Sam Ricketts and boss Kenny Jackett on the Wolves revival
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.
“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.
"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.
“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.”
DYNAMIC: Sam Ricketts celebrates a Wolves goal. Inset: Liam McAlinden and Leon Clarke