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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 22/12/01
Wolverhampton Wanderers
Know your place
By Ian Grant

When you think about it, Jonathan Ross is a complete tosser. Actually, you probably don't need to think about it all that much....

It's the waste that annoys most, really. For Ross spent years as a celebrity without portfolio, an idiot-for-hire. Despite no apparent lack of brains, he could be relied upon to fill any vacancy that kept him on our screens, whether that vacancy was for a tediously puerile guest on a game show or a tediously puerile host for an awards ceremony. Lord, how he must've mourned the demise of "Blankety Blank", that care home for bored b-list celebs.

Then, for no apparent reason, he landed the job as successor to Barry Norman on the BBC's "Film..." programme. Here, at last, was all that he needed. For Ross knows about films, loves films, can talk about films, can give intelligent opinions on them. This was his chance, his calling. All he needed to do was to concentrate on it, to bid wholeheartedly for hand-me-down credibility and authority from his predecessor. It would inevitably come.

Clearly, however, nobody pointed out something rather fundamental. Namely, that no-one expects to get advice on what to see at the cinema from Graham Norton, just as no-one expects to hear rubbish knob gags and inane smut from Barry Norman. You can no more take on and succeed in both roles than you can deliver a lecture on Third World debt while dressed as a circus clown. Obvious to everyone, except Jonathan.

As a consequence, he's completely blown it. The tedious puerile guest appearances have continued, expanded to include his own show on Friday nights...which is, predictably, execrable. And, occasionally, he pops up on "Film..." and expects us to take his opinions seriously, to spend our money and waste our evenings based on what he thinks. It's all gone wrong.

Yesterday, while enduring freezing temperatures and dire football, it was difficult to escape the impression that we've discarded our chance in an equally careless, idiotic way. Quite why so many changes were necessary ahead of Wednesday's cup tie remains a complete mystery, as did much of what went on here. As we attempted to attack Wolves in the second half with Tommy Smith as a wing-back on the left, it seemed like an act of almost wilful sabotage. It wasn't broken, we fixed it regardless. And fixed it thoroughly.

Granted, a point against Wolves can't be considered to be a bad result, especially as it continues an impressive unbeaten run in the league. Really, though, this team is capable of so much more. At times, it was as if we were dragging ourselves through a swamp of our own making, hindered and frustrated by a formation that appears not to be to our advantage in any respect. The excellent three-part defence has been spread wider and thinner, the midfield lacks width, the attack is painfully isolated. There was plenty of effort here, and most of it was wasted.

This was a dreadful football match. There are worse ways to spend the last Saturday before Christmas, of course...but it has to be said that, in comparison to battering and barging your way round the shopping centre, eating your own toenails would probably be preferable. My word, the cold bit deep during this long afternoon, as we huddled in the stands with little to distract us other than groaning at each misplaced pass and checking our watches to see if our luck would hold out for long enough to claim a point. We know that we're better than this. It just seems so bizarre that the management team apparently disagrees.

I'll be reasonable. I'll point out that the first ten minutes were enjoyable enough and greatly preferable to anything that followed, even if we did concede the opening goal. This was a comparatively innocent time, with the weak winter sunshine still providing some warmth and the referee retaining some control over proceedings. Indeed, Mr Crick was even charitable enough to penalise Sturridge for what looked like a perfectly legal turn against Pierre Issa in the first couple of minutes, although he was to even things up by ignoring a blatant push by the same striker on the same defender in the build-up to the goal.

But we asserted ourselves rapidly. Indeed, Tommy Smith forced a tremendous save from Oakes in the third minute, swivelling after receiving a free kick from the left and striking a superb, dipping shot. Further pressure followed, and Smith had another chance when Gifton Noel-Williams battled to hook a stray cross back into play. With the defence caught unawares, Smith headed wide from eight yards. A promising start, which promptly evaporated five minutes later, as Kennedy's swinging cross found Newton lurking unattended at the far post for a simple header past Alec Chamberlain.

Instantly, the temperature dropped and our performance followed suit. The game never really recovered its poise. With silence descending on the stands, we fumbled for our form in the face of Wolves' aggression and organisation. They look unexceptional...but, as with Burnley's current success, they prove that there's little magic involved in getting out of this division. After years of being fancy, laughable arse, Wolves finally look well equipped. Had Kennedy been slightly less selfish when played in as a result of hesitation in midfield from Paolo Vernazza and Micah Hyde, they might've gone further ahead. Instead, his low shot from the corner of the box was fielded by Chamberlain with strikers waiting for a cross.

With nothing much happening, an equaliser seemed unlikely. It remained unlikely as Paul Robinson's long cross dropped towards the head of Naylor, to muffled growling from the stands. Implausibly, Naylor ducked his head warily towards the ball like a nervous schoolkid, missed it completely, and it ended up with the startled Smith. He controlled it, and lashed a half-volley into the bottom corner via a slight touch from Oakes' fingertips. A moment to check that it had crept in, then a rare moment of warmth and celebration.

There was no revival, though. The game had lost its momentum, become irretrievably scrappy and aimless. As it stood, and as it continued, Wolves were simply likelier to score...their play was hardly superior, yet it yielded occasional chances. In contrast, the home side failed to create a clear opening during the rest of the ninety minutes, something that seemed to owe much more to its shape than anything else. Everything was dependent on passing and movement...and neither were up to the task, frankly. The result was that we seemed incapable of holding onto possession for longer than a couple of seconds. Despite a marginal improvement towards half-time, it was abysmal.

For Wolves, Newton might've done better when arriving to meet a flicked-on long throw and volleying wide into a crowd of players. Chamberlain caught a looping header from Blake on the bounce, but was rather less comfortable as Rae's ferocious drive swerved away from the top corner. For Watford...well, not a lot.

Lucky half-time chocolate: Moose on a stick.
Reason: What, you need a reason for a chocolate moose on a stick?
Level of success: No victory...but a couple of very narrow escapes on the way to a draw.

The second half was dismal. Really dour, and painfully cold. During its course, Wolves really ought to have taken the opportunity to put struggling opponents out of their misery, and we all ought to have been given the chance to get rid of an appalling referee. Unfortunately, the latter isn't possible under FA rules. Fortunately, the former was made less likely by Blake's astonishing miss in the third minute, somehow shinning Newton's driven cross wide from two yards with no-one anywhere near. To say that he should've scored would be something of an understatement.

Although Micah Hyde and Gary Fisken both struck tame shots at Oakes, and Sturride and Paolo Vernazza tried their luck later on, it was nearly half an hour before any further noteworthy goalmouth action. In between, we tinkered with tactics and personnel, while doing little to inspire confidence. The quality of our play, which rarely got beyond striking the first pass straight to a Wolves shirt, was the source of immense anguish...yet it had much to do with the lack of easy options for the player in possession. Luca Vialli can claim that we deserved to get something out of the game, but he'd be hard-pushed to explain how we might've won it in open play.

Down at the Vic Road end, Newton met a drifting corner on the volley at the far post, bringing a fine reaction save from Chamberlain to push the ball behind. The keeper also did well to hold onto a Cameron shot from distance with strikers around him, before Ramon Vega, excellent otherwise, was somewhat fortunate not to be penalised for a clumsy challenge on Blake inside the area. Not, however, as fortunate as Rae, whose blatant handball above Marcus Gayle's head as they contested a Robinson cross was unseen by a referee who'd managed to enrage everyone in the stadium by the final whistle.

Whatever criticism should be levelled at Mr Crick, however, ought not to obscure the fact that Rae's moment of madness was not of our creation. Nothing else was of our creation either. We were not going to score in a million years, and you wonder what exactly inspired this change of approach, this unnecessary conceding of the initiative at a critical point in the season. Why?

The last few minutes were as ugly as before, only slightly more ill-tempered for all concerned. As injury time began, we were lucky again, as Muscat's fiendish drive from twenty-five yards appeared destined to swerve past Chamberlain and into the bottom corner. Instead, it swerved just too much, smacked against the woodwork and bounced out to safety. So, yeah, we have every right to regard this as a point gained. We don't, however, have the right to forget how we gained it.

There's a lot to be said for knowing what you're good at. Bizarrely, we seem to have deliberately ignored what we're good at. You'd be tempted to quip that we must enjoy a challenge, were it not for the sense that we've just ducked the challenge. For, whatever the intention, the result of the recent changes is a side that's conservative and tentative, that has neither potency nor passion, that's suddenly going nowhere again.

It's a side that still belongs in mid-table. The feeling that it needn't be so only increases the frustration.