Back in the pack

In the pantheon of great contemporary Wolves strikers, Benik Afobe would certainly rank in my top three.

If you discount the godlike Steve Bull on the grounds that this is for mere-mortals, Benik would probably sit between Dean Sturridge and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, with Steven Fletcher somewhere further behind.

The methodology used here was simple: When presented with a chance, you just knew that these players would score. Pound for pound, Sturridge was arguably the most unerring.

That tantalising air of inevitability – be it sidefoot, dink, lob or laces – seemed to envelop these players in a golden hue where it mattered most, where all others would fail to convince. For once, a YouTube montage would probably do justice.

With all this in mind, having Benik Afobe back in a Wolves shirt can only be a fantastic bit of business and one worth stopping up until midnight to savour with the insufferable Jim White.

Just like when Benik would be played through on goal, I just sensed that the Sky Sports reporter down at Bournemouth would utter the words that we’ve all been waiting for – and so it proved in a brief moment to encapsulate a season.

The success our new no19 enjoyed in Jackett’s 4-2-3-1 system will surely stand a chance of being trumped by an even greater yield when operating in Nuno’s 3-4-3, as he’ll function at the very fulcrum of the formation, in way more meaningful areas of the pitch. At times during his first stint, I felt that an obvious goalscoring talent was slightly peripheral as he worked in a less threatening role behind Dicko, making his fantastic goal return ever more impressive. (By the end of that 78pt season, I actually felt Kenny should have played in tandem in a 4-4-2 in a bingo-or-bollocks assault, but I digress).

Shorn of Sako, van la Parra and Dicko for his second season, it was a wonder he scored 10 goals, with a dark cloud hanging over his exit.

For the here and now, I can’t see how Afobe can’t be a success if the likes of Jota, Cavaleiro, Costa and co stay fit. In fact, he should absolutely feast on the service, on the presumption that he’s still the same player we remember so fondly before he left.

But back to his initial exit before we all check that YouTube montage and salivate over the weekend…

…Am I alone in feeling like Afobe deserves a chance to set the record straight, having incurred the wrath of Moxey and Thelwell when leaving? Ok, so Fosun have righted a lot of wrongs since the asset-stripping regime of Morgan, but does this vindicate their attempts to rewrite history?

Like Matt Jarvis and even Robbie Keane before him, Jez Moxey was all too quick to paint a picture of a mercenary money-grabber to create a narrative to pacify the masses.

Speaking to an apathetic fans’ parliament, which I distinctly remember with bitterness, Thelwell said: “Benik was no longer trying to play for us. That was undermining everything we were trying to achieve.”

Afobe responded: “I wasn’t going to comment but this is too shocking and very hurtful. I did my best.”

Most will say it’s water under the bridge and lap up Benik’s second debut on Saturday. But before we all sing his name, a chance to have his say is just the right and proper thing to do, is it not?

Irrespective, I welcome him back with open arms in a deal that can only be seen as a win-win for all concerned.

Age of innocence

‘Nostalgia’, as my dear old Dad likes to tell me, ‘ain’t what it used to be.’

He wasn’t wrong in my case.

The mid-90s were a mishmash of unrequited love, unattainable dreams, fake bravado, football and vigorous masturbation, all played out to a Live Forever soundtrack. I call them the Wilderness Years.

Wolves would bookend those most enduring of memories, bobbing and weaving between mum’s departure, a bunch of laughable GCSE grades and pathetic attempts to get-off with a number of nonplussed girls in a Leominster nightclub. Typically, Steve Bull was my ubiquitous beacon of hope, even if the one abiding image was good versus evil, my hero slumped on his knees as he-who-can’t-be-named held his arms aloft in the Lancashire mud.

But I bloody miss those days. So much so that I pine for them at times. A poignant blog from Mikey the poet (aka the phenomenal South Bank Resistance) features a regression back to his youth and some formative gold and black moments to define his DNA. He juxtaposes these with the implications of a corporate juggernaut at work.

Maybe, just maybe, there’s a risk that the very essence that marks each and every Wolves fan unique could be forgotten as FOSUN blazes a trail across the land, obliterating all before it like a frenzied bush fire. £35 million for Andre Silva anyone?!

Some fans feel like they can relate to Manchester City right now, as we seemingly track eachother’s successes in our respective divisions. I’d settle for their fans’ ‘We’re Not Really Here’ banner if nothing else. I can definitely relate to that.

So, if the inevitable happens and we do return to the Premier League, will a part of you feel remotely compromised, when the foundations of such success are at odds with everything you’re familiar with?

The rest of the footballing world watches with disapproving eyes, frantically tweeting their bile at Jorge Mendes and anyone else connected with a club who are riding roughshod over every convention known to Endsleigh. It’s certainly a million miles away from the days I recollect most fondly, sporting Staw Distribution shadow stripes, clutching a Golden Goal ticket in one paw and holding Dad’s hand tightly in the other.

Robinson, Robertson, Philip Chard (who?), Nigel Vaughan, Mick Gooding too…I won’t forget your names.

I also love Jota, Neves and Big Willy from the bottom of my pencil case, even if their motives for playing for our great club are a little more dubious than those Sherpa Van heroes.

Back in 1988, we’d walk along Waterloo Road and Dad would regale me with his own Wilderness Years, featuring Skipper Mike Bailey’s barrel chest, UEFA Cup conquests and an obligatory Uncle Clive anecdote as they conquered terraces near and far. With a crumbling old wreck of a stadium as my backdrop, it was scarcely believable we ever played Arsenal there, let alone spanked them 5-1 (featuring Wagstaffe goal of the season).

My first ever game was against Simod Cup holders Reading on September 3rd 1988. Robbie Dennison scored the winner in front of the same stand as Waggy, albeit an empty one. It wasn’t always like this Dad would muse, recounting days of 50k, The Doog and a curious ‘Goodbye Horse’ anthem that still sounds like nonsense.

I wouldn’t expect FOSUN to understand. That they – and Nuno – are dragging us towards the Premier League is good enough for me. If successful, they would restore parity to the Smallman football order. Grandad would indulge in this success with cigarette in hand. He’ll be forensically analysing the league table in ‘The Pink’ at this very moment in heaven, in customary celebration, I know.

Dad’s biorhythms would be correctly realigned too. He could tune into MOTD again for the first time since Jimmy Hill. Ok, so they might not relate to some murky methodology behind it all, but it’s a damn sight more palatable than what Morgan and Moxey were serving up beforehand, not to mention the Bhattis before that.

FOSUN are merely putting Wolverhampton Wanderers in the front and centre of their minds in an attempt to secure success over any other project, be it houses in Compton Park or asset stripping in the days of Tatung. It would seem churlish to argue with that, wouldn’t it?

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards…

…My age of innocence might be long gone, but I’ve never looked forward to Saturday afternoons more.

Wolves 3 Brentford 0

As the turkey leftovers are scraped into the slop bucket and the tired tinsel sags on the tree, trust Wolves to stay in the festive spirit as we all trudge back to work.

We don’t have to wish it’s Christmas every day, but just rock up at Molineux to see these golden greats in action and study the league table every day thereafter. (Then scroll through twitter to read that a Valencia striker could be putting pen to paper.)

There have been some mightily impressive wins in this relentless charge through the Championship, but this 3-0 scalp over a top Brentford side might just be the best of the lot. Ok, so it didn’t involve an orgasmic last gasp goal, but the Bees looked every inch a team with 33pts from their last 17 games, while we had every right to feel a little jaded after our Ashton Gate glory.

At half time, a point wouldn’t have been a bad return at all as the away side threatened to pass us into submission, even if we did create all the chances in a curious game to call. Ten points ahead of Derby and 12 clear of third wouldn’t sound so bad under the circumstances, would it?

Evidently it did to Nuno, who got the players in at half time and sent them back out to play in the style we’ve become accustomed. Brentford’s high press was suddenly nullified through a more carefree approach and Cavaleiro was again the game changer when he came on for Costa.

Before Brentford boss Dean Smith could blink, they were 2-0 down after two moments of unadulterated beauty. In any other season they’d have been goal of the month – if not season – contenders. But as we’re spoilt rotten with such jaw dropping quality, they tussle each other for best goal of the game award.

The away side, preparing for the wand of Douglas, were fooled when Neves stepped up for a free kick instead, whipping the ball into the roof of the South Bank net. If the left one doesn’t get you, the right one will.

Within what felt seconds it was game over. Cavaleiro, dancing round defenders, cutting this way and that before pulling a tantalising ball across the box for the onrushing Douglas. In a throwback to Mark Kennedy’s strike in that Newcastle FA Cup game of yesteryear, time stood still as the Scot strode towards the ball…and arced it high into the top corner in a moment of dizzying bliss.

It was two ruthless passages of play to underline why we’re now 12pts ahead of Derby and 14 clear of third. A clinical, cold kill on an unsuspecting opponent who were at their most vulnerable when they were feeling comfortable.

From there on, we kept the ball particularly well, used our width and won the ball back with aplomb when the Bees were beginning to swarm, as typified by Romain Saiss once more. Ruddy, a spectator behind the unflustered Boly, Coady and Bennett.

To add gloss to the scoreline, Diogo Jota bagged a late third whilst lying flat on his back and enjoyed a standing ovation when replaced.

The full time whistle felt like another belated Christmas present, as did the sight of the league table on every television screen in the concourse on the way home, where those Christmas decorations can stay where they are.

Bristol City Vs Wolves Preview

In lieu of the standard preview, Ben has been catching up with a Bristol City supporting friend to get the lowdown on tomorrow’s opponents.

As usual though, make your predictions in the comment section.

Catching up with Chris – A Bristol City perspective

Most would regard our trip to Ashton Gate as our biggest game of our season, such is the massive gap that would open up should we win. It feels like a seminal one for sure, should we win of course. Most of us have channelled our inner Vorderman in recent days and weeks, calculating just about every permutation from any given result. Irrespective, the countdown now on for the biggest clash of all!

My mate Chris Rackley, a lifelong Bristol City fan, is probably laughing as he reads this preamble, bearing in mind that the pair of us set-up a ‘League One Bound?’ WhatsApp group 12 months ago, including another poor sod who supports Blackburn Rovers! What a difference a year makes for all of us eh? I sense that Chris is pinching himself in much the same way I have been this season!

I caught up with Chris ahead of Saturday night’s game to get his thoughts about a fixture neither of us could have envisaged being so important a few months ago.

Chris, I would regularly listen to your tales of woe last year, your face long and sad on most Monday mornings…something has changed dramatically this season. I want to know what the hell has happened?!

Last season started so brightly and we were sitting in the play off places at the start of November but I think even the most optimistic City fan knew we were overachieving and expected us to slip off the pace but certainly not to the extent we did! Between December 10th and January 21st we lost all eight of our Championship games, Johnson was a dead man walking and we seemed destined for League One. However, we managed to win six of our last ten league games and pulled away from the drop with a game to spare and since then we haven’t looked back.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what changed and I have come to the conclusion that it’s a combination of factors that have lead to the remarkable turnaround. I think first and foremost, Johnson learned a lot during that horrendous run – about the Championship, about himself and about his players. I know it’s a bit of a cliché but over the summer he trimmed his squad down to the players he knew he could trust – with the most notable departure being Lee Tomlin to Cardiff, who I think most outside the club saw as the Bluebirds getting one over us but given the off the pitch rumours flying around last season and his lack of performances on it, I think his departure had to happen and has helped us build the team spirit that is doing us so well currently.

Further to this, we made additions that toughened us up as we had a very soft underbelly last year. Players such as Nathan Baker, Bailey Wright, Eros Pisano and Milan Djuric – who were signed in either January or the summer, have meant that even when we aren’t playing the best football, we are staying in games through shear grit and determination – as I think our performance at Molineux earlier this season demonstrated.

It looks like the bulk of last season’s squad and management are still in place this season, making the turnaround all the more remarkable? Are there new players / staff that have come in over the summer that we don’t know about?

Our assistant manager John Pemberton was sacked in March and replaced with Dean Holden and Jamie McCalister – who had previously played or worked with Johnson. At the time there was uproar among the fans as Pembo had been with us a long time and was a big character during our League One promotion season. The sacking was seen as a cop out by the board, as many saw him as a scapegoat for Johnsons short comings. However, hindsight is a wonderful thing and I believe this reshuffle has meant that Johnson can now delegate his responsibilities and focus on the things that are more important – I think it comes back to the trust point I made above.

The vast majority of games during our losing streak last season were only lost by the odd goal and we often played some good football, which made it even more frustrating at the time but looking back it was probably a key factor in Johnson keeping his job. We had a good core of young, hungry, skilful players – such as Jamie Paterson, Josh Brownhill and Callum O’Dowda but as I mentioned earlier, we lacked that toughness. The biggest improvement has been to our defence which was leaking goals last season and the signing of Nathan Baker from Villa, who had spent some time on loan here previously, was an absolute stroke of genius in my opinion and I don’t think there are many better central defensive pairings in the League than him and Aden Flint.

It would appear Lee Johnson has learned invaluable lessons from last season? Did you want him out?

I’d love to say that I always knew he’d turn it around but that’s not true. The City fan base was slightly divided from day one on Johnson’s appointment as he had previously played for us under his dad Gary, with many feeling this was the only reason he made the team. With this in mind, I think there were certain sections of the crowd who were almost willing him to fail so they could say “I told you so” – meaning that when things started to slide, the crowd had less patience than they might have done with, say, a Gary Rowett. I was aware of “Johnson out” rumblings from as early as the beginning of November, before we even really started our slide down the table!

However, the majority of City fans know that we are a small fish in a big Championship pond and could see that we had a plan. We not only had young, raw, inexperienced players who needed time to adjust to this level but a manager who also fitted into that category too. I think many could see the snippets of performances that showed that Johnson could hack it at this level and really wanted him to succeed but with each loss he (and us) seemed to be slipping ever closer to the trap door. Relegation was not part of the plan and would have set us back a long way. When we went away to Preston and lost 5-0 in April, it was the last straw for many – myself included.

Who have been your standout players this season? Most neutral observers would probably point to Bobby Reid and Aden Flint (who always seems to score past us!) but there must be other significant contributions from elsewhere?

Flinty is the fan favourite but was close to leaving us in the summer as Harry Redknapp (among others) knocked loudly on our door. Johnson came out and said that his head had been turned, meaning he missed the start of the season and it looked like it could get a bit nasty. I don’t think many could blame him for wanting to have a shot at playing higher level or increase his pay packet given his climb from non-league. However, many fans would have been disappointed had we lost him to Birmingham – and that looks justified at the moment! Since coming back in to the team he has looked twice the player he was last season and is back among the goals too, even whipping in a Beckham-esque cross for Pato’s goal against Boro!

However, Bobby Reid is by far the biggest surprise of the season. He is an academy graduate and has been flirting with the first team for years (he’s now 24) but had never cemented a place. You could see he was a talented footballer but was labelled a central midfielder and was seen by many as too lightweight to play there, especially in a two-man midfield. He had been stuck on the wing but was a bit too slow and with Lee Tomlin being the first choice for the No.10 role, I really thought his time was up. However, Johnson had a plan and has stuck him upfront and he really has looked like a different player. He has the skill, vision and finishing of a natural striker but it’s his work rate that really stands out – he never stops chasing!

Moving on from those two, I could easily list fifteen players, as it really has been a team effort. Joe Bryan (another academy graduate) has been outstanding this season, either at left back or left midfield and I honestly believe he will be playing Premier League football next season – with our without us. Jamie Paterson is often our creative spark, cutting in from the left to grab an assist or a goal and Josh Brownhill just seems to get better and better too, a central midfielder by trade but he often plays on the right due to our injury problems, he’ll go far too!

What’s your injury list looking like ahead of the big game?

It seems like every week we have someone else being added to the list! Famara Diedhiou, Eros Pisano, Milan Djuric, Callum O’Dowda, Jens Hegeler and Gary O’Neil are all out long term and Nathan Baker and Jamie Paterson limped off in our last game against Reading so we really are down to the bare bones at the moment!

Will your squad cope with your cup exploits and a hectic Championship schedule? It seems to be so far…

I keep thinking that we’re going to crumble but we keep scraping over the line – I think that is more down to our team spirit than anything else. We are looking very tired at the moment – not helped by the high intensity performance put in against Man United last week – and with the injury list growing I feel like it’s a case of get to January and look at getting a few bodies in to help us out.

A lot of Wolves fans are particularly apprehensive about this fixture, partly because of the huge gap that would open up were we to win and equally the fact we’re playing such a fine side. Who should we be most worried about?

I can see where you’re coming from but there is no doubt that you are the best team in the Championship this season by quite a distance. Win, lose or draw on Saturday, I still can’t see anybody catching you. In terms of who to worry about, it really does depend on who’s fit. If Jamie Paterson is fit then we has that bit of magic to change a game.

What formation will City adopt and what will the team be?

Johnson tends to play a 442. With injuries at the moment meaning that we are playing two centre halves at fullback – it tends to be a fairly flat back four with the six in front being more fluid. However, with injuries at the moment (sorry to bang on!) it could easily be a 352 or something similar.

A lot depends on the fitness of Baker and Paterson but if fit then I think he’ll go with: Fielding (GK), Wright (RB), Baker (CB), Flint (CB), Magnusson (LB), Brownhill (RM), Pack (CM), Smith (CM), Bryan (LM), Pato (CAM), Reid (ST).

Have you been surprised by Wolves’ transformation this season (not least after watching your side dismantle us 3-1 at the end of 2016/17 and listening to me whinge for much of last year!).

Yes and no. With all the money you’ve had to spend and contacts you have, meaning you can bring in some top players, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that you have turned it around and now look like you are cruising to the Championship title. However, I know that it is not as simple as that and despite their potential; it is extremely difficult for foreign players to adapt to such a physically demanding league. Add egos, language barriers and pay gaps into the mix and it could have easily have gone wrong.

I really like the look of Ruben Neves, he looks like a great investment (even at that price) and his goal against Sheffield Wednesday recently was class. I see Connor Coady has been rejuvenated his Wolves career as a central defender, I seem to remember he got a lot of stick in the office last season!? Nuno Espirito Santo looks like a great manager and it will be interesting to see how far he can go in the game.

And finally, a prediction for the game…!

I think it will be 1-2 to you lot. I think we’ll give it a good go but I think the packed Christmas schedule and injury list will catch up with us and your extra quality will shine through.

Wolves 1 Ipswich Town 0

Another game gone, another ghost exorcised.

The Dickensian Mick McCarthy, like a ghost of Christmas past, back to haunt us with his grim brand of pragmatism and lovable banter in the press conference.

Good old Mick. Having stalked the touchline next to his impotent sidekick Connor, he was to fashion an unlikely result from his Unlikely Lads before casting a crooked smile to thoughts of a £15 million holding midfielder. ‘World’s gone chuffing mad,’ he’d observe with a wry wink, delivered in obligatory Yorkshire gimmick.

Fuck off Mick.

Like so many scripts we’d conjured in our heads before kick-off, Nuno saw straight through it and dealt with the nightmare scenario with the ruthless efficiency to which we’re accustomed. A moment of magic from a bloke who’d have never seen the light of day under a bygone era and a general sense of calm, as we danced around Mick’s customary muck and nettles.

He’ll doubtless fester over our embarrassment of riches as he digests his turkey and Brussels sprouts, without giving a second thought to a quite laughably biased referee who gave his side most decisions. Maybe he was disappointed at his side’s play acting and cheating in the rare moments they did attack, with two players diving over themselves in feeble attempts to win penalties.

Not the brand of Corinthian spirit you’d associate with Top-Bloke-Mick, who at least proved that he can evolve. If Martyn Waghorn was called Diogo Jota then you sense he’d have reminded us all of such moments. ‘Not on my watch’, he’d growl.

Thankfully, we eventually got one over the old dinosaur and we move on to the next game, where Nuno will already be searching for more solutions.

With five minutes remaining it might all have been so different here, after Mick’s last throw of the dice almost reaped dividends. David McGoldrick almost justified one or two intakes of breath when introduced to the fray late on. He played a neat one-two and was in on goal. For a split second, an image of a fickle old man and a flying clipboard flashed across our minds, before Romain Saiss appeared from nowhere to intercept majestically.

It was a moment every bit as impressive as Cavaleiro’s in the first half, even if it fails to make the post-match highlights reel.

Having been starved of quality for so long, such contributions are appreciated all the more by a fan-base that knows that they’re not always easy to come by. Heck, under last season’s manager he wouldn’t have even played! It was a tackle quite emblematic of side which is laden with obvious quality, but underpinned by exertion. Ryan Bennett – another unsung hero – and another example of individual conquest.

Add it all up and the end result is barely believable. In real money it’s 54 points and 10 clear of third place, despite a selling-your-soul narrative that our detractors still portray.

But as a wise old ghost of Christmas past once said: ‘Opinions are like backsides — we’ve all got them but it’s not always wise to air them.’

Sheffield Wednesday 0 Wolves 1

If the footballing purists weren’t purring over our latest victory in front of the Sky cameras, the ‘stattos’ certainly were.

Our fourth consecutive away win without conceding a goal for the first time ever, keeper Ruddy’s 12th clean sheet to put him above any other, the first team to amass 50pts across all four leagues and the highest points haul at this stage of a Championship season since Mick’s 2008/09 vintage.

It’s inevitable then, that our minds cast back to the days of Big Chris, Kites and co, when they’re the only team on a stats sheet to come close to Nuno’s heroes of today.

We think of that 5-1 drubbing of Forest – which history decrees as the pinnacle – some swaggering down at The Valley and some sauntering up at Deepdale. We came, we saw and we bloody well conquered didn’t we? Usually in style.

But the memory airbrushes the more mundane of matches, including one particularly drab 1-0 win up at Hillsborough (ironically enough), which was worth as much as the 3-1 win at Bramall Lane ever was. Likewise a Collins header at Doncaster which barely registers when thinking of Big Chris and Sylvan away at Cardiff.

Of the 16 wins racked up so far this campaign, this one probably won’t be purred over with quite the same relish as so many others. It might even be forgotten completely. Nuno might view it differently though, knowing that successful campaigns are built on foundations such as these.

The fact is we’ve been spoilt rotten to date, gorging on a brand of attacking football not known in these parts since…well…2008? But with teams clogging Jota to within an inch of injury, Bonatini looking knackered and Cavaleiro mercurially frustrating, there has to be more than one way to skin a cat.

So if our previous thrashings of Bolton and Leeds induced giddy comparisons with Pep, then these three points were spirited from an early George Graham, chiselled from an impenetrable back line who dealt with the dirty side of the game without ever looking flustered. John Ruddy never tested.

In most triumphant seasons, particularly those in the Championship, top drawer performances can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The largest proportion comes from disciplined 7/10s and the rest come from a moment of magic or misfortune.

This win at Sheffield Wednesday probably sits somewhere between the last two categories, with Ruben Neves’ strike the one bit of discernible quality on show all night. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.

If you’re looking to bet on Wolves to finish the job with promotion in May, you can get an 888sport promo code 2018 to increase your stake and maximise winnings.

Legendary golfer Ben Hogan once admitted that he’d only hit three pure strikes in any given round. With a record breaking front-nine already carded, we should bear this in mind as we prepare to tee off again.

In a career that spanned nine majors, that raking one iron at Merion will be remembered by everyone, if not the umpteen clutch putts to save his bacon elsewhere.

This was a tricky six-footer we sunk in Sheffield. It was worth its weight in gold.