RUMOURS of Wanderers’ Premier League demise have been greatly exaggerated.
They remain in the bottom three after this thrill-a-minute victory over relegation rivals Aston Villa but they clawed back precious ground on the teams around them to silence those who thought their race had been run.
This game spun on a sixpence, with Stephen Warnock’s 61st-minute goal quickly cancelled out by Martin Petrov’s penalty, and then improved by a close-range blast from David Ngog.
Villa should have been ahead, but as Wanderers’ critics have often mentioned in recent weeks, games are not won with shoulds or coulds, and Alex McLeish’s side simply lost their focus after dominating for so long.
This was a story of two struggling clubs in desperate need of a win, and on the evidence of the team sheets, without the firepower to find one.
McLeish’s starting line-up shared just 10 Premier League goals between them, and missed their top three goalscorers in injured Darren Bent, skipper Gabby Agbonlahor, whose hamstring problem restricted him to a place on the bench, and Robbie Keane, now back in the US.
Coyle’s answer to Saturday’s struggle against Swansea was to drop Kevin Davies for David Ngog, but the Frenchman’s inclusion meant Wanderers boasted 17 league goals in their line-up, with another 13 sitting on the bench, largely in the form of Ivan Klasnic.
Wanderers got a pre-match boost when both Ryo Miyachi and Mark Davies were passed fit after ankle and shoulder injuries.
And they got off to a nervous start and could easily have found themselves behind after only a minute when Chris Herd sent a free header over the bar from Charles N’Zogbia’s corner.
Emile Heskey and Andreas Weimann followed suit, flashing efforts at Adam Bogdan’s goal before Coyle’s team had even strung a handful of passes together.
As promised, the applause rang out for Fabrice Muamba in the sixth minute but it did little to raise the Whites from their malaise. Bogdan twice had to rescue his side, racing off his line to stifle Weinmann before doing well to hold on to a volley from Heskey in the pouring rain.
Although the flow of Villa attacks had stemmed by the midway point in the first half, we were yet to see anyone in a white shirt heed the manager’s weekend plea for someone to take charge in an attacking sense.
Passion was no problem on the bench, where Coyle was being separated from members of the Villa staff by fourth official Craig Pawson.
Oh, for that kind of spark on the pitch at that point. Villa certainly had it – and with Heskey bullying up front in a way he hasn’t done since the days of Sven-Goran Eriksson and England, a breakthrough seemed only a matter of time.
Bogdan continued to provide stubborn resistance, holding on to Heskey’s stinging effort from the edge of the box – but the Hungarian could only watch as Alan Hutton’s cross was hammered towards goal by Stephen Warnock, only to clip off the bar.
Similarly, he hadn’t a prayer when N’Zogbia clipped the outside of the post with a 25-yard free kick on the stroke of half time.
Miyaichi was sacrificed at the break for Kevin Davies.
Coyle was no doubt hoping his skipper could discover the same elixir his long-time international foe Heskey had in the first 45 minutes, and his arrival certainly seemed to shift the emphasis a little, with Chris Eagles forcing Given into two good saves, the latter with a 30-yard bouncing free kick.
As entertaining as the first 45 minutes had been, you couldn't imagine the tide emotion that was to follow.
No sooner had Warnock opened the scoring with a close-range finish from N’Zogbia’s low cross, than Wanderers were drawing level from the spot.
Mark Davies was tripped by Carlos Cuellar, leaving Petrov to strike confidently into the top corner to level the game.
But Wanderers weren’t finished yet. Almost immediately from kick-off, Gretar Steinsson attacked down the right and fed Eagles, who slipped out of two challenges to square for Ngog to crash home from six yards.
In three minutes, the whole complexion of the Premier League relegation fight had changed.
What followed was nip and tuck, tense and fraught, but ultimately unproductive.
Eagles limped off late on with what looked like a hamstring problem but, for now at least, it seemed small beer.
If this was win or bust – then Wanderers live to fight another day.