Wolves’ worst season for a quarter of century trundles on in search of a point of revival.
How typical of such a deteriorating – and very worrying – campaign that a drab stalemate at Pride Park may have given this tormented team a glimpse of one.
It was the second goalless draw of Dean Saunders’s as-yet winless six-game streak in charge but it came without any of the heroics Carl Ikeme had to produce to secure the previous blank at Sheffield Wednesday.
The game was deep into added time before the Wolves keeper was called upon to make a taxing save, although that should not under-value his terrific stop from Jamie Ward’s free-kick that was a heart-in-the-mouth moment for nearly 2,000 travelling fans.
But Wolves picked a path through this contest with an element of composure and substance in their defending which hasn’t been apparent all too often this season.
And so step forward new man Kaspars Gorkss following a reassuring debut while we also acknowledge the best 90 minutes so far in the shirt of his parent club from the blossoming Danny Batth.
At Barnsley tomorrow night, the long-standing but heavily-criticised partnership of Christophe Berra and Roger Johnson will be available again, Johnson having completed his three-match suspension.
But it is unthinkable that Saunders will separate a pairing no-one could have imagined even a month ago but, based on this evidence, now gives Wolves a fresh platform on which to build an escape from their desperate plight.
Tomorrow night’s game cannot be under-estimated because Wolves will be attempting to control the hottest and perhaps most surprising streak in English football while staying out of a second-tier bottom three they have not visited since the crisis years of the mid-1980s.
Barnsley, under a new manager appointed a week after Saunders, have won seven out of eight and drawn the other; while Stale Solbakken’s successor is still without a victory, David Flitcroft has been in charge for seven of those games.
It is yet another unflattering comparison in a season of them for Wolves but the Gorkss-Batth pairing at least gave a sense of heels being dug in the mud-slide dragging the club towards League One.
Batth simply looks as if he is enjoying himself, relishing and thriving now he has the one thing he craved from Molineux – a chance. He was outstanding at Pride Park in all the simple and ugly components of defending but how his manager will be grateful for that.
All eyes, however, kept straying to Gorkss, wondering whether a reserve from a just-promoted Premier League team could make a major difference. And it has to be said he did. A more naturally left-sided footballer than Berra, there was a composure and calm about the Latvian even though he will be a few games yet from getting fully up to speed.
But, free from the scars of what all Wolves players have been experiencing in the last 18 months, Gorkss was a comforting presence despite unfamiliar surrounds, a perceived lack of pace exposed only once by the marauding Conor Sammon.
Perhaps that in itself is a tribute to the 31-year-old’s positioning.
Of course, this was only one game and Derby were weakened by injuries. But there was a substance about this solitary point which can only have heartened the team in a campaign devoid of confidence.
No-one reflects this more than poor Kevin Doyle, a forward now unrecogniseable from a more expensive Wolves raid on Reading. Saunders still has to register the complete performance with an effective edge at both ends of the pitch and it must be conceded that, for all the command of the visiting defenders, Derby’s enjoyed much the same blanket success in front of Adam Legzdins.
Saunders went for another ‘tweak’ in search of a different outcome but got just the same from his first pairing of Doyle and Bjorn Sigurdarson. Doyle’s desperate struggle to carry any kind of threat is a now familiar theme. One first-half incident, dithering as he moved on to a David Edwards cross which promised an opening, exposed a striker devoid of conviction.
Sigurdarson’s effort was unyielding and carried more thrust, although it was difficult to agree with Saunders’s view that his team had created chances. Rather, they created chances to make chances, but all slipped by leaving Legzdins’s only troublesome moments to come from shots of distance by Jamie O’Hara and an otherwise subdued Bakary Sako.
Still, a tiny step forward. No-one could have imagined when this season began that Barnsley v Wolves on February 19 would be it’s most important moment. But it is. At least Saunders and his team can approach it with a little more belief in their ability to cope.
By Martin Swain