The FA Cup third round is a big occasion on the footballing calendar. Teams of such varying wealth, form and history can be pitted together with the threat of an upset only 90 minutes away.
However – with just a single place separating the two teams in the football pyramid – the tie between Championship table-toppers Wolves and the Premier League’s basement club Swansea City didn’t really carry a giant-killing threat. But it did give the home side a chance to test themselves against opponents from the top flight – a place they’re surely going to reach at the end of the season having amassed 61 points already this term.
Whether Swansea will replace them in the second tier is more uncertain. They’re four points away from the right side of the relegation zone but have recently brought in a new manager. I travelled with my Wolves fan friend, Aaron, to see whether a swap of divisions is on the cards.
The FA Cup has declined in importance for a lot of clubs due to their league games taking priority. Because of this, sides have often put out weakened teams in order to rest key players. My biggest worry before this game was both sides fielding reserve teams. Then the game wouldn’t carry much weight as a spectacle or give much indication of either club’s quality.
Thankfully though, both managers played a strong line-up. The two big Swansea absentees were Lukasz Fabianski in goal and Alfie Mawson at centre-back. But former Manchester City forward Wilfried Bony started, along with young Portuguese midfielder Renato Sanches. I was looking forward to seeing the latter in particular, as the on-loan Bayern Munich man has been rated a huge future talent. At Euro 2016, he won the young player of the tournament award after featuring in all but one game en route to his nation’s first piece of major silverware.
On the other hand, I looked forward to seeing any of Wolves’ regular first team squad in action. They’ve been a revelation in the Championship so far, boasting the most goals scored, along with the least conceded. Top goalscorer Leo Bonatini started, as did their highest marksman from last season Helder Costa. Many of their first-choice defenders were also playing and their new signing from Valencia, Rafa Mir, was on the bench.
A decent goalless draw
Even though both teams failed to score, there was plenty of goalmouth action and several talking points. The first half an hour flew by. Wolves were playing some fantastic attacking football but couldn’t beat Swansea’s stand-in keeper Kristoffer Nordfeldt. His best save came when he denied England’s under-17 World Cup winner Morgan Gibbs-White with a one-on-one chance. Wolves also missed a sitter whilst the visitors hit the bar in response.
Just before half-time, the hosts went down to 10 men. Ruben Vinagre had been crying out for the ball throughout the half. When he finally had it, he mis-controlled and ended up stamping on Nathan Dyer in an attempt to regain possession. Our view was from Row V of the Stan Cullis Stand – a vantage point so high up that elderly Wolves fans had to take a breather when trying to reach the summit. So while we couldn’t see the initial incident, we figured it must have been a dangerous tackle.
Replays later confirmed this and a red card was definitely the right call. But for some reason the Wolves fans booed Dyer for the rest of the game. It was weird. Especially as, like myself and Aaron, a lot of the fans around us probably didn’t see the tackle when it happened. But then it got even weirder when the referee levelled up the numbers.
Swansea had begun getting a foothold on the game, using their extra man to find space out wide. But when Wolves broke they looked dangerous. Apparently so dangerous for Leroy Fer, that he decided to clip Costa’s heel rather than keep up with his charging run down field. It was a yellow card. ‘Taking one for the team’, as they say. Not according to the ref though, who showed Fer a straight red.
Aaron and I were baffled. We thought maybe Fer was judged to be the last man (even though two defenders were still in front of Costa). It was another one to look back on later but having now done so, the decision is still completely bewildering. I can only conclude the referee had judged it as a kick rather than a clip. It killed off the contest anyway. Swansea organised themselves into a compact 4-4-1 formation and nullified their opponents.
There were late chances to grab a winner, substitute Mir glancing a header wide when he should have done better. But despite all the threat of goals, none came and a replay at the Liberty Stadium will now decide who goes through.
I managed to avoid a goalless draw in every game I attended in 2017 (even when West Brom against Arsenal was nailed on to finish 0-0 before a late splurge saved the day). Now I’m waiting for my first goal of 2018 after a contest which had provided recent scorelines of 4-0, 4-4 and 2-2 failed to continue the historical goal-flowing trend.
The big players failed to turn up for Swansea. Sanches was a huge disappointment. He looked so fragile on the ball. There were signs of a decent player in him but he looked almost frightened to stamp his authority on proceedings. Maybe an injury played a factor. He did have to leave the field after 35 minutes. But he wasn’t the only big name Swan to go missing either.
Wilfried Bony didn’t look at all confident or threatening. He had one attempt on goal which was straight at the keeper and also scuffed a shot which looked like a tap-in. To be fair, he has been injured recently. But if Swansea are going to survive they’ll need him to find form fast.
There were a number of questionable pre-match sights and sounds around Molineux that I wasn’t expecting.
Heading to the ground, a lot of pubs had a sign in the window saying it was for home supporters only. I’m sure there’s probably some police advisory reason behind it but I don’t feel like that kind of segregation is necessary these days. Fans should be able to stand side-by-side and enjoy a friendly atmosphere. It didn’t feel right at all.
When we got to Molineux, I found more noticeable sights. The Steve Bull Stand, named after the club’s all-time record goalscorer, failed to live up to his legendary status as the outside mimicked the ugly office-like exterior I’d seen at West Brom. Molineux does date back to the 19th century, so it’s hard to be too critical. While Aaron did tell me they were working on modernising each stand but the SBS had not been done yet.
More things to note came when we took our seats. They were huge! It felt like I was folding away a sun-lounger whenever I got up. While later on, I was expecting The Liquidator to be played as the teams walked out. The Harry J. Allstars anthem is often used in football to tell a rival they can do one. Apparently Wolves aren’t allowed to use it anymore, even though West Brom used it to taunt their neighbours before kick-off last week. It was a shame I couldn’t hear the reply. Hopefully they can get permission again as the back and forth ‘up yours’ to the local rivals is always a good laugh.
With all that negativity out the way, I should point out that Molineux wasn’t all bad! I did like the flags on the roof of the Steve Bull Stand, which seemed to represent the players’ nationalities, while the rest of the ground’s exterior was a lot nicer to look at. Having stands named after club legends was a nice touch and inside was also impressive. We climbed the newly built Stan Cullis upper tier and I swear it was as steep as the San Siro. I didn’t think I’d be at another stand as steep. It was pretty cool.
In terms of match action, I don’t think it would have been as fun if I went alone. Especially with the goal updates from Wrexham’s game coming through. The Dragons got their biggest win of the season, a 4-0 hammering of Torquay United. I couldn’t believe it when I told Aaron. It was typical that we’d be at a goalless game.
Still, I’ve wanted to see a Wolves match for a while. They’re a huge club in my local area and it was no surprise seeing so many fans from my hometown of Telford getting the train to see them. I found Wolves fans to be very polite. I liked their vibe. And I enjoyed talking about all things Wanderers with Aaron, as well as his own stadium-hopping exploits. We even batted with the idea of seeing them again at Preston next month. Hopefully it works out.