Oh my Wright and Slater, my Richards and Dougan. Wolverhampton Wanderers rolled back the years in extraordinary fashion yesterday to record their first win over Manchester United since 1980 and blur what were becoming clear-cut issues at either end of the table.
United are now top by only one point ahead of today's other two legs of the West Midlands' apparently impossible treble in upsetting the Premiership's big three. Arsenal will regain the leadership if they draw or win away to Aston Villa; Chelsea can keep up the pressure by beating Birmingham City at Stamford Bridge. But after this result, which sees Wolves move above Leeds at the bottom of the table, who dares predict anything?
At half-time yesterday United seemed the more likely winners, having moved up a gear towards the interval after needing a lot of choke to get started on a misty Midlands morning. But in the home dressing-room, the Wolves manager, Dave Jones, was exhorting his troops to believe in themselves, building on the confidence achieved in a remarkable run of nine home games without defeat since Chelsea strolled to a 5-0 win in September.
"Bloody work your socks off," urged a Black Country voice in the biggest crowd since Molineux was modernised two decades ago, and the men in old gold continued to do so. Paul Ince hit a post, Rio Ferdinand was forced off with a shin injury to start his suspension and the young Scottish striker Kenny Miller emerged from a nightmare of a performance to steal a famous goal.
Michael Oakes, who might have conceded an early penalty, became a hero between the posts; Ruud van Nistelrooy's quest for 100 United goals was snuffed out by the uncelebrated Paul Butler and Jody Craddock; Alex Rae subdued United's best player, Paul Scholes. The plan had been to stop the visitors playing through the middle, forcing them out wide, where Cristiano Ronaldo and Darren Fletcher were ineffective, thus repeating last September's performance at Old Trafford. On that occasion, sitting tight and breaking would have brought a point but for some wasteful finishing by the Premiership's supposed whipping-boys. This time it worked a treat.
"You sometimes earn what you fight for," said Jones, who once saved Southampton from relegation after they had been in a worse predicament than his present team's. "We knew they'd have the ball for long spells and we'd have to work and chase. That's what we did. It's a massive boost for everyone associated with the club. What we've got to do now is push on, starting on Wednesday against Liverpool."
Jones admitted he was "dreading" having a drink with Sir Alex Ferguson. But whatever his opposite number was feeling inside, he declined to express any anger publicly, claiming after United's second successive game without scoring: "I didn't think it was a poor performance. We played some excellent football but were wasteful with our chances. We made a mistake and paid for it, and once Wolves scored, they were very hard to break down."
Few of those chances were clear-cut, which did not seem to matter much in the early stages, so confident were the champions in their passing and movement. The injured Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville were not missed initially as Scholes and Roy Keane drove them forward. The referee, Andy D'Urso, having booked Butler early on for a foul on Van Nistelrooy, could reasonably have awarded a penalty on the half-hour as Oakes, who had failed to gather Mark Kennedy's skied miskick, clattered into Fletcher's legs.
There was more incident in the final five minutes of the half than the previous 40, mostly featuring the unpredictable Ronaldo. After having his free-kick held and a scuffed shot deflected wide, he whipped in a corner that Van Nistelrooy could not keep down, heading too high from barely a yard out.
Wolves, however, had finally begun to test Tim Howard, partly because Ferdinand seemed to be suffering the effect of a knock collected when challenging Miller in the 13th minute. Four minutes into the second half, Ince drove a 20-yard shot against the post, at which point Ferguson sent on Wes Brown for his hobbling centre-half, whose next appearance will depend on three wise men of the appeals tribunal.
Brown, recently recovered from injury, would unwittingly play a decisive part in one of the season's most dramatic moments to date. Twenty-two minutes into the second half, he slipped as Miller latched on to Denis Irwin's forward header and ran at him. The young Scot, ineffectual until that moment, kept his head to beat Howard for his third goal of the week, but first-ever in the Premiership.
Diego Forlan and David Bellion arrived to assist Van Nistelrooy, who appears to be suffering in the nervous nineties as he attempts to become the fastest scorer of 100 goals in the Premier League era. The Dutchman set up Scholes to force a first fine save from Oakes, who produced his second to deny Bellion and, just before the long agonies of added time, a third from Van Nistelrooy's sharp turn and shot.
After the last whistle, the announcer repeated the final score every 30 seconds as he if he could not quite believe it. Ferguson, who took his squad off to Dubai last night for some warm-weather training, probably shared the sentiment. But Northampton Town, United's FA Cup opponents a week today, will be dreaming even more wondrous dreams all week.
Wolves 1 Manchester United 0
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 29,396
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