The FA Cup hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for us Wolves fans in my lifetime, and yet it’s provided some of the best moments of my time supporting the club. I’ve mentioned the famous victory over Leeds in 98 previously, but other moments include beating Newcastle at home in 2003 and who could forget the Liverpool victory last January?
I guess that’s what they mean when they talk about the magic of the FA Cup. It’s either a release from the woes of a downward-spiralling season or it’s a change of scenery for an already successful campaign. That was the prospect facing us as we took on the next team up on the league pyramid, Swansea City.
Despite the difference in division, the momentum and confidence factor dictated that we were favourites. The other factor to take into account was the increasingly poor quality of teams in the bottom half of the Premier League. Trapped by the fear of relegation, they enclose themselves in a permanent state of The 40 Point Syndrome, as if each season is a holy pilgrimage to reach that mark. Of course someone has to suffer, and it seems as if any of 10 teams each season are bedded in the 40 Point Ward at the PL Hospital. Is this what the big time is all about? It’s why the majority of the outside world had us finishing comfortably mid-table in the current version of the PL and it’s why we went into this one as absolute favourites. We’re Premier League ‘pending’ and despite the fact we made a number of changes to the side, we again looked a Premier League outfit. Even with a 17, 18 and 19 year old in the line-up. That’s because this is a well-oiled machine, with specifically-sourced component parts, interchangeable and absolutely under no illusions as to what their role is within this winning machine.
What excited me most about the line-up was the presence of Morgan Gibbs-White, in a position I didn’t believe Nuno would entrust to him. Given that he hadn’t played Connor Ronan as a deeper midfielder, I thought Gibbs-White would potentially be a makeshift wing-back or as part of the front-three. His slight frame didn’t necessarily lend itself to the role but I guess having Alfred N’Diaye next to him more than made up for that. By the end of the first half you’d have thought Wolves were the team with a European Championship winner in their ranks.
Gibbs-White was the most assured presence on the pitch, giving and going and giving and going and even popping up to have the best chance of the half. What amazes me is how different he looks to when he played behind Rhian Brewster in the Under 17 World Cup as an almost hide-and-seek floating forward, looking for space constantly. This type of adaptability takes serious game intelligence and it’s fascinating to see where he eventually calls ‘home’ on the pitch.
I’m not going to comment on the red cards as I hate the over analysis of refereeing decisions but the sending off Vinagre was disappointing for the curtailing of two promising performances as MGW was sacrificed. Curiously Nuno decided to deploy N’Diaye as a lone central midfielder and he went on to have his finest game in a Wolves shirt. He was a trash compactor with arms and legs, guzzling up any loose balls and turning it into something orderly, productive and efficient. Anything that entered ‘The Alf Zone’ was under intense scrutiny. He doesn’t get enough credit for his ability on the ball and he pretty much devoured Renato Sanches and spat him out near the touchline, hobbling away with his reputation well and truly spent. Mrs Kular is always extolling the virtues of Big Alf and she would have enjoyed this muscular performance. The only thing missing from his game yesterday was the big switch out to the wing backs, something you could see he spotted when he opened up his body, but didn’t quite have the confidence to execute. That could have made a difference in an odd, stifling second half where despite the fact both teams had ten men, nobody really went for the jugular in the style of a Cup tie.
Other notable performances came from Helder Costa and Kortney Hause, but Bright Enobakhare continued to be the epitome of enigma. Whether it was due to the fact some not so regulars were in the crowd, or people are starting to lose their patience with young Bright, there was much dissent regarding his performance. Frankly, he’s the most curious talent at the club, defying convention from the way that he plays to the end product of his ability. He consistently does the unexpected from choosing to turn towards defenders to having an extra touch or suddenly blazing the ball towards goal from 30 yards. I take solace in the fact that some of these dissenting voices wouldn’t know talent if it came and farted in their face, but Bright needs patience and a little love to eke out the best in him. People continually talk about the missed chances at City but there’s always a rebuff with Bright: would anybody else in our squad have even created those opportunities to then miss? I often think Bright is watching an entirely different game to the rest on the pitch, measuring his game by dribbles completed and number of defenders mugged off and that will need realigning, but for now we have to realise this is a talent best served under Nuno’s wing, learning, developing and hopefully blossoming in the Old Gold and Black.We also caught glimpse of the latest incumbent of the No. 9 shirt, one that usually hangs heavy on the possessor. Rafa Mir looks useful. He was lively and he appears to have a little more penalty-box presence than Bonatini, if not the subtlety of the Brazilian. That presence means he may be able to make more of the large repertoire of poor crosses that come into the box, as he nearly did by glancing a header wide. I’m sure he has much more to offer and playing in a 11-man team will no doubt be a start, but he’s in the ideal place to immerse himself in Nuno’s philosophy.The result probably doesn’t suit either side, but what it does give is those players that we don’t see enough of an opportunity to produce on a relatively big stage at what is still a Premier League club. The success in the league has created an appetite for that and fans were genuinely excited to see some of the lesser-spotted players i action. It was an enjoyable game and I’m sure if we’d had 11 on the pitch we would be talking about who we’re getting in the 4th Round now. But on to the Liberty, where we will again be favourites I’m sure.Gully