Two thoughts occupied my mind in the run up to the play-off final. 30,000+ fans, an unerring sense of self-belief; nothing could stop us now. And yet, there was always the idea that 30,000+ fans and an unerring sense of self-belief; we’re definitely going to screw this up.
There was no point of reference, no way of framing a trip to Wembley. It’s not like the Milk Cup Final in 1986 can give you an indication of how we might perform. Incapable of calculating a response, I was engulfed by a sense of calm. Even Sunday morning was punctuated with attending to a 3-month-old baby with a cold and a trip to Tesco to buy supplies. The game, the second biggest in our history, remained an incidental right up until I set off for the station.
I embraced the Wembley experience; the mobilisation of the yellow army, the immense swathes of colour in the stands, the noise. As I entered the bowl of the stadium, a lump came to my throat. Just making this stage and bringing these people together was a fabulous achievement. I applauded ostentatiously every crunching tackle, every catch, every passing sequence.
We cut through them with ease. Matt Green’s half-volley slamming into the top corner, James Constable’s belligerence in creating shooting space for number two. This was like ’86 after all; Wembley suited us just fine, it was a stage on which we flourished.
Then Ryan Clarke dropped the ball into his net and I could feel myself regressing, slouching into my seat. The minutes ticked by, Rankine fired wide when he should have scored. I sat and chewed my fingernails off. The game drifted past the hour mark, past 70 minutes, towards 80 minutes. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, I wanted to go home, it’s a feeling I’d had before. We were going to concede, last minute for sure, this was going to extra time. We were going to lose.
As I sat, convincing myself that we were throwing it away again, I tried to work out what I was worrying about. If we did screw it up, I wasn’t worried for me. I’ll be back next season regardless. I’ve long given up on the central narrative; our story is a film where you stop caring about the central character because of the interminable and pointless plot twists.
Then it dawned on me, I was worried about Chris Wilder and the players. I’m not naïve enough to think that the players are Oxford fans. But I want their time at the club to mean something to them. I want it to change their careers, or at least leave them with a memory that would stay with them forever.
A defeat would have destroyed an epic season and with it would go the label that Wilder and his team had screwed it up just like all the others before them. They would have been no more than bit-part players in a pointless and turgid story of failure.
They just don’t deserve to be dragged into our sorry-arsed tale. You can see it in Wilder’s face, how proud he is, how hard he works, how utterly terrified he is of being seen as a failure. He’s the kind of person who is suspicious of praise; until he’s achieved something he won’t believe how good he is. He’s defined by his success, destroyed by failure.
Not only has he galvanised a team with a similar work ethic, he’s turned the club around. For all the bullshit, we were a big lumbering dinosaur heading to the grave, gorging on a high fat diet of self-importance. The travesty that Wilder and his players were not going to get rewarded for dragging the beast back from the brink was nagging away in my head.
It’s possible that Wilder has no idea of what he’s achieved. Promotion? Yes. Recognition? Yes. The guarantee of a decent management career? Maybe. But above all he’s justified everything we’ve been through. Bankruptcy, food parcels, stadium delays, Peter Fear, Nigel Jemson, Steve Anthrobus, Firoz Kassam, Mark Wright, Graham Rix, Brian Talbot, Leyton Orient, throwing away two titles, five point deductions, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pounds of wasted money. From this shitbag of awfulness and mockery he’s made us happy people.
Suddenly from our decade-long nuclear winter of despair appeared two elfin sprites exchanging passes like children having a kick around in the park. Just them and 30,000 proud parents watching on. Our Alfie and our Sam. Was there anyone else in the stadium? Was there anyone else in the world?
OK, so promotion out of the Conference is like being let out of jail only to find that you’ve been put on the sex offenders’ register, but for me and you, and Chris Wilder and his team, tasting the clean air of freedom is everything.