By Mike Smart
I try to resist, of course, but the evil of the Premiership is in your face pretty much wherever you look, so I pretty much know what’s going on there. I know, for example, that Birmingham have given themselves a worryingly good chance of staying up. Play up Pompey! I know that there is great excitement at the prospect that there may be a whopping two (yes, two) clubs in with a chance of winning the thing. I can barely contain my excitement. I know that Tottenham are likely to finish outside the middle-eight for the first time since the Premiership (and, therefore, football) began.
Looking at Divisions Three and Four to catch up with some old friends, it seems Southend will be joining us next season (unless, of course…). Kenny Jackett’s Swansea are in the process of blowing it, Nottingham Forest, for all their disasters this season, are pretty close to the play-offs. Walsall appear doomed, as do MK Dons (or whatever), despite the fact that they seem to win whenever I see their result. Carlisle have Division Four pretty much sewn up, Torquay have had it and Oxford, for so much of my football supporting life at the same or a similar level to ourselves, are at present one point from dropping out of the league. There but for the grace of God…
Wolves, by the way, are seventh…
Y’know, I have to confess that I think Wolves are just fabulous. For sheer comedy value, there is nothing to beat them. It almost doesn’t matter that we haven’t beaten them at Molineux since Mo Johnston scored a hat-trick in a five-nil thumping in December 1983; visiting Molineux is usually a joy. As the boos ring out following Wolves’ failure to score in the first five minutes, you are reassured that all’s well with the world.
One of the very few benefits of living in Birmingham is the joy of listening to the football phone-ins on Radio WM. And not for these guys a once-a-week chat on a Friday evening. This lot like to go over and over it, every night of the week. It’s simply wonderful. Call me a voyeur, but I challenge you to spend an evening in the second city and not tune in to 95.6FM.
The gist of the Wolves fans’ feelings, other than the obvious fact that anything other than World Domination is simply unacceptable for such an Enormous Club, is that everything is rubbish, and that it’s everyone else’s fault. Not enough’s been invested, there’s been loads of money but successive managers have wasted it, most of the players aren’t interested, Hoddle doesn’t want to be here…
Actually, I have a degree of sympathy on that last point. A very small degree, but a degree nonetheless. Maybe it’s just his way, his natural demeanour, but he comes across as completely passionless. Somehow, Hoddle and Wolves just doesn’t seem to be a match. Quite who would be a match for Wanderers could be a competition on its own; I can see them with Norris Cole from Coronation Street in charge, both being sort of comedy characters that you laugh at rather than with. Anyway, there is an overwhelming feeling that Glenda must go, although in their wisdom, the Wolves board gave the ex-England man a twelve-month rolling contract, so he’s not going to be cheap to get rid of. The Wolverhampton Express & Star is currently running a poll as to who should replace Hoddle. Among the names being mentioned here and on phone-ins and message boards are Mick McCarthy, Ian Holloway and Gary Megson (!), all of whom have been sacked this season. Keep clutching those straws, guys! Others reportedly in the frame are Rob Kelly, Paul Simpson, Mike Newell, Paul Ince, Steve Bull (of course) and, um, Adrian Boothroyd. Whatever.
Whoever is in charge, and despite the Mirror’s claims to the contrary, it is felt that it could still be Hoddle, it has been made clear by Chief Executive Jez Moxey that it will be a very different Wolves side next season, as parachute payments end. Which is probably no bad thing; the supporters (sic) are very much “out of love” with this lot. And I’m sure they will take into account the circumstances, and be patient with the new players. Ahem.
My guess is that it really doesn’t matter who’s the boss or who the players are. Wolves have been in this division, one season aside, for a long, long time, and apparently, it’s not been good enough for most of that time. If they really are underachieving, there’s obviously something intrinsically rotten at the place. Managers and players have come and gone, and even the never-popular-wherever-he-goes Moxey hasn’t been there forever. Still, they fail.
You’d really think the penny would drop. A succession of managers have been hounded out, including Graham Taylor, who went on to achieve promotion with a very cheap Watford side. Including also Dave Jones, who is the one bloke to get Wolves promoted. But after their relegation, Wolves were eleven points of the play-offs by November, so hey, let’s get him out too. He’s now just a point behind Wolves with a Cardiff team of rejects and youth team products, by the way.
Hoddle maintains, of course, that the play-offs are still achievable. Two games ago, he set a fourteen point target for the remaining six games. That’ll be thirteen points from the last four, then; it’s imperative that they pick up four points against the Hornets. Maybe this is the year that we finally win at Molineux; heaven knows I deserve it, if no-one else does! Time after time, I’ve travelled the short-ish journey to Molineux full of optimism. I’ve seen tight battles, jammy late equalisers from Steve Bull, jammy late equalisers from Kevin Phillips, abject surrender and Mick Quinn rolling around the pitch in a Watford shirt that strained at every seam. One day, I will see us win there. It could be this Friday. It really could.
Present incumbent between the posts is Stefan Postma. Another ex-Villa keeper, Michael Oakes, is the bench warmer, although a recent message board debate showed that an Oakes recall would be welcomed, the suggestion being that Postma has looked decidedly dodgy of late. What support didn’t go to Oakes went largely to injury-prone Matt Murray, currently on loan at Tranmere.
At the back, Joleon Lescott looks to be in the final furlong of his Wolves career, and of the likely departures this summer, is the only one with much potential to bring in significant funds, Aston Villa being one possible destination. He has been partnered in the centre by Jody Craddock for the last two games, Hungarian Gabor Gyepes having had surgery this week on a cruciate injury picked up in the home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday. Craddock himself has recently returned to fitness following a knee injury. Rob Edwards can cover the centre-back position, but is a more familiar sight at right-back, and an even more familiar sight on the bench, as Maurice Ross is presently in favour. Lee Naylor, something of a set piece specialist, is a fixture at left-back, with youngster Daniel Jones, who made a forgettable debut in the defeat at Plymouth, as cover. Jackie McNamara, listed by the official site as a defender, is on his way back from a knee injury sustained nine games into the season. He’s unlikely to be ready to face us, having suffered a setback in the reserves’ defeat to Birmingham this week. A recent interview confirmed that further misfortune has compounded his misery: “I have just bought a house in the area”, he explains. In McNamara’s absence, the only other defensive cover comes in the shape of seventeen-year-old Mark Little, who has yet to make his debut, but has been an unused substitute in the last two games. I wonder if he’s been booed yet…
The midfield options are limited by injuries. It’s highly unlikely we’ll get to see Darren Anderton pick up an injury, because he’s injured. His hamstring this time; the former England man has picked up injuries in places most of us don’t have places. Nigerian Seyi Olofinjana is out with a long-term injury, and was out of favour anyway and Denes Rosa has a groin injury. One of the main complaints about Hoddle has been his refusal to play a 4-4-2, opting for a sort of 4-5-1 or 4-3-3, depending on your point of view. Two men who will probably feature in midfield are the popular figures of captain Paul Ince and Colin Cameron. Ince is thirty-eight now, and if recent reports are to be believed, has more energy about him than most of his team-mates. Cameron, thirty-three himself, was a pain in the backside in our recent defeat at home to Millwall. There is bewilderment at Molineux that he was allowed to leave on loan in the first place. Eighteen-year-old Mark Davies, who played in the Carling Cup exit at Vicarage Road earlier in the season, became something of a regular in Cameron’s absence, and will probably be a substitute. Which is probably a silly thing to say, because it’s doubtful that even Glenn Hoddle is very good at predicting Glenn Hoddle’s team selections.
In the forward-or-midfield-depending-on-who-you-listen-to positions, Celtic-bound Kenny Miller was the man on the right until he picked up a two match ban for collecting ten yellow cards. His suspension ends after the Watford game, which is a terrible shame. There was dismay at Hoddle’s positioning of Miller at first, although this part of the arrangement seems to have grown on the Molineux – ahem – faithful. South Korean World Cup hopeful Ki-Hyeon Seol deputised in the draw with Coventry. On the left, the increasingly unpopular Mark Kennedy (yes, the one who hit a screamer to set Wolves on the road to play off success) alternates with former Spurs man Rohan Ricketts.
If you think this preview’s going on a bit, we haven’t even got to the Tomasz Frankowski saga! There was increasing dismay in January at Wolves’ failure to make any signings. After all, if in doubt, throw money at the situation, right? Anyway, a striker seemed to be top of the wish list. So, you’d think that a striker with proven international pedigree (ten goals in seventeen games for Poland) and a hundred and twenty-four goals from less than two hundred games might fit the bill, then? He made his debut in the FA Cup defeat at home to Manchester United, and didn’t score. Well, that was it; the phone-lines at Radio WM went berserk. Enraged Birmingham fans wishing to complain about the signing of Chris Sutton couldn’t get a word in. What was Hoddle doing paying £1.4 million for a guy who didn’t even score? Amazingly, despite his supportive environment, Frankowski still hasn’t scored thirteen appearances later. “We could have signed Fryatt with that money”, remarked one correspondent. That’ll be the Fryatt who’s scored one goal in the last ten games in a winning Leicester side, then. Good call. Frankowski is in and out of the side now, sharing the starting shirt with top scorer Carl Cort. Top scorer, although only two of his eleven goals have come post-September. Jeremie Aliadiere is a fixture. Conversely, the supporters ooze with praise for the on-loan Arsenal man. Who has one goal in ten games. It’s a funny old world. One time Watford target George Ndah is fit, and playing for the reserves, but hasn’t played a first team game since December. Romanian international Vio Ganea is another player with a story to tell – yes, there’s more – having launched a broadside at Glenn Hoddle in a Romanian newspaper interview recently. “He's the most difficult coach I have worked with in my entire career. I don't even know if I can name two or three players who are satisfied with Hoddle,” he contends. Funnily enough, Ganea hasn’t played since.
In Watford’s end-of-season quest to keep up the pressure on Sheffield United in the (probably forlorn) hope that they’ll, well, do a Wolves, this game is an entertaining sideshow. The chances are high that we won’t win, it’s true. But boy, am I looking forward to this game.
I could go on, but we’ve all got lives to get on with. I haven’t really got time to go into the “Fans’ Parliament”, or the fact that, for those supporters arriving early on Friday, there is the opportunity to attend a book signing featuring Steve Bull among a dozen Wolves legends. Strangely, there is no place for David Connolly at the table.
Y’know, I work in a school, and I’m told that just before I arrived there was a Teaching Assistant who supported Wolves. The rumours that he lost his job because every time a child got a question wrong he started booing are apparently unsubstantiated. But it seems a reasonable assumption.