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Johnny Phillips: Gentle introduction eases Wolves’ transfer travails

Well, it’s nice just not to be heading to Leicester.

Wolves start their campaign at Elland 
Road, with the fixtures computer
offering a kind start to the season
Wolves start their campaign at Elland Road, with the fixtures computer offering a kind start to the season

While that may the initial thought of many Wolves fans contemplating an opening day trip, the fixture list for the 2022/23 Premier League – Wolves’ fifth successive season at this level – offers the gentlest route into the campaign, on paper.

While there is an argument to say the fixture list doesn’t really matter, every opponent has to be encountered home and away over the season, that overlooks the layout and nuance of matches not played in isolation.

There is always a risk suggesting that one run of fixtures is easier than another. Some will remember the sense of relief during the build-up to the 2003/04 campaign when Blackburn Rovers and Charlton Athletic were announced as the opening two opponents.

Wolves’ first season at the top since the Premier League was formed offered a seemingly sedate start for a team promoted through the play-offs. Two games later, 5-1 and 4-0 defeats had derailed Dave Jones’ side irretrievably.

Times have changed. Wolves are an established Premier League club now but there is one similarity to that era: Wolves still leave their transfer business until late in the window.

Since winning the 2017/18 Championship, one of the characteristics of Wolves’ summers has been a reluctance to get business done early. As a result, several key signings have not enjoyed a full pre-season on arriving at Molineux.

In that regard, the opening to the 2022/23 season does not heap extra pressure on Bruno Lage’s side. The opening two games, against a Leeds side that survived by the skin of its teeth and newly-promoted Fulham, represent a kind introduction.

Of the five opponents in August, only Spurs finished in the top half of the table last season, although Newcastle will surely strengthen over the coming weeks.

Another newcomer, Bournemouth, is also in the mix.

By mid-September, supporters will trust that any teething problems with a new-look squad will have been sorted by the time Liverpool and Manchester City are faced on consecutive weekends.

Travelling supporters may be looking into a month-long Air BnB rental in London during October. Wolves have trips to West Ham, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Brentford before attentions turn to an unprecedented mid-season break. Last season’s fixtures in the capital offered a mixed bag, with the win at Spurs and comeback at Chelsea among the highlights of the season.

Whereas defeats at Palace, Arsenal and West Ham were best forgotten.

The Qatar World Cup is an unwelcome distraction for everybody.

Major international tournaments should be the preserve of the close season and nowhere else.

It is hard to know what the break will do for Wolves, so much depends on which players are involved with which country and for how long, but it is not unthinkable that some will be away with their national teams well into the latter stages of the competition.

Away days are eagerly anticipated and this season Wolves have made the progressive step of offering a small percentage of the allocation to those who have not held an away season-ticket. Boxing Day sees a trip to one of the Premier League’s grand old stages, Goodison Park.

The restricted view and wooden seats at Everton bring back memories of days gone by. The facilities are pretty basic but with the new stadium work well under way there won’t be many more opportunities to experience football in such antiquated surroundings.

The return of Nottingham Forest is a welcome sight. The City Ground offers up a great away day and there have been some memorable visits this century beginning with Jones’ first match in charge in January 2001 when Adam Proudlock’s winner secured a third round FA Cup win.

In 2009 Michael Kightly’s goal was enough for a dramatic three points during the run-in to the Championship title under Mick McCarthy. More recently, Diogo Jota’s goal-of-the-season contender in September 2017 secured a 2-1 win in the Championship and last August Bruno Lage’s first victory came against Chris Hughton’s strugglers in the League Cup, before Steve Cooper took charge the following month.

The big home matches, such as Manchester United on New Year’s Eve, are the ones most supporters want to see on a Saturday.

We live in an age where broadcast money speaks loudest and fingers will be crossed that not too many games are moved from the traditional 3pm Saturday afternoon slot, no matter how inevitable disruption will be.

Molineux under the lights is a special place and you may have noticed only one evening home match has been scheduled – against Palace in late April.

But, with fixtures rearranged for television and cup commitments it is probable that more evening games will have been hosted at Molineux come the end of the season.

The final month of the season pits Wolves against some of English football’s most successful clubs, historically.

Villa, Manchester United, Everton and Arsenal all occupy the top six when it comes to titles won, although none have lifted one since United’s nine years ago.

It has whetted the appetite but, with seven weeks to go until the start of next season, supporters’ priority will concern what Lage’s team actually looks like come August rather than who it will playing.

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