantifiable success.
Fans are right to demand more accountability from the team, but they should bear in mind that the club is not equipped for change. Lose Nuno and you lose the other overseas personnel like assistant head coach Rui Silva, the strength and conditioning department of Antonio Dias and Joao Lapa, and goalkeeping coach Rui Barbosa. Then there is Julio Figueroa, a coach, strategist and wellbeing guru. Do not underestimate the strength of that pack. So tight, so trusted, so admired.
Every management team has a shelf life. Succession planning should be ongoing, regardless of when any change will happen. Nuno is close to completing four years at the club. That is long service for any manager, let alone an overseas coach, but he signed a new contract last September. One of Jorges Mendes’ approaches is to negotiate long-term deals for his managers. This is not simply to protect his client but to push the compensation up if his manager is poached. Long contracts are a problem when clubs are looking to sack managers – see Jose Mourinho – but they offer huge security in the event of a bid to take a manager and his staff away. That argument underpinned the negotiations for Nuno and his staff’s last deal when it was secured earlier this season. Despite the close relationship between Mendes and club, the new deal that Nuno signed was hard fought.
Nuno is a manager with choices. That may never be the case again. The cards he holds now would not necessarily be in his hands in the event of a poor start to the 2021/22 season. This will be a pivotal summer and the head coach will be weighing up his options. Put brutally, several of his players are not good enough to take the club forward and are of no use to him. He will need reassurances that a rebuild will be funded.
His small squad policy is redundant and must change. There will always be a glass ceiling when operating with a small squad and the unfortunate injuries have undermined his blueprint. Nuno is entitled to a bad season, and there are mitigating circumstances to argue that this is not bad season, it is just significantly inferior to the previous three.
And so, to the Black Country derby. The muddled thinking which enveloped the hierarchy of the club in 2012 left a deep scar that took years to heal, as Wolves plummeted to the third tier and lost trust with supporters. Only the admirable tenure of Kenny Jackett restored faith and made Wolves a viable prospect for Fosun, who had also considered Albion for a potential takeover.
Despite the angry assertions of some fans, the position of McCarthy in February 2012 bears no resemblance to Nuno’s standing at the club. If we are looking to history, it is three years next week since 80,000 supporters lined the streets of this city to pay tribute to their Championship title winners. When the direction and culture of the club changed beyond supporters’ imagination. Nuno has credit in the bank. If he is not here next season the decision will be his.