Thrown out of the Last Chance Saloon
We have been supping at the Last Chance Saloon for some time now but after our defeat at the hands of Bolton today, the landlord has finally had enough of us hanging around, propping up the basement bar and not getting in the points (he`s Irish).
Personally, I left this metaphorical pub after the Blackburn fixture and have approached subsequent matches with a calmness that only total resignation to our fate could bring about. Today`s result really does cut us adrift, seven points from safety with seven matches to go.
To compound the pain, I am taking extra flak from my wife. While she could just about appreciate the attraction of watching WW in the PL, if only because it brought top-class players in really good teams to Molineux (her words), she couldn`t understand why I would want to make a round trip of over 300 miles every other week for half a year to see Barnsley, Millwall or Peterborough play. She sees it less as an eccentric retirement pursuit (which she does) than as a drain on finances and a waste of time, better spent (I suspect) in visiting garden centres and DIY outlets.
Showing a rare flash of footballing knowledge, she pointed out that it would make greater sense if I swapped my allegiance to Fulham or Chelsea, arguing that it would cause me less stress, would be cheaper and would enable us to eat the traditional Saturday take-away curry at a sensible time. I tried to explain that one has no choice in the team that one follows, but it was only when I made the analogy between my support of WW and her love of Bournville chocolate and creamy toffees, that I felt that I was making some headway.
Even so, she has sneakily upped the ante. This week, apart from the customary visits to shoe shops, I have had to comment on a selection of increasingly silly mother-of-the-bride hats, assess the merits of virtually indistinguishable handbags and accompany her on an emergency dash to Monsoon to look for a potential replacement bridesmaid`s dress. I`ve even attended a ballet. Actually, I`d sign up the principal dancer straight away as he might just about reach one of MJ`s overhit crosses or a hoof upfield out of defence.
Worn down, I observed that if she was so keen on us doing things together, I would buy her a WW season ticket. However, this suggestion was met with an indignant snort, a frosty expression and an imperious curl of the lip ... so, no change there. To be fair, I wasn`t that enthusiastic about enrolling on her cake decorating course either.
I did not see any WW supporters at Euston or on the train but plenty of them in the town centre when I arrived at 2.12 pm. The mood seemed reasonably upbeat as I walked to the ground, Gregg`s pasty in hand.
And the players were clearly in the same mood. If today`s defeat ended all hope of survival, at least we made Bolton work for the win. Indeed, we outplayed them for most of the game. Not only did the lads display a lot of spirit but they also put together some great passages of play. They showed that they could run the channels and deliver telling through balls. As a result, chances multiplied: in the first half we did everything but score. If we had gone in at the break two or three goals to the good, it would have been no more than we deserved.
We created three clear-cut chances. Firstly, Bogdan somehow managed to scoop Fletcher`s header round the post; then Miyaichi cleared another of Fletcher`s headers off the line; and finally Fletcher, faced with an open goal, headed Kightly`s perfect cross on to the bar and over. He would normally have buried it. Moreover, I lost count of how many times Jarvis and Kightly (and others) pumped crosses into the box, only to see them miss the outstretched boot or head of their intended target.
Surely, if we continued in the same vein the second half, we would soon convert one of the myriad of chances we were creating. And we did. In the 52nd. minute Ward passed the ball to SEB out of defence. He cut to the right in midfield and pinged the ball to Kightly, who, driving in from the touchline,beat Bogdan with a well-placed shot.
Unfortunately, it only took Bolton nine minutes to draw level, when Johnson was harshly judged to have tripped Mark Davies in the box. Petrov duly scored. A dubious decision, even after multi-replays of the MOTD tape, it earned Mark Davies, an ex-WW player, a barrage of boos for the rest of the match.
While the goal clearly perked Bolton up, WW were still playing well and one felt that the next goal would be the crucial one. Unfortunately, we missed the chance to go ahead when Jarvis headed wide in the 76th. minute with the goal at his mercy. Three minutes later slack marking by our defence allowed Ngog a free header, which rebounded off the bar to Alonso, who volleyed home from a suspiciously offside position. With WW pressing for an equaliser, it was perhaps inevitable, that we would ship a third goal. Kevin Davies, receiving the ball in the box, waltzed past Johnson and fired the ball into the net beyond Hennessey`s reach.
Even so, the lads did not give up and Jarvis scored in the 87th. minute after good work from Fletcher and inattention on Bolton`s part. Game on. We laid siege to the Bolton goal but, in spite of a period of extra time of MU proportions, we could not square the game.
The reaction of the supporters to the defeat, which consigns us to the Championship, was restrained. No booing or demanding that heads should roll but rather a dignified acceptance of the inevitable. The same sombre mood was tangible as I walked back through the city to the station.
And, there were some positives to take from the game. The team`s spirit has returned and we will need it if we are to bounce back next year. Secondly, our two wingers were on song, beating their men at will. Thirdly, the partnership between Fletcher and SEB upfront looked good, far better than that between SF and KD, because they play in tandem and work off each other. It was like watching them in the first half against Stoke last season. Fourthly, in Davis we have unearthed a real gem. He is a terrier in the tackle, is mobile and can run with and distribute the ball.
Unfortunately, we are undoing all the good work upfront by errors at the back. Even when we were dominating play in the first half, I felt anxious whenever Bolton counter-attacked. Both full backs were readily turned and the two central defenders failed to keep tabs on their men. Gosh, isn`t Johnson slow! They are costing us points, even in matches, like today`s, which we should have won.
Whereas Bolton`s defence, under far greater pressure than ours, managed to hold firm and only conceded two goals (and none in the first half), our defenders often gave Bolton too much space ... and they capitalised on it. Were it not for Hennessey`s customary quota of great saves, we would have lost far more heavily. It finally got to him, as witnessed in his spat with Johnson.
Over the course of the next few weeks our attention is going to be focused on the shape of our squad for next year. We will lose players and we will have to make good the losses. Of the players touted for transfer, I would like to see us hold on to Fletcher (however much it costs), Kightly and a fit O`Hara. I would rather not sell Hennessey, Doyle and Jarvis but I think we can manage without them (bring back Hammill). With the money - and more from Mr. Morgan`s pocket- we need to replace the whole back four ... but how is Batth progressing?
Of course, much depends upon the new manager and his coaching staff and it is important that we choose the right man and his team. Replacements should be signed up as soon as possible after the end of the season and, as a result, the club should be putting out feelers now. Swansea and Norwich have shown that there are bright young managers out there and, with a good eye for potential, we can improve the quality of our team.
I`m looking forward to the new season and the challenge it will bring, even if my feelings are tinged with regret that management managed to foul it up this time. I know there are still a number of games to go but really it`s all over. Still, we have a new stand.