Forty-two pounds is a lot of money. It’s more than someone working full-time on the minimum wage earns in a day. It was also the cost of a ticket for Wolverhampton Wanderers supporters that wanted to go to see their team at Old Trafford in the Premier League last night. They may now be wondering why they bothered. Part of the rationale that is frequently given by managers that a desperately scrapping to get there in the first place is that they want the experience of “playing the best as equals” (or variants thereupon), but that can hardly be said to have been what happened last night as Wolves played supine rather than lupine in fielding a second string team to take on a Manchester United side that was off colour but still allow to stroll to a 3-0 win.
This is being seen by some as sort of moral victory for the Wolves manager Mick McCarthy, but the truth is somewhat more complex than that. Wolves already had the worst goal difference apart from Hull City of anybody in the bottom six, and a further minus three on that tally can hardly be said to have improved matters. Regardless of this, the Wolves first team stretched every sinew in winning 1-0 at Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, a result that seriously dented Spurs’ chances of being able to snatch a Champions League place this season. This was a result that was not far short of as big a surprise as their snatching a point at Old Trafford last night would have been, but it does illustrate the moral complexity of such a decision. Why should Manchester United be given an even easier time of it than Arsenal or Chelsea were?Mick McCarthy has a moral obligation to play his strongest possible team in every match this season.
Quite aside from the issue of moral obligations (which can be debated at length and with the full knowledge that McCarthy’s only moral obligation is to Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club), there are also practical considerations to take into account. One of the biggest differences between the Premier League and the Championship (aside, obviously, from the quality of the teams) is the length of the season. The forty-six match Championship season allows some room for error. The thirty-eight match Premier League season throws every single match into a much harsher glare. The room for error is marginal. Maybe every match should be treated as an opportunity to win points rather than a contractual obligation in which the primary aim is to avoid some sort of humiliation. Hull City, for example, would have been relegated had it not been for unlikely wins at Arsenal and Spurs last season.
It is also worth returning to the question of what Wolverhampton people may or may not have been looking forward to this season, because this includes the players. They may have an understanding of the broader issue of the rest of the season, but who can say for sure what the effect the disappointment of not having the chance to play at Old Trafford will have on those that missed out? What McCarthy seems to have done is heaped pressure upon Sunday’s match against Burnley – a Burnley side which, let us not forget, beat Manchester United at Turf Moor earlier this season. Burnley entertain Arsenal tonight – they may well lose this match, but we can be reasonably certain that they will do their outmost to win. That seems to be the philosophy of their manager, Owen Coyle, and, although they only sit two points above Wolves in tweflth place in the table, the fact that they are making such a fight of things on even more limited resources than Wolves seems to vindicate Coyle’s beliefs.
McCarthy won’t know whether the ploy has definitely worked until the end of the season, and the justification for it remains morally suspect regardless of this. It is impossible to consider last night’s events without thinking of the travelling supporters that spent a small fortune travelling from the Black Country (or wherever) only to see a team that was effectively their reserves lose. Football supporters – especially those that follow smaller clubs – exist on hope, that one in ten thousand chance that they will get to say “I was there when we beat Manchester United at Old Trafford”. Wolves haven’t won their for thirty years now, and they have spent precious few of the intervening years with so much as the opportunity of breaking that particular unwanted record. We can’t say with anything like certainty how many more chances they’ll get over the next, say, five or ten years or so, and the harsh truth of the matter is that they are not much more likely to stay up this season as a result of Mick McCarthy playing his second string team against Manchester United last night.