Wolves 2 (Roberts 10, Fraser 65) Sunderland 7 (Tsmaka 15, Middlemas 48, 63 & 68, Bainbridge 51, Jones 77, Burke 88)
In what was an extraordinary contrast of halves, Sunderland made Wolves pay for their missed chances and defensive mistakes, with the full-time score not telling the whole story of the match.
It wasn’t the season finale that Steve Davis’ side, who started the day just a win away from a 5th place finish, had hoped for nor deserved, with a wonderful, memorable campaign coming to a close in the most dramatic and unexpected of circumstances.
Following an evenly contested opening ten minutes, Wolves found the breakthrough when they overturned possession, attacking in numbers and drawing Sunderland out of position. The hosts moved the ball with purpose from right to left and into the feet of the in-form, Josh Esen.
He took a moment to assess his options before shifting it to his left where Tyler Roberts waited in space. Roberts cut back inside onto his favoured right foot before lashing a beautiful curling effort into the far top right corner. The sort of quality we have come to expect from the winger to put the hosts ahead in the early stages.
The lead didn’t last for long, however, with the visitors responding emphatically just five minutes later. It was a goal almost identical to Wolves’ opener with Sunderland’s Kaya Tsmaka being picked out on the left edge of the hosts’ box. Tsmaka, like Roberts, shifted his weight back inside before curling his effort beyond the dive of Stan Amos and nestling into the far corner.
Brilliant attacking play so nearly saw the hosts restore their lead just before the half hour mark. Wolves’ Nathan Fraser, as he so often is, was alert and hot the heels of the defenders, ready to pounce on any loose pass or defensive lapse in concentration.
A breakdown in communication at the back from the visitors saw Fraser connect with a loose ball, before showing his awareness with a clever flick round the corner to strike partner Owen Farmer who found Fraser again with the return pass.
Bellowing cries of “overlap” came from goal-scorer Roberts who was steaming up the near left flank, his calls were answered when a cute reverse cushioned pass found his feet. Roberts’ first touch was positive and invited a challenge which Sunderland failed to resist. The electric winger went down under contact, winning and taking the penalty which only rattled back out against the post. A rare miss from the spot, but a warning for the visitors.
The hosts didn’t give the Black Cats a moment to catch their breath, breaking forward once more just moments later. Esen found himself in space in the 18-yard-area and with a golden chance to edge back ahead, but his low driven shot was straight at Sunderland keeper Harrison Bond and the opportunity went missing.
Bond was called into action again when Wolves centre back, Fil Mabete showed his attacking prowess when his low shot from a tight angle was hit with real venom, forcing the Sunderland keeper into another impressive save.
Just minutes before half-time, after what was a welcomed relief of pressure for the visitors, Wolves came again, the attacking quartet exchanging superbly to so nearly find their second the game.
It was Roberts again at the heart of it, who found himself in space, looked to replicate his opening goal, bending a fierce shot towards the far top corner but this time Bond was equal to it and did well to tip the effort over the bar in what was the last action of an enthralling first period.
Half-time | Wolves 1-1 Sunderland
The visitors started the second-half with incredible intent, higher intensity and in much better form that they finished the first, resulting in a quick-fire double, which based of their first half display was much against the run of play.
Sunderland’s second of the afternoon came just four minutes into the second-half when a low ball into the box failed to be dealt with and somehow found its way to the feet of Ben Middlemas who struck it first time into the corner, leaving Amos stunned and rooted to the spot.
Wolves didn’t respond well to this early set back, struggling to regain their composure and shape and before they knew it, it was two. Sunderland flooded forward again looking to capitalise on their early momentum.
The ball was worked well to the left of the host’s penalty box and the late run of left back Oliver Bainbridge failed to be picked up. Bainbridge found himself free in the box, a ball was played through to the defender who showed the composure of an attacker to slide it low past Amos and into the far bottom corner.
Things went from bad to worse for the hosts, who were caught sleeping around the hour mark as they saw the deficit extent to a three-goal margin, despite their dominant showing in the opening period.
Wolves captain, Kam Kandola, who has produced some of his best performances in recent weeks, had a moment to forget, as his indecision on the ball was picked off and punished by Middlemas who won the ball fairly and broke through one-on-one with Amos, slotting home calmly.
The hosts responded well just two minutes later going up the other end to pull one back. Fraser was found with a well weighted ball over the top, he controlled it well, and despite being ushered wide, finished expertly, with his low effort from a tight angle providing a glimmer of hope for the hosts.
This optimism didn’t last long with Middlemas capitalising on another preventable error at the back to secure his second half hat-trick. A misplaced lofted ball in proved challenging for Amos in the Wolves goal who, scrambling back, could only punch it away into the path of the Sunderland striker who lashed home into an empty net.
With ten minutes to play Sunderland grabbed their sixth of the day, making Wolves pay for another frustrating lapse of concentration in defence. A loose ball was played back towards Amos and pounced upon the threatening Middlemas; the visitors’ number nine darting towards goal before unselfishly choosing to lay it across goal for a simple finish for second-half substitute, Harrison Jones.
On the 90th minute matters got worst for the hosts who were punished once more, this time it was Sunderland’s Marshall Burke in the right place at the right time from close range after Amos could only parry out his save to a red and white shirt.
Full-time | Wolves 2-7 Sunderland
Despite the result, head coach Steve Davis spoke proudly of his team after the game, acknowledging their development over the season and eager not to let one result change that.
Davis explained: “You do get those results in development football, and today, the last game, obviously we’re disappointed to finish the season in this way, and I think it has been a good season in many respects. Today we could’ve gone fifth had we won, that was the aim, we end up finishing halfway up the league.
“The opportunities from the second-half of the season were to be given to a lot of the younger players and today again we’ve managed to get Fabian [Salmon] on the pitch and Fraser Harper has played a full game and did incredibly well.
“We got minutes for Fil [Mabete] who’s been out with concussion and Ackeme [Francis-Burrell] who’s been out with a knee injury, so I guess you just take the positives from these games and that’s all you can do.
“In the end it was about what happened in both boxes. We didn’t defend very well at all; I thought we were really poor defensively, but we probably created as many chances as they did, difference being, they took theirs, we didn’t take ours, and in football that happens.
“It’s disappointing because I know the lads will be disappointed with that result. I’m looking at the other aspects, the development, how they play, how they do individually.
“In possession, I thought they were excellent, excellent in possession at times. Some of the attacking play, in the first half especially, was superb. We missed a penalty to go two one up, then they go and score just after. then we didn’t start the second half well at all, I thought we should be disappointed with the second half display.
“I think a lot of the players, from the fact that we went three one down very quickly, felt a bit sorry for themselves, obviously from a development point of view that’s something we’ve got to learn from.”
On fine margins and taking your chances
“It could have been four or five with some clear-cut chances where the keeper’s made some saves or we’ve hit the keeper, it’s kept them in the game, but you’ve got to put those opportunities away.
“At four or five-one, it affects them, their heads probably go down and the game is getting away from them, but because of the miss it just gives them a little bit of hope and that’s what it did for them.”
On prioritising the players’ development over individual results
“We’re judged on how many players have made under-23 debuts, how many players are in there consistently playing 23s, which players are ready to go and play 18s football next season from the schoolboys, so that’s what we’re judged on really.
“I think that conveyor belt of keep pushing players up is the most important thing and that’s what personally myself and the MDTs [multidisciplinary teams] will get judged on.
“Are we giving opportunities to young players? Are we preparing them for what’s coming ahead and the second years, first years, getting opportunities with the 23s? I think we’ve done that. You’ve got to look at the 23s’ success this year and the 18s getting to the FA Youth Cup semis.
“The success of the PDP [professional development phase] has been excellent. We’ve had huge success. That’s not to say that we haven’t won anything yet but you can see the quality of some of the players going up there at young ages and coping with 23s football.
“Some even being on the bench for the first team like Dexter [Lembikisa] and Chem [Campbell] now obviously getting his opportunity with the first team, Cundle as well, who I’ve worked with for two or three years and now has almost established himself in the squad.
“That’s what we get judged on as a PDP in this academy and we’re all very proud of the season that we’ve had, James [Collins, U23s head coach], with the team we’ve worked with, the staff have worked tirelessly really all season to try and get those players to keep improving and hopefully they’re getting to where we want them to be and more will come next season.”
On the exciting times ahead
“We’re still in until the end of May, they’re going to get a break now because we’ve played eight or nine games in the space of four or five weeks so it’s been a really tough end of the season because of the Youth Cup and games getting cancelled. They’ll take some time off then they’ll come back in, and we’ll prepare for a tournament.
“We’ve got a tournament coming up in Altstatten in Switzerland which is a two-day tournament, we’re there for four days in total. The FA Youth Cup team and a couple of the lads from the 23s will take part in that and hopefully we can get more experiences and do well in that competition.
“They’ll then have a break; they deservedly get four weeks off then we start again. I think the 23s start the end of June and we start the 2nd of July, so it soon comes round.
“But we’re incredibly proud of the group and how hard they’ve worked this season and we shouldn’t let today put a dampener on that.”
Wolves: Amos, Kaleta, Keto-Diyawa (Francis-Burrel 72), Harper, Mabete (Shahar 58), Kandola, Birtwistle (Salmon 69), Esen, Fraser, Farmer, Roberts.
Unused subs: Storer, Burgess
Sunderland: Bond, Wilson (Jones 76), Bainbridge, Tsmaka (Watson 59), Fieldson, Williams, Moore, Burke, Middlemas, Cain, Salkeld (Dowling 85)
Unused subs: Cameron
By Ollie Spencer