At the back end of a turbulent and degrading fortnight where all things Wolverhampton Wanderers were concerned, a chink of light appeared through the widening cracks to lift the spirits that had previously hit rock bottom.
Although the departure of Mick McCarthy was long overdue in the eyes of many, what followed in the fortnight prior has been nothing short of disastrous. The club’s hierarchy embarked on a rollercoaster search for a replacement that bordered on desperation as the illustrious vacancy was banded about like confetti with the media circus throwing every man and his dog into the frame. The position was reportedly offered first to Alan Curbishley, then Steve Bruce, Walter Smith, Gus Poyet and finally Reading’s Brian McDermott. The biggest concern for Wolves fans was that each of them shunned the interest of Wolves for various reasons throwing the recruitment process into disarray and begging the question of just how limited must the offers have been if they weren’t enough to entice even the unemployed off of their sofas?
Whilst the clubs current dire situation (13 games remaining and in the relegation zone) required an appointment of substance and experience, a Curbishley, Bruce or Smith, the heart and soul of the ‘business’ (as the chief executive so frustratingly views it) would have settled for one of the next generation of managers; the up and coming Poyet’s, Clark’s or Freedman’s of the footballing world. They ended up with neither, throwing the whole process into disrepute leaving us all to wonder where two wasted weeks had disappeared. The tip of the iceberg came in the form of the eventual decision from the board room; the job was entrusted to McCarthy’s assistant Terry Connor who had been there all along and never mentioned once. The baffling decision only fueled the fires of the already despondent Molineux public who saw Terry Connor as a spin-off of the previous manager and if anything a contributing factor to the problem leaving us at the mercy of the old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’… The hilarity was completed when the chairman Steve Morgan (accused of using the club for a hobby to aid his construction priorities) and chief executive Jez Moxey (seen to be lining his own pockets with little interest in the teams progression) had the gall to step out into the national press and tell us all that Terry Connor was “the right man for the job”, regardless of the fact that he had never managed in his life and it had been previously offered away to multiple other candidates. We didn’t believe it. How could Terry Connor believe it when all the evidence clearly suggested otherwise?
Alas with the club dragged through the mud, nationally ridiculed and belittled by anyone and everyone with an opinion, a decision was made and whether we liked it or not Terry Connor was now officially the only black manager in the English top flight and would lead Wolves until the end of the season. Whilst the general opinion was that the decision was no more than the club waving the white flag and welcoming relegation from the top flight, others who dug deep for any remaining shreds of positivity pointed towards Chris Hughton and Brian McDermott, both of whom fell unexpectedly into management from the assistant position and have since proven to be more than capable in their respective roles.
Saturday’s opposition was no stranger to turbulent times and friction between the owners and loyalists. The ideologies of Newcastle United’s supporters and owner Mike Ashley differed like chalk and cheese for many a year. The beer-bellied sporting goods tycoon was vilified for the removal of Chris Hughton after such an admiral yet unforeseen performance at the helm and even more so for replacing him with Alan Pardew who, by and large, had come up short in his previous Premier League managerial stints. Fan favourites Barton and Nolan were questionably shipped out for next to nothing and the famous St James’ Park title was replaced in an advertising campaign for the Sports Direct mogul. The results of which were endless rallies and protests to drive Ashley out of Newcastle for good. Fast forward to the present day and you’d be hard pushed to find a Geordie who hasn’t tasted humble pie given the current lofty status of their beloved Magpies. Alan Pardew is the ‘talk of the Toon’ working wonders on the clubs ascent towards Europe; names such as Cabaye, Ba and Tiote are preceded by all manner of superlatives whilst the old favourites ply their trade much lower down the rankings leaving little cause for argument against Mike Ashley’s actions and intentions for the increasing ambitions of his football club. With all this in mind, perhaps there was a little light in the darkness for Wolves fans even if the comparison was somewhat clutching at straws.
Somewhere amidst the turmoil and clashes between owners and their fans, there was a football match going on. Whilst the rest of the squad had coped admirably in their absence, Alan Pardew was delighted to welcome back his ‘first choice’ eleven, reuniting the likes of Ben Arfa, Cabaye and Gutierrez with the returning Tiote, Ba and Cisse from the African Cup of Nations in a mouth-watering starting line for the club currently sitting 6th in the table. Mike Williamson continued to deputise for Steven Taylor at centre back alongside the ever improving Fabricio Coloccini.
Terry Connor explained in his first press conference of the differentiating styles between himself and Mick McCarthy and vowed to stamp his own impression on the team. There were remnants of the previous era still lurking within TC’s first team selection as the right wing berth was given to a right back in Kevin Foley even though Wolves had three natural right sided midfielders fit for selection causing Wolves fans no doubt to roll their eyes at the early sign of things to come. The defence that capitulated so poorly in the Black Country derby were made accountable for their actions as Richard Stearman and Christophe Berra replaced Roger Johnson and Seb Bassong at centre back whilst the likeable Ronald Zubar made a welcome return at right full back. The darling of the McCarthy era Karl Henry returned to anchor the midfield after a three match ban alongside Jamie O’Hara and David Edwards in a familiarly workmanlike midfield. The biggest concern for Wolves fans before the game was the inclusion of the goal shy Kevin Doyle as a lone striker after their prospective saviour Steven Fletcher had failed a fitness test.
20 minutes into the game and the situation was exactly as Wolves fans had feared and foreseen. With the ensuing chaos playing out behind the scenes, little was expected in response out on the pitch. Two goals down, another defensive capitulation and an inexperienced manager cutting a lonely and bemused figure on the touch line was all the ammunition that the naysayers needed to retort “I told you so”. Wolves had made the very first offering towards the game with Kevin Doyle skipping past two challenges before connecting with more of the turf than the ball as he scuffed harmlessly into Tim Krul’s arms in the opening exchanges. This was as good as it got for Wolves who were behind after just 6 minutes. The ‘fresh approach’ had not done much to rid the team of its defensive naivety as Wayne Hennessey blindly rolled the ball out to Karl Henry who’s backwards pass to Christophe Berra put the back line further at risk. Berra dawdled so characteristically before losing out under pressure from Cabaye who’s low cross was nonchalantly back heeled towards goal by Demba Ba only for Wayne Hennessey to palm it away. A nothing clearance from Wolves found Tiote on the edge of the area who scuffed a shot back towards goal that bobbled past three spectating Wolves defenders before it was prodded home from close range by the new boy Papiss Cisse, his second goal for the club since his January move from the Bundesliga.
Some ten minutes later and the home side doubled their advantage. The move began just inside Wolves territory as Karl Henry, lying on the ground attempted to intercept a pass with his head. The attempt failed and the ball made its way to Demba Ba who carried it forwards before laying in an advancing Danny Simpson inside right whose stinging drive from the edge of the area was acrobatically tipped over the bar in true Hennessey fashion – something the Welsh stopper has had to become accustomed to this season. The resulting corner found its way to Gutierrez some twenty plus yards from goal who was afforded the time and space to shift inside onto his right foot and as ever saving his best for Wolves, unleashed a screamer into the top corner.
Wolves only other contribution to the first half came on the half hour. Jamie O’Hara spread the ball across field with pinpoint accuracy to Matt Jarvis who advanced to the by-line before cutting a good cross back towards Kevin Doyle who rose above Williamson but will feel he should have done better after his header looped inconspicuously wide of the far post. With Newcastle United going through the motions sitting pretty by half time, the fog on the Tyne had lifted into a dark cloud on the horizon as the “right man for the job” was given a true baptism of fire in his very first half as a football manager.
Cue the unlikely second half turn around and lamentations of the team talk that made it happen. One refreshing noticeable difference from the previous regime was what Wolves fans were saying at the end of the game. Instead of the usual questions regarding the half time team talk, i.e what must have been said? They were afforded the luxury of making a statement, whatever was said must have worked! Subtle, yet encouraging differences.
Just five minutes into the second half and the visitors had pulled a goal back. Kevin Doyle left us saying “that’s more like it” as he trapped a long ball perfectly as if he had Velcro boots before turning it out wide getting Matt Jarvis involved in the attack. Jarvis took a neat touch before shifting inside onto his right foot and seeing his innocuous shot deflect up and over Tim Krul’s dive off the knee of Danny Simpson. The shot would have trickled harmlessly wide if not for the accidental intervention but a little luck was more than welcome in Wolves’ current situation.
Newcastle alive to the fact that they could ill afford to rest on their laurels, were awoken once more into the ascendency. Cabaye the driving force in midfield played a neat one-two with Ryan Taylor before driving hard and wide past the right hand post as the crowd returned from their lull to encourage their side.
Kevin Doyle looked to be relishing his lone responsibility up top as he dropped deep to link up play once laying the ball into the path of Stephen Ward whose right footed shot forced a smart save from Newcastle’s Dutch stopper low to his right.
Just fifteen minutes after the break and the team that appeared completely out for the count in the first half were level. Ronald Zubar adhered himself further to his gold and black public with a typical passion filled burst down the right flank eventually resulting in a foul inside Newcastle territory. The free kick made its way into the area via the left foot of O’Hara and a poor headed clearance from Williamson hit Kevin Doyle allowing the Irish striker to scoop home from close range amidst the fracas in the six yard box.
Where McCarthy would almost certainly have shut up shop and accepted a valuable away point, the new boss was positive with his changes introducing attack minded individuals Stephen Hunt, Michael Kightly and Nenad Milijas throughout the second half as Wolves gained momentum.
Alan Pardew introduced Shola Ameobi and the mercurial talent of Hatem Ben Arfa with the onus on the home side to rekindle the dominance lost from the first half. The game went back and forth with no clear cut chances as Wolves grew in stature and were more than a match for the plethora of talent amongst the opposing ranks as the home crowd became a little restless in the notion of giving away a two goal home advantage to the lowly Wolves.
Newcastle finished the game in the ascendency but without reward as Hatem Ben Arfa twice collected on the edge of the area and put his two low drives either side of the posts and beyond the despairing dives of Wayne Hennessey.
Although many stones are still unturned, many questions remain unanswered and the devils and doubts over the virgin manager will remain, the Wolves public can take solace from their spirited second half display. Although the style over two halves was as contrasting as the famous old colours in their kit, credit where it is due for the new manager who orchestrated such an unlikely come back and precious away point on a ground where many more illustrious teams have tried and failed previously this season.
With twelve games remaining Wolves have moved poignantly out of the bottom three as neither Bolton, Wigan or QPR were victorious this weekend. Just as every team is only as good as their manager and every manager only as good as his last game, it’s a more than respectable start. Whilst many Wolves fans saw the appointment as a step backwards and warned that we should ‘be careful what we wish for’ the same people in response are now instructed toward the process of not counting chickens before they hatch. Who knows, this darkest of clouds may just have a golden lining when all is said and done.