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Wolves on the cusp of catastrophe

When Wolverhampton Wanderers get on a slide, they don't hang about.

Already the only club ever to crash through three divisions in successive years (Northampton Town did briefly come up for air when they plummeted in the 1960s), they now stand on the brink of more unwanted history.

Barring a freak combination of results, they are about to become the first club to twice drop from the first tier of English football to the third in consecutive years.

Even if they bridge a 19-place gap in the table by winning on Saturday at Brighton, they need Peterborough and Barnsley to lose at Crystal Palace and Huddersfield respectively, and must also achieve a five-goal swing on Peterborough. It's the flimsiest of strands of hope, given their failings.

On Saturday, Dean Saunders' side turned up for a supposed do-or-die effort and went down without a whimper. They were ragged, lacking in composure or confidence, and hopelessly unable to handle the nervousness of the occasion.

After Burnley had scored early in each half, Wolves pulled one back late on through Nouha Dicko during a route-one surge but even a draw against opponents reduced to ten men by Michael Duff's 65th minute sending-off would effectively have left them needing snookers.

The gloom doesn't end there. Shamed by their side on the pitch, elements of the Molineux support shamed their club at full-time, having turned on owner-chairman Steve Morgan from the moment Martin Paterson struck Burnley's second. Several hundred fans invaded the pitch and formed a hostile mob near the entrance of the tunnel.

They were unpleasant scenes. The Perspex in the home dug-out copped it again - former manager Stale Solbakken used the same contraption to vent his anger earlier in this desperate season - and two advertising boards, including one belonging to the club's main sponsors sportingbet, were left in tatters. Amid the mayhem, Roger Johnson briefly appeared willing to accept a fan's offer of fisticuffs...well, three successive relegations, including one the ex-skipper suffered at Birmingham, must leave the fuse a bit short.

How has it come to this for a side who briefly led the Premier League after three games of last season? There was no sign of this crisis looming and Wolves' ills are likely to be much longer-lasting than was the threat of the yobs, who retreated at speed when a line of 25 police officers appeared.

With two survived top-flight seasons behind them, Morgan felt bold enough to implement the expertise of his day job and embark on the £18 million reconstruction of the Stan Cullis Stand. Some argued that he should be putting money into the team rather than bricks and mortar and, amid nose-diving advance season ticket sales for 2013-14, their views look justified. The towering structure could bear a mausoleum look when it houses visitors from Crawley and Stevenage in a few months' time.

The monetary implications are dire, for Morgan especially (as the 100 per cent shareholder) and possibly for the club. I was present at a supporters' meeting in February when he revealed that the finances would be in a mess even if Wolves stayed up this spring and then won next season's Championship.

So dismissive had he and his board been of any fear of a second successive relegation that no protective clauses - the sort in place for dropping out of the Premier League - were inserted in players' contracts. Hurtling straight through the Championship was more than just unthinkable. It was simply never thought of.

It's not the only flawed decision. Mick McCarthy was clearly struggling after six excellent years at Molineux but to fire him in mid-February last season, with the die cast and the window shut, seemed even then a case of eight months late or a year or two early. Take your pick.

McCarthy has always struggled in the Premier League but is a brilliant operator at this level, as Ipswich are finding out. They were bottom, 14 points and most of the length of the table behind Wolves, when he took over. They are now 12 places and nine points better off.

Morgan overlooked the ready-and-waiting Steve Bruce when filling the gap, persisted for three demoralising months with the hapless Terry Connor - now reunited with his long-time gaffer at Portman Road - and then installed Solbakken as the club's first foreign manager. The gamble was deemed a failure and Saunders arrived in early January.

In turn, the Welshman's future will come under scrutiny after Wolves' fate is sealed. 'Doing a Doncaster' can never previously have figured on any Molineux business plan but the manager spoke enthusiastically on Saturday teatime about the success of his old club while lamenting the problems of his present one.

"We are not dead yet but obviously we are going to think about what happens if we are," he said. "We are going to have to have discussions.

"Yes, I want to stay and the possibility of a clear-out is a discussion we have to have. It took some time at Doncaster. The budget is one-quarter of what it was. They have gone up with a clean sheet of paper. I also did it at Wrexham, maybe a 20-player turnaround.

"I haven't spent any money here. It's a big club and a tough job. I'm devastated we are in this position."

Doncaster were the last-day visitors when McCarthy's Wolves signed off from the second tier as clear champions in 2009. Now they are changing places with them, the bigger fry having won only 39 of their 159 League matches since that 1-0 success.

On Saturday, of all days, the club welcomed back representatives of the squad from when they defeated Burnley in the Sherpa Van Trophy final 25 springs ago.

They made a good job of escaping the lower divisions then but had a certain Steve Bull to help them do it. He has just turned 48 and has dodgy knees now.

It will be a start when Wolves know they have actually bottomed out this time. The trouble is that you can't be sure where the bottom is until you're on the way back up.

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