An object lesson in reserving judgement
#3: TONGO DOUMBIA
Signed: August 2012 from Rennes, initially on loan then permanently for £3,000,000
Left: August 2014 to Toulouse, approx £1,000,000
He was: A toy which seemed amazing on Christmas Day but had broken before the decorations came down
Our relegation from the Premier League and indeed total capitulation from February onwards (both on and off the field) in 2012 led Wolves to decide that a fresh new approach was required after Mick McCarthy’s long tenure, one which inevitably led to the squad being built very much in his mold. We were not going to plump for more of the same with one or two tweaks here and there; instead we were doing what all slightly odd people do at a hotel breakfast buffet and going Continental. Stale Solbakken was appointed as manager – kudos to the Express & Star for their sheer professionalism in running a front page article cheerfully confirming that they didn’t know who he was, always good to see that level of research amongst paid journalists – and it was apparent that our eyes in terms of future signings were very much in Europe rather than relying on a predominantly British and Irish core as Mick had. As I said yesterday, if you follow Wolves for long enough, the same storylines will eventually keep cropping up. The large scale rebuild took in all areas of the team including central midfield, where with Jamie O’Hara crocked and Nenad Milijas on his way out of the club, a partner for reinstalled captain Karl Henry was required.
The focus of our transfer business quickly settled itself on Ligue Un and Tongo Doumbia was identified as the man we needed in the middle of the park. After signing for Rennes in 2009, he became a first team player during the 2010/11 season and picked up Europa League experience in the following year after a sixth placed finish. Given that the attention of Wolves fans isn’t generally placed on fairly middling top flight French clubs, it is always a case of relying on second and third hand reports when a player such as this is signed. Some told us that he was extremely highly rated and was even a possible target for Arsenal (although I tend to think that this is on the same level of when we were told Richard Stearman was attracting the attention of Liverpool, as a right back no less). Others were more critical of his attitude. What we did know is that he’d had some kind of a fall out with Rennes coach Frédéric Antonetti and it was that status which had led to him being available to us. On 1 July 2012 he signed a one year loan deal with a view to a permanent move. At least the basics surrounding him looked good; the right physique, top level and European experience and the right age with him just about to turn 23.
Doumbia went straight into the team at the start of the season and initial impressions were very good indeed. He was strong, quality on the ball, had a decent level of mobility, notched a goal in an early appearance at Ipswich and could do a destructive job when required. Essentially, it looked like he was everything that Seyi Olofinjana should have been nearly a decade previously. As we found ourselves in 3rd place in early October, it looked as if we’d found a bit of a gem. Given that our central midfield over the last quarter of a century has generally been about as inspiring as dining at Little Chef every single day, this was most encouraging. As Wolves fans, we should all be more than aware that nice things don’t tend to last. And so it proved.
The bright start to the season (in results terms at least) tailed off from mid-October onwards as we went on a run of three points from nine games and sank into the lower third of the table. As the team’s fortunes suffered, so did Doumbia’s. Having compared him favourably to good old Seyi early on, he quickly acquired the very same tendency to completely disappear in matches for 20-30 minutes at a time; seriously, you could forget he was even on the pitch. While it can’t have been easy moving to a new country with a limited grasp of the language and being in a dressing room which was already starting to show splits between new and old with the latter camp becoming more open in their dissatisfaction with Solbakken’s methods, there’s no real excuse for Doumbia totally going into his shell on a matchday. His head always dropped when we fell behind in games and his form never looked like recovering. Pretty much all of the positive aspects of his game dropped off one by one until he eventually became just a space filler in midfield, an empty shirt, a traffic cone style presence in an overall struggling team.
So with all that in mind – and signs of this were apparent fairly early on, certainly during October – it made no sense whatsoever that we should seek to activate the permanent element of his deal on 13 November, handing over £3,000,000 for his services. It was a decision which was utterly incomprehensible. Here we had a player who was struggling to adapt with elements of life in English football, on and off the pitch, whose performances were already dropping off in a manner not seen since Segundo Castillo turned from Patrick Vieira into Patrick Stewart over the course of a few weeks and when we weren’t committed to making the permanent deal at any stage. We didn’t have any deadline in the middle of the season to acquire him at a set price and we really could just have waited to see if he recovered form at all. Had we gone down a kneejerk route of snapping him up after his first month when he looked one of the better midfielders in the division, in an attempt to ward off other suitors, then this would have been understandable if misguided. To spend that amount of money on someone who was already tailing off was borderline lunacy. A fortnight after penning that permanent deal, he was given time off for non-specific mental and physical “tiredness” which meant he missed our game at Bristol City (as it happens, our first win in nearly two months). So not only was his form not good, we were having to take the step of completely withdrawing him from contention for a short period. Within a month of signing him.
Sometimes a relegation can seem a little unjust on a club. Let there be no sense of that when it comes to Wolves in 2012/13; we got exactly what we deserved. The Solbakken experiment was canned after less than six months and if signing Doumbia permanently in the circumstances above seemed a nutjob decision, appointing Dean Saunders as our new manager in January 2013 swiftly eclipsed it for sheer madness. Doumbia featured in 11 further games under the worst manager in British football in the last 30 years – Saunders will get a blog all to himself one day, such is the scale of his idiocy that it might have to be split into chapters – and we sank to relegation with the Mali international providing an aptly plodding final few displays devoid of any heart or fight. We were back in the third tier of English football for the first time in 25 years, less than 18 months after picking up creditable draws at Arsenal and Tottenham in the Premier League. If you actively set out to destroy a club then you’d struggle to emulate what Steve Morgan’s floundering ownership served up in 2012 and the first half of 2013.
Kenny Jackett took over in the summer of 2013 and it was apparent that this squad, a mish-mash of assorted unintegrated imports and an old guard that was by this stage, looking very old, needed serious structural work as we approached the challenge of facing up against the might of Colchester and Tranmere. Though Doumbia avoided the brutal (but necessary) action of Jackett insisting that certain first team players train away from the rest of the group and the manager did initially say that he would take a look at him, a couple of friendlies were enough for Jackett to make up his mind and by the eve of the season Ken was openly telling the press that Doumbia was very much the last resort when it came to central midfield places. You would have to doubt whether he would have been up for third tier football in any case, even if he had been given an opportunity. On 7 August 2013 he was sent on loan to Valenciennes for the season where he did a neat Roger Johnson impression as they were relegated to Ligue 2. On the day he left, photos circulated on social media of him smoking a shisha pipe which pretty much summed up his priorities as a professional footballer. He returned to Wolves for pre-season training ahead of the 2014/15 season but was clearly well out of the picture and on this occasion he was indeed placed into a special (I use the term advisedly) group of senior players training on their own. On 29 August 2014 he left the club permanently for Toulouse in a deal thought to have been worth around £1,000,000. He has since made around 50 appearances for them in the last two and a half years, recently making a comeback from a seven month lay off due to a back injury, though his time back in France has been most notable for receiving an eight month prison sentence (commuted to wearing an electronic tag) for driving offences in 2015. That tag might have come in handy while he was at Wolves so we could work out if he was actually still on the pitch or not.
Tongo Doumbia is, in terms of natural ability, more than capable of playing in the Championship as an absolute minimum. In terms of attitude, he is almost certainly destined to never live up to what he might have been. He serves very much as a lesson in researching what players are like away from the pitch as well as what they can do on it and above all to hold back on making a full judgement on players where possible. What they can offer on a good day is not necessarily the whole picture.