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On This Day: 2003


09:00 26th May 2013

Millennium magic for Jones' Wolves

It is ten years to the day since one of the most memorable matches in Wolves' recent history - the 3-0 Division One play-off final victory over Sheffield United at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

May 26, 2003, was the day that the club finally ended the long wait - 19 years, 13 days, 22 hours and 20 minutes, as the famous banner read - for top flight football, as Sir Jack Hayward watched along with around 30,000 Wolves fans as Dave Jones' men produced a wonderful display to blunt the Blades.

After numerous past play-off heartaches, plus the hurt that remained from the previous season's spectacular capitulation, Wolves fans could have been forgiven for not expecting too much as they prepared to take on Reading in the two-legged semi-final.

However, Wolves had finished the regular season strongly and edged a tense encounter - Alex Rae's memorable goal and celebration at the Madejski Stadium securing a place in Cardiff.

Jones' side went into the final as underdogs having finished four points behind United, but, as two of the heroes from that day explained this week, there was an unshakable belief in the Wolves camp that this was finally going to be their year.

Matt Murray explains: "I remember being really nervous before the semi-final, but waking up on the morning of the final, I just kind of knew - I could just tell.

"We walked around the hotel in the morning and I knew everyone was on it - I looked at the faces and I remember thinking that I was glad these boys were on my side.

"On the coach journey in, as we approached the Millennium Stadium all you could see was red and white, then we turned the final corner and it was like a sea of gold and black - they were all cheering us in and it really made the hairs of the back of your neck stand on end."

Lee Naylor, who scored in the home leg of the semi-final, has similar memories: "To be honest, the actual game is a bit of a blur, but I do remember travelling to the game then coming out into the stadium to warm up - all our fans were there and from that moment on, I just knew we'd win."

Murray adds: "When we got back in the dressing room Dave Jones told us to 'play the game, not the occasion', but walking down the tunnel again was amazing - it was the biggest noise you've ever heard and you could pick out your friends and family in the crowd."

What happened over the next 45 minutes will be ingrained on the memory of anyone involved with Wolves forever.

Barely six minutes had been played when a long Murray clearance was won well by Kenny Miller, who showed strength and persistence before laying the ball off to Irish winger Mark Kennedy, who unleashed an unstoppable low drive into the bottom corner of Paddy Kenny's goal.

The lead was doubled after 22 minutes, when Kennedy's corner was flicked on by Paul Ince and headed home from close range by Nathan Blake.

Murray continues: "To go 2-0 up so early on was fantastic, and I remember thinking to myself 'come on lads, let's just one more before half-time to really give ourselves the advantage'.”

Wolves did just that, adding a third when Shaun Newton's excellent low cross was converted by Miller - the Scottish striker's 24th and final goal of a season in which his clinical touch in front of goal had played a big part in moving Wolves to the brink of promotion.

Despite the one-sided look on the scoreboard as the players headed to the dressing rooms at half-time, Murray says the experienced element of the squad were determined that nothing would be taken for granted.

He explains: "Going in at half-time, Dave Jones and the more experienced lads like Incey, Paul Butler and Denis Irwin made sure we stayed focused, and told us not to give them anything in the second half. I looked around at the team and especially my back four, and I just thought 'we're not conceding today'."

That was a belief that was tested right at the start of the second half though, with Neil Warnock's Sheffield United throwing everything at Wolves to try to get a foothold in the game.

Naylor recalls: "We had a few nervy moments at the start of the second half, and Matt's penalty save stands out as probably the most important moment."

That penalty save came just three minutes into the second period, after Butler was harshly penalised for a handball. Up stepped Michael Brown, who had scored from the spot in the league meeting between the two sides just a month earlier.

Murray says: "Me and Bobby Mimms had been working alongside Dean Sturridge all week in training, just in case the game went to a penalty shoot-out. 

"Brown had taken one against me a few weeks earlier, so we knew about him, and he put it the way we thought he would. All I remember after that is their fans just going really, really quiet - there must have been about 30,000 Sheffield United fans surrounding me but it felt like I was back playing in the park, it was that quiet."

The Blades had further opportunities, most notably when Murray turned Michael Tonge's free-kick onto the post, then saw United defender Robert Page blaze the rebound over the bar.

Despite his clean sheet remaining in tact though, Murray recalls the nervous, almost disbelieving atmosphere among the gold and black contingent.

"I could still sense there was a nervous feeling among the Wolves fans," he says. "They had seen so many near misses, and there was a feeling of 'this is Wolves - it's not supposed to be this easy'.

"With about ten minutes to go though, I remember looking up at the big screen and Sir Jack was on camera, giving the fans a thumbs up. That was probably the moment for me - obviously I still wanted to finish right and keep a clean sheet - but that was the moment I think everyone started to really enjoy themselves."

The final whistle was met with jubilant scenes as Wolves ended their 19-year top flight exile, with Ince and Butler sharing trophy-lifting duties before leading the squad, staff and Sir Jack on a lap of honour.

Murray and Naylor - both Midlands-born and Wolves Academy graduates - still hold fond memories of the celebrations that followed.

"The likes of myself, Lee, Joleon Lescott and Adam Proudlock had all cone through the youth ranks, and we knew about the pride and the history of the club, so to experience a day like that was just unreal," explains Murray.

"Obviously every season produces a different chapter in the club's history, but that was a special one that they'll never be able to take away from us, and it was an honour and privilege to be part of it."

Naylor adds: "It was great to see the fans celebrating afterwards - they'd waited a long time for a day like that and it's still an honour to look back and think that I was part of such a big day in the club's history."

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