Spring may be late arriving for the rest of the country but not at a reviving Wolves.
Spring may be late arriving for the rest of the country but not at a reviving Wolverhampton Wanderers.
A third successive victory and fourth win in five games at the expense of neighbours Birmingham City yesterday propelled a seemingly dormant team out of their long dark winter and, more importantly, the Championship’s bottom three.
A curious contest, in which Wolves stunned opponents who have themselves been a re-born force of late by storming into a three-goal lead, finished with Blues breathing down their necks after pulling two goals back.
But the victory was just about merited and now adds substance to manager Dean Saunders’s unchained optimism that all would come right in the end. Certainly there are hugely encouraging pointers for the Wolves boss.
He has got key men coming into form, a growing impact from a clutch of young players and a team finally displaying a goal threat which many had expected from the outset of this troubled campaign.
The peculiar hurly burly of derby football meant that Blues will be blaming themselves for not retrieving their calamitous first-half from a rush of late chances which were spilled mainly by Wes Thomas.
But with the whole of the bottom half of the Championship now genuinely entangled in the survival battle, Wolves can toast an eventful and successful Easter.
There has been a price to pay and none more concerning than the injury to Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.
He was the scorer of two goals here before hobbling away after his left ankle took the full force of a legitimate but crunching challenge from his team’s old West Brom nemesis Paul Robinson.
Ebanks-Blake has looked much more like his old self of late, an improvement which has translated into a similar up-turn for Kevin Doyle.
It will be a serious blow for Wolves if he becomes the fourth player in the past fortnight to be ruled out for the remainder of the campaign.
Indeed, Saunders repeated his complaint about the Saturday-Monday schedule which he believes has tested his players’ resistance to any number of strains and pulls they fought to overcome in this full-bodied derby.
But equally there is a momentum about his team now which has been too long absent and which their supporters will hope can carry them to safety after such a worrying descent to the foot of the second tier.
It is a momentum that Stephen Hunt, another vital figure since his return to action, has done much to inspire.
And – wouldn’t you know it? – this impish terrier of a player was at it again with his first goal in 15 months after 20 minutes.
In many ways it was the game’s most satisfying as Wolves pieced together a cohesive move which began with Doyle and Ebanks-Blake spade-working possession to Bjorn Sigurdarson.
He, in turn, teed-up David Davis just outside the area. Davis went for a composed side foot finish which stretched Jack Butland so far he could only palm the ball away – for Hunt to score on the follow-up.
Seven minutes later, Blues defended a Davis cross feebly, giving Ebanks-Blake a comfortable headed finish.
Then the young midfielder’s growing influence in this revival was underlined by the long-range pass which sent Doyle surging beyond defenders after 37 minutes.
A heavy touch succeeded in luring Butland into a rash challenge and a clear penalty, which Ebanks-Blake deposited with the confidence that is now returning to a previously battered and bewildered team.
Either side of Wolves’ first two goals, their opponents had given a disappointing sub-20,000 attendance a foretaste of what was to come, as Nikola Zigic wasted one short-range chance and Shane Ferguson struck the outside of the post with a free-kick.
But a comeback was given impetus in the 55th minute when a careless challenge by Jamie O’Hara on Wes Thomas brought the game’s second – but not final – penalty from which Wade Elliott beat goalkeeper Dorus De Vries.
For the next quarter-hour, Wolves put some game-craft to good use as they suppressed the home team’s attempts to whip up a storm but to Blues’ credit, they would not leave the battlefield quietly.
Thomas, in particular, was wasteful, spoiling an energetic performance which troubled Wolves more than the awkward Zigic – well handled by Roger Johnson – by squandering three chances and glancing another on to the post.
Nathan Redmond, played in by a cutting pass from Paul Caddis, should have also hit the target.
Just when Wolves were counting down the clock, a second penalty was conceded by Robinson’s handball under pressure from Zigic and although De Vries beat out Elliott’s spot-kick, the midfielder swept in the loose ball.
That was five minutes into the six of added time. One last free kick launched into his area had Saunders barely able to look.
But, as his team cleared the danger, so the picture became a good deal more promising for his club.
By Martin Swain