Sometimes in football a player emerges with such obvious talent, it’s quite clear he’s destined for greatness. You know the sort – that player now an international regular at every World Cup, and you can recall his first game for your team, when you stood there opened-mouthed like a right royal buffoon, thinking “Wow!” Matt Murray was this sort, and to boot he was an English goalkeeper. At the time of his rise to prominence in the Wolves side just after the turn of the millennia, all football supporters – not just those making the pilgrimage to Molineux every other Saturday – could see him in the England number one shirt for years to come. Time was not on David Seaman’s side anymore, he was coming close to the end of his tenure in the side, and here was the heir apparent. Yes, Murray was that good – better than Seaman’s already lined up replacement, David James.
Murray was a big, strong strapping fellow, well over six foot tall and quite an imposing sight in the penalty area. He played in a fearless manner, was incredible agile, had exquisite positional sense, lightning quick reactions but above all was one hell of a shot stopper. Murray had a natural ability bordering on a sixth sense to pull of some audacious saves that had the observer watching believe that should never have been possible - including penalty saves. An English ‘keeper who can save penalties, my! Not even Peter Shilton fell into that category. However, alongside his incredible talent, the Wolves shot-stopper persistently suffered the worst possible luck injury-wise, and some people must have even considered was he having an affair with the physio, as he spent so much of his time in the treatment room! (I kid you not).
Murray joined Wolverhampton Wanderers as a nine year old, rising through their Youth Academy to become a very accomplished goalkeeper come his late teens. Upon leaving the Academy in 1998 and signing for the club as a professional, Murray was given a five-year contract – something never heard of or done before – tying a teenager to a long-term contract. Obviously then Wolves manager Mark McGhee could see his potential already, and decided to keep him at Molineux for as long as possible. Come the turn of the millennia, the next Wolves manager – Colin Lee - decided the best thing for Murray was to gain first-team experience to add to his undoubted ability at his tender young age, so was loaned out to non-league Slough Town, then Kingstonian (both in 2000). His injury plagued brief career began as it would continue with – of course – an injury. Twenty minutes into his first appearance for Kingstonian, he suffered damage to the cruciate knee ligament in his left knee, which would keep him out of action for the next two seasons.
An injury to first-choice ‘keeper Michael Oakes in October 2002 meant the now fit Murray was thrust into the Wolves first team. Murray impressed, as he kept repeated clean-sheets, Wolves winning many games by a solitary goal. As the season progressed, Wolves were proving to have the mettle of the all-out rat-race that is the Championship, with the crude and blunt tactics employed by some teams of long ball and / or long throw-ins proving futile against Murray’s agility and physical size. The Wolves ‘keeper had also developed a long throw of his own, which could turn defence into lethal counter attack in the blink of an eye. Matt Murray’s finest hour came in the Play-Off final against Sheffield United in May 2003. Murray was voted man of the match for his efforts in saving Michael Brown’s penalty just after half-time and went onto pulling off a string of high-class saves to prevent the Blades getting back into the match. He was voted Wolves’ Young Player of the Year that season and – having established himself as the successor to Paul Robinson as England Under 21 ‘keeper ahead of Chris Kirkland and Rob Green - there were high hopes that a career now in the top flight would bring full England honours.
However, fate was to intervene in the cruellest way possible, with Murray on the receiving end of a run of injuries that would have crushed the soul of players of less stronger character. Murray just wanted to get match fit and play in goal for Wolves. The Play-Off victory over Sheffield United proved to be the pinnacle of Matt’s career as, after just one Premiership appearance on the opening day of the following season, this was to be the only time he was to grace the English top division. An injury to his back while on England Under 21’s duty, then his foot, ruled him out of the rest Wolves’ inaugural Premiership campaign. Possibly if he’d remained fit (as Paul Jones was not of the same calibre as Murray), along with another local star centre half Joleon Lescott, Wolves would have escaped relegation.
Murray made his long awaited league return in early 2005, when Wolves beat West Ham United 4-2 at a rapturous Molineux, but another serious injury, again to his foot, put paid to that season. It would be another fourteen months before the popular keeper regained fitness and he went on loan to Tranmere Rovers to gain match sharpness, but was recalled to Molineux by manager Glenn Hoddle due to – ironically – injuries to other ‘keepers. Now fully fit, he started the 2006-07 season in a bid to establish himself as a top goalkeeper and future England international. As a relative ‘veteran’ at 25, in a young squad at a club whose expectations had plummeted following underachievement, Murray performed superbly all season, prompting many opposing managers to call for his inclusion for the national team. The 2006-07 season was the Second Coming of Matt Murray and not a moment too soon. Glenn Hoddle had abandoned the club in pre-season and the playing staff was reduced to a dozen as Mick McCarthy took over. A ragtag bunch of free transfer signings were assembled, many of whom now find themselves playing in League One and below… and yet incredibly the side was able to make the Play-Offs, largely thanks to the heroics of Murray in the Wolves goal. One memorable performance was against West Bromwich Albion, where a string of fine saves helped Wolves to a famous win in the Black Country derby. He was also named the PFA Fans Player of the Year, a rare occasion that a goalkeeper won the award.
After beating Leicester City away convincingly, Wolves had booked their place in the Play-Offs. Little did anyone realise at the time was this would be the last competitive game Matt was to play for the club. On the eve of the Play-Off Semi-Final, disaster struck when a broken shoulder ruled him out of the two legged match up against West Bromwich Albion. Once the shoulder had healed, a cruciate injury to his left knee in pre-season training ruled him out of the entire 2007/08 season as it required two operations to put right. By the time he was fit enough to play, another Wolves’ Youth Academy graduate – Wayne Hennessey – had secured the number one shirt as his own. In November 2008, in a bid to gain match practice McCarthy sent Murray to Hereford United on loan. Once again, his injury curse struck. During his third match for the Bulls, he suffered a ruptured patella tendon in his right knee. This led to another year out of the game for this to be treated and intensive rehabilitation to regain match fitness.
In November 2009, Murray started yet another comeback, this time playing a reserve match for Wolves. Part way through the game, he felt discomfort in his knee and was substituted after just twenty-three minutes. This was to prove his last appearance in a Wolves shirt. After much soul-searching and advice from Wolves and medical experts who had treated him, Murray announced his retirement as a player in August 2010, telling the Molineux faithful who had supported him and encouraged him over the years of his decision of having to except the inevitable at half-time during the home match against Aston Villa in September 2010. It is always heart-wrenchingly sad when a player so young retires from the game through injury. However, Matt Murray’s retirement is more difficult to take than most simply because his talents never received the audience they deserved. He was twenty-nine when he hung up his boots and gloves once and for all.
Like Jim Beglin, Murray moved into the media, becoming a touch-line reporter then match summariser for British satellite TV channel, Sky Sports. I don’t doubt for a second if Murray had had some good fortunate and steered clear of injury he’d still be a Wolves player now, but then with a guy of his ability between the sticks, the club’s fortunes would have panned out differently too. With the World cup Finals this summer, it would be Matt Murray wearing the England number one shirt, not Joe Cole. As one of my friends who is an ardent Wolves follower put it, Murray would be the best English goalkeeper around for years, only his body was made of poppadoms.