Shropshire Star

Let the games begin...again!

The first league game of the season. Much anticipated. Often with great expectations, or sometimes, maybe not. But, getting back in the old routine, back on home soil or travelling the country, the arrival of another ten months of wildly contrasting emotions is always to be welcomed.

Stale Solbakken came up against Neil Warnock in his first Wolves match

For Wolves, a trip to Leeds is an explosive opening to the new Premier League campaign. Two ‘proper clubs’, you might say. Boasting rich histories, and sizeable, passionate and demanding fanbases. There have been plenty of lively fixtures between the two in recent years, Molineux in March most recently offering a prime example.

It was actually a decade ago that Wolves last marked the opening weekend of the league season with a trip to Elland Road, not in the Premier League but as a curtain-raiser for the Championship.

It was 2012, and, in keeping with the theme of the moment as the Commonwealth Games comes to an end, the country was basking in collective glory after the incredible success of the London Olympics. Super Saturday – when Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all struck Gold in an unforgettable 44 minutes in the National Stadium had taken place just a fortnight earlier.

Wolves, however, were heading into a transition. And one where first place, or even a podium finish, would ultimately prove a distant dream.

Matt Jarvis would soon be gone

Kicking off a Championship season for the first time in four years after relegation, and, following the departure of Mick McCarthy, and interim spell of Terry Connor, there was a new manager at the helm in the Norwegian, Stale Solbakken.

Uncertainty surrounded several key members of the playing squad, with Michael Kightly already departed for Stoke City, Christophe Berra and Steven Fletcher handing in transfer requests, and Matt Jarvis also pursuing a move to maintain his Premier League status.

With all, motivation was more about wanting to stay in the top-flight and maintain their international ambitions rather than being inherently unhappy at Wolves, but it certainly made for a summer of partial discontent, and plenty of confusion.

Jarvis, goalkeeper Carl Ikeme and restored captain Karl Henry were all starters that day at Elland Road, and were all positioned at very different points of their Wolves journeys.

Ikeme, but for a short spell in the Championship-winning 2008/09 campaign, was yet to enjoy a sustained run in the first team, Jarvis was itching to remain in the Premier League, while Henry, having been returned the armband previously removed and passed to Roger Johnson, was going into his seventh season at Molineux with every intention of being in the middle – literally – of another promotion push.

In the days leading up to Leeds, which followed the season bizarrely opening with a Capital One Cup tie against Aldershot won only on penalties in front of the refurbished Stan Cullis Stand, Henry had put pen to paper on a new four-year contract.

It was an announcement greeted with delight by the Molineux faithful, not least with the #headstillhere hashtag posted by Henry on Twitter in good-natured contrast to the #headsgone used by Fletcher when confirming his transfer request.

“Although we’d just been relegated, that last year in the Premier League was probably the best season of form I had with Wolves, and there was a bit of interest from other clubs,” Henry recalls.

“I know Chris Hughton liked me and wanted to take me to Norwich and I think they bid around £1million, which would have kept me in the Premier League.

Tongo Doumbia made his debut

“Wolves spoke to me and said they didn’t want me to leave, and once they made that clear it was music to my ears and I was delighted to stay.

“’TC’ (Terry Connor) had given me the armband back during his time in charge and Stale told me he wanted me to stay as captain, saying that he liked me as a player and liked the way I went about things.

“I was really happy to sign the new contract with a view to being at the club another four years, and a potential testimonial was all part of the plan.

“Obviously, the way things were to turn out, that never quite happened.”

That certainly wasn’t to be.

Meanwhile for Ikeme, who had only made 16 Wolves appearances at this stage along with many more amassed during numerous loan spells, pre-season had given him a chance to stake a claim under a new manager for the first team shirt.

With Wayne Hennessey injured, and Dorus De Vries linked with a potential move to Liverpool, Ikeme grasped his opportunity, how shall we say, with both hands.

“Myself and Dorus had gone through pre-season battling for the spot but there was a lot of speculation about him possibly leaving,” Ikeme reveals.

“I felt good in training and did well in the games and was ready to take my chance.

“I got the nod to start at Leeds, and, even now, I remember feeling really confident and razor sharp going into the game at Elland Road.”

While Jarvis wasn’t quite looking for the same sort of Molineux longevity as Ikeme or Henry at that time, and was perhaps more hopeful of his five-year Wolves stay coming to an end, he too was focused on maintaining the highest of personal standards.

Even though he was looking to leave, his love of his spell at Wolves and his relationship with the club and the fans was worth way too much to risk any collateral damage by refusing to play or not giving his all.

“I actually felt a bit for Stale when he first came into the club,” the jet-heeled winger recalls.

“When he held his first team meeting it kind of seemed that he had been sold the dream that everyone was staying and that, by and large, this was going to be his squad.

“He said his door was open for anyone who wanted to speak to him – and I remember when the meeting finished there were about 12 players queuing up outside his office!

“From my point of view, I loved my time at Wolves, and had we stayed in the Premier League then nothing would ever have changed.

“But having been relegated, I felt I needed to carry on playing at a level where I believed I had played well, and perhaps earned the right to play after so many years with my performances.

“But there was never any chance I was going to throw an injury in and not play for Wolves.

“I had the utmost respect for the club and I still do – my team-mates, the staff and the fans and everyone involved – and I wasn’t going to disrespect that in any way at all.

“Wolves knew my situation and I could only do what I could do.

“That was to train, be professional at all times, and make sure I was ready for the start of the season, which, in the league, turned out to be Leeds away.”

The focus of much of the country was on Elland Road on that early Saturday August 18th afternoon.

Cardiff had played Huddersfield on the Friday night and Leeds against Wolves was the second fixture to be televised, kicking off at lunchtime in advance of the 3pm schedule.

Solbakken’s Championship baptism of fire was never destined to be straightforward.

In the opposite dugout for his first managerial league fixture on British soil was a man boasting hundreds - Leeds boss Neil Warnock - who had welcomed Wolves on the first day for Scarborough in an ill-fated Fourth Division opener 25 years previously.

Oh yes, and, lest we forget, the last day of the season in a certain play-off final at Cardiff in 2003.

Karl Henry was back as captain of Wolves after signing a new contract

Back to 2012 though, and while the Wolves squad was on the cusp of going through considerable change, there was only one new face in the starting line-up – Tongo Doumbia – although two others, Slawomir Peszko and Bjorn Sigurdarson, later came off the bench.

Warnock named no fewer than eight Leeds debutants who were certainly fiercely motivated amid the usual frenzied Elland Road atmosphere in front of a 23,745 crowd including a 1,500 travelling contingent from Wolves.

“I always enjoyed playing at Elland Road,” says Ikeme.

“The atmosphere was always good and it’s a proper football club as they say – it just adds to the occasion.”

“My first FA Youth Cup game when I was playing a year up for Gillingham was at Elland Road, and we lost 4-0,” adds Jarvis.

“James Milner was playing, Andy Keogh came on a sub, and Aaron Lennon scored a hat trick!

“Then I was on the bench for a first team game when there was a proper ruckus involving Darius Henderson.

“It was all kicking off with players and staff right in front of the dugout, and because they were sunk down a little bit people couldn’t really get out – you had to try and pop your head up!

“I didn’t obviously, I just left them to it, but there was always an incredible atmosphere at Elland Road.

“And for the first game of the season as well, it was always going to be electric.”

Both teams had chances early on and it needed a fine instinctive save from Ikeme to block Jason Pearce’s downward header, and the warning signs were already flashing for the Wolves keeper.

“Stale’s tactics and the way he wanted us to play was more of a European style,” Ikeme explains.

“He wanted us to compress the pitch and make it more compact but that meant that Leeds were always going to put the ball down the channels to stretch us.

“They just kept putting it in behind us and running the channels and that really caused us problems.”

So it was that Leeds took an 18th minute lead which would ultimately prove the only goal of the game.

Keeper Paddy Kenny despatched the ball over the top down the left, Ross McCormack took it on and delivered a cross which Luciano Becchio stooped to head home.

“It was a very different style that Stale wanted us to play to what had gone before,” Henry confirms.

“It was more about sitting back, letting the opposition have the ball and then hitting them on the counter.

“That was difficult, especially in home games, as we were one of the favourites for promotion and our fans expected us to get on the front foot and dominate teams.

“And when you are set up to soak up pressure and then hit teams on the counter attack, when you concede early like we did at Leeds, it makes things even more difficult.

“The onus is then on you to take the game to the opposition, but it wasn’t really how we were being prepared to play.”

It was a somewhat scrappy game following Becchio’s goal, both teams having moments of promise without a great deal of quality on show.

Ikeme made some more crucial saves, and Wolves produced one or two half chances, notably an instinctive cross-shot from Jarvis late on which flew across goal and wide of the target.

Up against Sam Byram, the winger was certainly giving his best.

“I know it sounds cliched but once you are on the pitch you have to give your all, you can’t go easy or try and protect yourself from getting injured,” says Jarvis.

“And I wanted to play football, I didn’t want to sit watching and not be involved.

“There was still a lot of time left in the window, and even if I was going to leave, I needed to keep my match fitness up.

“I didn’t want anyone watching and being able to question my ability or attitude and I was always going to be fully committed to the cause and playing as well as I could for Wolves while I was there.

“I remember it being a very scrappy game against Leeds, plenty of energy but not so much quality, and from a Wolves point of view with the change in tactics it was always going to take time.

“Stale didn’t really want us to go wide too soon when we were attacking, he wanted us to play through the middle as much as possible.

“For me, I played my own game a little bit, trying to follow those tactics but also, within reason, doing what I knew I was best at.

“Ultimately though we lost out that afternoon, and it was a disappointing start to the season.”

Goalkeeper Carl Ikeme was powerless to prevent Luciano Becchio’s winner

Henry describes the 1-0 defeat as something of a “wake-up call” as Wolves returned to the hustle and bustle of the Championship.

“Sometimes you almost need a defeat to help you find your feet and realise what works and we went on a good run after that,” he insists.

“It was definitely a reality check,” adds Ikeme.

“I think maybe there was a little bit of naivety to come into the Championship and play that European style.

“I understand about needing to have an identity and a specific way to play but the Championship is such an unforgiving league.”

It was a league from which Jarvis departed in an upward direction very shortly afterwards.

Featuring for the final time in a Wolves shirt in the 3-1 win against Barnsley four days later, by the following weekend making his debut for West Ham in the Premier League at Swansea.

Hopefully, with fan relationship intact!

“Things happen very quickly in football,” says Jarvis.

“I would hope the Wolves fans understood my situation and I had already had a great relationship with them.

“Looking back now it was an interesting time, a strange time and actually a hard time getting my head around everything, but from a training and playing side, nothing ever changed for me that summer in how I went about things for Wolves.”

For those still at Molineux, it was time to try and move forward.

Selling Jarvis and then later Fletcher to Sunderland for a combined package approaching £25million was certainly excellent business orchestrated by CEO Jez Moxey, albeit on the flip side it extended the settling-in process for the glut of incomings and for Solbakken to build his team.

Both Henry and Ikeme remain united in being fans of Solbakken the man and the personality, and of recognising the coaching abilities which have seen him so successful with FC Copenhagen and now managing the Norwegian national men’s team.

After all, following the Leeds defeat, Wolves took 19 points from the next nine games to sit third and leave fans heading off for the international break after a win at Blackburn in extremely optimistic mood.

And yet, barely three months later, after a far leaner spell of results including an FA Cup exit to then non-league Luton, Solbakken was gone, to be replaced by Dean Saunders.

So, was it just a case of perhaps of right man, but wrong tactics at the wrong time and in the wrong division?

“I liked Stale and think he had some good methods and he brought in some excellent players,” says Ikeme.

“Sako came in and did really well, I actually felt Razak (Boukari) could have been even better than Sako if he hadn’t had his injuries, and Peszko looked promising.

“And if you ever saw Bjorn (Sigurdarson) in training, he had the lot - so quick, strong and he could finish.

“We played good football from time to time but I do think there was just that lack of respect about what the Championship was about and maybe even needing more intensity in training.

“I loved training, and was quite happy not to have to join in with the outfield players as much as I could do my work with Pat (goalkeeping coach Pat Mountain) and the other keepers, but I know some of the lads wanted things to be more intense.

Stale Solbakken came up against Neil Warnock in his first Wolves match

“I know Nuno later came in and changed the style and got promoted straight out of the Championship but I think he did it in a different way and understood what was needed in the Championship.

“With Stale though, I could always tell he was a good coach, his methods were good and he had an eye for a player, and I certainly enjoyed my time under him and felt I was doing well.

“But as a team, the way we tried to play just didn’t suit the Championship.”

“I actually liked some parts of the training, especially the stuff that was possession-based,” adds Henry.

“And I liked Stale and his assistant Johan (Lange) as people, they were good guys.

“I often wonder how he would have done in the Premier League – maybe he will still get a chance to do that – because I think the way we played was better suited to that then the Championship.

“It is such a difficult league, to play 46 games against teams with a mixture of quality but who never give you any respect, I think it is one of the most difficult leagues in the world.

“In the Premier League I think we would have done well playing that way, sitting back and trying to hit teams on the counter, but in the Championship, and with the players we had, it was difficult not to get on the front foot.

“And what I would also say, is that once the club had decided to go in a very different direction to what had happened before, and bring in someone like Stale, it probably needed far more time than he was given as it would have been a huge challenge to have instant success and go straight back up.

“It was a big transitional time for the club, and could have been the start of a new era, but ultimately it wasn’t to be.

“Having said that, we should also look at ourselves as players as well, and too many of us had poor seasons – I know I did.

“For my worst season at Wolves to come after my best is very difficult to explain, and, as I have said many times, we should never have been relegated that season but as a squad we just didn’t perform enough when it mattered.”

For Henry, his Molineux time was up and, despite having three years remaining on his contract, he was made surplus to requirements, moving on to work under

the likes of Harry Redknapp, Glenn Hoddle and Steve McClaren at QPR, adding another 33 Premier League appearances to his record.

Ikeme, however, would become one of the major influences in the Kenny Jackett rebuild which secured Wolves a record-breaking League One title success, as well as more dramatic clashes with Leeds including Leon Clarke’s late winner at Elland Road and a Dave Edwards header sealing a 4-3 victory at Molineux.

“Games between Wolves and Leeds always seem to have a bit of spice, don’t they?” says Ikeme.

“That 4-3 was incredible to be involved in, and then the one at Molineux last season was a bit lively!

“Those are the games you love to play in, especially when there is a little bit of needle.

“I am sure it will be exactly like that again at the weekend, and is just the occasion to get you back into the swing of things and what will be expected.”

What a difference a decade makes.

Ten years on, it is now a different division and very different teams but still the same two clubs with the same hopes, aspirations and lofty expectations.

And come approximately 4.50pm on Saturday, Wolves will be hoping for a very different result to that of 2012.

Let the games begin!