Wolves throwback: The side that never gave up in the hunt for one more goal
Wolves’ last game of the season with Manchester United carried added emotional significance as it brought an end to the four-year tenure of Nuno Espirito Santo. But for sheer drama and unbridled tension, the final day at Molineux a decade ago will take some beating.
It started off as a quiet murmur. Like the gentle hum of chatter before the start of a film at the cinema or a theatre performance. Like a classroom deciding just how much noise they can get away with before the teacher loses patience. Or an orchestra tuning up for a big performance.
The chat spread quickly. ‘Birmingham have scored….what does that mean?...do we need another one?’
Fans were jumpy. Not so much on the edge of their seats as not even daring to sit down in the first place.
The volume increased. Ever louder conversation. Growing more and more frantic by the second.
And then it erupted. Like that orchestra bursting into life. A choir of sorts, the Molineux choir. In complete unison, with decibels off the scale.
“ONE GOOOOOAL….WE ONLY NEED ONE GOAL.”
There have been many dramatic finishes to have graced Molineux down the years, some on the final day of the season as well.
But just over a decade ago, May 22nd, 2011 to be precise, came a drama which is surely out there on its own.
One of those nerve-jangling afternoons where the tension was as painful as it was palpable.
To pinch, and slightly tweak, a play-off final line of commentary from the great John Helm – you could, ‘reach out and touch it’ such was the pressure throughout the packed and expectant stadium.
It was the final day of the Premier League season in which five teams were battling to avoid the two remaining relegation spots, with West Ham already condemned to the Championship after throwing away a 2-0 lead against fellow strugglers Wigan in the previous game.
And so, in descending order, Blackburn (40 points), Wolves (40), Birmingham (39), Blackpool (39) and Wigan (39) were left to fight it out on Sky Sports’ Survival Sunday (top marks for the wonderful alliteration).
The fact that Wolves were taking on Blackburn just added to the intrigue.
Meanwhile, a drama as spinetingling as this probably merits a little bit more setting of the scene.
In doing so, it is worth noting that Wolves were only still in the hunt to beat the drop thanks to successive victories at home to West Bromwich Albion and then away at Sunderland.
There was a nice touch to the win at Sunderland with Jody Craddock among Wolves’ goalscorers, but the preceding victory in the big derby with Albion – still the most recent over the local rivals – was to some extent the Stephen Hunt show.
Yes Steven Fletcher grabbed a brace, but Hunt, brought in to replace Matt Jarvis for his first start after an injury-hit four months, had an absolute stormer.
This was the energetic Duracell bunny character that Mick McCarthy had signed the previous summer, the bottle of pop which has been shaken to such an extent that it’s going to explode as soon as you start taking the lid off.
“I had a lot to make up for,” recalls Hunt, who having completed his Wolves signing the previous summer whilst on crutches due to a foot injury had then suffered another absence with a hernia injury.
“Having been injured when I signed I picked up another problem but I had an operation on my groin which had worked and I started that West Brom game.
“That was one of the times I was pain free at Wolves and was how I played most of my career which unfortunately Wolves didn’t see the best of.
“I remember getting at it for the first five to ten minutes and trying to set the tempo for the team, and I was still going at the end when (Richard) Stearman fell over and I had to run after someone to get a tackle in to save him even more embarrassment!
“I really enjoyed that game, and that little spell was probably the best I enjoyed in my Wolves career.”
Those back-to-back victories at least ensured Wolves were in the mix on the final day in which the five teams were separated by that solitary point with goal differences ranging between minus 14 and minus 22.
“It was going right to the wire but we were in good spirits going into the game off the back of those two successive wins,” then skipper Karl Henry recalled this week.
“We all knew that if we won, we stayed up, and that was our mindset and what we were aiming for.
“We went out with the intention of trying to win the game and only if that wasn’t happening would we be looking at all the other permutations during the second half.”
“It was definitely a winnable game,” adds Hunt, with Wolves the only side of the quintet at home as, aside from Blackburn, Birmingham were on the road at Tottenham, Blackpool at Manchester United and Wigan at Stoke.
And yet, by half time, almost inexplicably, Wolves were 3-0 down.
Goals from Jason Roberts, Brett Emerton and Junior Hoilett left Molineux stunned in what Rovers boss Steve Kean described as their most impressive 45 minutes of the whole season.
“Shocked,” is pretty much all Hunt can say, even now.
It wasn’t like Wolves were dreadful. Slightly nervous, perhaps. And nowhere near as incisive as a Blackburn side who soaked up any pressure and struck menacingly on the counter attack to pretty much secure their Premier League status whilst barely breaking sweat.
“Sometimes in games there isn’t really too much in it but teams just score goals from nowhere,” says Henry.
“I remember a 3-3 against Spurs once when Jermain Defoe scored two absolutely brilliant goals from long range.
“For Blackburn that day Brett Emerton smashed a volley from distance and Junior scored a really good goal.
“I don’t think we were particularly poor in that first half or that they battered us but all of a sudden we were 3-0 down at half time and everyone was just shell-shocked.
“We were properly up against it, and were going to have to compose ourselves and stay calm while knowing we had to force the issue a bit to get back into the game.”
Television footage captured McCarthy putting his hand to his head after Hoilett’s third on the stroke of half time, but there was no ranting and raving during the interval.
Contrary to what might be a widespread opinion, McCarthy rarely went in for the hairdryer treatment as part of his team talks, even when three goals adrift and, at that stage, now occupying the bottom three.
“There weren't a whole load of expletives, no," the manager revealed at the time.
"There was no point, because the lads were on their knees. It was more a case of encouraging.”
What McCarthy did foster within the four walls of the dressing room was a very open culture, where, as well as his own instructions, everyone was encouraged to have their say.
And during that 15 minutes, it was a contribution from his trusted number two which the players recall making a particularly powerful impact.
“Obviously Mick would always say something at half time and as players we would always speak to each other,” Henry explains.
“Every player would usually have something to say to others, maybe in little groups, and as captain I’d be ranting and raving no doubt.
“But what I always remembered from that game is the impact TC (Terry Connor) had during half time.
“He would usually say something as part of the discussion but on this day he said a little bit more than usual.
“I just remember it was really inspiring, and made us really motivated going back out onto the pitch.”
“I remember being inspired by TC’s words,” added Hunt.
“It just galvanised all of us.
“I was never shy in saying my piece but I remember following up on TC’s words and echoing that fight to the end mentality but also focusing on getting the first goal.”
What exactly did Connor say to add weight to the other half time discussions and have such an impact on the shell-shocked players?
Over to the man himself.
“The gaffer would always do the half time team talk and at the end he would ask me to add a bit if needed,” Connor reveals.
“I know everyone always used to talk about my clipboard, but this is what it was used for!
“It was like a checklist of things we spotted during the first half that we needed to mention, and as the gaffer went through everything at half time, I would tick them off.
“If there was anything left at the end that he hadn’t highlighted, then I would mention it at the end.
“For that particular game, everything we had done in the week had been as normal as possible.
“We knew it was a big game, and how much it meant, but the one scenario we didn’t envisage was being three goals down at half time.
“We thought it might be really nip and tuck right to the finish, but being 3-0 down made half time really important for us to try and redirect the players to get something out of the game.
“What I said was that nobody had planned for this, but that we still didn’t have to go down.
“We might still lose the game and stay up, and it wasn’t necessarily about being heroes and going out to win 4-3, it might only need one or two goals depending on goal difference.
“It was just a reminder to the lads that their destiny was still in their own hands, that only them - the players and the substitutes - could change things over the next 45 minutes.
‘We couldn’t rely on anyone else or affect anything else, it was all about going out and doing what they could to play for the club and to play for their futures.”
It did the trick, Al Pacino style in the film, Any Given Sunday.
The players went back out with a renewed vigour and belief as they got back to work for what was destined to be another rollercoaster half of Premier League football.
There had already been many permutations in the first half as fortunes fluctuated depending on events across the country.
And that was not going to change in the second.
Birmingham going behind at Tottenham lifted Wolves out of the bottom three, and that crucial first goal after the interval at Molineux, did indeed come from the men in gold.
“I just touched a free kick across to Jamie O’Hara who had the ability to score from situations like that and we got back into the game,” adds Hunt.
And yet, just a few minutes later, Craig Gardner dragged Blues level at White Hart Lane, and, with Wigan ahead at Stoke, Wolves were once more heading to the Championship.
The tension, if that was even possible, increased further.
It was by this time that the passing of messages of information about those other games started to go into overdrive.
Three years earlier Wolves had taken on Plymouth on the final day, winning 1-0 with a late goal when just two more would have meant they could have overhauled sixth-placed Watford, who had drawn.
Wolves had decided to focus mainly on their own fortunes and try not to be distracted by events elsewhere, but now, on this occasion, nothing was being left to chance.
A radio link was in place between backroom staff on the bench and those who were watching coverage from Sky Sports News in the home dressing room.
Information pretty much in real time was therefore finding its way to McCarthy and Connor, which would shape their views in deciding how best to approach the closing minutes of the game.
On this occasion however, the fans probably got there first.
Social media was still in its early days, and a decent phone signal to keep abreast of proceedings elsewhere was pretty much non-existent.
So it was that many fans had opted for the traditional approach of donning the headphones and listening on the radio – some traditions never fade!
And so came the eruption: ‘ONE GOOOOOAL….WE ONLY NEED ONE GOAL.”
“We needed to hear that information and needed to know if we needed to go after a goal,” says Henry.
“Even in any game, you always tend to look at the last 20 minutes or so in a different way to the first 70.
“By that stage you know if you need to chase the game, or shut up shop, or if for example you are drawing away from home and know a point would be a good one.
“We were getting messages passed on but obviously we could hear the crowd as well.
“They were reacting throughout the game as goals went in elsewhere and that gave us a sense of what we needed to do.
“And by the time we were going into the last few minutes, and we heard that song, the crowd were cheering us on and pushing us forward.”
With five minutes to go Henry was substituted, and replaced by Adlene Guedioura.
Wolves still needed a hero, and that was a role which Hunt felt he was destined for that season.
Providing he was still on the pitch.
“At one point I was thinking to myself when a change was being made that it might be me coming off,” he admits.
“A lot of us got away with it as I don’t think we had played well and anyone could have gone.
“But it wasn’t me, I stayed on, and still we needed that one goal.
“It was so tight it was ridiculous, at times that day was just a blur, but I will always remember that song from the fans.
“And for me, I had the mindset all along of thinking I was going to get a big goal, a goal that might keep us up, because I had been injured for so long.
“That didn’t mean it was definitely going to happen, but maybe it was just meant to be.”
Then, with 87 minutes on the clock. came the moment.
Wolves’ Aguero moment. Or Michael Thomas for an older generation. The moment Hunt etched his name into Molineux folklore.
Wayne Hennessey launched the ball forward, Steven Fletcher flicked it on, and Hunt controlled it perfectly.
There was still, however, plenty to do.
“It was actually more calculated than people might think,” Hunt insists.
“Fletch used to time his leaps so well and get the slightest of touches to the ball so for me it was about getting in the right place to get on the end of it.
“And when I did, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t really have any other option except to shoot.
“No one was screaming for a pass, and in that split second I decided to hit it.
“Have a go, aim for the corner, and bang.
“It was precision more than anything else and, as I have said, maybe it was just meant to be.”
Hunt being Hunt, even as the ball hit the net and Molineux descended into pandemonium, he started to manically run back towards the centre circle before his delirious team-mates wrestled him to the floor in celebration.
“You know me, 100 miles an hour when I am playing,” he chuckles.
“Even though I knew we needed one goal, and it might have been enough to keep us up, the game was so intense that I wasn’t able to stop and celebrate and was just running back to kick off.
“It was only because the rest of them were pulling me to the ground that I had to actually stop for a couple of seconds.”
Wolves were out of the bottom three, by virtue of more goals scored (46 to 37) than Birmingham, with both on the same goal difference.
And then, as news of Hunt’s heroics spread to White Hart Lane, Blues started piling forward, knowing their Premier League fate now relied on grabbing a winner.
Back at Molineux, Wolves and Blackburn were almost passing the ball between themselves, no one wanting to make a mistake, no one daring to go forward.
As it stood, both teams were safe.
“That was the longest few minutes of the game for me,” Hunt recalls.
“I just had this fear that if their keeper kicked it long and all of a sudden they were in on goal everything might change again.
“I was so tempted to chase the ball when they had it and really had to stop myself, it was like someone had put on a spell on me to stop me moving and closing the opposition down.”
There was still time for a moment of horror, at least for the backroom staff in the dressing room.
The familiar shriek of ‘GOAL’ on Sky Sports’ coverage was followed by presenter Jeff Stelling staring down the barrel of the lens before uttering the immortal words: “There has been a goal at White Hart Lane.”
Surely not. A winner now for Blues and Wolves would be down.
And yet, in pushing forward in search of that goal, Birmingham, at that time the Carling Cup holders, had left themselves open at the back. Roman Pavlyuchenko powered forward to fire home his second goal of the afternoon and effectively seal victory for Spurs, and sanctuary for Wolves.
Phew! Wolves were finally able to relax, play out the surreal finale, and the final whistle heralded another of those magical Molineux pitch invasions.
“Relief, that was the emotion at the end,” Henry recalls.
“We were celebrating staying up by the skin of our teeth and it certainly wasn’t the same feeling as getting promoted but was probably on a par with importance.
“Those seasons when you are battling down at the bottom are just relentless and it is such a tough place to be.
“And that last day, with so many permutations and not quite knowing what was happening elsewhere, was a horrible situation to be in.
“It certainly wasn’t for the faint-hearted, but we had a manager who has an abundance of character and demanded the same from us, and so we fought.
“But yes, afterwards it was relief, because there had been so much pressure on our backs it probably wasn’t until it was over that we realised just how much we were carrying.”
“I don’t think I have ever been so relieved to lose a game 3-2,” adds Connor.
“And the celebration at the end, well that was about the other 37 games as well, and the fact that we had another Premier League season to look forward to.
“It was so hard fought, and the lads answered that call in the second half and went out and did what they needed to do to keep us out of the bottom three.
“I think that is the only reason they really remember what I said on top of the tactical information from the gaffer – because what we talked about in terms of getting ourselves back into the game actually happened.”
As McCarthy reflected on the incredible afternoon, he was engulfed in a sea of champagne by the ever-exuberant George Elokobi.
“If it wasn’t Elokobi then I’d ‘do’ him,” the boss reacted.
“Elokobi reacted like we had won the World Cup,” laughs Hunt, who had popped up with surely the most important of the 64 goals notched in a career which came to an end five years ago this month.
Never one to forego an opportunity, Hunt also popped in a cheeky and barely serious request for a new contract which, given he still had two years on his existing deal, didn’t receive a favourable reply!
“When I look back I was probably the only one who wasn’t jumping around celebrating,” Hunt explains.
“I had gone through an exhausting time with injury, and, more than anything else, was just happy to show what I could do and play my part.
“I guess thinking about it now, it was a key moment of Wolves’ recent history and, as a player, the sort of moment you live for.
“It helped the club financially – the value of that goal seems to go up every year – and maybe it kept a few people at the club in jobs, and it’s just nice to look back on a career and think that it means something to a lot of people.
“If I watch the goal back, you see people’s faces in the crowd, and the place absolutely erupted.
“When I bump into Wolves fans these days, if they recognise me with the grey hair, then they will always talk about that goal.
“It’s something that will always be nice to be remembered for.”
The Toaster banner unfurled at full time read, ‘You’ve kept us up again’, and that dramatic final day was a fitting epitaph to a campaign in which Wolves beat all of the top three – including ending Manchester United’s season-long unbeaten run - and won at Anfield for the first time in 27 years.
Sadly the sting in the tail arrived with Wolves ending the following season being relegated, by which time McCarthy had been relieved of his duties.
Such has been the trajectory and expectations in recent times that it may – hopefully - be a long time before Wolves head into the final day of a season facing such a desperate scrap for survival.
But an epic afternoon against Blackburn will surely be forever recalled as one of the most glorious defeats in Wolves history.
Sometimes Abba, the winner doesn’t take it all. Sometimes, that old EastEnders cheeky chappie Wicksy - Nick Berry - is right, and Every Loser Wins.
Sometimes, you do only need one goal.