LIAM MACKEY: Wolves in sheep’s clothing

WHO’D be a gaffer? Well, you, me and millions of others is probably the correct answer. Whether we’re in the press box, on the terrace, in the pub or even all alone in front of the domestic box, we’re never slow to express an opinion on the actions of the man in the dug-out, especially when he seems to have got it all wrong.

It’s the ultimate exercise in power without responsibility, the clamour we create guaranteed to reach sonic-boom levels and lead to a situation whereby the gaffer’s name cannot be seen to go out alone in public without being shadowed by words like “embattled”, “under pressure” and, yes, “bacon slicer”.

Mick McCarthy might have made a rod for his own back when he popularised the latter but, really, he was only adding a lurid dollop of colour to the standard diagnosis. It used to be that you were only as good as your last game.

In Mick’s case, you can scratch that now and say that he’s only as good as his last team. Which, as you’ll know, was not very good at all, seeing as how his second eleven went down three-nil at Old Trafford as the Wolves boss sought to keep his first choice players wrapped in cotton wool for tomorrow’s game against Burnley.

If ever there was confirmation that the Premiership is a league within a league, then this was it. Forget dreams of silverware or even of old-fashioned glory – survival of the fittest is the name of the game for those trying to eke out a living on the nursery slopes of football’s big rock candy mountain.

And if that means effectively writing off a match before you’ve even taken the pitch, then so be it.

You don’t have to be a Wolves supporter in Old Trafford calling for your money back to find McCarthy’s reserve strategy hard to stomach. That the concept of giant-killing needn’t be confined to the cup was something Wolves themselves had proved by shocking Spurs at White Hart Lane in their previous outing. Coming on the back of victory against Bolton, that improbable result suggested the Premiership strugglers might even have been in the process of developing a modest amount of momentum but, whereas sticking with a winning team used to be a first principle of football management, McCarthy unilaterally abandoned all that, leaving no-one any the wiser as to whether a presumably confident Kevin Doyle and company might have been able to raise their game a few notches more and pull off an even more unlikely coup in Manchester.

Inevitably, McCarthy has advanced the ‘bigger picture’ argument in the his own defence, saying that, at the end of the season, he will be judged on whether or not Wolves remain in the Premier League.

His Old Trafford selection he said, surely disingenuously, was his strongest selection because “it was the team with the freshest legs”.

After Arsene Wenger’s rollicking of his Arsenal team had included the ultimate indictment – that they weren’t fit to wear the shirt – McCarthy has apparently rewritten the script. His first team, he would have us believe, were not fit enough to wear the shirt, even at the home of the champions.

Would the first eleven have done any better than the second string? We will never know. And had the second string managed to leave Old Trafford with something other than the mockery of their fans ringing in their ears would McCarthy now be faced with that lovely old chestnut, “a selection headache.” We can’t know that either but, presumably not, on the grounds that the fresher legs would now belong to the guys who didn’t play.

There is, of course, a third way and it’s so crazy it might just work: injuries permitting, a gaffer could just send out his best team to play every game they have to.

In olden times, teams won leagues, cups and World Cups – and, yes, avoided relegation too – doing just that. But it seems that in the Premiership, more than anywhere else, the past really is a different country.

And so much for that. One thing which can be said in mitigation of McCarthy’s actions is that he has hardly acted alone. The aforementioned Mr Wenger, and Mr Ferguson too, have not been slow to field weakened teams out of nothing other than self-interest, even if – as in the case of Man Utd in recent years – such decisions impacted on relegation battles which meant everything to the lesser lights and nothing to them. Against that backdrop, any attempt by the Premier League to single out Wolves for punishment should, by rights, be doomed to failure.

WHICH IS not to say one wouldn’t welcome some kind of official initiative to combat such shenanigans, although it’s difficult to see what kind of sanctions would be imposed and, indeed, how meaningful their effect might be. Still, if a single player can be done for simulation – and proper order too – then it seems absurd a whole team can get away with much the same thing on a grander scale.

I should probably restate my admiration for Mick McCarthy as both man and manager – and not least because, at various stages in his career, he has been on the receiving end of some brutally unfair criticism. But while I can understand the ruthless pragmatics which underpinned his team selection at Old Trafford, I can’t condone something which, not to put too fine a point on it, brings the game of football into disrepute.

Tomorrow’s match against Burnley was always going to be six-pointer but, now, it assumes importance as a test-case for the game as a whole. A result for Wolves and the manager will appear vindicated. But a defeat might give pause not only to McCarthy but to any other manager who thinks it’s acceptable to pick and choose the league games which matter.

If the spoils of long-term victory mean that Mick McCarthy and Wolves get to enjoy at least one other season in the sun then, yes, I’d like to see them win the war. But I wouldn’t object if this particular battle leaves them licking their wounds.


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