Dean Saunders And Me: Wolves Have Made A Good Choice In Gaffer
I've been dealing with Dean on and off for a lot of years. The first meetings were during a successful twilight to his career at Bradford. He was a willing interviewee, liked a laugh and he was Welsh, all good for me.
Things got more complicated a little later. I was covering Wales for Sky when Dean was appointed as a coach by John Toshack. It was a part-time job but it got back him in the game after his coaching career had stalled once Graeme Souness' career hit the buffers. Dean was his number two. I was pleased with his getting involved with Wales. He was good company, known by many if his dressing room peers as the funniest player they'd ever encountered, a renowned mimic and raconteur. So, even as Wales struggled, we got on well, even if he'd become a little more serious as he, perhaps began to worry about whether he'd get another full-time role somewhere. In October 2008, he did, and our relationship became even more serious, as he was now coach of my country and manager of my team, Wrexham.
The next few years were tricky. After a great start, 5 wins from 5, it developed into a grim struggle to build a team capable of getting 'us' out of the Conference. It took three years, encompassed hordes of short-term signings, and cost the club a fortune. The return was one appearance in the play-offs, we were three down after half an hour in the home leg. Throughout it all, the pressure was building on a guy used to dealing with top players, now fearing his first and last management job would be at a club in a league nobody knew about.
He didn't deal too well with the pressure always. Rows with reporters were recorded and replayed on message boards. Fans groups were fighting too take control of a club sliding towards another administration. It was a real mess. And we didn't dare talk about it when we met on international trips. As the team struggled, these absences were also a source of annoyance for fans.
Then, from the darkest hour, a brighter dawn emerged. With the budget drastically reduced, the money having all but run out, Dean finally built a squad capable of competing at this level. Fewer players, better suited to their surroundings and a greater emphasis on defensive solidity. This team eventually went on to finish runners-up, accruing a club record 98 points in the process. And the team that Dean largely built continues to compete at the top of the table this season. Two of those he discovered have subsequently left for Premier league and Championship clubs.
Dean, of course, was absent for most if this as he made his own leap up the leagues by talking the helm at Doncaster. I was really pleased for him, it meant we could talk without having to avoid Wrexham for a start. The prominent presence of Willie McKay on that first day at his new club was significant. The decision to make him the club's Head of Player Recruitment was a bold experiment but l was one if those who couldn't see it working. I'd seen it all at Wrexham, where Willie had also brought in numerous players who proved completely unsuitable to the game at that level, like ex-Leeds man, Lamine Sakho, who arrived in a Hummer and left after being dismissed for a vicious head-butt. So it proved. Lots of players from France, lots with a decent pedigree but questionable attitude. It didn't work. Doncaster went down, the slick, passing style displayed under the previous manager now a distant memory.
But, in adversity, Dean again came through. With his budget hacked back, with Willie McKay gone from the boardroom, Dean begged, stole and borrowed to get a squad together for this season and, like Wrexham, it's worked. The style may not be quite as easy on the eye as Rovers' fan had got used to under Shaun O'Driscoll but it’s been effective. I thought Doncaster would struggle, they've prospered and Dean's enjoyed his reward again.
I hope Dean does well at Wolves. He served his time as a coach, took a gamble on dropping into non-league and learnt from tough lessons. He's hard-working, very enthusiastic and a little bit arrogant and he's always said he wants to be a Premier league manager. I, for one, wouldn't back against him making it.