Bristol City 1 Wolves 2

If you’re anything like me, the new year will have you contemplating the last 12 months and what lies ahead from a personal, professional and societal perspective.

Naturally, such philosophising extends to the beautiful game and yesterday’s rip roaring, top of the table clash will no doubt have left many dreaming of a bright future for Wolves.

Rightly so, given the quality of opposition and context of our turnaround victory.

Just as the stars align in order to usher in a new year, so it seemed they were conspiring against Nuno and his charges in the early throes of this contest.

After an enthusiastic Robins side drew two excellent saves from John Ruddy in the early throes of this contest, things went from bad to worse as Danny Batth was given his marching orders by referee Peter Bankes.

My view, though partisan, was that the skipper played the ball and that any card shown should have been yellow.

That being said, the benefit of hindsight and an innate desire to play devil’s advocate would lead me to suggest that, in the context of this oh so modern game, a red may have been warranted due to the fact that it was actually Batth’s kamikaze first touch that led to him needing to make a challenge in the first place.

Either way, it was a game changing moment that left the home crowd and their effortlessly grating manager baying for blood.

Nuno’s dismissal to the stands was another bitter pill to swallow and left the impression that Bankes, like Stephen Martin before him, wanted to make himself newsworthy in front of the Sky cameras and an enemy of all those in old gold and black.

Despite these travails, City were repressed by an excellent defensive showing and the game remained locked at the interval.

That soon changed when Bobby Reid benefitted from a wild deflection that left Ruddy helpless and the home side in the ascendancy.

It all felt eerily reminiscent to our defeat to Sheffield United and Helder Costa’s errant display up front (surely his worst in a Wolves shirt) meant seldom were forecasting a fightback.

Thankfully, there was another chapter of this story to be told and the introduction of Ivan Cavaleiro saw us build momentum and eventually find a route back into the game.

Frank Fielding’s terrible impersonation of Manuel Neur saw him receive his marching orders and levelled the playing field, with Barry Douglas’ subsequent free kick deflecting past City’s substitute goalkeeper and leaving the scores tied ahead of a frenetic final act.

With chances scuppered by both sides on account of tired legs all round, it appeared the game was only going to be won by the team with the bigger appetite for victory.

Thankfully, this side are a ravenous bunch and another sumptuous set piece from Douglas allowed Ryan Bennet to head home the most delirious of winning goals.

Cue pandemonium on the pitch, in the stands and, in the case of me and my family, the living room of a quaint holiday cottage in Padstow.

It was truly a moment to saviour in this most cherished of seasons, with Nuno’s wild celebrations in the Ashton Gate executive area set to be a crowning moment in our recent history and a hugely popular GIF amongst Wolves fans.

What can be achieved by the club in the next 12 months, given our meteoric rise over the 2017/18 season to date, is anyone’s guess but, as is so often the case with our club, it’s safe to assume it won’t make for dull viewing.

A belated merry Christmas to you all, and a Happy New Year.

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 3 Bristol City 3

While the passing and moving formula continues to look good on the eye, there is one potentially lethal equation at work to undermine it and consign this season to the dustbin before it has properly got started…

…Missed chances and cheating referees.

Yes, Wolves created enough chances to have won this match three times over, but that doesn’t then give referees carte blanche to give every big decision to the opposition for another week – the perpetrator of which will never be held accountable. And because referee Steve Martin’s unfathomable decisions won’t ever be deemed incompetent by his bosses, he can only be labelled a cheat.

Firstly, he gave Bristol City a penalty with the score at 2-1 when a cross hit Vinagre on the arm roughly 2yds from the boot of the winger. Not one appeal from their bench or supporters. Then, when Danny Batth was assaulted in the penalty area with the ball nowhere in sight minutes later, the same referee gleefully waved away the appeal.

Bad enough decisions in their own right, but even worse when the linesman was way better placed for the first one before the official then went all WWE referee on the crowd in theatrics. It was as if he genuinely enjoyed giving it.

I make that five shocking decisions given against us (1. Ludicrous Hull City penalty, 2. Cardiff City Damour elbow in Saiss face – yellow 3. Millwall Aiden O’Brien two footed lunge on Jota – yellow, and 4 & 5 last night) compared to precisely zero given in our favour. It’s not as if we want decisions in our favour anyway. We just want fairness, which we are clearly not getting.

If there is not a conspiracy behind the scenes then there’s an uncanny coincidence amongst the men we are ordered to respect, and the club needs to wise up and kick up as big a fuss as possible like most other clubs do, who no longer have to suffer it. So bad – and dare I say corrupt are the officials – that you no longer fear the worst before kick-off, but ruefully accept it as being par for the course as you make your way to your seat.

For all the millions being splashed by FOSUN, they should throw a bit more loose change at the Football League / FA and kick up a stink about these abhorrent decisions before we become a laughing stock amongst referees, if we’re not already which I suspect we are.

As the Secret Footballer states in his Access all Areas book, for the sake of a few quid, it is worth it in the league points you get in return.

‘Picture this: a few times a season the same disciplinary meeting room will be box office. An Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho will rock up, completely unrepentant. The referee was wrong, they’ll say, and furthermore he is a cheat and all you people are trying to cheat our club out of the rewards it works so hard for. Everybody will shake their heads and a £25,000 fine will be imposed.

Guess what? Best bargain ever. Nobody is going to jail. Nobody is getting points on their licence. You have just bought three points for £25,000.’

Jeff Shi, Laurie and co take note. After last night’s disgusting levels of officiating, something has to be done.

As for the game itself, Wolves were excellent. Their only crime was not bringing in a striker in the window, which no amount of wailing or gnashing of teeth can rectify any time soon. That and their slack defending off set pieces, where Cavaleiro was actually marking Aiden Flint at one corner at the South Bank end. That’s just not right.

Bonatini, who did score the opener, missed three gilt edged chances. It is a habit we can well do without, after similarly bad misses at Griffin Park and Pride Park, where he actually missed an open goal from 6 yards.

Jota also should have scored when a clever chest down from Bonatini was smashed against the bar. Cavaleiro was guilty, too, but atoned for a one-on-one miss with the corner that led to our second goal to go 2-1 up.

Sadly, referee Martin couldn’t level the scoreline quickly enough afterwards with that penalty decision which barely a Bristol City player or supporter appealed for. In cricketing terms, it was an LBW review that was pitching outside leg.

Then our suspect defending at set plays threatened to seal the most unjust result since…Referee Scott Duncan and Cardiff City rolled into town on the same team coach.

Thankfully, Danny Batth rescued a point with a set play goal of our own and the spoils were shared.

Overall, we played brilliantly, with Cavaleiro enjoying what had to be his best game in a Wolves shirt, while Doherty and N’Diaye were terrific. Jota was typically impressive as well.

But it can only be seen as two points dropped amid such circumstances, with hard work still needed on the Compton pitches to eradicate such basic errors at both ends of the pitch.

Away from there, Jeff Shi and Laurie Dalrymple need to make a beeline to St George’s Park, Soho Square or wherever the bosses of these spineless referees reside and take one for the team.

For the sake of a relative pittance, it would be the best money ever spent.