Match Of The Week: Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-3 Blackburn Rovers
Survival Sunday, then – a name that was bestowed upon the final day of the season because most issues at the top of the table had been already been resolved. The third class passengers of the Premier League, therefore, have been bumped up to first class. Nature abhors a vacuum and the the last day of the Premier League season wouldn’t be the same without a news story. With West Ham United already condemned, there are five clubs playing to avoid the other two relegation places – Birmingham City, Blackpool, Blackburn Rovers, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic. Birmingham, Wigan and Blackpool all have difficult away matches this afternoon, but at Molineux, meanwhile, two of the clubs at the centre of the hubbub, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers, play each other.
For both clubs, their destiny remains in their own hands. Either could lose this afternoon and still stay up. A win for either will guarantee their safety. A draw and the matter is out of either’s hands. As such, it’s a day for the furious contemplation of the league table, for mental arithmatic and for matches going on elsewhere to be as important – if not more so – than what is happening before your very eyes. If only the top of the table was this close at the end of the season. Molineux is tense, but it’s a skittish type of tension that manifests itself in a very specific type of hysteria. Rumours will ripple around the ground at various points this afternoon, with news of goals or phantom goals from elsewhere that will inevitably do the rounds.
A culture has rapidly built up around the last day of the season, engineered almost completely by the lords and masters of modern football, television. There will be cameras panning grounds looking for supporters in tears, for clenched fists, exhortations and bulging blood vessels in the neck. Match Of The Day will likely try to cover four matches simultaneously this evening, flitting from match to match under the pretence that there will be many people watching that doesn’t know what happened this afternoon. Sky Sports, meanwhile, are covering two matches this afternoon – Manchester United vs Blackpool and Tottenham Hotspur vs Birmingham City – whilst Wigan Athletic travel to Stoke City. This, however, is the only match to include two of the five endangered clubs.
Wolves start badly, and things go from bad to worse with news from elsewhere as well as with events at Molineux. After ten minutes, it filters through that Stoke have taken the lead at at The Britannia Stadium. One or other of these two teams may have slipped a little closer to the trapdoor with this goal, although there is better news for the home support when Manchester United take the lead against Blackpool. After twenty-five minutes of largely shapeless football at Molineux, Wolves’ afternoon suddenly takes a turn for the considerably worse. Brett Emerton finds David Hoilet with a cross-field pass and he rolls the ball back for Michel Salgado to shoot from the edge of the area, and his shot is deflected by Jason Roberts past Wayne Hennessey.
The mood at Molineux darkens as, in what seems like the blink of an eye, things go from bad to considerably worse for Wolves. After thirty-nine minutes, Emerton, who has been sparkling this afternoon like a jewel in a heap of mud, volleys the ball past Hennessey from the right-hand of the penalty area to double Blackburn’s lead, and news coming in from Old Trafford confirms a Blackpool equaliser. And then, in stoppage time at the end of the first half, Junior Hoilett adds a third for Blackburn. Half-time comes with Wolves – theoretically, since the idea of a live updating league table is that of a fevered sports editor somewhere – in the bottom three and boos ringing around Molineux.
For the second half, then, Wolves are almost certainly to be dependent on good news from elsewhere if they are to survive. Early in the second half, it comes with news of a Tottenham goal against Birmingham City at White Hart Lane, although a second goal for Blackpool means that they, for now, look safe. Blackpool’s lead is shaky, of course, and United are level again within a quarter of an hour, before scooting away to a 4-2 lead. More significantly, though, Wolves pull a goal back through Jamie O’Hara. The mood at Molineux, however, doesn’t really start to lift until better news starts to come in from elsewhere, and there is more bad news before the good, with a goal for Wigan at Stoke and an equaliser for Birmingham City at White Hart Lane.
With that goal, the mood at Molineux changes. Wolves now need one goal to stay up on goals scored from Birmingham City, and Molinneux reacts. The morgue-like atmosphere around the place at half-time has been replaced by the urgency of the game’s opening stages. Paul Robinson saves brilliantly from Fletcher’s header. “One goal, we only need one goal”, sings Molineux. With three minutes of the season left to play, they get it. It’s a goal worthy of the Premier League, worthy of any competition you care to name, a glorious curling strike from hunt that leaves Robinson standing. The icing on the cake, the moment of it being “beyond reasonable doubt”, comes a minute later with news that Spurs have scored a winning goal against Birmingham.
At full-time, there is a joint celebration. Blackburn and Wolves, along with Wigan Athletic, are safe, while Blackpool and Birmingham City fall through the trapdoor. For the relegated clubs, this isn’t quite the disaster that it may seem to be at the moment. They will be plumpened by vastly increased parachute payments, after all. Wolves, on the other hand, have managed somehow to escape. They have periodically been excellent and dismal in fits over the last week and have only survived by the slenderest of margins. They may need to improve if they are to repeat the feat again next season. Blackburn were excellent for forty-five minutes this afternoon, before showing signs of the rustiness that sent them into their last match of the season needing a result to stay up. Both clubs, however, will still be in this division next season, and that will be all that matters to their supporters this evening.
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