For any team facing Manchester United at Old Trafford in the first game following a rare home defeat there is always the chance that English football's mightiest club will take a brutal revenge. For the fringe players and reserve team stalwarts in Wolves' B team last night the occasion must have been even more unnerving.
Mick McCarthy sent out a second string to face United – Wolves sent like lambs to the slaughter – and in doing so effectively conceded that this was a game he could not win and therefore would not even bother. Beaten by Aston Villa on Saturday, it was a welcome gimme for United. For the disgruntled Wolves fans who had travelled up north on a freezing evening, it was a capitulation before a ball had been kicked.
"Forty quid to watch the reserves" sang the Wolves fans as the replacements for the likes of Kevin Doyle and Jody Craddock laboured in embarrassing fashion to make an impression against the Premier League champions. McCarthy had his reasons for resting ten players from the team that beat Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, but by the end of the night even he looked like he was having second thoughts.
McCarthy is a likeable soul and his teams have always been noted for their effort and competitiveness which is why this was such a bizarre decision by an experienced old manager. His reason was that having beaten Spurs on Saturday he wanted to give his first team time to recover for Sunday's game against fellow relegation candidates Burnley. Unfortunately there is sometimes more than just fresh legs to consider.
The feelgood factor earned by Wolves' victory at White Hart Lane and the momentum that gave McCarthy's team has been lost. The supporters who made the trip home last night from one of the biggest games of the season returned home severely disgruntled. That is even before the more serious implications for the competitive ethic of the Premier League are examined.
In defence of his decision, McCarthy quoted a report from Milan that estimated their players' chances of injury increased dramatically if they played two games in quick succession. Unfortunately for McCarthy, Milan traditionally have rather better second string players in their squad than the likes of George Friend and Stefan Maierhofer, both making their Wolves league debuts last night.
For United it did not matter this time that they had to play Michael Carrick at centre-back again and give Ritchie De Laet his first league start at right-back. When the small matter of beating Wolves had been attended to, the more pressing concern was Nemanja Vidic's calf injury which is another major blow for a team who are woefully short of fit defenders ahead of Saturday's game away at Fulham.
Vidic scored United's second after Wayne Rooney had scored from the penalty spot, his 12th in the league this season. Antonio Valencia scored the best of the lot with a volley in the second half but given the standard of the opposition it was still hard work. United are level on points with leaders Chelsea, who play Portsmouth at home tonight, but second on goal difference. They could have done with a few more goals last night.
The breakthrough arrived for United when Ronald Zubar, a summer signing from Marseilles, jumped to challenge for Darron Gibson's corner and ended up slapping the ball away. Rooney hit the penalty hard to Marcus Hahnemann's right and United never looked back.
The second goal was ironically the fault of the only Wolves player on the pitch who had started the game against Tottenham on Saturday. Vidic met Gibson's corner powerfully but his header was close enough to Hahnemann for the goalkeeper to stop it. Instead the American got only a weak hand to it and the ball rolled in.
Valencia scored United's third on 65 minutes: a flick from Paul Scholes found Dimitar Berbatov on the right and he hooked the ball across into the path of Valencia to volley past Hahnemann. It had become such a stroll for United that Ferguson started resting players too, bringing off Rooney and Vidic.
By the end of the match, even more fans had left Old Trafford than usually do by the final whistle. The game had been rendered a non-event long before then by McCarthy's decision to play a bunch of unknowns in one of his club's marquee fixtures. Interest was waning fast and if this practice of tossing away games continues, the Premier League can expect a lot more empty seats.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Kuszczak; De Laet, Vidic (Fletcher, 60), Carrick, Evra; Valencia, Gibson, Scholes, Obertan (Welbeck, 69); Rooney (Owen, 75), Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Foster (gk), Anderson Park, F Da Silva.
Wolverhampton Wanderers Hahnemann; Zubar, Mancienne, Elokobi, Hill; Foley; Halford (Jones, 75), Surman, Castillo, Friend (Jarvis, 60); Maierhofer (Iwelumo, 54). Substitutes not used: Hennessey (gk), Henry, Ebanks-Blake, Berra.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent)