It was an evening that exposed Wolverhampton Wanderers’ flaws; a game that brought their weakest performance for a couple of months.
Yet the game that brought an end to an unbeaten home record stretching back to September proved to be a strangely uplifting experience; a reaffirmation of the things that make this Wolves team easy to get behind.
A frenetic, breathless 4-3 defeat to Manchester United told us plenty about Gary O’Neil’s Wolves.
And despite much of it being bad, the overall impression left by a crazy Molineux evening ended up being good. Go figure…
Wolves conceded poor goals, failed to make the most of promising positions and at times were lacking the centre forward that they spent much of yesterday’s frantic transfer deadline day trying to sign.
They were naive, sloppy and any sense of composure seemed to drain from their collective consciousness on occasions.
But they displayed guts, spirit and resilience to twice climb mountains that they had created for themselves.
This Wolves side never know when they are beaten. And after three seasons of grim, attritional clawing for survival, this new-look outfit are a refreshing antidote to the depressing times of recent seasons for supporters who were craving a shot of excitement and togetherness.
“I’m disappointed, obviously, but incredibly proud of some of what we managed to produce in resilience, togetherness and quality,” said O’Neil after seeing Kobbie Mainoo score a fine 97th-minute winner for the visitors, who led 2-0 through Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Hojlund and 3-1 thanks to Scott McTominay.
“There were large spells of the game where we looked very close to being an excellent team and then some little bits that we need to improve.
“The two goals in the second half are just really disappointing because they’re down to detail.
“But you are tested in the Premier league, the emotion of it, the fact that Rashford scored so early affected our emotion in the first half and we went completely off plan and just started running around and opening up big spaces.
“So there are bits that we need to improve but we showed togetherness, work ethic, quality against a top side and a massive club.
“In the second half, I thought we were by far the better side, which takes some doing, so I’m disappointed for the lads because to put that much in and, and be heavily punished for some small errors in detail, is tough for them to take, but I’m very proud of what they managed to produce.”
The reasons for O’Neil’s pride could be seen in individuals like Matheus Cunha — well below his marauding best but still committed enough to race back 70 yards in the closing moments and take a yellow card for the team by halting a United break.
It could be seen in Pedro Neto — unusually quiet for much of the game but still with the gumption and composure to take a chance when it arrived with a fine run and finish in the fifth minute of added time to make it 3-3.
And it could be seen in the reaction of Rayan Ait-Nouri, who was left among the substitutes from the start but responded with an energetic display that injected extra purpose into his side.
When United went 2-0 up inside 22 minutes it would have been easy for Wolves to throw in the towel, and when the visitors restored their two-goal lead just four minutes after Pablo Sarabia’s penalty had halved the deficit, the temptation to write the game off must have been even stronger.
But this Wolves side does not do such things. They have the personal pride and sheer bloody-mindedness to defy the odds and very nearly overturn them.
It was a day of disappointment for O’Neli, who saw preferred centre forward target Armando Broja elude him, leaving him without a recognised, senior No 9 for the remainder of the campaign.
But having seen the fight of his side, he could not muster too much gloom.
“We’re still together, we’re still putting in performances that show we’re all together, and we’ll try to keep it moving that way between now and the end of the season,” he said.
“The group is willing to give everything, and I’m working as hard as I can to maximize what we produce.”
On the evidence of his first six months in charge, and even in defeat to United, O’Neil is making an excellent fist of unlocking the inner strength of his squad.
The team he leads is imperfect, prone to defensive lapses and still lacking numbers in a vital area of the field — in front of goal.
But in victory and defeat, O’Neil’s Wolves are game, energetic and irrepressible.
And even with all their deficiencies on view, they are almost impossible not to root for.
(Top image: Mario Lemina’s demeanour says it all at full-time. Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)