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Gary O’Neil continues to confound ‘season of struggle’ as Wolves dump Brighton out of FA Cup

Mario Lemina (second right) celebrates scoring the winning goal with (L-R) Matt Doherty, Joao Gomes and Hwang Hee-chan

It is increasingly difficult to avoid throwing admiring glances in Wolves’ direction. This was supposed to be a season of struggle, of nervous over-the-shoulder peering.  But then, four days before the campaign began, Gary O’Neil – doubtless after knocking politely first – passed through Molineux’s doors.

From that moment, almost all Wolves’ work has possessed a golden hue. And so, with spring approaching, they find themselves not just chasing a European dream, but also with an FA Cup quarter-final to look forward to.

Before Wednesday’s evening victory over Brighton, Wolves knew that the carrot was a home tie with Coventry. Via Mario Lemina’s goal after 78 seconds, they took the first bite and now sit just one (winnable) game from Wembley.

While the Sky Blues are not to be taken lightly – and O’Neil, a meticulous preparer, certainly will not do so – there is little doubt that Wolves got the draw everyone wanted.

Whatever happens over the next few months, though, what O’Neil is creating cannot be measured purely in tangibles. The bond between players, staff, and supporters, is a joy to see play-out.

At full-time, the Stan Cullis stand buzzed as O’Neil approached, and then it roared collectively as he punched the night sky three times: all parties have clocked that they are onto a good thing.

“We love playing here. The fan’s part in this win shouldn’t be underestimated,” said O’Neil. “When the lads tired, the noise started ringing around the place as if the fans were like ‘no, we’re going to we’re going to grab the lads and push them over the line.”

Is he daring to dream? “They’ll be dreaming about a semi-final; I’ll be analysing Coventry.”

As well as Lemina, Wolves’ other stand-out individual was Jean-Ricner Bellegarde.  He created the goal from a standing start. Few, if any, sensed danger when the ball was played towards Bellegarde deep in his own half.  But his no-look touch and spin to embarrass Jan Paul van Hecke was a thing of beauty. Second later, Bellegarde had whistled down the left, delivered a cross that Jason Steele could only parry, and Lemina had poked in.

Otherwise, it was Wolves’ collective resilience that ensured their progress. True, it was not the free-flowing football that defeated both Chelsea and Tottenham on their respective patches. But then taking on Brighton with the pedal floored is a fool’s errand.

Wolves set out to contain, to hold their shape, to defend in numbers. They did so superbly. “They’re one of the best sides in Europe with the ball,” O’Neil explained. “We made a conscious decision to make the pitch a bit smaller today.”

The night’s one sour note was Hwang Hee-chan going down early in the second half clutching his left hamstring. Any sort of extended absence will be real blow for Wolves given Matheus Cunha – joint top-scorer along with Hwang – is already out with a similar ailment.

“A little something,” said O’Neil, before adding: “I’d be amazed if he played [at Newcastle on Saturday]”.

Brighton, as has come to be expected, spent much of the evening passing mesmerically between themselves. Their intricate operators – the likes of Facundo Buonanotte, Simon Adingra and Ansu Fati – darted around in half spaces. But Jose Sa’s gloves were barely dirtied. Buonanotte and Lewis Dunk both misdirected headers when well placed, while Steele steered wide from an injury-time corner.

Perhaps, once Roberto De Zerbi has slept off the disappointment, exit here will be viewed as a blessing. Brighton’s injury list is already extensive, and they can now focus on the dual task of Europa League progression against Roma, and securing continental qualification for next season.  It could still be a special season for them, too.

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