It was a bitterly cold and unforgiving late November night in Sheffield.
Sounds like the start to any great story.
If ever there was a contest befitting of the Steel City it was Mick McCarthy’s highflying Wolves tackling Neil Warnock’s streetwise Sheffield United in front of almost 30,000 at Bramall Lane back in 2008.
Wolves won the game 3-1 thanks to some fantastic finishing from Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Chris Iwelumo, but ended up with more injuries than goals as Dave Edwards, Carl Ikeme and David Jones had all been substituted before the start of the second half and Michael Kightly suffered a broken nose in the closing stages.
Battered and bruised was something of an understatement.
And yet, it was an injury approximately 230 miles away that hung painfully in the South Yorkshire air on that brutal night and made for a far more subdued dressing room than would be expected given the posting of such a crucial win, Wolves’ seventh in succession as they surged clear at the top of the Championship table.
Goalkeeper Matt Murray was on his way back from another in a string of serious injuries and was three games into a loan spell working with former Wolves manager Graham Turner at Hereford United.
In the first of those matches – at home to Cheltenham – by his own admission, Murray had produced ‘one of the best games of my life’. Hereford won 3-0.
At MK Dons however, sadly, it was a very different story.
The game was goalless on 54 minutes, when, Murray collapsed in a heap after launching a clearance and was stretchered off in agony.
News of that devastating disappointment had found its way back to Bramall Lane via messages to Wolves goalkeeping coach Pat Mountain and head of medical Steve Kemp.
Quickly several among the playing and backroom staff were straight on the phone to text their support, including Ikeme, despite his own ascent into the Wolves team now being at risk thanks to his own troublesome injury.
For Murray, it was the beginning of the end when it came to a career which promised so much and delivered plenty, but could still, with a bit more good fortune, have reached the sort of heights which both his talent and determination deserved.
It is now ten years since he officially announced his retirement at the age of 29.
And that night in Milton Keynes, just under two years previously, was the first time thoughts entered Murray’s head that perhaps, unfortunately, the writing was on the wall.
The loan spell had been designed to ease Murray back into competitive action with a view to joining a youthful and talented Wolves goalkeeping department then featuring Ikeme and Wayne Hennessey.
Murray would train with Hereford one day a week alongside continuing to work at Compton Park and Wolves were covering all his wages, amplifying Mick McCarthy’s desire to get his initial first choice gloveman back into the fray.
McCarthy knew the ability that he would have at his disposal if Murray were fit and firing on all cylinders.
A giant strapping goalkeeper with incredible instincts who loved coming for crosses, who defied his nerves to burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion during the 2002/03 season, and saved a penalty in the play-off final against Sheffield United as Wolves ended a 19-year absence from England’s top division on an unforgettable afternoon at the Milliennium Stadium.
The same keeper who was then the last line of defence for much of McCarthy’s first Wolves season, helping a hastily-assembled team of untried rookies with a sprinkling of experience somehow reach the play-offs, including one performance in a nine-man victory against Norwich at Carrow Road which, even now, defies all goalkeeping logic.
That was what McCarthy knew he could have available – but sadly it just wasn’t to be.
“I’d got myself back fit again for that loan spell and I’m not just saying this, that first game for Hereford against Cheltenham was one of the best I have played in my life,” Murray recalls.
“Forget the play-off final, forget when we beat Albion, that game at Norwich, I just felt so good.
“When it came to Hereford, I had come through injuries like a cruciate, broken shoulder, broken foot, and was at the stage where I was going to make sure that I properly enjoyed every single game that I played.
“Then, I just hit a ball, and my knee completely snapped.
“The patella tendon had ruptured and the pain? Well I can’t even describe it.
“It was completely different to a cruciate – my kneecap was halfway up my thigh – and all of a sudden I am there, laid out, lying on a stretcher.
“You have to get a lift at MK Dons to get back out of the stadium and there were three big roars while I was in there as Hereford conceded goals.
“It is difficult to completely describe how I felt, because there was a lot going on in my life at that time, the sort of stuff that I know lots of people have to go through – the human side – which affects footballers just like it does anyone else.
“My wife at the time was pregnant with our second child, my landlord who I had lived with when I was in the Academy had just suffered a massive stroke, and my Nan, who would pass away shortly afterwards, was really ill in hospital.
“There was all this emotion going on away from football, and then this happened, after I had worked so, so hard to get back fit.
“My step-dad was at the game and went to fetch my stuff, and so were my good mates Dave and Rob, and when I got into the ambulance, I phoned Keaney (Robbie Keane).
“I’ll never be ashamed to say I properly burst into tears at that moment, everything just came flooding out.
“I vividly remember thinking to myself while I was sat in that ambulance: ‘Well I’ve had some pretty bad injuries in my time but I think this is gonna be the biggest one yet.’”
As ever though, Murray was ready to fight and do everything in his power to try and get back from yet another severe setback.
And that would come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed his work ethic and dedication, and commitment to a club where he first arrived at the age of nine, training at West Park under the tutelage of Ian Painter and Robert Kelly having been spotted by coach Dave Read turning out for junior team, Lichfield Social.
Gradually he worked his way back, featuring in an Under-23 fixture against Birmingham in which he actually provided an assist with a long clearance before being forced off having found it impossible to lever himself off the ground to claim a cross.
Murray was then among Wolves’ travelling party for the pre-season tour of Ireland in 2010, which included a lively open training session in front of a sizeable number of fans.
“I knew my knee wasn’t knitted together properly, and that was after I had got it as strong as I could,” Murray explains.
“I could shift some serious weights – I was almost like an Olympic lifter – but it was all straight line stuff.
“I was loving that open training session in Ireland, throwing myself around and making saves.
“Even when I was doing the sessions with Pat and the keepers, my handling was clean and I was doing some good work, but I just knew it wasn’t me.
“I was giving it everything I possibly could, but the knee just wasn’t going to get any better.
“I had all the operations I needed, all the injections, and Doc Perry (Matt) and Kempy (Steve Kemp) could not have cared for me anymore – they were unreal.
“But it just came to the time when due to the insurance and talking to specialists I just had to call it a day, knowing that there would be no regrets because I had well and truly given my all.”
And so, on that August 26tha decade ago, Murray’s career officially came to a close.
There were more tears, understandably, including during his farewell interview for Wolves’ website, and also for his Dad as the messages from fans started streaming through.
“The messages I had, the amount of letters and emails, the anecdotes, they were all incredible,” Murray recalls.
“They made my old man cry as he went through all of them.”
Wolves, too, were equally supportive.
“Jez (Moxey), Richard Skirrow, Mick, TC (Terry Connor), everyone was just brilliant with me,” Murray says.
“When it became clear I was struggling, and the specialist was advising retirement, legally Wolves only needed to pay me for six months, but they committed to near enough a full year.
“They gave me an Ambassador role with what is now the Wolves Foundation, and a routine, which helped provide time and space as I tried to come to terms with it all and decide what I was going to do next.
“They treated me so well, and I will never ever forget it.”
Murray himself had already started preparing for life after playing, heading off on a coaching journey which would culminate in completing his ‘A’ licence in both outfield and goalkeeping, as well as doing some co-commentaries for Wolves TV’s radio service as he tested the water in media circles.
“I had already started doing my badges by the time I retired, as well as bits of media,” he says.
“People like TC, Bobby Mimms, Martin Thomas when I was younger at Wolves, people like that would put proper values into you.
“They would say no one is ever going to give you anything, you have to work for every bit of success, and having not had a top career, I had to work that little bit harder.
“Maybe I couldn’t kick a ball like Oakesie (Michael Oakes), or Wayne or Carl, so I had to work at other things to be better, and find an angle to get in and be the best that I could be.
“Mick was another big help, and he would let me go off and do things with Sky as it was clear I was coming towards the end, provided I did it all in the right way.
“’Don’t accept good over best’, he would say to me, ‘control the controllables’ and, with those people – the Doc and Kempy as I have said, my family, I have had so many good people around me instilling those values.
“I would drive anywhere to do a game for Sky at whatever notice, I would coach the Soccer Schools at Wolves with Rob Edwards, working for nothing, because that is how I could get experience, and that is how TC started.
“I was just doing everything I could, I just had a go at stuff, and even now I will still go back to people and ask for advice, tap into my contacts and try and improve.”
Murray’s versatility post-football has certainly paid dividends, with his coaching CV including spells with Barnsley, England junior squads and travelling across the world with Nike Academy.
Family commitments and the all-consuming elements of coaching have seen him move away from that particular area, but Murray has progressed to the role of a highly respected pundit with Sky Sports.
From a lively start – his first assignment was the Wolves/Liverpool game after which Richard Keys and Andy Gray lost their jobs and the second Wigan/Wolves when Karl Henry saw red after ten minutes – he is now regularly seen sparring with the likes of Graeme Souness in the Sky Sports studio or being the butt of light-hearted humour when going ‘viral’ after being caught on camera checking out his appearance!
In recent years he has also added an advisory role to his portfolio, helping young players, especially goalkeepers, and those in the Football League benefitting from his counsel number double figures heading into the 2020/21 season.
“My partner Natalie will tell you I watch a hell of a lot of football, driving up and down the country, taking a lot of calls, but I find it really rewarding,” he says.
“If I can play a part in some younger players starting to live their dreams, like TC and Bobby did for me, then I don’t really see it as working.
“When it comes to Sky, I always want to be true to myself and offer an opinion, and it’s never personal with anyone.
“It was great being linked so closely to Wolves as it has opened up doors to cover the club, especially when they have been doing so well, but it’s also been nice to move on to do other clubs’ games as well.
“To Wolves fans I would say that I do always have to give an opinion, good or bad, and I try not to say ‘we’, but I think you can all see a smile on my face when Wolves get a result.”
Ten years on, and incredibly over 17 since Murray’s finest hour at the Millennium Stadium, how does he view his career as a whole?
Delighted with what he achieved after coming through Wolves Academy, or tinged with frustration and even anger at how such cruel injury misfortune denied him from progressing even further?
Surely too there must have been many dark days as those injuries both returned and lingered on so many different occasions so just how tough was it to deal with the mental side of dealing with setback upon setback?
“Using a psychologist was something I would always do, and during my career it was for different reasons,” Murray replies.
“I would be preparing for a play-off final and all I could think of was that my kicking wasn’t right; I’d be called up for England Under-21s and just think that I couldn’t serve a ball properly; keep a clean sheet at home to Albion and be named Man of the Match and think ‘Really? Me?; or have an agent tell me there had been interest in me and I wouldn’t believe it.
“I knew that I was hard to beat and could take a cross but could never see anything more than that, I couldn’t see the positives.
“I have worked with some great psychologists during my time, people like Tim O’Brien, Craig Mahoney and Bill Stevens, but when it comes to all those disappointments that I went through I think it’s only now, all these years on, that I am more mentally aware.
“When I look back I was probably struggling a lot more than I realised at the time, I’d say it could well have been depression.
“And it is still tough to think about what might have been.
“I saw my peers go on and achieve great things, Joleon (Lescott) going to Man City and playing for England, Robbie (Keane) doing what he did, Lee Naylor playing for Celtic.
“And yes, I was envious, but not jealous, because I wanted them to have that success, but I was also thinking it could have been me.
“Now, at my age, all my peers have retired and so it’s not as hard to think about what happened to me but it is still difficult to consider what I might have missed out on.
“Don’t get me wrong, no one can ever take that season and play-off final away from me, and when I did my cruciate at the age of 18, if you’d have said I’d get 100 games for Wolves I’d have snapped your hand off.
“But on the flipside, when I’m walking down the steps at the Millennium Stadium, and heading for the Premier League, if someone had told me I was only going to get another 50 games in my career I’d have been like: ‘What? No chance.’
“That bit is hard, and I still think it gives me a glass ceiling with the media work, because a couple of years in the Premier League, or maybe an England cap, and it might have opened more doors.
“I have had to reinvent myself and have continued to reinvent myself, but I have great family and friends and the links I have to Wolves, and the way the club and the fans have always been with me, have been unreal.”
There are players who chalked up more than Murray’s total of 100 appearances for Wolves, players who made – and are making – a sustained impact at a higher level than Murray, players who won the senior international caps which surely he would have earned with a fairer wind behind him.
But there are few who remain so popular and etched in the Molineux consciousness, as shown during his testimonial year of 2010 where pretty much every event sold out and Murray donated half of the overall proceeds to four different charities.
It is no surprise that he remains slightly wistful about what might have been, because anyone who saw him play will tell you – he was that good.
There is however comfort to be had in that ongoing relationship with the Wolves faithful, who watched him, literally, grow into the club’s number one shirt, who so keenly took him to their hearts and who still tell him that Cardiff 2003 was, for so many, the best day of their lives.
The raucous receptions Murray still receives when hosting different functions across the city with past and present players is enough of a reminder that Wolves fans never forget their heroes.
And so, a decade on from the day his dream was finally and emotionally extinguished, there is still much to be thankful for.
“I wanted to be the first black manager of England, but circumstances have changed and I am very happy with what I am doing now,” he explains.
“I’ve got a fantastic partner, three beautiful daughters, a lovely step-daughter and a healthy son who is wicked.
“I am truly blessed in that way.
“And I am still in the game, which when you love football is all you can ask so do I see the long hours and all the travelling as working hard? Not really.
“I have met some amazing people, and had some amazing experiences, and I want to carry on staying involved as long as I can.
“So ten years since I retired? Wow. It’s just flown by…”