First in a seasonal series of awful signings
Turkey necked pensioners’ favourite Cliff Richard informs us that Christmas is a time for giving (as well as forgiving and forgetting, but I don’t do that quite so readily, nor do I want to take Cliff’s lifestyle advice that liberally). So as a thank you for the frankly overwhelming response and viewing figures for my blog since I started up in July, for every day between now and Christmas Eve there’ll be an article up in this special series where we’ll be looking at twelve of the worst signings Wolves have made in the 28 and a bit years that I’ve been watching us.
Some absolute rubbish can be handed out at Christmas time. Talcum powder which surely went out of mainstream use some time around 1975. Books written by people you hate (a big hello to Adrian Chiles here). Novelty gifts that like Russell Howard’s jokes, presumably seemed hilarious in the mind of the creator but in reality fall cringingly flat. If you’re not careful, Christmas truly can become a time associated with worthless tat. And as a club, we haven’t always been careful with what we’ve bought, although we’re happy to make that a year-long trend rather than just restricting it to the festive period.
To qualify for this hallowed group, the players must fall into at least one (and preferably more) of the following categories:
An obviously bad idea from the outset
A massive let down relative to expectations, due to the player’s own failings
Ditched at a large financial loss
Negligible positive impact at any stage of their Wolves career
Openly damaging to the club with their very presence
This lets several of my personal bête noirs over the years off the hook, at least until I decide to start another series where I can happily include them. So count yourselves lucky Matt Doherty (a cheap punt – yes, I said punt – from the Irish league), Seyi Olofinjana (saved by Tony Pulis inexplicably handing us a hefty profit on what we in turn inexplicably spent on him in the first place), Stephen Hunt (a good job he scored that goal against Blackburn) and the various players who primarily failed here due to injuries or off field issues as this isn’t really anyone’s fault (although there is one exception who is included for good reason, and we’ll come to him in due course). Like all such lists, this is purely subjective though I’d be surprised if many Wolves fans fundamentally disagreed that any of the twelve I’ve picked were anything but overall shockers in the final analysis of things.
And so, on with some truly tragic bits of business, and where better to start than with:
#1: PAUL JONES
Signed: January 2004 from Southampton, approx £250k
Left: January 2006, contract cancelled
He was: A Betamax player in a DVD era
It’s fair to say that our goalkeeping situation in the first half of the 2003/4 season was an unholy mess. Everyone was very much aware that Michael Oakes didn’t really represent a realistic option at Premier League level and after several years of relying on various two bob loan signings as cover in that department – step forward Ian Feuer, Marlon Beresford, Stephen Bywater, Steve Mautone, Frank Talia, Carlo Nash, Andy Petterson and Danny Milosevic, not a single minute played by any of them in their time here – we were left with Matt Murray as our only serious choice going into our first season in the big time in two decades. Dave Jones, showing some rare wit and imagination in his transfer dealings – uncharacteristically, as we shall see – decided to pursue young Cameroon keeper Carlos Kameni, then at Le Havre, initially on loan with a permanent deal in the offing. Terms were agreed and the signing was tentatively announced…only for the FA to block the move after he failed to be granted a work permit. This despite already being a full international and having appeared in squads at the Olympics, the World Cup, the African Cup of Nations and the Confederations Cup, all before the age of 20. This despite Manchester United managing to attain a work permit for Tim Howard in the very same transfer window, despite him having far less international experience and being nearly five years older. Work permits were granted at the time on the basis of whether the player would be able to make a significant contribution to English football; Carlos Kameni has since made well over 300 appearances in La Liga where he continues to play to this day for Malaga, and currently has 71 caps for Cameroon. So thanks for that, gents at the FA. Sterling work. Let it never be said that you don’t have a clue what you’re doing.
The saga surrounding Kameni played out until late August, by which time our maiden Premier League campaign had kicked off, and as the Gods of fate would decide, Matt Murray pulled out of our first home game against Charlton shortly before kick off and as it turned out, would play no further part for the remainder of the season. We were therefore forced to press Oakes into service and were left with no depth at all. A bid for the late Pavel Srnicek failed when he chose to join Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth and we had no alternative but to name a 17 year old Carl Ikeme on the bench in our early fixtures. The transfer deadline passed with no keeper arriving and despite the parlous state of our resources, the Premier League wouldn’t allow us to sign anyone on loan initially, only granting us that permission in November. So once again, thanks for that. Eventually we got the dubious pleasure of Andy Marshall arriving here temporarily from Ipswich; a 5-1 defeat at Highbury in the League Cup in his sole Wolves appearance was sufficient for everyone to come to the conclusion that this wasn’t an avenue worth pursuing in the medium term. With Oakes doing a manful job but obviously constrained by his own limitations, it was clear that we needed to address the issue in January.
So, would DJ go for someone of a similar standing to Kameni when the window opened, a highly rated, up and coming keeper who might be here for a decade or more? Or would we look for someone more experienced, such as Tony Warner who we were perpetually linked with at the time, had established himself as first choice at Millwall in the division below and had won their Player of the Year award in 2002/3? As it turned out, we went for someone a lot more experienced. DJ plumped for his old pal Paul Jones who he had signed for both Stockport and Southampton earlier in his career, and was familiar to Wolves fans from his spell here between 1991 and 1996. We shelled out around £250,000 for the Wales stopper towards the end of the January window.
The issues with this this signing were manifold; for a start, Jones was fast approaching the age of 37 when we signed him and had lost his place in the Southampton team. To actively pursue someone of that age as your avowed first choice keeper, especially in one of the top leagues in Europe, is just plain unusual. The question of man management then reared its head – for all his faults, Oakes had just produced two successive Man of the Match displays in home games against Manchester United and Liverpool where we picked up an unlikely four points. So despite him being in the form of his Wolves (and possibly entire) career…he was promptly dropped as soon as Jones arrived. Finally, we knew all too well from his first spell at Molineux that he had some serious flaws to his game, namely his kicking (which genuinely was worse than Andy Lonergan’s, as hard as that may be to believe) and his command of the box, which was no better than Oakes’. Given that we were trying to upgrade on our keeper, it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to sign someone who wasn’t going to improve on the one key area that the incumbent badly struggled with.
Jones started with a clean sheet on (second) debut at Fratton Park but as early as his third game there were ominously bad signs as we succumbed to a crushing 4-1 defeat in a pivotal relegation scrap at Elland Road with Leeds; his efforts on the goals did not exactly cover himself in glory. In the space of five games in March and early April we conceded 17 goals; behind an already leaky defence he was providing a less than reassuring presence and was badly looking his age. He finished the season on a minor personal high by saving an Alan Shearer penalty at Newcastle in our penultimate game, but relegation had been an inevitability for some time before our fate was formally confirmed and it was back to the familiar drudge of the second tier for us.
With there being no further moves to strengthen the goalkeeping department in the summer of 2004 and Murray remaining crocked, Jones retained his status as first choice keeper for the start of the 2004/5 season. In an extremely rocky start for the team as a whole – and we were very much one of the promotion favourites going into the season – Jones stood out as supremely incompetent in our opening home game against Preston, as he had three separate attempts at claiming a cross for their opening goal and flapped to zero effect at all of them. His performances remained unconvincing at best but it was clear that he had the faith of his namesake and it would take something big for him to lose his place, at least while Murray was out of contention. That something big came in the home game against Cardiff in late September. Having already fumbled an early Paul Parry shot into his net for an early lead for the visitors and with us trailing (and at that stage, winless at home), the Welshman saw fit to respond to the Cardiff fans’ exhortations to “do the Ayatollah” in front of them. Which went down predictably well with our fans. As they started to turn on Jones and with Murray’s name being widely sung, he made a decent save in front of the South Bank and proceeded to give them a local version of Stefan Effenberg’s “Stinkefinger”. Not a wise move in any circumstances. Doubly not wise when you punch the resulting corner from that save straight to Graham Kavanagh and he lashes it in to make it 3-1. This turned out to be his final game for our first team as even the manager who had signed him three times had to concede that his time was up and the situation was irrevocable. Although he did sit on the bench for us at various points later in the season, the relationship between Jones and the fans was so toxic that he didn’t even warm up on the pitch pre-match. In December 2004 new manager Glenn Hoddle – DJ having departed at the start of November – made a rare wise call and sent him out on loan to Watford where he appeared in both legs of their League Cup semi-final with Liverpool.
The signing of amateur video enthusiast Stefan Postma in the summer of 2005, along with Carl Ikeme’s progress through the age group teams saw Jones relegated to fourth choice ahead of the following season and effectively totally exiled from first team duty. He was sent out on loan again in the early part of the season, this time to Millwall where he made three league appearances before finally having his Wolves contract cancelled on 31 January 2006 to allow him to be able to join another club after the window closed. QPR signed him a week or so later whereupon he became their first choice keeper for the remainder of the season – keeping a clean sheet against us at Loftus Road in the process in what has to be the epitome of a Hoddle bore draw – and retained that status into the 2006/7 season before losing his place for good, his final professional appearance coming on 21 October 2006 and his retirement following at the end of the season when his Rangers deal expired. He also made his final international appearance during that month; winning his 50th cap he saw fit to shave “50” into his hair (very becoming of a man approaching the age of 40) only for Wales to be hammered 5-1 at home by Slovakia and Jones to be beaten three times from range in the process. Dignity Paul, always dignity.
This was a situation where a manager was blinded by loyalty to a player based exclusively on long since past deeds, where a good professional in good form was unfairly dropped to the detriment of the team and the gradual erosion of the relationship between an individual player and the fans. Overall, it was nothing short of a total disaster – DJ was given a reasonably free hand at picking a keeper while we were a Premier League club, with various different approaches available to him, and could scarcely have done any worse with his eventual choice.