Academy Graduate this week speaks to former goalkeeper Matt Murray, who captured the hearts of the Wolves faithful with his committed performances between the sticks.
The goalkeeper came through the ranks to make a century of appearances for the club, including a Man of the Match performance in the 2003 Play-Off final win against Sheffield United.
First of all Matt, can you remember your early memories of the Wolves Academy?
I can, yes. I first joined the Academy when I was nine years old! And it was very different to how it is now. We used to go to East Park and you could hear the speedway from Monmore Green while we were training. Tony Painter was there with Rob Kelly – two great coaches – and I was just desperate to try and stay at the club from firstly a four-week trial, and then at the end of the year. It was an amazing feeling every time I got told that the club were going to extend my time. I even remember putting the kit on – that Goodyear kit with the mad paint splashes on it – and thinking that Mike Stowell wore that kit! It was when they were revamping the stadium and I would get my free tickets for the game and try and stand in the corner to see Stowelley and the lads coming out of the Portakabins to do the warm-up. I had friends who had Season Tickets so I sat in all the different stands as well. I used to love being behind the goal and watching Stowelley. Great times and making some great friends who I still speak to.
Are you still in touch with a lot of your team-mates from those times?
Yes there are so many I still speak to regularly. It is great to see lads like Keith Andrews going on and having a career after football in working for Sky Sports. Robbie Keane, Joleon Lescott, Lee Naylor, Adam Proudlock – I am still in touch with all of those guys a lot. We used to spend a lot of time together on away trips like Holland and Ireland and it was just brilliant. They put values into us from a young age about what it meant to be at Wolves and they created a real sense of pride in us. People like Chris Evans would tell us about the history of the club and what a big club it was and Sir Jack Hayward took a lot of interest in all of us and really supported the Academy.
You also had plenty of success as a team?
We had a strong team and I remember us winning the Midlands Floodlit Junior Cup and the league. Aston Villa were our big rivals at that time. There were some great young players around and while a lot of us went on to make appearances for the first time, others who perhaps didn’t make it at Wolves still learnt a lot and went on to enjoy careers elsewhere. People like Colin Larkin, Shane Tudor, JJ Melligan. You look at the list of Academy scholars and so many of those lads went on to play professionally. They were some of the best days of my life - they really, really were.
Did you have to carry out tasks for the first team as well?
We did. They were very keen on developing you as a person off the pitch as well as on it. So we would clean boots, set up training for Mark McGhee or Colin Lee, do the pre-season runs to make sure they were right before the first team came back, sweep the dressing room and treatment room, tidy the gym. I think personally that was brilliant because it gave us something to aspire to and it brought that connection with the pros. In the modern game I am not sure too many first team players know who the young lads are but when you are doing things for them like we used to do then you build those relationships. There had to be a respect, and then in return for the work you do there would usually be a nice Christmas bonus!
So you had to do a fair bit for Mike Stowell presumably?
I would run his baths, get his towels, cup of tea with half a sugar and a bit of milk, make sure his boots were clean. But do you know what? Stowelley would come and watch me play in the reserves, he would stay behind and work with me, meet me in the gym. I still speak to him even now. It is the same with others like Carl Ikeme and Wayne Hennessey who I am still in really close touch with. And when you played in the reserves the senior pros would look after you as well. I remember Paul Simpson being quite harsh with me but I learned a lot and since then I have gone and worked with him with England Under-19s. People like him, Mark Atkins, Dean Richards - god rest his soul - players like that were amazing with us. Bobby Mimms joining the club was massive for me, and then Terry Connor filled that gap between youth football and the first team. TC took immense pride in helping to create players to go on and have careers and myself and Joleon still speak to him all the time.
And talking about looking up to people, tell us about your goalkeeping hero? A man very well known to today’s opponents.
Neville Southall! The legend. My step-dad is from Wallasey and he came into my life when I was about six. He loved Everton. As a goalkeeper I just loved Big Nev. He was a hod-carrier from Llandudno and was quite unorthodox but just found a way of making himself so effective. I remember when Everton won the FA Cup and he was brilliant when they beat Manchester United in the final. I had the ‘NEC’ Neville Southall kit and would roll the socks down with my Sondico shin pads. I tried to dive like Nev and I would shout his name when I made a save. I met him when I was 14 but I was so in awe of him that I couldn’t speak – and for me that doesn’t happen very often! As a 16-year-old I nearly made my debut in a match for Wolves against Stoke when he was in goal. As it was Hans Segers passed a fitness test but all I could think about was not that I might have made my Wolves debut, but that I was going to see Neville Southall.
Finally, just bringing things forward, how important do you feel the Wolves Academy is now and how good is that those young players have continued to break through?
Ever since I first came to Wolves there has been a lot of interest and thought gone into the Academy from Sir Jack Hayward through to Steve Morgan. I think you wondered what would happen when the new owners came in from overseas and whether things would change. I feel that the blend they have found has been really good with some quality signings from overseas but Kevin Thelwell and Gareth Prosser have helped keep that Academy link and the club continue to put emphasis into home-grown talent. And I tell you now – Wolves fans are amazing in how they support home-grown players. They get behind that player and forgive them mistakes and that makes such a massive difference. When I speak to Robbie, or Joleon or Lee Naylor they can sense the pride Wolves fans feel in them going off to have so much success. Wolves fans know they were there at the start of that. Morgan Gibbs-White scored in a World Cup final for England Under-17s and is doing well around the first team squad. It is fantastic that the owners are continuing to invest in the Academy and there are some very good coaches there, and some very handsome ones like Rob Edwards. Aled Williams is doing a great job with the goalkeepers as well and with the likes of Andreas Sonergaard and the younger lads Jackson Smith and Joe Young, they have some exciting talent coming through.
This article first appeared in the Wolves versus Everton matchday programme, which is available around Molineux on matchdays for just £3.50, and also featured content with Conor Coady, John Richards and Ruben Neves. Back issues are available in the Molineux Megastore and online now.