Wolves face early start for Europa League fishing trip
One Sunday morning when I was five, shortly after my mother remarried and moved us to Canada, my stepfather woke me up in the middle of the night.
“Come on,” he said. “We’re going fishing.”
As the cobwebs cleared, memories of watering the lawn before bed returned, then traipsing about with a flashlight and tin can hunting worms. It was great fun but I didn’t realise at the time that the consequences included rising at 4:30, driving an hour out into the countryside to a quiet riverbank, impaling the dirty, oozy, unsuspecting worms on a hook tied to a line and casting them into the water to await a response that didn’t seem like it would ever arrive. Think about waiting for your college acceptance letter, then multiply by seven.
To pass the time, I tried to strike up a conversation with my stepfather but he shushed me lest I frighten off the fish. Fixated on where I really wanted to be, I asked how he knew they weren’t still under their blankets dreaming of fat worms without hooks?
Eventually, the sun got out of its bed to join us but the fish appeared to better understand the purpose of a Sunday. Neither my stepfather nor I had much luck. Finally, around 10 am, I felt a tug on my line. After an epic battle that, in my young mind, rivalled any of the Avengers films, Infinity War included, I pulled a shiny, rainbow-coloured sunfish out of the river. Back then, I didn’t know who Thanos was but the Mad Titan had nothing to fear from this tiny warrior. The poor thing couldn’t have been more than four inches long. My stepfather carefully removed the hook and tossed my gameful opponent back in the water.
We drove back home, took my mom out to lunch, the penalty for failing to bring some proper fish to fry, then went to my gran’s house. Dinner there on a Sunday night grew into a tradition that included watching Hee Haw at 7.00. Not used to such a long day, I crashed before it came on.
The Sunday of my first fishing trip parallels the 2018/19 Burnley campaign. Finishing seventh the season prior was, for Clarets’ players, like watering the Turf Moor pitch at sundown then popping on the floodlights and filling up their tin cans with worms. It was great fun that no one expected. Somehow, the Lancashire side managed to claim 54 points while scoring just 36 goals, a feat as exaggerated as any angler’s tale.
The downside came when the new session began at 4.30 the next morning with Europa League qualifiers. The squad couldn’t shake off the cobwebs when Sean Dyche woke them too soon from their midsummer dreams. They slept through most of the Premier League season.
This time around, it falls to Nuno Espirito Santo to keep his Wolves awake and on the scent in 2019/20. On Thursday, they welcome NIFL Premiership club, Crusaders to Molineux for the first leg of their Europa League second qualifying round.
The Hatchetmen finished fourth in the 12-team NIFLPL this past season. Like Burnley, they struggled to keep pace after starting their ‘18/19 title defence early with a Champions League first qualifying round tie against Ludogorets Razgrad. Stephen Baxter’s side should have stayed in bed. The Bulgarian champions knocked them off 9-0 on aggregate, scoring seven times in the first leg at the Ludogorets Arena. If this year’s tie represents a Sunday morning on a riverbank for Wolves, Crusaders are a four-inch sunfish.
Technically, Wolves are already awake. Well, sort of. On Saturday, they defeated EPL champions Manchester City to win the Premier League Asia Trophy in Shanghai [thereby extending Pep Guardiola’s continental hoodoo to a second large landmass]. The match went goalless for the full 90 and four of the first five penalties were saved or missed before the two sides at last opened their eyes. Wolves held on to win the shootout 3-2.
On the bright side, Nuno’s troops made short work of Newcastle a few days prior, winning the so-called tournament's opening match 4-0 in Nanking. Diogo Jota notched a brace to share the Golden Boot with Raheem Sterling [who cost City the trophy by sending his spot-kick over the bar].
With Wolves making the long trek home to play a meaningful match only four days later, the jet lag won’t help Nuno maintain his squad’s concentration. Even when a bit groggy, his pack should make short work of Crusaders but that leaves them two levels shy of the group stages. To reach the final 48, the Wanderers must play six qualifiers in July and August.
Assuming they reel in Crusaders, the next round takes place on the Thursdays 8 and 15 August. On Sunday the 11th, Wolves open their Premier League campaign away to Leicester. On the Monday after the second leg, they welcome Manchester United to Molineux. Will Nuno’s side have the energy to eke out a third consecutive 2-1 victory over the Red Devils?
The remaining tie falls immediately after the United tilt, on the 22nd and 29th. Wolves are scheduled to host Burnley on Saturday the 24th. Even if the Premier League reschedules that game for Sunday or Monday to provide more than 48 hours to recover, Nuno’s side will be playing their 10th competitive match of the campaign when they visit Everton at Goodison Park on 1 September.
The international break can’t come soon enough for the Midlands outfit. Even then, key members of the squad, including Jota, Raul Jimenez and Rui Patricio won’t find rest given they must tend to duties for Portugal and Mexico.
Wolves enjoyed a wonderful return to the Premier League in 2018/19. Unfortunately, now the worm is turning.