Just eighteen miles separates Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City geographically. The West Midlands rivals are also separated by 18 places retrospectively between two divisions. On Saturday, they were separated by nothing but fresh air as the ‘ding dong derby’ turned out to be a dull and drab affair.
Wolverhampton Wanderers travelled to Birmingham City, who had every right to feel hard done to after that final cataclysmic ending to the 10/11 Premier League season as they slipped into the final relegation place with just three heart breaking minutes left to play. A new manager, a squad shake-up and a short but sweet European adventure later and it’s all change for the ‘blue noses’. Suffering the backlash of those ‘fantasy finances’ that never materialised from the Far East, Birmingham find themselves treading water in the Championship during this period of transition. Unable to shake that unwanted tag of relegated cup winners from the previous season, the Blues sit a disappointing 14th at the half way stage of the season – that being said, maximum points from their two games in hand would see them rise as high as fifth.
It is far from sunshine and roses for the visitors as well. It seems that learning lessons is not something that Wolverhampton Wanderers and Mick McCarthy are keen on as they once again find themselves feeding off scraps in and around the summit of the English top flight. A recent improvement in character and resilience will give their fans a shred of optimism for the New Year and the cup clash was a perfect opportunity to put all the recent officiating gripes and unjustified harsh treatment by the sport’s governing body behind them, for one week at least.
With other more obvious issues on both manager’s plates, Chris Hughton and Mick McCarthy signalled their intentions and attitudes towards the tie with their team selections; each manager keen to make changes but include just enough of their core roster so as to appease the fans with those all important local bragging rights at stake as they sought to prioritise for their current situations. There was no place in the Birmingham starting 11 for key starters Marlon King, Nikola Zigic, Jean Beausejour, Keith Fahey, Chris Burke or goalkeeper Boaz Myhill. Contrastingly, the Wolves boss aimed to keep the nucleus of his squad ticking fielding his first choice Premier League back four, whilst only Michael Kightly and debutant new arrival Eggart Jonsson were the only two unfamiliar faces to an otherwise recognisable line up. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake started in place of Steven Fletcher up front which taints the decision to leave the Scotsman out of the previous Chelsea game even more whilst fan favourites Adam Hammill and Adlene Guedioura will have got the message loud and clear as they disappointingly did not even make the bench. Former Blues now Wolves captain Roger Johnson returned to his old stomping ground much quicker than expected to add a little extra spice to the occasion.
As the half past midday kick off approached, it was a chance for both sides to pack up their domestic season troubles at least for one week, and get up for the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup…
Ultimately what followed could not have been any less ‘magic’ if it had tried. You’ll be aware that I am ‘banging on’ a little more than usual, not so subtly trying to avoid mentioning the biggest disappointment of the day – that being the actual game itself. I’m genuinely not sure where to start, as by starting to analyse the day’s proceedings I would essentially have created more of a spark than was produced at St Andrews on this most miserable of affairs.
The job of any journalist/analyst/reporter no matter what their stature, sometimes is to create something from nothing. The top dogs in the business will have lost count on the amount of times they have had to produce a two page spread from a goalless draw and by hook or by crook they tend more often than not tend to do so. On this occasion, to repeat such a feat we are talking about Nobel Prize for literature style requirements because believe me from a first person witness, this one NEVER got going.
Each team began with a stock 4-4-2 system and cancelled each other out from almost start to finish. After an initial opening five minutes of crowd banter and fun and games the mutterings from the visiting end were ones we have become all to accustom to. We found ourselves making the same points and asking the same rhetorical questions; as to why Kevin Doyle consistently headed for the corner flags and rarely made a trip into the opposition area, why the build-up play is so one dimensional more predictable than a Packer’s Superbowl repeat, why Karl Henry remains ‘undroppable’ even when the manager has license to tinker and try different personnel, why Stephen Hunt looks as comfortable in possession of the football as a claustrophobic in an elevator and why Richard Stearman is first choice right back now Kevin Foley is fit again – bla bla bla, yes you’ve heard it all before. But, if we hadn’t sat there picking faults and dressing down the same repetitive issues within the club I am honestly not sure if we’d have managed to remain conscious, whilst the ESPN crew must have been cursing their misguided hindsight.
In a first half void of anything noteworthy, the Birmingham youngster Nathan Redmond showed glimpses of the mercurial talent than is attracting interest from higher places as his enthusiasm and keenness to make an impact was there for all to see. Wolves toiled in their typical relentless fashion but with little success and naïve persistence to keep trying the same approach play long after the opposition were comfortably savvy to it. The highlight of the first 45 for the home fans at least, was the injury to former central defender Roger Johnson. The man who signed for Wolves from Birmingham in the summer for a hefty £7 million could not continue after an apparent ankle injury and was forced to leave the game early being replaced by Kevin Foley after 36 minutes.
As the second half continued in much the same vein as its predecessor, the management keenly introduced some of their more prolific talent in an attempt to inject some much needed life into the contest whilst somewhat attempting to justify the entrance fee for those who braved the occasion. Chilean international Beausejour and goal scoring midfielder Keith Fahey were introduced for the home side whilst Wolves two more able performers in Matt Jarvis and ‘one man gang’ Steven Fletcher came to the party.
The game brightened up into something like a contest as both sides seemed keen to avoid an unwanted replay – I do however have to stress that it went from dour to marginally acceptable at the very best. Guirane N’Daw played the local hero as a stellar outing in central midfield earned him the man of the match award greeted with irony for the travelling fans as it followed his exit from the game. Fourth choice Birmingham striker Adam Rooney provided little threat to a comfortable outing for Berra and Stearman even as back-up keeper Dorus De Vries was called into action a couple of times but saved comfortably from Nathan Redmond’s attempts from inside the penalty area.
The two golden chances (no pun intended) came for the away side in the second half. A tidy one two reverse from Kevin Foley sent Michael Kightly clear down the right flank, his accurate driven cross picked out an unmarked Ebanks-Blake who contrived to take the shot on first time and looped the ball up and over the bar from no more than 8 yards out – a guilt edged chance that will not do his call for an extended run in the first team much good. In the four minutes of injury time, which was excruciating for those in the ground who were wishing the contest away, Matt Jarvis’ quick feet took him away from the full back as he cut inside from the left wing onto his favoured right foot and curled a shot towards the far post which was expertly saved by Birmingham stand in keeper Colin Doyle. The Irish goalkeeper tipped the effort onto the post and the ball rebounded to Fletcher six yards out in front of goal but his headed rebound attempt was blocked by his marker in the final ‘action’ of the match sentencing both sides to do it all again on January 17th.
In terms of conclusions and lessons from the game in a footballing sense it is fair to say that both teams will take very little. The result and performance will be of greater concern for Wolves fans given then elevated league standing over their opponents and also the glum reality that they started the game with arguably 8 of their 11 first choice players from the Premier League fixtures this season whilst Birmingham had fielded close to a second string side.
What was of most concern and most notable conclusion from the contest was the undervalued occasion itself. In terms of the well documented ‘magic’ of the FA Cup this entire arrangement was unrecognisable. It raises the question as to whether cup competitions are now seen as more of a hindrance than anything else in the modern game? For the managers it was clearly a chance to bud some of their younger players or those in need of a run out to which it disappointingly became nothing more than this, a run out. The team selections diminish the occasion, not half as much though as the attendance. Just 14,594 fans were in attendance. This not only diminishes the attitudes towards the cup competition, but is heightened by the fact that even a local derby with minimal travelling distance and a rich history was not enough of a reason for fans to flock to the game. Moreover, it speaks volumes about the bigger picture, that being the British economy and welfare of those who are constantly overlooked, out priced, yet essential to the survival of the sport – the supporters. As the managers have been seen to prioritise in terms of team selection so the supporters have begun to prioritise in terms of their livelihoods. Whilst the cost of a season ticket is now out of reach for so many of those who have notched up decades with their beloved clubs, those who can stretch to this luxury see it as the absolute maximum and any additional extras i.e cup games, European outings and such and such are no longer feasible.
It is hard-hitting evidence like this that should hit home when the owners are making such non-sensical decisions such as expanding a stadium that you can’t even fill at its current capacity such is the case at Wolverhampton Wanderers currently. Season ticket prices of £500 plus are immoral in this day and age and even the ‘Early Bird’ con in disguise as an offer only becomes that if the team remain in the division which I’m sure by its March deadline will still be far from decided. While his manager still has much to chew over in terms of his best eleven players and the survival battle which lies ahead, for chairman Steve Morgan it is a case of even “if you build it… they still may not come.”