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Healthy dose of pessimism can pep up McGhee; WOLVES: Lowering of expectations and injury list vital to new season ho pes at Molineux Ged Scott on the latest chapter in an ongoing saga of First Div ision folk.

After years of living in expectation, Wolves fans will be relying more on hope when they set out on Saturday on their latest Premiership quest.

Long before last season ended, the gold-and-black faithful had realised their side weren't good enough. And apart from a new sense of space in a far less busy treatment room, nothing has happened to change their minds. Yet this growing feeling of pessimi sm could just work in Wolves' favour.

For a decade, the Molineux masses who fill Sir Jack Hayward's marvellous Golden Palace have crowed 'this is going to be our year', under the mistaken impression that having the best facilities automatically guarantees a place in the top flight.

Mark McGhee knew there was more to it than that when he arrived to replace Graham Taylor in November 1995. It was brought home to him when, following his side's play-off failure 18 months later, he found the purse-strings snapped out of his grasp.

Now, following a frustrating season of contrasting moods in amidst that second-halhe-season slide out of promotion contention, Wolves did make it to an FA Cup semi-final and a summer of total inactivity on the 'Players In' front, McGhee seems to have reb uilt confidence in the camp.

Under the microscope himsel knowing a bad start to the season would pile the pressure back on, the Wolves boss has had to do it without any extra money until transfer funds his efforts to offload supposedly surplus talent like Paatelainen, Claridge,Simp son, Ferguson and Freedman having come to nothing were suddenly made available.

Knowing this could easily prove the final season of his three-year contract, though, McGhee remains positive.

"Even in the last week," he admits, "the situation is looking a lot brighter. First with Keith Curle signing his new contract and Dougie Freedman turning down his move to Nottingham Forest, then realising I'd got money to spend."

The Freedman affair alone shows just how frustrating it's been for McGhee. The day he agreed the near-pounds 1million move with Forest, he was told he couldn't spend the proceeds.

A day later, the goalposts had moved to the extent that, not only could he spend them, his newly-acquired spending budget wasn't even dependent on the Freedman deal.

Knowing there could be a chance of signing new players has given a sense of direction to a team built around the undeniable talents of young Irish star Robbie Keane, although maybe still too reliant on key veterans Curle and Steve Bull.

"We were stumbling around in the dark a bit towards the end of last season, looking for the right combination," admits McGhee. "But, don't forget, often the team was dictated by injuries."

With his thinking unclouded over the summer, though, as the injury bulletins got brighter, the Wolves boss goes into the campaign in realistic mood.

"Obviously, you first have to look at the three clubs that have come down. But there's eight or nine clubs who'll be in contention too and I'm confident we'll be one of them.''

In the end, Wolves finished ninth, nine points out of a play-off place. Yet the fact that they were 26 points out of the automatic promotion spots shows just how much there is to do.

Already, Wolves' one main plus, their sound defence, has been made even sounder by Curle's decision, the late-season re-signing of Neil Emblen, and a return to full fitness for powerhouse stopper Dean Richards.

McGhee has instead directed his attentions to bringing in a midfield creator "We've been too reliant on Simon Osborn. Too often, we only play well when he plays well," he concedes and a target-man.

If Bull, Keane, Freedman and Co can find the net more regularly, hopes could be high. But if the goals still prove as hard to come by as they did last March, it could be a sadder story.

THE ONE TO WATCH

Name: Steve Bull

Birthplace: Tipton

Age: 33

Games played: 531 (13) Goals: 300

It's nearly 12 years since Steve Bull arrived at Molineux and this will be the Tipton Terror's tenth bid to shoot his beloved Wolves back into the top flight.

Yet it says much about the scoring appetite of the 33-year-old, 300-goal legend that his side go into the coming season still so dependent on him. Especially if Robbie Keane clicks with the old maestro in the same encouraging way they looked like doing u ntil Bull went in for knee surgery last November.

There is one school of thought among the more gloom-laden Molineux regulars that their favourite should have been sold long ago and that his very presence is a distraction, saying a great deal about how far Wolves have failed to come.

But boss Mark McGhee, although still searching for a big target-man to play alongside Keane in attack, admits: "Bully's still our best bet for a goal.

"He's looked after himsel redefined his targets and is still very much part of our plans.''

After returning to the team in a blaze of glory by coming on as sub to net the winner and his 300th goal against Bradford back in February, a halit Bull was not to score again as he flitted in and out of the side, chief victim of manager McGhee's indecis ion, starting just eight of Wolves' last 19 games.

But he is now fully recovered. He's lean, fit and hungry again. And, while if things don't go well, this could prove equally likely to be the campaign when he finally gets pensioned of he could hold the key to Wolves' season.

After scoring against Barcelona last Saturday visiting coach Louis Van Gaal enthusing that he and Keane looked "a dangerous pair of strikers" it seems increasingly likely that Bully will get the chance to prove there's a few more goals left in thoseboot s yet.

PLAYERS' DETAILS

Keepers: Mike Stowell, Justin Bray

Defence: Kevin Muscat, Dean Richards, Neil Emblen, Ryan Green, Adrian Williams, Keith Curle, Lee Naylor

Midfield: Carl Robinson, Mark Atkins, Steve Corica, Simon Osborn, Steve Froggatt, Paul Simpson, Michael Gilkes, Darren Ferguson

Attack: Steve Bull, Robbie Keane, Steve Claridge, Mixu Paatelainen, Dougie Freedman, Mark Jones, Jason Roberts, Glen Crowe

Summer transfers

IN: NONE

OUT: Robbie Slater (contract cancelled); Don Goodman to Hiroshima (Free), Richard Leadbeater to Hereford (Free); Hans Segers to Tottenham (Free); Darius Kubicki to Carlisle (Free); Chris Westwood (released)

WOLVES FIXTURES 1998/99

TOMORROW: MICHAEL WARD looks forward to the season ahead for West Bromwich Albion
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 5, 1998
Words:1079
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