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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 02/11/02
Wolverhampton Wanderers
No middle ground
By Matt Rowson

The current unseemly splurge, mutation and counter-mutation of reality TV / talent show / fly-on-the-wall conveyor-belt television programmes defies belief. Quite how anybody, even those with such an inclination, is supposed to follow which fresh-faced twentysomething is participating in which contrived exercise to induce calls to whichever however-many-pence-per-minute phoneline, is beyond me. Tabloid television in its crudest, most grotesque, most unashamed form.

And as time progresses, the bottom of the lucrative barrel of formats of such ideas is scraped ever more desperately. It seems inconceivable now that the first Big Brother series two-and-a-half years ago seemed a pretty original idea. The version I'm waiting for is the one which sees assorted Big Brother participants, Hear'say, Will Young, Gareth Gates, and however many others released in the middle of Dartmoor with a view to seeing who survives the deranged exhaustion of the public the longest.

Such variations on a once popular theme are far more palatable and entertaining when they occur spontaneously, rather than as a tired flogging of a long-dead horse. Take Wolves, for example. It's a couple of years since they finished a season in their anointed position of seventh; nonetheless, they continue to delight by finding new and imaginative ways to avoid promotion.

Last season, of course, was a classic of its type that will take some beating. With Watford's season long-since consigned to the limited middle-ground between play-off hopes and relegation worries, the rapidly dissipating gap between Wolves and their local rivals developed an air of inevitability. My Unit Manager, a Manchester United fan with limited interest in affairs below the Premiership, made the mistake of asking about Watford's season, only to be filled in on the welcome distraction at the top of the table. Mondays for the rest of the season as Wolves' eleven-point head start whittled away tended to feature Lawrence sticking his head around the office door, grinning, and leaving again. 'Nuff said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wolves failed to negotiate the play-offs and started slowly this season as if dazed by a sucker-punch. Their form has occasionally threatened to ignite with some particularly convincing-looking home wins peppering their results so far, however a consistent run has eluded them until the last fortnight. As I write Wolves are three goals and a man up at Gillingham, and look to be on their way to a third straight win. Wolves' correspondent in the Observer, with typical measure, responded to their win over Grimsby by observing that the "promotion push is back on track". There is, of course, no middle ground for Wolves fans. I guess they're never bored.

In goal for Wolves is likely to be Matt Murray, an England U21 international who retained his place having originally stood in whilst Michael Oakes was injured.

At the back, the highly rated Joleon Lescott has recently been partnered with the even younger Mark Clyde. Originally introduced due to a suspension to team captain Paul Butler (still beloved of Watford fans), Clyde impressed at Stoke and retained his place, although the pacey Steve Kabba gave him a few problems in the Grimsby game. Frenchman Ludo Pollet is a further option in the centre.

Right-back is Marc Edworthy, for a long-time rumoured to be Ray Lewington's mystery "Number Two" in the summer prior to Neal Ardley's arrival. On the left, another experienced man in Dennis Irwin, also linked to Vicarage Road not too long ago. Lee Naylor and Mohamed Camara provide cover, but Jones' former Stockport rightback Sean Connelly was recently released from his contract.

The midfield is vastly experienced, featuring three men in their thirties with a shedload of appearances (and bookings) under their belt. Alex Rae would be an annoying git whoever he was playing for - he missed Tuesday night's game with a groin strain. Paul Ince, now 35, has already got the hang of Molineux by offering "everyone wants to beat Wolves" as a defence of his new club's uncertain form. Yes Paul, clubs are happy to lose to us, it's a whole load easier. Colin Cameron, ex-of Hearts, is an important third member of the midfield. On the right-hand side, Shaun Newton has been the basis of much of the questioning of David Jones' selections, but George Ndah, who is blessed with pace but can't cross for toffee, featured on Tuesday night as Newton contracted a virus. Ivan Ingimarsson, formerly with Ray Lewington at Brentford, and ex-Stockport and Wimbledon winger Kevin Cooper are further options, but Mark Kennedy and Keith Andrews are still returning from injury and Michael Branch is on loan at Hull.

Up front, Nathan Blake is guaranteed a start but his partner is less clear with Scot Kevin Miller, veteran poacher Dean Sturridge and Ndah all competing. Adam Proudlock has recently begun a loan at Tranmere.

Recent games have seen Wolves crank up their performances in the second half, but there's still a tendency to resort to long-ball when things aren't going well. As for how Wolves will match last season's entertainment... well, a return to seventh place is only a matter of time. A clock alongside Truls' infamous "Time Spent in the Wrong Division" effort marking a more accurate and significant landmark is surely long overdue.