Way back somewhere in the annuls of time; before the awe inspiring stadiums and the anti-sweat kits, before the mega millions and the sponsorship deals, before television and radio and the world wide web – back when the beautiful game was anything but. When football was little more than a pigs bladder and a muddy field, when the founding fathers sat down to discuss the soccer constitution – in those footballing scriptures it was written that an individual is destined to return to his former employer and net the winning goal… A tradition which has been handed down from generation to generation and it still prominent in the modern game.
When Robbie Keane’s first start for Aston Villa was decided to be the Wolverhampton Wanderers away fixture, it was almost like stating the bleeding obvious! The well-travelled former Wolves schoolboy turned Irish legend went Trans-Atlantic, returning from the glamorous backdrop of Hollywood to where it all began and won the game for Aston Villa with two classy strikes in this all West Midlands affair.
After lightning proved that it certainly can strike twice during two mind numbing FA cup ties with Birmingham City, (something that was borderline offensive to anyone that pays a TV licence fee) Wolves had much work to do to restore the faith that is forcibly ebbing away from their supporters. Having encouragingly proved much more difficult to beat during and since the festive period, Mick McCarthy was still looking for that 3 points that has eluded his Wolves side since that pivotal Sunderland game on December 4th and returned with the same team and personnel that earned a respectable point at Tottenham one week previous. The 4-5-1 come 4-3-3 system with Jarvis and Kightly providing support for Steven Fletcher from the wings with the combative midfield trio of Henry, Edwards and Frimpong.
McCarthy’s opposite number for the day Alex McLeish is hardly flavour of the month himself. For a loyal and avid supporter of a football club, the fact that McLeish was ‘buried before he was dead’ when he joined Villa after relegating their bitter rivals Birmingham City is somewhat understandable. There remains a large number of the Claret and Blue that do not want the Scotsman to succeed purely on principle alone. The baffling inconsistency that has seen them defeat Chelsea away but lose to Swansea at home in the same week has not helped matters but is oh so frustratingly typical of the Premier League of today. Villa made clear their positive intentions finding starting roles for their three main strikers Agbonlahor, Bent and Robbie Keane all of whom have European Championship aspirations for the summer. Stephen Warnock fell victim to some recent costly errors and was replaced by youngster Ciaran Clark who was joined by another graduate of the Villa academy Gary Gardner who started in the centre of midfield.
The opening exchanges swept quietly through with little cause for concern for either side. Wayne Hennessey collected a low cross in the nick of time from the toes of Darren Bent whilst Gary Gardner headed narrowly wide as the away side looked to set the tempo. With both teams setting out similar stalls, that being a 4-3-3 when attacking and a 4-5-1 when defending, the early signs warned that they could easily cancel each other out in this important local derby.
That notion was quickly dispelled in the sixth minute as the action intensified and the game opened up. David Edwards helped on an initially poor Michael Kightly cross into the path of Steven Fletcher who from an unmarked position 6 yards out shot straight at Shay Given in a golden opportunity for the home side. The Irish number one’s handling and positioning was spot to spare his team not for the first time this season as he showed glimpses of why he is still one of the best around between the sticks.
The righteous hand of footballing justice dealt it’s unforgiving blow to the home side as they were made to rue their previous miss and Aston Villa drew first blood on 11 minutes. Christophe Berra has been a large part of Wolves recent defensive resurgence with much improved showings as Wolves have looked to toughen up at the back, but it was his hesitancy that will leave all the fingers pointing his way for the opener. An attempted clearance was chased down by Darren Bent who was then misguidedly taken out by Berra in an act of desperation leaving the referee with little choice but to point to the spot. Villa’s number nine stepped up and slotted bottom right to complete the proceedings and give the visitors a welcome early lead.
With Wolves fans fearing the worst and that heads might drop after that costly individual error, their demons were quickly put to rest as the home side raised their game and took control of the remaining 35 minutes of the first half. Tough tackling in the midfield from Henry and Frimpong helped Wolves win the majority of the all important 50/50’s whilst Wolves were intent on utilising their speed and trickery on the wings through Matt Jarvis and Michael Kightly. In his most pleasing performance since his return thus far, Kightly’s energy was absorbed by the crowd who lifted at the sight of his willingness to beat his full back and create opportunities for a Wolves equaliser. The wide man who is arguably the greatest coop in the McCarthy era at Wolves signed from Grays Athletic for a nominal fee back in 2006. His youthful exuberance coupled with his obvious pace and ability quickly made him the talk of the town at Molineux and he was an integral part of the transformation of Wolves from Championship underachievers to title winning heroes. Kightly’s chances in the Premier League have been few and far between as a nightmare two years on and off the treatment table threatened the status of the former England under 21 who was seen as a shoe in to go on to bigger and better things. Following his return from a loan spell at Watford, it was pleasing to see him looking fully fit and judging by his first half performance close to a return to his best form. Always willing, Kightly’s first touch let him down on occasion but he chased and harried and gave the young left back stand in Ciaran Clark a torrid time twisting this way and that and delivering some telling crosses. So fitting it was then that the former non-league boy wonder should level the tie. Kudos to Emmanuel Frimpong who took a ball out of the air on the half way line, flicked it over his head before refreshingly controlling well and surging forwards laying the ball into the path of the lively Kightly who feigned a shot before rolling the ball inside, composing himself and slotting home left footed to the delight of the Molineux crowd.
The atmosphere in the stadium was as good as it has been for a long time as the energy on the field filtered through into the crowd. Aston Villa were on the ropes as Wolves took the ascendency in search of another goal to compliment their positive reaction to falling behind. Neat foot work from Kightly and Jarvis kept Wolves in the Villa half as they went to town on their full backs. With pressure mounting and Collins and Dunne dealing with crosses left, right and centre the ball broke in the area to Karl Henry who looked out of his depth that far up the pitch as he volleyed into the floor from inside the area as his shot was headed off the line for another of a procession of Wolves corners.
Frimpong, on loan from Arsenal began to show his added quality as he traversed the midfield landscape tirelessly for the cause. With Henry happy to sit and protect, Frimpong was given the freedom to burst from midfield with the ball once more to excite the audience. After a lung bursting run he passed into the feet of Matt Jarvis who had gone coast to coast before pulling back across the box perfectly for David Edwards who had advanced into the area but was once again foiled from 6 yards by Given in a near carbon copy of the earlier opportunity.
Wolves fans cranked up the volume to levels reminiscent of the better days at Molineux as they sensed the ensuing advantage looming for their team. From another corner which the linesman did his best to prevent from being taken by physically getting in the way at one point, the pressure paid off. After a verbal altercation with the official Kightly whipped in the set piece from the right, for the second game in succession Roger Johnson supplied the telling header which was flicked on into the net by David Edwards from under the nose of Shay Given.
With the crowd reacting to the teams increased tempo, Molineux was buzzing. Villa fans were left with a familiar sinking feeling as half time approached, a harmless looping header from Gabby Agbonlahor was their only other telling contribution to the first half which belonged in most part to the home side. As half time was called Wolves fans applauded their team but would take the character filled first half display with a pinch of salt. After all, building their team up for a huge fall is something that Wolverhampton Wanderers have a habit of doing especially this season.
In a second half which would ultimately leave Wolves fans wandering just what must have been said at half time, the game turned completely on its head. McLeish reacted to his sides first half frailties by bringing on Stephen Warnock at left back to quell the evident threat of Michael Kightly, whilst Marc Albrighton switched to the left side of midfield to toil against Kevin Foley rather than Stephen Ward. The midfield ‘switcharoo’ looked promising in the opening minutes of the second half as Albrighton found himself advancing to the Wolves by-line before crossing into the six yard box which Stephen Ward then endeavoured to hesitate with before taking a touch past his own goal keeper. The Welsh keeper spared his defender’s blushes after the breakdown in communication as he swiped the goal bound prod away with his long legs.
On 51 minutes it was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man, a journey which Robbie Keane made initially from a young boy with Wolves. After spells at Coventry, Inter Milan, Leeds, multiple Tottenham stints, Liverpool, West Ham and Celtic on his widening CV whilst becoming the Irish national team’s all-time top goal scorer – Keane now plies his trade in the enviable surroundings of Los Angeles with Bruce Arena’s MLS Cup winning Galaxy team. He joined Aston Villa on what is becoming a fashionable two month off-season loan from America, Keane netted his first goal for his new side with the quality and precision of which we have become accustomed to over the years. Dropping off the strikers, Keane collected in an ominous position with his back to goal from twenty yards. In the blink of an eye he had turned and half volleyed beyond Hennessey’s reach into the bottom right hand corner of the net. Obviously excited by the fact he’d shown he’d still got it, Keane turned quickly but muted his celebration in respect for the Wolves fans who adored him all those years ago as he was mobbed by his team mates.
In a real disconcerting contrast to the even flow of the first 45 minutes, Wolves paled in comparison struggling to get any momentum and foothold in the game following the leveller. The crowd quickly turned sour hounding the team for every error as they drew on past experiences and feared the worst for the remainder of the tie. Whatever Alex McLeish told his players at half time had worked as Kightly and Jarvis were rendered almost useless as the second half wore on whilst Steven Fletcher was becoming more and more isolated up front.
Emmanuel Frimpong spent an age on the ground in the Villa goal mouth after a collision with Stilyan Petrov and was eventually stretchered off with an injury to which would later be revealed would keep him out for up to three months leaving a question mark over his loan spell which was just getting going.
As Villa took a grip on proceedings, Wolves began to crack. Their frustration all too evident as Karl Henry tussled with Albrighton as they battled for the ball on half way, before petulantly kicking out at the lively Villa winger and getting himself sent off. The reaction from the crowd was mixed as some chanted the number 8’s name whilst others recoiled in disgust of the mindless act which had left their team well and truly on the rails.
With Henry staring down the barrel of a three match ban, Frimpong having been carried off, Wolves looking overrun in a midfield which now consisted of only Milijas and Edwards, McCarthy made a change which appeared to signal that he was intent on limiting the damage and escaping with a single point which before half time he would have been disappointed with. Richard Stearman replaced David Edwards as Kevin Foley reverted to holding midfield in a possible rehearsal for the ‘Henry free’ period facing Wolves in the next three games.
Inevitably the misery was compounded by the former Molineux hitman as Wolves paid the price for their poor second half showing. From distance once again, Keane showed his quality striking sweetly against the bar and in to complete the turnaround and send the away fans into jubilation. A respectable lack of celebration once more was commendable from the Irish man who clearly held his footballing roots close to heart as along with Joleon Lescott he is the most successful product of the Wolves youth academy in the past decade.
McCarthy reacted by sending on Sylvan Ebanks-Blake in place of Kevin Foley in an act of hope rather than expectancy from his Wolves side unrecognisable from earlier on in the afternoon. As Wolves negated defence in search of an equaliser, Villa seemed happy with their efforts and were content to soak up the fledgling pressure and hold onto the lead which they had now gained twice in the day.
Villa withdrew the former Wolves man after his brace to which he received a questionably mixed reaction from the home crowd. For a man who has always held the club in high regard and sought only to admirably further his career, he would have been disappointed at the minority from the stands who jeered, labelling him ‘greedy’ and a mercenary. In reality, the previous three times that Keane has moved elsewhere rather than returning to Wolves has been a myth created in expectation from the stands. The boards scrutiny on wages, coupled with Mick McCarthy’s apparent eagerness to work with players of a lesser calibre meant that there was never an official approach for Keane, leaving the rest of us to wonder how those displeased supporters believe that he could sign a deal which was never offered in the first place…
Long balls, head tennis and a few innocuous set pieces later and the game was over. The talking points evidently again would focus on McCarthy’s half time instructions which produced a complete turnaround in fortunes for the opposition, the mindless actions of Karl Henry, the rolling reaction to Robbie Keane’s return to the club and where the club go from here.
After losing two first choice midfielders in the same game, it will be interesting to see how McCarthy reacts in the upcoming fixtures. Presuming that Frimpong returns to his parent club and Jamie O’Hara remains side lined; Mick will have Kevin Foley, David Edwards, Nenad Milijas, Adlene Guedioura and Eggart Jonsson from which to select a central midfield trio in the upcoming games. Based on previous experience however it would be of no surprise to Wolves fans to see the likes of Stephen Ward, Stephen Hunt and Kevin Doyle in the middle of the park – none of which play that position by trade.
Aside from the initial cracks, the successful return of Robbie Keane to haunt his boyhood club exposed the wider cracks emanating from inside of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Presuming for arguments sake that Keane had attempted to initiate a return to Wolves himself, a transfer which the majority of fans have been expecting since the clubs return to the top flight three seasons ago. The well documented ‘wage cap’ at the club would have limited any kind of deal even if they managed to agree a nominal transfer fee, and McCarthy’s voiced opinions of not wanting to work with any “Big time Charlies” i.e the better players from bigger clubs, is also a factor. The mystery figure that caps the expenditure is believed to be in the region of £25,000 a week which in this current footballing cauldron is quite minimal in comparison. It is also considered that only a select few, the likes of Roger Johnson and Kevin Doyle will earn anywhere near this figure. This limitation, however much financial sense it may make to the CEO and the money handlers, does not quench the thirst of the most important factor at the club – its paying public who expect to see something in return for the hundreds that they hand over per annum. Steady progression is the order of the day and they work on the belief that the longer you stay in the Premier league, the more attractive a prospect you become for the better players who will ultimately take your team to that ‘next level’. Of course however unjust it may sound, this comes at a price, it is the nature of the beast and the world we live in. In a sporting climate where agents are poisoning the minds of players who in turn are in cases holding their club to ransom, there is very little choice but to sink or swim. With a limitation on the funding, you are also preventing your own ambition.
In essence Robbie Keane would have been the perfect fit for Wolves in their current situation with the argument being that they too should have approached the Galaxy for a two month loan to bring the striker back to familiar surroundings. The argument against would be that his wages exceed the club’s personal salary cap and to take a player for only two months would be almost pointless. However, consider that the total expenditure for the two months would be £500,000 in wages give or take and CEO Jez Moxey would see it as ludicrous spending for someone who you could only get two months’ work out of. Next consider that Robbie Keane might next 6 goals in that period and win you 4 out of the 6 games, gaining an invaluable 12 points steering you away from relegation and ultimately saving you the all the money you would lose from falling out of the top flight and you have a suitable return on your investment. In addition for a club that has wasted double that figure in the past on transfer fees for the likes of Stefan Maierhofer, Greg Halford, Matt Hill and Steven Muoyokolo from whom they have had ZERO Premier League production and they become victims of their own hypocrisy. Although the £1 million transfer fees seem nominal individually, they have all mounted up to over £20 million in wasted money on players who have made no contribution to the Wolves cause making a two month loan for Robbie Keane seem like very astute business considering what it promises to provide!
Stepping off of the soapbox, the current picture is now bleak at best. With Blackburn showing a willingness to compete, QPR looking to take off under Mark Hughes and even Bolton’s fortunes on the up after beating Liverpool, Wolves have fallen into that perilous relegation zone for the first time this season. On the backs of a fruitless 10 game winless streak, the worrying aspect for their fans is after teetering above it for so long, how do their team and the seemingly ill prepared management plan on getting out of it for a third season in a row. There is a Gold n’ black S.O.S call ringing from the terraces, it’s up to you to decide whether it’s a case of ‘Save Our Season’ or merely ‘Same Old S**t’!
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