Regrets are a terrible thing. You’re always told, ‘no regrets’ in life, but sometimes you can’t help but think ‘if only…’. Much was made of the genuine sense of regret from our last semi-final appearance, a sense that we had been done out of a chance to show our true selves by the management of the club. We couldn’t level those accusations at the current set up at all. But we had it in our hands and it slipped through our fingers, like a diamond disintegrating into grains of sand.
First things first, I’m sold on the Wembley semi-final. These opportunities really don’t come around very often for a club of our current standing and for us all to have experienced it, with the increased allocation that a semi-final place brings as opposed to a final allocation, will stay in the memory for a very long time. This was the day when ‘on our way back’ became ‘we are back’, a club with a stories past littered throughout with Wembley appearances, despite it being in a different guise then. The Millennium Stadium will always rank as my favourite, the misty-eyes, awe-inspired youngster that I was at the time, but I thoroughly enjoyed the swathes of Old Gold across one half of the vast inner bowl. On arrival at Wembley Park Underground Station it felt like we’d turned up to a party for Wolves fans only.
This increased sense of hype and hysteria, didn’t necessarily translate into the stadium though. Try organising 34,000 people to sing one song at a time – it’s a task that’s for sure. It was slightly fragmented throughout and there was an overbearing sense of us wanting it all to go perfectly, as if we had all scripted our day out in London. Party, kick off, sing, goals, victory, party again. And for so long it looked like being just that.
We’ve become accustomed to our team rising to the grand occasions recently. There was no reason to suspect that not happening this time either. We’ve settled into a real groove now and the team pretty much picks itself, aside from the Romain Saiss/Ryan Bennett slot. Nuno plumped for Saiss here and having seen him take a place in WhoScored.com’s European Team of the Month, he’s very much vindicated. Watford are a slightly awkward side though and there’s a genuine sense of tactical awareness from both teams. Our struggles last time around versus The Hornets were based on them playing narrowly and crowding our the midfield axis of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho. The presence of Leander Dendoncker offered some security, but there was a definite ploy to go for that same approach once more from Javi Gracia, favouring Will Hughes over Gerard Deulofeu and going with two genuine strikers up front.
What ended up happening, was neither midfield really imposed themselves on the game. None of Abdoulaye Doucoure, Etienne Capoue, Moutinho, Neves and Dendoncker were any of the stand out performers here. It was attritional at time and the first half an hour wasn’t too much of a spectacle to match the occasion. Watford dominated possession without penetration, while we couldn’t get our forwards into the game. We did end up capitalising on a set piece though. Maybe it was our lack of time spent in the final third, but I’m sure we were all found screaming at Moutinho to not play the short corner. But Watford are a team of giants, sometimes you need to do something different to get on the end of a cross into the box. We changed the angle and Diogo Jota’s cross seemed to shriek ‘come and get me’ to an onrushing Wolves player. That man was obviously Matt Doherty – it was the FA Cup after all. At this point, Doherty was a shoo-in for player of the tournament, given the rescue jobs he had already performed against Shrewsbury. For a right wing-back to be such an influence on a side, shows the responsibility he carries within himself and it was visible throughout the game.
We had Watford where we wanted them now. In the lead, with them chasing the game and a devastating pair on the counter-attack. Jota, who had been a bit of a sidelined presence until this point, sprang into life. He is unique in his ability to carry the ball forward, with defenders almost hanging off him at times. His balance, strength and ability to change direction at a millisecond’s notice is unrivalled within the squad. At times he did feel like the only one who was playing to his full potential. We still weren’t vintage Wolves. We also conceded some chances. Andre Gray seemed to be doing his best to ensure his hometown club would be returning to Wembley in a few weeks time, although one of his chances led to an incredible block by Conor Coady.
A half time lead was all we could have asked for though. We’re a second half team, we were attacking the Wolves end – we were in front! These are the scenarios we crave and thrive upon, with the backdrop f a giant golden wall of noise. And it really was going to plan. A simple dink into the box from Doherty and Jimenez sprung into action. The backing away, the chest control and the volley, all in one scintillating, thrilling movement. This wasn’t fox-in-the-box, it was jack-in-the-box. Surprise! Here’s Jim-my! £30 million plus of striking talent all in evidence. The big man, for the big occasion. Except, enter Gerard Deulofeu.
It’s not often a substitute swings a match his team’s way in a tight game. But to do it from 2-0 is asking a lot. Javi Gracia has since gone on to say that he thought the tie was lost. This is Wolves. We don’t throw away leads like that. Yes, on occasion we struggle when we’re behind in a game, but give us the lead at your peril. We were asking Watford to score three against us, the only teams to have done that this season are Tottenham, Manchester City (versus ten men) and Leicester, who ended up losing the game anyway. And they were being asked to do this within 30 minutes, plus extra time if it got to that stage.
The first goal was a thing of beauty. Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up to quality. I’ve seen Wolves defend their box from such positions countless times this season and I had no reason to suspect that we wouldn’t see this particular situation out, but this is a La Masia graduate who many thought would be a fixture for Barcelona, rather than his current less star-studded setting. Ok, so it’s 2-1. No bother right? I mean, Watford were pressurising but they weren’t exactly creating a host of chances. We’ve always held teams on the edge of our box really well, so the idea that Nuno’s substitutions were to blame here didn’t sit well with me. Like a tortoise becomes impenetrable within it’s own shell, we concede so few chances that there’s again, no reason to suspect we wouldn’t see this game out. What we couldn’t legislate for was the giving away of a penalty.
It take some serious discipline to not dive into challenges in this way. I’m amazed we haven’t given away more penalties given how much we allow teams to play around the edge of our box. I’d suggest there wasn’t too much danger as Troy Deeney controlled the ball, but Leander Dendoncker, always looking to be on the front foot, tried to win the ball. It was a needless challenge and there’s an argument that Deeney went over easily, but a decision was there to be made, which was vindicated by VAR. One of the major ‘if only’ moments, just a couple of minutes from the final whistle. As a group of fans I think our heads were already in the final, such is the faith in this team. No we were staring down the barrel of extra time, entirely deflated. There was no geeing up of the players post the concession of this goal. Our resolve had been broken as a set of supporters. We had little left to give.
We actually came out well at the start of extra time, pushing forward, perhaps as we should have done towards the end of the game, but our most progressive players had been removed from the pitch. Jota was out on his feet and while Neves and Moutinho weren’t at their best, they remained the best forward passers in the side. The third goal was a sickener though. From the moment Gray and Deulofeu exchanged passes, i had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. It all looked so easy and inevitable. One man had turned this game on its head. It’s a funny old game football.
There was still time for a couple more ‘if only’ moments, as if the last half an hour hadn’t been enough torture. Jimenez, attempting to control a cross instead of diverting it goal wards. Matt Doherty passing up opportunities to shoot. Adama Traore, beating man after man, but ballsing up cross after cross. And Cavaleiro. Oh Ivan, who initiated a move he probably does in his sleep now, a move we’ve seen result in a couple of goals during his Wolves career. He’s sat Gomes down and he just has to sidefoot home. We all know what happened thereafter.
I’m sure many of us have replayed all these moments in our head over and over again overnight. It won’t change anything. But we do this in the hope that the outcome changes anyway. I left Wembley a broken man yesterday. This wasn’t us. This couldn’t be us. We do big occasions well. We don’t choke under pressure. Not this Wolves team. People have said since it was ‘typical’ of us as a club but this isn’t that club anymore. While this sickening feeling will weigh us down for a while, this club will dust itself down and embark on its next epic journey. We have so much to be proud of and to look forward to. This team featured teenagers by the end of the game and many not much older. They will grow together and one thing we know is that they will learn from their mistakes, they have proven so time and again.
Wembley may not come around again for a while. It’s no straightforward thing progressing to these stages and we overcame Liverpool and Manchester United to do so – Watford’s run pales in comparison. We certainly didn’t take the easy route. But this season isn’t over and the Nuno era itself has just embarked on its most exciting phase. Europe is within reach. We cannot let this define our season.
As a group, we will mourn and we will grieve. But come Saturday, the St Mary’s Stadium needs to feel our presence, just as Wembley did yesterday. We’re not on our way back. We are back.