A West Midlands derby leaves the home team just about over the safety line, while the visitors are left with the volatile mood swings familiar to anyone who has experienced a relegation scrap. Adam Bate relives the action
I'm meeting an old school friend to go to the game. Although we are both Wolves fans, he lives behind enemy lines – near the Mailbox in the centre of Birmingham. He greets me at the door with a sheepish raise of the eyebrows. No words. We both know this is not a social call. Such is life for the supporters of a team in the midst of a relegation battle.
It’s a 20-minute walk to St Andrew’s and the journey itself feels a little like Wolves’ season. We begin surrounded by the optimism of a Bank Holiday weekend in the second city. Brindley Place, the bustling home to a variety of bars and restaurants, is in the distance, while the designer shops of the Mailbox are busily trading.
This takes me back to August and the hopes and dreams of a Wolves fan in the summer of 2010. After a 15th-place finish, chairman Steve Morgan had made a further £15 million available to Mick McCarthy. The left-back problem appeared to have been solved by the signing of Belgian international Jelle van Damme. Hull’s Player of the Year, Stephen Hunt, was perceived to be a shrewd acquisition. In addition, £7m man Steven Fletcher was fresh off an impressive campaign with Burnley and supposed to be the man to take Wolves to the next level.
Walking away from the plush, redeveloped canal network we head out of the city through the grittier scenes of Digbeth. It’s an area indicative of these troubled times with its plethora of disused industrial warehouses. Here, the reality of our season hits me. Van Damme is long gone after crying off back to Belgium. Hunt has been a quite staggering disappointment, looking every second of his 30 years and then some. As for Fletcher, one wonders how many clubs the world over have dared indulge themselves with a £7m third-choice striker.
By now, we have been joined on the march to the stadium by a multitude of Birmingham City fans. The spring in their step belies their still precarious league position and understandably so – the last-gasp League Cup triumph over Arsenal was a mere two months ago. These are the good times.
That trophy highlights the differing approaches these two clubs are taking to the task of establishing themselves in the Premier League. Despite the intimidating atmosphere the home fans can generate, St Andrew’s remains an underwhelming arena. It is perhaps ironic that long-time owners Davids Sullivan and Gold will oversee West Ham’s move to the Olympic stadium given that Birmingham’s ground was rarely their main priority – as recently as 2009, St Andrew’s was without undersoil heating.
What Sullivan, Gold and Carson Yeung after them have provided Birmingham City with is a team. Steve Morgan, on the other hand, is a builder. This summer he will embark on his plan to redevelop Molineux with the first of three stands being replaced and the capacity soaring to 37,000. Unfortunately, the building of a team to play in it is proving more of a challenge.
Inside St Andrew’s the old Main Stand, with its corrugated iron roofing, offers one of the more visible examples of this contrast between the clubs. On a particularly blustery day in 2002, I saw parts of the roof come flying off and threaten to decapitate anyone in the vicinity. That wind is swirling all around St Andrew’s today, which is a little alarming given that this is a calm day beyond the confines of the ground. Ben Foster becomes the first victim of the conditions. He skews a kick straight to Matt Jarvis who puts Stephen Ward through on goal. Foster promptly hauls the makeshift forward to the ground and it’s a seventh-minute penalty. Fletcher, the redundant £7m man, steps up to nonchalantly give the visitors a 1-0 lead. I’ve always liked Fletch.
Of course, my experience of watching Wolves tells me that only two scenarios are now possible. They either hold on grimly for the 1-0 win or they concede. The latter appears likely within minutes when Sebastian Larsson hits the crossbar with a curling free-kick that had left Wayne Hennessey doing one of those token gesture dives of which some keepers are so fond. Larsson’s effort would have been a stunning goal. But the equaliser itself was somehow more appropriate for a relegation derby. It was an almighty cock-up.
Michael Mancienne, on loan from Chelsea for a third successive season, had not played centre-back for nearly 18 months prior to today. It didn’t require hindsight to appreciate this would be a difficult challenge for him. Within moments of the man next to me noting that Mancienne needs to curb his instincts and just clear his lines in these conditions, Foster launches a high ball his way. Mancienne instantly took on the appearance of Monty Panesar flapping under a skier at Lord’s. An attempt to duck left him looking ridiculous and Larsson duly fired home to make it 1-1.
And now things really got heated. Every time I glanced at referee Kevin Friend he seemed to have one or both of Lee Bowyer and Karl Henry bawling in his ear. Henry in particular seemed determined to work the official at every opportunity, laughing and joking with him one minute, putting in a late challenge the next. Surprisingly, though, both men were forced to take a back seat when Craig Gardner and Jamie O’Hara squared up to one another.
Minutes later, Richard Stearman clattered Gardner with an ugly looking challenge on the edge of the box. A red card looked to be just around the corner. And, ironically given the earlier talk, it was for diving. Gardner, perhaps anticipating a third clattering of the afternoon, offered a tame fall and Friend obliged with a second yellow. It should have sparked an almighty humdinger. Instead, it was pretty much game over.
Birmingham immediately sacrificed the man on the pitch who was most likely to score a goal. Off went Wolves’ long-time nemesis Kevin Phillips to be replaced by the Chilean winger Jean Beausejour. McLeish’s side changed to 4-4-1 with Cameron Jerome well suited to the role of lone battler. Two banks of four were retained and the home side did what they do well. Wolves finished the game with just two shots on target.
The visitors were clearly caught between two stools – desperately in need of a win but bereft of confidence. It wasn’t quite attack versus defence but you sense even if it had been Wolves would still not have scored. Henry and O’Hara were statues in the centre – spreading the play but failing to get into the box. The wingers crossed it and the centre-backs duly headed it away. McCarthy said afterwards that Wolves lacked “magic”. It was an honest assessment, albeit one that was patently obvious to anyone watching.
And so, at the end there was disappointment for Wolves even if it was only the fifth away game this season from which they had taken anything whatsoever. The Birmingham fans goaded the travelling support with chants of “That’s why you’re going down” – the point surely ensuring their safety, taking them as it did to 39 points. Meanwhile, Wolves fans looked around in confusion as, for the first time ever, the traditional “You’ve never won fuck all” riposte seemed strangely inappropriate.
So where did this leave Wolves? Those new stadium plans still look decidedly shaky. Morgan must wonder what has happened to the £31m he has invested in transfers alone since securing Premier League football less than two years ago. However, there is one problem that may leave him wary of making his first managerial change. It is the knowledge that if relegation occurs then the best man to win promotion from the Championship may well be the one who Morgan would have every right to fire for putting them there.
As for me, the walk back mirrored the journey there as the gloom of Digbeth and two points dropped turned to optimism as we hit the Bull Ring. There remains the optimism that Wigan, West Ham and Blackpool may all struggle to get past 38 points. It’s a seemingly forlorn hope but it’s enough to sustain me. Living for the weekend and dreading it when it arrives – these are the joys of being a football fan.
From WSC 292 June 2011