It might not be the most captivating of games from a purist’s perspective, but today’s clash between Wolves and Bolton could prove one of the most important of the season.
If ever there is a relegation six-pointer this is it. Last weekend Bolton clawed their way out of the bottom three with a 2-1 victory over fellow strugglers Blackburn while Wolves lost 2-1 to Norwich, their fifth defeat in their last six games.
Wolves’ plight is a desperate one since Mick McCarthy lost his job and might become hopeless if they fail to win today. The club’s travails must be a source of worry for Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni with Euro 2012 just months away.
Three Wolves players, Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ward and Stephen Hunt, are all likely to be in Trap’s squad for the finals while Kevin Foley is a contender, but relegation and the inevitable trauma it brings would hardly be the ideal build-up ahead of a major finals.
That said, when Ireland last reached a major finals, the 2002 World Cup, Matt Holland excelled, memorably scoring from long range against Cameroon and helping the team to the last 16 just weeks after experiencing the pain of relegation with Ipswich. However given the fallout, the consequences, speculation about futures and players only have a few weeks to recover before the finals kick-off, relegation is something the Irish crew at Wolves will be desperate to avoid.
Last season it took a dramatic late intervention from Hunt to keep them up on goal-difference.
“Relegation kills your summer,” he said having experienced it with Reading and Hull. “It breaks your heart. There’s a sick feeling in your stomach.” The prospect of an unwelcome hat-trick now looms large for a player who hasn’t started a single league game for Wolves so far this year.
From Hunt’s perspective the timing could hardly be worse. Recent months have seen the emergence of James McClean as one of the exciting players in the Premier League and a host of calls for him to be in Trapattoni’s squad for the Euros. McClean’s position? Left wing, the same role Hunt occupies. Given Aiden McGeady is a Trapattoni favourite and firmly established as the starting left winger Hunt and McClean are in a straight fight to be the Spartak Moscow man’s back-up. The loser of that battle may miss out on the squad altogether.
Doyle’s form is arguably a more pressing concern. He has been a particularly important player for club and country in recent years but this season he has lost his role as the focal point of Wolves’ attack to Steven Fletcher. Worryingly, he scored just four times in the Premier League this season and has been deployed on the right-hand side of midfield on occasions.
Until recently Doyle, Ireland’s Player of the Year in 2010, would have been one of the first names on Trapattoni’s teamsheet but his position as Robbie Keane’s partner up front is under threat from West Brom’s Shane Long and Stoke’s Jon Walters.
Ward’s position on the international scene looks most secure, ironic given it was only in the latter stages of the qualifying campaign that he dislodged Kevin Kilbane from the left-back position. Kilbane has had his injury problems this season and looks unlikely to make the squad. That leaves Ireland light on left-backs and, barring injury, Ward will start the opening game against Croatia in Poznan on June 10.
The former Bohemians man has been one of Wolves’ better performers this season and is one of only two players to have played in all their league games.
This week Ward has been trying to rally the troops for today’s game: “We see every game as a must-win now. We still believe we can stay in this league. One result could still change everything.”
A veteran Italian manager will be one of many who hope Ward is right. The stakes are high. For Wolves and Ireland.
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