Wolves have two huge games to kick off 2023 with a local derby at Aston Villa followed by an FA Cup trip to Liverpool.  It was 20 years ago this week that another Third Round tie served up one of those truly special Molineux evenings.


Over the last couple of decades, Wolves have enjoyed – or endured – many different moments, matches and incidents which have proved transformational.  For better or for worse.

Take for example the later-to-be Wolves winger Matt Jarvis’s goal for ten-men Gillingham bringing an end to the tenure of Dave Jones, or Glenn Hoddle handing in his notice hours before England’s World Cup quarter final and a few days before the club’s pre-season tour.

Or the 5-1 demolition of Nottingham Forest which propelled Mick McCarthy’s side into a Championship-winning rhythm which they rarely relinquished.  Or a 5-1 demolition at the hands of West Bromwich Albion that did something completely different.

How about the cruel leg break suffered by Sylvan Ebanks-Blake putting the death knell on the survival bid under Dean Saunders? The transfer manoeuvrings under Kenny Jackett in inspiring a front-line trio of Sako, Afobe, Dicko.  Which was magic, you know.

Then there was Ryan Bennett’s last-gasp winner at Bristol City. And Ryan Bennett’s last gasp tackle on Willian against Chelsea.  Raul Jimenez’s missed penalty against Sevilla, and later his cruel and life-threatening injury against Arsenal.  Leander Dendoncker’s challenge on Troy Deeney at Wembley.  

So many examples. So many twists and turns. Some bringing pleasure, others nothing but pain. And fans will have their own to throw into the mix as well.  Momentum shifts, sometimes cataclysmic events and incidents which have changed the team’s overall direction.

But for all those listed, few could perhaps have transformed Wolves’ fortunes as much as a dramatic FA Cup Third Round tie with Newcastle 20 years ago. One of those truly memorable Molineux early evenings!

As ever, when trying to assess the extent of any form of dramatic change in circumstance, context is paramount.

Wolves were coming off the back of the proverbial rollercoaster ride of a 2001/02 campaign in which, for two thirds, they were majestic and irresistible, before a late dip in standards saw them miss out on promotion – in the most of excruciating of fashions – to West Bromwich Albion.  Before losing in the play-offs – as Wolves always used to – against Norwich.

However, boosted by the headline-grabbing signings of the ultra-experienced pairing of Paul Ince and Denis Irwin, there had been no sign of any emotional hangover as they made a fine start to the next season before, by the time of the big cup tie, hitting the buffers.

Just two points from five winless games had seen Wolves slump to tenth in the table, to the extent that the pressure was rising on manager Jones.

In the wake of a home defeat to Bradford, a furious Sir Jack Hayward had charged down from the Directors’ Box – there were suggestions it was a good job there were so many stairs to calm him down given the level of his disgruntlement – to deliver a message to Jones, in no uncertain terms, that it simply wasn’t good enough.

It was a strong and unequivocal missive Sir Jack repeated in the Express & Star ahead of the New Year’s Day visit of Derby County, a game which Wolves drew 1-1, which wasn’t a complete remedy of a delicate situation.

In contrast, Newcastle were flying.

Having reached the FA Cup final in both 1998, and 1999, under Bobby Robson they had finished fourth in the Premier League in 2001/02 and were enroute to a third placed finish this time around.

On paper, there was only one winner.  But football isn’t played on paper.  And this was the FA Cup.  A classic was to follow, one which then Wolves club secretary Richard Skirrow describes as “a fantastic game of football and one of my most enjoyable Molineux matchdays in over 20 years working in football.”

Renowned commentator Martin Tyler covered the Sunday evening showdown for Sky Sports, and, whilst talking, is thumbing through the year’s Rothmans Football Yearbook for how they described the fixture.

“Pulsating action in the best FA Cup tradition,” are some of the words he relays to the Express & Star.

“And that’s how I remember it too.

“I remember there was a lot of expectation around Newcastle at the time with their position in the league and having been in those two FA Cup finals not long before.

“They had England centre forward Alan Shearer in his pomp, Craig Bellamy, and so many other talented players in their squad.

“So obviously they were expected to win, as there was a big discrepancy between Wolves and Newcastle at that time.”

“We hadn’t been going well in the league,” adds Matt Murray, Wolves goalkeeper on the day in what was his breakthrough season, still at the age of just 21.

“We’d lost at Burnley on Boxing Day and then to Bradford before the draw against Derby, and I remember it felt like the gaffer was under real pressure.

“For me it was my FA Cup debut, probably my first really big game, and I can still remember the anticipation in the days building up to it.

“And Molineux is always that little bit special under the lights.”

Indeed so.  And if it was a slightly murky Molineux as the game kicked off at 4pm, those floodlights were soon called into action.

By which time the atmosphere was already crackling.

There was just that feeling about the match, from the build-up, the final minutes before kick-off, that it was going to be a little bit tasty.

“I always find Molineux a great place to work,” continues Tyler.

“The gantry is great and the welcome you get from the staff is always excellent.

“It is true to say that the atmosphere is often better ‘under the lights’ – we say that about a lot of grounds and it certainly applies to Molineux.

“And the atmosphere that night is probably the biggest thing I remember about the game.

“It was a good pick for Sky because there was a gap between the two teams with the lower division team at home and the Premier League opposition having a bit of glamour about them.

“It was also two famous clubs with a sense of tradition and history that always appeals to me.

“I am old enough to remember Newcastle winning three out of five FA Cups at the start of the 1950s, and of course that was the time when Wolves were winning a lot as well!

“For someone of my age, even if we are talking 20 years ago, it was a tie which had a sense of being right at the heart of where English football had been.

“The Wolves fans were well up for it – in a way it’s a free hit, isn’t it? – and the fact that they got two early goals just fanned the flames of the fantastic atmosphere.”

Those early goals arrived courtesy of a blistering start from Wolves far removed from their league form of the previous weeks.

A tale of two Pauls orchestrated the sixth minute opener, Butler nodding down for Ince to clinically fire home a half volley, whilst the second goal just before the half hour mark was as breathtakingly simple as it was so brilliantly executed.

Murray came and caught a corner and, just five touches later, via his long throw to Shaun Newton, pass up the line to Colin Cameron, clever pullback and excellent first time Mark Kennedy finish, it was in the back of the net.

“That was something we always worked on,” said Murray.

“When I played for Dave Jones and for Mick McCarthy, and it was also drilled into me by TC (Terry Connor) and Bobby Mimms, when I came for corners and crosses I would often be quite far off my line.

“So, when the lads heard me shout ‘keeper’s’ they would get on their way and if I could release it to our wide men accurately and quickly a lot of opposition players would be left in our box.

“It worked perfectly that night, and getting two goals in front, Molineux was absolutely rocking.”

All of a sudden however, inside the space of three minutes just before half time, the game changed.

Butler did well to block a Shearer effort from Bellamy’s cross but the ball popped up for Jermaine Jenas – an England under-21 colleague of Murray’s at the time – to head his first ever Newcastle goal.

Then Joleon Lescott wrestled Bellamy to the floor after dispossessing him and clearing the ball, only for Rob Styles to point to the penalty spot and give Shearer the chance to do what he does from 12 yards. Smash it into the top corner, giving Murray absolutely no chance.

“I remember doing an interview with Sky in the build-up to the game and they had asked me what I would do if I had to face a penalty from Alan Shearer,” the keeper recalls.

“I had a good idea where it was going, but couldn’t dive too early, and he absolutely nailed it, and so it was 2-2 at half time.”

The relentless pace of the game continued after the break.

Almost instantly, Lescott atoned for the concession of the penalty with an incredible double goal-line clearance to block first Shearer’s deflected free kick and then the follow-up from Clarence Acuna.

And then Wolves swept up the other end with Kennedy, on his 50th Wolves appearance, sending in another teasing cross which Newton headed back across goal for George Ndah – enjoying the purple patch of his Molineux career – to convert from close range.

“It genuinely felt like the roof was going to come off when George scored not long after Joleon’s amazing clearances,” says Murray.

“But there was still such a long way to go, and I remember we came under some big spells of pressure.

“There was another incredible clearance, this time from Nayls (Lee Naylor), who ended up sliding into the post after stopping the ball crossing the line.

“He has gone on to become a father afterwards, so there was no damage done!”

“I still can’t believe I got there for that clearance,” says Naylor, who revelled in the battle with the Premier League heavyweights.

“I was pretty much crying at the time, and everyone else was laughing, but that and Joleon’s clearances proved really crucial in that second half.”

Murray also did his bit, denying Bellamy from a one-on-one opportunity as the fiery Welsh frontman became something of a magnet for the game’s hefty profile in that second half.

“Making that save from Bellamy was fun, because he was always very chirpy and had been on at me all game,” the keeper explains.

“Every corner he’d be onto me, the once I got lucky and the ball dropped down between my legs and he’d be like, “you’re rubbish and the spawniest keeper”.  

“It was all part of the game!”

Wolves had also had to contend not only with a Toon comeback but also the loss of the powerhouse Butler, Mark Clyde coming on after Ndah’s goal for his own FA Cup debut just a week after his 20th birthday.

Infact, it left Wolves with a back four featuring a 37-year-old in Irwin, and three others with a combined age of just 62.

“It was tough but overall I think we handled Shearer and Bellamy quite well,” says Clyde, with a typical sense of under-statement.

“Every time I played against Craig Bellamy, I think he was surprised how quick I was.

“I remember making my debut for Northern Ireland against Wales and at one point he turned to me and told me I was a right pain in the a**e, and I replied, ‘that’s alright, that’s exactly what I am trying to be’.

“The night we won the cup game I remember him walking off and pointing to the Premier League badge on his shirt which I thought was a bit disrespectful, especially after such a fantastic game of football.

“That was part of his make-up, but what a player he was, and that is why I think every time I was in a defence up against him the plan was to stifle him as much as possible.”

Bellamy’s post-match gesture certainly hogged some of the headlines, but was a sign of the huge disappointment and frustration of a Toon team who really fancied themselves for a decent cup run.

Robson pronounced himself ‘sick’ at the defeat in his post-match press conference, whilst Shearer slumped and sat crestfallen on the Molineux turf in echoes of the image of Steve Bull after Wolves’ play-off defeat at Bolton some seven-and-a-half years earlier.

The 3-2 win was a game which had everything.  Certainly for Wolves anyway, and also for the neutrals and millions of television viewers watching at home.

“From television’s point of view it was just what we wanted, with two great clubs and a fantastic atmosphere,” recalls Tyler, whose first game as a commentator was Sheffield Wednesday’s 1-0 win at Southampton, 48 years ago last week.

“It worked out really well for Wolves and it worked out really well for Sky – I have to say that – and do so with the greatest respect to Alan (Shearer) who I know very well and saw a bit of out in Qatar at the World Cup.

“Twenty years on, and looking back and thinking about it again, it is certainly right up there with the FA Cup classics.

“It was a real thrill to commentate on, and I did it alongside Andy Gray who obviously has his own Wolves’ history and connections, which I am sure contributed to the atmosphere as well.

“The fact that Wolves went out in front, Newcastle drew level, and then George got the winner just added to the story, not least as they were then able to sustain the lead despite everything that was thrown at them.

“It was a real fight to the finish, and obviously went on to prove a big turning point in Wolves’ season.

“Sometimes that can happen, a result or performance binds together a team who might have some very good players but not working as a team and that is how Wolves got the result that night and how they went on to enjoy a successful second half to the season.”

It certainly proved a transformational night as Jones, on his 100th game in the Wolves’ hotseat, responded in perfect fashion to Sir Jack’s call in not only masterminding the cup giant-killing but also a run of results where Wolves lost only twice more in the league.

They also reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup, losing out to eventual runners-up Southampton, but the main priority of promotion, 12 months on from such tangible despondency, was achieved via play-off glory against Sheffield United on another memorable day at the Millennium Stadium.

More scenes of joy, never, ever to be forgotten.  Rocking all over the world.

“That Newcastle game and performance was the one which really kick-started us – it was the sort of night we all wanted to be involved in and from there we never looked back,” adds Naylor.

“It made us feel, as a team, that we belonged at a higher level.

“We had an unbelievable mix of top players that had been up there throughout their careers like Incey and Denis, so much other talent like Sparky (Kennedy), Kenny Miller, (Nathan) Blake, Newton, Cameron, (Alex) Rae – along with us younger lads.

“To be part of that was amazing and I just made sure I enjoyed it and learned from it, and as a team we just needed a game like Newcastle to spark us off for the rest of the season.”

“So many Wolves fans still talk about that game and I think it made Sky Sports’ FA Cup classics,” adds Murray.

“Why did it transform our season so much? I’m not really sure, but maybe sometimes it just takes a game like that to give you that collective belief that ended up taking us all the way to promotion.

“That dressing room was incredible at the time, and finally we were able to show our quality and barely lost a game to the end of the season.

“I can’t believe it’s now 20 years ago, but, beating Newcastle in the cup that night is certainly one of those games that I will never forget.”

A game for the ages.  And a win which led to so much more.

Both teams are back in Third Round action this Saturday evening with Newcastle at Sheffield Wednesday ahead of Wolves’ trip to Liverpool.

But both also have more pressing league engagements first of all, the Toon away at Arsenal tonight and Wolves at Aston Villa tomorrow.

Who’s to say that Rayan Ait-Nouri’s last gasp strike against Everton, leading to a much improved performance at home to Manchester United, might not yet prove the turning point of this season? It’s got a chance.

In the meantime, Wolves and Newcastle are, of course, both still in the Carabao Cup, at the quarter final stage.

Twenty years on, maybe another cup classic is not too far around the corner.