Best moment in football
I HONESTLY never thought anything would top the playoff final of 2005. Seeing the net bulge as Freddy slammed the ball home at the Millennium Stadium to send us up was my best ever football moment until about 8.27pm on Saturday, 23rd May 2015.
I didn’t realise Dan Bentley had saved it at first. Like many others around me, it wasn’t until Sam Wood flicked his leg helplessly as the ball came back to him that I realised the net had not bulged. It was that and the wall of yellow haring towards the orange-clad goalkeeper that convinced me we had won it. And then everything is just a blur of arms and legs.
That penalty overtook Freddy’s goal. In fact, Freddy’s goal had already been overtaken about 20 minutes earlier, when Joe Pigott’s angled shot hit the net in front of us as we waited for the referee to blow the final whistle. My coat was on, I was ready to leave Wembley in a dejected huff.
My brother informed me afterwards that, during the celebrations for Pigott’s equaliser, he’d never seen me like it. I was “like an animal”. A whole season’s joy, frustration and hope all coming out in a series of tribal roars directed into the night sky around north west London. The ten-hour round trip to see us blow it on the final day in the rain at Morecambe. The horrible March defeat to 10-man Burton, where we failed to avenge last season’s playoff defeat in the most devastating way. Banished in one night that none of us will ever forget.
The day had begun in a rather more subdued fashion, in the surroundings of Farringdon’s strategically positioned Wetherspoons. We gathered at 1pm, arriving from our different entry points into London, but unlike the last game of the season, there was no boistrousness, no singing, no souvenir mobile phone videos being filmed in readiness for glory. Just pure nerves.
I was fine in the pub, but I left alone at about 2.45pm to meet my best mate Si in JJ Moons, Wembley. Once on my own, the butterflies well and truly set in. The overground train from Euston to Wembley Central, populated by only a handful of Wembley-bound supporters, saw my heart rate double as, away from the distraction of conversation, the significance of the occasion dawned.
On arrival, Si was in good spirits despite being irked by denied initial entry to the pub by “WetherNazis” because he was munching on a sausage roll. Si’s attendance this season was non-existant until the playoff semi final second leg, for a variety of reasons, not least a newborn son. But let there be no talk of daytripping here. He and I spent many a Tuesday night away losing to some northern outfit in the dreadful days of the late 1990s. Before the final appearance had been confirmed, he had booked this weekend up in Liverpool, to see one of his relatives get, er, confirmed. Having travelled up to Liverpool on Friday, he got back on a train to London on Saturday morning, and had booked a place on the last train back to Liverpool after the game. It was at 7.56pm. Extra time would be no good, he’d have to be out of the stadium by 7.25pm at the latest. I thought that was more than a little ambitious with both clubs finishing on exactly the same points and showing similar form.
It was also nice to bump into a few other friends and old faces in the pub, before after a few drinks the pub closed up at 4.45pm to allow the clearup ahead of the Saturday night crowd.
We were sitting in different areas so split up after the short walk to the stadium and the only negative part of the day came, when walking to the turnstiles, I could hear an aggressive, clearly drunk Southend fan singing “fuck off Wycombe” in the faces of any unfortunate fans in sky blue that happened to be walking past, including at least one family with young children. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t risk taking him to task – I really hope he was one of those fans later shamed on national telly for leaving early.
The atmosphere in the ground was noticeably better than when some 10,000 more Blues had turned up for the JPT a couple of years ago. The free scarves left on chairs made for a great spectacle, even if some unscrupulous types had been reportedly hoovering them up and bagging them before the fans whom they were meant for had taken their seats. Not very classy, but fortunately most of them seemed to have made their way into the right hands.
I thought during the first half, we were the better side. My main gripe was that the full backs, especially Coker, had been reluctant to support the attack. Marcus Bean, their makeshift right back, was clearly vulnerable, as was their rookie keeper Alex Lynch, and I felt we should have tried harder to make inroads down the flanks.
However, you can hardly blame the players for being cagey on such an occasion, particularly as it has been our default stance for much of the season. Barry Corr had the ball in the net and I was a good three seconds into a frenzied celebration before realising the referee had ruled the goal out thanks to a push by Corr’s fellow compatriot Cian Bolger.
The game was tense and there seemed little in the way of danger for our defence until the latter stages of the second half. Hayes should have done better when put through by Holloway but Bentley denied him and Coker cleared away. Then Bentley made an even better save from Aaron Pierre’s header, which looked to me like it may have been hitting the crossbar.
Southend should have had a penalty when Corr was clattered over by Joe Jacobson when trying to meet Michael Timlin’s diagonal cross, a trademark of the midfielder’s that has led to a few goals this season. At the time I appealed but was unsurprised when it wasn’t given. Having seen it back, it was a stonewall penalty.
It was no surprise when the game went into extra time. I don’t think either team had really done enough to win it. Four minutes later, the tension turned to despair. Jacobson curled a free kick off the bar and into the net. I didn’t watch the big screen behind me for a replay, but it later emerged the ball had gone in off Bentley’s back. It was not something I was aware of at the time, nor had I made the connection that Jacobson should have conceded a penalty some 20 minutes earlier. I’m glad I didn’t, as I got frustrated enough watching Wycombe constantly timewaste and feign injury for what seemed the whole of extra time.
We looked a beaten team. Payne, Weston and Pigott had been brought on to try and turn the game in our favour, but we looked tired and bereft of ideas. When Pigott sent a header well wide in the last minute, it was the signal for me to text my good lady just one word: “Lost”. It was only fair she be aware of the kind of mood I would be in when I returned home that night, season over and promotion gone for the third time in five years. I didn’t even put any kisses at the end.
I remember Weston getting the ball inside his own half on the left and looking hesitant, perhaps looking for a long ball into the box. The crowd pleaded with him to do something, anything. He did. He beat his man and swung a decent cross into the box, but it was behind everyone. I didn’t see who knocked it down, nor did I see Pigott get his shot away, there were too many blue-shirted bodies in the way. All I saw was the ball suddenly appear from the crowd, and it seemed to be as much as a surprise to Alex Lynch as it was to me. The goalkeeper never moved as it flew into the bottom corner. We, on the other hand, did. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such pandemonium after a goal.
The relief was incredible, but we’d not won it yet, we had next to no recovery time before we would have to watch our entire season go down to a penalty shootout. Celebrations turned to tension once more as our entire group of mates in our row linked arms in solidarity with the teams in the centre circle.
Pigott stepped up, Lynch got a hand to it but couldn’t stop it. Murphy sent Bentley the wrong way. Then Ben Coker stepped up. I’d told everyone who would listen in the pub earlier that he’d be my choice to take a penalty in normal time, with Barry having offered up the penalty duties after his semi final miss. Coker, surely would score. He went down the middle, Lynch went to his right, but saved with his legs. Despair once more.
Mawson’s penalty pressed home the advantage – Bentley went the right way but it was too good. Leonard smashed his into the roof of the net. Hayes sent Bentley the wrong way, the Wickford lad was never going to miss. At this stage, it really wasn’t looking too good.
Jack Payne, apparently the best penalty taker at the club, lived up to his mantle. Then up stepped Matt Bloomfield, Wycombe’s longest-serving player, who had lost the ball needlessly in extra time and cost his team. He put it to Bentley’s right, a good height, saved. He’d cost his team again.
With Southend going first, once Timlin had sent Lynch the wrong way, we now had the advantage. It was all on Marcus Bean – being a Col Ewe reject I was praying for him to miss, but it wasn’t to be: he sent Bentley the wrong way. Now we were into sudden death and Adam Barrett walked forward. He smashed it into the top corner and for possibly the last time we were treated to the famous double fist salute. Jacobson then sent Bentley the wrong way and walked away taunting the young goalkeeper.
Up stepped Myles Weston, I could barely watch. I’d stuck up for Myles all season in spite of the idiot boo boys and he’d repaid me by setting up that goal in extra time. If he missed, it would be unbearable. He didn’t. Bottom right, cool as you like. Aaron Holloway, in off the post. So close Bentley. Now Cian Bolger, who had managed to turn his season around in recent weeks. Top right corner, another fantastic penalty.
This looked like it was never going to end. Up stepped Sam Wood, a left footer who had set up the flukiest goal seen at Roots Hall in a long time back in March when his volley hit Steven Craig’s heel and bobbled in. But his luck had run out. Bentley flung himself to his left and the rest is history.
I don’t remember much about the celebration immediately afterwards, just the noise. 20,000 Shrimpers fans going beserk in the national stadium. Will it ever get any better than that? Up the steps the lads went to get the trophy, a great moment in any player’s career, before the champagne was popped on the pitch. Fantastic to see White and Barrett, Essex boys and captains past and present, dancing with the trophy in front of the fans.
I hadn’t realised Brown and Ainsworth had watched the penalties together with great dignity, rightly praised by the national media the following day. For Brown, this was redemption for all the people that had labelled him a figure of fun.
After bumping into several old pals on the way out of the ground and embracing about 100 people, many of whom were complete strangers, it was back to Baker Street to celebrate in the only way we know how. After a brief dither prompted by the number of people outside the Globe, we opted to head for the Volunteer where we managed to persuade the bouncers we meant no harm.
After a few ales, who should we see coming down the street but Si, who had sat in a different tier to us during the game. He’d missed his 7.56pm train to Liverpool, because he couldn’t miss that finish for the world. He’d booked himself on the overnight Megabus, leaving Victoria at 11.30pm and arriving in Liverpool at 5am Sunday! What a story, dedication well and truly rewarded with some backslaps and a couple of pints.
The game and the aftermath had gone on so long, our drinking time was curtailed somewhat but it didn’t matter. If you could bottle and sell that feeling when Bentley saved that penalty, you would put every Colombian drug lord out of business overnight. A few beers was enough for us, we were exhausted as we headed back to Essex. Home by 1am, hangover dodged. I was even thanked the following day by the wife for not getting into the state I usually return from away games from. I will remember it all, and I’ll remember it forever.