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Millennium Memories


09:15 26th May 2013

Irwin and Kennedy a decade on

In many people's minds, the Wolves team that took to the field at the Millennium Stadium a decade ago today had the perfect blend of youth and experience.

Academy graduates such as Matt Murray, Lee Naylor and Joleon Lescott lined up alongside ex-England captain Paul Ince, the much-decorated Denis Irwin and Irish international Mark Kennedy - who had previously won promotion to the top flight with Manchester City.

The Irish duo have this week shared their memories of the day that Wolves ended their long wait for top flight football.

Both recall a quiet confidence about the squad in the lead-up to the clash with Sheffield United, as Kennedy explains: "The one thing that really struck me on the day - and that season as a whole really - was the fantastic job Dave Jones did in getting the balance of the squad absolutely spot on.

"I remember being able to walk down the tunnel at the start of any game and think 'if we're on our game, we can beat anyone in this league'. Don't get me wrong, Sheffield United had very good players too, but on that day we were quietly confident, absolutely on our game and we were proven right."

Irwin, who was recruited by Jones at the beginning of the promotion campaign, has similar recollections.

"I think we were all confident going into the game," he explains. "Sheffield United had beaten Nottingham Forest in their semi-final, and I remember there being a feeling that Forest might have been a bigger threat to us, so we were definitely optimistic, particularly given the way that we had finished the season."

The full-back had made the move to Molineux following his hugely successful twelve-year stint at Old Trafford, which saw him win the Premier League on seven occasions and enjoy success in countless cup finals, including the 1999 Champions League showpiece.

Despite this wealth of big-game experience though, Irwin admits that he was still in awe of the atmosphere created at the Millennium Stadium.

"It was my first time playing there, and the atmosphere really sticks in my head from that day," he says. "The fans were a lot closer to the pitch than they were at the old Wembley, and I think it created a better atmosphere.

"Obviously neither set of fans were that used to getting to big finals, but the noise was unbelievable - it was electric from the start."

That noise was cranked up another notch after just six minutes, when Kennedy drilled home the memorable opener to set Wolves on their way.

Of his goal, Kennedy said this week: "I scored pretty early on in the game, but I could have already had two before that! I remember their right-back was very narrow, and we were having a lot of joy going forward in the early stages.

"I think it was Nathan Blake who had the ball in a really good position early on - I was screaming at him to pass it to me but he had a shot himself. So by the time Kenny Miller worked the ball out to me for the goal, I knew exactly where I wanted to put it.

Wolves never looked back from that moment, with Blake and Miller also adding their names to the scoresheet to put Jones' men firmly in the driving seat, as Irwin recalls: "I couldn't believe how well the first half went to be honest - we were right on our game and from then on it was just a case of us hanging in there and protecting our lead."

Popular winger Kennedy, who spent a total of five years at Molineux, spoke of his mixed emotions as Wolves returned to the dressing room with that handsome 3-0 half-time lead.

"I though to myself at the time that on the one hand, it was obviously an unbelievable scoreline and we were in a fantastic position, but on the other hand it's a horrible scoreline, because only we could throw it away from that point.

"We needed to get through the first fifteen minutes of the second half, but they obviously got a penalty more or less straight away. Michael Brown had had a great season for them and had scored a lot of penalties, so I was standing behind him thinking 'if they score now, all the momentum will be with them and we could throw this away'.

"Thankfully though, Matt Murray had been equally impressive for us throughout that season," he continued. "Once he saved that penalty, you kind of got the feeling that it was going to be our day."

Irwin agrees that the penalty save was the game's 'crucial moment', and although the Wolves back four were severely tested as the game wore on, their defences were never breached, and the fans that had travelled from the Midlands were able to celebrate as the final whistle blew.

Despite the emotion flooding down from the stands though, Kennedy explains that, even after the game, he was aware of the disappointment felt in the opposing dressing room.

"I was conscious not to over-celebrate," he explained. "One of the things that I really don't like seeing is teams celebrating semi-final victories. Sometimes it isn't their fault, because the fans run onto the pitch, but I remember after our semi-final at Reading, guys from Sky were running on trying to hand us banners, and we didn't want them because we knew we hadn't won anything at that point.

"Don't get me wrong, we did celebrate the final victory and I really enjoyed it, but at the same time I was conscious of how heartbreaking it must have been for their players, and also what a massive challenge we would face the following season.

"Because of that, we didn't want to go overboard with our celebrations - we wanted to win gracefully."


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