Football: Hopkin strike cuts Wolves to the quick

Football:Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 Crystal Palace 1 Palace win 4-3 on aggregate
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Crystal Palace advanced to a second successive play-off final at Molineux last night, withstanding frenzied late pressure to consign Wolves to a ninth consecutive season at First Division level.

Wolves scored the early goal Mark McGhee had sought through Mark Atkins. However, instead of buckling in the face of a barrage of high balls and a passionate crowd, Palace regrouped and deserved their equaliser by David Hopkin.

Just when they appeared to be easing towards a Wembley date on 26 May, Adrian Williams restored Wolves' second-leg lead. Palace ended as they had begun, in deep defence, but overall they looked better equipped for the Premiership than the side who had finished three places above them.

Win or lose against Sheffield United, Palace are entitled to feel satisfied with their season after the upheaval of Dave Bassett's defection. Steve Coppell resumed the reins as late as 1 March, yet he has managed to revive the prospect of a third promotion to the top flight in eight years. Wolves, who last competed among the elite in 1984, were left to reflect on a second near-miss in three years. Despite being bankrolled to the tune of pounds 40m by Sir Jack Hayward, they have lost out to two clubs who operate on a relative shoestring, Barnsley and Palace.

McGhee had gambled on just two out-and-out defenders. His attacking strategy seemed to be working when Atkins, turning on to a pass by former Palace captain Geoff Thomas, fired low past Carlo Nash on the half-hour.

Palace responded positively, staying true to a more measured build-up. Steve Bull, reduced to tears after Wolves' last play-off failure, met his match in the rugged Andy Linighan, and it was his loss of possession that led to Hopkin's riposte after 66 minutes. As the ball looped into the air off Bull, the Palace captain surged past Williams before volleying his 16th goal of the season.

Williams, heading his first goal for Wolves following Darren Ferguson's free-kick, gave Wolves hope they were unable to fulfil in the final five minutes.

McGhee later bemoaned Palace's "offside" third goal at Selhurst Park: "One refereeing decision has cost us it, though given our problems with injuries we did well to get this far."

Coppell could afford to be more frivolous. Asked what it would mean to return to the Premiership, he replied: "Ten months of misery." Maybe so, but it will not stop Palace trying come Bank Holiday Monday.

Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-3-3): Stowell; Smith, Williams, Curle, Thomas; Atkins, Osborn (Foley, 78), Ferguson; Bull, I Roberts, Goodman. Substitutes not used: Law, Robinson.

Crystal Palace (1-4-3-2): Nash; Edworthy; Muscat, Tuttle, Linighan, Gordon; A Roberts, Hopkin, Rodger; Dyer (Freedman, 57), Shipperley. Substitutes not used: Veart, Houghton.

Referee: C Wilkes (Gloucester).

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