For Mick McCarthy the Wolves are howling at the door
Defeat at Wigan today will make Molineux faithful bay for manager's blood more than ever but will chairman Morgan stay onside?
Sunday 06 November 2011
If one of those "Hard Hat Area" signs is going spare while Molineux undergoes its spectacular bricks-and-mortar redevelopment, maybe somebody will see fit to attach it without further ado to the home dug-out.
Hand in hand with the perils of erecting heavy masonry for a giant new stand, Wolverhampton Wanderers are discovering that growth off the field and a third successive season of Premier League membership are no immunity to flying brickbats.
Mick McCarthy would probably ask for the wording to be changed. "Thick Skin Area" springs to mind. But this under-pressure master in one-liners has felt sufficiently stung by fans' criticism in recent weeks to rigorously defend his corner.
This, after all, is the man who has lifted the club from the debris of Glenn Hoddle's 2006 departure to their dizziest days for more than three decades. Following the howling wilderness of 24 years out of 25 away from the top flight, he has overseen the emphatic winning of the Championship and two subsequent seasons of survival among the elite; all achieved with a side widely acknowledged as young, hungry and honest. It is hard to argue that he has been anything other than good news in Wolverhampton.
Yet there were loud chants for his sacking two weekends ago and the potential consequences of defeat at home to Wigan today are enough to induce a late-autumn shudder among those whose faith he retains.
The great unknown in the issue of how close McCarthy is to becoming the first sacking of the Premier League season is the tolerance of Wolves' owner, Steve Morgan.
Unlike his Wigan counterpart Dave Whelan, the multi-millionaire builder has issued no public show of support for his manager. Morgan promised soon after taking the club over that he would not be a rent-a-quote chairman and has been true to his word. His backing has been of the strong, silent type in the era of the three Ms – Morgan, McCarthy and the chief executive Jez Moxey.
There is good reason to view McCarthy as a safe pair of hands with the team while Morgan gets on with his day job, overseeing a major construction project. Spending on players is likely to be reduced while the building blocks are laid, so survival in this division might be seen as enough of a target for now.
If the agenda is to be set by fans, though, the omens appear more flaky. Some supporters have also got stuck into the club's deposed skipper Karl Henry, a Wolverhampton boy steeped in McCarthy's hard-work virtues. The new captain, Roger Johnson, and former Tottenham midfielder Jamie O'Hara – £8m worth of summer signings – have been outspoken in their condemnation of the criticism the midfielder has received. By no means all of McCarthy's many signings have come off and the air remains uneasy.
How swayed Morgan is by the terrace reaction will be the deciding factor. A run of six defeats and two draws from the last eight League games could become nine losses in 11 if Wolves – beaten in each of their last three meetings with Wigan – blunder again in November. Trips to Everton and Chelsea await later this month, and Wolves also have to visit Manchester United and Arsenal before the turn of the year.
McCarthy retains the good humour to put himself down. After finding himself seated next to Wigan's Roberto Martinez at the recent Manchester derby, he said: "Somebody in the Old Trafford ticket office must have been splitting their sides laughing by putting us together." On the more serious subject of support from above, he added: "I don't need anybody to say anything. It's like that nice feeling you get from knowing you have a family around you. It's just there."
Whelan's openness contrasts with Morgan's shunning of the limelight, and in terms of tradition and fan-base, the clubs could scarcely be more different. In 1980 Wolves were winning the last of their many major trophies; Wigan were barely out of non-League. They passed each other moving in opposite directions in the Eighties, and Wigan did noticeably better in adapting to the Premier League's stringent demands in the last decade.
Dave Jones's Wolves were up and down in a flash. Wigan graduated under Paul Jewell in 2005 and are now in an unlikely seventh consecutive season. McCarthy has achieved some consolidation and much stability but what looks a winnable fixture also has the makings of a poisonous one. He could do without his side falling two goals behind as, remarkably, his team have done at some point in their last eight matches. Keeping all his players on the field would also help. Wolves have twice had a player sent off in the first half of this fixture in recent times.
Where today's opponents are linked is in having enjoyed remarkable "Survival Sunday" escapes six months ago and in the way they have both so far bucked the overall trend for hiring and firing. In Wolves' case, maybe there is a feeling of letdown among the faithful after the talk in the summer of aiming for the top 10.
McCarthy, despite the apparent limitations of his squad, was party to that optimism and is learning the hard way that it's the hope that can sometimes get you in the end. The 52-year-old former Republic of Ireland manager is still tickled by the idea of managing a country in the future. His more immediate aim is to make sure that the next 13 days are only an international break for him, nothing more.
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Wigan Athletic is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
Pack mentality: 'You find yourself in a hostile environment'
Difficult though it is to believe now, Molineux echoed to the chorus of "Super Mick McCarthy" when Wolves were losing at home to Southampton in April 2007. Nothing too unusual in that – except they were losing 6-0 at the time. It was the club's worst home defeat for 39 years but still ended with the players being cheered off, such was the crowd's appreciation of the effort they had poured in.
Stephen Ward, having arrived in the West Midlands halfway through the first of McCarthy's five full Wolves seasons to date, probably shudders at the thought of what the backlash would be in the same circumstances now. "I don't think we could rely on that reaction," he smiles. "The chanting of some of the fans recently isn't something you want to hear. It doesn't make our job any easier. The frustration stems from the pitch to the fans and, as a player, you sometimes find yourself in a hostile environment. You just have to concentrate on your own job. People will say there's a fear here because of the position we are in. But we have to be able to play under this pressure." Ward, signed from Bohemians for £100,000 as a striker but now converted to left-back, typifies McCarthy's liking of dedicated, uncomplaining players. He will be one of the first names on the team sheet today and, proud Irishman that McCarthy is, will be carrying his club manager's hopes again when he plays in the Republic's Euro 2012 play-off games in the next fortnight.
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