Saturday, 12 May 2012

Wolves sign a top coach albeit with a damaged reputation

After being sacked by relegated Cologne, you'd think that Wolverhapton Wanderers' appointment of Ståle Solbakken was not such a clever idea. However, even the most cursory look at his career suggests that Wolves have made a smart move.

This time last year Ståle Solbakken was on the brink of an imperial phase in his coaching career. Having distinguished himself in the Champions League with FC Copenhagen and won five Danish League titles, the Norwegian, former Wimbledon player was hot property and regarded as among the top young coaches in Europe. After initially accepting the Norwegian national team coach position, his head was turned by FC Köln of the German Bundesliga. A decision that proved to be ultimately disastrous and resulted in his dismissal and his reputation, tarnished.

A brief glimpse at his coaching career statistics tell a contrasting story. Under Solbakken, the Copenhagen club won just over sixty percent of their matches but in the wretched thirty five game run at Cologne only eight games finished with the Billygoats on top (twenty two percent, roughly).

Initially, there had been a wave of optimism washing Solbakken to shore. Scandinavian football culture is compatible with German and  Köln, having flirted with relegation in 2010/11 needed a progressive appointment after the moribund Zvonmir Zoldo and Solbakken was seen as the ideal candidate to join incoming Sporting Director, Volke Finke, at the helm of a club with high expectations.

Inaugural Bundesliga winners in 1963, FC Köln is a big club with a massive stadium that regularly fills its 50,000 capacity. Every home game, the supporters and the media look around and think to themselves, why are we not challenging for the Champions League or even the title. A recent episode of the Bundesliga Fanatic podcast tells a story of a FC fan complaining that season tickets did not come with Champions League admission included in the price. The trouble is that the club simply does not have anything like to kind of money to recruit players capable of meeting those high standards and it was these sort of expectations and challenges that Solbakken had to manage. Unfortunately, he could not have got off to a worse start as he faced a major dressing room bust up with the clubs star player and golden boy, Lukas Podolski.

The Arsenal bound, German international striker may be born in Poland but is a true native of the city of Cologne. He loves the place and is very much a major figure at the club. Except that as soon as Solbakken arrived he relieved Podolski of the captain's armband, giving it to the Brazilian centre half, Pedro Geromel. The reaction was one of uproar among the notoriously fractious local Cologne media and is said to have soured the relationship between Podolski and Solbakken.

Had results improved on the pitch then the incident may have been forgotten. However, this did not happen. FC Köln lost a mammoth twenty one matches under Solbakken. In that time the club president, Wolfgang Overath, resigned. Solbakken and his boss, Volke Finke disagreed on transfers and their deteriorating relationship eventually resulted in Finke's departure. Finally, with only a handful of games remaining, what was left of the club's management board dispensed with Solbakken in a desperate attempt to avoid relegation. They failed and went down at home to Bayern Munich on the final day of the season.

Despite what happened, Solbakken, left some good friends behind him at Cologne. He had a good relationship with the local media and was highly visible during the Carnival season. His fans would point to the lack of resources and in-fighting at board room level as the main reason behind Köln dismal season. However, it is hard to imagine that the coach is completely blameless and Solbakken will need to learn from his mistakes.

In general though, a top coach does not become a bad one in the course of a single season without a lot of help and this must have been prominent in the mind of Wanderers' CEO, Jez Moxey, when deciding who should be given the responsibility of steering Wolves back into the Premier League. Twelve months ago Solbakken would have taken some convincing to come to a newly relegated club. However, Moxey has taken advantage of his tarnished reputation and has taken a chance that he is not damaged by his experience in Germany. In principal, Wolves have signed a coach from the top draw but of course, principles don't win football matches and we will not know if this was an inspired appointment until the season starts in August.