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Friday, 20 August 2010

Keeping Wolves from the (Trap)door

PARTISAN ALERT – While most of us spend our time trying to keep them out, Drew Kearns explains why this year, the Wolves themselves have battened down the hatches and barricaded themselves inside Molineux with 1,057 sandbags, copies of every Premier League table since 1992, some loo roll and a healthy dose of belief.

It lurks in dressing rooms up and down the country, hiding in lockers, behind mirrors, inside showers, beneath piles of dirty kit. Always ready to strike and claim a new victim. Ready for its name to be cited as the reason for heartbreak, heartache and fortunes lost. Its malevolent presence is a source of constant fear for those who otherwise appear so sage and safe. This year I am concerning myself with this painful disease; this infection of our beautiful game. It is of course second-season syndrome, and I am a Wolverhampton Wanderers supporter.

No doubt it was some work-experience researcher at the great behemoth that is Sky Sports News who coined the phrase ‘second-season syndrome’ (SSS) – let’s face it, it’s highly unlikely to have been either a qualified physician, or indeed an individual who knows anything about the game. But just like Monday Night Football, Super Sunday, Football First, Soccer Saturday (really, soccer?) and the rest, it is now firmly lodged in our nation’s football psyche. Fans, players and managers all speak of the curse that dare not speak its name. “How could it happen?”, everyone asks. “They did so well last year… I expected them to kick on to a top-half finish”. And the preposterous: “Too. Good. To. Go. Down”. Ask Middlesbrough, Bradford, Ipswich and Reading. It happens. It’s real.

Perhaps the Wolves will be exempt, as SSS appears to be most virulent among sides which have enjoyed remarkably successful first campaigns. Being the lowest scorers in the division, winning just nine games and finishing 15th probably doesn’t qualify as ‘remarkably successful’. We did, however, stay up – an achievement, considering the largely Championship-level squad. We even showed occasional signs, at the end of last season, of stumbling across what could be described as attractive football – or at least as close as a team containing Jody Craddock and led by Mick McCarthy can get. Maybe by not overachieving in our first season we are free from the clutches of the syndrome in our second.

Ipswich, after all, finished a remarkable fifth in 2000-01 and were relegated the following year. Reading finished a commendable eighth in 2006-07 and also went down a year later. In fact, internet stat hunting has informed me that since 1992, with 50 teams being promoted in that time, only five have increased their points tally and position the following year. Blackburn (twice), Birmingham, Derby and Stoke. Those omens look good. Ignoring Blackburn (which is something we should all do most of the time) it looks like the syndrome is less potent around the Midlands. A local immunity perhaps?

Being a Wolves fan carries many blessings. Optimism and confidence are unfortunately not two of them. Take last Saturday against Stoke: after a barn-storming first 45 we got what we deserved at half time – a two goal lead. Despite some enthusiastic singing during the first half, nobody got carried away.

The team weren’t welcomed onto the pitch for the second half as they were serenaded off it at the end of the first. Reality had hit. On trudged our golden heroes, 2-0 up after a great first half performance to a sea of worried, concerned, anxious faces all thinking the same thing: “if it goes bad, please make it quick and as painless as possible”. We were not, in short, expecting a third Wolves goal. The players obliged and gifted Stoke a lifeline.

Stoke then appeared confused as to whether to play football or be Stoke. They chose the latter, which turned out to be great for us. Full time arrived and it had been surprisingly comfortable to hang on for three points.

Surely this isn’t a sign of things to come this season? Expected difficulty making way for a clear passage to points? I’m sure the club will come up against tougher tests, but ignoring the inevitable SSS talk after a bad result will only help our cause. Optimism and confidence? I’m not so sure. But being pragmatic, honest and having passionate, positive belief I can do. Just like Mick and the lads. Drew Kearns

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