Golden day lives on forever: Wolves' 2003 Premier League promotion 20 years on
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.