Wolves are the quintessential Championship side, in the second tier for two decades, bar one season. Coventry used to be the epitome of top-flight survivors. Both are casting their eyes upwards this autumn, though neither is exactly confident, writes Josh Widdicombe
At 2.15pm in the car park Molineux shares with a 24-hour Asda, a sprinkling of people amble away from their cars, the odd old-gold replica shirt peeking out from under a coat the only clues that they aren’t here for the weekly shop. The loudest shouts come from the raffle-ticket sellers and the strongest evidence of pride in the home colours can be found on the metalwork in and around the ground, an area painted on the Midas principle: anything that can be gold, should be gold.
Anyone who thinks Wolves against Coventry has the edge of a local derby is basing their assumption on the AA route planner rather than the politics of midlands football. Beyond West Brom, everyone else is just making up the numbers on Wolves’ hate-list. If there is an atmosphere among the home fans, it lacks the excitement that you would expect from a team sitting second in the Championship. The patterns of history have a tendency to inform the mind of the football fan far more than they have any right to. How often do you see a preview on Football Focus mention that a team has not won at another team’s ground for four decades? As if that is meant to have any bearing on 22 players that weren’t even born when this supposedly relevant run started. At Molineux – a ground so steeped in history that the stands take the names of Stan Cullis, Steve Bull, Jack Harris and Billy Wright – fans’ promotion hopes are informed far more by the past two decades of disappointment than their current league position and stunning early-season performances.
Picking up a copy of the excellent fanzine A Load of Bull, sent to press as Wolves topped the table in late September, I find it full of articles that could be distilled simply to “this is all going great, but just you wait”. Defeats to Reading and Swansea at the turn of the month have hinted that the writers know what they are talking about, despite the team being only one place off the top.
After spending the Sir Jack Hayward years as the richest club that just couldn’t make it into the top tier (till finally achieving a solitary, pretty bleak season with the big boys in 2003-04), under new owner Steve Morgan, Mick McCarthy has built a young, exciting team that are again challenging for promotion. Today’s opponents Coventry have arrived from the other direction, having defied the drop for 34 years, until 2001. After just avoiding administration and relegation to League One last season, things are looking up under Chris Coleman, who has taken the team to the edge of the play-offs in the initial exchanges of this season.
Inside the ground, the fans who have decided against an extra round in the pub are entertained by today’s six mascots kicking a ball around the pitch; the biggest boy rather predictably dribbling the ball out of reach of his younger peers. Meanwhile, eight teenage girls dance without unison to a bland pop-soul record on the halfway line. The planned entertainment isn’t nearly as interesting as the trio sitting in front of me, playing out some kind of polygamous relationship in the cheap seats at the back of the Jack Harris Stand; the girls taking a turn to get the man’s attention and affection, like Rita, Sue and Bob too without the sharp script.
A middle-aged man takes his seat next to me and, spotting my notebook, sees a chance to get his views on the modern game out to the nation. “Write this down,” he tells me and recounts the story of his previous weekend watching England at Wembley, a 16-hour round trip at the cost of £150. “Only to be told in the papers the next day that we are rubbish supporters,” he adds. The story seems to sum up a lot of his confusion with being a modern fan. Throughout the game he’ll shout abuse at the players before catching himself, adding something encouraging and turning to me to confirm his belief that you’ve got to support the team these days.
After the forced politeness of the line-ups shaking hands gives the day a sense of occasion it has hitherto lacked, Coventry get under way with a long clearance. Then, before either team has had a chance to settle, City are 1‑0 up. A long diagonal ball is headed down by Leon Best, laid off by Freddy Eastwood and tucked home by Michael Mifsud with relative ease. It’s the third game in a row in which Wolves have conceded early on, though they have held out for five-and-a-half minutes longer than the 25 seconds they managed against Swansea last time out. It is too early for any finger pointing and the Wolves fans raise their voices to encourage the team to recover from this early blow. If anything, they get worse.
A mistake by James Collins soon allows a through ball by Mifsud to reach Best. One-on-one with the keeper, he seems surprised at the ease of the chance and side-foots it straight at Carl Ikeme. Coventry look relaxed and in control, Wolves – like my friend next to me – look increasingly uncomfortable. Two minutes later another mistake by Collins allows Eastwood to reach the byline, but Stephen Ward makes an excellent covering tackle to put the ball out for a corner. A second City goal seems inevitable, though.
If you wanted to represent these teams’ personalities in the appearance of their managers, you couldn’t do much better than the two stalking the technical areas today. Mick McCarthy – his team all old-fashioned wing-play and hitting the big man early – shouts and cajoles in his Yorkshire accent and ill-fitting club tracksuit. Chris Coleman – his team sitting back and hitting with pace and skill on the break – strolls the touchline with his hands coolly in the pockets of his continental suit.
Coventry are all about space and movement, Wolves are static and frustrated, forced to go long to Chris Iwelumo again and again. Iwelumo has spent the previous week being mocked for a terrible miss on his Scotland debut and he won’t get a chance to atone for it today, playing the whole game with his back to goal. It is role that Emile Heskey is currently being lauded for, but having such a player in your side can present its own problems. When it isn’t clicking into place, it can be all too easy to use him as an excuse to hit it long with hope rather than conviction.
But then, as half-time approaches, the momentum shifts. Michael Kightly earns a corner and from the resulting headed clearance takes the ball down and forces Keiren Westwood to palm his shot around the near post. Wolves begin to press, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake has a header cleared off the line and then, with the half just about wrapped up and men pushing past me on their way to the bar, Wolves are rewarded for their ten minutes of pressure. Ebanks-Blake chests the ball down on the edge of the area and Andy Keogh tries a chipped ball through for Iwelumo. He can’t chase it down (he’s unsurprisingly facing the wrong way), but Kightly nips in from the left and takes the ball around Westwood before firing his team level. Kightly, a constant pacy threat, perhaps doesn’t deserve to be behind, but the rest of his side can count themselves lucky to be going back to the dressing room level.
Wolves resume in control, suddenly players are available for passes, runs are being made and, after 15 minutes, another goal has been scored. Ebanks-Blake nips past Scott Dann on the right and cuts the ball back from the touchline for Kightly. His side-footed shot should be held by Westwood, but is fumbled up in the air for Ebanks-Blake to appear from behind him and head into the net. Should he have been given offside? His momentum from his earlier run had taken him off the pitch, so strictly he was out of play when the shot was taken, but should he have had to ask permission to return? Either way a goal is given and Ebanks-Blake runs towards the fans patting his badge in nausea-inducing style.
And that is about it for Wolves, who have played for a quarter of an hour each side of half-time and then are back to their worst. Inspired by the jinking Jay Tabb, Coventry press. Shots from Tabb and Clinton Morrison are somehow kept out from point-blank range in one scramble, while Elliott Ward then manages to miss the ball completely from three yards out as the ball drops from a Best header.
Eastwood had a strange spell at Wolves last season: he arrived as a big-money signing, spent most of his time on the substitutes’ bench, then left for Coventry for an undisclosed fee. Many Wolves fans feel that Eastwood was hard-done-by at the club and so far that has been reflected by a reception that has lacked any real malice, but when he picks up a booking the sadly predictable chants of “Where’s your caravan?” and the even less articulate “Gypo, gypo” ring around the Jack Harris stand.
My friend continues to turn to me to offer his analysis, which usually is lost in the over-excited crowd before reaching my ears. I opt to repeat back the odd word that I’ve gathered and agree like some kind of terrible Phil Neal. Then with four minutes of injury time signalled it becomes too much for him and he goes against the fashion of the fans around us and sits down out-of-sight for the first time in the game, hiding his face like a man who is no longer convinced Stephen King’s Misery was the right film to rent from Blockbuster. But Wolves hold on and somehow they are top of the league again, having been outplayed for most of the game.
The fans file out, puffing on cigarettes as soon they make it through the exit, creating a cloud of billowing smoke that makes walking out of the ground feel like taking the stage on Stars in their Eyes. “We are top of the league, we are top of the league” they sing, though you get the feeling not many of them think it will last.
From WSC 262 December 2008