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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 11/12/04, 3.00pm
Wolverhampton Wanderers
The drift...
By Ash Peters

It's all about making these games matter. Not that the players don't try, or don't seem up for it, just that inevitably, with the team in mid-table, the focus is still on the coming cup games, at the expense of going all out for three points to keep us there. Away from home, it seems the crystallization of singing supporters, in a higher concentration in a smaller space, create a sense of occasion that can lift the players, but at home we drift... and drift... and nothing will stop me enjoying the game at Anfield, but I could do without a relegation battle in the back of my mind even then. We're going to need more home points before it.

We started well, Ardley welcomed back and Devlin also a decent option to have fully fit, and charging at the visitors' defence to gain an almost immediate advantage. Dyer found Ardley on the right, and his precise cross bypassed the goalmouth to find Helguson mystifyingly unmarked, with time to control the ball and smack it past Oakes with his left foot. Before long, Devlin came inside to crash a shot just wide. But the initiative slipped away quickly, Wolves' 4-4-2, less rigid than previously reported this season, easing them into control of the game.

Seyi Olofinjana had caught the eye from the start, for being, as he is, massive; and he kept our attention for being, as he was, in charge. Playing just behind the more heralded front two of Sturridge and Cort for the visitors, he bossed the midfield and Wolves threatened to score regularly. Sturridge was forced wide after poaching the ball from Lee, and later hit the woodwork only to be called up for offside. Cooper found space only to drive well over from distance. Mahon looked unsure on the ball, regularly winning it but disappointing with his distribution, whilst Gunnarsson alongside him had his poorest game for a while, frustrated presumably by the injury he must still be impeded by. Whilst both Cox and Demerit had their moments at the back, their lack of understanding meant the resistance was unconvincing and at times desperate.

As his side began to labour in turning their possession advantage into goals, Hoddle graced us with his presence on the touchline, quickly adopting a position in the yard gap between the perimeter of the coaches' area and the pitch, as if to challenge any authority the fourth official had over him. The challenge was not taken up and he remained there for the whole game, annoying but admirably stubborn.

Almost immediately, with ten minutes left of the half, Wolves took the lead. Joleon Lescott, in white tights that comprehensively destroyed the look of the away kit that is the most visually appealing outfit I've ever seen them wear, nodded down a flick header in the box, and Olofinjana crashed home the volley, unmarked from the edge of the six yard box. It looked then as though an away win would surely follow but luckily we are a tougher proposition this year: we survived a few more chances before the half was out. Lee kept out Cox's errant attempt at a clearance off his knee, with what was confirmed by replays to be more of a photo opportunity save than the stunner it initially appeared, and saw a Naylor effort deflected onto the crossbar by Devlin.

We are tending to get results one better than we would in the past from this type of game; a draw where we might have lost, win where we might have drawn, when not playing very well. But with the relative comfort of midtable and the massive distraction of exceptional cup exploits, no league game feels essential enough to build a sense of urgency, both in the stands and on the pitch, that will make the difference in the performance so that we actually deserve more than we are getting.

So the second half began slowly, and it was twenty-odd minutes old before Oakes scrambled out a fierce Devlin shot for his defence to complete the clearance. From the resultant corner, Helguson drew a goal-line clearance from Naylor that was as close as we would come. Wolves threatened less themselves, and Sturridge, his black tights an altogether more co-ordinated choice, was substituted for Miller, no more effective. The away side kept Lee on his toes but never looked like snatching the win.

Ardley burrowed his way through to force a near post save from Oakes, and Dyer slashed wide from the edge of the area after a Helguson flick-on. Lewington too began to shuffle his troops, and Dyer was replaced by Young, who to everyone's surprise took his place up front. A worthwhile experiment, but Craddock and Naylor were too experienced to give the more lightweight player any space around the area. At the other end, Lee smothered a free kick from Andrews, but the game was petering out.

Seol Ki-Hyeon, brought to Wolves by Ronny Rosenthal apparently, came on for Cooper and Fitzgerald again got the 'chase the game' role he cannot quite seize as his own, in place of Ardley. We had rather a muddle up front, and I tried to place the formation we were aiming for. Sadly this eluded me, but the crucial detail was that Helguson was now dog-tired and no goals were going to emerge from the bundle. Indeed, the away side fashioned the closest thing to a final opportunity, Naylor's dangerous cross eluding everyone.

The team continue to play with plenty of effort and commitment, and no little skill; you can't grow tired of saying how obvious the spirit and dedication is within the side. Somehow these games need to seem more important before they become so out of league necessity. To end a seven game January out of both cups and in a relegation battle would be a sad and unfortunate conclusion to this chapter of the season, but with each passing home drift into disappointment the possibility becomes all the more likely.