Wolves went to hell and back in a single afternoon.
So what if Wolves finished up second bottom of the Championship – exactly where they started? What they gained from the journey may yet prove to be their salvation.
It is difficult to explain just how Molineux was feeling halfway through such a vital game in this most tormented of seasons. The reservoir of anger has been all-but exhausted in the slump to League One’s gateway. Instead, settling on the stadium at half-time was a kind of dumbfounded bewilderment at the level of incompetence – and I do not use that word lightly – witnessed as Wolves conceded a lead to the only opponent beneath them in the table, Bristol City.
Fans have seen many of these same players beat Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and even Manchester United during their time at the club. These footballers may be on the other side of those career-peaking performances now but it was impossible to square those memories with the fumbling, shambolic and timid effort witnessed in the opening half of the most important moment of the season.
It was 45 minutes that captured perfectly and painfully the last 18 months. If we continue the analogy, perhaps that most comical of own goals might have represented the moment Wolves dispensed with the floundering Mick McCarthy and two weeks later returned to a Premier League survival battle with his inexperienced lieutenant at the helm.
All of the angst, all of the errors and all of the decay visited upon Wolves in this period had been laid out and replayed before an aghast public in one condensed, miserable 45-minute spell.
That this most compromised of teams found some kind of redemption by the finish is to their great credit. They will still need to be much, much better if they are going to get themselves out of this hole – but at least they stopped digging.
With results plummeting still further over the start of his regime, manager Dean Saunders has not helped his cause by straining the credulity of Wolves fans with some over-enthusiastic critiques of the team’s performances.
But both before, during and after this victory, he made perfectly good sense.
“When you play for a big club, the price on the ticket is that you’ve got to stand up and be counted when it’s not going well,” he had said in the build-up to this contest.
Very true. But by half-time, with his players failing lamentably to embrace that challenge, he was tearing into them at some velocity.
The precise content of Saunders’s vitriol is for the dressing room walls but it clearly charged players he has largely tried to protect with a dereliction of duty.
Thankfully, it dragged from the last remnants of their professional pride a recovery which ensures Wolves, having come uncomfortably close to their oblivion, have a little more faith and hope for what lies ahead.
It is typical of this confounding season that the day should provide an almost perverse role swap for its heroes and villains.
Bearing in mind what has been going on in front of him at times, goalkeeper Carl Ikeme has remained a largely blameless, indeed admirably calm and impressive figure. But in the 24th minute, a grotesque and bizarre own goal, already racking up the hits on YouTube I’ll wager, scarred even his unimpeachable record. A heavily over-hit and woefully mis-directed back-pass by David Davis was equally culpable in the goal gifted to City but it’s always the keeper that takes the blame. And when Ikeme didn’t emerge for the second half – Saunders reported a hand injury – we got a sense of the tensions that must have been at large in the home dressing room.
By then, he was not the only missing figure. Bakary Sako, another exempt from the critics’ line of fire, had been lost to a hamstring injury and David Edwards to a foot problem in the chaotic misfortune of that opening half.
In bringing on Dorus De Vries for Ikeme, Saunders had used all his substitutes. But – and who would have thought this? – who should lead the revival but Stephen Hunt.
Booed on his arrival from the bench to replace Sako, a legacy of his spat with fans at the previous home game, Hunt reminded us that where there is life and energy and unquenchable enthusiasm there is hope.
The two crosses he delivered for the back-to-back, match-turning goals from Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and then Kevin Doyle were full reward for a fizzing performance that invigourated the team.
The explosion of noise which greeted both symbolised Molineux’s relief. In a season in which supporters have found it hard to love their team, a new bonding was forged as Wolves dragged themselves clear from the brink of their own destruction.
We must hope it is still holding firm come May’s closing steps in this most traumatic of journeys.
By Martin Swain