Wolves 2 Manchester United 1
Every now and then a game comes along to make it all worthwhile.
Those who follow football from outside this region might not appreciate the journey Wolves have been on prior to, and perhaps which led to, the wild celebrations that greeted the win over Manchester United on Saturday night.
Has there ever been a club that has experienced such thrilling highs and such gut-wrenching lows?
The rollercoaster ride Wolves have travelled is well known, but at times like this it feels like the history lesson is worth repeating.
From being pioneers of European football, declared the ‘Champions Of The World’ and the best team in the land in the 1950s when Cullis’s Wolves and Matt Busby’s United dominated English football, Wolves sank to the depths of the Fourth Division in 1986. After three consecutive relegations, they went bankrupt for the second time in four years, their ground crumbling and two sides closed with the one seated stand 40 yards from the pitch.
What a mess. For the very few thousand fans left (the average League gate in 1985-86 was 4,005 and just 2,205 watched a 1-1 draw at home to Bury in March 1986 shortly after Andy Mutch joined), it felt like there was no hope.
Thankfully, along came Steve Bull, then Sir Jack Hayward, and, since he funded the rebuilding of Molineux, there have been some memorable occasions.
The epic FA Cup wins over Sheffield Wednesday in 1995 and Newcastle in 2003 readily spring to mind, and in the league, the games to seal or celebrate promotion against QPR in 2009 and Rotherham in 2014, and the relegation-avoiding defeat against Blackburn in 2011, are fixed in the memory banks.
On the road, who could forget the Millennium Stadium in 2003, and the away days at Derby and Barnsley in 2009 and at Bristol City and Cardiff last season?
Wolves being Wolves, the rollercoaster has continued, and, for those younger supporters and/or seeking perspective, even the ‘double-dip’ relegations of 2012-14 and the embarrassment of Roger Johnson unable to give away his shirt at Brighton and the toxicity of him and Jamie O’Hara failed to match the despair and hopelessness of the mid-1980s, at which Chorley was the nadir.
Moving forwards, even though those highs described earlier were celebrated as lustily as Saturday, there was always a caveat somehow. It was either in a lower division, the team had raised their game for a cup tie, or it was an unexpected one-off in a battle to avoid the drop.
This time it is different. After all the dashed hopes, disappointments, and, at times, downright embarrassment this club has put its long-suffering supporters through over the last three decades or more, this felt like Wolves had beaten one of the superpowers of the game as equals. Yes, Wolves, back on equal footing with Manchester United.
If this proud old club of Cullis, Wright, Broadbent, Flowers and the rest put Wolves on the map, this was an occasion where it felt like Nuno’s Wolves had rediscovered their co-ordinates at the top table.
Wolves have beaten United before in the Premier League era of course, in 2004 and 2011. But those victories felt like such backs-to-the-wall, against-the-odds efforts, that they were celebrated more, and indeed, felt like giantkilling cup upsets than league wins.
Not this time. Six decades after Cullis’s Wolves went toe to toe with Busby’s United, Saturday night felt like heavyweight against heavyweight again – and with the Molineux men well on top – rather than a boxer in his prime against a punch-drunk journeyman hanging on to the ropes for dear lives.
The history lesson would be incomplete if it wasn’t mentioned that the successful and fondly remembered Wolves team of the early 1970s regularly matched and overcame United, even if Tommy Docherty’s young and hungry side controversially overcame Wolves at this stage in 1976 in a replay.
Fast forward, Wolves under Nuno have provided countless special moments through the beauty of their football and the performances and results against Manchester City at home, United away and Saturday, Chelsea at home and away and Tottenham away have reinforced their threat and appeal as one of the rising forces in the game.
But this somehow felt like a pivotal moment, that Wolves had arrived again as a major force to be reckoned with.
In recent years, Wolves have relied upon the stellar performers such as Kevin Doyle, Matt Jarvis and later Steven Fletcher to try to keep alive their hopes which were never more than survival in the Premier League.
Nuno and the investment of Fosun have changed the landscape for those hopes and dreams.
Wolves fans are still pinching themselves that Willy Boly, Ruben Neves, Joao Moutinho, Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota are wearing gold and black, while Nuno deserves huge credit for the positive transformation of Matt Doherty and Conor Coady.
The football they play is as good as anything most of us have ever seen, to the extent that even those who saw Wolves in the 50s say Nuno’s side are as good as the all-conquering team of Cullis.
It was difficult to single anyone out on Saturday night, so good were Wolves. It was as if everything went just as Nuno had planned; tight and compact at the back, creative and destructive in midfield and ruthless and tireless up front.
It was a game where every Wolves player seemed to perform his best at his job like a well-oiled machine, fitting into the jigsaw of the team’s pattern exactly as the head coach had planned.
It’s fair to say even golden boy Neves has been overshadowed by his Portuguese counterpart Moutinho this season, which is an acknowledgement of the incredible impact of the more senior midfielder rather than a slight against the younger man.
Moutinho’s mazy run for Jimenez’s goal made it look like the ball had become super-glued to his right foot as he slalomed and breezed effortlessly through three challenges cutting in from the left.
And what of Jimenez? Just when the cross from Moutinho looked like it had been wasted, the Mexican pivoted like a ballerina through 180 degrees to exploit a lucky bounce off Paul Pogba and rifle past Sergio Romero.
But it seems, whatever Jimenez can do, Jota can do too. For me, he was the pick; United could not live with him.
When you see him in full flow now with his movement, pace, strength, skill, goals and assists, it makes the unfair criticism of him from some fans declaring him not good enough for the Premier League in the first half of the season laughable.
All of those qualities described above were in evidence as Jota took a pass from Neves in his own half and set off towards goal, leaving Luke Shaw in a heap before accelerating away and burying a fierce, left-footed shot inside Romero’s near post to send Molineux into delirium.
Marcus Rashford’s consolation felt like an insult to an imperious Wolves performance, United having failed to get within punching distance let alone lay a glove on them.
But, by then magnificent Wolves had made it all worthwhile, in style.