December 20th, the last weekend shop before Christmas. Time to pick up the fading list, head towards Churchill Square, and gather the remaining unticked items for the festive jamboree. Well, perhaps not. You see, any self respecting football fan should gather enough team points throughout the year, preferably by mid-June, to ensure victory in the argument over the handler of such an important task. Once the victory is certain he then lifts his eyes heavenward, and takes a look at the fixture list in prayerful hope that the pre-Chrismas match is away, affordable, and at a suitable distance to ensure that no surplus tasks are left over upon return. 2014 brought great salvation, and out of gratitude I attended the local carol service on Sunday evening…
So Wolverhampton it was, the first visit in 23 years, the last being the relegation season of 1991/92. That visit came in circumstances of parallel equation. The Albion had been beaten in the previous season’s play-offs and found themselves in the bottom three of the table. Then, like now, I believed the team were too strong to go down. On that occasion I was wrong.
Nowadays, being a cultured, or boring, man of middle age (delete as appropriate) my early arrival in the place of occasion is normally calculated with the intention to visit a place of interest as opposed to the pub. This was certainly a task of swift ease in Norwich, less so Wolverhampton. This is not to say this black country city has little to offer the day-tripper, it is merely that this cold December afternoon was trying to persuade me that the warmth of a nearby pub, and the coldness of pint in hand, was a far more welcoming option than exploring yet another religious monolith. Having left work for a couple of weeks the previous night, I understood this sentiment. Feeling this uncontrollable pull I made a beeline towards The Goose in Lichfield Street.
Choosing ‘The Goose’, this being a large and popular pub with home fans, was always going to be of an advantage. I couldn’t remember the way to the ground and a game of ‘follow the scarf’ was going to be a safe bet. So after a brief visit to the splendid, and conveniently situated, Wolverhampton Art Gallery across the road, I settled in for a pint and a cosy hours big screen television. Leaving at quarter past two, I stalked the nearest scarfers and headed over the hillcrest and down toward the ground.
Throughout the surprisingly short walk, and as the famous old ground came in to view, my mind wandered across the last twenty years of the Albion’s history and the four venues we have called our home. I pondered over the thoughts that the Wanderers fans themselves may have been having as they saw the high rise goal ends of the ground for the first time that afternoon. A very central and iconic venue which holds so much history for the club and the individual. A place that has always been home, a journey that so many will have known as their fabric. Once they were smallest head in the crowd, now they were old stalwarts. Certainly the ground has changed and adapted to the requirements of modern football, but it’s still Molineux. You can still see whereabouts you once stood, and perhaps even sit there, and the good tradition, albeit it in an slightly different form, endures.
The away end at Molineux is no longer an end. It is a centrally placed lower tier section close to the half way line. Good value at £27 a pop, considering the prices some clubs are inclined to charge. And considering the recent turmoil that successive bad results have caused for the Albion faithful, the section seemed pretty full. As kick-off approached Albion voices began to sing in the most tuneful notes the pre-Christmas watering would allow, and the unison of purpose, namely a result, seemed to evaporate any leftover angst and anger after the pitiful display the satellite nation saw the previous Friday. Feeling a little nervous, I settled in to watch the match.
The Albion certainly fuelled confidence throughout the first half. For the most part I had no sense of the need to scrap to extract something from the game. Their football was as slick as ability allowed, and Wolves rarely seemed to progress beyond the second gear. Then, in the tenth minute, Darren Bent headed home a pinpoint cross from Inigo Calderon, who had been getting so far forward he probably thought he should have brought his passport, and the Albion faithful began to celebrate after having first taken a double check that this was actually happening. “We’re Brighton & Hove Albion, our striker is Bent” came the chant of year. Any potential homophobes emasculated by the eternal Albion wit, the home crowd became very subdued.
The rest of the first half offered little meaningful action until the last five minutes or so when the home side began to press. It was at this point a determined David Stockdale came to our aid with a couple of decent saves. I honestly believe that despite his shaky start to his Albion career, Stockdale is showing signs of coming good. Hopefully the competition provided by young Christian Walton will only steel the million pound man’s resolve.
And so to half time. These fifteen minutes in December can traditionally be seen as a Bovril moment, the drink that many of us may purchase at a football match and at no other time in our lives. Perhaps it was my over-dressed attire, but there seemed no need on this occasion, the weather being pretty mild. The kiosks under the stand were pretty full though, and as the match re-started, people seemed pretty content as they made their way back to their seats, or rather, standing positions.
Next the second half, and more particularly the 50th and 58th minute. I’ve never seen a penalty given and reversed at a football match, not that I can remember. However the referee, Darren Bond, was convinced enough by the fall of Nouha Dicko as he apparently made contact with David Stockdale when clean through from a rotten backpass by Joe Bennett. In the stand, only having a leg-side view of the incident, my concern was for the pending red card that Stockdale was likely to receive. A lot of time seemed to be taken over nothing in particular, and consulting his linesman, in front of the fullest home end, Bond reversed his decision and booked Dicko for diving. Respect. “This is our afternoon” I nervously thought.
The big ‘However’, that commonly used word in the team’s fortunes of recent times, seemed to fall eight minutes later when Bruno, like a man possessed, went for a reckless two footed challenge on Kevin McDonald. “That’s a red” I muttered, the man in the next seat agreed-I think most of us knew that the Ref had no choice. Gardner replaced March, and Albion faced more than half an hour with ten men. The collective spirit of optimism seemed to dim and flicker.
As the match rustled through its autumn, defensive as they were, Albion looked like holding on. It seemed if anyone had been watching for the first time this year they may have wondered where the torment had come from. Wolves had their opportunities, as expected, and Stockdale and his defence continued their determined prowess. However (!), despite the renewed confidence, the equaliser came in the 88th minute, from Batth, after a scrappy goalmouth frenzy from a corner. A Wolves defender had finally taken on the job that their, now four-fold, striking line had failed at. The nervous seven minutes that the clock afforded rendered only two results now likely, namely the ones that had formed almost 85% of our season’s stats, but Albion held on to secure the point.
Once the final whistle went the Albion fans showed their approval of the team efforts, and they of ours. The atmosphere had been very different to that of the previous week, but most folk were probably aware that, despite the much improved performance, changes still needed to be made in the management set-up. The road to relegation is often littered with respectable performances. A small group of fans lifted a banner, later featured on television broadcasts, that called for Sami Hyppia’s dismissal. This caused the expected division in the retreating crowd. Opinions differ, but for me it was a case of right sentiment, wrong place. It was a shame to see the atmosphere turn a little sour.
Though as I write this the management debate has moved to a new phase. Sami has resigned. Thankfully the Christmas holidays are here and more time can be afforded searching online for the latest news and speculations. Then there is the January transfer window.
I’m surprised us Albion fans ever have time to work these days.