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Nationwide Division One, 17/4/01
Wolverhampton Wanderers
By Ian Grant

Over the weekend, an incident at the local video shop. On Sunday, I rented a copy of "Magnolia", P.T. Andersen's magnificent journey into the heart of this-and-that-and-such-and-such.

On Monday, I returned the tape. Well, actually, that's not strictly true. I returned a tape, in that what they got back was not "Magnolia" but an age-old, sticker-covered cassette, with Saturday's edition of "Match of the Day" recorded on it. This became clear when I attempted to record Monday's "Match of the Day" over the top of "Magnolia", and was prevented from doing so by my video's in-built idiocy protection system.

On Tuesday, I sorted it out.

This does have relevance.

You see, everyone does dumb stuff from time to time. Everyone gets themselves into situations that need a bit of sorting out. Generally, honest mistakes are easy to forgive.

There's something slightly dishonest about this Watford side right now, though. Something that's noticeably shifty, that refuses to look you in the eye. Watching them, it's rather hard to remember the heart-pounding unity that we felt two years ago, the sense of being in it together. In many cases, you wonder whether they're really in it at all. Which makes it rather harder to forgive the dumb stuff.

So, this thoroughly bizarre, nonsensical football match. Such an oddity, in fact, that no reaction - laughter, tears, fainting, boredom, rejoicing, blind fury - would've been entirely inappropriate. Appropriately, then, it received the most inappropriate reaction of all...a standing ovation.

In customary fashion, we began as if this was the first pre-season friendly after a long, lazy summer. Within a minute, Robert Page was slicing a clearance behind for a corner; within two, Carl Robinson was wellying a half-volley over from the edge of the box. There remains an inexplicable fuzziness about us, something that we struggle to shake off when we step out onto the pitch.

All of which was blown away by the first goal, which arrived entirely unannounced. From Gifton Noel-Williams' header, Tommy Smith sped away on the right. His low cross, smacked precisely into the six yard box, found Tommy Mooney sliding in to score the zillionth goal of his quite extraordinary season. And, within the first ten minutes, we were ahead.

In no time, the second arrived. But not before Wolves had wasted a gift-wrapped opportunity to equalise, mind. After Branch had comprehensively beaten Paul Robinson and Robert Page on the wing, the cross found Andrews unattended at the near post. From ten yards, he headed weakly at Alec Chamberlain. There and then, Robinson made a mental note to make sure that it didn't happen again.

Really, Tommy Smith's second belonged to an infinitely superior game. It was special, a little bit magical. As he picked up possession on the right and cut across the face of the penalty area, he lacked support and an obvious pass. As he went further across, it appeared that he was losing control of the ball, allowing it to get too far away from him. He responded to the challenge, stretching and shooting with his left foot from twenty yards. Oakes might've seen it...but, as it ripped into the bottom corner, he could do nothing about it. Superb.

That, ultimately, was the difference between the two sides. While Tommy Mooney's belligerence was certainly admirable, pumping things up even when the game appeared comfortably won and complacency was setting in, it was the pace, poise and precision of Tommy Smith that settled things. Without it, our mediocrity would've been undisguised. As it was, there were enough moments when the youngster tore the heart out of the Wolves defence to save his lacklustre team-mates. It shouldn't be like that, of course. Nevertheless, we should thank our lucky stars.

To prove the point, the frenetic opening was followed by twenty minutes of workmanlike tedium. Naturally, this would've been fine and lovely, if it'd represented the final death throes of the Wolves side and an assertion of control by the comfortable leaders. Naturally, this wasn't the case. It was just that neither side could string two passes together. Needless to say, Mr Smith didn't touch the ball very often.

Again, though, the match came to life, like sudden moments of lucid expression in a drunken conversation. After half an hour, Wolves should've found the net once more as Chamberlain came to meet a corner and was beaten by Pollet, who headed narrowly wide. With the notable exception of Neil Cox, we really weren't defending very well at all. In truth, we appeared to be hoping that the midfield bashing and crashing wouldn't get close to our goal, thus removing the need to solve the evident problems. By and large, it didn't.

Back to Tommy Smith, then. Allan Nielsen's curling ball from the right into the space behind the defence, thousands of eyes following its trajectory and finding Smith sprinting away from Connelly. The Wolves player was never going to win that race. He knew it, so he unceremoniously yanked his opponent back to prevent him from running clear. From the other end, it was difficult to see how there could be any argument about the nature of the foul and the colour of the card. That said, we've all seen players booked in such circumstances. Bravely, the referee did the right thing. From the free kick, Neil Cox curled a shot into Oakes' arms.

That was that. Two-nil and one player up, no worries. No sense in looking too closely at our performance to that point. Just settle things down, play professionally, and collect the three points. If you can't add to the lead, no need to worry - stay calm and controlled at the back, and the worst result will be that two-nil win. No prob...


Perhaps it wasn't entirely surprising to see Branch beating Robinson again, just as he had earlier to create that chance for Andrews. Clearly, though, Robbo had kept that mental note. This time, Branch wasn't getting away. No, sir. Even if he had to hang onto his shirt, push him and pull him and hold him while he ran into the penalty area, he wasn't getting away. You may already have spotted the flaw in this particular plan. Certainly, Allan Nielsen was fairly keen to explain it after the referee had pointed to the spot.

In keeping with everything else, the penalty itself was thoroughly peculiar. Having read Ndah's mind, Alec Chamberlain remained standing in the middle of his goal. He'd guessed correctly but, having done the hard bit, the smallest shift of weight to his left meant that he couldn't adjust quickly enough to stop the ball as it sped past the fingertips of his right hand. He planned the save perfectly, without actually making it.

So, with everything going in our favour, we managed to end the half in general disarray. Shortly afterwards, Ndah's powerful near post header from a corner narrowly cleared the cross bar. Although Peter Kennedy, in his best display since returning to fitness, was rather unfortunate to see his instant, dipping half-volley miss the target, there was a nervy, faltering wait for the referee's whistle.

After the interval, we recovered some of our composure. Only after substitute Proudlock had scraped a shot across the face of goal in the first minute, mind you. In the subsequent half hour, there were chances to wrap the game up, to flatter ourselves with a thoroughly decisive scoreline. Really, the criticism isn't based upon the fact that we didn't take them. It's got much more to do with the knowledge that a single goal lead against ten men wasn't enough.

For a spell, a third goal appeared imminent. Indeed, we came very close. From Robinson's cross and Mooney's downward header, Nielsen inventively hooked the bouncing ball over his shoulder from the penalty spot. With Oakes away from his line, it looped up, floated, and landed softly against the post. The linesman's flag ended Mooney's attempts to follow it in. Two minutes later, Noel-Williams' header from a Nielsen free kick brought a fine save from Oakes, who flicked it over the bar with his fingertips.

While the momentum didn't last, as the midfield again became bogged down and the supply to the forwards became increasingly erratic, that shouldn't have mattered. Without wishing to labour the point, there's something fundamentally wrong with a team, and particularly a defence, that looks so ill at ease under the slightest pressure. It took Wolves until the thirty minute mark to commence raids into opposition territory. They equalised almost immediately. We have no resilience.

It could've been worse, actually. Steve Palmer's uncomplicated barge on Proudlock, after the striker had seized on his opponent's poor control, was surely worthy of a yellow card that it didn't receive. From the free kick, Andrews smashed a shot just over from twenty-five yards. Still, they didn't have to wait too long. A corner, Ndah's header down, and Proudlock's sharp turn and shot from the edge of the six yard box. It hit Palmer on the line, he couldn't keep it out. Two-nil and a player up. It just gave us further to fall.

Positive things? Well, there was a reaction. We could so easily have fallen further, taking any hopes of a playoff place with us. Even if the response was motivated mainly by sheer terror, by the thought of the mauling that they'd receive for their abject failure to secure a straightforward win in such favourable circumstances, that doesn't particularly matter. At least it was motivated by something.

For five minutes, we held our heads in our hands. Not out of despair, but to protect ourselves as our season collapsed around us. Kennedy headed at Oakes from a Cox free kick, Ndah shot low at Chamberlain, Mooney couldn't get enough power on a header. Then, in the dying moments, we pulled ourselves free of the wreckage.

Thus far, I've been hard on them. Rightly so, I think. Not now, though. At the end of all this nonsense, they produced a final spell of sufficient ferocity to snatch the points back. That is, there was more than just a winning goal here. More than a barrage of attacks too. Crucially, there was a refusal to give it up - failure, indifferent refereeing, and plain bad luck didn't prevent us from picking ourselves up for another go. In itself, that makes an extremely welcome change.

It brought reward. In the end. Now, however, we couldn't be faulted. Tommy Smith was ruled offside as he dived in to score from Page's knockdown, a decision that must've been tight. He was even more unfortunate when Kennedy's quickly-taken free kick sent him tearing away, only for the referee to pull play back and require us to start again against a fully-populated Wolves defence. When Oakes soared up to push Mooney's thumping header over the bar as injury time began, even this hard-hearted old reporter might've forgiven a few drooping heads.

Instead, one last surge. Inevitably, it came through Tommy Smith, played into space on the left, turning and looking up. The Wolves defence was caught in a momentary lapse, the low cross gave Heidar Helguson the simplest of tap-ins at the far post. He'd only been on the pitch for a couple of minutes, and it could even have been his first touch. Complete and total relief. Thank heavens.

Who knows, eh? Perhaps this'll be the one that sends them on their way, bounding over others into a playoff spot. Or perhaps not. Really, nothing's changed. The sustained run of form that would push us into promotion contention remains completely elusive, just as the gap that we need to bridge remains small enough to tantalise us. We've been here before, many times.

Perhaps I'm being overly harsh on the players. But recent setbacks have left an unpleasant taste in the mouth. There's a bottom line here, and it's got nothing to do with finishing in the top six. In four games' time, it'll be about the number of players who can look themselves in the mirror and know that, when it really came down to it, they were there. That their teammates, their manager, their club could count on them.

There's still time.