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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 29/10/05, 3.00pm
Wolverhampton Wanderers
Free bar and buffet
By Ian Grant

A simply gorgeous moment in the eighty-seventh minute. A Wolves corner in front of the Vic Road end, where the speckled colours of clothes and faces have increasingly given way to solid blocks of empty red seats. The ball swings into the six yard box, where substitute Olonfinjana has been left in enough space to start his own vineyard and given enough time to grow it from seed. He must score. Inevitably, he doesn't score. With wonderfully misguided conviction, he turns and smacks a forceful header five yards wide of the target, and another cluster of Wolves fans is shaken loose like autumn leaves in a stiff breeze.

There are lots of different ways in which victory can be a splendid, life-affirming experience. There are days when your team plays inspired football, whipping excitedly around the stadium as if guided by some unseen force. There are days when a win is achieved against all probability, requiring immense effort, determination, allied to unflinching unity. There are other days when the means simply don't matter, when the result is so vital that you hardly dare take breath until the referee has finally confirmed it.

But this way has an awful lot going for it too. When you're on the receiving end, it's absolutely sickening, and there have been many journeys home in despairing and disbelieving silence after a result spawned by some ancient curse. Sometimes, though, it's just your day, and the realisation dawns that nothing can possibly go wrong. "All the other scores have gone our way!" yells Richard Short upon the final whistle. And, yes, of course they have. Don't tell me: there's a free bar and buffet at the pub, and Wire have reformed for the evening too....

These are sides of the same coin, of course. Without Wolves' abject misery, our own childish, gurgling joy wouldn't seem nearly so perfect, and the visitors' total exasperation as the inevitability of the outcome became clear had a deeply farcical quality that will have been familiar to those who travelled to Swindon back in '98. Put simply, they were never going to score. Not ever. They failed to collect the set by missing a penalty or having a goal disallowed, but otherwise, they explored every option on the way to drawing a blank, growing ever more frustrated as they did so. Given that, the clinical precision of Seol's injury time consolation, fired low past Ben Foster after the ball had spun loose on the edge of the box, seemed to belong to another game altogether, not part of this at all.

Absolutely tremendous fun, then. At a certain point - after about an hour, before we'd even scored - it became obvious that we were going to nick it before the final whistle, and hard to resist chortling quietly to oneself at the prospect. There were no particular signs of what was to come on the field - some, no doubt, will bring out the "game of two halves" cliché, but, in truth, we weren't all that good after the interval either - but the plot was as predictable as an Eastenders script, if rather more entertaining and with considerably less shouting. We'd been murdered, simply out-played in every department apart from one. We could've - should've - been three, four, even five goals down, and yet we were still at nil-nil as the game entered its final third. Now, what do you think's gonna happen?

Exactly that, and then some more. The atmosphere, never particularly lively in the first place, had evaporated completely after the half-time break, but we'd at least got our football together after a fifteen minute inquest. We'd done little in attack - Marlon King showed a bit of menace in running at the defence before shooting weakly at Oakes; Ashley Young curled a free kick comfortably over the bar, leading me to bemoan the demise of The Coxy Into The Wall Free Kick once again - but it wasn't really about that. It was about stopping the cascade of Wolves chances at the other end, before sheer weight of numbers caused one of them to end up in the back of the net. We tightened things up, looking so much more composed at the back. And then we waited for something to happen.

Which it did, pretty much on cue. Again, one must stress that there was no sudden wave of pressure, no great gust of forward play. There wasn't even much of an effect from the arrival of Anthony McNamee in place of the lumbering Darius Henderson, even though the resulting change of formation suited our purposes rather better. We remained ordinary, merely grateful that we'd advanced from shambolic. But that's the point, in some ways: part of the problem of recent weeks has been our reliance on the extraordinary, and on Ashley Young's extraordinary in particular. Here, we found out that if you stick a header past the keeper from a set piece, the rest of the game is very much less important. Which is rather handy, if the rest of the game isn't very good.

Thus, on sixty-eight minutes, Ashley Young's corner picks out Jay DeMerIt's determined run to the near post, and the defender glances a tidy header past the men on the line. Not a goal that merits more than a sentence, really, but one that settled the game almost instantly. Suddenly, everyone believed what those who'd read the script beforehand already knew; Watford heads lifted, Wolves died on their feet. We spent the next ten minutes catching Kenny Miller offside for a bit of a laugh, then we got bored and scored again.

A much better goal too, and thus something of a surprise in the context. If you're going to nick points from underneath your opponents' noses, custom dictates that you should do it with untidy set pieces, dodgy penalties and wild deflections. Instead, we came up with something quite delicious: Jay DeMEriT's fine, arcing pass from deep to find Ashley Young in space, instantly pushed into the path of Marlon King with a deft flick. Defenders and keeper hesitated, and King just got to the ball in time, pushing it around Oakes and yet taking himself terribly wide. As if to sum up his quite fabulous season, he squeezed it through the narrow gap regardless, with a little help from a sliding defender's attempted block. A predatory goal, from a player for whom that adjective might've been invented.

We wasted less time in scoring the third...and this time, we kept with tradition. A slightly curious moment, as Ashley Young's in-swinging corner appeared to fall short of its target and was only just prevented from going straight out of play by Clarke Carlisle, stealing in front of the near post. His header across found complete confusion, and Paul Devlin underneath the crossbar to fire into the roof of the net. Three-nil, and as Devlin departed to a standing ovation a few minutes later, you never would've known....

You wouldn't have known at three o'clock either. Because we began with an extra spring in our step, bouncing eagerly forward and nearly scoring in our first foray, as Darius Henderson's fine header from Paul Devlin's cross was shovelled around the post by Oakes. Hell, the ball didn't leave the Wolves half until the fourth minute of the match....

Which was probably just as well, as those four minutes were the most enjoyable of the half, moments of blissful ignorance before dreadful realisation. When the visitors finally did manage to mount an attack, they did so with flair and imagination beyond the norm, and well beyond our defensive capabilities; at the end of a fluent, intuitive move that took the ball from left to right via a lovely ripple of passes, Matthew Spring walloped Edwards' low cross into the Rookery from his own six yard box, and you knew that we had to tighten up. We had to. We never did.

On occasions, you can claim some credit for survival, for simply clinging onto the rock and not letting go until the tide's gone out again. Then, survival is a brilliant achievement, and any luck involved is merely deserved assistance from appreciative fate. Not this time, though. Here, survival - and the end result after ninety minutes, therefore - was down to one person only. Sure, there were moments when some of the other ten made a notable contribution - a delightful lob and flick from Marlon King to accelerate past an opponent on halfway drew warm applause, and Darius Henderson briefly threatened to ignore the script when heading over from a Lloyd Doyley cross after half an hour - but there were countless more when they simply disappeared from view altogether.

Ben Foster versus Wolves, then. He's taken some stick, the young keeper, and I remain unconvinced, to put it very politely, about the wisdom of packing Richard Lee off to Blackburn. But those arguments belong to another day, for this was astonishing. Once Wolves had got into gear, we spent half an hour being played off the pitch. We were getting absolutely slaughtered, chasing shadows. With a little help from fortune but precious little from his colleagues, Ben Foster somehow kept the scoresheet blank, somehow spared our blushes, for this might easily have become embarrassing.

Instead, we can flick back through the near misses and improbable scrapes with a wry chuckle. Hindsight is never more wonderful, for example, than when you're looking back at your defence making a laughable hash of what's presumably supposed to be an offside trap, leaving Edwards with time to pick out Clarke with a low centre. Four yards out, he must score...and he doesn't, because Ben Foster's left knee has got in the way, just about knobbly enough to send the ball looping into the air for Jay DeMeRiT to head clear from the line. In the stands, it was starting to dawn on us: we couldn't keep them out. Nobody had told our keeper, evidently.

Really, two of the less lauded saves were first class too. Another offside abomination, leaving Clarke breaking into the penalty area and driving a sharp, precise shot towards the bottom corner; Foster, who hasn't always dealt with these situations well, got his angles right and dived down smartly to stop with his left hand. He did equally well in the latter stages of the half, by which time Wolves' domination had long become ridiculous; again, our defending was feeble, and Anderton was left alone on the edge of the six yard box, flicking a deft finish across goal and requiring another low, agile stop from Foster.

There's plenty more too, before we get to half-time. Our midfield was disintegrating: Gavin Mahon and Matthew Spring have yet to show that they're capable of forming an effective partnership, and they were all over the place here, never productively. The flanks were a disaster...especially the left, where the tactic, a match-winner at Ipswich last week, of playing Marlon King in a wide position was leaving James Chambers hopelessly exposed to the elements. The rest of the defence appeared to be relying on an offside trap that they'd picked up from a car boot sale, complete with Chinese-only manual. Wolves, on the other hand, were excellent...which, of course, only goes to make their subsequent defeat all the more hilarious.

The opening goal, followed inevitably by two or three more, just never came. Aided by the uncommunicative silence of his partners in chaos, Jay demeriT headed a long ball straight to Naylor when he could've let it run through to the keeper, and the resulting cross found Kennedy sliding in to meet the ball. Six yards out, and unopposed. And he put it wide. Not just slightly wide, either. Five minutes later, and our failure to clear effectively provides Miller with the opportunity to saunter past a couple of half-hearted tackles and plant a curling shot into the bottom corner from twenty yards. Luckily for us, he picked out the bottom corner rather too exactly, and the ball smacked against the woodwork and then to safety.

There was nothing frantic about this, nothing hurried. We weren't getting battered; it was much more clinical, much more elegant than that. Rather, Wolves passed the ball through our defence with the assurance that their superiority could not go unrewarded forever. They were the better side by a mile, but you only need to win by a yard. By a couple of inches, if necessary. They attacked with intensity but never with frantic urgency, because there was no cause to believe that they needed to hurry. And yet, in the end, they ran out of time.

Because, as the merciful respite of half-time approached, Ben Foster made one final, breathtaking save. More nondescript defending, an unchallenged cross, an unchallenged flick from Clarke, and Miller sneaking around the back to meet the ball with a diving header, almost on the line itself. The keeper, seeing the danger too late and flinging himself across - in the Hollywood version, with a slow-motion, all-action yell of "nooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOO!" - in a desperate attempt to intervene before the forward could force the ball in. He made it, incredibly. When Miller made contact, he found enough of Foster's body in the way to stop the ball, enough to defy logic and squeeze it around the post rather than into the net.

Sometimes, goalkeepers win plaudits for saves that, while spectacular, are part of their day-to-day business. Occasionally, though, you see something truly startling. Twice, en route to this splendidly daft victory, Ben Foster made saves that he had no right whatsoever to make. As a result, we won a game that we had no right whatsoever to win.

And, naturally, we should remember that, before we get carried away. As a performance, this didn't amount to very much at all. Forty-five minutes of calamity, followed by forty-five minutes of relative competence. On another day, this is a humiliating rout and this is a very different match report. We ought to take it as a warning, regardless.

That's the stern bit. The sensible bit. But Saturday afternoons aren't about sensible, for heaven's sake. There are more intelligent, praiseworthy paths to victory...but this was a joy regardless. A stupid, shameful, rubbish joy. The most fun that I've had this season.