Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Bound to be some bumps in the road for Wolves
This column is about the search for the middle ground.
It was conceived whilst driving, sometimes in the middle lane, on the M40 travelling back to London from Wolves’ 2-2 draw with Norwich.
The M40 is a bit of a black hole at night time. Stretched out across mile after mile of generic farmland there are no lights. No distractions until eventually London’s street lit satellite fringes emerge.
It is a dull hour and a half, plenty of time for thoughts and strangely calming.
Maybe everyone should have to drive down the M40 at night before giving an opinion on the match. Games like the Norwich one bring out more extreme views.
Nelson Oliveira’s last-gasp equaliser changed the narrative. It was no longer a hard-earned three points, just a dreadful two points dropped.
Dramatic endings like the one on Wednesday night - with no right of reply – lead to polar reactions. Ruddy needs dropping. Jota was hopeless. The manager’s substitutions were terrible. The formation was all over the place.
The views of football fans not long after a final whistle can be the most extreme of all. But football is only a mirror to society. It is no worse than any other walk of life, where the middle ground is shrinking.
Social media is awash with reactionary thoughts. The X Factor generation fuelled by relentless prodding and provocation. The message never comes from the centre.
If only Simon Cowell would tell his contestants they were reasonably average and there may be a passable club-singing career ahead, with the occasional role in Jack and The Beanstalk during panto season at The Grand. Give them some average expectations in life.
Instead the poor souls are torn from pillar to post not knowing whether global fame or the dole queue lies ahead.
Our politicians are at it too. Brexit, the single biggest event of our generation, hijacked by the extremists. It must be hard. Harder than a rock. The hardest thing imaginable.
Never mind the actual economic and political landscape. Brexit overlord David Davis boldly announced that this hard approach is the only way to the sunlit uplands, “There will be no downside to Brexit.”
12 months on he is shuffling through the corridors of power asking us not to worry too much about a Mad Max dystopia.
If the country’s leaders can’t maintain a rational narrative, how are Wolves fans supposed to keep a lid on it when Oliveira pulls off a goal like that? A surround sound of expletives from the Molineux stands, programmes hurled to the floor and an angry trudge to the exits.
What a contrast from the Norwich City bench, leaping out of their seats and onto the pitch in unconfined joy.
Just at this moment, in an agricultural abyss between Banbury and Middleton Stoney - and still over an hour til home - the music intervenes. Breathe by The Prodigy comes on the radio. A blissful riot of big beat electronica.
It is the sort of tune you get a speeding ticket to. A sublimely confrontational track. ‘Breathe the pressure, come play my game, I’ll test ya. Psychosomatic, addict, insane.’
Hmm, probably not the middle ground that is required when trying to analyse those 90 minutes at Molineux. Better get back in the middle lane.
Managers are obliged to speak in the immediate aftermath of these results, shaped by circumstances and emotions. Nuno Espirito Santo’s version of the M40 is to wander off into the bowels of the stadium to find somewhere for a quick smoke while he gathers his thoughts before returning to face the media.
Norwich boss Daniel Farke bounced into the post-match interview room first. Cut from the mould of uber-positive, engaging German managers that shaped Jurgen Klopp and David Wagner. He couldn’t have been happier to talk about the comeback
Nuno had a more wearied demeanour. It was not the last minute equaliser he dwelt on. Instead the first Norwich goal was of greater concern. A good point to raise.
There was something of the one-off about Oliveira’s haymaker from distance, but the positional, tactical and technical failings in defending a freekick were harder to accept. That is the training ground stuff. It has been a repeat theme.
Nuno’s claim that Wolves controlled possession for much of the second half does not stand up to scrutiny. If the first half was one of dominance and control, the second was played largely on the back foot as Norwich’s midfield, James Maddison and Moritz Leitner in particular, got a grip of the game.
The sight of Ruben Neves, Alfred N’Diaye and Romain Saiss all on the pitch together in deep-lying midfield roles seemed to give Norwich encouragement to press on.
But there were still second half moments when Wolves might have killed the game off. Ivan Cavaleiro’s miss and Morgan Gibbs-White fluffed one-on-one. It was never a backs-to-the-wall affair.
The great redeeming feature of the M40 is that it connects Britain’s two biggest cities without bothering about anything in between. It is an uncluttered stretch of nothingness from A to B. Maybe minimalism is the best way to analyse this sort of match.
This is the time of year when teams are no longer at peak fitness. Fatigue of the mind and body is a natural occurrence. Wolves were quite good in the first half and a bit crap in the second.
That’s the middle ground. After last-minute dramas like Wednesday’s, it does no harm to occupy it.