While the previous Saturday at Valley Parade was tense and nervous, Saturday 21st April 2002 was a celebration at the Hawthorns that those who were present will remember for ever.
Looking back, I certainly felt confident that the work was done and Megson’s Albion would do the business against Crystal Palace. Others may have felt differently, but the way in which the Baggies had reeled in their Black Country neighbours over the previous couple of months convinced me that they would not fail at this stage.
Crystal Palace striker, Clinton Morrison, had stoked the fire in the week before the match promising to help out his Irish international teammates at Molineux, but I’m sure it did little more than fire up Albion players and fans alike.
It was a gloriously sunny day and a real party atmosphere at the Hawthorns and the Albion fans expected.
Russell Hoult had to pull off a fine save early on when Danny Granville’s shot deflected towards the top corner off Darren Moore’s head, but any nerves were settled on 17 minutes. Andy Johnson won a free kick when he was fouled by Riihilahti on the left hand side about 40 yards from goal. The previous week’s hero, Igor Balis, swung the ball into the box. Big Dave got his head to it at the far post to nod it back across goal, only for Riihilahti to head it straight back to the big centre back and he side footed the ball over the line from two yards out.
The Hawthorns exploded with noise at just the second goal that Moore had scored that season. The party could now start!
Nine minutes after half time and Haydn Mullins slid in on Adam Chambers and referee, Eddie Wolstenholme, gave the free kick some 25 yards from goal.
Neil Clement went for goal and Palace stopper, Alex Kolinko, could only parry the ball out to Bob Taylor, who slid the ball home for number two. It was only fitting that the Albion legend should be the one to score the goal that confirmed promotion back to the top flight. He had left the Hawthorns in 1998 to play Premier League football with Bolton Wanderers, but now he would get the opportunity to do the same for his beloved Baggies.
At the final whistle, thousands of fans invaded the pitch in celebration – the long exile from top flight football was finally over!
As it turned out, Albion only needed a draw as Wolves could only earn a point with a 2-2 result against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough. They were consigned to the play-offs and ended up losing 3-2 on aggregate to Norwich City in the semi-final.
|Division One Final Table – 21st April 2002|
Since that season, the two clubs have only been in the same division for four seasons. Wolves were successful in the play-off final the following season, beating Sheffield United 3-0 at the Millenium Stadium, as Albion were relegated, and the two clubs swapped divisions once again in summer 2004.
It wasn’t until the 2006/07 season that the two neighbours were both back in what was now the Championship, but they made up it by meeting each other on no less than five occasions that season – two regular league games, one cup tie and the two play-off semi-final legs, all but one won by Albion with a combined aggregate score of 10-3. In fact, of the eleven games between the sides since that wonderful day in April 2002, Wolves have won just two while Albion have been victorious on seven occasions.
The men from Molineux may have the upper hand at the moment, but I, for one, am looking forward to the next Black Country Derby whenever it may be. The 5-1 win in 2012 may be the most recent success but, wonderful as that was, I always like to step back in time to 2002 – that was really special.