Wolverhampton has given the world Caitlin Moran, Kevin Rowland, Slade, Nigel Slater and one sixth of Monty Python (by adoption) as well as a storied, if occasionally very troubled, football club. Despite a reputation for industrial grime (and post industrial despair), its alumni reflects rather well.
Original founders of the Football League, the Black Country outfit dominated the 1950s and the town had a glamour bestowed upon it through the coupling of Billy Wright and one of the Beverly Sisters it had neither before nor since. Pioneers of floodlights and European football, it is a club steeped in history and fame and admirable to all but their nearest neighbours.
It is a little mysterious, then, that over the past few years, there has developed a spiky relationship between supporters of Town and Wolves which may have its roots in the former’s remarkable record of success in clashes dating back to the late 90s and exacerbated by a recent goal celebration of Rajiv Van La Parra and further stoked by a provocative answer to a local paper’s question of a Town supporter which didn’t produce the expected sycophancy, in an article leading up to this first top flight clash since the 70s.
Wolves’ transformation from sleeping, often comatose, giant in to the supposed best ever promoted club from the Championship has not been without controversy and the links between their Chinese owners and the super agent Jorge Mendes remains under investigation; but on the basis of innocent until proven guilty, it is a little churlish not to admire the style of play introduced by Nuno Santo, his travelling Portuguese minstrels and Conor Coady.
Their blistering start to the season, including an excellent performance which applied a brief brake on Manchester City’s slave state sponsored stroll to the title, has rather come up against the realities of the Premier League where world class coaches, even if not blessed with the best players, can nullify the newly promoted clubs enthusiasm and wide eyed exuberance in pretty short order. Before the international break, however, Wolves should have beaten an in form Arsenal at the Emirates with only bad luck and maybe a little composure preventing a famous victory.
Quietly, Huddersfield Town have been rebuilding their season which garnered just 3 points from a possible 30. In many of the games, the performances were probably deserving of more reward and rather plagued by poor fortune, but a belated first win and a good point against West Ham suggested that survival was not as forlorn a hope as many outsiders had concluded.
Increasingly well organised, tenacious and threatening, the Terriers have rediscovered the spirit so essential to their fortunes as they try to overcome the inherent and inevitable disadvantages they face in a brutal competition. The attritional style which accumulated enough points to stay in the division last season is evolving back to David Wagner’s principles which he had to pragmatically abandon too often to survive.
Eschewing traditional wingers – despite investing in 3 new ones in the summer – Town now flood midfield in front of a back 3 and the flexibility of the formation (Pritchard augments the midfield when not in possession) proved hugely successful against a Wolves team which needs space and fluency to unleash skill and pace.
The full house at Molineux contrasted starkly to the last time these two met – the night Town confirmed their play off place during a spell which seemed to have the single objective of avoiding Fulham. An inexplicably small away following shared a less than half full stadium with seriously disgruntled, barely interested Yam yams to witness a dismal affair rescued only by its portentousness for the visitors. And this time, there were fireworks.
The key to success against a team as swift and free flowing as Wolves had shown themselves to be, is to interrupt the rhythm and stem the creativity. Though far from alone in this responsibility, the midfield triumvirate of Hogg, Billing and Mooy were the principal actors in the plan to stifle and suffocate Wolves’ flair – a plan which was easy to devise but significantly more difficult to implement.
All 3, helped by the hard work of both Pritchard and the impressive Mounié (who looks far more engaged than at any time during his career at Town), produced almost perfect performances. Hogg’s controlled aggression, reading of the game and driving leadership complimented Mooy’s unhurried mastery of every situation he found himself in and Billing’s graceful elegance which has blossomed and matured immensely this season.
With Durm’s assured wingback play providing a safe outlet and defensive nous – on the other side, Hadergjonaj improved on his form so far this season and looked a little more assured – Tommy Smith proving to be a reliable replacement for the suspended Zanka (particularly as a fairly early yellow card could have hampered him) and Schindler and Kongolo holding firm, the whole team provided a compelling, united and cogent display which enveloped Wolves from the start.
An easily repelled early assault on the visitors’ territory was just the prelude for a nigh perfect first half for the Terriers, let down only by a failure to put the home side to the sword – few of the old gold persuasion could have complained if their possibly under estimated opponents had racked up an unassailable lead by half time.
As it was, the sides were only separated by a sublime strike from Mooy who guided an excellent pull back by Durm – himself released by a deft Billing pass – in to the corner of the net. Billing had capitalised on an error in the middle of the park, coolly swapped passes with Durm to get further forward and was then allowed the type of time and space of which Wolves’ more celebrated midfielders could dream.
Neves, an exceptional talent, and the equally lauded Moutinho were systematically shackled from that point on. Strangling Wolves’ supply at source with aggression, intensity and persistence had a debilitating effect on the team as a whole and a litany of errors, forced and unforced, handed the visitors complete control.
For much of the half, the joy was mainly to admire Town’s vice grip on the hosts. Supremely disciplined, Smith’s transgression aside, the sustained and intensive pressing suffocated Wolves and emasculated them to such an extent that the away following, for the time being at least, could feel relatively comfortable.
Towards the end of the half, Mounié’s power in the air threatened to deservedly extend the lead but his first attempt found Patrício’s well positioned arms while his second was blocked when he had done everything right. Kongolo had a header easily saved and a couple of speculative efforts from Billing and Mounié emphasised the Terriers’ complete dominance of affairs.
While the home side suffered some boos as they slunk off – perhaps suggesting that the home support needs to readjust their expectations – Town fans could only be delighted at the delivery of a tactical masterclass.
Not unexpectedly, Nuno Espírito Santo – a name which makes anyone with a Catholic background start a response – made changes at half time with the overwhelmed Moutinho and anonymous Cavaleiro making way for Traore and Gibbs-White, and Wolves improved a little and to the extent that they finally looked more threatening.
A good cross from the muscular and speedy Traore found Jiménez at the back post. The Mexican outmuscled Hadergjonaj, possibly illegally, at the back post and headed past Lössl for what appeared to be a certain equaliser only for Billing, the Danish Inspector Gadget, to extend his legs and make a miraculous clearance. It looked for all the world to be over the line and eyes were trained on Kevin Friend to see if his gaze moved towards his wrist.
The mass relief spread to the Town players who responded by seeing out the game almost flawlessly. Regaining control, the only scares were a free kick slammed in to the wall by the under par, possibly traumatised Neves and a weird phase of play where the injured Kongolo (who should have earned a free kick for the challenge which immobilised him) played in Jiménez only for him to lose composure at the vital moment.
For the most part, Town navigated the rest of the game in some comfort and some of the passing exchanges were delightful as Wolves chased shadows. One, in particular, ended with Billing back flicking to Pritchard in the box. The diminutive striker didn’t quite catch the ball sweetly enough to trouble Patrício, but the second, sealing goal was only minutes away.
Mooy played the ball forward to Mounié and the striker, sorely in need of a goal despite his excellent target man work, skipped through a lunging, foul challenge with Friend playing advantage but bringing play back as Mounié stumbled towards the free ball.
The Aussie, fresh back from a round trip of over 10,000 miles, lined up to take the kick towards a wall which, bizarrely, included a large hole at the left hand side. His effort was expertly curled around the gap – helped in no small measure by Neves getting out of the way – and past Patrício’s despairing dive.
A Lössl save at his near post from Jota prevented a fraught final few minutes but, if anything, it was Town who looked more likely to increase their lead and the olé chorus which accompanied a particularly impressive spell of possession was massively satisfying for those who had chosen to travel to the Midlands rather than watch from the comfort of a sofa or the pub.
The final act – a woeful free kick blazed over by Neves – rather summed up the day for Wolves whose apparent hubris, hopefully as they need to beat our rivals, should be dispelled. It was a harsh lesson for the old gold and three extremely welcome, unexpected points for a battling Town side who are finally reaping rewards for their patience in the early part of the season.
Shooting up the table provides a big psychological boost – though the spread at the bottom of the table is very, very thin – but more importantly, a thoroughly professional and controlled performance augurs very well for the challenges ahead.
Those of us who see Town regularly know that they haven’t been rewarded with a points total they deserve but, conversely, it has allowed us to be severely underestimated; a trap Wolves fell headlong in to.
A very good day in the Black Country.