We are a speck living on a grain of sand for the blink of an eye. A global pandemic infecting millions barely registers as an event in human history – half-a-million have died from coronavirus – a generation defining moment – one person for every 116 that died in World War 2. We are inconsequential, yet we strive for purpose.
Our over-developed brains are so big we’re born prematurely to fit through our mother’s pelvis. They give us the capability to invent medicines and vaccines meaning our lives need purpose for longer. Some turn to god or their job or suicide, if they don’t see the point, some turn to the community that coalesces around their football club; hooking on and becoming part of its story.
Beginning, middle, end; that’s how it’s supposed to work. But really it’s messy and unending, rambling and contradictory. It disappoints often and thrills occasionally.
This season has been the messiest; a story about stability spiralled into a sprawling adventure; West Ham, Lincoln, Manchester City, Fosu, Baptiste, Newcastle, Shrewsbury and then, nothing. Then arguments, finger pointing, resolution, re-write, re-start and conclusion.
It’s fitting that a story so devoid of structure might end with a mangled mess in a hauntingly quiet cavern. You can turn an office into a bar or a house into a shop, but a football stadium can only be a football stadium. Empty Wembley is just empty Wembley; no greater reminder of the gaping void this season has become.
Our experiences are instead piped through the TV; Sky’s subscription model needs predictable, crowd pleasing, linear stories about heroes and villains, where the heroes win every time.
From the outset, it was clear we weren’t the story of the play-off final; the plucky no-hopers of Wycombe and their unlikely ascent to the Championship was the chosen narrative. Like a straight-to-video family movie about a high school baseball team full of fat kids and outcasts led by a failed wannabe rock star in red cowboy boots.
The script was pedestrian, the acting formulaic, the actors played their parts devoid of chemistry; like water and oil, two styles that didn’t mix. We moved the ball comfortably, they sat and waited.
After eight minutes of shadow boxing, the first engagement; a Wycombe corner. Everyone knew the plan, a deep cross to the back post. Eastwood flapped, beaten by the prospect as much as the delivery. Stewart attacked at the back post and in it flew. 1-0.
That’s Wycombe, sickeningly efficient. Sky offered spurious football metrics including ‘width per passing sequence’ – an unfathomable measure made worse by its expression as a percentage. In every carefully selected category, we were ranked best in the division, they were the worst. The tale of the tape showed that they would fail, unless the divine hand of the footballing gods smiled on the misfits from the valley of chairs. Oh, the romance.
After the goal, the game snapped back to its original pattern, we had the ball, they held their shape; the spectacle defaulted to two tactical units trying to outfoxing each other. We passed and prodded, pulling Wycombe out of shape, it worked, for a bit; there was a moment for Sam Long, then one for Marcus Browne.
By half-time, I was fairly comfortable that we were still in it. We were never going to win the game inside the opening 20 minutes and we were doing the right things to fashion a genuine chance or two. We just needed to find the angle. All season we’d been searching for it; James Henry threading a ball through a crowd of players, Shandon Baptiste raking a cross-field pass, Marcus Browne surging menacingly down the flank. Could anyone find the angle nobody else could see and make the breakthrough?
In the end it came from Mark Sykes, who’d been enjoying space down the flank throughout, his shanked his cross inadvertently finding a trajectory up, over and beyond their ‘keeper and into the net. For Sky, the disappointment was palpable, the gutsy no hopers were going to stay gutsy no hopers; the failed fat kids weren’t going to win the trophy and kiss the girls after all.
Moments later James Henry did what he does; suddenly he found himself in an acre of space inside the box with just the keeper to beat, but rather than shooting he threaded a ball across the goal. Why didn’t he shoot? Maybe because a weighted crossfield ball to Matt Taylor had become a tried and tested way to goal; it worked at Ipswich, Walsall, Portsmouth and against Accrington, why wouldn’t it work now? Only this time, Stewart – an absolute giant throughout – toed it wide. Minutes later, Rob Dickie’s header went close; we were pressing, it was coming.
And then the grim inevitability; a failed penalty claim in our box seemed to cause a lapse in concentration, the ball was lashed forward and looked like it had gone out of play, Marcus Browne claimed the throw, the ref waved to play on. A long ball forward dropped over Elliott Moore and into a space filled by the powerful Fred Onyedinma; Simon Eastwood paused, then decided to come, the striker’s toe touched the ball, the clash was unavoidable. It was clumsy, messy and fatal.
The penalty dispatched, we succumbed to our fate, the fight ebbed away, the endless months of battle finally broke our spirit. Wycombe had won, Sky had won, the joy we forced ourselves to believe was there, had gone.
And at that, we evaporated from the scene, our purpose was spent. The slick footballing aristocrats beaten by the plucky misfits. The narrative swept through like a tidal wave. No moment to reflect on Rob Dickie’s last game? Cameron Brannagan? Matty Taylor? Marcus Browne? No chance to say goodbye. No opportunity to applaud Karl Robinson’s dedication, his endless enthusiasm, his boundless energy to reach deep into the soul of the club, extract its essence and channel it through his team. In the year we lost John Shuker, Womble and Jim Smith, the most fitting tribute to them all had fallen just short.
TV were keen to remind us that Wycombe only had nine players at the start of the season; even Gareth Ainsworth tried to explain that while true, the intervention of a new owner in June had given him the funds to rebuild. These were not the outcasts and fat kids after all, they couldn’t be, it doesn’t work like that. In fact, it does them a disservice. The interviewer pleaded with Ainsworth to succumb to his idea that Wycombe were the new ‘Crazy Gang’. Ainsworth resisted, perhaps Wimbledon’s abusive bullying culture in the 1980s is not a look he’s going for.
The game trended briefly on Twitter; “Wycombe promoted to the Championship for the first time” ran the headline alongside the keywords “Wycombe” and “Akinfenwa”. The cartoonish Wycombe substitute came on to amble around ineffectively for half-an-hour before shoehorning himself into the centre of the celebrations. The man who ripped the ball from the hands of his teammate in the 2016 play-off final for Wimbledon to score a decisive last minute penalty was, again, keen to make his team’s success all about him. What a character.
Some call Wycombe ‘anti-football’, which implies its cheating to play the way they do, in reality it’s like drinking a kale and blueberry smoothie; you have to admire the efficiency even if you can’t stand the taste. Their achievements are to be applauded, but a a fairy tale it’s not. The resolution of the season has left a wasteland of acrimony from Peterborough to Tranmere, and broader financial ruin for many other clubs. Wycombe will be giddy on their success, but are ill-equipped for the Championship. One of their players said they would enjoy every moment of it; but the novelty of losing 20-30 games a season will wear thin eventually. If they’re lucky, they’ll do a Burton and bounce back to a less elevated normality, but they could do a Yeovil and collapse completely.
And deep down, there is some solace in a deeper relief that we didn’t make it, at least not this way, I wasn’t convinced we were ready to be promoted anyway; a year in the Championship would have been exciting on one level, demoralising on another. I was stuck square between those stools.
I would have taken it; it’s disingenuous to say otherwise, but there will always be an asterisk against any team’s achievements this year. It’s a relief that it’s ended. Those fragments of memories are now just that; there is no denouement, just a series of messy strands, unfinished tales, frustrating near misses and a vaguely tragic end. But the real stories don’t have happy endings and convenient conclusions. They bind you more closely together and urge you to try it again, it doesn’t feel like it now, but it maybe the better way.