Wolves booked their FA Cup semi-final trip to Wembley by beating Manchester United 2-1 at Molineux. Adam Bate was there to see it and reflects on a memorable night for a club that’s on the way back.
They have had better nights at Molineux but maybe not for a decade or five. Under the Saturday night lights in front of a full house, Wolves booked their place at Wembley with a 2-1 FA Cup quarter-final win over Manchester United thanks to goals from their electric forward pairing of Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota. The victory was thoroughly deserved.
- Solskjaer: Poorest performance yet
- Nuno: Happy to bring Wolves joy
The 7.55pm kick-off meant a long wait for the Wolves supporters, although the club did lay on free drinks vouchers to help ease the tension and for once the pre-match lightshow was befitting of an occasion that needed no hype. But if the wait for the game had been long, the wait these Wolves fans have endured for nights like these has been far longer.
It is 39 years since the club last won a major trophy and 59 years since their last FA Cup triumph. Wolves have been a sleeping giant since before it was even a cliche. Their fans had not been to Wembley for 30 years prior to the 3-1 win over Tottenham in December. Now they will be returning in April in the hope it will be the first of two more trips ending in old gold glory.
Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo signed off his programme notes with the message “we do this together”, while the motto adorning the Stan Cullis Stand says “the strength of the wolf is in the pack” and the fans were certainly on board. The damp conditions did not dampen the atmosphere as each interception was greeted with loud cheers by the raucous crowd.
The mood was intense but the irony is this Wolves team are set up to contain and control. Their success this season, particularly against strong opposition, has been to know when to sit off and to know when to play. So it was Manchester United who had the ball in the opening stages as Nuno’s team seemed happy to settle into their familiar shape.
“In the first half we defended very well,” Nuno explained afterwards. “We allowed them possession of the ball but tried to recover in the right areas. The shape worked very well.”
With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer having had his best moments at United by playing counter-attacking football, it made for an awkward game early on, but the biggest error in the first half came from a United defender. Wolves pounced on Chris Smalling’s mistake with Ruben Neves putting Jota through on goal only for Sergio Romero to deny him one-on-one.
Any home fears it would be a costly miss were dispelled as Wolves took the game to United after the interval. Jota kept getting on the ball, the wing-backs got forward more and Ruben Neves started spraying passes. As for Romero, he emerged as a man-of-the-match candidate when he produced another stunning stop to tip over Jimenez’s header from a corner.
“In the second half, we managed the ball better,” said Nuno. “We created problems for them with our movements. And then it’s talent. Talent based on organisation.”
Joao Moutinho was the man who curled in that corner and his talent shone through as the game went on. What a star he has been for Wolves. His ability to make time where there is none has been a feature of Wolves’ play this season and he was excellent again, coming up with tackle after tackle, pass after probing pass. Always making the right decision.
The moment that turned the result Wolves’ way came when Moutinho finally found himself with no option but to run at the United defence himself. He probably should have tried it earlier, dancing past a couple of defenders with ease before laying the ball into the path of Jimenez, who engineered the space to score his 15th goal of the season.
The Mexico striker’s aeroplane goal celebration in front of Molineux’s South Bank even evoked memories of Steve Bull, but by his own admission when addressing the crowd on the pitch before kick-off, even the club’s all-time top scorer did not have FA Cup nights like this one.
Wolves are real contenders now and what happened after they went a goal up showed why. Nuno was able to settle into the counter-attacking game that has served them so well against the top-six teams in the Premier League this season. They have a winning record against those sides in all competitions now – four wins, four draws and just three defeats.
Jota, so brilliant since reverting to a central role, doubled the advantage as he beat Luke Shaw before finishing low with his not-so-weaker left foot. That sent Molineux into a stupor and it was ole football against Ole’s team from then on. Even Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time goal came too late to trouble them. It was United’s second shot on target. Wolves had seven.
The visiting fans had long since made for the exits but it was a different story for the Wolves supporters. They packed out the home ends well beyond the final whistle. They waited for Nuno and gave him his ovation. The waited for Jimenez and captain Conor Coady to finish their interviews on the pitch and saluted them. But how much longer will Wolves have to wait to add to their trophy collection now?
Their record against weaker opponents than an in-form Manchester United will be a concern. Wolves have already lost to Watford at home this season and been beaten at Brighton. As for Manchester City, they are the only top-six team left in the FA Cup and they are also the only top-six team to have beaten Wolves away from Molineux this season.
But as the fans streamed out the ground, that was a worry for another night not this one. “What pleases me is that as I walk down the steps there are people telling me they saw the ’50s and the ’60s and they are still coming,” said Nuno. “To give them back this joy and see our fans going out of the stadium with a smile, with a lot of beer, of course, feels good.”
The mantra from the Wolves boss is that “we did it together” but nobody round these parts underestimates his role in all this. They have had better nights at Molineux, but not too many are old enough to remember them. And besides, it’s the hope there are even better days to come that is reigniting this famous old club right now.