A year of living dangerously, with the twin perils of relegation and administration seldom far away, ended on an all-too-familiar note for Leeds at Molineux yesterday. An early lead over Wolves disappeared like the morning snow as the Premiership's bottom team fought back to gain their first victory since October.
Steffen Iversen, Wolves' Norwegian international striker, doubled his tally for the season with a goal at either end of the second half. His second of the afternoon, with Leeds down to 10 men following the 76th-minute dismissal of Dominic Matteo, ensured a complete turnaround in the fortunes of two thoroughly mediocre sides over the 90 minutes.
In what was a must-win match for both clubs, Michael Duberry had headed Leeds in front after just three minutes. Such was the impact on Wolves' fragile confidence that one sensed a second goal for the visitors might lead to a rout. Another Leeds player duly scored in the 18th minute, but to the despair of their acting manager, Eddie Gray, Alan Smith put the ball into his own net in bizarre circumstances.
Suitably encouraged by this act of seasonal generosity, Wolves began the second half as Leeds had opened the first. Iversen promptly headed them in front and collected his second in stoppage-time as unconvincing pressure by Leeds was turned into a quickfire counter-attack.
The result gives Wolves a glimmer of hope in their struggle to retain Premiership status. Dave Jones's team could have ended the day nine points adrift at the foot of the table. Instead, they narrowed the gap to three points on Leeds, who, despite entering the match undefeated in five games, ended the festive period where they began it - second from bottom.
"The boys knew we couldn't afford to let Leeds break away," the Wolves manager said. "We took the game to them and in the end could have won by a lot more." Asked about Smith's own-goal, he added: "We haven't had much luck. When you're down there it seems like everything goes against you. We earned our good fortune today."
Gray, for whom the performance of 19-year-old Matthew Kilgallon was one of the few bright spots, graciously conceded that Wolves deserved their success and blanched at the suggestion that Leeds were too good to go down. "I don't agree with that," he said. "Our position in the League tells its own story. I played in a Leeds side that people said was too good to be relegated (in 1981-82), but we still went down."
January has often been the cruellest month for Leeds. The Lee Bowyer-Jonathan Woodgate trial had its origins at this time nearly four years ago. Then David O'Leary published his damaging book in the early days of 2002, while 12 months ago, the sale of Woodgate to Newcastle brought home the seriousness of the club's financial plight. They now need a buyer by 19 January to stave off the threat of administration - hardly the ideal backdrop for Gray to rally his troops.
The Scot ditched the 4-5-1 formation that had helped launch a mini-revival in favour of 4-4-2, with Smith partnering Mark Viduka up front. Leeds clearly sensed the points were there for the taking against the only team to have leaked more goals than themselves. Yet apart from the opening period and a 10-minute spell after Wolves went ahead, they always looked second best.
Duberry's second goal in four matches highlighted Wolves' defensive deficiencies, the centre-back rising unchallenged to convert Ian Harte's corner in the third minute. For the next 15 minutes, the home side found touch more often than a team-mate and wasted a succession of set-pieces with some wretched deliveries.
The crowd groaned when Henri Camara scuffed an 18th-minute corner kick straight to Smith, who was stationed at the near post. However, the jeers turned to cheers, tinged with disbelief, as the Leeds forward sliced his attempted clearance back over the heads in a crowded six-yard box, the ball entering the net off the far post.
Thereafter, according to Jones, it was, "one big wave going at them". A slight exaggeration perhaps, although Wolves, driven on by Paul Ince and with Colin Cameron cleverly linking midfield and attack, increasingly looked the more likely scorers. The breakthrough came three minutes after the break, Shaun Newton outwitting Harte before crossing for Iversen to climb above Duberry and head past Paul Robinson in the visitors' goal.
Leeds, for whom neither Matteo nor Eirik Bakke looked match-fit, at last pressed with some urgency. But Matteo, already cautioned for a first-half foul on Ince, clumsily cut down Lee Naylor to earn a red card. Wolves took full advantage, Iversen's sidefooted finish compounding Gray's gloom after Camara's shot came back off an upright.
Goals: Duberry (3) 0-1; Smith og (18) 1-1; Iversen (48) 2-1; Iversen (90) 3-1.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-4-2): Oakes 7; Luzhny 4, Craddock 6, Butler 7, Naylor 4; Newton 6 (Kachloul, 82) Ince 7, Cameron 7, Camara 4; Miller 5, Iversen 6. Substitutes not used: Marshall (gk), Silas, Gudjonsson, Clyde.
Leeds United (4-4-2): Robinson 7; Kelly 4, Duberry 6, Kilgallon 7, Harte 3; Pennant 4 (Sakho, 81), Bakke 4, Matteo 5, McPhail 5 (Milner 6, 63); Viduka 4, Smith 4. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Richardson, Seth Johnson.
Referee: A D'Urso (Billericay) 4.
Bookings: Wolverhampton: Naylor. Leeds: Duberry, Matteo, McPhail, Bakke. Sending-off: Leeds: Matteo.
Man of the match: Ince.
Attendance: 29,139.Reuse content