The tension was palpable at Molineux yesterday, both on and off the pitch, and in spite of going ahead in the 21st. minute, it hung over the ground all afternoon. At least, we did not lose. Surely, this fact alone will boost the confidence of the players as they prepare for the vital match against Stoke on Tuesday. But we were lucky.
My outing started later than usual, for at 10.45 a.m. I was waiting on an access road to the M25 in Surrey for a carload of Wolves, Fulham, Spurs and Huddersfield supporters to pick me up. Only two of us looked tense, though in my case it was partly due to a feeling that we had left it rather late if we were going to sink a few pints of Banks`s Best Bitter before the match. And so it proved, with time only for a couple of pints to wash down a plate of steak and chips at a pub on the outskirts of Redditch.
Driving in from the Birmingham New Road, we parked in a side street just short of the ring road at 2.37 p.m. Silencing the Huddersfield fan (of all people), who derided the town`s architecture, by pointing to St. John`s Square with its parish church and Georgian houses, we hurried through the Wulfrun Shopping Centre (which I had helped to build over 40 years ago).
We split up at The Wanderer, the Fulham contingent making their way to the Jack Harris Stand (that would shut them up) and the rest of us walking down the slope to the Billy Wright Stand. We took our seats with a few minutes to spare. It was perfect timing … but only if one was solely interested in watching the match and not drinking Banks`s beer! Perhaps we would squeeze in a celebratory glass or two afterwards.
Dream on! So, with a stop at Cherwell services and a chat to a couple of Wolves fans (they weren`t happy either), I arrived home in time to pay my dues, viewing the final hour of ‘Love Actually` and having a glass of wine with my wife. I then had to watch the first half. As we had seen the film several times before, it didn`t spoil the story but it did mean that I also watched the Wolves game the wrong way round. That didn`t matter either because it was a repeat. Sadly, unlike the film, it didn`t have a fairy tale ending … by a mere 11 minutes.
It could have been worse. Fulham dominated the first 20 minutes and, but for a splendid one-handed save by Hennessey, we would have found ourselves a goal down in two minutes. I turned to my friend and said that if this were the Everton game, we would score a breakaway goal and win by a considerable margin. And we did (score a goal, that is), Fletcher heading home a lovely cross from Henry (yes, Henry).
Unfortunately, instead of emboldening our players, it merely increased the tension quotient and allowed Fulham back into the game. A clear case of déjà vu: Craven Cottage on Saturday 11 September 2010. My friend, who had attended that match with me, agreed. It therefore came as no surprise to us when Fulham equalised, the only question being why they had teased us for so long. This time, however, my prediction that once Fulham had scored they would win the match, proved false … but only just. In injury-time Hennessey made another fine save.
Afterwards, MM put a positive gloss on the result and in the context of the previous two matches we must be grateful for small mercies. We didn`t lose and, judging from the defensively-loaded 4-5-1 formation, that was presumably the object of the exercise (though we desperately need a win: where are the predicted three coming from?). We may therefore travel to Stoke on Tuesday in a more upbeat frame of mind (Ah! That`s one of them … but at the Britannia Stadium?).
Even so, the players will have to improve on this performance, which no-one could claim was three clear goals better than the ones delivered in the Newcastle and Everton games. While Craddock did strengthen the defence, the players around him were as flaky and as error-prone as ever. It`s the reason why we have to play 4-5-1. The midfield barely functioned, with Milijas anonymous (apart from a wonderful ball onto Guedioura`s head) and O`Hara, after a bright start, fading away. Upfront, Fletcher battled gamely and was probably the only player to enhance his reputation. He deservedly received a standing ovation when SEB replaced him in the 76th. minute.
The loss of confidence is clearly at the heart of the problem. This was reflected in the passing, which all too often consisted of lumping the ball upfield or moving it sideways/backwards in an attempt to avoid giving it away (usually unsuccessfully). Promising moves repeatedly broke down and the impetus lost. As the players have proved over the course of the season, they can build up attacks carefully with slick, accurate passing, keeping the pressure on until an opening appears. Unfortunately, as in the Everton game, passes went astray, players dispossessed on the ball and basic dribbling skills forgotten.
And the fans booed. But, perhaps as a sign of improvement, their derision was aimed at the Fulham players, Murphy and Sidwell, rather than at ours. It`s a victory of sorts. I have read NYCW`s comments in an earlier thread (hey, wait for the mature, carefully considered report before jumping in) and agree with them. However, I want to reserve judgement until after the Stoke game. For all their failings yesterday, the team collectively were playing under an enormous amount of pressure. Of course, they should be able to defend a one-goal lead but at least they did deliver it in the first place and it is a basis on which we can build.
Given the results elsewhere, it is still in our hands.