Manchester United's Under-18s bowed out of the Premier League Cup on Saturday afternoon as Wolverhampton Wanderers inflicted a 3-2 defeat that defied the form book and the balance of play.
United fought back and reduced the arrears with goals from substitute D'Mani Mellor and Mason Greenwood but ultimately fell short of progressing from Group F.
The day began with all four teams in the group on three points apiece after two games played. But after table-topping Arsenal won 4-2 away at third-placed Stoke City in the earlier kick-off, it left the Reds needing to beat the bottom side Wolves by three clear goals.
There was early encouragement for that mission when United's lone striker Nishan Burkart rounded Wolves goalkeeper Jackson Smith but his composed attempt came back off the base of the left-hand post. However, the deadlock was eventually broken in the 24th minute, against the run of play, when Greenwood was dispossessed on the halfway line and Samuels tapped in from Brad Carr's crafty cutback.
Samuels's second goal, in the 28th minute, was more of a solo production as he charged into the left-hand channel, left one United centre-back Teden Mengi trailing and weaved inside the other, Di'Shon Bernard, to finish inside the near post with Reds goalkeeper Theo Richardson getting a hand to the ball but not with enough contact to stop it crossing the line.
Although Richardson conceded twice in the first half-hour, his opposite number Smith was much busier at the other end, having to edge away a low shot across his goal by Dylan Levitt and show a clean pair of hands to catch Brandon Williams's header when the left-back met Largie Ramazani's cross to the far post. New boy Aliou Traore tried his luck from distance on a couple of occasions as he looked to make his mark on his debut.
Hopes of a second-half recovery by United were dealt a huge blow immediately after the restart when Wolves used a short corner on the left to feed Taylor Perry. From his cross, the hosts' left-back Joel Whittingham, still up from the set-piece, leaped higher than his marker Traore and beat Richardson with a thumping header that went in off the underside of the crossbar.
McKenna made an attacking double substitution to send Mellor and Millen Baars into the fray, and later brought on Arnau Puigmal, and it was just after the latter's introduction when United pulled the first goal back. Mellor broke into the box from the right-hand side and drove in a fierce shot that packed too much power for Smith, making the score 3-1 in the 72nd minute.
Moments later, Greenwood threatened from the same area of the field but his low effort went marginally wide with the Wolves keeper scrambling across his goalmouth to make sure. In yet another attack instigated on the right, Baars looked up and played a dangerous ball into the six-yard box, only for a Wolves defender and two onrushing United players to end up in the net and the hosts cleared.
At the other end, Richardson had to move quickly across goal and use his fingertips to turn a shot by Wolves substitute Owen Otasowie onto the post. Some positive play on the flanks brought United a second goal in the 88th minute - Greenwood meeting a cross from Williams and beating Smith with a downward header that went in off the post - and there was almost a third when another header, by Puigmal from Levitt's centre, drifted just wide in injury time.
The Reds' rally had been impressive but ultimately wasn't enough to secure progress into the next round. Instead, McKenna's side finished third behind Wolves and Group F winners Arsenal.
United: Richardson; Tanner, Mengi, Bernard, Williams; Garner, Traore (Mellor 53); Ramazani (Baars 53), Greenwood, Levitt; Burkart (Puigmal 70). Substitutes not used: Carney, Galbraith.