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Feb 16, 2013

Wolves still waning after annus horribilis

After the unhappy anniversary, the unsatisfactory homecoming. Such is life at Wolverhampton Wanderers, for whom Pride Park threatens to be another stepping stone on a proud club's swift, sad journey from the Premier League to League One. A hard-earned draw leaves them a point above the Championship relegation zone, contemplating back-to-back relegations and with their new manager still awaiting his first win.

This has been a week to reflect on what Wolves have lost. Wednesday marked a year since the dismissal of Mick McCarthy. Dean Saunders, the fourth man to occupy the home dugout at Molineux since then, was applauded on to the pitch by the Derby fans who remembered his prolific spell at the Baseball Ground. He departed relieved that goalkeeper Carl Ikeme had held on to Jamie Ward's 97th-minute free kick and averted defeat.

Yet the reprieve may be temporary. Wolves travel to in-form Barnsley on Tuesday. "There's no reason we can't go there and win," said a bullish Saunders, a picture of positivity. But defeat would send them into the bottom three. Wolves have not played in the lower two divisions since the combination of Jack Hayward's funds and Steve Bull's goals propelled them to promotion in 1989 and, if they were to exit the Championship this season, it was expected to be in the right direction. Instead, League One may beckon. Next season's local derbies could be Walsall and Shrewsbury, not West Bromwich Albion.

But their modern-day gains have been wiped out. The £25 million they banked from selling Steven Fletcher, Matt Jarvis and Michael Kightly is proof of the husbandry that, as recently as 2011, brought them admirers. One of the few clubs to make a profit in the Premier League, their financial acumen had been rendered irrelevant by their chronic inability to choose the right manager. When McCarthy was sacked, Steve Bruce thought he was about to be appointed his successor. Instead, Terry Connor was promoted and Wolves relegated. Last summer, Wolves could have had their choice of proven Championship managers and they plumped for Stale Solbakken. When he was sacked, the Black Country boy Sean O'Driscoll was available. They opted for Saunders.

It is far too soon to write him off, but the change at the helm is yet to produce an upturn in fortunes. "That's six games I've had and apart from Sheffield Wednesday, where we drew 0-0, we should have won all of them," Saunders insisted.

But failing to secure three points is an insidious habit. Their last 46 league matches have produced nine wins, their last 22 just three. Their slide is all the more perplexing as a guarantee of McCarthy's management is he will leave a squad populated by capable Championship performers. Yet Derby's fresh-faced newcomers shaded this stalemate. "We didn't have a player starting over 26," said manager Nigel Clough. "If you look through the leagues, I don't think there's too many teams can say that."

Wolves have rather more pedigree but their collective underachievement continued. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, twice the division's top scorer, was demoted to the bench. Kevin Doyle, who used to bring a spark, seemed to have lost his sharpness and toiled away like Shane Long in slow motion. Bakary Sako, Solbakken's sole success in the transfer market, was anonymous for long periods and delivered some bizarre passes and crosses at others.

"We just didn't have that killer touch," lamented Saunders. It was mislaid long ago. Last season was statistically their worst in their 125-year league history, yielding only 25 points. Old Gold has been transformed into base metal. It is alchemy in reverse.

Derby can empathise. The plan of a nostalgic, season-by-season look back at Pride Park's first 15 years in the matchday programme rather overlooked the reality that one of those was a campaign of unparalleled misery. And thus it was that two pages were devoted to 2007-08, which produced a mere 11 points and a solitary victory. That, unsurprisingly, was nominated their game of the season.

This will not be the pick of the bunch for the current campaign. While there was a gulf in class on paper, there was little to separate them on the pitch. "It was a fair result," added Clough, providing a fairer appraisal than Saunders.

Wolves were at their most threatening at the start of each half. Jamie O'Hara's excellent volley was tipped away by Adam Legzdins at the start. The goalkeeper clawed Edwards' header away later. Each time, however, Derby worked their way back into the game, showing precocious maturity.

"We made enough chances," Saunders added but, truth be told, neither goalkeeper was particularly busy. The Welshman fiddled, introducing Ebanks-Blake, David Davis and finally Slavomir Peszko and moving Sako to the right wing. Nothing worked, and on they go to visit Barnsley, who are staging a Lazarus-like revival. Relegation battles can be all about momentum. The Tykes have it. Wolves do not.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Will Hughes - A slight figure with bright blond hair and a reddish face, the ball looking slightly too big for him but forever wanting him, was the game's most compelling figure. The 17-year-old technician has a bright future and when he departed with a groin injury, the 21-year-old Michael Jacobs replaced him and also brought assurance and hints of quality.

DERBY VERDICT: Along Brian Clough Way, as a section of the A52 has been named, Nottingham Forest's new (and old) manager Billy Davies was speaking of emulating the great man. Rather fewer look to copy Clough junior but, using promising youngsters, he has produced neat passing football on a slender budget. A top-10 finish would be an achievement although, in keeping with the man himself, a quiet one.

WOLVES VERDICT: The Barnsley game is huge now, especially with promotion-chasing Cardiff and Watford their next opponents. Wolves were blunt in attack with Bjorn Sigurdarson failing to impress. The consolation for Saunders was that his side kept a clean sheet. The debutant Kaspars Gorkss, borrowed from Reading, was a solid presence in defence and showed why he has displaced Christophe Berra. "I knew he would make the difference," Saunders said.

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