I’d just resigned from Millwall when Wolves approached me to discuss the position of manager.
It had been the best part of six years at Millwall. I told the owner during the course of that season, 2012/13, that it would be my last. It was a difficult decision, but I wanted to finish there on my own terms – that was really, really important to me. I also felt that Millwall, who were in the Championship, needed something new.
There was also a managerial vacancy at Sheffield United – so, as with Wolves, I went for an interview. Wolves had just been relegated for the second time in two years, which meant them joining Sheffield United in League One and preparing to compete in the third tier for the first time since 1989.
I got on well with the people at Wolves, and eventually had three interviews with them before being appointed. It was a fresh challenge and, despite going down a division, it was a big opportunity. I was happy to take it.
The club wanted to target an immediate return to the Championship, and they also wanted me to bring through some of their younger players. In recent seasons they’d invested in their youth policy without quite getting the players through, so they wanted to start developing their own. Perhaps they recognised they might be in League One for longer than they hoped, and that they needed to focus on a longer-term project, but those were their priorities.
It had been a tough time for the club, but I’d seen the facilities and the training ground, and been to Molineux as a player, coach and manager. I saw their potential – Wolves’ sheer size and class made it exciting to be their manager. Opportunities at those big clubs are few and far between.
Unless you’re of an age that means you’re aware of their history, it’s not until you get into that West Midlands area and see how vast their support it, and how far and wide that support exists, that you can appreciate the club’s size. They have a museum with all of their fantastic achievements; there’s a statue outside of Billy Wright.
"relegation from the championship really hit them. i thought the crowd needed to see some fresh faces"
Graham Taylor, a mentor of mine, also gave me an insight into the club. I followed the job he did while he was still in it, and he was still living in the Midlands when I was being interviewed. Through being in the same division as them with Millwall, I also felt I knew the squad and the club. I had an idea of what was needed.
I’d played for Graham for 10 years, and was his assistant manager for five. He spoke very well of Wolves as a club, and was more focused on whether I was going to get the necessary backing. “What are your plans? What do you think will work, and what type of backing are you going to get?”
Wolves’ relegation from the Premier League in 2012 had perhaps been coming. They’d only just stayed up the year before, but it was certainly a surprise for them to then get relegated from the Championship. Like a lot of clubs that come down, they were expecting, in the first year or two, to make a good fist of getting back into the Premier League.
It was their relegation from the Championship that really hit them, and I thought the crowd needed to see some fresh faces. There was still quite a lot of the side that had played in the Premier League – a lot of those players needed a fresh challenge as well.
They had a good staff there – very solid and hardworking. The changes I had to make were minimal, which is quite unusual, but I needed to change the players. I didn't think the crowd could turn up that season and see the same team. The squad needed younger players, and some from outside.
We had to prepare for life in League One. Playing in the third tier for a club like that is different to how it would be at many other teams – and we were doing everything we could to build a rapport with the crowd, because that had broken. We always acknowledged them at the end of the warm-up, before games, after games. We wanted to show a positive and enthusiastic body language in everything we did, which hopefully gave them a sense of the pride we had in playing in front of them.
"we won five and drew one of our opening six league matches – that helped our new team"
Richard Stearman had been out on loan at Ipswich, and I’d identified him as a good player to bring back. Leigh Griffiths had been scoring goals in Scotland; Danny Batth had been gaining experience at Sheffield Wednesday, who had recently promoted from League One. There were three players who had been out on loan, all of whom I rated and who I thought would give us some freshness.
I’d seen Wolves Under-21s when I was still at Millwall, and they had a number of good players I felt could contribute to that freshness I wanted. We also had to work on some of those already in the senior squad who were staying – to convince them not only that they had a future at Wolves, but also that Wolves could have a successful future. Bakary Sako, for one, played a big part in what followed.
We signed Kevin McDonald from Sheffield United, and that was key. Wayne Hennessey was injured when I first arrived, but the plan was for him to get fit and then move on. The decision was made to promote Carl Ikeme to be our first-choice goalkeeper, and he also had a fantastic season.
After a good pre-season in which we bedded in how we wanted to play, we won five and drew one of our opening six league matches, which helped our new team. We also showed that we recognised we were in League One, and willing to fight our way out of it.
That season Walsall were our local rivals, and in our next league game they came to Molineux and beat us 1-0. Even though I was disappointed, I felt we were unfortunate. Sometimes when you lose you feel like you’re miles away, but it was keenly contested and I was confident we had enough to put it behind us.
We won our next game by the same scoreline at Shrewsbury, and then went unbeaten in our next 11 in the league, until we lost 1-0 at Peterborough. That was the first of two successive defeats, and a run of only one win in seven.
"losing leigh's goals could have been a big loss, but nouha came in and gave us a cutting edge"
Leigh Griffiths had quickly got to 12 league goals, but after a couple of bids came in for him from Celtic, his boyhood club, he slightly hit the buffers – and I totally understood that. Even when we were dropping points I didn’t think there was much wrong; results were indifferent, but we were still dominant. With Leigh leaving in January, Nouha Dicko came in and that set us up for the second half of the season.
After losing 1-0 at Gillingham in early January, we changed formation from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1. In the build-up to that match, a story broke that Wayne Hennessey had refused to deputise for the injured Ikeme. We were trying to get Aaron McCarey back from his loan spell at York, but when it didn’t look like we were going to be able to we were looking at Wayne, who was preparing to leave.
Aaron did come back, and he played. I’m sure if he hadn’t then Wayne would have, but there was no stand-off. He didn’t need to be tested; Tony Pulis came in for him and took him to Crystal Palace.
Losing Leigh’s goals could have been a big loss. We’d been third in the league – we were only two or three points off the top, but we weren’t necessarily running away with it, and during the first half of the season we were more keeping pace with others. Nouha coming in at that time gave us the cutting edge that really set the team off. He quickly got to 12 league goals, and with Leigh and Sako finished as joint-top goalscorer.
Nouha was such an important signing for us, and the timing was crucial. He was explosive, strong and good at playing up front on his own, which allowed us to play our 4-2-3-1. He was small but very strong, and devastating in behind – his pace really stretched teams, and his power and finishing gave him a real ability to carry our front line on his own.
We were the better team at Gillingham, but despite my frustration I felt we had the players to do what we wanted. Our change in shape after that meant we had players coming from deep and led to us scoring more goals; Dave Edwards started playing as our number 10 and did a fantastic job, scoring seven in our last 20 games.
"the 3-0 win over carlisle on the last day of the season gave us 103 points, which surpassed charlton's record of 101"
Our next match, a 2-0 win over Preston, started a run of nine successive wins – a club record that included a 3-0 victory at Walsall. The wingers were getting higher and moving slightly inside into shooting positions; it was a combination of shape and personnel, but that tweak really helped us score goals.
We built real momentum. That feeling’s fantastic at any club, but particularly a big one. As the manager you’re looking to reinforce the same messages – to make sure the balance of the team is still right, and that nobody gets complacent. When you have that type of momentum and come out at 2.30pm and the place is already buzzing, it feels fantastic. Your determination to see it through grows.
It’s a cliché, but you keep it going by focusing on the next game – on the opposition and how you’re going to win. You also remind the players that the team you watch on video won’t be the one that turns up at Molineux. They will be different, in terms of their motivation level, and you have to match that.
After those nine wins, we drew 0-0 with Shrewsbury and lost for the last time that season – 2-1 at Crawley in mid-March, when we just didn’t get going. Next we travelled to Sheffield United – what I’d call a proper atmosphere, and a big game. After a defeat, that was perfect for us. We won 2-0.
In the nine matches from then until the end of the season, we recorded seven wins and two draws. We secured promotion when we won 2-0 at Crewe, and I can remember being both relieved and enjoying the moment. Instead of easing off, though, the players responded well. We were still in contention to break the League One record points tally and to lift the title.
They maintained their concentration and finished the season strongly. We beat Rotherham 6-4 at home, which was unbelievable, like a basketball game. As those last games went on, particularly in front of a full Molineux, the atmosphere was fantastic.
Beating Leyton Orient 3-1 secured the title after Brentford drew with MK Dons, and the 3-0 win over Carlisle on the last game of the season gave us 103 points. That surpassed Charlton’s record of 101, which they had set in 2012, which I was very proud about. The feeling was no longer one of relief, but of happiness and satisfaction.
Seasons like that don’t come around very often as a player or a manager, so you have to enjoy them. It certainly wasn’t easy, and it could have been difficult for the club if we hadn’t achieved what we had. Sheffield United had been down at that level for a couple of seasons at that point, just as both Leeds United and more recently Sunderland had been too.
It can be a difficult division to escape from, and demoralising for the owners who have to continue funding their clubs. It was important for the club that we were promoted when we were. On a personal level, though, it also gave me my most enjoyable season in management.
Author: The Coaches' Voice