Go Back Home and Prepare for the Championship
Paraphrasing David Steele`s misguided exhortation to the Liberal Party in 1981, this instruction is all too likely to prove true for us and for our team.
Although deflections accounted for two of Stoke`s goals, even MM did not argue that, but for such bad luck, we might have stayed in the game and (even more unlikely) might have salvaged a point. If Hennessey had not saved us on numerous occasions, Stoke would have been out of sight by half-time.
One of many of the irrational arguments that have served to counteract the evidence of the league table is the belief that we always improve in the final run in. On the contrary, our results against Stoke reveal the opposite trend. In the opening match of the season SEB and Fletcher tore Stoke apart and, but for an injury to Fletcher, we would won more handsomely than the 2-1 margin. At the end of January Stoke won 1-0 in a dour battle in the cup. Now this!
In this match Stoke were the team doing the tearing apart. They were so much sharper on the ball, so much more astute in running the channels and so much more accurate in their passing. They sliced open our defence at will. We were led to believe that the two week gap between the Everton and Fulham games had allowed the coaching staff to guide the players gently by the hand through the basic footballing skills they lacked. They clearly weren`t listening to them.
The first goal illustrated the glaring difference in quality between the two teams in general and the fragility of our defence in particular. Jones held up a ball from Shawcross out of defence before laying it off to Pennant. With space to pick his spot he aimed it at Jones, who, running between our two defenders, headed it into the net.
Wolves played better in the second half without really threatening a goal. While I worried every time that Stoke came forward, Wolves looked laboured, slow-witted and bereft of ideas. We only seemed to hold on to the ball when passing sideways or in the default move back to Hennessey. In attack, we lacked guile and penetration, largely because we were misfiring in midfield. The injury to Fletcher didn`t help. I hope he is fit for Sunday or our attack will be gumless, let alone toothless.
MM`s initial team selection had some merit, with two wide men and Mancienne as the extra midfielder. Unfortunately, both he and Kightly were rusty ... and so were their later replacements, Hunt and Guedioura. Even so, it`s in central defence that we really are weak and opposing teams have been quick to exploit it. It`s now hard to imagine that I once thought that Berra and Stearman were forging a reasonable partnership in the heart of our defence. Stearman`s name was even being put forward as a potential England player. Incredible!
Is it mere coincidence that this decline has occurred at a time when Doyle, our talismanic front runner, has been side-lined by injury? The very notion seems bizarre but is there a link? Doyle is so good at holding up the ball that it forces opposing defenders to focus on him, while also allowing our midfielders to move up in support. His absence gives opponents a far freer rein. I pray that reports of a return in the final two games prove to be accurate.
Optimists will point to the fact that we are still in the mix and that a victory or two will take us up the table and away from the relegation zone. This is another of those irrational arguments that have bedevilled our fight all season. MM was even putting it forward after the Fulham match. Somewhere along the line we have to get actual points. All those months of complacency and a refusal to accept the seriousness of our plight are coming back to bite us. We should not be in this position - and would not have been - had players and management alike adopted a more realistic stance. We had the money to buy players to cover our problem positions but they refused to spend it.
A new extended stadium ... who will fill it? I will, once I have accepted the fact that we will be playing Doncaster and Scunthorpe next year. I am, indeed, at home and preparing for the Championship but how many others, facing this prospect, will make the same choice? Certainly the fixture list will not attract extra fans.