James Lawton: Jones has no problems with illusion at Wolves - reality has taken root

Saturday 30 August 2003 00:00

By Any standards, the Wolves manager, Dave Jones, does indefatigable well. For a football manager with blonde highlights whose world is supposed to be falling apart, he is phenomenal

Any other verdict would have been churlish at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, when something quite extraordinary happened. Jones's Wolves, already cast as arguably the most hapless candidates ever to attempt a safe landing in the Premiership - and at a mere 66-1 to concede 10 goals - not only outplayed Manchester United but would have beaten them quite handily if their Senegalese newcomer Henri Camara's finishing had been remotely in sync with the panache of the rest of his play.

It meant that while Jones was still looking for his first point, and had a goals deficit of nine, he had finally something on which to cling. It was the idea that his team, slaughtered 5-1 at Blackburn and 4-0 at home to Charlton, had been driven into survival mode at the point of a sword. "Critics, and former players who have never tried to sit in my seat, can say what they like about us," Jones said, "but I really think they could give me a call and find out what's been happening before they write us off. We have a long way to go and the players know what's involved. I liked what I saw tonight."

What he saw was a team atuned to the scale of their challenge - and plainly aware that what they face over the next 35 games is an unending test of their desire to operate in the top flight of English football. That resolve faces an immediate challenge today when they entertain their promoted superiors Portsmouth, who are lording it in third place with seven points. Intriguingly however, the bookmakers have returned Wolves to something like respectability, making them, admittedly by the faintest shade of odds, 11-8 favourites to win.

Jones would love Pompey's points no doubt, but, though he wasn't saying it, he probably wouldn't give tuppence for their illusions. The fact is reality has been imposed on Wolves with the effect of a cosh, but does Portsmouth's 37-year-old Teddy Sheringham, buoyed by a hat-trick against Bolton, quite remember how hard the going was last winter?

The idea of strength through early season thrashings may seem fanciful, and not least to those Wolves fans who were singing philosophically, after John O'Shea's early goal for United, "F... hell, we're worse than Albion." But they should ask themselves why it was that last spring West Ham, loaded with some seriously tasty talent, were relegated while Bolton Wanderers not only survived but in the process dealt a death blow to Arsenal's drive to win the title?

It was because West Ham, like the rest of football, never really believed they could do down. Nor did Leeds United, who entered a terrifying tailspin. Bolton, by comparison, knew all along what was in front of them. Their manager, Sam Allardyce, like Alan Curbishley at Charlton, has implanted the idea that the fight for survival starts on opening day.

Sir Alex Ferguson says, "the season only starts in March," but that is not a policy statement. He is saying that a team who are going to win the title needs to be in a winning rhythm going into the final games, and often it is only then when the players have it firmly in their heads that every game counts. John Giles recalls the mood of his old Leeds team in the final run to the finishing line. "Psychologically, you know then that there can be no slips because you have run out of the luxury of time and space to make good on mistakes. In an ideal world, you see the full picture at the start of the season. No one can say that losing 5-1 and 4-0 like Wolves did in their first two games is a positive thing, but it does bring one genuine benefit. Wolves know exactly what they have to do to survive, and it appears that they may have started to do it at Old Trafford the other night."

For West Ham that resolution came only when they had given themselves simply too much to do. The caretaker regime of Trevor Brooking drew out talent and character that had been dismayingly dormant for fans who saw players of the quality of Joe Cole, Freddie Kanouté, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe sliding towards relegation. Leeds United started the season as title contenders under Terry Venables, but by the middle of the season they were in dissaray... reality came to them perilously late.

It might be said that ultimately talent is the final arbiter and that Wolves, in the last analysis, will probably not have enough. But then that wasn't an overwhelming impression at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, not with Camara slicing through on goal and Paul Ince, absorbing the tribal boos, whipped his team into a fine body of resolution and considerable bite. By the end the Wolves fans - who in their early Premiership days are showing a rough but lively wit - certainly seemed mollified almost to the point of perkiness. When United's wunderkind £12 million signing was pulled off they field, they happily chanted, "He's not the real Ronaldo."

Later, Jones was both wry and bullish. He declared, "I told the lads to go out and be big and brave and tonight they were. We showed we knew how to pass the ball - and compete." Forget the blonde highlights, you had to say. They only confused the issue. Jones, we were reminded forcefully, is a proven fighter - one who may find that he has enough time to survive.

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