'You can't beat momentum,' Sir Alex Ferguson said this week, putting his finger on the reason Manchester United found Arsenal impossible to catch in 1998 and the secret of his own club's success this season. |
In the mini championship of a promotion play-off momentum is vital, and every year it seems to desert Wolverhampton Wanderers at precisely the wrong time, but this time they might have finally cracked it.
Dave Jones' side were thoroughly outplayed for most of this first leg, causing all too familiar anguish among regularly disappointed supporters, but two goals in the last 20 minutes turned the result around and left Wolves on a high for a change. Wednesday's return at the Majedski Stadium is far from a foregone conclusion while there is only a one goal margin, though it will be surprising if Wolves can play as badly again.
Paul Ince typified Wolves' uncertainty in the 24th minute, almost letting Reading's willing chasers dispossess him after holding on to the ball for too long on the edge of his own area, having to be rescued by his goalkeeper then bawling out his teammates for not making themselves available. A minute later Wolves went behind. Nick Shorey skipped nonchalantly past George Ndah to reach the byline on the left, before sending over a dangerous cross that travelled invitingly across the face of goal to reach an unmarked Forster, who had time to chest the ball down and score at the far post.
Going a goal down did little to help Wolves settle and Ince was rather harshly booked on the half hour, despite appearing to win the ball, as he prevented Luke Chadwick breaking from half way. The highly mobile Chadwick was a constant menace, regularly leaving his right-wing station to maraud through the middle or link with the alert Forster. The terms of his loan deal mean Chadwick must be back at Manchester United by the time the play-off final takes place, but he has pledged to do what he can to get Reading up before he leaves. Continuing to give the ball away cheaply throughout the first half, Wolves looked glad to hear the whistle for the interval. They almost shipped a second goal before it arrived, Joleon Lescott having to make a precisely timed penalty-area tackle on Forster to recover from his own mistake. The home side hardly needed to put themselves under any extra pressure, especially after taking the field to fireworks, yet made too many basic errors to please their crowd or their manager.
The one consolation for Wolves was that it could have been even worse. Forster popped up again in their penalty area seven minutes into the second half and went round Lescott and Paul Butler as if they were not there, only to roll his shot agonisingly across the face of an unprotected goal with Chadwick arriving just too late for a tap-in.
It must have been a considerable relief to Wolves when Forster was forced out of the action with an ankle injury after an hour, particularly as Chadwick was withdrawn 10 minutes later.
If Pardew thought Reading could protect their lead for the last 20 minutes he was mistaken. Kenny Miller brought a terrific save from Marcus Hahnemann as Wolves finally found their range, and the home side sharpened their attacking edge when Shaun Newton replaced George Ndah. Suddenly it was Reading who were finding themselves pressed back as Wolves began to swarm around their penalty area, and the equaliser arrived amid furious home claims for a penalty after Ince was upended by Adrian Williams. It looked an obvious foul, yet referee Alan Kaye was still in the process of saying no when Newton ended the argument by crashing the loose ball in from the edge of the area, with the aid of a hefty deflection off Graeme Murty.
That was all the encouragement Wolves needed, and the winner arrived in a similar manner seven minutes from the end. Ince was felled on the edge of the area by Steve Brown, and Lee Naylor drilled the free kick low into Hahnemann's bottom right corner. The match ended with Wolves pressing for a third goal, and Reading self-destructing. Substitute Nathan Tyson was dismissed in stoppage time for a bad foul on Butler as the vistors began to lose their nerve. This was not a convincing victory, but for once the force might be with Wolves.