The term “sleeping giant” is a misused one, often used to describe a club that had a few glorious seasons, many years ago. If there are two clubs that deserve this particular epithet, then it would probably have to be Preston North End and Wolverhampton Wanderers. These are clubs that have hit the highest heights and plummeted the depths. Two of the original twelve founding members of the Football League that haven’t troubled the top division too much over the last couple of decades or so.
It’s now impossible to be able to remember Preston North End’s glory days unless your the owner of a bus pass. The club’s true glory days came in the sepia-tinted days of the 1880s, when the “Invincibles” won the very first league championship with a team that won eighteen of their twenty-two league matches and the FA Cup in the same season. Much of their last thirty years, however, have been spent between the last two divisions, and in 1986 they finished bottom of the Football League. In recent seasons, things have improved for them slightly. They were promoted back into the second tier in 2000 and have spent much of the last eight years or so trying to get back into the Premier League. Last season, however, they had a disastrous start to the season, and relegation looked a distinct possibility until they recovered to fifteenth place in the table under the managership of the former Everton assistant manager Alan Irvine.
Wolverhampton Wanderers supporters don’t have to be quite as old as Preston supporters in order to remember something approaching better times, though it is now almost five decades since they last won the league championship. After a disastrous spell during the 1980s, during which they almost went bankrupt and fell from the first to the fourth divisions in successive seasons, they spent much of the 1990s as the laughing stock of the Championship. Sir Jack Hayward lavished millions of pounds on failed promotion bid after failed promotion business, but the club seemed to find new and inventive ways to blowing it and only eventually found their way up via the play-offs in 2003. Their stay in the Premier League was a brief and unsuccessful one, punctuated with surprise 1-0 win against Manchester United, but since then they have again under-achieved, making the play-offs just once in the last four seasons. The cash rich days of the 1990s feel like a long time ago now, but under Mick McCarthy, they only missed out on a play-off place on goal difference to Watford.
This season, though, both teams have had a good start. Going into this afternoon’s match, both teams are unbeaten, with Wolves at the top of the table and Preston in third place. Wolves have impressed with a young team made up of players many of whom are cast-offs from elsewhere. They’re the top scorers in all four divisions. Preston have come a long way this season on a comparatively limited budget. It’s early days, but these are two teams that might just last the distance this season and be there or thereabouts come next May. Other clubs have already stumbled in the Championship this season, but these two haven’t. Yet. The match begns brightly with Michael Kightly forcing a decent save from the Preston goalkeeper Andrew Lonergan, but it only takes a few minutes for controversy to reign, when Neil Mellor’s close range shot is blocked on the line by Wolves’ Richard Stearman. Every Preston supporting arm in the stadium goes up in unison, but even repeated replays are inconclusive, and the referee can’t give a penalty unless he’s certain that an offence has been committed and, in any case, the Wolves goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey has a pretty decent claim for a foul from the cross that led to Mellor’s shot in the first place.
When the opening goal does comes, it arrive with a flourish of quality not usually seen in the Championship. With nine minutes to play of a largely uneventful first half, David Jones’ cross isn’t successfully cleared by the home defence, and Chris Iwelumo volleys in with an overhead kick from an impossible angle. Preston come back strongly and Neil Mellor has a goal disallowed for offside, while Jon Parkin thumps the ball against the inside of the post and Mellor is denied by the referee’s whistle again, this time for a foul by Parkin, but Wolves just about deserve their half-time lead. As the teams leave the pitch, Wolves manager Mick McCarthy applauds the referee in front of a group of Preston supporters, and is send to the stand for his troubles.
The second half begins slowly, with Preston exerting a considerable amount of effort without being able to break down the visiting defence. Just over twenty minutes into the second half, however, Wolves break swiftly to double their advantage. Substitute Andy Keogh has only been on the pitch for five minutes when he steals the ball, surges forward and sweeps the ball right to Michael Kightly, whose cross is perfectly placed for Iwelumo to score from six yards. Iwelumo seems to be everywhere and, by this stage, Wolves are looking very much capable of winning this division. Iwelumo and Kightly force good saves from Lonergan, before a reckless tackle on Michael Kightly brings Wolves a penalty. Iwelumo sends Lonergan the wrong way from the spot to complete his hat-trick and put the result beyond any doubt. There is still time, however , for plenty more drama. Firstly, Iwelumo completes a bizarre afternoon by getting himself sent off after he and Sean St Ledger appear to try and headbutt each other at the same time. In the dying seconds of the game, Mellor breaks through and is upended by the Wolves goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. Hennessey is sent off, and defender Jason Shackle steps up to take his place. Mellor beats him from the penalty spot with more or less the last kick of the match.
Wolverhampton Wanderers, then, stay top of the Championship and dropped points for Birmingham City and Queens Park Rangers mean that they open up a chink of daylight at the top of the table. Chris Iwelumo’s sending off doesn’t even turn out to be the strangest refereeing decision of the weekend in the Championship (that comes at Vicarage Road during the match between Watford and Reading- more on that tomorrow), and after the match Sean St Ledger confirms that he will speak to defend Iwelumo at the hearing, which will follow this week. Both players are of the opinion that the clash of heads was A strange yet ultimately satisfying day for them, then. Preston have had an excellent start to the season, and it remains to be seen whether they can regain their momentum following this result. Two of the great old names of English football in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries might yet find their way into the cash pot of the game in the twenty-first century.