No this is not the rundown of a 1989 comedy crime caper featuring Chevy Chase, but a 2011/12 one man rescue mission starring a Scotsman on International exile to earn his side a third consecutive draw.
As the final moments of another year ebbed away, the ‘Battle of the Wanderers’ commenced at the Reebok Stadium as Bolton Wanderers hosted fellow Premier League strugglers with the same sporting suffix Wolverhampton. The commonly coined ‘six pointer’ saw two sides underachieving in the eyes of their supporters with two managers at the helm who were very much operating on borrowed time.
Bolton Wanderers began the tie propping up the rest as a result of the shock three points that Blackburn Rovers had collected from a visit to Old Trafford earlier in the day and started with David N’gog up front in place of their talismanic striker Kevin Davies, whilst former Wolves and England youth talent Mark Davies started as a wide right midfielder. The visitors who remained in 17th position, teetering ominously close to the drop zone buoyed by their heroic efforts at the Emirates Stadium four days ago began with a significantly altered approach, which brings us to the dreaded segment much earlier on in the piece than expected. . . .
The Magical Mystical Mind-boggling world of Mick McCarthy
Yes it’s that time again when we delve into the ever changing non-descript baffling vortex that is the mind of Wolves manager Mick McCarthy. Mick’s questionable tactical, selection and instructional decisions have been an ever present of the season so far and sure enough Mick did not disappoint once more as he altered his side considerably once more for the away game on New Years Eve. Feast your selves on the forthcoming decisions which are so illogically comical that it begs the question, what’s going on Mick?
- Heading into the game on Saturday Wolves had two changes forced upon them with Ronald Zubar injured and Nenad Milijas so appallingly suspended after a disappointing lack of morality from the game’s governing body. Nevertheless, in true McCarthy fashion, instead of making just the two changes so as not to disrupt a team that battled so valiantly at Arsenal… he made five!
- This is where it gets interesting. Richard Stearman was somewhat aggrievedly yet understandably brought in to replace Zubar at right back, but central attacking midfielder Milijas was replaced by . . . left full back George Elokobi.
- Wolves now began the game with an unnecessary 50% differential from the back four that kept Van Persie and co at bay leaving their fans puzzled as the team sheet was announced as they attempted to figure out who was playing where. Whereas most sides have certain players for certain position, for the gold and black faithful it really is anybody’s guess! The midfield quartet featured two wingers, a left back and their ever present anchor-man. It appeared that so as to accommodate him by any means necessary, Stephen Ward would start in his 7th different position since joining the club beginning the game alongside Henry in centre midfield due to Elokobi’s inclusion in the defence. Wolves fans must have thought they had crossed over into the twilight zone at some point on their journey north, as Ward who has finally made the left back position his own for club AND country was now thrust into the centre of midfield where he had NEVER played before, whilst Wolves had not one but two genuine central midfielders in Dave Edwards and Adlene Guedioura on the bench!
- Adam Hammill was also forced to watch from the side lines once more as another sensible introduction to the midfield was overlooked.
- Youngster Anthony Forde who was a shock inclusion to make his professional debut in the previous game returned to the wilderness and was nowhere to be seen posing the question as to why he was thrown into the firing line at Arsenal at all if not to begin a reign in the match day squad.
- Sylvan Ebanks-Blake also returned alongside Fletcher up front in the only viable selection decision made on the day.
Nevertheless, as the New Year chorus suggest auld acquaintance should be forgot – let’s give it a chance, perhaps Mick’s crazy shake-up of the starting 11 would prove to be a master stroke. . . . or maybe not, as it were.
As predicted and foreseen by many of his paying public, Wolves’ first half performance was as disjointed and non-descript as their original team sheet. The Elokobi/Ward ‘switcharoo’ which was last deployed in a humbling 3-0 home loss to Queens Park Rangers was equally as ineffective as its previous effort as Wolves struggled for any fluency and craft in their play – something which given the fact that the team was largely made up of players out of position or devoid of match practice, stands to perfect reason.
As the home side the onus inevitably was on Bolton. In front of an impatient audience whose faith was lessening by the minute after a staggering 10 home losses in 11 games, the lilywhite Wanderers were faced with a do or die situation against Wolves. This being said if pressure and expectation was present, it did not show in the opening exchanges. While the visitors resorted to the infamous ‘Hennessey hoof’ tactic and struggled to put together any sort of noteworthy attack, Bolton stuck to their task and seemed determined to pass their way into the Wolves third of the field. With a game loaded with players who’s battling qualities far outweighs their footballing ability; the likes of Henry, Hunt, Reo-Coker, Muamba, Stearman and Steinsson – it promised to be and for the most part played out as a cagey and tense affair that was far from aesthetically pleasing.
The opening half hour did not produce much to excite either set of supporters, and was for the most part a drab affair devoid of any real quality or guile. There was however a moment which separated itself from the overall rigidity of the mid-season relegation battle – that being a goal for Bolton Wanderers. Sam Ricketts who began the game at left back in favour of the old Wolves foe Paul Robinson, went unchallenged down Wolves’ right flank and was awarded far too much time to shift inside onto his stronger foot and curl the ball beautifully into the far corner from outside of the area to relieve some of the tension in the arena. Wolves supporters will not be encouraged by their teams loose marking and inability to close the shot down, a lesson that they have apparently still not learned even after conceding in this way on numerous occasions this season.
The away side’s only chance of any note came largely out of the blue when a speculative 30 yard effort from Stephen Ward hit the frame of the goal and rebounded agonisingly inches out of the reach of an onrushing Steven Fletcher on 33 minutes.
As Wolves rattled the woodwork at one end, Bolton advanced and a clever ball over the top split the non-existent Wolves defence open as Fabrice Muamba moved unnoticed between Stearman and Johnson before handling the ball in his attempt to control it with a clear run at goal ahead of him. Richard Stearman’s frailties at fullback upon his return to the side were becoming all too apparent as he was left exposed once more but Martin Petrov on Bolton’s left flank whose cross was met on the half volley by Ivan Klasnic but the shot went into the floor and looped up into Hennessey’s arms in the final action of an altogether uninspiring first half.
After wasting 45 minutes with a system that by and large I’m not even sure that McCarthy thought would work, the Wolves boss came back down to earth and resorted to something like the plan ‘A’ he should have gone with all along. Elokobi was removed after another soul destroying one half of football, Ward went to left back where he belongs and David Edwards was introduced to provide some much needed stability to the Wolves midfield. One presumes that because this change was already in waiting so early if anything had gone wrong, that Mick McCarthy’s true faith was with the system that he put in place for an important second half.
So with the balance and sanity returned to the visitors setup, thus followed the inevitable change in fortunes. As the visitors began the second half looking much more like a team with focus and direction, they found joy from the wings in the form of Matt Jarvis who began to test the resolve of Steinsson with a few vintage advances shifting inside and out before making his move. It was from their likely outset that Wolves drew level. Four minutes into the second half, Jarvis whipped in a free kick right footed from the left flank with such precision that it bypassed everyone in the penalty area and found the head of Stephen Fletcher no more than two yards out to level the scores. The goal was largely down to the quality of delivery from Jarvis however it was no surprise to see Fletcher’s name on the score sheet for the eighth time this season using his poachers instinct to get into a position from which he could not fail. It was Fletcher to the rescue once more for Wolves who without his priceless contributions could be out of sight by this stage.
With frustration creeping in during the early stages of the second period, Bolton responded well to the upturn in the visitor’s fortune. Wolves afforded their opponents too much joy once more down from their right side with neither Hunt, Henry nor Edwards offering much cover for Stearman who was clearly struggling on his recall to the side. Sam Ricketts avoided the three aforementioned amigos on that side but his cross was blocked in time by a Wolves centre half and soon after Petrov was afforded too much time to deliver a driven cross which was diverted for a corner at a vital moment by the improving Roger Johnson. Stearman who began the season as a makeshift full back must be feeling the heat since the impressive re-emergence of Zubar and the return to fitness of Kevin Foley who was on the bench for the first time this season. The former England under 21 international did himself no favours on 68 minutes as he turned on the ball naively before losing it halfway up the pitch needing Roger Johnson to rescue the cause again with two decisive headers from crosses deep into his penalty area. No doubt Johnson’s recent impressive displays will go some way to justifying his hefty pre season price tag and repay a chunk of it following a shaky start to his Wolves career.
The home side introduced Turkish International Tuncay to further their attacking efforts whilst Wolves were forced into what they hope will be nothing more than a precautionary measure by replacing Fletcher with Kevin Doyle as their goal scoring hero was walking with some noticeable discomfort.
As the shackles were loosened as the second half wore on, both sides had just cause to believe they could steal a victory from the contest. Gretar Steinsson headed powerfully into the ground from a corner which was palmed away impressively by Wolves other hero of the hour Wayne Hennessey, whilst his Welsh international team mate volleyed tamely wide at the other end after a poor clearing header from the Chelsea-bound Gary Cahill.
Kevin Davies, a player who historically causes Wolves trouble was introduced for the home side whilst the appearance of Kevin Foley was a welcome sight for Wolves fans which disguised their justified concern that the semi-fit right back who hadn’t kicked a ball all season was now preferred as a right winger over a 100% fit Adam Hammill who naturally plays that position and whose opportunities seem to be growing increasingly and frustratingly limited as he approaches one year at the club. His fleeting appearances have often sparked a change in the game for Wolves as the energy and flair he brings to the team is something different from the ‘putting a shift in’ style of which we are accustomed to, although it seems way down the list of McCarthy’s priorities.
The final ten minutes belonged almost entirely to the away side, much to the dismay of the home fans who in essence have much more to be concerned about than their opposite numbers. Stephen Hunt delivered his first telling cross of the day after 80 minutes after typical persistence on the right flank, the cross found his former Reading team mate and goal-shy Kevin Doyles who’s header from point blank range was straight at Jaaskeleinen. Moments later a mix up between Gary Cahill and his keeper exposed the chink in the armoury of the prospective England Euro 2012 star as Ebanks-Blake stole in from behind and forced a corner for Wolves from which Stephen Ward headed wide from only 6 yards out.
Wolves continued to tighten their grip on the game as a poor corner from Jarvis was headed conspicuously towards his own goal by Tuncay and Mark Davies spared the home side with a goal line clearance before the best chance of the game fell to Wolves. Blake’s cleverly disguised ball between two defenders sent Kevin Doyle through one on one with the Bolton keeper. Unfortunately for Wolves Doyle could do nothing to dispel his recent misfiring tag as he rounded the Finnish stopper but took too much time and the once promising attack petered out.
The full time whistle was met with increasing indifference from the home fans who will see a solitary point at home against a team that have not travelled well since August to be nowhere near acceptable. The result served only to heighten the pressure on manager Owen Coyle who was the darling of the club not so long ago when he first arrived and appeared to be leading the club in the right direction. Whilst the majority of people not connected to Bolton Wanderers football club (discounting Burnley fans) will feel for the Scotsman who has been luckless recently as the club failed to replace important players like Johan Elmander and have also had to deal with harsh lengthy injuries to key components such as Stuart Holden and Lee Chung Yong, their own supporters are far from convinced by the efforts of the man in the hot seat.
For Wolves the picture is much rosier as we creep into a New Year. Although they could won the game against Bolton, they took two points from two away games on the bounce which if nothing else shows that the character and resolve is on the up even if the performances are still a long way from convincing. Their second half performance in a much more staple 4-4-2 system was encouraging so to it is the fact that Stephen Fletcher is the reliable goal threat that will prove so important for the remainder of the season if his injury woes remain at bay. As has been well documented, the general consensus with the initial team selection was one of bemusement. For every good decision McCarthy makes he often has two or three strange ones to follow suit, this is something which is evidently costing Wolves no matter what anyone says in his defence. Those who questioned the original team sheet were wholly justified by the inept first half performance of the team, and it goes without saying that Mick needs to wise up and realise that simplicity is the key to success rather than trying to over complicate with players out of position and little idea of what is expected of them. One point of note is the wholesome improvement by the Wolves defence especially by centre backs Roger Johnson and Christophe Berra who have been superb in the previous two road games and look to have received their ‘kick up the arse’ with a positive effect.
While many Bolton fans will suggest that this point is as good as a loss and expect the final nails to be introduced into Owen Coyle’s managerial coffin, they can look forward to an extended break between this game and their next trip to Everton in which the majority presume the only Cahill that will be present will be ‘Tim’. Wolves face the possibility of playing against Gary Cahill twice in three days as they play host to Chelsea on Monday. Much like last season, an early January meeting against a Chelsea side very much on the ropes could be the perfect time to play the Premier League giants as Wolves will need to take the increasingly improved defensive performances of the past two games and double it if they are to prevent an Andre Vilas-Boas backlash.