Oh what a night at The Valley
The drama of a late winner in an away game. Can’t beat it.
Think of that feeling of standing on terrace or sitting in seat in the closing seconds with that slightly comfortable emotion of the game being level, and taking a point home.
Of being without the gut-wrenching disappointment of travelling all that way for nothing with a defeat, but also harbouring pangs of frustration that your team have only drawn.
Think then to that moment of pure elation. Wallop. A goal. A Wolves goal. In the last minutes or – for extra celebration points – added time. For it to happen in front of the hordes of delirious travelling fans? Pandemonium.
Is there anything better?
There have been a few such moments to savour in Wolves’ recent history.
From Steve Bull at the Hawthorns. Limbs. To Steve Bull at Bramall Lane. Seol Ki-Hyeon at the New Den. Carl Cort at Hull. Jay Bothroyd at Elland Road. Neill Collins at Doncaster. Andy Keogh at Derby. Helder Costa at Brentford. Lord Ryan Bennett at Bristol City. Adama Traore at the London Stadium. Willy Boly’s Turkish Delight in Besiktas. Matt Doherty at St James’ Park. Villa Park last season. And there have probably been more.
Games where talk about the breath-taking conclusion lingers way beyond the time spent on the journey home. Experiences to savour and never be forgotten. The stuff of Wolves’ folklore.
There is one reasonably recent fixture however, which went even further than those already mentioned. One where Wolves actually conceded an equaliser in added time. And still went on to win. The game also included a goal for the ages, and a pile-on into the crowd. Marvellous.
Fifteen years ago, next Wednesday. Charlton Athletic 2, Wolverhampton Wanderers 3. Down at the Valley. Not Frankie Valli. But ‘what a night’ all the same.
It was a big game in the context of the ever-competitive scramble for a place in the Championship play-offs. Little wonder that it had been selected for live coverage on Sky Sports on the Saturday evening with extended highlights on ‘The Championship’ on ITV the following morning.
Charlton, for so long admirably hailed as the paragon of what a club of their stature could achieve having spent seven successive years in the Premier League, were in their first season back in the Championship after relegation, in tenth place on 57 points, two off the top six.
Wolves, in their second season of the Mick McCarthy rebuild, were aiming for a second consecutive tilt at the play-offs, occupying one place higher, on 58 points, having played a game fewer.
It was all to play for. And the atmosphere was crackling.
“We knew it was coming towards crunch time in the season,” recalls Wolves skipper Karl Henry.
“Charlton were a big name at the time, they had only just come down from the Premier League and were among the favourites for promotion.
“We were playing against a rival, where we knew that whichever team won would get into the play-offs, and whichever lost would be effectively in mid-table with games running out.
“It definitely felt like a really big game.”
It was Wolves who drew first blood.
Henry’s ball in behind the Charlton defence was met by Andy Keogh whose first time pass found Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.
The striker, at that point only a couple of months into his Wolves career after his January arrival from Plymouth, took one touch to control the ball before firing it, left footed, into the net.
That came on 15 minutes but, a quarter of an hour later, Charlton were level.
Greg Halford, alongside Chris Iwelumo as one of two Addicks who would go on to become Wolves, swept home a cross from later Molineux trialist Jerome Thomas.
And that is how it stayed, albeit frenetically, and often end to end, until nine minutes from time.
That’s when it happened. One of the finest goals from a Wolves striker for many years.
There seemed little on when Kevin Foley knocked the ball down the line and Ebanks-Blake got himself in front of Paddy McCarthy – this week appointed as Crystal Palace’s assistant manager - albeit right out on the touchline.
Then, somehow, Ebanks-Blake backheeled it through McCarthy’s legs, used his strength to hold him off, took another touch and then slammed the ball past Nicky Weaver and into the top corner with his left foot.
“Oh my goodness me, how did he do that?” exclaimed Ian Darke on Sky.
“Muscle to go with the magic,” was the Clive Tyldesley verdict on ITV.
It was a truly special goal. So how did he do it?
“Instinct,” says the man himself.
“It is really hard to describe because it might look planned but it certainly wasn’t.
“It was one of those freak moments when it all just happened in one small motion.
“It is probably only after I finished that I looked back and really thought about it and it’s really nice that fans still remember it and want to talk about it.
“But do you know what? Yes, it was the best goal I scored and a favourite for the fans.
“Yet the first one I scored in that game is just as much my favourite because it’s something I worked on over and over in training for years – one touch and shoot.
“And above all, the best thing about that day was that we won the game, that was more important than any of the goals that I scored.”
Ebanks-Blake made it seven in seven with his brace at the Valley, although there was just as much pride in the achievement of his magnificent goal from the man providing the assist.
“I spoke about this with Sylvan a few years ago – and he didn’t even realise it was me who made the pass,” says Foley, obviously tongue-in-cheek.
“Typical selfish striker, eh? Hopefully by now he realises who set up his best ever goal, and I’ll always be in his head!”
It was a goal that deserved to win the game. Deserved to win any game. Yet incredibly, it wasn’t enough.
Just over a minute into added time, a long and hopeful ball into the Wolves penalty area was met by Leroy Lita whose inch-perfect header found the bottom corner.
It was his first goal for Charlton, and he’d been on the end of some stick from the home fans, so little wonder he whipped his shirt off and ran to the bench to celebrate with boss Alan Pardew.
“That felt like a sickener,” Henry recalls.
“I can still picture the scene of Leroy Lita taking off his top and running to the bench to celebrate – we were dejected.
“Like every Wolves fan watching, we just couldn’t believe it, throwing two points away like that.
“It’s the sort of setback that can really knock the stuffing out of a team.
“But we had real fighting qualities in that squad, our mentality was always to go right to the end.
“We still wanted to win the game, and, as deflated as we were, didn’t accept that it was going to finish as a draw.”
And so it proved. Because just as Wolves didn’t want to accept a draw, neither did Henry in particular.
Straight after Lita’s leveller they pushed forward, Keogh having a long range shot deflected over after which a looping header from Kevin Kyle, on as an 86th minute substitute for Ebanks-Blake, came back off the crossbar.
Kyle also wasn’t finished, though.
As the game ticked towards the end of the four minutes of added time, with Charlton also pushing for a winner, Kyle broke down the left.
Henry was still in his own half when Kyle picked up the ball. But, all of a sudden, he was away. A defensive midfielder by trade, albeit having been a striker in junior football, it’s not the sort of run he would normally be expected to make.
“I have no idea why I did it,” he recalls.
“I think I was probably still so annoyed by their equaliser that it fired me up.
“When the ball went out wide, I saw they were a bit light at the back and decided to go for it.
“I saw their defender was sort of trying to track back but he didn’t really commit or bust a gut to stay with me.
“Every now and again I used to make runs like that, and most of the time they came to nothing.
“I’d even had a really good chance earlier in that game when a shot from Sylvan came back off the post and it was just behind me and I hooked it wide.”
This time was different.
Kyle sent in a pinpoint low cross which Henry slid in to effortlessly dispatch before diving headlong into the Wolves fans who were going crazy behind the goal.
“The ball from Kevin Kyle was perfect,” the captain continues.
“There was no one else up there so to play into my path like he did was incredible.
“It was an instinctive finish, more so than the first chance which came off the post, and when you are running at full pelt with momentum it is always more instinctive.”
The game kicked off and seconds later referee Keith Stroud blew the final whistle. That was it, three points and delight for Wolves. Devastation and pretty much the end of the season for Charlton. It only takes a second to score a goal.
Henry reflects: “What a special goal, and for my own momentum to then take me right into the crowd was amazing, and probably the best individual moment of my career.
“When you think you have lost out on victory right at the death, to go and then get it back with seconds remaining was just incredible.
“Of course, you always want to win your home games when more of your fans are there but there is always something really satisfying about taking three points on your travels.
“To go into the lion’s den, somebody else’s backyard, saying we are coming to your place and taking the points and leaving you nothing was always a little bit special.”
It was also a little bit special for Ebanks-Blake, not just because of the quality of his goals, the second of which would go on – unsurprisingly - to be named as the Championship’s Goal of the Season.
It was also his 22nd birthday.
“We’d got a bit of a night out planned in London for afterwards, and you can only really do that if you win the game,” he recalls.
“So, the pressure was on, but the way we won that game made it an even better night that’s for sure!
“At that time, my whole existence was goalscoring.
“Even in the youth teams with Manchester United before I came to Wolves, I prided myself on how many goals I scored, and judged myself over a season.
“It just clicked for me at Wolves from the moment I signed, it all worked straightaway.
“Sometimes you get into that little pocket of form, and you don’t even think about it, it becomes natural and instinctive and that’s what happened for me that day at Charlton.”
Henry’s goalscoring heroics were slightly less regular, albeit often fairly dramatic. He had already picked up an injury during the Charlton game after taking the brunt of Lita’s bodyweight after making a sliding challenge.
He didn’t have any treatment, the adrenalin kept him going, but he actually tore into the box to score that winning goal with a torn medial ligament in his knee.
This came 12 months on from when he also scored the winner in a 3-2 victory, away at Luton, and on that occasion took an elbow in the ribs which turned out to be a damaged spleen.
He wasn’t known for his goalscoring and that effort at The Valley was his sixth in his first 73 league appearances for Wolves. In the following 177 in the league, he didn’t find the net, although ironically went mighty close to scoring again away at Charlton, from the halfway line!
That lack of impact at the attacking end of the pitch was mainly due to Wolves’ promotion to the Premier League, where his defensive capabilities as a midfielder were far more paramount, and others such as Dave Edwards and David Jones would be tasked with breaking forward.
Perhaps it also makes that last-gasp winner even more of a treasured memory, so is it one he has shown footage of to young footballing sons Marley and Monty?
“Of course I have, a couple of times every month at least,” he laughs.
“But why not? When I look back now, I wish I had made more of those runs and enjoyed more of those emotions because that goal far outweighs so much of the other stuff I did in football.
“People talk about having goosebumps and the hairs standing up on the back of your neck – I still get those every time I watch the clip.
“That was big enough for me, but imagine doing it in a cup final, a Champions League final, a World Cup final, that must be ridiculous!
“It is still really special for me, especially as it came during such an exciting time when we went on to have some great successes at Wolves with such a great group of people.”
It wasn’t just among the fans, players and staff – McCarthy’s celebrations were something to behold – that there was unconfined joy that evening at The Valley.
It was also seen within the Charlton press box, which is just made of the front row stretching all the way down the Stand.
Etiquette dictates that any club affiliations or preferences are left at the door and, whatever should transpire on the pitch, decorum is maintained.
That’s not always easy, as was the case on this occasion, with Wolves’ then Head of Marketing & Communications Matt Grayson, and legendary lifelong Wolves fan John ‘Fozzie’ Hendley.
“Big gaps had appeared across the pitch and both sides were pretty much dead on their feet and heading for a point apiece - or so we thought,” Grayson recalls.
“Sylvan’s incredible equaliser would normally have been the high point of an end to end game - then up steps Karl Henry.
“We saw Karl set off on a sprint from around the halfway line heading towards the Charlton area, overtaking a striker who’d come on as a substitute whilst he was at it!
“I remember turning to Fozzie, using some choice language in questioning the captain’s decision-making in that moment!
“Foz was on it straightaway though, on the edge of his seat and muttering ‘gew on Karl’ under his breath.
“The rest is history of course. Karl slid the ball home in spectacular fashion and didn’t seem to break stride as he hurdled the advertising hoarding and dived straight into the travelling support.
“Cue wild celebrations, including in the press box. Trying to observe media etiquette, Foz and myself were half hugging and half exchanging punches on the arm, which must have been some sight!
“Like many fans of a certain vintage, I’ve seen some great games down the years, but that match was very special. And a clear taster of what was to come in the following season and that wonderful Championship-winning year.”
Indeed so, because despite the win, Wolves fourth in five away games at the time, and despite losing only two of their final 15 league games that season, a few too many draws meant the team failed to reach the play-offs.
But that Championship glory would finally arrive the following season, taking Wolves back to the Premier League.
There may have been bigger and higher profile late successes in recent seasons. And Wolves would certainly take one of those at the City Ground a week on Saturday afternoon.
But there will always be room in the memory bank for this particular trip to South London a decade-and-a-half ago next week. When Sylvan was sensational and Henry was King.