This post has been guest written by Michael Jones. Michael works as a commentator at Wolverhampton Wanderers, providing audio description coverage for visually impaired fans at Molineux Stadium. While Wolves are enjoying another fruitful season under the guidance of Nuno Espírito Santo, it has not always been like this for the West Midlands side. In the summer of 2013, Wolves had reached an irrefutable nadir: relegated to the third tier of English football, seemingly bereft of hope and in dire need of some Kenny-Jackett-inspired change.
When I first met Michael in Strasbourg in 2016, progress had thankfully been made both on and off the field. But while his beloved Wolves had at least returned to the Championship, they nevertheless found themselves floundering at the wrong end of the table. A return to the Premier League was still, apparently, a long way away.
Fast forward, however, to the club’s penultimate game of 2019 and that had all changed. Following Wolves’ victory at the Etihad earlier in the season, the visit of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to the architecturally peculiar Molineux Stadium provided Nuno Espírito Santo’s side with the perfect opportunity to pull off a remarkable league double over the reigning Premier League champions.
From his perch in the Billy Wright Stand, Michael watched on as his side did exactly that. Here’s his stirring recollection of what turned out to be a truly memorable night in the West Midlands…
A Different kind of coverage
The 2019/20 season has allowed me to realise a lifelong dream that I had never thought was plausible: not only have Wolverhampton Wanderers played European football but, on a more personal note, I have also been able to commentate on the team I have followed for almost 20 years.
The commentary is actually more specialist and is ‘Audio Description Commentary’, a service aimed at providing in-game action for visually impaired fans through a radio service inside the stadium by Alan March Sport. Firstly this means providing commentary of the action on and off the pitch. Whilst contextual information is always easy-listening it’s important to not bat an eyelid from the on-field action as we aim to bring as close an experience of the game as those who would be able to view it fully.
Secondly, as fans from either team use this service, it’s essential for ourselves to remain completely neutral and bury our joy and despair at times by describing every minute detail out there in front of us.
Come December 27th, it was Manchester City’s turn to visit Molineux.
Cities are never random
Wolverhampton’s location means that Molineux is one of the more accessible grounds in the country: a stop on the West Coast line, followed by a ten minute walk from the station dotted with several pubs, bars and takeaways on the way.
Molineux will then meet your eyes, accessed via a tunnel dividing the University Campus from the stadium. Prior to becoming Queen Victoria, then Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent described Wolverhampton as “a large and dirty town” but one which received her “with great friendliness and pleasure”. In truth, it is hard to disagree with Victoria here: arriving on a match day you are swarmed by matchgoers stood in and outside the many bars providing plenty of noise.
However, the demise of the local economy and an unshakeable feeling of ‘on the edge’ means little time is taken observing the historic galleries, library and theatres that Wolverhampton has to offer.
Upon reaching the tunnel, looking from left to right as Man City would later kick off, you are engulfed with a brief timeline of Wolves’ history, a reminder of what sets them apart from many of the similarly sized English clubs with which they are commonly associated.
Don’t write off a cliché
As I got seated, warmed up and primed for the evening’s fixture (there had to be one Amazon pun), kick off ensued.
A feature of Wolves’ rise in the past couple of years has been their desire to play big on the occasion. Coming off a plucky, albeit drab, victory against Norwich at Carrow Road only days before, fans were anticipating a much improved display against the champions in blue, and although the Citizens were favourites, the Molineux faithful were determined to play their part in making the away side the latest team to fall victim here.
The tactics here were clear. Firstly, Wolves made their presence felt by pushing high in the opening few minutes and battle for 50/50s. Secondly, as their opponents began to dominate possession, Wolves sat deep, waiting for a loose touch, a backwards pass or an opposing player to face their own goal before responding with an immediate press. Thirdly, as the opposing full backs pushed higher with their team’s possession, the home side started to utilise the space left behind for pacy wingers (namely Adama Traoré and Diogo Jota) to exploit. Fourthly, they capitalised on the energy spent tracking back by winning the ball more aggressively in midfield, and utilising the front and back three as well as the wide two.
The opening quarter had seen very little action when a long-range pass from Conor Coady, on the edge of his own area, sent through Diogo Jota between a napping Nicolas Otamendi and Kyle Walker. In an advanced position, the Portuguese forward went to flick the ball over the onrushing Ederson. The resulting, reckless take out from the Brazilian stopper was met with a red card by Martin Atkinson. The referee’s decision was clear, accepted by the player in question and appreciated by the fans.
This sentiment would, however, only be short lived. Not for the first time this season, Wolves fans were about to feel the full injustices of Premier League officiating and its interpretation of VAR as all the tactics, game management and planning went hurtling out of the window.
The red card threw everyone in the Gold and Black into the unknown. Man City sat deep and Wolves enjoyed plenty of possession. Cheers were heard, with a tint of black country arrogance, as oles rang aloud throughout the stadium and the home fans adulated sideways passes.
Those cheers were, inevitably, duly punished. Following what initially looked like an innocuous collision between Leandro Dendoncker and Riyhad Mahrez, a penalty was ultimately awarded to the visitors following the scrupulous, oft-maligned intervention of VAR.
The response was toxic, but it remained 0-0 as Patricio produced a strong low save to his right deny Raheem Sterling from the spot. The ground erupted ephemerally, only for technology to quickly cripple the home support once again as Martin Atkinson held his finger to his ear and the dreaded three letters appeared on the big screen once more.
Sterling, an infrequent penalty taker, decided to show the confidence instilled in him by Guardiola as he opted to repeat the iconic antics of Juan Pablo Angel against Fulham in 2005 and go the same way with Patricio respectfully following. History didn’t repeat itself so quickly, however, as Sterling found an easy follow up to finally give Man City the lead. This time it stood.
The ugly are forced to rear their head
The decision to retake the initial penalty had been made as Conor Coady, the player who instinctively cleared the rebound, had been deemed to be encroaching and thus benefiting as he reached the ball first to clear.
The home crowd were incensed: the feeling around Molineux was that the officiating had gone against them in ways both old and new. That sense of injustice, felt feverishly by the South Bank, was conveyed vehemently by chants lambasting VAR, Sterling and the majestic Kevin De Bruyne.
Amidst the chaos, a hip flask regrettably made its way onto the pitch. The South Bank, like so many stands across the country which serve as the epicentre of the match day atmosphere, is similar to having that friend who can be a bit of a liability. They simply must be there for the big occasions because without them it wouldn’t be the same. Fuelled by booze and camaraderie they act on instinct, often accentuating every unfiltered thought you have and, once you’re a part of them, they will always have your back. On the flipside, however, their impulsion tends to makes you feel uneasy, often having to explain yourself on their behalf and occasionally being ashamed by their actions. Rather than dominate the headlines, this hip flash-throwing debacle became a sorry incident which signalled the magnitude of what was to come.
A Cruel Counter sets up a Fascinating Finale
In the aftermath of all the controversy, the pattern of the game took an even more surreal turn.
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City locked into two banks of five deep into their own half: unfamiliar territory for most of their players at such an early point in the game. Wolves realised that their visitors were there for the taking, but a packed City defence and a one-goal deficit stood in their way.
Nevertheless, the Molineux faithful and the home players accepted the challenge ahead with venom and determination. This atypical turning of the tactical tide was on show as Romain Saïss and Ruben Neves constantly set Wolves ironically purring, recycling play with effectiveness and aplomb.
The visitors played their part in the spectacle when, despite relentless pressure from the home side, they opted not to kick the ball out of play and gain themselves valuable seconds to recover. The final fifteen minutes of the first half saw Wolves utilising the width of the turf to attack through different angles, the momentum keeping fans on the edge of their seats with only Wolves’ lack of cutting edge in the final third letting City off the hook at the break.
With City reduced to ten men, it was clear that this was not how Guardiola wanted his team to play. As much was evidenced by their response in the early stages of the second half. The away side began to have more success on the ball and the half-time introduction of La Masia graduate Eric García initially appeared to provide them with more balance.
Indeed, City reaped the rewards of Garcia’s introduction just minutes after the break, doubling their advantage through Sterling once again. The England international calmly dinked the ball over the advancing Rui Patricio, having been released by a sublime pass from Kevin De Bruyne who, up until that point, had been entirely ineffectual. The home side’s chances seemed to be slipping away, with coach Santo surely lamenting their failure to capitalise on Ederson’s early red card.
A speedy response from Adama allows fear to creep in for City
Witnessing Adama Traoré play on a regular basis from a fan’s perspective makes him difficult to hate. Many fans had been calling for him to be sold a year ago after a troublesome first season. But those who had seen him hit form at Middlesbrough were aware of the impact he could have not just on the opposition but on his team and the fans. The more successful plays he makes coincides with teammates getting more space as the opposition resorts to placing two or three players around him. Wider implications are felt in the terraces: quite simply, he is a player who raises the hairs on your neck and generates a roar of excitement every time he receives the ball from anywhere up to 70 yards away from goal.
Come December 27th, the Spaniard had produced a string of consistent, all-action displays. Indeed, his run of form had arguably started with his match-winning display in the reverse fixture at the Etihad back in October.
This time around, Traoré was fully immersed at Molineux. He faced a difficult first half as he was met with the stern challenge of Benjamin Mendy, a player desperate to leave an impression on both his club and national managers. The Frenchman had coped well for the best part, sitting deep and staying tight to his man.
Trailing 2-0, Wolves needed something both soon and special. Adama Traoré stepped up in emphatic style. A counter attack following a Sterling giveaway allowed the Spaniard to run menacingly at the City defence. Matt Doherty made a lungbusting overlap to his right and, to almost everybody inside the stadium, appeared to represent the best option.
Traoré, however, as he so often does, defied expectation by rocketing an arrowed shot into the bottom corner past a helpless Claudio Bravo. Molineux erupted once again. City had been served a timely reminder of the abilities of a team they had beaten just once in ninety minute since Nuno Espirito Santo had taken over in 2017.
At long last, the Irishman eventually finishes
The odds of footballing comebacks is just about low enough that they feel astonishing yet simultaneously high enough that they feel remotely achievable.
At Molineux, Traoré’s stunning strike in the 55th minute had reduced the deficit to just one goal and put Wolves were well on their way to turning the game around. And as Guardiola’s players stretched for challenges, to receive passes, to jockey and to make up for their missing eleventh man, gaps became more and more commonplace, allowing Wolves to create space in the final third. Although it felt like a matter of time in hindsight, Wolves were however left increasingly frustrated as they searched for an elusive equaliser.
Entering into the final 10 minutes, those efforts finally began to bear euphoric fruit. Mendy, who had dealt so well with Traoré for most of the game, fell foul to the toil that marshalling the Spaniard had taken on him in cataclysmic measures. Misjudging the bounce from a sliced clearance, his attempt to shield the ball out of play instead resulted in the Frenchman being sent sprawling by the powerful Traoré. The winger took full advantage of the fullback’s mishap, putting the ball on a plate for Raul Jiménez to prod into the goal from all of six yards out. 2-2.
Molineux was delirious as the players celebrated spectacularly. Restarting the game quickly may have allowed the home side to maintain and feed on their newfound momentum, but the prolonged celebrations appeared to symbolically sap all that remained of Manchester City’s enthusiasm and belief.
Under the twinkling floodlights, play eventually restarted for the sixth time that evening at a ground which had of course been a pioneer for late night matches in the mid 1950s.
Matt Doherty, a player who made his debut for Wolves in the Premier League under Mick McCarthy, had experienced the peaks and troughs of relegations and promotions in recent years. It was fitting, therefore, that it was he who stepped up to deliver the most memorable of moments in front of the volcanic South Bank.
After a purposeful one two with Jiménez, the Irishman found space on the edge of the area to arrow a left footed finished past the stranded Bravo. Home fans embraced one another with unrestrained jubilation. A palpable feeling of ‘what have we just witnessed?!’ engulfed the Molineux press area. 3-2 Wolves. They had only gone and done it.
A reflective appreciation for City
The pictures of Guardiola in the press room may portray that of a man who knows that their team have thrown the towel in. However, the Spanish coach was classy in his conference, appreciative of the home side, slamming the festive period and seemingly philosophical about his side’s defeat.
Throughout the game, Manchester City themselves had been classy in defeat also: in true champions’ style they never gave up and made Wolves reach levels they hadn’t done all season to overcome them. Their reluctance to waste time too early allowed the game to have a purring flow and meant I did not have even the slightest moment to take a deep breath off the mic.
From a fan’s perspective and a lover of the game, the 90 minutes I had just witnessed had contained everything that you would want. Now, weeks later, as the hysteria calms, the audio description commentators await the next spine tingling occasion. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait too long.