Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: When Mick picked up a true Wolves gem for just £25,000
Cutting in from the right, Michael Kightly drifted past two defenders and, on his weaker left foot, clipped a delightful curler into the far corner of the goal, in front of a jubilant North Bank.
It capped a 5-1 victory over Nottingham Forest that came to be regarded as the greatest performance of Mick McCarthy’s 2008/09 Championship title winners. The goal was little more than an exercise in gilding the lily after a phenomenal first-half performance saw Wolves race into a four-goal lead.
“That first 45 minutes was as good a performance as I’ve seen from a team of mine – or indeed any team – for a very long time,” purred the Wolves boss. The August victory put Wolves top of the table on goal difference and set the standard which was maintained throughout the campaign.
The match captured all the qualities of McCarthy’s team. David Jones ‘stylish strike into the bottom corner set Wolves on their way. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake teed Kightly up for his first – a nonchalant swipe with his right from outside the box that went in off bar.
The best move came when Karl Henry tenaciously won the ball in midfield and fed the speeding Matt Jarvis down the left, who in turn picked out Chris Iwelumo for a powerful first-time finish.
Traditional Wolves football.
Pacey wingers who beat a man before crossing accurately. A bit of doggedness through the spine of the team and, in Wayne Hennessey, an outstanding goalkeeper.
Just a few weeks after Henry, the team’s skipper, announced his retirement he has been followed by the man-of-the-match that day. Kightly came to represent the very best of that Wolves side, symbolising the qualities of McCarthy’s management.
In the post-Sir Jack Hayward era, and left drifting under previous manager Glenn Hoddle, the need to rebuild on a tight budget was important.
McCarthy unearthed several gems from the lower leagues. His assistant coach, Ian ‘Taff’ Evans, was a key figure in the recruitment department in those early days. Andy Keogh, Stephen Ward, Jarvis and Henry were amongst those who made a big impact. But it was the Basildon-born winger, a £25,000 recruit from non-league Grays Athletic in November 2006, who attracted the most attention. Released by Southend United in the summer of 2005, there were no suitors in the professional game so he went part-time.
In an interview in early 2007, I asked Kightly if he thought his career was over, but he maintained the thought never crossed his mind, even if his Grays career began in the worst possible way.
“Obviously I was majorly disappointed to be released, but I knew if I could get my head down, and get a chance elsewhere, I could make it back into the Football League,” he said.
“I started the first game of the season for Grays and had a nightmare. I got hauled off and didn’t play again for another ten games.”
He was soon producing the sort of displays Wolves fans came to love and it was no surprise that he moved on the following season.
Wolves were one of several clubs interested in the player. Grays chairman Mick Woodward took the phone call from McCarthy and a loan deal was quickly arranged, with the move becoming permanent a short time later.
“Wolves came in and asked to take him on loan, and when we were up at Wolves we had Manchester United on the phone asking if a deal had been done,” Woodward later admitted.
Kightly’s performances earned him runners-up spot in the club’s 2006/07 player of the Season awards behind goalkeeper Matt Murray.
The following season his impact was hampered by injury problems that dented Wolves’ challenge for promotion. But the 2008/09 campaign was where it all clicked.
“Football is about luck, everyone needs that chance,” Kightly said, when we sat down for another interview towards the end of the Championship-winning season.
“I feel I could have played at Southend quite easily. For whatever reason other people’s opinions didn’t agree with that. It was just about getting that little bit of luck to show what I could do.”
When he stood there on the Championship winners’ podium after a final day Molineux victory over Doncaster Rovers, the journey from non-league to Premier League had been completed.
The trophy lift has since been committed to canvas, with club captain and respected artist Jody Craddock painting the scene.
It is a mildy comic one for Kightly, as only the very top of his head is on show in the photograph, and subsequent painting. Kightly had broken his metatarsal four weeks earlier and missed the final games.
On crutches and unable to leap in the air at the moment the trophy was raised, his face is the major omission on Craddock’s work. Sadly, it was injury problems that curtailed any further advancement. He made only nine Premier League appearances before succumbing to an ankle injury. After an operation and further complications he did not reappear until April 2011. In October that year he was loaned out to Watford, before returning to Wolves in early 2012 as the club headed towards relegation.
Kightly received some criticism for moving to Stoke City in the summer of 2012 and remaining in the Premier League, after Wolves had overseen his recovery. But it was misguided criticism. Players’ careers are short – after all, his is now over – and they have the right to make the most of them.
That ankle injury left mental scars that never completely healed. He was a different player for Stoke, and later Burnley, never recapturing the free-spirited performances of 2008/09.
There is a lingering sense of what might have been when Wolves fans discuss Kightly’s career, but it should be remembered fondly. Rarely can £25,000 have been better spent.