Leeds United 0 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
BY MAKING the most valuable save of a long and chequered career, Hans Segers achieved something no one would have believed possible when he was sitting through two trials for his alleged part in a betting scam. He became an advertisement for the virtues of gambling in football.
Mark McGhee explained, with exquisite if unintentional irony, that he had "gambled" on the 36-year-old goalkeeper because of Mike Stowell's stomach virus. Segers, with one senior game to his name since his acquittal last summer, repaid his manager's faith by parrying the 89th-minute penalty with which his fellow Dutchman, Jimmy Hasselbaink, seemed set to get Leeds out of gaol.
McGhee had taken other, equally bold chances. One concerned the condition of the former Elland Road ballboy who was to score Wolves' winner. The Leeds-born Don Goodman, whom he referred to as Donald rather as Brian Clough used to eulogise Edward Sheringham, had not kicked a ball in earnest in three weeks. McGhee said he had to be "persuaded he was fit".
The most vital gamble, however, was a tactical one. Ditching the 4-4- 2 formation Leeds expected Wolves to use, McGhee went for three at the back and at the front. It worked a treat. At this rate, the Molineux motto of "Out of Darkness Cometh Light" will have to be replaced by one of Del Boy's catch-phrases from Only Fools and Horses: "He who dares wins it".
By outwitting George Graham, McGhee has bought himself more time at Wolves. With the Premiership again starting to look a distant prospect, one Sunday tabloid ran a catalogue of fans' complaints against him alongside the report of this triumph. They included "his tactics are baffling", "he's had money and wasted it" and "it's all gone horribly wrong".
Suddenly, McGhee is well placed to press Sir Jack Hayward, Wolves' owner, for more cash to strengthen his squad. Paradoxically, the match reinforced the argument that he works better on the training pitch than in the transfer market. He did, after all, make his reputation with success on a shoestring at Reading.
To hear Graham's post-mortem, one could have been excused for thinking he had adopted a high-risk strategy. The Leeds manager reproached himself for switching to 4-3-3 shortly before Goodman struck. "I was thinking positively," he said. "Maybe I should have settled for a replay."
If anything, Graham was unduly negative in his approach to the tie. True to his instincts, he went for solidity rather than scoring potential, with pounds 6m worth of attacking midfielders, David Hopkin and Lee Bowyer, relegated to the bench.
When a substitution was made, Graham sent forward a defender, Lucas Radebe, to graft in an area where Leeds were crying out for craft. He criticised his players for not "handling Wolves' system", but guidance from the bench was not all it might have been.
This calamity is likely to hasten the exit of Rod Wallace, who will otherwise leave on a "free" in the summer under the Bosman ruling, and underlined the need for major spending.
In the interim, there is a good case for seeing whether more of Leeds' outstanding teenagers - notably Stephen McPhail, who Graham has compared with Liam Brady - can emulate the impact of the gifted Harry Kewell.
Wolves, despite McGhee's reputation as a big spender, have some exceptional young players of their own. Carl Robinson, 21, capped a mature display with the pass, at the end of a move of rare patience and precision, which put Goodman in for a goal executed with Continental aplomb.
One of two teenagers, Robbie Keane, conceded the spot-kick which Hasselbaink placed too near to Segers. In the ensuing furore, the striker butted Keith Curle for screaming abuse into his face. While the referee missed the assault, television did not; neither Graham nor the FA's disciplinary department can afford to overlook it.
Curle's rush of blood could not detract from Wolves' great day. McGhee insisted he would rather get to Wembley in the play-off final than to contest the Cup, which they last won in 1960, but Sir Jack is a traditionalist who has made no secret of his desire to recapture the trophy before he is called to the great boardroom in the sky.
In the circumstances one half expected to see Wolves' septuagenarian benefactor cavorting with Segers, Goodman and company at the end. For the winners at least, it was a time for gambolling.
Goal: Goodman (82) 0-1.
Leeds United (4-4-2): Martyn; Hiden, Molenaar, Radebe, Harte; Halle, Haland, Ribeiro (Kelly, 62), Kewell; Wallace, Hasselbaink. Substitutes not used: Wetherall, Bowyer, Hopkin, Beeney (gk).
Wolverhampton Wanderers (3-4-3): Segers; Williams, Curle, Richards; Muscat, Robinson, Osborn, Naylor; Goodman, Freedman, Bull (Keane, 80). Substitutes not used: Simpson, Atkins, Roberts, Stowell (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).
Bookings: Leeds: Ribeiro. Wolves: Muscat.
Man of the match: Robinson.