Wolverhampton Wanderers V Crusaders FC First leg of the Europa League
Is the Summer starting to get a bit worn out now that football is starting? I’m getting that end of Summer feeling even if we are smack bang in the middle of it. That is because football is starting. There are plans for new players, Cutrone, Vallejo maybe some other handsome doughnut or two that can whack a ball in the direction he wants. We finger these thoughts in our heads at this time of year and I’ve been looking at the posts I made on the Resistance blog and the same angst, the same furrows of worried brows. As we finger those thoughts of the start of our football I have been thinking about other beginnings connected with football. I feel like a little kid again now that football up Molineux has become exciting and strange.
We have days when we just stare out of the window, at the bottom of the front garden. We see a plain white Van pull up. It is much used, it has scratches and dents all over it eventhough it is less than a year old. It is a seasoned campaigner this white van. There is a guy in the Drivers seat in a high-vis jacket and he is looking at paperwork for a moment, but he has turned the engine off. He must be here for some reason…could it be? It’s very hot, he moves slightly in the vinyl seat and you know that his skin is sticking to it. He’s probably been working since 5am, the start of his long hot day. I bet the van interior was a lot cooler that early and he put his hands on the steering wheel and felt that coolness.
We watch him and try not to be seen behind the net curtain or the drapes. He dips out of the hot sticky van and into the syrupy heat of the outside, where the sun bakes your head like a potato. He opens the sliding door of the van with a magical rumble/slam/whack/crunch. He goes into the back of the van and he is sorting through stuff, but you only see the back of him. Just a High-Vis lump jiving around in the chaos of black plastic wrapped boxes and packages. He finds something…the package. He looks at his electronic device and does something to it then slam/whack/crunch the sliding door is shut and he looks at your house to double check the number.
That box will have a number on it that means nothing to us at all. It will be a long number with maybe some letters on it too just for luck. The number looks like a call sign for an amateur radio station on the other side of the world for sure. You can see it through the window.
The driver is from Syria or Poland or some other shit hole or war torn place. We watch him look up at the house again and through the garden gate. As he moves on to the path so do we, moving towards the front door trying to hear if he has knocked or not. You want to catch him before he fucks off back to the van. But we don’t want to seem eager for this package. Too eager isn’t cool. But he knocks, now how long do you leave it before answering it? Five seconds? Ten? You open it and the twat hasn’t even knocked. he’s stopped and is looking at his device again and he seems surprised you have opened the door and you have lost this particular game. You are too eager and now you look like a grasping impatient prick. You offer a greeting and he just mumbles and gives you the package, you put it between your legs as he shoves his electronic thing at you to sign with your finger, you make an abstract squiggle that bears no relationship to a signature and he’s off out of the sorry. He’s probably got another seventy packages to deliver and you are out of his mate. Shut the door, you feel like closing the curtains too. This is our time. This is a secret thing now.
All we can hear is the fridge clicking on, the sounds of traffic outside and we cock our heads to one side listening. We put the box on the coffee table and sit and look at it for a moment. It’s a box for sure. Black plastic wrapping. The name on it is our name and it looks a bit weird seeing it for some reason. We gently take off the wrapping and push it to one side because it’s nothing to do with this ritual any more. Nothing to do with anything. All that is left is the box. It just sits there waiting for us. It has a dented corner and this offends us.
We have the skills to luxuriate in this few seconds of peace that a man has in his life. Our lives are full of madness. For if you are a man, then we are forgotten things in modern life. We feel in the way and troublesome, archaic even. For we love our football and we love our peace also and this is really our time now, as we stare at the box. We don’t want to touch it yet of course. For to lay a finger upon it means the rest of the ritual will start and we don’t want it to be over yet. Everything that is started has to be ended at some point. Outside the house a dog barks in the heat. It sounds angry and pissed off. As it barks our fingers that were making there way towards the box retreat for a second until the dog is silent. There can be no disturbance here, no breaking of concentration. The dog shuts up and our fingertips gently touch the lid and the lip of the lid, our fingertips gently slide off the top of the box.
There they are. The end of Summer my friends, the ritual de la futbol has started, officially mate. As the end of Summer is here smack bang in the middle of the Summer then there is a beginning and this is it. There is crinkly white tissue paper and we uncrinkle it gently. We reveal smells at first and they are the odours of leather, plastic, suede, rubber, smells that rise up to our nostrils and we are young again. This is what we remember about being young, when bones were supple, our backs didn’t creak and fire pain into our kidneys, when muscles seemed to work all day instead of for a few hours at best. These smells are Time Machines that fling us back to when everything was good and real. Remember the six-seven hour football matches we played in the park during those heady days? When the players on each team shifted and changed as people went to other places and were replaced by others who fancied a game? Remember running off to the shop or the chip shop to get some chips and a can of pop ice cold out the fridge or warm off the shelf and ten pence cheaper. Coca Cola-Pepsi-Vimto-Tango. Open the can quick and guzzle that shit fast before some other kid wanted a sup as well, and you didn’t want their dirty lip on it, you wanted it for yourself. Open the tin. Drink. Feel the pop get the taste of grass and hot out of your throat.
“Am them new trainers?”
‘Stampz’ when a kid would scrunch his dirty foot onto your crisp new trainers. If he was bigger than you then you would try and leg it to safety. If they were the same size or smaller they would get a punch in the gob.
Yes, pull the tissue paper to one side and look. Look at the fucking colours man. Look how bright they are. Are we even worthy of wearing something so beautiful on our horrible feet? Our retinas are scorched. You can’t even touch them. You look around the living room furtively in case anyone can see you in this private ritual. Look at the laces first, crisp things, fresh and new. They are in a little zip lock bag. You will save that to put your weed in.
Jesus Christ should we even touch them? You wipe your hands on your jeans to get rid of any oily sweaty poisons you may have on them. Look at your hands. That will do. Take a trainer out. It’s the right foot. They are very light and beautiful and you move them around like they are a priceless piece of jewellery. Oh my God they are delicious. The sole is bright white freshness. You hold them to your nose and breathe in the scent of these beautiful things. You are lost. Back to when you were a kid. Your Mom getting you new creps. New grooves. You could run so fast in them, like the wind. What do the tags say? Pseudo science bollocks about materials and space age plastics, memory foams and meshes, angles, dangles, comforts.
Do we all have that tradition of buying a new pair of shoes for the new season? I’m not sure, I know I do. Sometimes when things are good they are an expensive rare pair of Adidas, other times they are a pair of durable Karrimor things on sale from Sports Direct. But the feeling is the same I think. New season. New shoes for the footy. I have noticed that Adidas Gazelles go up a couple of quid once the season starts for real. But God Dammit are we not men? Can we not enjoy some of the fruits of our labours by getting the odd pair of new shoes? Put them back in the box for when the season really starts. It’s not time yet. It’s Euro football first.
These beautiful shoes will end up like our dreams most of the time. Trampled to shapeless masses, with puke on, piss, dirty tube station floors, food and if you are unlucky a few drops of your own blood. But at the minute everything is fresh and new.
This is the European section of the campaign this year. It’s been a long time and to paraphrase Robert Plant it’s been a lonely time too. I find it hard to get my head around it to be honest. I’ve forgotten what it was like to be in Europe as the last time we were people weren’t all that bothered to be honest. We are playing Crusaders FC from Northern Ireland. They have what looks like a portacabin social club with murals and stuff these people enjoy. They play in Belfast which is slowly dragging itself out of warfare. That’s all I know about them. They are a small club but fair play to them doing a Euro thing. Pity they have to come to Molineux and get battered, which is what will happen. The great Fosun-Wolves cruise ship will capture this particular dinghy in it’s gravity and leave them in it’s wake bobbling around like a transvestites Adams apple.
There are many new shirts on the back of people slim, fat, young and old. Many of the sponsor logos are stretched across man tits and lady tits so the print looks like a psychedelic acid rock festival poster. That’s cool. Who am I to talk. I have the body of a broken sausage. I feel a bit left out to be honest but I’ve got my T-shirt on that has no holes or stains. It’s a Thrasher T-shirt. I’m such a shit football fan it’s stupid. I am in the John Ireland stand today as I forgot to reserve my tickets and left Pilgrim to run about getting a few. He didn’t moan though thank God. The sun is hot and it bounces off our excited little faces. We sort this problem out by buying many pints and chucking them down that hole in said faces. We throw quite a few in and I am a bit drunk and horrible as usual.
As it happens we are late in again due to everybody falling out of the pubs last minute and do the Molineux stagger, fall down the steps of the subway. Cram a burger in. Wait in line. Hot ay it. Too hot. It’s a different heat abroad. Fucking hell. A slight crush. Sweaty bodies. I see a young Dad all frazzled trying to get his kids into the ground without losing one. It’s like herding spiders. Kids are excited and mad as usual. They run around me and I try to keep my bad language under control. In fact I’m choking on swear words like a piece of gristle in a Balti pie. In the ground. Molineux. Thank fuck for that. It’s been a long time my lover. Too long. I feel like a boil has been popped in my soul.
So Morgan Gibbs White starts in the Jimmy Jimenez role. That’s cool. Ease Jimmy back in. It’s going to be a thankless task here today as Crusaders are not going to be playing expansive European attacking football. They will have a simple idea. Kick the fuck out of our star men and defend defend defend at all costs. Try and get a nil-nil then see if we can screw a mad goal back home in Belfast. It will be the film Zulu all over again with the Crusaders setting up carts and hay bales to stem attacks.
‘Juice’ starts making waves straight away. Why do I call him Juice? He’s electric and if you get too close you will get a whack, he’s a ‘Live Wire’ I think. Is he still Project Traore? I’m not sure but I can see he has grown into a role under Nuno. In these first gasps of the game I can see a few subtle differences to last year. He’s laying the ball off to other players if nothing is being offered in front of him. Last year he would throw himself at the opposition. This would normally end up with him on the floor and cue the moaning around me. When he gets the ball now…I mean…an aside here. Other players are now passing the ball to him. That didn’t happen much last season. Now they are looking for him. He’s a danger on that side of the pitch. He’s deeper now and there are nuances that are creeping into his game. These subtle nuances are Nuno and his training staff. Adama has listened and he understands. This makes my heart beat a little.
My eyeballs have dried up from the Sun and I’m blinking a bit. It’s making the sunshine into little darts of light that seem to surround Ruben Neves. They are surrounding Adama too. I watch him collect the ball and wait, puts his head up and looks. Nothing happening. Lay the ball off again. Coady this time who recycles the ball to Boly then Moutinho. Back to Neves. This is patient Idea laden stuff. We look very shapey. Juice gets the ball again and there is something happening up front and he’s off and it’s not about pace and physicality, it’s about Idea and shape, intent again. He splashes a cross in and it’s close. But no cigar yet. Adama twists and turns like lightening trying to find a grounding point. He’s off again and he’s past one then two Crusader players. Head up and look…find the men in other shirts like him.
Diogo knows Adama will put the ball in with accuracy. There is a trust there forged on the Compton grass hundreds of times. Diogo knows that ball will arrive, electric, spinning in that delightful arc we have been used to seeing from this collection of artists. The Northern Irish watch with mouths agape at the beauty of the arc. It dips at just the right moment and all Diogo has to do is be fucking Diogo. That means put your foot through it. Snipe the bloody thing into the net. Verily that’s exactly what happens and we are 1-0 up. Normal service? It is more than that of course. And I still think we don’t quite understand how our team is playing this kind of football. The first footstep of the great European Journey is done. The first step my friends.
Jonny Otto is probing to see what his own part in this journey is. He is making beautiful waves and shapes on the left hand side. Our own personal Hitman is on Part two of his journey, the great Wolverhampton Wanderers experience. What has he learned? I watch him attack his counterpart from Crusaders and leave him in pieces every time. This is what it’s all about. The sun is not quite killing off these pale men of the North but our football is. The Ulstermen look as if they are staring into the arc of the covenant. Shocked would be a more correct word. Our shape is killing any idea these men had when they come to Molineux. Shape is everything now and Jonny is holding himself back for that shape. You can tell he wants to attack and to probe but he has duties laid down by Nuno and Jonny Otto is a good soldier for sure. He refuses to let his darker more chaotic side out for the good of the team. He tracks back rarely as there are no real attacks. We are contained by shape but not constrained by it. Not tactically anyway.
Where I am sat I am close to Jonny. I can hear him murmur and mutter under his breathe. His hands move as he talks to a team mate. These chats are complex and he expresses himself to others brilliantly. One of the Crusader players remonstrates with Jonny about something but Jonny don’t care man. Jonny is in Nunoland.
Around me are new fans. You can tell. They don’t know the words to the songs and some don’t know who the players are. A little kid next to me is asking his Dad questions about Mountiho but Dad doesn’t know. I welcome these people. They might be late to the party but maybe some love will rub off enough to make them come again. Make them put Wolves a little closer to their hearts.
Ryan Bennet collects the ball constantly from rare Crusader attacks. The rare times Crusaders had the ball of course. I enjoy watching Ryan play. There is more to his game than people realise. He’s had two years playing with Boly and Coady now. This trio of Gold know their roles intimately and they not only understand it but seek to solidify new concepts in there too. Sometimes I find it hard to separate these three dudes into an individual to be honest. They act and defend as one most of the time. There is a relationship there for sure. In fact there is a scent of machine like relentlessness about the way they do defend. I would hate to play against them. Rui Patricio just has to stand there most of the time looking beautiful and composing sonnets to himself on how handsome he is. Coady and Rui chat to each other often. There isn’t much happening in front of his goal to be honest.
Midfield men get all the love and attention. They get most of the grief too. Ruben Neves is being kicked to fuck again. The pull on his shirt, the odd stud raking move, the words shouted in his ear, a hard knee to a soft kidney. Oh Ruben I’m sorry my friend. It’s definitely not European expansive sexy ball for sure. The heat is omnipresent, the opponents skillset is lacklustre at best. Most of the game is about revisiting the snot memes from our Promotion season and any game against Warnock. Physical sides means collapsing under the half soaked vision of somebody elses idea. The game is first gear for us and for Crusaders. We can’t stretch teams that have no flexibility to start with.. Trying to thread the ball through this many bodies is most of the time a pointless exercise. They are clumsy dance partners these Crusaders. Big knobbly gimp footed dancers. Moutinho has learned for sure. He’s not getting involved, he’s on his own plane of existence moving, no, gliding into spaces like Fred Astaire. In these spaces he will collect a ball, love it for a bit, then off it goes onto the tip of a foot while he deftly avoids being trampled by a hot ginger but not of the Rogers variety.
Even Boly wants to join in knocking the ball about. He pops up, grabs the ball and he’s off like a hybrid Bolytinhio. He lays the ball off when he should have stuck a foot through it.
Moutinho pauses for a second in a moment of peace and quiet. He wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand and puts his hands on his hips. He takes a load of air in through his nose like he is nosing a wine and blows it out of his mouth. It’s a grimace and a half smile on a job well done and if Moutinho is happy then so am I.
Raul Jimenez strolls and jogs onto the pitch. Why does he look so fresh? His Holiday was as short as mine used to be whacking pallets in the open all yeat for two weeks off. He’s on and within seconds he is ducking and diving around in the box being Jimenez again.. A backheel a tap forwards and he’s threatening straight away. He is placid in his play and acts as a foil or a reflection of Gibbs Whites tenacity. Raul is tenacious for sure but with a laid back surety to his play.
Vinagre comes on in place of Jonny. Our Jonny has to exit the pitch at the nearest touchline and he’s not happy at being taken off. He’s a battler Otto is and he’s frustrated. But as one player is the Summer then one player has to be the Spring and Ruben V probably has the ink still wet on his fingers from that sexy new five year contract he’s been given. Now he’s going to tread a different path to Jonny who has pulverised that side of the pitch into a dribbly sweaty mess. Ruben too is a young artist. He waits until the game has become a staccato series of dysfunctional events, stoppages, a few errant balls. This is the time when Ruben V shines bright. Ruben moves forward now and probes, galvanises and tantalises with the odd foot juggle and jink. He negates players by moving constantly into positive space. Forget the stepovers and the tap and runs. Before you know it he is in the box, their goalie parries, fumbles, rebound, Ruben taps it off the goalie and it’s two goals to nil.
The few clouds in the sky after the final whistle have ragged edges where the sun has nibbled away at them. I feel nibbled too. You can’t have conclusions about the game yet. It was always going to be a little tough, a little strange. Fair play though and good luck to folk making the trip to Belfast this week. I’m sure you will all have a great time. But those trainers are staying in the box until the real shit starts.