The Millennium Stadium

Ground No. 23
Visited - Monday 26th May 2003
Result - Sheffield United 0-3 Wolverhampton Wanderers
Competition - Nationwide Division One Play-Off Final
Attendance - 69,473

As it always seems to have been come the month of May, it had been a long and hard season, with numerous ups and downs along the way and many of the moments of joy and frustration that come with being a football fan. It had all started off brightly, three wins from four leaving Wolves top of the table after the opening games, but a mixed autumn saw the club gradually fall down the league and going into Christmas a poor run of results left manager Dave Jones teetering on the verge of being sacked, the end of season collapse in 2001-02 still looming large over the club. It all seemed to be unravelling but only 2 losses in the new year had seen the team recover well, making the play-offs comfortably with games to spare, and after a memorable semi-final win at the Madejski Stadium against Reading, then it all came down to a mere 90 minutes. Win and it had all been worth it, lose and the previous ten months had meant nothing.

Forest and Sheffield United had been the other two sides to make up the four play-off spots, with the Blades emerging victorious after two controversial games which had seen the second leg go to extra-time, United having two of the three goals scored to settle the tie (both sides having netted own-goals during the extra 30 minutes!). Most Wolves fans would have preferred Forest to have won, with United looking the stronger of the two, and indeed they were made the favourites going into the final, having already beaten us once in an ill-tempered match earlier in season at Molineux (the return leg at Bramall Lane being somewhat discounted with both sides fielding second strings after having confirmed play-off spots already), despite this though, the mood was jubilant, if a little nervy as the big day came round. 

With Wembley going through a lengthy rebuilding process, then it was the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff that was to be the host for the match, so we set off early, having planned to go via Shrewsbury on the train, thinking it might avoid the main route via Birmingham. How wrong we were! The train to Shrewsbury was absolutely rammed full of gold and black clad supporters, so there was no chance to sit down as we headed off into Shropshire, arriving later than scheduled. There was a bit of panic as the train pulled in to see the Cardiff bound train closing its doors and the guard blow his whistle. It looked relatively empty, with a small group of Sheffield fans hogging the nearest table looking smug, but their faces soon seemed to drop as they saw a wave of gold and black rushing their way screaming to stop the train! Thankfully the doors were re-opened, and we all got on, although having to stand the whole way there didn’t help, but we arrived safely without any further incidents.

There had been quite a bit of trouble at the two league games between Wolves and United, and it was half expected for it to be the same here, but as we headed out into the city there was a carnival atmosphere, fans freely mixing, with large scale games of football going on in the packed streets. We’d arrived fairly early by midday, but already the pubs were packed and what shops were open on the Bank Holiday had long sold out of beer, so after walking around soaking up the atmosphere a little more, we decided to go in early and drink inside the ground.

Standing on the site of the old Cardiff Arms Park, the Millennium Stadium had been opened in 1999 to host the Rugby World Cup, largely funded by the Welsh RFU. It had been playing host to the major football events since Wembley closed in 2001 thanks to having the largest capacity of any ground in England & Wales. Wolves had been given the South end of the stadium, but despite having a slightly larger allocation than the North end, the ticket selling procedure had still caused a lot of arguments in the run-up to the day, with fans only being given a choice of price band and a maximum of five in one purchase, meaning no-one had been able to plan to get together in large groups. It turned out that we were in the lower tier, just beneath the overhang of the tier above. Facilities here were as expected in a new stadium, with the view being OK, if a little shallow and slightly cut off from the rest of the ground due to the overhang.

It was the shallow rake of the stand, not to mention the nerves kicking in that had started off a few arguments as the game got underway, fans refusing to sit down, much to the annoyance of some. It even looked as though it might kick-off right in front of us, until Mark Kennedy came to the rescue by rifling home a low shot in the sixth minute to send everyone into ecstasy. It was the start no one was expecting, especially Sheffield United who had been expecting to boss the game from the off, but a frantic opening with chances at both ends had seen the atmosphere build and build, and the goal seemed to send it a notch higher still. It could have been 2-0 shortly afterwards when a nervous Paddy Kenny messed up to allow Nathan Blake in, only to see Jagielka clear off his shot off the line, but the Welsh forward wasn’t to be denied on 22 minutes when he headed home from a corner to double the advantage. The game started to settle after this, and Sheffield were starting to get back into it, Matt Murray making a wonder save to keep out a deflection from Paul Ince that looked destined to be an own-goal until he got his finger tips to it. Dennis Irwin could have been sent-off as well after a late challenge on Peter Ndlovu and it was just as we were convincing ourselves that it wouldn’t last and it was all bound to go wrong when it all went right… again! With the interval approaching and the Blades fans already filing out to have a half-time pint and grumble then it just got worse and worse for them when Kenny Miller got on the end of a Shaun Newton cross to stick his leg out and divert the ball into the top corner to make it 3-0. It was unreal, it probably wasn’t happening, but when Steve Bennett blew his whistle for the break, then somehow our prayers had been answered and then some!

Everyone had been speechless during half-time, genuinely not quite believing what they’d seen, but with the second half barely underway it all started to come back down to earth and the dream cruelly washed away when Paul Butler was penalised for handball and Steve Bennett pointed to the spot. It was a harsh penalty to give, Butler had his hands virtually behind his back trying not to handle the ball, but it was always going to happen, we were always going to lose the game and building us up like this was fates way of playing with us before rubbing it in. It’s not as if just losing is good enough for Wolves, they have to humiliate you in the process, build up an unassailable lead before blowing it, and here was the start. Up stepped Michael Brown with all the confidence you’d expect from the star player of the bookies favourites and bang…… Matt Murray pulled off the save. We were up, promoted there and then. It was one of those moments that you just knew. Of course there was another 40 minutes of football to play, but with the miss Sheffield United’s confidence went. They knew as much as we did that it wasn’t going to happen for them, and the rest of the game was played out at a slightly more relaxed pace than it had been, the only chances of major note coming late on when both Adam Proudlock and Dean Sturridge had opportunities to increase the score but for some last ditch defending from United.

When the final whistle eventually went then that was the cue for the celebrations to really start. The players had done their jobs on the pitch better than anyone could have asked for and the Premiership dream had finally come true after years of waiting and hoping.

After the cup had been presented and players had done a lap of honour around the Wolves sections, then we eventually left, heading back to the station and making our way home, sitting down for quite literally about the first time all day on the train back. 

The semi-final second leg win at Reading had been one of my best moments in football, and after Alex Rae had danced round the Reading defence to give a late, late win and confirm the place in Cardiff then it seemed like that was as good as it got, but this day had gone one better. They say it’s the best way to get promoted, via the play-offs, although I’m not sure the nerves and tension are what you’d want out of every game, but when the final result turns out like this then it’s difficult to imagine how it can be surpassed. Not only was it a win, a good day, but it was the perfect day. Everything went right, absolutely everything from the early goal to Murray saving the penalty. If Dave Jones himself had written the script then he couldn’t have done it any better!

Unfortunately at the time this was before I started taking pictures at grounds, and camera phones hadn’t really become widespread by then, so I’ve got no photographs from that day, but the ones below are a mixture from a tour six years later in October 2009 and when visiting Ninian Park in September 2006. It was good to go back for the tour. The ground still retains a special aura both inside and out, but it’s interesting to note how some of the more newer grounds have surpassed it in terms of facilities. In 2003 it seemed beyond anything I’d been to at the time yet now, perhaps to a more trained eye these days, it was easy to spot the flaws, especially compared to the likes of Wembley, COMS and the Emirates Stadium. The concourses that had seemed so huge at the time look a little shabby in comparison and even the royal box has worn armrests on the chairs, not to mention less legroom than just the normal seating at Wembley/Emirates, but there are many good things to concentrate on. The grounds location is second to none, right in the middle of the city whilst the stands are a lot closer to the pitch than the other venues mentioned. Its design as well is a lot more unique and characteristic, partly helped by the upper tier of the North Stand having to have been kept from the old Arms Park because of the adjacent rugby club refusing to move or even allow their South Stand be redeveloped so a three tier stand could have been built at this end of the ground. Even despite that though, the best part of the ground is that it doesn’t just feel like a boring, sanitised bowl, like Wembley for instance, so for that reason alone it still ranks there above it in comparison, even if it is due for a refurbishment in places. 

Rear of the East Stand

Rear of the South Stand

Rear of the South Stand

Rear of the West Stand

Rear of the West Stand

Rear of the North Stand

One of the masts that supports the roof

In the Players Tunnel

The Home Dressing Room

The Home Dressing Room

The Home Dressing Room

Artwork in the Dressing Rooms

The Concourse

Lower Tier from pitchside
(where we sat)

The South West Corner

The North Stand

The West Stand

The South Stand

The Millennium Stadium

The Millennium Stadium Panoramic


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