Redskin

From training in car park to offloading 32 players: What is it like to manage Wolves?


The question is open-ended: “What is it like to manage Wolves?”

Yet Graham Turner’s answer is short and to the point: “Living the dream.”

For the man who rescued the club from their brush with oblivion in the 1980s, managing the club he followed as a boy was always more than a job.

But for Turner through to Nuno Espirito Santo and Bruno Lage, managing Wolves is a role that has tested the skill, patience, character, powers of diplomacy and many more qualities for those who have led the club in the last few decades.

Wolves managers since Graham Turner

Manager Reign Wins Draws Losses Promotions Relegations

Graham Turner

1986-94

164

104

118

2

0

Graham Taylor

1994-95

37

27

24

0

0

Mark McGhee

1995-98

65

39

55

0

0

Colin Lee

1998-2000

44

33

34

0

0

Dave Jones

2001-04

75

52

60

1

1

Glenn Hoddle

2004-06

27

34

16

0

0

Mick McCarthy

2006-12

101

66

100

1

0

Terry Connor

2012

0

4

9

0

1

Stale Solbakken

2012-13

10

5

15

0

0

Dean Saunders

2013

5

5

10

0

1

Kenny Jackett

2013-16

69

43

38

1

0

Walter Zenga

2016

6

4

7

0

0

Paul Lambert

2016-17

14

5

15

0

0

Nuno Espirito Santo

2017-21

95

49

55

1

0

Bruno Lage

2021-present

17

7

18

0

0

These are the men who have led the club through a tumultuous history that has included, in the last four decades alone, a slump to the bottom rung of the English professional game, a separate slide to the third tier, three promotions to the Premier League, victory in a Wembley final, dramatic changes of ownership and the rise of iconic players.

Managing Wolves has been an adventure, a challenge, a chore, a joy, a battle, a calling and many other things too.

Here, in the words of some of the most famous occupants of the office, is what it is like to manage Wolves.


Building a club

Few Wolves managers of the modern era have inherited a club in rude health. Most, in fact, have needed to turn around a giant in decline.

Lage was the most obvious exception while Nuno, his immediate predecessor, at least had some foundations laid by Fosun following their arrival in July 2016.

Others have had major work to do away from the first team. Turner was the ultimate example, with the club’s very existence under threat when he was persuaded to join in 1986.

“There were no training facilities, two sides of the ground were closed, gates were down to 2,000 or 3,000 and there was an apathy among supporters,” says the man who signed Steve Bull, the on-field catalyst for Wolves’ resurgence.

“The state of the training kit, the training balls, everything… it had no resemblance to a big, successful club at all. It is incomparable to now.

“We’d train in the car park and we had players gathering around cars and dragging them or lifting them out of the way so we could make room for a game.

“That’s how desperate we were. As silly as it sounds, stuff like that created a spirit among the players and told them we could get over the adversity we were facing.”

Dave Jones fought his own battles too, when Sir Jack Hayward turned to him in 2001 after years of big spending and underachievement by a succession of managers.

“I always remember in my first board meeting, we had 39 pros and Sir Jack asked me, ‘How many players?’,” says the first man to lead Wolves to the Premier League.

“I said, ‘Seven’. He said ‘I thought we’d need more than that’. I said, ‘No, that’s how many you keep’.

“It needed a complete overhaul. When you go into clubs as big as Wolves, a lot of people say, ‘We’ve always done it that way’.

“Then you have to say, ‘OK, but it hasn’t worked, so why not try it this way?’. They didn’t have a training ground so we put temporary buildings in place where the buildings are now.”

For Mick McCarthy, the infrastructure was in place but the team, which Glenn Hoddle had failed to galvanise in the wake of Jones’ departure, required major attention with the big-spending days of Hayward in the past.

“I read some comments about how when I came in in 2006 we changed it to ‘young and hungry’,” McCarthy, the second Wolves manager to reach the Premier League, told The Old Gold Club podcast.


McCarthy celebrates clinching promotion in 2009 (Photo: Wolverhampton Wanderers FC via Getty Images)

“Yes, it was young, but that’s because we were skint. We didn’t have any money. What I didn’t want to do was take in a load of old pros because that had been done here before.

“A really great environment was created with people who were coming in with a great desire to play for Wolves and do well.”


Handling the history

Every club has its history, many have glory days, yet few can lay claim to an era of dominance over the English game.

Wolves can, thanks to the 1950s, when they won three of 10 league titles, were runners-up on three other occasions between 1950 and 1960 and bookended their league success with FA Cup wins in 1949 and 1960.

The exploits of Stan Cullis’s legendary team will always be the bedrock of the club. That can be a blessing or a curse.

“It was a bit like they lived in the past,” says Jones, whose 2003 play-off final win in Cardiff ended the club’s 19-year absence from the top division.

“There were still pictures of old players around the place, which was great but it didn’t help me.

“So I took them down and put pictures up of the current players. The older players could have the lounges and the museum named after them but I felt we needed to live in the present.

“You’ve got to be careful doing that, though, because if it doesn’t work out you get hammered for that.”

wolverhampton wanderers wolves promotion dave jones


Jones ended Wolves’ 19-year exile from the Premier League (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Nuno, the most charismatic manager in Wolves’ recent history and a man who generally embraced the club’s heritage, was conscious of keeping the past and present separate.

“We have to realise the history of the club,” said Nuno before the 2019 FA Cup semi-final.

“It is important, it is massive but it was in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s so it was a long time ago.”

Turner adopted a similar approach, despite growing up as a Wolves-mad youngster who idolised the legendary Billy Wright.

“You can’t start talking about top-quality international players to fourth-division players,” says Turner, who masterminded the climb from the Fourth Division to the First Division following the mid-80s slump.

“It was a case of focusing on where we were, what we were doing and what we needed to achieve.

“Maybe, after a couple of promotions, I started talking about the club’s heritage, but initially players had got enough to deal with without me heaping more expectation on them.”


Managing the squad

Every Wolves manager has faced dressing-room issues to a greater or lesser degree.

Lage wasted no time in baring his man-management teeth with his pointed criticism of defender Ki-Jana Hoever, who he suggested was injured in a 2-0 defeat to Crystal Palace because he had failed to prepare properly.

“Sometimes we need to, especially in my position, take some risks,” Lage said. “It’s very easy to work with me! I’m here every day, on the limit, and I want the same from my players. And for them to do what I ask. If they do that, I don’t have a problem with anyone.

“It was a good moment after the game to say it. A wake-up call.”

Wolves


Lage is shown round Molineux by Matt Wild, the general manager of football operations on his unveiling last June  (Photo by Jack Thomas – WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images)

McCarthy built a squad with a lively group of players in the likes of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Chris Iwelumo, Andy Keogh and Michael Kightly who won promotion.

Having led them to the top flight in 2009, he admits he undermined it two summers later by attempting to improve the team in the wake of a dice with relegation.

He spent money on new players and stripped Karl Henry of the captaincy after the pair’s relationship weakened. It backfired and McCarthy was sacked with his side heading for relegation, which was confirmed after his departure in February 2012.

“I thought it was the right decision,” he said. “It just turned out to be the wrong decision to make Roger Johnson the captain instead of him!

“My captain had to be someone who would do what he’d done for the four or five years prior to that and backed everything I’d done, being in the dressing room and banging the drum for everything we were doing, not for what the players wanted or for what he might think needed to change.

“The recruitment turned out not to be great — Roger Johnson, Nenad Milijas, Jelle Van Damme, Jamie O’Hara. We did try to be better but we ended up probably being worse because the dressing room lost some of the ethos that we’d had for the previous five years.

“It was all done for the right reasons but it didn’t work.”

For Jones, the greatest challenge was to lift his players from the shock of squandering a seemingly insurmountable lead to West Bromwich Albion in his first full season at the helm and missing out on promotion.

His answer was to turn to experience.

“In the first year we had a chance and we missed out. We just fell away, which is why for the second season I went and got the likes of Denis Irwin and Paul Ince,” he says.

“I wanted experience for the first season but I wasn’t able to bring them in. We had the likes of Joleon Lescott, Lee Naylor and Kenny Miller, who were all young players.

“We needed people with experience of how to see out games. We had to get them not to worry about the pressure and expectation but go out and perform to the best of their ability.”


Dealing with the owners

Whether it was the passionate Hayward, the fiery Steve Morgan or the giant investment firm Fosun, Wolves have had high-profile owners since being saved from extinction in the ’80s.

They have backed managers, sacked managers and occasionally made life tough for those in the dugout.

“Whatever you do the board of directors and owners have to be on the same page as you,” says Dean Saunders, who endured an unhappy half-season in the Molineux hotseat as the club suffered a second successive relegation to find themselves in League One.

“I knew after a week I was wasting my time when I got asked, ‘Why are you watching the under-21s playing?’.”

While Saunders was frustrated by the Morgan regime’s perceived failure to understand his longer-term vision, one of his predecessors found himself undermined more obviously by the property developer, who bought the club from Sir Jack.

After Morgan burst into the dressing room to vent his anger in the wake of a 3-0 home defeat to Liverpool — the club he supports — in 2012, McCarthy lasted just two more matches before being sacked.

“Did it undermine me? Of course it did,” McCarthy said.

“But it was his club so there’s not a lot I could have done about it. I could have walked but I was never going to do that.”

And, while Hayward achieved legendary status by bankrolling Wolves’ attempts to reach the top flight, he frustrated Jones, the man who eventually achieved the target, by drawing in his financial horns immediately after promotion was achieved.

“We built a team to get there and then we needed to build a team to stay in it and, unfortunately, Sir Jack didn’t give us any money,” says Jones.

“When we met in London he told me I’d got £3 million and I remember saying that my daughter was getting married and we might as well rip it up and use it as confetti.

“If I could have my time again I’d say, ‘Sorry, you’re asking me to do an impossible job and you need to find somebody else’.”

McCarthy faced other moments of tension, not least when he was pilloried for making 10 changes for a Premier League game at Manchester United in 2009.

He expected criticism from the outside but was hurt to get it from his employers, too.

“I knew what was coming,” said McCarthy, whose team won at Tottenham and beat Burnley at Molineux either side of the Old Trafford controversy. “We got six points from Tottenham away, Manchester United away and Burnley at home and my view is that it was good management.

“I was fighting against the Premier League and everybody’s opinion but what really irked me was the opinion from inside (the board).”


Pleasing the fans

Throughout the Midlands, Wolves fans are regarded as a demanding bunch.

Turner grew up as a supporter, but the man who won back-to-back promotions and a Wembley final victory over Burnley in 1988 cannot dispute the assessment. “Many of them still lived in the glory days,” he recalls.

“We had won promotion to what is now the Championship and we played Torquay in the semi-final of the Sherpa Van Trophy, which we had won at Wembley the previous year.

“So we had come just short of successive promotions and successive Wembley appearances.

“The lads were devastated sitting in the dressing room and supporters started hurling bricks through the windows.

“I can picture the lads now with glass in their hair and all over the floor and that is an example — not the best example but an example — of how fans felt they had certain rights.”

As at most clubs, even Wolves’ most popular managers have suffered criticism. All now enjoy happy relations with the club’s fanbase, though.

“One of my biggest regrets was that the last time I left I had to go through the back door,” said McCarthy, who was sacked after an infamous 5-1 Molineux defeat to West Bromwich Albion.

“I had to walk around the track and into the car park because there were people waiting to give me abuse, but I understand that. It’s West Brom, it’s their big enemy.

“When you get the sack it’s usually going wrong but over six years I had a wonderful time. I loved it.”

“It doesn’t matter where you are,” says Jones. “Even at Stockport, at the start of my career, the fans had a level of expectation.

“The only difference is that instead of having 10,000 shouting at you you might have 30,000 at Wolves. I still live in the same little market town that I lived in at the time and I’ve never had any problem with the Wolves fans.

“I have respect for the supporters and they show me a lot of respect back, so I must have done something right.”

Nuno, who enjoyed arguably the best manager-fan relationship since Cullis, spoke with warmth after his departure last summer.

“It means a lot, all the while the respect that we felt,” he said. “This is the bond that we feel with the city, when we go on the streets. This bond is special and will stay forever.

“When you want to work with a group of players, first you need to create a really special bond between themselves. With the fans, the club, the city.”

Nuno


There were emotional scenes at Nuno’s last game in charge of Wolves in the 2020-21 season (Photo: Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images)

And Turner, despite tensions developing at the end of his successful eight-and-a-half-year reign in March 1994, retains deep affection for his fellow Wolves fans.

“It did hurt getting the ‘Turner out’ chants and personal letters coming through,” he says.

“It would have hurt anybody but when I look back now, given time, it doesn’t sour my time at Wolves.

“It was living the dream. It sounds a bit trite, but when it’s a club you supported, to become manager of it is something that I could only have dreamed about.”

Lage’s standing among Wolves fans will be determined in the months and potentially years ahead. But he already feels excited by the prospect of a special bond.

“After one year, it was the best thing to do for my career and it is a big pleasure to be here working with these people, working with these players and working for these fans,” he said.

“These fans are amazing since day one, the way they support us all season, they are amazing.

“So, after one year, I feel that I’m home.”

(Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)





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