ROAR­ING AGAIN

Sam Rick­etts and boss Kenny Jack­ett on the Wolves re­vival

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE - By Chris Dunlavy

IT was shortly be­fore 5pm last Satur­day when Wolves of­fi­cially sealed their pro­mo­tion back the Cham­pi­onship. But for Sam Rick­etts, the defin­ing mo­ment was not that rou­tine 2-0 vic­tory over Crewe but, oddly, a shock 1-0 de­feat to Gilling­ham four months ear­lier.

The men from Mo­lineux could have gone top with a win but, al­ready rocked by keeper Wayne Hennessy’s re­fusal to play just hours be­fore kick­off, turned in a woe­ful per­for­mance and lost to a last-minute strike from Cody McDon­ald.

“That was the mo­ment for me,” says Rick­etts, who joined Wolves from Bolton in the sum­mer and has played in ev­ery game this term.

“I re­mem­ber it was around Christ­mas time, a game that was live on TV. People were say­ing cer­tain things about us and ques­tion­ing whether we were feel­ing the pres­sure.

“But in the dress­ing room, we were all re­ally pos­i­tive. At the start of the sea­son we’d been win­ning games when we didn’t nec­es­sar­ily de­serve to. We were grind­ing re­sults out – it was pure grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion.

“But in the games leading up to Gilling­ham, we’d just started to im­pose our­selves on op­po­nents and play re­ally good foot­ball. It felt like ev­ery­thing was com­ing to­gether.

“So while we were dis­ap­pointed to lose, We recog­nised it as a freak re­sult. We all said ‘Look, if we keep pass­ing the ball like this, if we keep dom­i­nat­ing like this, we’ll be OK’.

“Sure enough, we didn’t look back af­ter that match. From that point we won the next nine games and that was what

to set us up for pro­mo­tion re­ally.”

For man­ager Kenny Jack­ett, too, it was to prove a piv­otal mo­ment, the game that hard­ened his con­vic­tion that de­spite sit­ting third in League One, the dy­namic of his squad was still way out of sync.

Within weeks he had jet­ti­soned al­most his en­tire strike­force: Kevin Doyle went to QPR, Leigh Grif­fiths was sold to Celtic for £1m, Ice­landic mis­fit Bjorn Sig­ur­dar­son was packed off to Molde and young­ster Jake Cas­sidy went on loan to Tran­mere.

“I sup­pose you could say that’s quite un­usual,” says Jack­ett, with typ­i­cal un­der­state­ment. “All of them had been reg­u­lars – they were prob­a­bly the four strik­ers who had played the most.

Up­heaval

“It was a big de­ci­sion, but I just felt we needed to change.To my eyes, the per­son­nel and the sys­tem weren’t right.

“So we al­lowed those play­ers to go, brought in the likes of Leon Clarke and Nouha Dicko and that was what re­ally set­tled the group – it was a key fea­ture in our suc­cess­ful sec­ond half of the sea­son.”

It was, in ef­fect, the fi­nal swinge­ing blow to the group of play­ers who had dragged Wolves to their lowli­est po­si­tion for over 20 years.

A Pre­mier League side as re­cently as May 2013, Wolves shot straight through the Cham­pi­onship last sea­son, their chaotic year in the sec­ond tier be­nighted by man­age­rial up­heaval.

Hav­ing re­jected Steve Bruce – who would win pro­mo­tion with Hull – the club turned to untested Nor­we­gian Stale Sol­bakken, whose brief reign saw Wolves slide into lower midtable. Then came Dean Saun­ders, who over­saw the fi­nal, sham­bolic ca­pit­u­la­tion into League One.

By the end, Wolves fans had quite rightly had enough of see­ing play­ers still on Pre­mier League wages barely lift­ing a leg, and their fi­nal game at a febrile Mo­lineux cul­mi­nated in a hos­tile pitch in­va­sion.

On the face of it, the mea­sured and qui­etly diplo­matic Jack­ett was hardly the man to kick people into shape. But when the 52-year-old ar­rived from Mill­wall in the sum­mer, he was bru­tally de­ci­sive in ter­mi­nat­ing the ca­reers of al­most ev­ery­body who had let the club down.

Nine play­ers were re­leased or

sold Eight went out on loan. On day one, only two play­ers re­mained from the fi­nal game of 2012-13, their places largely taken by hun­gry young kids from the un­der-21 side.

Surgery

"It is a new team, but it needed to be ex­plains Jack­ett. “Af­ter two rele-gations he re­la­tion­ship be­tween the fans and the play­ers had com­pletely bro­ken down.To be blunt, we needed to make a ma­jor surgery. "The fans needed a new group to fo­cus on. And the lads who had been here for a long time, they needed to move on for them­selves as well as for the club. Ev­ery­one had the sum­mer to lick their wounds and once Au­gust came around they were more pos­i­tive. I gave them a new team to get be­hind.”

And what a team. Club records have tum­bled, with those nine straight wins and a points tally of 93 – with four games still to play – both new highs.

Best of all, the ma­jor­ity of the squad were all born within 30 miles of Wolver­hamp­ton, the likes of Liam McIlin­den, Lee Evans, Jack Price and Danny Baath all help­ing to re-forge the ter­race bond that was bro­ken.

“All clubs would like that and it does cre­ate a great at­mos­phere,” says 32-year-old Rick­etts, one of the few reg­u­lars not born in the Mid­lands.

“The owner Steve Mor­gan has put so much money into the academy that it’s great to see it re­ally pay­ing off for him. We’ve got 12-14 lads from the academy in the first team squad and you can’t ask for much more than that.

“They all love the club, they’re all hun­gry. No­body epitomises it like Liam McIlin­den. He had to go out on loan at the start of the sea­son and was prob­a­bly quite dis­ap­pointed. But he came back and he was the one who scored the win­ner against MK Dons. Ev­ery­one has done their bit.”

Yet none, per­haps, so much as Jack- ett, who left a cushy job at Mill­wall to take on what looked a for­mi­da­ble task.

“I know the gaffer well and hope­fully now he’ll start get­ting at least some of the great credit he de­serves,” says Rick­etts, who played un­der Jack­ett at Swansea.

As­tute

“He’s done bril­liantly for the best part of a decade now, first at Swansea, then with Mill­wall and now here.

“He’s never re­ally got the plau­dits but he’s a very as­tute man­ager. He’s very ex­pe­ri­enced and he knows ex­actly what is needed to make a team suc­cess­ful. He’s got to­tal con­fi­dence to back him­self. If he thinks some­thing needs to be done, he’ll go ahead and do it. See­ing some­one like that gives any player con­fi­dence.”

Jack­ett, of course, isn’t one to blow his own trum­pet. But even af­ter sav­ing Swansea from rel­e­ga­tion to the Con­fer­ence and win­ning pro­mo­tion with Mill­wall, he is happy to ad­mit that Wolves re­turn to the Cham­pi­onship is his crown­ing achieve­ment.

“It’s No.1, no ques­tion,” he says. “Firstly, there’s the way we’ve done it. Last sea­son, 84 and 83 were the top two in League One. This year, we’ve needed 93 just to se­cure pro­mo­tion.

“The stan­dard has been in­cred­i­bly high and all of those clubs in the top five will be think­ing ‘We haven’t done a lot wrong here’.

“For Pre­ston to be sit­ting on 79 points from 42 games and not be in with a shout of au­to­matic is des­per­ately tough on them.

“Most of, all though, it’s the size of the club. It’s some­thing you felt the mo­ment you walked through the door.

“In this city, there are no other shirts but Wolves. Ex­pectancy is very high, at­ten­tion is high. To be suc­cess­ful un­der those con­di­tions is as good as it gets for a man­ager.”

PIC­TURES: Ac­tion Im­ages

DY­NAMIC: Sam Rick­etts cel­e­brates a Wolves goal. In­set: Liam McAlin­den and Leon Clarke

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