The Toaster banner, which has gone down in Wolves’ history, said it all.

Nineteen years, 13 days, 22 hours, 20 minutes.  The length of time that had elapsed between Wolves last sitting at the top table of English football, to then returning with their first ever promotion to what had been re-packaged as the Premier League.

The producer of that Toaster banner, who has still maintained his anonymity two decades on, must have headed to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on May 26th of 2003 with plenty of optimism and hope in his heart that this was finally going to be the day Wolves escaped from so many years of Championship drudgery.

Not to mention finally overcoming a play-off hoodoo that had included defeats to Aldershot, Bolton, Crystal Palace and Norwich, the latter at the end of a season when Wolves had seemed destined for automatic promotion before being overhauled by that team from down the road. Even now, that still stings just a little bit.

An almost natural pessimism among Wolves fans given that recent history – which was once termed ‘Wolfism’ by boss Dave Jones – perhaps didn’t lend itself to the thought of producing a banner that would finally signal an end to those years of pain and purgatory, and instead herald the pride and passion of promotion.

Oh, ye of little faith!

Because, 20 years ago this Friday, what an occasion it turned out to be.

The sort of day which fans never ever forget, whether they were there or wherever they were watching along on television, like a certain Robbie Keane at a country pub in Northumberland having temporarily escaped from Michael Bridges’ wedding.   One to tell the grandchildren. One which, still now, all these years on, feels too good to be true.  Wolves fans simply don’t get to enjoy days like that.  There’s that Wolfism again!

The context as to why it was such a special day and special achievement is provided not only by a spate of promotion near misses but also those events of that previous season, when West Bromwich Albion overhauled an eleven-point deficit in the final eight games to seal automatic promotion and condemn Wolves to more play-off misery.

There was a palpable and powerful sense of acrimony at the end of that season.  Kevin Cooper’s wonder-strike in a 1-0 win against Norwich wasn’t enough to overcome a 3-1 first leg deficit and the infamous ‘You’ve let us down again’ was unfurled by a couple of fans in the crowd as the players left the pitch.

Even though, for the majority of those players, and Jones as well, it was still very early days in terms of their time at Molineux.

The manager, however, kept calm, and kept his own counsel. He knew exactly what he wanted to do to make sure there was no repeat performance the following season.

His first step towards righting that wrong, and adding more steel to his already experienced squad, was to capture the signings of Paul Ince and Denis Irwin, on free transfers from Middlesbrough and Manchester United respectively.

Two stellar professionals, coming towards the end of stellar careers, and with a presence and an influence which couldn’t fail to rub off on those around them.

“The signings of Incey and Denis were absolutely crucial,” Kenny Miller, then a young striker preparing for his first full season at Molineux, recalls.

“That group was full of great players – you only have to look at some of the careers the lads like Joleon (Lescott) and Nayls (Lee Naylor) went on to have – but those boys were serial winners and came to the club with that mentality.

“Denis’s influence on that back line was incredible, and Incey’s influence was incredible at every club he went to.

“Credit to Sir Jack, Jez (Moxey) and Dave Jones for getting those players into the building, because I think they were crucial in getting us up.”

Little by little, the fans came back on board.  The pain and bitterness stemming from such a crushing disappointment gradually abated, helped by a decent start to the season and another encouraging run in October and November.

But then came a blip.  A run of three defeats from four raised the pressure levels on Jones and his players, and, on New Year’s Day of 2003, the Express & Star carried some strong words from chairman Sir Jack Hayward.

“Good god, no I’m not happy,” said Sir Jack.  “He (Jones) has been told in no uncertain terms that things have to improve.  Every manager lives day by day.”

And so, even with those high-calibre additions, and a squad with so much goalscoring firepower from the likes of Miller, Nathan Blake, Dean Sturridge and George Ndah – and the creativity of Mark Kennedy and Shaun Newton – it wasn’t until midway through the season that Wolves really hit their straps and found a more potent and sustained level of consistency.

A memorable FA Cup win against Premier League highflyers Newcastle set the tone for a blistering second half of the season in which Wolves reached the competition’s quarter finals, and lost only one of their final 16 Championship fixtures.  

Finishing fifth in the table led to a nerve-jangling two legs of a semi-final with Reading.  Wolves had shared odd goal victories with the Royals during the season, but this time, they prevailed in both legs, Newton and Naylor grabbing the goals in a 2-1 win at home before Alex Rae’s joyously acclaimed late winner at the Madejski.  It had been a nervy start to that second leg, even from high up on the media gantry the big-game tension was fiercely tangible.  The scenes of celebration at the end – tumultuous as they were following Rae’s late winner – were mixed with a healthy dose of relief. Finally, Wolves had made it through to a Championship play-off final. Finally.  Could those long-suffering supporters actually dare to dream?

From there, all roads led to the Millennium. And this time, if not among fans who had experienced so many setbacks, something certainly felt different among the players.

There was an added drive and motivation from what had transpired before.  In the build-up to the game, the squad delivered nothing more than the minimum contractual media duties required.  As a collective, they decided that it was best to say as little as possible.  This was a spell of games which didn’t need any additional hype.   Working within the local media at the time, that made life something of a challenge, particularly with the final being a game of such magnitude, but it was also understandable.

Those players meanwhile, decamped to the Vale of Glamorgan hotel a couple of nights before the game, in an extension of the ‘business as usual’ approach.  There was no extensive trip away during the build-up or anything done differently ahead of the game.  The players wanted to stick to their normal routine.  

However, top sprinter Darren Campbell, a close friend of Blake, was among the visitors who popped into the hotel, and spent some time with the squad ahead of the game.  “The one night a few of us were in my room, just talking about life,” says Blake.  And Campbell also passed on some some words of wisdom to keeper Matt Murray, who had only just turned 22 and was in his breakthrough season between the sticks. 

“I was feeling the nerves a bit and Darren was talking about how he used visualisation before races, and told me that this game was what I trained for and what all the hard work over so many years had led to,” Murray recalls.  “A sprinter like him worked and worked for just a few seconds to seize the moment, whereas I had an hour and a half!  Hearing something like that was big for me – it helped calm me down.”

By the time kick off came around the players were ready. Raring to go. And, while there was still a feeling of trepidation amongst the fans – Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United had finished third in the table and reached the semi-finals of both the League and FA Cups – they were ready to put their trust in their revitalised heroes.

The airhorns blared loud and proud from early morning in Cardiff, as hordes of gold and black descended on the Welsh capital.  The atmosphere, from both sets of fans, was electric. But also, amicable.  Each had been given designated pubs and I remember walking into one which was a converted cinema.  Packed to the rafters with Wolves fans, the full matchday musical repertoire was already in full flow. It felt like the roof was going to come off. A bit of Dutch courage, perhaps?

For the players, the masses of fans lining the streets as they arrived at the stadium had a profound effect.  A reminder, if one were needed, of what was at stake.  Of what it meant.

“Even the big players who had seen it all before, the likes of Incey and Denis, even they were taken aback by the number of fans,” Murray reveals.

The vociferous reception certainly sharpened the minds.  And, while no one could have known or predicted it at the time,  while no one would have been that daft, the players felt they were going to produce a big performance to match the big stage.  They had complete and utter faith in each other and, unlike 12 months previously, felt this was their time.

As homegrown fullback Naylor said recently: “We just weren’t going to lose that day.”

And the boss, well, he too had a feeling it had all come together at just the right time.

“We were just so focused,” Jones confirms.

“I remember before the game the Sheffield United lads visited the stadium to have a look around but our lot didn’t want to do that.

“We actually got some stick from the wives and the families because when we came out of the tunnel before kick-off there was no looking around or waving, everyone just looked straight ahead and was so focused.

“I think we could have beaten anyone that day.”

The first half was the stuff of dreams.  Colin Cameron had already gone close before Kennedy opened the scoring with a superb strike.  Blake, who could feel the Millennium Stadium rocking such was the noise from the Wolves fans, grabbed a second after Ince flicked on a corner and then Miller converted Newton’s cross right on half time, to these immortal words from match commentator Peter Drury.

‘Shaun Newton for Wolves…to have a three goal lead at the break.  They have a three goal lead at the break. It is Kenny Miller.  They can reach out and touch it.’  


Half time was more about keeping everyone level-headed than anything else.  Murray recalls Lescott and Naylor looking at each other and laughing and saying, ‘we’re up’.  “I gave the players two choices,” said Jones.  “To carry on going for it and playing expansive football or to bore the pants off everyone and see the game out.  Only one player wanted to carry on attacking, but he was soon shot down by the rest of them!”

There was still a professional job to be done.  And do it Wolves did, thanks to Murray’s big moment, using his knowledge of having faced a Michael Brown penalty at Bramall Lane a few weeks earlier to dive to the correct side and make a crucial spot kick save not long after the interval.  Murray’s mint.  

“Even if they would have scored that, and tried to come back, we’d have gone up another gear,” says Jones.  “We were too good that day, we had the better team, and Neil knew it.  He just needed us to have a bad day.

“And anyway, Butts (Butler) always says he only gave that penalty away to give Matt Murray the spotlight for a career with Sky Sports.”

From the penalty save onwards, Wolves were relatively comfortable.  Comfortable enough that, with just under 15 minutes remaining, when the cameras panned onto Sir Jack and he saw himself on the big screen, the owner felt optimistic enough to deliver a thumbs-up gesture which has also gone down in the club’s folklore.  ‘Thumbs up, if you love Sir Jack.’  It still gets a regular airing even now.

The final whistle brought the customary celebrations with Sir Jack and Baroness Rachael Heyhoe Flint joining celebrations on the pitch. Status Quo’s Rocking all over the World has never sounded so good.  ‘And I like it, I like it, I like it, I like it, I li-li-like it, li-li-li, like it.’

Jones, back in his first job since having unjustly lost his role at Southampton to face a court case which was very quickly thrown out, justifiably enjoyed the moment.   Having promised to deliver promotion within three full seasons, and missed out on doing it in one, he had still taken Wolves to the Holy Grail 12 months ahead of that deadline.

Ince and Butler – two more single-minded warriors you could not wish to find – lifted the trophy, but for the manager, who had somehow managed to nurture a dressing room full of fire and brimstone, not to mention the intoxicating pressures of the finale to the previous season, this was redemption.

“I’m pleased for the players,” he said after the game.  “I’m pleased for Sir Jack.  I’m pleased for the supporters, for all the staff at the club, for my wife and my family and friends.  

“But, most of all, I’m pleased for me.  Sorry if that’s selfish but that’s the way it is.”

No one could ever begrudge him that.  His was one of so many journeys within that squad which had taken a winding direction, that had been beset by obstacles and disappointments. But now, they had made it. And in some style.

They partied in style as well, back at the Vale of Glamorgan hotel, which included a performance from Beverley Knight.  Office staff were also invited, and able to mingle freely with the superstars who had secured promotion on the pitch.  A feeling of togetherness not just within the club but the whole city, as measured by the atmosphere as thousands of delirious fans lined the streets for an open top bus parade the following day, finishing in a collective celebration on the pitch at Molineux. Another memory for the ages. From a game for the ages.

What followed however, once the dust had settled on the celebrations, wasn’t ideal.  

Jones had lined up several potential high profile signings, including the likes of David James and Trevor Sinclair, but his transfer budget, a total of £3million, quickly ruled those out.

Already a month behind others due to featuring in the play-offs, recruitment became a challenge, and Wolves ended up playing catch-up on the pitch as well as off, particularly after a brutal opening the season with 5-1 and 4-0 defeats.

They improved over the season, including posting a memorable win against Manchester United, but ultimately, less than a year after that incredible day in Cardiff, Wolves were condemned to an immediate return to the Championship.

They would later return to the Premier League, Mick McCarthy’s young and hungry brigade winning the Championship and then staying in the top division for three seasons.

Then of course, thanks to the substantial investment from Fosun, Wolves have more recently risen to even greater heights, not just in the Premier League but in returning to Europe, and can now look forward to a sixth successive season in the top division.

But still, two decades on, for a one-off match, where the fine lines between triumph and disaster were so minimal, where the outpouring of celebration was so heartfelt and yet seemed so spontaneous, the play-off final is out on its own.

Perhaps mainly because of what had gone on before.

Even with those crucial impacts of Ince and Irwin, what shouldn’t be underestimated is the character and personality of those who had gone through such heartbreak 12 months earlier.

At times the pressure had seemed insufferable, the expectation suffocating. In the January, there were even question marks over Jones’ position.  The promotion clock was certainly ticking, but this group of players and staff were up to the task.

They had the ability and the explosive power to accompany their desire and determination, and it all came together in one glorious afternoon in the Principality.

For Murray, who was named man of the match, he would go on to see his hopes, dreams and the undoubted reality of a career at the very top taken completely out of his control and cruelly afflicted by injury.  

But he will always, always, have Cardiff.

“It’s strange because I had to have a double hernia operation the day after the game, so I couldn’t party like everyone else, but that doesn’t change anything about the day itself which was unbelievable,” says Murray.

“To be part of the team which was the first to get to the Premier League, with how long it had been and having gone close a few times before, was really nice.

“Twenty years on, the number of Wolves fans I bump into, whether it’s servicing my boiler, changing the tyre on my car, seeing them on holiday, who still talk about that day so fondly, it’s incredible.

“Even though the current squad and what they have achieved and are achieving is far greater than what we did, that actual day at the Millennium seems to be right up there for so many Wolves fans.

“It’s one of their best memories of being a Wolves fan, across so many generations.

“It is a day that gave us memories we will never forget, and I don’t think we will ever get bored of re-living it.

“I had big disappointments in my career, and was gutted I had so many injuries but to play my part in a game like that – and alongside a good few lads I had grown up with like Joleon and Nayls – makes me feel proud and honoured.

“And no one can ever take it away.”

They certainly can’t.  For Murray, for Jones, the rest of the squad and staff, and for thousands of Wolves fans.

The hugely popular keeper was joined by Kennedy, Blake and Miler for a ‘Sir Jack’s History Boys’ event at the Grand Theatre on Monday night, hosted by Sky Sports reporter and Express & Star columnist Johnny Phillips.   The goosebumps returned.  There is another event being staged by Wolves at Molineux on Friday evening, the anniversary itself.  It’s a game, and a date in history, which will never ever be forgotten.

Nineteen years, 13 days, 22 hours, 20 minutes. A banner paints a thousand words. It had been a long time coming.  But wow, it was worth the wait. And then some.