In terms of the scores on the doors, it remains the greatest comeback in Wolves’ Premier League history.
Granted there may have been bigger profile and more joyously acclaimed climbs off the canvas – coming back from two-down to overhaul Manchester City in the Molineux cauldron pre-Christmas of 2019, or doing the same to prompt scenes of wild celebrations at Villa Park two years ago last week.
But to come back from a 3-0 deficit, and actually win 4-3? That only appears once on Wolves’ Premier League CV. In one of the most proverbial ‘games of two halves’ you could ever wish to meet. Twenty years ago, yesterday.
It’s time to re-live Wolves against Leicester from October 25th, 2003. With thanks to players from both sides, including the providers of three of Wolves’ four goals, members of the broadcast media from both sides, who still managed to stay friends, and even the referee, Peter Walton, who was presiding over his first ever fixture in the Premier League. What a way to start.
“It was pretty much pandemonium and the whole place erupted with the winning goal,” recalls two-goal Wolves midfielder Colin Cameron.
“An absolutely shocking defeat, awful, I don’t think I ever had another like it,” comes the contrasting view from Leicester striker James Scowcroft.
“I remember sitting in the dressing room after almost holding my head and wondering what on earth had happened,” says referee Walton.
“On the radio, you have to stay neutral,” explains Leicester fan and talkSPORT broadcaster Geoff Peters, who was doing off-air commentary as well as delivering reports.
“There I was, shouting about what an incredible Wolves comeback and fantastic game of football, whilst on the inside thinking, ‘how the hell have we thrown this one away’?”
It was some game. And some story. And, perhaps magnified by the fact that both Wolves and Leicester, promoted out of the Championship the previous season, were so desperate to take points off each other.
Wolves, as reported in this column previously, had only won their first Premier League game of the season, at the eighth attempt, against Manchester City three weeks earlier.
Leicester had suffered an equally difficult start, also winning only one league fixture before heading to Molineux, and found themselves bottom of the table, a place and a point adrift of their opponents.
For the man in the middle, after many years working his way up the refereeing ladder, at the age of 44, his topflight bow had finally arrived.
“I had been named on the Premier League list that season, but getting towards the end of October I was wondering when I was going to get my first game,” Walton recalls.
“Then Keith Hackett pulled me aside on the Tuesday and told me I’d got Wolves against Leicester.
“Then it was all about an exciting week preparing for my first ever Premier League match, but talk about butterflies on the day itself!”
The stakes were high everywhere in the clash of the Midlands, an ‘East versus West’ of the ilk not seen since Ivan Drago took on Rocky Balboa in Moscow in the mid-1980s.
And the early punches? Well, they were all delivered by Leicester, delivering a series of crushing and seemingly fatal blows to the Wolves’ rearguard.
After a quarter of an hour, Leicester were comfortably ahead thanks to two goals in four minutes, both from the powerful head of Les Ferdinand, from corners from opposite sides delivered with Exocet precision by Muzzy Izzet.
Wolves defender Jody Craddock was well known for his fearlessness and combative strength during his fantastic career at Molineux.
On that day however, he just found Ferdinand too good, on those two occasions at least.
“We would have prepared everything just as we normally did, including set pieces, and it would be me marking Les,” Craddock recalls.
“I felt I did everything I could to mark him at those corners, but I just couldn’t outdo him and he made a run and the ball was delivered straight to him.
“He was so awesome in the air that in that situation there was very little I could do, it was just one of those things.”
Things were to get worse before they got better, a low drive from Riccardo Scimeca after Ferdinand turned provider added to the Leicester lead and, five months on from going in at half time at the Millennium Stadium three goals to the good in the play-off final, Wolves were now on the other end of that scoreline in such a crucial game at Molineux.
“For any team in any game you don’t want to be behind at half time,” says keeper Michael Oakes, who could do nothing about any of the goals.
“It’s bad enough going in a goal down but 3-0 down is something else and, more often than not, that’s game over.”
The passage of two decades, and being involved in hundreds of fixtures, has perhaps affected the memory banks in terms of what may or may not have been said at half time, even in circumstances as dramatic as these.
Boss Dave Jones wasn’t a regular deliverer of the hairdryer treatment or a thrower of teacups – yes, when he went, he certainly went – but this was more an occasion for cool and calm heads and sifting through precisely what had gone wrong.
“We were lucky, we had 45 minutes to put it right,” the manager reflected at the time.
In the referees’ room, the discussion was equally composed.
“We were chatting and perhaps wondering by how many goals Leicester would win by, but we also knew what could happen during the course of a football match,” says Walton.
“So, it was all about going back out there and refereeing like it was 0-0 all over again.”
In the press box, debate was considerably more frenetic.
Calling the action for Wolf Radio at the time was the deadly duo of Bill Hatton and Pete Moodie, who shared commentary duties in each half, as well, on this occasion, as good natured hostilities with Leicester fan Peters.
“Wolves had gone through such a difficult start to the season, particularly with high scoring defeats against Blackburn and Charlton, which had shown a real gulf in quality,” Hatton recalls.
“By the point of the Leicester game, we looked more at it and had beaten Manchester City, but to be three behind at half time felt like another case of coming up against another side that was just better than us at that level.
“I remember thinking that was it, the game had gone, and that we would do well not to concede more in the second half.
“Crestfallen was the word, and much of the press box was feeling extremely flat, with the exception of Geoff Peters, who was understandably waxing lyrical.”
“I am sure Bill had his head in his hands at one point,” Peters responds.
“Like I say, I was being neutral, but inside I was loving it and I remember chatting to a few Wolves supporters near the press box, some very reasonable and fair-minded fans who I spoke to a lot, and who knew I was a Leicester fan.
“So that was me, very patronisingly at half time, telling them that I thought Wolves would be o-k this season, that they could write off today’s game but that they had enough quality in that squad.
“And then came the second half.”
Wolves desperately needed an early goal. And they got it within seven minutes of the restart, delivered neatly by Cameron, who had been the matchwinner in that first ever Premier League win against Manchester City.
Another seven minutes later, Keith Gillespie handled in the box under aerial pressure from Craddock and Cameron tucked home the penalty.
Then, midway through the half, Alex Rae headed home Denis Irwin’s deep cross and Wolves were in dreamland, all square, and Rae was now charging around, bare-chested, in front of the North Bank.
“I used to look at people kissing the badge or taking their tops off after scoring and absolutely hate it,” Rae said later.
“I was disgusted with myself for joining in, but it was nothing more than pure emotion.”
The tide had turned. Wolves were on the rampage, and had got the Foxes in their lair.
“How did the game change? We had been totally dominant getting those goals in the first half, but we were very defensive in the second which was possibly a mistake,” Scowcroft recalls.
“Wolves got an early goal and then the whole momentum changed.”
Referee Walton was enjoying an impressive debut with the whistle.
Throughout his career he endeavoured to let play go as much as possible, and keep his cards in his pocket, sometimes to the detriment of feedback received from assessors.
And so, even as the temperature rose considerably, and the game became way more competitive in the second half, only two players were booked, and Walton was even able to enjoy the sense of occasion that Wolves comeback initiated.
“My Dad came to a lot of my games and I used to travel back with him afterwards, and would often have to ask him what the game was like as a spectacle,” Walton explains.
“Sometimes I would be too involved to notice, but at others there would be moments within games that you could take in and enjoy, and realise that you were doing a job with a front row seat to some great football.
“In the second half of that Wolves/Leicester game, when the crowd was up and the atmosphere was rising, I remember being able to enjoy it – if that’s the word – but without losing my concentration.
“I always knew, even from my first game, that the next decision could be the end of me, so I had to stay focused.”
Focus, and determination, was what Wolves had in abundance in that second half. “I have always said to teams I have coached since finishing playing, even young teams, that however much you are behind, if you nick a goal, things can turn on their head,” says Craddock.
“You get a goal and mentally you’re on the right path while the opposition can go the other way, and, as soon as we got that first one, our tails were up and we were pushing.
“It’s all about never giving up, just keeping going and keeping playing because if you do that you never know what is going to happen.”
What did happen was that, with 85 minutes on the clock, Irwin sent in another dangerous cross which ended up with Henri Camara prodding the ball home to send Molineux into complete and utter delirium.
It was the Senegalese striker’s first Wolves goal, the only one in his first 19 appearances before an end-of-season flurry brought six in seven.
None, however, were as impactful as this one.
“The place erupted when Henri got the winner – what a game of two halves,” Cameron, now assistant manager at Raith Rovers, reflects.
“We just weren’t at the races in the first half, I’ve no idea why, but the manager didn’t really need to say a lot to us because there were a lot of strong characters in that dressing room and we knew we had let everybody down.
“We knew it was only us that could get us out of the hole that we had dug and salvage a bit of pride.
“That early goal in the second half gave us a wee bit of momentum and it all took off from there.”
“As a defender it wasn’t a great game to be involved in, but it was great to win it at the end,” adds Craddock.
“We came back well, and I imagine Leicester were screwing at the end.”
They were. Scowcroft, who boasted an incredible goalscoring record against Wolves in his career, scoring no fewer than seven against the gold and black, completely cleaned out Irwin by the corner flag as the frustration grew.
“I loved going to Molineux, it was a great place to play, apart from the day which was cruel and horrible,” he recalls.
“With life in professional football, there are many highs and lows, and that was most definitely a low.
“I can’t remember another game like it in my career, and it was that bad that half of us had to play in the reserves in the week that followed.”
Perversely, however, it was Leicester who responded best to such a spectacular setback, winning three and drawing two of their five subsequent Premier League fixtures, while Wolves picked up just two points from their next seven.
All things considered however, the season proved a difficult challenge, and relegation duly followed with both finishing on 33 points, six adrift of safety.
“That Leicester game was obviously a highlight, and we had a few others, the win against Manchester City and then beating Manchester United as well,” Oakes reflects.
“There were decent results at times, but we didn’t help ourselves at others, and it was a disappointment that we couldn’t make that step up.
“But maybe future managers were able to build on that, and the club learned from what happened, and looking on now from the outside, with the quality of players and the fans as strong as ever, they seem to be in a really good position.”
Wolves are one of only four teams – and the most recent – to have come back from three goals down to win a Premier League match, with Leeds – against Derby in 1997, Wimbledon – against West Ham in 1998, and Manchester United – against Tottenham in 2001, completing the set.
Newcastle, meanwhile, once came from four goals down to draw 4-4 with Arsenal.
It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime event in a professional football match although not for Cameron, who when at Cowdenbeath combining playing with the role of assistant manager, was substituted with the team 3-0 down at Stirling Albion, and looked on as they struck four times in the last 13 minutes to clinch the win.
Lightning does indeed strike twice. Just like Cameron did at Molineux, whilst for Walton, the goals continued to flow.
His second Premier League assignment saw Southampton beat Charlton 3-2, his fourth another 4-3 as Tottenham overcame Portsmouth, but of his 499 professional games in the middle, 169 of which came in the Premier League, there wasn’t much to match the events of Molineux.
Not to mention picking up a post-match souvenir!
“When I look back, I probably refereed more influential games in major competitions but not many can beat my first in the Premier League,” Walton reflects.
“My daughter Sophie, who was 12 or 13 at the time, had a bit of a soft spot for Leicester – at half time I was the best Dad in the world but by the end, even though what happened was nothing to do with me, she didn’t talk to me for days!
“It was funny at the end of the game because Hassan Kachloul, who had come on for Wolves at half time, approached me and asked me for the matchball.
“Normally in those circumstances, with it being my first ever Premier League game, I’d get to keep the ball, so I told him there was no way I was giving it up!
“Then he said he would give me his shirt in return, and so it is, that I am here talking to you now, looking at a Hassan Kachloul Wolves shirt with the number 30 on the back!
“That’s one way of remembering what was such a spectacular first game as a Premier League referee!”
It was an afternoon where broadcasters Peters and Hatton departed, not with any souvenirs or shirts, but instead, hugely mixed emotions.
“It’s fair to say that my commentary in that second half, all the hyperbole around the Wolves comeback, was very different to what I was feeling inside, which probably can’t be repeated,” says Peters.
“But that’s football, isn’t it? The rollercoaster ride, why we all love it.
“And if someone had said to me then, that Leicester would get relegated that season, later go down to Division Three for the first time in their history, but then find a way back, win the Premier League, reach a Champions League quarter final, win the FA Cup, well, yes, I’d have absolutely taken it.”
“What a game,” says Hatton.
“All of a sudden once Wolves got one back, then two, all the momentum changed, and Leicester, from a position where they were cruising, had completely gone mentally.
“That 90 minutes just highlighted how football is a crazy game which can turn around on goals and momentum and the mindset of teams.
“Pete was actually calling it when the Camara goal went in, but I remember making a lot of noise on co-commentary and it was certainly one of the highlights of my time, including the ultimate, which was the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium
“They were halcyon days, and any time Wolves scored they were exciting and explosive moments and none more so than Henri Camara’s winning goal against Leicester as the game was turned around in the most incredible circumstances.
“I remember staying in town to celebrate with a few beers, jumping in a cab at the end of the night and engaging in conversation with the driver.
“’Did you hear the commentators going absolutely crazy at the end of that Leicester game,’” he asked.
“I was never going to admit I was actually involved in it all and just replied with, ‘yes I did mate, yes I did’.
“It was a great end to a great day.”