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Nationwide Division One, 28/10/00
Wolverhampton Wanderers
Work to be done
By Ian Grant

A cautionary tale, ladeezngennelmen. Not the first cautionary tale of the season, perhaps...but certainly the most significant.

Many have commented on the possibility of Fulham running out of steam as fearful opponents and winter mud start to stifle their creative football. The assumption has been that we'll have other qualities to fall back on - First Division experience, fanatical team spirit, robust defence, and so on.

That may well turn out to be the case. If so, we need to get on with it. You can't rest on your laurels in this division. What we saw at Molineux was a side that was dragged into a traditional, untidy Nationwide scrap in horrible conditions and looked uncomfortable throughout.

Don't be fooled by the times of the goals. Really, this wasn't a game of two halves at all - Wolves dominated for long periods before the interval and the half-time score flattered our overall performance, if not our decisive finishing. Even so, the comeback was thoroughly disappointing. Having taken the lead, we showed a disturbing lack of resilience in letting it slip.

Once again, we were presented with a challenge. As if playing away from home, Wolves packed the midfield and left Branch as a lone striker. It left Micah Hyde and Allan Nielsen, the two play-makers, without any time or space to supply the forwards or wingers. A familiar pattern, and one that'll become even more familiar with the passage of time.

That shouldn't have been a problem. We can't expect to dazzle as we did at the City Ground every week, particularly if the conditions are so atrocious - the sweeping rain left the pitch barely playable, with players splashing round and passes either skidding through or stopping in puddles. And we don't need to dazzle to keep winning.

We do need to defend better, though. If you're going to have to fight for everything and rely on superior goal-scoring, then you can't afford to get sloppy at the back. And we were sloppy. Getting slaughtered by an opposition winger is forgivable on occasions - David Ginola, Marc Overmars, Stuart Ripley (not really). Getting slaughtered by Darren sodding Bazeley is ridiculous - hardly an unknown quantity, hardly a player of world-class quality - and an indication of a lack of concentration. That's not what we need.

It's not fatal, obviously. With every team in the top six dropping points, and some allowing leads to slip in even more dramatic and careless ways, nothing's changed. But anyone who believes that promotion is already assured needs to think again - face it, the First Division's seen too many early leaders fall away. There's much work to be done.

In truth, this was a game that, although generally unattractive, was probably rather more entertaining than we had a right to expect in the circumstances. That said, the context robbed it of much of its drama - Molineux's a pretty depressed place these days, no longer sold out and no longer so intimidating, and the general dampness didn't help much. With the visiting fans stretched along the full length of the pitch, most of the ninety minutes was played out in virtual silence. Decent match, unsatisfying experience.

The first action took place at the Wolves end, with Neil Cox's low free kick skimming through into Oakes' chest, but that wasn't a pattern which lasted very long. For a while, Wolves' attacks were too primitive to have much impact - there were plenty of crosses into the area but a lack of quality, and height, meant that they were easily cleared. Gradually, however, they started to get the ball down and cause problems.

Ketsbaia was first, bursting through from deep to set up Bazeley. The former Hornet, who received a mixed reception (frankly, following encounters with Williams, Holdsworth, Hessenthaler, Ramage and others in recent months, I've no idea what criteria we're using to decide who's a "hero" and who's a "reject" these days - for all I know, Des Lyttle's going to be applauded onto the pitch when we play West Brom), got a bit excited and mis-kicked so completely that his shot nearly went out for a throw.

That caused a chuckle or two, inevitably. But, bearing in mind that I'm hardly his greatest admirer, Bazeley looked sharp, dangerous and - gulp - consistent for the remainder of the game. He was clearly motivated by the chance to play against his old chums, and used that motivation to turn in an impressive, dynamic performance. He was helped by the fact that Paul Robinson, presumably similarly motivated, appeared afflicted by the footballing equivalent of Tourette's Syndrome.

Wolves should've scored the opening goal after twenty-two minutes. Credit for the opening goes, unfortunately, to Robinson, whose attempt at stopping Branch's swift break down the right was unbelievably dumb. Sliding on your arse at breakneck speeds is fine if you're competing in the luge at the Winter Olympics, but less advisable if you're a footballer. He missed his intended target, thus avoiding a red card but leaving Branch to run into the penalty area unobstructed. When he got there, he only had to square the ball across the six yard box to set up a certain goal...instead, he selfishly tried to flick it past Alec Chamberlain at the near post, succeeding only in hitting the side netting and wasting the chance. By trying to be clever, he ended up looking stupid.

There were further opportunities - Chamberlain saved comfortably from Branch, Darren Ward slid in to clear a chipped free kick that briefly threatened to creep in - before a Watford resurgence that was as potent as it was unexpected.

After his earlier free kick, it seemed as if Neil Cox had filled his quota of ambitious goal attempts when he drove over from distance after thirty-two minutes. We were mistaken. Within a minute, he'd picked up the ball after a Nordin Wooter dribbling session and, after taking a steadying touch, curled the most exquisite lob over Oakes from the edge of the box. Comparisons with Hoddle's legendary chip to beat Steve Sherwood at the Rookery end were fully justified - it was beautiful, sublime, visionary and it left Oakes watching in utter disbelief.

Really, a one-nil scoreline was more than we deserved. But when it comes courtesy of such an inspired moment, it's more difficult to talk about luck. To end any arguments, we doubled the lead shortly afterwards. This time it came by more conventional methods - Micah Hyde's half-volleyed cross, Gifton Noel-Williams' flick, and Tommy Mooney stealing in at the far post to thump the ball home. To our immense joy - past offences against Graham Taylor are not yet forgotten or forgiven, even if we've profited from Wolves fans' mid-nineties impatience - we looked set to win a game that we'd completely failed to dominate.

Half-time. Simple. Get the ball out wide more often. Tighten things up in midfield. No need to be particularly adventurous, just don't do anything foolish. Like, for example, pulling and pushing somebody about in the penalty area in the first two minutes while the referee's watching....

All part of the learning process for Darren Ward, I'm sure. There are places where the physical approach is entirely appropriate, where giving opposition strikers some stick is a vital part of the defender's armoury. There are places where you have to be a bit more careful. Handily, the difference between the two is indicated by white lines on the pitch, just in case of confusion.

So, Bazeley's cross came in from the right and Ward needlessly tugged and shoved half-time substitute Carl Robinson - it was a clear foul. From the spot, Muscat beat Chamberlain comprehensively with a nerveless shot into the roof of the net. Molineux came to life.

Had we conceded the equaliser earlier, we would've struggled to maintain our unbeaten record. With Bazeley tormenting the thoroughly hapless Robinson on the right, Wolves were in full flow and we weren't doing a great deal to help ourselves.

Dinning headed at Chamberlain from a left wing cross as our defences were severely tested in the minutes following the penalty. Then Naylor was allowed to advance through the midfield unchallenged, distracting Robinson from his defensive duties. Although two thousand Watford fans bellowed "LOOK BEHIND YOU!", it was too late - with Robinson completely unaware of his presence, Bazeley received Naylor's pass, made his way into the box, and was only denied by Chamberlain's legs. In truth, he probably shouldn't have given the keeper any chance of making a save. From the resulting corner, Peacock's header was blocked by Ward.

For a while, we could forget about the swirling wind and the sweeping rain and the ludicrously high roof that left us unprotected from both. Instead, we could concentrate on watching a game that had suddenly turned into a fairly rousing end-to-end affair. In a sense, this was what we'd wanted from the start...yet, for perhaps the first time this season, we failed to take full advantage of the extra space as the play became stretched. Nielsen and Hyde were disappointingly anonymous, sucked so deep into the midfield wrestling that they could've been Derek Payne and Geoff Pitcher. Meanwhile, Wooter was so wide and so detached that you could've been forgiven for thinking that he'd anticipated his substitution and gone to sit on the bench already.

We relied on moments of inspiration from the forwards, then. Nearly worked too, but Noel-Williams' sharp turn inside the area was let down by a sliced finish. A minute later, Branch shot wide from fifteen yards - one of those that everyone, including the keeper, believes is destined for the bottom corner until it whistles past. Another minute later, Mooney belted a shot miles wide from a ludicrous distance after neat passing had sent him on his way. Noel-Williams volleyed over, Dinning drove wide from twenty yards. At the back, Mooney was pole-axed by a shot that smacked him in the face from five yards away, stood up and indulged in a bit of shadow-boxing to show the referee that he was fit to continue.

Although the rain continued, it began to look as if we'd weathered the metaphorical storm. During the next fifteen minutes, only Ketsbaia's furious drive from thirty yards disturbed Chamberlain, who was grateful to find that it'd hurtled just over the crossbar. At the other end, we began to show signs that we might grab a third goal to secure the points - Mooney's shot on the turn from the edge of the box was deflected over, then Page got on the end of a corner but couldn't keep his header down. The arrival of Tommy Smith was refreshing and it was appropriate that he came closest - released by Mooney, he scampered through to shoot from a tight angle and was unfortunate to see the ball roll against the far post and away.

There was one last twist, though. After Ketsbaia's shot was deflected wide by Ward, we failed to clear the corner effectively. The ball dropped for Dinning, unmarked at the far post, and his volley was emphatic, crashing through a crowd of players to pull Wolves level. You couldn't really argue that they didn't deserve it.

With quarter of an hour remaining, it seemed unlikely that we'd seen the game's last goal. But there was no rousing finale. Instead, the players began to look like schoolkids at lunchtime, waiting for the bell to ring to get back into the warm. Dinning, certainly Wolves' outstanding player on this occasion, belted a shot wide from twenty-five yards. Mooney headed over. Paul Robinson was replaced by Nigel Gibbs, which immediately put a stop to Bazeley's fun.

It's a point gained, naturally. We've only recorded one league win at Molineux in our history and that was back in the early eighties, so we can hardly be overcome with anguish at our failure to win on Saturday. Nevertheless, it was a frustrating performance - perhaps we've begun to believe our own hype, to hope that we don't have to worry about the basics any more. If so, we're kidding ourselves.

We're a First Division club. We play matches in the First Division. Forget about everything else for now, or we'll find ourselves in the same position next season.