Johnny Phillips: An FA Cup win that helped define a league season
Wolves’ FA Cup pedigree is not in question.
Four-times winners and on another four occasions runners-up. But that was all in the distant past.
Today, the competition has been marginalised and undervalued, often thought of as a distraction to the more important matters of whatever league the teams are competing in.
Wolves’ recent Cup history includes that famous fourth-round win against Monday’s opponents Liverpool up at Anfield in late January 2017.
But the Cup tie that left the biggest legacy of all on the club’s modern history was without question the one that took place at Molineux back in the first week of 2003.
When Dave Jones’ under-pressure First Division team walked out to face Bobby Robson’s Premier League Newcastle United 16 years ago to the day, the last thing impatient supporters were worried about that season was a Cup run.
Wolves sat 10th in the second tier and there were more than murmurings of discontent among supporters in the wake of the previous season’s promotion capitulation at the hands of arch rivals Albion.
Nineteen years out of the top flight, Wolves were looking odds on to make it an absence of two decades after a mediocre start to the 2002/03 season.
Captain Paul Butler had become a target for supporters’ wrath, losing his place in the heart of defence to Mark Clyde in the autumn. But the experienced skipper had returned to the side four days earlier for an underwhelming 1-1 draw at home to Derby County.
With league form patchy, at best, the players themselves could probably have done without the visit of Newcastle, who would go on to finish third in the Premier League.
Yet the fans entered a bitterly cold stadium that late Sunday afternoon glad of the respite from the league.
The occasion brought the best out of everybody. The players rose to the challenge and the fans created an electric atmosphere all of their own under the Molineux lights.
Robson respected the competition, he was desperate to win it, and was never going to field a side that could be described as understrength – the attacking triumvirate of Laurent Robert, Craig Bellamy and Alan Shearer were in tremendous form.
But Wolves came out a team possessed.
Perhaps stung by some harsh words from owner Sir Jack Hayward in the lead-up to the game, a side bursting with pride stormed into a two-goal lead in a breathless first half hour, through goals from Paul Ince and Mark Kennedy.
The second goal was a stunning length-of-the-pitch move after Matt Murray leapt high to pluck a Newcastle corner out of the air. The young keeper’s pinpoint throw, half the length of the pitch, set Shaun Newton clear. He helped the ball on to Colin Cameron, who cut it back right across the box for Kennedy arriving late from the left wing. The Irishman was the sweetest ball-striker in the team and he placed a first-time shot into the corner past Shay Given.
It was one of the finest goals the famous stadium had witnessed.
Newcastle hit back before half-time through Jermaine Jenas and a Shearer penalty.
Both teams were packed with big-game players relishing the fight. Butler, Ince, Kennedy, Newton and Denis Irwin had the top-flight experience and were never going to feel inferior. Not even when Bellamy left the pitch at half-time goading the home fans by pointing to the Premier League logo on his shirt.
When George Ndah scored five minutes after the restart, Wolves were back in the ascendancy. The noise from the fans just did not let up.
Despite the five goals, it was a piece of defending that also stood out amongst the great moments of the match.
At 2-2, Shearer’s deflected free-kick looked a certain goal, but Joleon Lescott had dropped back on to the line and chested it away, straight into the path of a Newcastle player. Somehow, Lescott scrambled across to make a second goal-line clearance.
There was enough drama to fill a month of football matches. It was so much more than a five-goal thriller.
Wolves left the field to a roaring ovation from their gleeful supporters.
They would go on to beat Leicester City and Rochdale in the next two rounds before falling in the quarter-final stage at Southampton.
Far from being a distraction, the exhilarating victory over the Geordies reignited their league season. Wolves would lose only twice in the First Division as they climbed into the play-off places before winning a memorable final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium against Sheffield United, finally ending that long wait for top-flight football.
Speak to any of the side who went on to win promotion and they will look back on that frost-bitten January day as a key moment in the season.
Whether it gave them the belief or merely reminded the players of the huge talents they possessed, who knows.
But the swagger with which they approached the remainder of the campaign was in stark contrast to the opening months.
The dominance shown in the play-offs, seeing off Reading before the 3-0 rout of Sheffield United, was indicative of a side at the peak of its powers.
It is hard to envisage either Nuno Espirito Santo or Jurgen Klopp fielding full-strength sides on Monday evening. And there may not be a full house to see it. But that Molineux classic on January 5, 2003, is proof the Cup can be just the tonic at this time of year.