Wolves at the door

“IS this the best position you’ve ever been in at Christmas?” a reporter asked Mick McCarthy.

“No,” said the Wolves boss. “When I was Ireland boss, I had a Christmas in Barbados.”

Ah, Wolverhampton at Christmas isn’t so bad, Mick. Especially not with a return to the Premier League on the horizon.

McCarthy, though, is not one to get carried away. Just as his sense of humour goes beyond dry and into the realms of arid, his outlook on life is resolutely grounded.

On Tuesday night, Wolves became the first Football League team to reach 50 points for the season. Today, they became the first to reach 50 league goals as they beat Barnsley 2-0. They are, deservedly, at the top of the Championship with half of the league season completed.

Despte this, over-excitement isn’t an emotion permeating Molineux. In recent weeks, McCarthy has threatened to fine any players caught talking about promotion. His public statements on the matter fall firmly into the ‘one game at a time’ category.

He is thinking about the consequences of promotion, though, even if he wants to play down expectations.

In this morning’s Wolverhampton Express and Star, McCarthy warned that Wolves risk becoming another Derby if they don’t spend fortunes on new players in the event of reaching the Premier League.

I can see his point. McCarthy’s squad is light on Premier League experience, and most of his players are still eligible for a Young Persons Railcard.

(On that point, I had to smile at an interview with Wolves defender Jason Shackell in today’s programmme, in which he was asked what depressed him most, apart from losing. “Getting old,” he replied. “I’m only 25 but every birthday still hurts me. I’d like to be 18 again.” Crikey, Jason; what are you going to be like when you’re 49, like your manager?)

There is the danger that a season of Premier League hammerings (not to mention a season of listening to Alan Hansen and Alan Shearer saying “if you make mistakes at this level, you get punished”) might leave such a young team with lasting mental scars.

But I would say there’s more danger of Wolves becoming another West Brom. Tony Mowbray’s Baggies were comfortably the best side in the Championship last season, but look about as solid as a blancmange in the Premier League.

Wolves are, at the moment, a good Championship side; full of guile, creativity and goals, with Chris Iwelumo and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake hitting 29 between them this season.

But on the evidence of today’s game, the defence looks a bit wobbly, and I’m not sure I’d fancy pitching Karl Henry and David Edwards in against most Premier League central midfields either.

In fairness, I sense I caught Wolves on an off-day. And they were without Iwelumo, who is recovering from an ankle injury. But they struggled for long periods of the game against a Barnsley side who decided to plonk midfielder Hugo Colace in front of the back four, suck Wolves in and then hit them on the break down the wings.

For long periods of the game, this made life very frustrating for Wolves. Significantly, though, the home side managed to get in front inside the first 20 minutes, which perhaps did just enough to stop the crowd getting on top of them.

Right-back Kevin Foley – the best player on the pitch by a mile – drove in a terrific ball across the face of the six-yard box, and Barnsley defender Bobby Hassell turned it into his own net.

Aside from one Andy Keogh shot, cleared by defender Marciano van Homoet with the keeper beaten, that was pretty much it until the final 20 minutes. Then McCarthy threw on teenage striker Sam Vokes and spacves opened up as Barnsley’s defensive players started to tire. Vokes, Ebanks-Blake and Michael Kightly all fluffed good chances to finish the job.

Even so, Barnsley might have snatched a point, with Dutch striker Maceo Rigters, on loan from Blackburn, heading wide from Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s left-wing cross.

But even though Wolves were unconvincing, they just about deserved to win. Foley certainly deserved a goal for his constant willingness to attack from right-back. Six minutes from the end, he got one, squeezing a shot under keeper Heinz Muller to register Wolves’ 50th league goal of the season.

“I though Kevin was outstanding,” McCarthy said of Foley afterwards. “Which of you newspapers are giving him marks? What will you give him tomorrow? Nine at least? If he doesn’t get a nine, there’s something sadly wrong.”

I gave him eight, Mick. But don’t hold it against me.

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