As pantomime season moves swiftly in, Wolves served up their live performance of Jekyll and Hyde as the team, and especially their goalkeeper, went from villain to hero over 90 minutes on this soggy Sunday afternoon.
The welcome three points gained by Wolves Sunday afternoon was the only difference from their outings in weeks gone by. It was another performance devoid of ingenuity, craft and guile – but brimming with honesty, fight and endeavour. Proving that yes, on the odd occasion, it does work and it is enough. More often than not though, in a league as demanding as this, so much more is required than Wolves and Mick are capable of giving.
The pre-game tale of the tape was far from bursting in optimism for both sets of fans. A home loss to Wigan, as it probably should be was the straw that broke the camel’s back in the North-East as the Black Cats parted company with their manager Steve Bruce. Needless to say Mick McCarthy’s reign is seemingly on life support as his current and former club met at Molineux both stuck in a rut at the wrong end of the table and in no sort of form whatsoever. Wolves were hoping that history would again repeat as they have beaten Sunderland in both of their last two encounters at Molineux.
Whilst Wolves’ recent displays at Chelsea and Everton had brought nothing to suggest to their supporters that they were heading anywhere near the right direction, the travelling Sunderland contingent were buoyed by the presence and appointment of new manager Martin O’Neill. If history is anything to go by, one would assume that the first performance in front of a new manager would bring that little bit extra from the current crop of players as they stepped into the firing line. The previous success of the Northern Irishman in this league on shoestring budgets at Aston Villa and Leicester City is certainly an encouraging sign for Sunderland fans especially as it would appear that they are a club that unlike before can sufficiently support their new manager financially.
As I touched on last week, the fact that Wolves were heading into another ‘must win’ game not even half way through the season is the ludicrous reality facing their supporters. Mick McCarthy has often found himself in limbo where his tactics and selection are concerned. On one hand if he opts for 4-5-1, especially in a game of this magnitude, he is lambasted for being too negative and inviting pressure. On the flipside, when the Wolves chief sends out the 4-4-2, his team are often overrun without the extra man in midfield and the obvious frailties at the back are easily exposed. For this reason it was a real punt to opt for the template 4-4-2, encouragingly using the absence of ‘anchorman’ Karl Henry to introduce a second striker in Kevin Doyle whilst David Edwards was deployed to do the dirty work in the centre of midfield allowing Jamie O’Hara to advance along with the two wingers Jarvis and Hunt. One other change that in many eyes was long overdue was £7million summer signing Roger Johnson dropping to the bench, to be replaced by the evergreen Jody Craddock – the wile veteran answering a desperation call for the third season running.
The first 45 minutes could easily be summarised with the stock footballing term “two poor teams”. It is usually the way when two teams in dire straits come together, the match is either an end to end blowout or a quality free mundane experience. Molineux was ‘treated’ to the latter. Even with the extra emphasis in attack Wolves continued in the same vein of which we have become so agonisingly used to in the last few months. Creativity and ingenuity in the play were non-existent, the game plan once more relied on lottery long balls from the back aimed at the bafflingly small targets of Hunt, Doyle and Jarvis. One positive was the seamless transition back into the side of old favourite Jody Craddock. Wolves looked much more organised and assured as always with the veteran at the heart of the defence, something which should give Roger Johnson and his international ambition definite food for thought.
Sunderland didn’t bring much more to the dance themselves. Bendtner and Ji were void of chemistry in attack, whilst their ex-Manchester United back four of Brown, Bardsley, O’Shea and Richardson were untroubled for the most part. Most worryingly for Sunderland, despite their trademark disjointed performance, it was Wolves who had the better of the chances. Sunderland had goalkeeper Keiren Westwood to thank for denying Steven Fletcher twice on the line, the second of which was an unbelievable point blank parry when it seemed inevitable that the Scotsman would give Wolves the advantage. A refreshing signal to the home crowd that even though their midfield lacked any real creative spark, they finally had a man to cause problems in the opposition penalty area thanks to Fletcher’s recent return from injury. The recently more volatile Molineux audience had little to cheer in the icy weather come the halftime whistle, although perhaps more poignantly they had done just enough to keep the Wolves from Mick’s door (no pun intended) at least for the time being.
As the game ebbed into it’s second half, it was imperative that both teams improved if the initiative was to be ceased. Wolves, as the hosts, are teetering dangerously close to the bottom three needed to force the issue. A lot more was expected and certainly warranted from wingers Matt Jarvis and Stephen Hunt. With equally if not more capable players once again watching from the bench, Hunt and Jarvis frustratingly had little effect on the game failing to beat the first defender with crosses offering very little of what is required from an attacking winger. Kevin Doyle’s exodus from the opposition penalty area was in full force, whilst it will be interesting to see if Mick allows Edwards and O’Hara time to work on the chemistry that was missing in this partnerships embryonic stage.
With the onus on the home side, ‘twas the visitors who struck first. Ronald Zubar’s ring rust was exposed as he was found wanting at right back as Kieran Richardson was afforded the freedom of the left flank, advancing into the box and striking well into the net when it appeared that he would cross. Wolves keeper and Welsh number 1 would come under scrutiny for his part in the goal. It appeared that Hennessey expected Richardson to drive across goal as he left his near post vacated, not narrowing the angle and was left with the proverbial egg on his face as the fierce shot sailed past him as he helplessly dropped to his knees without an attempt at a save. Cue the blood flow that the Molineux sharks were waiting for. Their patience at the sides uninspiring performance prior to going behind was finally broken and the subdued atmosphere that threatened to spill over as every mistake which previously had been overlooked was now being met with verbal resentment from the stands.
The response was one that was long overdue from the Wolves boss. The wholly ineffective former Reading duo Stephen Hunt and Kevin Doyle were replaced by Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and the mercurial talent of winger Adam Hammill. As if it were plainly obvious all along, Wolves instantly looked more of a threat. Granted, they did not suddenly begin to move the ball with Spanish fluency and Brazilian flair, but the introduction of a pacy winger who can not only beat a man but whose delivery from wide areas puts Jarvis’ and Hunts to shame, was a breath of fresh air.
After twenty minutes of toing and froing as the game naturally opened up, Sunderland had the chance to drive the nail into the McCarthy coffin. Top marks to Sebastian Larsson – he duped the referee into awarding a penalty after manipulating a challenge from Jody Craddock just inches inside the area. Although the view from the stands and the television replays proved the decision was borderline crazy, there was an air of inevitability around Molineux as if they knew it was coming they just weren’t sure what form it would take. Time for Wayne Hennessey to discard his mask and cape, as he dived low to his left to smother the penalty effort from Larsson who redeemed himself with the home fans after his comical tumble.
Much like their supporters earlier, the Wolves players were next in line to smell the blood and go for the jugular. With Molineux still buzzing from the spot kick save, the elation turned to furore as Wolves drove instantly up the other end of the field and Steven Fletcher peeled away from the shaky Wes Brown to nod home an imperative equaliser.
With the tide firmly turned, and a somewhat fickle crowd now firmly pulling in the same direction as the players Wolves set about the Sunderland penalty area. Ebanks Blake controlled a cross from Hammill before volleying just wide, whilst the Sunderland defence put their bodies on the line blocking three consecutive shots from Wolves’ attackers. Those with a nose for nostalgia will recall that in this fixture in the previous two Premier League seasons, Wolves had overturned an initial Sunderland lead to go on to take all three points.
Now they say that when it comes to luck, you make your own. I’m not convinced this was the case this evening. With the questionable penalty decision fresh in his mind, the referee seemed to forgo a blatant handball from Jamie O’Hara in the build-up to Wolves second goal. A cross from the lively Hammill found O’Hara six yards out, the Wolves midfielder seemed to control the ball with his arm as it rested in front of the hotshot Fletcher who adjusted brilliantly to fire home a half volley and send Molineux into raptures.
Interim Sunderland coach Eric Black introduced youngster Ryan Noble from his inexperienced choice of substitutes as a response to them now being required to chase the game. A mini onslaught followed Fletcher’s second goal and although Sunderland were tame at best, the Wolves defence now marshalled by the substitute Johnson made hard work of it. The Molineux men parked two banks of four and invited pressure which made for an unnecessary tense finale. As shots were blocked, tackles flew in and balls were ‘hoofed’ to temporary safety, the topsy-turvy affair drew to a close giving Mick McCarthy some much needed breathing space at the Wolves’ helm.
Through the jubilation and ecstasy of a come from behind victory I cannot help but consider the bigger picture. After every victory however scarce they may have been, there is another lifeline thrown in the direction of Wolves and their manager. There is also a real emphasis on learning lessons, taking the true positives from this experience and moving forward, adjusting principles and methods to ensure another winless streak does not emerge to diminish a good victory. As he has done before, Mick showed signs against Sunderland that he did in fact see what the majority of us were witnessing from the stands, and had the gumption to react to a crisis rather than let it play out in front of his face in the hope of justifying his original ideology. By this I mean simply realising the need for change, identifying the weaker areas and acting upon them for the good of results rather than the preservation of his personal relationships with certain players. The benching of Roger Johnson was an encouraging sign from the manager, the man that Mick made captain in the pre season has failed to live up to his hefty price tag and the general consensus was that a spell on the side lines would do him nor the team any harm.
After all was it any coincidence that Wolves finally looked at ease in the 4-4-2 with David Edwards holding midfield instead of the suspended Karl Henry? A player in which McCarthy by his own quotation would have us believe we could not possibly function without in the past. Was it any coincidence that Wolves looked more potent as an attacking force after the introduction of Adam Hammill? A player whose undoubted talent deserves much more game time and the patience from the manager which is unjustfully afforded to others who regularly make less of an impact in a few games than Hammill conjured in half an hour. Is it time that Kevin Doyle’s long stay in the starting lineup finally came to an end? After all how long can his endeavour in the channels and outside the box continue to make up for his lack of goal or even goal threat?
The answers to these seemingly rhetorical questions are conclusions that Mick McCarthy now has to draw upon himself over the next few weeks. He has more decisions similar to the one he made with Johnson today to make where sentiment must now take a long awaited back seat to form and ability. The three points today in context was imperative, and joyfully welcomed yet still there was little reason to believe that Wolves can climb the table. The performance was lacklustre for the most part, and individual ineptitudes were still blatantly apparent. However, the fact that the game was won and the team came from behind proves that the character and the ability to win games is at Mick’s immediate disposal, whether he chooses to use it or not will ultimately seal how own fate along with that of Wolverhampton Wanderers as an entity in the Barclays Premier League.