Daily Mirror writer Alex Richards looks back at Bakary Sako’s time at Wolves and who could replace him over the summer.
As Bakary Sako bid farewell to Molineux after the last day of the season win over Millwall, he did so to an audience who had enjoyed three years of the mercurial Malian.
Signed by Stale Solbakken and promised he’d soon be testing himself in the Premier League, 12 months later he found himself in League One.
He could easily have moaned for a move – indeed he wasn’t happy at dropping into the third tier. However, while others may have bailed, he instead knuckled down, having seen derisory bids from Nottingham Forest turned down. He was keen on seeing what the City Ground had to offer, that’s true. But, having enjoyed living in the area, he sought to drag the side back into the Championship and did precisely that, starring in the title-winning campaign.
From there, he continued as the team’s technical leader, trying to take the old gold to back-to-back promotions. With compatriot Nouha Dicko and £2million January signing Benik Afobe’s growth as a strike pair, he even took on more defensive responsibility, as he sought to add greater balance to Kenny Jackett’s newly-found 4-4-2 formation.
And while he fell short, it wasn’t for the want of trying. His contract may have been expiring, but it never affected his performances.
It was just ahead of the January transfer window when Premier League interest appeared, in the shape of Aston Villa. Paul Lambert wanted added firepower and was keen on a deal at £2-3million. In the end, the fee and wage demands from the Sako camp proved off-putting, meaning they went for Scott Sinclair.
Likewise, Tony Pulis sought a deal to take him to West Brom as his first signing. He wanted someone who could carry the ball from deep, who was strong and quick. It was a few months later when I was told the Sako camp had asked for £60,000-a-week. A laughable figure for someone with no Premier League experience; no surprise, Albion went for Callum McManaman.
Now, a free agent, both Midlands rivals are back in for the Malian, while other interest from abroad has been mooted – Turkey and Russia notably. Without a transfer fee involved, I’m told his representatives have asked for £16million over four years. It’s still £60,000-a-week, albeit with a £4million signing on bonus (as opposed to any kind of transfer fee). So the overall package remains similar. It remains outrageous.
Anyway, good luck to them. But Sako’s departure leaves a problem at Molineux, a gaping hole on the left side of Jackett’s midfield. He’s been a standout performer in each of the last three years, playing a direct part in 74 goals in 124 league appearances. Such numbers pale in comparison to the scary, otherworldly exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – they’ve ruined analysing goal output for effectively every other player in world football – but Sako’s figures are bloody magnificent.
So, how do Wolves move forward without him?
Firstly, don’t expect a like-for-like replacement. Sako’s £25,000-a-week wages at Molineux are at a level far in excess of what the club are prepared to pay right now.
And in terms of the side’s strength on the pitch, it now revolves around the strike pairing of Dicko and Afobe; a midfielder, more than an out-and-out winger would seem a more likely want, as the club heads away from the 4-2-3-1 formation which allowed both wide men to stay higher up the field during Jackett’s first 18 months.
Already at the club and key members of the first-team squad are James Henry and Rajiv van la Parra. Both prefer playing from the right, but have proven themselves adaptable and capable on either side. The latter needs to make a big step up in his second campaign, having flattered to deceive for much of his first. There is something there; pace and technique in abundance. It means he’ll be persevered with, but the club want him to really kick on. Henry’s quality of delivery and work rate make him an important part of the squad, while, crucially, he’s reliable.
New signing Jed Wallace is interesting. Technically sound, with a keen eye for goal, he’s been used to playing centrally at Portsmouth. The question will be over his defensive contribution: Would playing him as part of a central pair leave his partner with too much defensive work on his plate? Only 21 however, it’s something they may work on – ala. Evans, Saville – but playing him from the left could offer him more freedom to attack. Short-term it may be looked at.
Also at the club are other young talents, looking to press their claims. Jordan Graham has been earning rave reviews in the under-21 squad, while Zeli Ismael has reached a crucial juncture in his career. And what about forgotten man Razak Boukari? Injuries have wrecked his Molineux career – will he ever stay fit for a run in the side?
To be honest however, players at the club are hardly what the majority of fans want to hear. For many, particularly in this Twitter age of now, now, now, waiting on youth/promoting from within isn’t sexy. What is sexy is those new signings from the outside coming in.
So who could Wolves look at?
Middlesbrough, Derby and Brentford have shown this season that loans from Premier League clubs can prove very effective in adding a dash of quality. The Bees took Alex Pritchard from Spurs, and he’s now likely to be drafted into Mauricio Pochettino’s first-team squad, while Patrick Bamford will be playing Premier League football next term, whether as part of Chelsea’s squad or, more likely, elsewhere. With that in mind, names such as Jeremie Boga (Chelsea), Jesse Lingard (again – Man Utd) and Sheyi Ojo (Ojo) will likely be available on short-term deals come August. They are just three among many. Another is Dele Alli – What are plans for him at Tottenham?
One man already linked with Wolves has been Newcastle’s Sammy Ameobi. Out of contract, he’s in search of regular action, having seen only intermittent starts cause his career to stall. There’s talent, but he remains painfully raw. Stylistically, Magaye Gueye, is similar and he’s out of contract after Millwall’s Championship demotion. Wigan’s James McClean is another, but he’s received a good offer from New York Red Bulls.
Also out of contract is Ben Pringle of Rotherham, who has been linked with a host of Championship clubs after rejecting another deal to stay with the Millers. Possessor of a wicked left foot, he offers great threat from set-pieces.
Thinking outside of the box, La Liga is a terrific market for out of contract, quality players, whose wages aren’t massive, and who may be keen on the Championship. Scouting around this summer, Celta Vigo’s Michael Krohn-Deli is free and would bring terrific experience (though after an outstanding season, the veteran Dane may have bigger options). Alejandro Pozuelo, a wonderfully-gifted dribbler formerly on loan at Swansea, is at the end of a one-year deal with Rayo Vallecano.
How about names from elsewhere? One side of interest – in many ways right now – is Brentford. With Mark Warburton having gone, will there be an exodus. From a personal point of view, I’d be enquiring about their excellent Spaniard Jota, and wouldn’t baulk if quoted something in the region of £2million. Alan Judge is older, but also had an excellent season back in the Championship – he may be keen to test himself at a bigger club once more.
What about Tom Ince? Hull’s relegation from the Premier League will only increase the chance of them keeping him at the KC Stadium, but he wants to be playing each and every week. If Steve Bruce isn’t willing to offer him that, then he’d be a fine replacement – regardless of ludicrous comparisons by his father with Gareth Bale.
Ben Marshall and Craig Conway both excelled for Blackburn last term, Anthony Knockaert is struggling for football at Leicester, while in the lower leagues Matty Done and Connor Hourihane have impressed.
However, it goes without saying that there are a plethora of others, while it’s no secret the club have been scouting in both France and Holland once more. It promises to be an interesting summer but this is vital for any potential progression. Finishing 7th this year is no guarantee of anything, especially in what will be a tougher league next year. It’s vital the club get right both how they replace Sako, and who with.