Seven years ago last month, Wolverhampton Wanderers climbed off the bottom of the table by beating the leaders, Manchester United. Yesterday evening, as an extraordinary day of Premier League football reached a climax, they heroically repeated the victory and drew level on points with West Ham and Birmingham – who meet at Upton Park today – in the basement positions.
In the process Mick McCarthy's unpredictables inflicted United's first League defeat since early April, allowing Arsenal at the end of their own day of fluctuating fortunes to move to within four points of the top after all.
The goal rush from earlier in the afternoon had continued, with Nani and then George Elokobi scoring in the first 10 minutes before Kevin Doyle nudged in what proved to be the winner shortly before half-time. So once again Wolves proved they can beat the leading teams: Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool at Anfield have also fallen to them. Their task if relegation is to be avoided is to beat some of the strugglers and stragglers, starting with their next visitors, Blackpool.
Nani's fine goal was all that went right for United; even before kick-off, Rio Ferdinand, England's captain, injured a calf and will miss the international against Denmark on Wednesday. Without him, the defence looked shaky. The midfielders were never able to establish superiority and Wayne Hennessey in the home goal had a surprisinglyunstressful afternoon. Wayne Rooney was booked as his frustration grew, Ryan Giggs should have been and Dimitar Berbatov was withdrawn with 25 minutes left, but for once Javier Hernandez could not come up with a late goal.
Wolves' one weakness was at full-back and Elokobi, though he would soon make amends, was caught out badly in only the third minute. First he allowed Nani far too much room to collect Darren Fletcher's pass out on the right, then failed to stop the Portuguese winger cutting inside and beating Hennessey at his near post.
A further hefty increase to the day's goals tally seemed on the cards but in the 10th minute it was Wolves who scored. Matt Jarvis received the ball back from a short corner and crossed perfectly for Elokobi to head in. Towards half-time Jamie O'Hara, finding his feet on his Wolves debut, forced Edwin van der Sar – unlike Hennessey – to stand firm at his near post, and five minutes from the interval Nenad Milijas took a free-kick from the right that Doyle and Elokobi lunged at, the Irishman indicating that he had managed the decisive touch.
United's response was to replace Michael Carrick with Paul Scholes. It was only to be expected that the home side would come under severe pressure and they lost a little impetus when O'Hara, short of match practice, made way for Kevin Foley. United's frustration was summed up, however, by Rooney's yellow card for bundling Ronald Zubar over and their desperation was reflected in using all three permitted substitutions with fully 25 minutes to play.
The concluding stages, as can be imagined, were frantic, not least because the referee had found five minutes of additional time. Black Country hearts were in mouths as Rooney, well placed, shot too high and Patrice Evra claimed handball when his cross struck Zubar. But the old gold held on until the jubilant strains of "Hi ho, Wolverhampton".
"We winged it for a while early on and a lot of teams may have capitulated, so I'm extremely proud of them," McCarthy said.
Sir Alex Ferguson said: "It's been a long run and they've done us proud. In the second half we didn't get going." Now the going gets tough, with the Manchester derby on Saturday. And Crawley Town, at Old Trafford the following week, will be thinking that anything Wolves can do...
Haven't we been here before?
On 17 January 2004, the then bottom side in the Premier League – Wolves – beat top-of-the table Manchester United 1-0 at Molineux thanks to a 67th-minute Kenny Miller goal. Rio Ferdinand (who was injured in the warm-up last night) limped off through injury after 14 minutes in his last game before an eight-month ban for missing a drugs test.
The result failed to kick-start Wolves' season and they finished bottom and were relegated. United ended the season in third place as Arsenal won the title with Chelsea runners-up.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man of the match: Stearman