Johnny Phillips: Sir Jack's final splash laid the ghost of failure

About now, in the last week of July, the summer transfer window starts to get livelier.

Wolves' celebrate after the Nationwide Division One play-off final against Sheffield United at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Monday May 26, 2003. Wolverhampton Wanderers gained promotion into the Premiership after defeating Sheffield United 3-0. PA Photo: David Davies.
 
 THIS PICTURE CAN ONLY BE USED WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF AN EDITORIAL FEATURE. NO UNOFFICIAL CLUB WEBSITE USE.
Wolves' celebrate after the Nationwide Division One play-off final against Sheffield United at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Monday May 26, 2003. Wolverhampton Wanderers gained promotion into the Premiership after defeating Sheffield United 3-0. PA Photo: David Davies. THIS PICTURE CAN ONLY BE USED WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF AN EDITORIAL FEATURE. NO UNOFFICIAL CLUB WEBSITE USE.

It is a particularly tedious subject to cover, with very few facts and much more speculation dominating the media.

In an international tournament year, business can be delayed. Supporters’ frustrations often grow as deadline day looms, although Wolves’ leadership team have already indicated that much of the business at Molineux will likely be done late on.

There was a time when the transfer window did not exist, when the role of agents was less pervasive. At Wolves, in the last season before FIFA restrictions were brought in, it led to an astonishing outlay in what turned out to be Sir Jack Hayward’s final attempt to reach the Premier League. Twenty summers ago, Wolves were preparing for their 13th consecutive season in the Championship, or First Division as it was then. The 2001/02 campaign was manager Dave Jones’s first full season in charge.

Expat owner Sir Jack had become an infrequent figure at Molineux following his “Golden Tit” outburst in the wake of Mark McGhee’s failure to earn promotion in 1996/97. The Wolves owner was at his wits end watching clubs like Bolton Wanderers, Barnsley and Bradford City succeed where his own expensively assembled sides failed. The funds that McGhee and previous manager Graham Taylor had spent dried up. After their third-place finish in 1996/97, Wolves became a largely anonymous presence in the second tier for the next four years, finishing ninth, seventh, seventh and 12th without ever looking like genuine promotion candidates. Apathy had set in amongst a support conditioned to failure.

Then came the madcap spending of 2001/02. Jones did not need more than one look at the place to conclude a drastic overhaul of the squad was in order. Out went those associated with the prior mediocrity: Havard Flo, Robert Niestroj, Scott Taylor, Robert Taylor and many more.

In a departure from the current trend of signing players with potential whose market value could increase, Wolves signed only those of a proven stature designed to take the team up regardless of their age or sell-on value.

Welsh international striker Nathan Blake had twice been promoted to the Premier League, with Bolton and Blackburn Rovers. Winger Shaun Newton had gone up with Charlton Athletic. Midfielder Alex Rae had achieved the same feat with Sunderland. He joined up with compatriot and Scotland international Colin Cameron in a revamped central midfield. After initially arriving on-loan, strikers Dean Sturridge – a promotion winner with Derby County – and Kenny Miller were signed permanently in December. Almost £12million was spent as Sir Jack rolled the dice one more time.

Wolves suddenly looked the part. Sturridge’s 21 league goals in just 29 appearances led the attack while a central defence marshalled by the academy graduate Joleon Lescott and captain Paul Butler was envied across the division. The pick of the new bunch was probably Republic of Ireland international Mark Kennedy, a promotion winner with Manchester City, who arrived for £2million. When the left winger was not setting up the prolific Sturridge, he was holding his own goal-of-the-season competition. A seven-game winning streak throughout February into the beginning of March produced 20 goals, including a spectacular 30-yard effort from Kennedy at Stockport, coolly slapped into the top corner with the outside of his boot.

Even amongst a fan base conditioned to failure there was a sense that this time it would be different, especially with seven games to play when Wolves held an 11-point cushion in the second automatic promotion place over West Bromwich Albion, who had a game in hand. Then things started to unravel. Kevin Muscat tends to be the one blamed for the subsequent failure to win promotion. His lazy defensive header at Birmingham City allowed Stern John to begin the home side’s comeback from a two-goal deficit. That was followed up with a reckless red card during a home defeat to Grimsby Town for an indiscreet elbow in the face of Michael Boulding. Although, perhaps more damaging was the injury sustained to the inspirational Kennedy which ruled the mercurial winger out of the season’s run-in. Albion went on an astounding late season run of form and pipped Wolves to promotion. Play-off failure to Norwich City, who finished 11 points below Wolves, rubbed salt in the wound.

‘You’ve Let Us Down Again’ read the message scrawled on a bedsheet by one fan in the South Bank at full-time after the second leg. Jones was always irked by that, arguing that he had not been at the club long enough to let fans down more than once. What followed was a period of calm analysis.

“We came back into training after the summer and fans were talking about the play-off semi-final as if the chance had gone,” said Butler. “Sometimes it does go but we just got our heads down.” Jones added the experienced Premier League title winners Paul Ince and Denis Irwin to the squad and, despite a rocky start to 2002/03, the season ended with that glorious triumph over Sheffield United in the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium.

The postscript to Sir Jack’s huge investment was, of course, a damp squib. With the transfer window in place and Wolves not promoted until the end of May, what followed was the worst summer of business imaginable, with barely £3.5m invested in a squad that lost Lescott and Matt Murray to injury. Premier League survival was surrendered before a ball was kicked.

Yet, the players from that era are remembered with great fondness. Sir Jack’s final bout of spending 20 years ago built a team that laid to rest the ghosts of those 1990s failures. The Premier League sojourn was all too brief, but at least Wolves got there.

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