By: Daniel Taylor
This was ultimately a satisfying night for Manchester United, who will go into the fifth round courtesy of another demonstration of Javier Hernández’s qualities inside the penalty area, but it was also an evening when it was difficult to escape the sense that the club’s owners are faced with mutiny from their own supporters. The vast swathes of empty seats – around 30,000 in total – told their own story.
To put it into context, the attendance of 46,083 was the second lowest here since the turn of the century, and 5,000 below the attendance when they faced Wolves in the third round of this competition last season.
This was the fans voting with their feet, simultaneously demonstrating the scale of disillusionment against the Glazer family, the unforgiving ticket prices and perhaps, too, a little bit of lingering bad feeling from the issues involving Wayne Rooney last week, described by Sir Alex Ferguson in his programme notes as a “traumatic time for Manchester United”.
Old Trafford, however, was a happy place at the final whistle, invigorated by a second half of almost unrelenting drama, culminating in Hernández strengthening his newly acquired hero-status with the decisive goal in the final minute of normal time.
The Mexican had been on the pitch only eight minutes and still managed to contribute the most stylish moment of the match, running on to Darron Gibson’s through ball before taking a lovely first touch to change the angle of his shot and finishing expertly.
It was his sixth goal of a season in which he has made only five starts and it spared his team extra-time after twice losing the lead in the second half, Bebé and Park Ji-sung scoring for the home side and George Elokobi and Kevin Foley replying for Wolves. The first half had been atrocious, but the game was full of incident from the moment Bebé opened the scoring with a fluked goal on 56 minutes.
Bebé’s willingness to run with the ball was a feature of the evening, although he was indebted to a huge slice of fortune for the goal, his right-wing cross deflecting off Elokobi and looping over the goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. Foley headed the ball away from beneath the crossbar but the officials made the correct decision to decide it had crossed the line.
It had been perplexing during the first half how Wolves played with so little adventure against a side featuring the 20-year-old Ben Amos, usually United’s third-choice goalkeeper, and not one player in the starting XI from Sunday’s win at Stoke City. Now, though, Mick McCarthy’s side emerged as an attacking force. Five minutes after going behind, Dave Jones swung over a corner from the right and Amos was hesitant coming for the ball as Elokobi scored with a header from six yards.
Two minutes later Stephen Hunt’s shot flicked off the crossbar but the game was becoming increasingly open at either end and, after 70 minutes, Park restored the home side’s lead when he tried a one-two with the disappointing Federico Macheda and the ball fell invitingly to him, via an unfortunate touch from the defender Steven Mouyokolo, to finish with a left-foot shot just inside the penalty area.
This time the lead lasted six minutes, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Steven Fletcher combining for Foley to turn his shot past Amos. Ferguson responded by bringing on Hernández and the Mexican reminded us, once again, that it cannot be a formality Rooney will be ushered straight back into the side when he is fit again.