It has now been a shade over twenty-nine years since Wolves beat Nottingham Forest in the League Cup final Wembley. Andy Gray’s second half goal won the competition for the Black Country club, but times have changed a lot since then. At the time of this meeting between the two clubs, Forest were the European champions and would go on to retain that particular crown at the end of that season, whilst the goalscorer Gray was the subject of the record British transfer fee at the time. The intervening years have not been particularly kind to either club. Wolves, it seemed, were at the cusp of regaining the greatness that they had attained during the 1950s. The crippling financial realities of the early 1980s, however, hit them harder than most and by 1987 they were in Division Four. Forest, against the odds, hung on in the top flight until 1993, but have only spent a handful of seasons in the Premier League since then.
Their fortunes have been very different this season. Forest were promoted in second place in League One last season, but have been in or around the relegation places in the Championship for much of this season. They sacked manager Colin Calderwood on Boxing Day, but haven’t seen much of an improvement to their fortunes under his replacement, Billy Davies, and continue to falter in the relegation places. Wolves, meanwhile, have been the surprise team in the division this season. Some doubts remain at Molineux over whether Mick McCarthy’s team are strong enough to survive in the Premier League, and much of the style that characterised the first half of their season has dried up as they started to stutter after Christmas. They have managed just one win by more than a single goal in the league since the middle of December, and they have become specialists at grinding out results.
The entertainment at the City Ground this afternoon is sparse, but this seems to be the way of things right the way across the Championship at this time of year nowadays. In a division in which it seems likely that matters of promotion and relegation will remain undecided until the very last weekend of the season, teams are desperate to avoid defeat where possible. Fans needn’t bother to press their ears against their transistor radios today – the eleven matches in this division today yield just twelve goals between them. As in so many Championship matches this season, you would be hard pressed to tell which of these teams is at the top of the table and which is battling against relegation. End of year nerves is enough to ensure that both teams are limited to occasional half-chances but, with fifteen minutes play, Wolves make a crucial breakthrough. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake’s low cross doesn’t seem likely to cause much danger, but Sam Vokes is allowed time to turn the ball back to Michael Kightly, whose low shot beats the goalkeeper and rolls into the goal.
The lone goal is enough to win the match for Wolves, and the travelling supporters’ trip home is made all the more cheery with news from elsewhere. Their two closest rivals at the top of the table, Birmingham City and Reading, have each dropped two points – Birmingham held at home by Norwich City and Reading held at Selhurst Park by Crystal Palace – meaning that Wolves are now nine points clear of Reading, although Reading still have a game in hand on them. What has looked for most of this season like being any two from Wolves, Birmingham City and Reading to get promoted now looks rather more like being Wolves plus either Birmingham City or Reading. Three wins from their last six matches will probably be enough to take them up, although there is certainly a case for saying that their problems start there. The Wolves team of the last three months is flecked with Premier League quality, but doesn’t look creative or strong enough to be able to stay in the Premier League without significant improvements being made to their squad.
Nottingham Forest, meanwhile, seem too good to go down and with winnable matches against Southampton, Blackpool, Barnsley and Coventry City amongst their final six fixtures, they’re far from relegated yet. They may have missed a trick in missing out on Nigel Clough as their new manager, but survival is their only aim for the time being. Should they manage this, they will be in a strong position to consolidate their place in this strangest, most unpredictable of divisions. In a few weeks time, there could be two divisions between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Nottingham Forest. You wouldn’t have guessed that today.