It has taken some time, but rationality seems finally to be taking hold at two teams that have habitually defied expectation: Southampton by staying in the Premiership, and Wolves by staying out of it. The two meet today at St Mary’s in the pick of the games on the first day of a Championship season that is crucial for both clubs.
Southampton somehow managed to stay in the top flight for 27 years, and while there is no suggestion of them suffering the extreme financial difficulties that afflicted the likes of Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford as they collapsed into the third division, the sense of chaos that enveloped the club last season needs to be dissipated quickly if they are not to be marooned in the Championship.
Three managers in the space of four months is never a good sign, and it may well be that Harry Redknapp, the present incumbent, forces them to employ a fourth in a little over a year if he feels Sir Clive Woodward, bewilderingly appointed as technical director, is interfering in his job. As he did before quitting Portsmouth in similar circumstances, Redknapp has mixed protestations that he is content, with hints that he feels threatened.
“Clive would be a fool to want to take this job by Christmas when he doesn’t know anything about it,” he said. “He’s not a silly man.” Even by uttering the possibility, though, Redknapp gives it credence.
The atmosphere of disarray has only been intensified by their goalkeeper Antti Niemi’s alleged refusal to train this week as he seeks a transfer.
Wolves, by contrast, look settled and purposeful. Their fans, of course, have heard such optimistic talk before, but aside from 2002-03, when they did earn promotion only to be relegated immediately, Wolves’ story has been one of persistently blighted promise. Yet this season, more than ever, there is cause for genuine expectation.
They looked significantly more organised after Glenn Hoddle’s arrival as manager last December, and would have been in at least the play-offs had it not been for a startling inability to finish games off. They drew 21 of their 46 matches as a consequence, but the form of their strike pairing of Carl Cort and Kenny Miller in pre-season gives hope that they will have more cutting edge this time around.
“For any striker, scoring goals just gives you that added confidence,” said Hoddle. “Carl’s got a feeling now that he’s going to score whether he’s playing well or not. Some of Kenny Miller’s passing has been excellent at times.”
Wolves’ stiffest challenge is likely to come from Crystal Palace, who, extraordinarily, have managed to hang on to both prolific scorer Andy Johnson and Iain Dowie, the manager. The other relegated side, Norwich, will also be a threat, having kept a forward who guarantees goals, Dean Ashton, as well as Rob Green, the goalkeeper who made his England debut in the summer.
Ipswich, who narrowly missed out on automatic promotion last season, have lost key players and could be hampered by a geriatric midfield, but will be in the mix if their new strike pairing of Sam Parkin and Nicky Forster clicks. Of the other play-off losers, Preston are essentially ordinary and it would be remarkable if their manager Billy Davies were able to inspire them once again, while Derby may find Tom Huddlestone, sold to Spurs, hard to replace.
As ever, the Championship is mediocre enough that any of a dozen sides could win it, but if logic really is returning to the west Midlands, Wolves have as good a chance as any.