26 September ~ Wolves' first derby match of the season against Aston Villa today has somehow transformed itself in to a "must-win" by some panicking home supporters following the late reversals at Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur – after leading both games 1-0 at the halfway mark. Suddenly five points from the first three games of the season and a top-ten placing has been turned on its head, despite the fact that for 77 minutes at White Hart Lane Wolves probably produced their most accomplished league performance so far.
The results from Wolves' first three games had heightened fans' expectations of a fear-free season but for the more long-in-the-tooth among us it was never going to be thus. Taking account of the staccato stop-start nature of the season punctuated by internationals, holidays and consecutive away matches (Wolves have gone over four weeks without a home league match) it looks pretty much as though we are going to see a season that will be as difficult as the survival campaign of last year. With no Portsmouth to provide a bottom-place buffer it will be a more competitive division and therefore even the marginal improvements made on the playing side will ensure Wolves only stand still – which for many fans will be enough.
With new arrival Stephen Hunt still recovering from a long-term injury, we are yet to see whether our other major signings, Jelle van Damme and Steven Fletcher, can add quality to the team core of spine of Marcus Hahnemann, Jody Craddock, Karl Henry, Matt Jarvis and Kevin Doyle. Fletcher is yet to partner Doyle over a full 90 minutes and the newly christened "JVD" is hopeful of shaking off the latest of a worrying collection of "niggly knocks".
Whether or not Villa could yet be described as going through a transitional phase (they have clearly felt the loss of James Milner), the derby certainly provides an opportunity for their highly regarded academy graduates and newer recruits like Stephen Ireland to make their mark with the new boss. In an open game the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young could easily catch Wolves flatfooted. But, as we saw in the two hard-fought draws with Villa last season, Wolves can keep it tight and despite the laughably biased analysis provided by occupants of the Match of the Day sofa, the team has not descended into a bunch of gratuitous cloggers.
Despite the relative success of staying up last season, Wolves' season-ticket sales have dipped by some seven per cent and, with a multi-million pound expansion of Molineux planned, the marketing department has resorted to promoting Sunday's game with sandwich-board-clad individuals traipsing the city. Apart from providing the voluminous student population with some much needed work the campaign does at least show that more proactive initiatives for putting bums on seats is a necessary strategy in this day and age – though perhaps more flexibility on pricing (the cheapest seat is £30) for a live televised match may have proved more fruitful.
The last sandwich board I saw outside Molineux featured a cartoon referring to 1970s legend Derek Dougan proclaiming:"Be Prepared to Meet Thy Doog!" I'm sure Wolves fans will be more than happy if the team match the current sandwich board prophets with an equally resourceful response on the pitch. Jim Heath