Is there anyone of a certain age or over that didn’t experience a little frisson of excitement during the summer when they noted for the first time that both Burnley and Wolverhampton Wanderers would be back in the top division of English football? The press have largely been dismissive of both clubs’ chances of staying up this season, though, and they had something to sink their teeth into at the weekend. While Burnley were being outplayed at Stoke City, Wolves were being supine rather than lupine in surrendering against West Ham United at Molineux on Saturday afternoon.
This evening follows another test for them. Wigan Athletic have now been rattling around in the Premier League for long enough to be considered old hands at the art of doing enough to secure their survival by the spring, and they looked surprisingly impressive in beating Aston Villa at Villa Park at the weekend. With its forty-six match seasons, the Football League could be said to encourage flabbiness in its member clubs. If you make a mistake, then there is time and room to atone for it. This breathing space is much more scarce in the Premier League. With eight less matches to play, every match is important. On Saturday, the suspicion was that Wigan knew this, but that perhaps Wolves didn’t.
What made Wigan’s win on Saturday all the more eyebrow-raising was that there had been a case for saying that they would find this season to be more of a struggle than previous seasons. Having lost Steve Bruce to Sunderland, their new manager was Roberto Martinez from Swansea City – for the optimist, a talented young manager that had built a strong team in South Wales and is already popular in Wigan for his time as a player at the club, but for the pessimist someone untried at this level and with a legendary status to lose – and they had also lost Antonio Valencia, the catalyst for so much of the good football that they played last season, to Manchester United during the summer break. Wolves had a lot to find out about their players this evening.
They couldn’t have a much more positive start. Inside four minutes Andy Keogh hit the post with a curling shot, but even this was little more than respite for Wigan Athletic. Within ninety seconds, a curling free-kick on the left hand side from Nenad Milijas, their new, Serbian signing from Red Star Belgrade was headed goalwards by Keogh and dropped agonisingly wide of the Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland and in off the far post. It was an almost languid goal which came about almost in slow motion, a perfect start for Wolves and a sudden bursting of the bubble that may have built up around Wigan Athletic after their win on Saturday.
Considering what happened to Mick McCarthy as a manager the last time he was in the Premier League with Sunderland, it was unsurprising that, following their early attacking flourish, Wolves were reasonably content to sit back and let Wigan come at them. What was perhaps more of a surprise was how easy it looked for them. Wigan lacked the fluidity and spark that seemed to ignite under them at Villa Park and Wolves, even without Sylvan Ebanks-Blake (who was injured on Saturday) looked as likely to score on the break as Wigan did with all of their possession. Their best chance of the first half came seven minutes from the break when Charles N’Zogbia won himself some space, but his shot was tame and Wayne Hennessey saved comfortably.
As the second half, Wigan’s neat and tidy approach play was subsumed by a more agricultural approach. A sure sign of a team not firing on all cylinders. They continued to control the possession but, a couple of last ditch tackles and a slightly undignified scramble by Hennessey after he had spilled a shot from Paul Scharner apart, there seemed to be precious little for a well-organised visiting defence to be particularly concerned about. The heat was turned up considerably in the last ten minutes and Wigan had a big chance to haul themselves level with a couple of minutes left to play but young midfielder Scott Sinclair headed Jordi Gomez’s cross wide and with that the points headed for the Black Country.
After two matches of the season, there have been conflicting emotions for supporters of both Wigan Athletic and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Considering the accomplished performance that they put in at Villa Park on Saturday, Wigan supporters could have been forgiven for briefly allowing themselves to wonder whether a European place wouldn’t be beyond them this season whilst Wolves supporters, who may have been fearing the worst after Saturday’s defeat, may now be wondering whether they can emulate Stoke City’s performance last season and flourish in the Premier League. It’s very early days, but an away win so early in the season gives at least a hint that the most apocalyptic predictions for Wolves’ fate this season may turn out to have been somewhat overblown. In a thirty-eight match season, every away win has the capacity to be priceless. We shall see how important this result was for Wolverhampton Wanderers come next spring.