Monday, May 10, 2004


The second week of our season, way back in late August, was an unmitigated disaster. Defeat by Man Utd was followed by the crushing blow of failure in the second leg of our Champions’ League qualifier against Partizan Belgrade, and then by an unforgivably limp display against Birmingham resulting in a third straight loss at St James’s Park.

Now, as the second last week of our season is over, it’s clear that the nightmare has repeated itself. Almost a complete mirror image in terms of woeful inadequacy on the pitch and soul-destroying results for the fans. After the tame 1-0 defeat at Man City came Thursday’s devastating exit from the UEFA Cup, and now the embarrassment of an appalling home draw with Wolves that leaves our already slender Champions’ League hopes hanging by the thinnest of threads.

Sunday’s game was always going to be about how we would react to the pain and anguish of the Marseille result. And the answer seemed to be with casual indifference and indolence. Bowyer, who replaced Viana in the starting line-up after the Portuguese midfielder’s dreadful performance in France, got on the end of an Ameobi cross late in the first half to notch his first goal for the club – indeed, his first for 18 months. Otherwise we huffed and puffed but failed to blow in the defences of one of the weakest teams in the division, whilst at the same time allowing their forwards occasional sights of goal. At the interval, though, we had the lead and the three points were all that mattered.

However, the second half followed a depressingly familiar pattern. Laziness and sloppiness crept in, Robert being the most conspicuous but by no means only culprit, Speed was left to cope with the opposition midfield single-handedly and our defence began to wobble spectacularly. The one-time whipping boys relished the opportunity to get their hands on the whip, and Wolves came closer and closer to scoring until substitute Vio Ganea finally put the ball in the net with 20 minutes to go and with Carl Cort standing in a suspiciously offside position – if he’s distracting Given then surely he’s interfering with play?! Though we were still creating chances too, at that point they looked like the most likely winners, but much-needed help arrived with only seven minutes remaining in the form of a dubious penalty award from referee Matt Messias. On this occasion, though, even Shearer couldn’t save us, his spot-kick repelled by Wolves keeper Paul Jones who was having an inspired second half. In a desperate attempt to make amends, the skipper produced a couple of powerful efforts, but it wasn’t to be and our final home game of the season ended all square amidst a cacophony of boos (indefensible, even for displays this pathetic).

Unlike on Thursday night, this time our current injury list cannot be used as an excuse – quite simply, the players we did have on the pitch were more than capable of getting the win we needed at home to already-relegated opposition, and their failure to do so is not only a damning indictment of their collective desire and drive, but also an incomprehensible disappointment given the spirited win over Chelsea just two weeks ago. It’s time some of them woke up to reality, took a good hard look in the mirror and realised that they’re not the footballing geniuses they believe themselves to be and that they don’t deserve any kind of success by right.

The draw feels even more like a defeat when you take into account the manner of Liverpool’s 3-0 victory over Birmingham, free-flowing and clinical, and Villa’s hardworking determination in gaining a point at Southampton. We were spared the ultimate humiliation of defeat because Wolves didn’t quite follow the script to the letter – the team without an away win in any competition all season didn’t snatch all three points and Cort didn’t grab the winner against the side who paid £7m for him to make 28 appearances in three and a half years – but the point “earned” can only prolong the agony by giving fans hope that we can record back-to-back away victories over Southampton and Liverpool in the next week and pip the Scousers to the Champions’ League post. As a pessimist – or should I say perpetually disappointed and demoralised realist? – I assess the chances of this happening as slim to zero.

Right, you gutless clowns – it’s up to you to prove me wrong.

For Paul's rather more upbeat assessment of the match, click here.

(Alan Hansen on our current plight. Though I was fearing the worst, he's actually quite kind - he obviously hasn't been watching too many of our games this season. You could count the number of top-draw team performances on one hand.)

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