We don’t do too many Away Days. Once in a Blue Moon. Apt of course given our destination last night. But when the going is good, the positive energy takes us and the time and money is available, it’s always nice to join the nomads, setting up camp in all manner of English backwaters every couple of weeks. Yesterday we set up the trenches at the Etihad.
This was my wife’s first away match. I remember my first away game. 23 Feb 2002. Stockport County 1-4 Wolves featuring the best goal I’ve ever seen live. It might have been the same part of the country but these were distinctly different surroundings – the topless away day. No roof on the stand. The Etihad rolled out the red carpet in comparison.
But they would wouldn’t they? They’re the best team in the country, with the best tactician in world football in my eyes. They’ve steamrollered all and sundry so far this season. Wolves wouldn’t cause them any problems would they? Wrong. How do I explain to my wife that away games aren’t always this good? I went to one away match last season – Bristol City. At least we saw Bodvarsson score eh? I’ve done losing 4-1 to Newcastle, but at least India won the Cricket World Cup and it was a cracking night out.
See away days aren’t always about the result. We still lost this game. We still went home disappointed. But the journey. Wow. The boys took us with them. We were in the trenches. We were blocking every shot, making every tackle and missing every chance with them. We outsang the home fans on their own patch. We made our presence felt on the biggest stage as a fanbase and a football team. We arrived.
People called this the reserve team. How dare we bestow such a negative title on them? These weren’t the reserves. They were the other guys. The relievers. The specifically assembled SWAT team prescribed to perform certain tasks. Nobody could tell me we stood a better chance if we played the regulars. See when Nuno says it’s all about the squad, he means it. He’s fine-tuned some of these vagabonds and strays to the point where they looked at home against Premier League opposition.
Danny Batth was ready for the scrapheap in the summer. Here he was playing surgical passes into the midfield. Conor Coady has gone from rash-tackling and limited midfielder, to make-shift full-back to sweeping maestro, ready to taunt Aguero with the ball like a matador and calmly ping it to either flank. Jack Price was written off. His new contract was to ‘protect his value’ they said. Let me ask you then – would you have had anybody else in that midfield last night? Even Ryan Bennett done a passable impression of a wing-back. If anyone was slightly underwhelming it was Helder Costa, our talisman. How far have we come to be disappointed in last season’s messiah? He seemed a little disengaged, no doubt frustrated at his inability to reach the levels of last season against Premier League opposition, but his time will come.
And then we have Bright. The paradox of Bright Enobakhare. He often resembles a passer-by at the park, where a bunch of locals are having a kick around and the ball rolls to him. He looks at it bemused. What shall I do now? Everyone else looks at him, wondering what he’s going to do. That unpredictability is a blessing and curse. The old adage of ‘If he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, how will the defender?’ But yesterday was the peaks and troughs of Bright in microcosm. He was simultaneously our best and worst player. But that is the lot of an elite level striker. As defenders are judged on the mistakes they make, rather than the blocks, tackles and interceptions, strikers become characterised by the chances missed. Enobakhare is almost the most natural, yet unnatural footballer at the club. He has a unique dribbling ability but this strange mental block when it comes to shooting and finishing, almost as if he played the game growing up not valuing the art of scoring a goal, so he never developed that ability. There is a mitigating factor here – he is 19. We can’t all be Robbie Keane. Time is on his side and we all need to be too.
You may have spotted the word ‘elite’ in the last paragraph. This was an elite-level performance. The second half was nigh on perfection, with few chances conceded and the counter-attack executed to perfection. It was a genuinely second string City back four, but even that featured a Champions League winner. We still had the 4 best chances of the game. On another day we’re in the Carabao Cup Quarter Finals.
People say we laid down a marker after the Villa and Preston matches. The Championship is under no illusions of how good we are. But the Premier League is now fully aware. Because that is what we are destined for. We can draw some parallels with Man City. History. Periods of failure. Resurrections. Yo-yoing. Enormous volumes of cash. They’re well into their journey to become a European heavyweight. Fosun are serious about taking us forward. If that is the level of investment they are willing to plough, with Nuno at the helm then that is what we are destined for. I am part of a generation of Wolves fans who have never had it so good. Last night was arguably the best performance I’ve seen Wolves produce based on the level of opposition we were up against.
We’ve arrived. Make space for us boys.