Once upon a time, before the advent of Nuno, there was a spell when exhilarating football made itself known to Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club.
It was a time when a near-holy trinity came together to give us some of the most memorable passages of play – and songs – in recent years. Here is the story of how the trinity came to pass and their legacy.
“It’s magic you know….”
I imagine many Wolves fan still hear the echoes of the Southbank belting this out across Molineux. I do. And it’s not just because it’s catchy. It evokes memories that I will cherish forever, of a 109-day spell of football that brought home what we love about the game and our club.
Kenny Jackett was a nice guy wasn’t he? Boring, but nice. I can’t imagine the Wolves Youtube channel got too many hits on their interviews with Kenny, but he did good things with us. Perhaps the best thing he did was to unleash the most exciting triumvirate of forward players the club had seen in a number of years. The three of them took interesting paths to the club.
Bakary Sako was the first to arrive. Wolves were entering a new realm. The first foreign manager in it’s history was at the helm in Stale Solbakken and Sako was his statement signing from St Etienne. Youtube was scoured from Tettenhall to Tipton to see just what we’d imported from France. Excitement ensued. Solbakken clearly had a ploy of signing hulking European=based players with a touch of flair. Sako joined a merry band arriving at Molineux including Bjorn Sigurdarson, Razak Boukari and Tongo Doumbia. Only one ended up living up to the tag.
Sako enthralled and infuriated in equal measure during his first season. He was panache and power all rolled into one with the proverbial sledgehammer of a left foot – as we all know right foots are not cultured, not wands and are never sledgehammers. While everything was tumbling around him in the fateful Solbakken/Saunders season, he remained a source of happiness for us Wolves fans. His performances were not enough to wield him away from our grasp as we were relegated though. On the slide down we also had our first encounter with Nouha Dicko.
Initially a non-descript loan signing in vain as we looked to avoid the drop, Dicko’s stay was short-lived. He was shunted out wide on occasion and looked ineffective, but it was clear to most he wasn’t a winger. He underlined his penalty box talents with a goal on a poisonous final day of the season. Fans invaded as relegation was confirmed. Welcome to Molineux Nouha. Little did we know this would be the beginnings of a wonderful partnership.
6 months later, with Wolves riding high in League One and reeling off the back of a Nouha Dicko brace against us for Rotherham, Jackett decided to bring Dicko back to Molineux. Having seen what he saw on the last day of the previous season, goodness knows why he was so keen. Fast forward another 6 months and we were lifting the League One trophy, riding the crest of a Dicko and Sako-led wave. It was fun and exciting to watch, but constantly tinged with the sense that we should never have been there in the first place. But Dicko and Sako confronted whatever was in front of them, including this guy.
Nothing endeared Sako and Dicko more to Wolves fans than their attitude towards this Small-sall fan. It was the same way they approached their football. They were formidable, with a touch of swagger and arrogance based on the fact they knew they would come out on top. They took this right into the Championship.
Sako continued to prove himself at this level with increasing levels of consistency and a greater degree of comfort with his new partner in crime alongside him. Dicko it turned out was the key to much of our early success in the season. Dicko was a pocket dynamo, all built-up energy ready to explode at any opportunity. I vividly remember seeing his work rate reduce when it came to closing down defenders. It turned out he’d been overworking himself and leaving himself susceptible to injury and was instructed to be more efficient with his pressing. His pace in behind pushed defences back and allowed Sako the freedom to roam in the space created. That was until he did exactly what was feared and injury struck. I’ve mentioned that cursed November previously. We scored 1 goal and gained 1 point, which subsequently killed our play-off hopes. Dicko’s replacements included Leon Clarke, Danny Graham and Yannick Sagbo. Sako longed for his bedfellow, the Hall to his Oates, the Macaroni to his Cheese, the Pepperoni to his Pizza.
Dicko recovered and performances began to pick up again. All was well, but Jackett, keen not to suffer a similar fate in the run-in, sought another striker. A young loanee from Arsenal was tearing up trees in League One by the name of Benik Afobe. Wolves came out on top in the chase for his signature and the trio were united. It was a match made in Molineux (heaven on Earth of course).
Afobe was a Rolls-Royce of a performer. He had a friction-less style, almost gliding across the pitch in such a manner that he never looked like he was touching the grass at all. Whereas Dicko would sprint furiously, Afobe would gallop around like a stallion in a mood, killer instinct and unforgiving in front of goal. He rarely needed more than a couple of touches to score a goal and was ice-cool when one-on-one.
And so it came to pass. Our very own three-man band had formed in attack. Dicko furiously thrashed away at the drum kit, Sako provided the virtuoso solos on guitar and Afobe the silky vocals. The first time they all appeared alongside each other was actually a defeat at home to Reading. The first time they started however was the next game away at Huddersfield. Wolves struck four times, Dicko twice, Afobe, once and Sako providing the delivery for Conor Coady to score for his future employers. It whet the appetite. A statement was made.
Looking back through the fixtures there were some disappointing results. Away losses to Norwich, Middlesbrough, Bournemouth and most frustratingly Birmingham – what were you doing Scott Golbourne? But the trinity stamped their mark all over a few results. Rotherham were decimated 5-0 at home, a team so passive they looked like they’d bought tickets as spectators to the Dicko-Afobe-Sako show.
A personal favourite of mine was the away victory over Nottingham Forest. We played with a nonchalance about us. Afobe’s run and finish from the halfway line was sumptuous. It was limbs AOTS. We were loving this charge toward the play-offs. Sako dispatched a penalty. Michail Antonio was ‘just a shit Bakary Sako’.
The 4-3 televised game versus Leeds was always the most memorable in the run-in, mainly because we made it a tight game ourselves, but the way in which the front three dovetailed left an indelible mark on the viewers. If we were to make the play-offs, nobody wanted Wolves due to the momentum the team had built off the back of their performances. Somehow, someway the three of them would nearly always end up celebrating goals together, first on the scene, as if the rest of the squad let them have their moment before joining in the celebrations.
As is the way with Wolves trouble was just around the corner. The Dicko-Afobe-Sako axis was constantly undermined by the threat of Bakary Sako’s diminishing contract. Nobody wanted to deny Sako the opportunity to play Premier League football after the loyalty he’d displayed post-relegation. The life of the triumvirate hinged on Wolves gaining promotion.
The final game of the season was overshadowed by the fact Wolves missed out on promotion, but the performance again evidenced all the things the fans loved about their famed front three. Dicko blitzed his way to two goals, his second a spectacularly powerful effort after a mazy dribble and Sako sold two defenders a dummy before smashing home. Afobe flitted around with in his usual smooth style and the enjoyment of fans turned to a sense of what might have been. We finished with 78 points. Only in 2016/17 would we have missed out on the play-offs with such a total. It was even more than the promotion-winning team of 2003 amassed. But such was football for us Wolves fans at the time.
It spelt the end. The breaking up of the trinity. Nobody anticipated it all falling apart so soon after though. Sako departed for Crystal Palace on a free transfer. Dicko suffered a tragic injury early into the next season and was never the same player while Afobe, lost without his two soulmates traipsed around up front for a few months before angling a move to Premier League Bournemouth. And so we were left with nothing. This is the lot of a football fan. The peaks and the troughs. Fans again left to pick up the pieces of a beautiful piece of art that had been destroyed.
It’s fair to say the fortunes of the club have somewhat improved since the Dicko-Afobe-Sako attack was broken up. This is in direct contrast to the fortunes of each player individually. Sako started brightly at Palace but faded and injury has disrupted his time at the club, while he’s continually been linked with a move back to The Golden Palace. Afobe made a relatively good start to life at Bournemouth before being usurped by Callum Wilson, Josh King and now Jermain Defoe. Dicko’s is the saddest tale of all, the only one not to have sampled life in the top flight. His return from injury was eagerly anticipated, but it had clearly taken it’s toll on his body. That famous burst of acceleration, unmatched in the whole of the Championship was gone and the aggression that defined his game lacking. He now plods along at Hull.
In many ways this is another reminder of the complexities of football. Sometimes the face doesn’t fit. Sometimes it does. Sometimes three faces fit together so well they leave a legacy of bewildered defences and trembling goal nets behind them. This is what these three left us with and what we will always have as memories. If any of them did return there’s no way they’d be the same without each other. Some legacies are best left untouched. We may no longer long for them, but there should always be a warm place in a Wolves fan’s heart for the deadly threesome.
Amazingly they only played 14 games together. Their record stands as:
Won – 10
Drawn – 1
Goals – 36
Perhaps their best magic trick? The Disappearing Act. It’s magic you know….