Russell too sharp for dazed Wolves

Stoke City 2 - Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
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The Independent Football

On the old gold side of the Black Country divide, the conviction has been strong all summer that Wolverhampton Wanderers would return to the Premiership at the first attempt. Mind you, as the Stoke City fanzine The Oatcake mockingly noted before their club's well-deserved victory yesterday, Wolves fans also labour under the delusion that pork scratchings are health food.

On the old gold side of the Black Country divide, the conviction has been strong all summer that Wolverhampton Wanderers would return to the Premiership at the first attempt. Mind you, as the Stoke City fanzine The Oatcake mockingly noted before their club's well-deserved victory yesterday, Wolves fans also labour under the delusion that pork scratchings are health food.

First-day results, like pre-season friendlies, tend not to be the most accurate guide to long-term prospects. Stoke's manager, Tony Pulis, cautioned against "getting carried away" by pointing out that Walsall routed West Bromwich Albion 4-1 on the equivalent weekend last year, and yet they were relegated from what we must now call the Coca-Cola Championship, whereas Albion won promotion.

Which is just as well for Wolves. The 9-2 promotion favourites fell embarrassingly short of the standards expected. Stoke, 33-1 shots who finished in mid-table last May, could have been three up at half-time, by which point Dave Jones's team had not mustered a shot. Worse still, two of Jones's players, Kenny Miller and Shaun Newton, had squabbled like schoolgirls at a bus-stop after one particularly fraught moment.

While Wolves improved after the break, Colin Cameron no sooner drew a high-class save from Ed De Goey than they were behind to a superbly struck goal by Darel Russell. Stoke doubled their lead through a penalty by Clive Clarke, and Wolves were flattered when Miller replied in kind in the closing stages. Their fortunes were summed up by the sight of Paul Jones falling over with no one near him as the goalkeeper ran to gather the ball to take a stoppage-time free-kick.

Unlike Leeds and, to a lesser extent, Leicester, who accompanied them through the relegation trapdoor, Wolves' squad has not been significantly weakened during the close season. With the likes of Paul Ince, Vio Ganea and Carl Cort still to come, they will surely feature in the promotion race rather than enduring mid-table anonymity or experiencing the decline which saw Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford plummet down the divisions.

Nevertheless, as Jones remarked ruefully, "it won't be easy". During the 12 seasons since the schism that led to the Premiership being launched, only 10 teams have bounced back immediately after being relegated. Over the past six seasons, moreover, the total has been just four out of 18, despite the demoted clubs receiving a "parachute" payment from the Premier League of £7m in each of the first two summers after the drop.

Stoke, like Wolves, were founder members of the League 116 years ago, long before the purveyors of sugary drinks wormed their dubious way into the sport. They, too, have been members of the élite, although not for two decades, and their resources are such that Pulis had to rely on picking up out-of-contract "Bosman" signings in the close season, whereas Dave Jones lavished a seven-figure sum on Seyi Olofinjana, a Nigerian playing in Norway.

Given the poverty of his new colleagues' performance, Olofinjana made a respectable debut, despite wasting a half-chance to equalise at the death. With no little irony, however, Wolves were tormented by another player of Nigerian descent and a Molineux background.

Ade Akinbiyi initially evoked memories of a bleak sojourn at Leicester with a couple of fluffed chances, even if the worst miss was perpetrated by Wayne Thomas. The centre-back failed to connect with a corner when the merest touch would have opened the scoring, prompting Miller and Newton to jostle and push each other as they debated who had not been marking properly.

Akinbiyi never lost heart, though, continuing to harry Jody Craddock and a rusty-looking Joachim Bjorklund into errors. Ten minutes into the second half, Bjorklund cleared unconvincingly under pressure from the former Wolves striker. Russell, a model of midfield industry, seized on the loose ball to despatch an angled drive from 20 yards which fairly tore into the net off the far post.

Some 15 minutes later, Akinbiyi's persistence forced the gentlest of shirt-tugs from Mark Clyde. The referee awarded a penalty, from which Clarke beat Paul Jones, and gave another when Stoke's Gifton Noel-Williams handled a corner-kick, but Miller's riposte could not trick Wolves into an unmerited point.

Dave Jones argued it was too early for the "doom merchants" to "have a go" but conceded that Wolves' display had been "the kick up the backside we needed". Asked about his feuding players, he said: "I would say 'go and fight the opposition, not one another'. If they watch it again on TV, they'll see how stupid and ridiculous they looked."

Pulis demonstrated that humour is not the exclusive preserve of the fanzine fraternity. After admitting he had bet Russell £10 that the former Norwich player's goal tally would not reach double figures, he added: "And if he's got nine with three or four games left, he won't play again."

Goals: Russell (55) 1-0; C Clarke pen (70) 2-0; Miller pen (87) 2-1.

Stoke City (4-4-2): De Goey; Halls, Thomas, Taggart, Hall; Russell, Brammer, C Clarke, Neal (Henry, 80); Akinbiyi (Greenacre, 90), Noel-Williams (Asaba, 90). Substitutes not used: Simonsen (gk), Hill.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-4-2): Jones; Clyde, Bjorklund (Edwards, 63), Craddock, Naylor (Cooper, 76); Newton, Olofinjana, Cameron, Kennedy; Miller, Sturridge (L Clarke, h-t). Substitutes not used: Oakes (gk), Cooper, Andrews.

Referee: A Kaye (West Yorkshire).

Booked: Stoke: Taggart, Noel-Williams. Wolves: L Clarke.

Man of the match: Russell.

Attendance: 17,066.

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