Wolves throwback: Penalty joy embodied spirit of title-winners
A true anomaly, Wolves’ win at Cardiff on their way to winning the Championship title will never be forgotten.
Yesterday marked two years since the special night in the Welsh capital, and rarely has a victory ever felt so sweet.
And that is because the five minutes of second-half added-on time were the very definition of nail-biting.
After Ruben Neves had opened the scoring with a terrific free-kick – displaying excellent technique and precision to beat Neil Etheridge at full-stretch – Wolves had to weather a monster storm.
Just as injury-time had begun, skipper Conor Coady fouled Anthony Pilkington in the box, and referee Mike Dean swiftly pointed to the spot.
Nuno Espirito Santo took his coat off and hurled it to the floor in frustration.
Gary Madine took on the responsibility for the Bluebirds but, much to the delight of Nuno and everyone else of a gold and black persuasion, John Ruddy perfectly read the striker’s mind – diving down to his left and tipping the ball past the post.
Madine had his head in his hands and Wolves breathed a collective sigh of relief – only to be straight back under the cosh.
Cardiff flooded bodies into the box and Ivan Cavaleiro – who had lost his footing – tripped one of them, Aron Gunnarsson, just inside the area and another penalty was awarded.
Madine decided not to try to redeem himself, and instead Junior Hoilett stepped up to the plate.
Ruddy was sent the wrong way, but the Canadian’s effort cannoned off the crossbar and Dean’s final whistle was greeted with rabid celebrations from Nuno, the players and the travelling fans.
Wolves were nine points clear at the top and the job was effectively done.
The ultimate test of resolve and scorer Neves, reflecting on the game as part of Wolves’ ‘Big Match Revisited’ series, said: “It was a hard game, a really hard game for us and a really hard pitch to play at.
“They were fighting with us for the first place of the league, but I believe, as we did for much of the time that season, our spirit was unbelievable.
“When we play like that, with that spirit, we can win in every stadium.”
It was a textbook strike from Neves – one of a series of stunning finishes during his Wolves tenure thus far.
And while not quite his most attractive, the Portuguese deems it the most important of his goals in gold and black.
“For the club, my most important goal was the Cardiff one, because they were second at the time and that win gave us a really good distance from them,” said Neves.
Barry Douglas had as good a view of it as anyone, as he lined up for the free-kick next to Neves – keeping Cardiff guessing.
“I knew Ruben had it in his locker as well, so I said ‘ok, you can have this one’,” said Douglas.
“Whenever we could, if there was some time left at the end of the session to practice some set pieces then we would train on them.
“It was usually Friday when we would do some set-pieces and test our range for the game on the Saturday.
“I think I was better in training, but Ruben was better in the games. It’s the things that people don’t see that go on behind the scenes that allows you to go on and put one in the onion bag like Ruben did.”
Ruddy, meanwhile, insists Madine was ‘too obvious’ with his penalty and added on the celebrations after Hoilett’s miss: “I just remember putting my arms in the air.
“I can’t remember who was next to me, but everyone jumped on top and in that moment, you’re thinking ‘don’t go to the floor’ because I’ve got no chance.
“It was a great feeling. Obviously, we got undone with the two penalties, but that passage of play showed our togetherness.
“You could see the reaction of everyone, nobody was battering ‘Cav’ or ‘Coads’, you might have been thinking it, but the togetherness we had was there for everyone to see.”
This was a win that embodied Wolves’ character in a relentless, successful campaign.