Golden year

I’M not saying Wolves were on edge ahead of this afternoon’s game against QPR. It’s just that, when the gates opened 90 minutes before kick-off, the first song played over the public address system was ‘Let’s Face The Music And Dance’.

Wolves have been top of the Championship since October 28. The men in old gold have won more league games than anyone else in the division, scored more league goals and picked up more points. They are, undisputably, the best team in the division.

And yet this has not been a completely straightforward season. After Christmas, they suffered a wobble which saw them pick up just one win in 11 league games. Had rivals Birmingham and Reading been able to string any sort of form together, Wolves would have been knocked off the top during January or February.

It didn’t happen. Wolves have remained top of their division for six months because, in addition to being the best team, they have also been the least inconsistent.

I’m not saying Wolves were on edge ahead of this afternoon’s game against QPR. It’s just that, when the gates opened 90 minutes before kick off, the third song played over the public address system was ‘I Say A Little Prayer’.

A win was all they needed to take them up to the Premier League. This would be a big deal for any club, but for Wolves, it represented a chance to return to something approaching former glories.

Three times league champions in the 1950s, League Cup winners as recently as 1980, Wolves plummeted from the First to the Fourth Division – and almost went out of business – in the mid-80s, in a decaying stadium with a main stand 50 yards from the pitch, thanks to incomplete development.

While the club recovered to climb back to the second tier by the end of the decade, inspired by the goalscoring miracles of Steve Bull and Andy Mutch. Under Sir Jack Hayward’s ownership, Molineux was completely redeveloped by the mid-1990s. But regaining top-flight status proved much more difficult.

They managed to reach the Premiership in 2003. But manager Dave Jones’ mix of ageing stars (Paul Ince, Denis Irwin) and foreign imports (Henri Camara, Ioan Ganea) didn’t cut it, and the top-flight stay lasted just a season.

As Wolves have closed in on a return to the summit this season, the excitement has rocketed. When everyone around a football club starts to get too excited, that’s when you need a Mick McCarthy to come in and calm everyone down.

On the morning of the biggest match of Wolves’ season, McCarthy was apparently painting his garage. “Six o’clock this morning, I was varnishing the garage,” he said. “What a horse of a man I am. I rubbed it down earlier in the week and I was there at six o’clock again.”

I’d like to think that was the truth. It certainly fits with the McCarthy image: down to earth, hype free, calm amid the excitement. This, don’t forget, was the man who walked into the press room at Pride Park after Wolves had beaten Derby 3-2 on Monday, and described his team’s performance as “bobbins”.

It’s the sort of personality Wolves have needed to marshal a squad which is both young and desperately short of Premier League experience. McCarthy has taken the opposite approach to Jones, by bringing in youthful, hungry British players and offering them a crack at the big time – players such as Chris Iwelumo, Michael Kightly and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.

A one-time Manchester United trainee, Ebanks-Blake never graduated beyond the fringe at Old Trafford, playing a couple of League Cup matches without ever making a Premier League appearance. Having dropped into the Football League with Plymouth to gain first-team experience, Ebanks-Blake earned a £1.5million move to Molineux midway through last season.

He finished that campaign as the Championship’s top scorer. He is set to repeat the feat this time around too.

Remarkably, Wolves fans have managed to fit Ebanks-Blake’s name into a chant. (If you’re wondering, they’ve borrowed the chorus from ‘Give IT Up’ by KC and the Sunshine Band.)

They didn’t get too many chances to chant it during a nervy first half against a QPR side determined to frustrate them. The closest they came to a goal before the break was when Matt Jarvis’ inswinging corner bounced off the crossbar.

Sixty seconds after the break, Wolves broke through.

Andy Keogh – another youngster plucked by McCarthy from relative obscurity (that’s my patronising way of describing Scunthorpe) – chased a hopeful ball to the byline, dispossessed QPR centre-back Damion Stewart, and crossed for Ebanks-Blake to fire in from eight yards. Cue Molineux mayhem.

Even then, there was trouble ahead, as Rangers fought back. Rowan Vine was very unlucky to see a shot deflected on to the bar. Heidar Helguson fired straight a keeper Wayne Hennessey when a striker of his experience really ought to have scored. Wolves fans would have been excused for saying a little prayer.

If they did, it was enough. As the full-time whistle blew, the Wolves fans who made up almost all of the 27,000 crowd poured on to the pitch to celebrate. The party could begin.

When McCarthy emerged in the directors’ box with his players, he attempted to make a speech to the fans. However, his microphone wasn’t working. He chucked it into the crowd, to great cheers.

Downstairs in the tunnel, ITV commentator John Rawling and Sky’s Jonny Phillips attempted to conduct post-match interviews with getting drenched in champagne.

Up in the media room, QPR caretaker-manager Gareth Ainsworth was faced with perhaps the shortest post-match press conference of the season – precisely 65 seconds. “Do you feel like a guest at somebody else’s wedding?” he was asked.

Once he had answered, by praising Wolves, by stating his hope that Rangers might enjoy similar success next season, and had then responded to a supplementary question about his own future (he’s in charge until the end of the season) there wasn’t anything else for him to say.

This day was all about Wolves. McCarthy entered the press room to a round of applause, and was asked promotion was worth a smile.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I’ve told you, I smile quite a lot. Just not when I come in here.

“I’m not sure I can articulate well enough how I’m feeling. I’m knackered. I’m beaming on the inside. I’m absolutely thrilled by our achievement. I’m very proud of the players.”

Of course, as McCarthy observed earlier in the week, it’s a lot easier to get out of the Premier League than it is to get into it. Staying up is going to be a job-and-a-half. McCarthy will need to bring in experience to add to his young squad. But that worry is for another day.

As chairman Steve Morgan – who bought out Hayward in 2007 for just £10 and the promise to pump £30million into the club – put it: “When I got up this morning, I said that there was only one thing I wanted – and that was a thumping hangover tomorrow morning!”

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