A Blessing in Disguise
By Mike Smart
Of course, I've walked through that subway before. You know, the one where there's always a different bloke, but the same dog, begging for loose change. Always without the three points, never without some sort of disappointment. When Steve Bull scored an eighty-seventh minute equaliser in September 1992, I sort of guessed that Molineux was never going to be the happiest of places for me. Eight months earlier, I witnessed a dismal 0-3 drubbing in which Wolves never needed to be anything more than utter crap to claim a comfortable victory. My A-level Economics teacher at the time smugly remarked on the following Monday: "I've seen some bad teams come to Molineux, but bloody hell!".
"I've seen my bad team go to some bad grounds, but bloody hell!" was the retort I disappointingly thought of about a week later.
This time, though, it's a bit different. Oh sure, it goes without saying that we don't have the three points. I suppose there's disappointment too; for some reason, I always go there thinking, "This could be the year…"
But there's some optimism too. And that's not to ignore Marlon King's dismissal six minutes from time; if anything, that could work in our favour. Apparently, it's a two-match ban for Marlon: two games in which Watford need to find a different way to score a goal. And can I suggest that "hoofing it up to Henderson" is a less than adequate Plan B; Watford's best spell came after Darius went off, Young in particular playing with a purpose to match his tireless work rate. Which is not to lay blame at Hendo's door; that he can win so much in the air is of great value. But there is so much more to his game, if any of his colleagues beside Marlon care to look for it. Never have we been more in the "hoof it to the big bloke" trap than in the last few games. Quite simply, in the first half at Molineux, if we were ever going to score (which, basically, we weren't), it was going to come from Marlon. Ashley ran a lot - and, of course, fell over a lot - to little effect, Springy was simply not finding himself in the sort of positions that have yielded him eight goals this season and Chris Eagles, quite simply, looked like a little boy lost.
All of which would not have been such a worry had we shown any intention of preventing Wolves scoring. That they only did once is largely down to Messrs Cameron and Frankowski, rather than interventions by any Watford players (the excellent Foster aside). Hoddle will point to the fact that his team should have taken six points from us this season. He's right, too. But "should've" makes little difference, either to the league table, or to public opinion, and choruses of "We want Hoddle out" towards the end of the match came as no surprise.
It took some time for anything to really happen in this match. When reporting for BSaD, you need to make judgments as to what's worthy of a place in The Notebook. In the opening minutes, there were one or two crosses, and I seem to recall someone may even have had a corner. When eight minutes had passed, and nothing had entered The Notebook, I figured it was probably time to widen the field a little. Thus, in the ninth minute, when something (which, being almost nothing, barely even constituted something) happened, I figured it was time to make a note. There were "oohs" from the Watford supporters, as King's challenge on Postma in the Wolves goal flew across to Henderson, the latter heading goalwards but without sufficient power to trouble the recovering keeper. It was to be hoped that there weren't going to be many challenges on Ben Foster at the other end, because in the absence of the unwell Chamberlain, we were sub-keeperless. Or so I thought, until it was pointed out to me that Dom Blizzard was clad in green shorts. Meanwhile, at a third team training session in Lancashire…
When Lee Naylor beat Ashley Young to the ball, he faced the choice between a shot and a pass into the area. He made the wrong decision, as the returning Carlisle cleared his through ball with ease. It was a mistake Naylor learned from, as the next time he found himself in this position, following a rare King error a quarter of an hour later, he smacked a menacing shot inches wide of the near post. Foster, for my money, did not have it covered. In between times, Colin Cameron, architect of our demise at home to Millwall last month, found himself unmarked, three yards out with half the goal to aim at, following a cross from Maurice Ross. To say he put it over would be to grossly understate the magnificence of what he achieved. Had the game been at Gresty Road, someone's car would have a ball-shaped dent on its roof.
Colin Cameron is something of a collectors' item, being a popular player at Molineux. Not enjoying such status (along with, at a guess, six of his colleagues in the starting eleven) is Stefan Postma. When Ashley Young's tame shot was cleared for a throw-in by the ex-Villa keeper, abuse and ridicule that was to be sent in his direction for the rest of the match began.
Jeering of Postma aside, the first noise to emanate from the home fans followed their goal in the seventeenth minute. And what a poor one from our point of view. Frankowski threaded the ball between defenders to the unmarked Aliadiere, without a goal in seven games, who scored, slotting the ball between Foster's legs. A suspicion of offside perhaps, but even if it was, you simply can't rely on linesmen to give those decisions. Sheffield United's win at Cardiff earlier in the afternoon rendered the result here something of an irrelevance. However, should the same thing happen at the Millennium Stadium, a video tape proving it was offside all along will be no consolation as Andy Johnson celebrates scoring the winning goal.
With that, the game disappeared into its shell for a few minutes. Ashley Young, doing what he does best when things aren't really going for him, hit the deck under minimal challenge from Naylor. Rightly, the referee ignored him, but this was not the last time that this unpleasant part of Young's game reared its ugly head. In short, it's difficult to take the moral high ground when Rob Kozluk comes to town if one of the more popular players at Vicarage Road conducts himself in this manner. "Managing the game", Aidy Boothroyd calls it. "Filthy cheating, deserving of a twenty-game ban", I call it.
Perhaps it was karma or something, then, as a splendid tackle by Lloyd Doyley on Ross was rewarded with a free kick to Wolves on the edge of the Watford area. Naylor warmed Ben Foster's palms with this one, the Hornets' keeper grabbing the ball at the second attempt, to the disappointment of the advancing Keith Lowe. An appropriate moment to mention the whole Watford left-back situation, then. It occurred to me, as I watched the very right-footed pairing of Lloyd Doyley and Chris Eagles patrolling the left flank in the first half, that it was quite ironic that the left footed Jordan Stewart and Anthony McNamee were sitting on the bench. Jordan Stewart is not a contender for Player of the Season, it's true. But there seems little sense in disrupting the entire defence in the search for a solution to one problem position. In Lloyd Doyley, we have a simply fabulous full back, and to suggest that the left back does the same job as the right back, but on the other side, is to over-simplify the situation. Lloyd is comfortable on the right, he knows where to be and what to do, and he quite simply never lets us down. Never. Moving him across takes him out of a helpful comfort zone, and could result in a loss of confidence. It also means you end up with nonsense like Jay Demerit at right back. Not that Jay had a bad game defensively, but it was a risk. No, for me Jordan Stewart has to play, until a better option presents himself. For the balance of the defence, for the sake of having a left foot supporting our attacks. For the simple reason that he's not that bad! Better to have a round peg in a round hole, even if that peg is made from rusty metal. As an aside, Naylor is another of the Molineux scapegoats. Worth a look I reckon, Mr. Boothroyd.
Chris Eagles, a pale shadow of the man who terrorised Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, was not really at the races. He was unnecessarily caught offside from a clever King flick in the twenty-seventh minute, and when a splendid Gavin Mahon challenge found him with the space to run at defenders, Eagles tamely surrendered the ball with a poor first touch. A tantalising glimpse of what the Manchester United man is capable of came when a terrific run frightened the life out of the Wolves defence, Lowe relieved to put the ball out for a corner. Just prior to that, a superb piece of control by Marlon King had taken a defender out of the game, but his pass to Henderson was slightly overhit. The initial control had deserved better.
Perhaps significant was the moment ten minutes from half time when Paul Ince pulled up. His substitution was greeted with shouts of "Paul Ince for manager". His replacement, former Spurs and Arsenal man Rohan Ricketts was, to put it politely, not great.
Mercifully, neither was the finish from Tomasz Frankowski when a bouncing clearance from a Watford corner sailed over Doyley and found the Pole in an unfeasibly large amount of space and time, although that was due in no small part to Foster, who could be forgiven for having ducked out of the challenge, the Leeds experience fresh in his mind and Dominic Blizzard warming up in the corner of his eye. On that fortieth minute moment hinged so much: get it right, and we could probably get to the break just a goal down, ready to regroup and plot a second half comeback. Get it wrong, and we are two down with ten men and Dom Blizzard in goal…
Foster emphatically got it right, although as he hovered on the edge of his area, it did seem that a lob was the obvious option. Perhaps when you haven't scored in your first thirteen games for your new club, you don't try a lob. Especially when your new club is Wolves. It was Doyley, by the way, who got back to clean up the situation.
Watford did threaten - sort of - before half time, an Ashley Young turn and shot after good work from the hitherto ineffective Spring taking a deflection on its way out for a corner. Then, a bouncing ball into the area found King, whose header was well wide of goal, though not quite wide enough to interest the advancing Eagles.
There was time for Aliadiere to fall over under challenge from no-one in particular and therefore win a free kick. Another chance for Naylor to test Foster. He did, and Foster passed, turning the ball round the post for a succession of corners. After three minutes of the one minute added on, the referee got tired of waiting for Wolves to score, and blew for half time. I'm not altogether sure why - even allowing for the fact that this is Wolves - but the whistle was met by a chorus of boos. The first half had been crap; little clue how to force an opening, despite the fact that we were winning nearly all the first headers, and little resilience at the back against an almost equally clueless Wolves attack. We've shown in recent weeks that we are good at throwing away a one-goal lead. How are we at overturning one?
Lucky half-time chocolate: None.
Reason: There are only so many of Cameron's Creme Eggs that can go missing before he starts to notice.
Level of success: Disappointing on the surface, but when you look into it, there are positives to be taken.
Right from the off, we were better. It took the departure of Henderson on the hour for us to find a real cutting edge, but leading up to that, we had possession, we had a purpose. And, on fifty-three minutes we had a scare, as an Aliadiere cross found Cameron, who reprised his dropkick into Row Z, this time from the edge of the area. Prior to that, a Young free kick found its way, via Doyley, to Spring, who hit a firm but straight shot at Postma. Encouraging; I can't remember the last time Spring was in a good shooting position.
Spring turned provider, hitting a good pass to King who looked unfortunate to be given offside. I had noticed that Henderson seemed to be feeling his foot a little. Hopefully just as a precaution, or perhaps as a tactical ploy - flipping good one if it was - he was replaced by McNamee, with Young joining King in the centre.
A Wolves free kick found Ross in more space than I knew existed in Wolverhampton, never mind in one penalty area. Possibly unfamiliar with his environment, he sent his volley over the bar. Then, Aliadiere was booked for a tackle whose bark was worse than its bite. True, he lunged at Demerit, but there was no suggestion that he might cause a problem to the American, and the booking seemed harsh.
Little Ant found himself involved uncharacteristically early on. His cross from the left - the first left footed cross from the left of the afternoon - caused rather unnecessary panic, Lowe nodding the ball helpfully to Young, who somewhat needlessly blazed the ball across the area and out for a throw. A promising start from the little guy on the left, reminiscent of some of his early season performances.
A throw-in on the right did not fill me with a sudden belief that a goal was imminent; had I noticed Marlon King unmarked on the far side, I may have felt a little more optimistic. As the ball came over, Keith Lowe was perhaps as distracted as I was by what seemed to be a foul on Malky Mackay. A half-hearted appeal momentarily diverted attention from the fact that the ball was making his way to King, inside the penalty area, enjoying the sort of space he has not been afforded all season. As the ball smacked into the net, Lowe probably made a mental note that it's unwise to leave King unattended at the far post. Happily for us, it was too late.
Maybe, just maybe this is the year. Maybe.
Then again, maybe not, as Ricketts had a shot deflected out for a corner. The key now was not to do a Watford, and back off following the goal.
A double substitution by Glenda heralded the fact that Wolves were going for it. Seol and Cort replaced Ross and Frankowski, which was something of a relief, as I had visions of us being the club the Pole broke his duck against. Not that it ever seemed terribly likely. Much has been made in the press around the West Midlands of the fact that Frankowski cost more than King, Henderson, Carlisle and Spring put together. A little harsh, that, as not many people will stand up to Marlon well in a test of value for money. Is Didier Drogba forty-eight times as good as Marlon?
Speaking of Marlon, a trademark run across the edge of the area was suffixed with less than a trademark shot, weakly sending the ball to Postma. Ashley Young, a moment later, went down under challenge from Lowe, holding his head. The whistle went for a free kick, and Young got up with a smile on his face. From the free kick, taken by Gavin Mahon, Young almost got on the end of a King flick on.
The momentum was very much with Watford now, and a McNamee cross was headed back by King, but the ball hung for too long in the air, and Young's volley was mis-kicked.
Aliadiere, in a breakaway, threatened to burst clear but Foster, perhaps learning the lessons of earlier, was already out of his area to eradicate the problem. The next minute, a clever pass found King in the area, and under close attention from Lescott, the twenty-one goal striker hit the ground. From my view in the Steve Bull Lower Tier, it looked a good bet for a penalty. The TV replays I've seen are inconclusive, but while I'm not going to trot out the tired old line beloved of managers - especially Iain Dowie - "he's not that sort of player", I reckon Marlon would back himself from that position better than he would from the penalty spot. Anyway, as the game tried to continue, I thought nothing more of it, until my attention was drawn to the referee and linesman having a chat. I thought little of that either, until the referee emerged from the conversation holding aloft a red card, and Marlon was dismissed.
Now, I hate the stick referees get from players, many of whom are no more than playground bullies, so to see an official stand up to abuse is not unwelcome in my book. That said, I have two questions about the incident. First, what did Marlon say? I work in an inner city school in Birmingham, and am aware of a lot of swear words. I cannot think of one that warrants a straight red card. Second, in the unlikely event that this referee finds himself refereeing a game in the Premiership, what will his decision be when the same situation presents itself with Wayne Rooney in the Marlon King role, and the Stretford End in place of the Billy Wright Stand?
Pretty quickly, the implications of this moment became the focus of conversations. I summised that a red card brings an immediate ban, and that it was highly unlikely to be more than three games, meaning that King would be available for the play offs. My relief was doubled, as Colin Cameron completed his hat trick, sending the ball wide of Foster's left hand upright when well placed.
Matthew Spring, enjoying a busy half, was sacrificed to make way for Al Bangura, although still it was Watford on the front foot. A Mackay header from a Young corner was cleared by Cort with Postma probably beaten. In the dying minutes, Chambers replaced Eagles. Wolves fan and ex-Baggie Chambers was booed by the Wolves crowd, as the attention momentarily left the beleaguered Hoddle, then returned to him as "We Want Hoddle Out" echoed around the emptying ground. It was ten-man and Kingless Watford pressing forward as the whistle went, and we can take great encouragement from that.
Wolves aren't that bad. They aren't that good either, so as they gravitate inevitably towards their customary seventh place, it is not hard to see why a higher placing has eluded them. Quite simply, they should have very comfortably done the double on Watford this season. That they haven't is due in no small part to Ben Foster, but also to a terrific combined effort from their players not to hit the Watford net. Hoddle's departure, bearing in mind Chief Executive Jez Moxey's criticisms and Glenda's own post-match retort, seems probable. But whoever you bring in, there's no legislating for the sort of finishing they have displayed. And the Wolves fans will still be the Wolves fans, which is pretty much worth a ten point head start to the rest of us before a ball is kicked.
Entertaining as Wolves are, though, we've got bigger fish to fry. If we were going to miss out on second place, better to do it now rather than have our stuffing knocked out by last-day heartbreak. Moreover, we saw in the second half today the sort of football that will give us a very good chance in the play-offs. And we hadn't seen that for some time.
On Monday we have the chance to prove that we are not a one-man team.
Bring it on.