Frantic Wolves fall short again

Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 Norwich City 0 Norwich win 3-2 on agg
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The Independent Football

Wolves' famous old-gold shirts bear a logo that reads "Goodyear'', though after Norwich's neat, industrious young side condemned them to a fourth play-off failure in as many attempts last night, "Next Year'' would be more apposite.

While Kevin Cooper's 25-yard goal with 13 minutes remaining enabled Wolves to finish with a victory in the second leg of this First Division semi-final, it was scant consolation for the vast majority in a packed Molineux. A season which looked certain to culminate in promotion to the Premiership had ended instead in numbing anti-climax, compounded by the fact that neighbouring West Bromwich Albion seized the runners-up spot.

Norwich who finished 11 points behind Wolves and have allowed their manager, Nigel Worthington, to spend barely a fifth of Dave Jones' £14m outlay on players, deservedly go forward to the final in Cardiff on 12 May. Only Birmingham or Millwall stand between them and return to the top flight after a seven-year exile.

Worthington, who was appointed 16 months ago after Jones turned down the job, has lifted Norwich from fifth-bottom when he arrived. "We've come a long way," he said. "Now we are 90 minutes away from the Premiership. In our financial position, what we have achieved has been phenomenal."

The Norwich manager acknowledged that their final goal in Sunday's 3-1 win over Wolves, headed by his captain Malky Mackay deep in stoppage time, had effectively seen them through. Mackay, once of Celtic, also scored the last-gasp goal on the final day of the regular season to take them into the play-offs ahead of Burnley, and his role in last night's rearguard action was hugely impressive.

Wolves never relented in their efforts to retrieve the tie, yet seldom showed sufficient guile to break Norwich's resistance. In a decade and a half of play-offs no team had ever overturned a two-goal deficit in the second leg, and even after scoring they did not look capable of making history.

Chances were at a premium. In the 18th minute, Shaun Newton's low cross offered Craig Fleming a routine clearance, only for the defender to slice the ball into the air. Nathan Blake was first to it, but Robert Green flicked his header over the bar.

In the second half, Wolves' pressure intensified, though one of their former strikers, Iwan Roberts, came closer to breaking the deadlock with a header that flew narrowly wide. Cooper's swerving strike should have been the signal for an almighty siege, yet, apart from a free header which Paul Butler fluffed, Green remained largely untroubled.

"We will regroup and come back better and stronger,'' promised Jones, who first has some explaining to do to the man who bankrolls Wolves, Sir Jack Hayward. Worthington, who may be about to book a place at English football's top table for Delia Smith, departed with a hint for Norwich's majority shareholder. "If we get in the Premiership'' he mused, "I might get £500,000 to spend.''

Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-4-2) Oakes; Halle (Miller, 74), Butler, Lescott, Camara; Newton (Kennedy, h-t), Cameron, Rae, Cooper; Blake, Sturridge. Substitutes not used: Naylor, Pollet, Murray (gk).

Norwich City (4-4-2): Green; Kenton, Mackay, Fleming, Drury; Rivers (Sutch, 71), Holt, Mulryne, Easton; McVeigh (Notman, 89), Nielsen (Roberts, h-t). Substitutes not used: Libbra, Crichton (gk).

Referee: A Leake (Darwen).