Just when Wolves needed a helping hand, up stepped José Sá. Playing with a broken wrist, the goalkeeper’s outstanding late save from Brennan Johnson’s penalty followed Rúben Neves’s successful spot-kick to earn managerless Wolves a ladder out of the relegation zone.
The Portuguese goalkeeper, who also salvaged a point against Fulham in August when saving Aleksandar Mitrovic’s penalty, dived to repel Johnson’s effort in the 79th minute to deepen Forest’s struggles in a derby dominated by four equally shared VAR calls.
Caretaker manager Steve Davis, a Wolves fan as a boy, was able to celebrate his first win since Bruno Lage was dismissed a fortnight ago as Wolves prepare to step up their pursuit of a permanent new coach.
After scoring only their fourth goal of the season, Wolves’ pleasure from the victory was enhanced by some social-media banter after a pre-match tweet from Nottingham Forest’s official account wound them up.
The post showed Emmanuel Dennis taming three wolf cubs, alongside the word “Playtime”, and was taken down at lunchtime but only after Neves had shared it in the players’ chat.
The signing video of Diego Costa, with the veteran warrior taming three rather more scary canine creatures, was rather more impressive than anything the team have produced this season, so Forest’s hubris was perhaps understandable. Wolves’ media team responded after the game with a tweet of their own – “Playtime’s over”– with a logo-embossed axe having chopped down a tree.
“We were aware of it and we were going to use it in the team talk but Rúben said he’d already shared it, so I didn’t really need to say anything more. I think you can get motivated from that,” Davis said. “I understand Rúben’s had a bite back now [the captain also had some fun on Instagram after the game]. Playtime’s over.”
Davis revealed that Sá’s save was with his healthy left hand and praised his bravery though pointed out the medical team had weighed up there was no great risk in him playing on. Wolves certainly played the first half with a point to prove and were unfortunate not to be in front, with Adama Traoré, in particular, leading Forest a merry dance but unable to conjure the requisite final pass.
He would cross long, left-back Rayan Aït-Nouri heading over when Costa was growling for a near-post ball, or shoot wide of the near post, as he did when played in by Matheus Nunes, when the far side of the goal looked the better option.
Forest, who had won on three of their previous five visits to Molineux, looked content to bank up and play on the counterattack. They also had a VAR check for a possible penalty when Neco Williams’s shot struck Toti on the arm.
“We knew the referee well from last year in the Championship,” said the Forest head coach, Steve Cooper. “We know the differences of what you can get from him. That was part of what we had to deal with today.”
Wolves’ decision-making in the final third was their main issue, as they dominated possession and played with a vibrancy epitomised by Aït-Nouri. The left-back may have been recalled for his pace to counter the threat of Johnson but instead he spent the first hour flying forwards. When Traoré did get his radar right, Max Kilman headed against the inside of the far post, and the ball rebounded into the grateful arms of Dean Henderson.
Wolves finally got the break they have craved early in the second half. Traoré cut back inside and shot left-footed and when VAR eventually sent Thomas Bramall, the referee, over to the monitor, he deemed that Harry Toffolo had handled. Neves then smashed in a controlled penalty beyond Henderson’s dive to the right.
Aside from Morgan Gibbs-White curling over a couple of long-range efforts against his former club, most of the second half revolved around VAR calls: Cooper was told the ball was only in play for 18 minutes and included a nervous eight added minutes.
Matheus was censured for pulling over Ryan Yates but from the ensuing penalty, Sá dived to his left to produce a superb save from Johnson’s penalty kick. Wolves may have won the social-media jousting but the three points, as they now face Crystal Palace and Leicester City in the coming week, were of greater significance.