No sooner had Stan Collymore expertly constructed his straw man than he started to dismantle it. ‘We can put to bed the idea that Wolves are the greatest-ever promoted team,’ he said just two weeks ago, countering an argument that absolutely no-one had seriously put forward.
The word he would use to describe this Wolves campaign was ‘decent’. The weather can be ‘decent’. A meal can be ‘decent’. A film can be ‘decent’. But a season featuring an FA Cup semi-final, wins over Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham and potential European qualification? That hardly seems to fit the definition of ‘an acceptable standard; satisfactory; adequate.’
Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Fulham was hard-fought but well-deserved. Funnily enough, it was decent. It seemed as though the Premier League’s very own Robin Hood would continue the tradition of robbing points from the rich to gift them to the poor, but even these outlaws have a limit to their generosity.
Not that they weren’t following that tired old script. Diogo Jota had six efforts – although chaos theory scoffs at those who suggest he ‘could have had a hat-trick’. Willy Boly headed over twice from close range. Matt Doherty should have scored and had a strike correctly ruled out for offside. Leander Dendoncker hit the crossbar before later netting the winner.
With Aleksandar Mitrovic spurning the game’s best opportunity, it felt as though Wolves were destined to trip over another avoidable obstacle. Yet they belatedly laid foundations to build upon next season.
Forty-seven goals is the most of any promoted Premier League side since Southampton in 2013. Sixteen wins is the most of any promoted Premier League side since Reading in 2007. Fifty-seven points is the most of any promoted Premier League side since Ipswich in 2001. Birmingham in 2010 were the last promoted Premier League side to finish higher than 10th. Yet Wolves have surpassed each landmark with one game left and reimagined what second-tier clubs are capable of.
But one question remained, an asterisk that followed every utterance of praise aimed in Nuno Espirito Santo’s direction. Before this game, Wolves had won the most points of any side from 7th to 20th against the top six (16), and the fewest points of any side against the bottom six (11). They had toppled Goliaths and fallen to Davids in equal measure.
This is a sign that lessons have been learned. Wolves had 19 shots and as many on target as Fulham managed overall (6). Their visitors undeniably played into their hands, boasting 61% possession and opening themselves up to the counter-attack, but the progress was clear to see.
And Fulham were not to be underestimated. After three consecutive wins, each earned with a clean sheet, Scott Parker took his side to Molineux with renewed expectation and hope. They were excellent and disciplined, but Wolves were better. For once, they made that superiority count.
The three-man midfield once again paid dividends. The partnership between Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves has been crucial but the addition of Dendoncker has provided more steel to complement the Portuguese silk.
Wolves cannot change what has happened this season. They will be the first team to finish in the top half and lose twice to the bottom side since 1996/97, and the tinge of regret over what may have been will linger. There is work to do to scale the heights they have in mind.
But that does nothing to dilute the brilliance of their first campaign back in the Premier League in six years. For only the third season in the club’s history they have had an attendance of over 30,000 at every home league game. Try telling those fans they have only witnessed something ‘decent’.