It was with some trepidation that I set out for the match, given the team`s performance against Newcastle the previous weekend. Even so, I was comforted by the fact that, whatever had happened at St. James`s Park, it would be a different story at Fortress Molineux.
I left early – 11.30 a.m. on Friday to be precise – and therefore did not meet any fans at Oxford or Warwick services, just loads of people going off on holiday. Me, too, I thought … but events at Molineux were to prove no picnic.
Ironically, I found some rival fans in the most unlikely of places on Friday evening. I was speaking at a village hall in a north Worcestershire parish and made a throwaway remark that I was looking forward to a Wolves win the following day. This immediately drew some good natured banter from an audience that included AV, Stoke and WBA supporters and a little old lady who used to attend matches at Molineux in the late 1950s. Co-incidentally, at that time I must have rubbed shoulders with the guy I sat next to in the Billy Wright stand because, like my teenage self, he used to watch games from behind the goal on the South Bank.
I arrived at West Park at 10.40 on Saturday to find that the parking spaces along the railings had virtually filled up. Was the game about to start or was this merely the normal Saturday morning shopping traffic? Probably the latter, because The Varsity was empty. It meant that I could purchase a pint of Banks`s best bitter without subjecting myself to the normal scrum at the bar.
I even enjoyed a chat with a tableful of Everton fans, who, fleeing from the Aintree punters, were anticipating a hard-fought, entertaining game. Concerned about their lengthy injury list, even cocky scousers thought that the most likely outcome was a 1-1 draw. On the way out I noticed my first Doritos shirt: perhaps he was wearing it as the quid pro quo in a bargain with the soccer gods for a Wolves victory. If we escape relegation, I`ll wear mine at my daughter`s wedding later this year!
And so to the match. I expected our team to make a bright start in an effort to shake off the lethargy of the previous week. And so it proved. We completely dominated the first quarter of the game to the extent that the Football First commentator could consider that Everton were hanging on. We had our chances, too, admittedly mostly potential rather than actual ones. Had Guedioura`s thunderbolt or Fletcher`s header gone in (or had SEB not been muscled off the ball in the penalty area), the outcome of the match might have been different.
Unfortunately, in the 20th. minute slack marking gifted Everton the lead, totally against the run of play. Osman was given acres of space down the right wing and with Elokobi ambling back, he could pick out his man in the box. Beckford, effortlessly getting in between our static central defenders, headed the ball past Hennessey.
Thereafter, the team steadily disintegrated, shipping another two goals through defensive errors by half time and stumbling though the second half in an ever more ragged fashion. It was a relief when the final whistle blew. At least, we drew that part of the game.
Nothing went right. Passes went astray, players fell over the ball or failed to control it and altogether the team looked like a collection of strangers. For all their vaunted spirit and mental toughness, the players radiated nervousness and uncertainty. The third goal, presented to Bilyedtinov, when O`Hara and Elokobi left the ball for each other, summed up the shambles of the afternoon.
Craddock has to come back in order to add authority and experience to the defence. Up in the Billy Wright stand we were all agreed on that. It`s not that Stearman and Berra are poor defenders and they have improved so much in recent months that I have even argued for the deployment of the more aggressive 4-4-2 formation. But, as they tend to switch off and drift out of position, they need constant reminders of what to do and where to go. The game also exposed the shortcomings of our full-backs, especially on the left flank. Even the management must be regretting the failure to invest in a solid defender or two in the January window.
Up-front, SEB and Fletcher were ineffectual, demonstrating that a 4-4-2 formation is not the answer to our problems. Clearly, we need the extra man in midfield. It also allows us to make better use of O`Hara, who once again was wasted in a deep-lying role. MM probably reasoned that Guedioura`s competitiveness would help plug the gap. The lad played well and tried hard but it was asking a lot of a player returning to the top flight after six months away. Nonetheless, he will prove an asset in the final six games. The difficulty is finding someone effectively to fill Doyle`s boots.
I know I have been accused of negativism and a lack of confidence in the team but, as I was leaving the ground, I heard the same sentiments being expressed by others. The boos at half-time and at the end of the match indicated the feelings of the crowd. It was not the defeat itself that sparked the reaction, but rather the pathetic performance of the players on the pitch. If MM manages to turn this season round now, he really will deserve the title of Merlin the Magician.
As Oscar Wilde had Lady Bracknell say, ‘Losing one game badly by three clear goals may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two in succession looks like carelessness.`