The Midlands is on the move in the Championship, with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City occupying the two promotion places after a day of differing fortunes.
While Birmingham were losing at home to a goal by Blackpool's Gary Taylor-Fletcher on Saturday, Wolves opened a three-point gap on them as a hat-trick from Chris Iwelumo destroyed the 100 per cent home record of Preston North End, who will testify to the qualities of the team assembled by Mick McCarthy. This decisive victory at Deepdale represents an early statement of intent by Wolves , whose goal difference is already immensely superior to the teams pursuing them.
It was not meant to be like this in the Championship. This is supposed to be the unpredictable league, with no team capable of escaping the pack. Yet, seven games into the season, Wolves are already five points ahead of third-placed Preston, a substantial margin in this context.
Long-suffering cynics among their supporters say they have been here before and question whether such a start can be sustained, but here was evidence to breed optimism. Wolves were as organised, disciplined and aggressive as you would expect from a McCarthy production, but those essential qualities were combined with an attacking instinct personified by Chris Iwelumo.
The 30-year-old forward has not always fulfilled the expectations of his many managers and is now playing for his 10th club after a £400,000 move from Charlton Athletic. But the second hat-trick of his career leaves Coatbridge-born Iwelumo with eight goals from seven games this season and justified in thinking about a call-up by Scotland for the first time.
He said: "I'm Scottish through and through and it would be fantastic to play for my country. If it happens, it happens, but I'm not holding my breath. Things are going really well for me, though. I'm buzzing and really enjoying my football. Hopefully, this result sends out a message to the rest of the league. We know we won't win every game, but we have a winning mentality and work so hard for each other."
Iwelumo could miss the next three games if he fails with an appeal against a 76th-minute red card that ultimately soured his day, but Sam Vokes and Andy Keogh offer adequate cover.
McCarthy, sent to the stands for inciting the Preston crowd when he applauded the referee Martin Atkinson's performance, is backing his striker's appeal, but his goalkeeper, Wayne Hennessey, will accept a ban after being sent off for fouling Neil Mellor, who scored from the resultant penalty in stoppage time.
Mellor was adamant that Preston's first defeat of the season might have been avoided if the referee had detected Richard Stearman handling his shot on the line in the 10th minute, but it was an unconvincing argument.
Even Alan Irvine, the Preston manager, said: "I really don't want to start blaming everything on the referee because it wasn't all about him. It was about us and how we played. You realise Wolves are a good side when they have won their last two games, then can make three changes to their team and perhaps make it better. It shows the quality of the squad that Mick's put together."
Predicting where the challenge to Wolves will come from is a mug's game in a division where three contenders – Derby, Crystal Palace and Southampton – are currently in the bottom five.
None of Wolves' nearest rivals flourished on Saturday. As Birmingham lost ground, Queens Park Rangers went down to an Elliott Ward penalty at Coventry, while Reading and Cardiff, the only other unbeaten team, could only draw their games.
There was victory for Bristol City at home to Doncaster Rovers, but this was another day that illustrated the lack of clarity in a division where Sheffield United and Ipswich are in the bottom half of the table yet only one win away from a play-off position.
Goals: Iwelumo (36) 0-1; Iwelumo (66) 0-2; Iwelumo pen (72) 0-3; Mellor pen (90) 1-3.
Preston North End (4-4-2): Lonergan; Jones, Mawene, St Ledger, Hart; Nicholson, McKenna (Whaley, 77), Carter, Sedgwick (Wallace, 64); Mellor, Parkin (Elliott, 69). Substitutes not used: Neal (gk), Jarrett.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-4-2): Hennessey; Foley, Collins, Stearman, Ward; Kightly, Jones (Edwards, 69), Henry, Jarvis (Shackell, 89); Iwelumo, Ebanks-Blake (Keogh, 61). Substitutes not used: Ikeme (gk), Vokes.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Preston Carter; Wolverhampton Jones, Kightly.
Sent off: Wolverhampton Iwelumo (76), Hennessey (90).
Man of the match: Iwelumo.
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