Friday, June 2, 2023

Wednesday - You've Got Me Wondering

When your football team loses four nil in the first leg of a play-off semi-final, the last thing you expect to be doing sixteen days later is heading off to Wembley for the final. But that was me, plus around forty six thousand other Sheffield Wednesday supporters, on 28 and 29 May. 

Luton bound, courtesy of Ryanair

Following (officially) the greatest comeback in the history of the English football league play-offs - not that I had been able to witness any of it from the middle of nowhere in Spain - I only had a few days to sort out the logistics of actually getting to Wembley. But I had to be there. No question. It ain’t every day that your team plays at Wembley, not even if you’re a fan of the glory hunter variety. So it was that I flew out from Murcia International airport in Spain on a late flight to Luton airport on the Sunday night, landing at around quarter past eleven.

Dad, you’re too old to be kipping in airports was the considered opinion of daughters Emily and Ellie, backed up by Mrs C. To be fair, one of my many life rules and beliefs is that girls grow up into women whereas boys grow up into big boys and when it comes to certain things in life, particularly football and beer related, my generally logical thinking processes, honed over sixty four years, tend to lose out to big boy bravado. Of course I can kip in the airport. Two nights running. I’ve just spent two weeks slumming it in hostel dormitories, hotel rooms and a very nice Casa Rural thank you very much. What’s the point in paying for a hotel when I won’t get there until midnight and I’ll want to be up bright and early in the morning anyway?

The floor did me for the first three hours.

I wandered around the airport for half an hour or so checking the place out for potential get-me-head-down opportunities. Hmm, it’s a busy airport this Luton airport as it happens. However, with no more flights out until around five thirty the next morning, the check-in desks were now unmanned and I found a spare bit of floor on a near empty corridor just around the corner from the check-in hall. The temperature in the airport building was comfortable enough although the flooring had been specially shipped in from Lapland. Hey ho. What’s a couple of cold butt cheeks in the overall scheme of a Wembley weekend.

I felt sorry for the nice lady sat behind a desk at the far end of my corridor with the signage Oversized Baggage hanging above her head. Bit harsh I felt.

The floor did me for three hours, then an hour perched on a bench seat to revive said butt cheeks and, finally, a four a.m. coffee at Pret followed by a comfortable ninety minutes laid out on their nice, padded bench seats. Six o’clock in the morning and I’m ready for action!

Travel options investigated, I caught the shuttle to Luton Airport Parkway mainline railway station where I had fifteen minutes to wait for my seven o’clock Thameslink train to Kings Cross St Pancras. During this wait, it dawned on me that it was actually bloody cold and my shorts plus Wednesday top combo might have been okay for Spain, and even for Luton airport, but at ten to seven in the morning on the platform at Luton Airport Parkway mainline railway station it was now proving less than adequate. A quick assessment of my surroundings garnered that I was the only person on any of the platforms so I performed a superman-like transformation, substituting a perspex shelter for a phone box, and emerged clad in jeans and puffa jacket albeit, sadly, no cape. But at least I was now truly ready for the action.

The Thameslink train deposited me at Kings Cross St Pancras station. There was blue and white everywhere. I got talking to father and son Wednesdayites who had travelled down from Sheffield on a five a.m. train (the seven a.m. train already being fully booked) and we headed for the Barrel Vault, a Wetherspoons pub, for breakfast washed down with the first pint of the day which, for me, was an American Pale Ale. The place was full of Wednesday fans. I hadn’t yet seen a single red Barnsley shirt anywhere.

Conscious that eight in the morning was pretty early, even for me, to start drinking I left it at just the one pint and strolled up to Euston where I would later be meeting my eldest daughter Emily off the Preston train. I had also planned to meet up with my good mate Darren from Southend who was travelling into London with Gillian, another long-standing friend and Southend-based Wednesday fan with whom I used to travel to games with the London Owls supporters group over forty years ago. 

The Royal George pub seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It was literally just outside Euston and due to open at ten o’clock. I sat outside, chatting to four more Wednesday fans, as opening time approached. Emily was due in to Euston at ten past ten so I made do with a quick Jamesons, once the pub had opened, before heading back into the station. Like clockwork, Ems and I were in the pub five minutes later and Darren and Gillian had also arrived. Thirteen quid though for a pint of Greene King IPA and a craft equivalent seemed a bit steep so we didn’t linger beyond these first drinks and instead decided to take the tube to Preston Road, one station beyond Wembley Park, where we knew some of the latter day London Owls were planning to meet at The Preston pub. We had also, by now, had our first sighting of a few lesser spotted Barnsley fans, all of whom appeared to be decent guys and gals with the requisite number of fingers despite rumours to the contrary. 

Gillian, bless her, is a bit of a London Owls legend. She is also very, very tiny. And forty years plus of supporting The Owls takes its toll as recognised by the kindly person who gave up their seat on the tube so that Gillian could sit down. Cue much amusement on my part.

Gillian looks like she has been photo-shopped on to this
image.There is no truth in the rumour that we had to do
this because she was too tiny to get her in the picture
otherwise. No truth in this rumour whatsoever. Honestly.   

The Preston pub is a nice, roomy pub with a big beer garden and now that the London temperatures were somewhat more agreeable than those experienced at Luton Airport Parkway earlier in the day, it was in the garden where most of the Wednesday fans had parked up. I was beginning to regret my Superman transformation from earlier in the day now that my shorts were packed away in temporary storage, along with the other contents of my rucksack, back at the Exmouth Arms in Euston. I consoled myself with a pint of Adnams Secret Springs tropical pale ale which was a new one on me and it was bloody lovely, the best pint of the day in fact. 

It was good to catch up with one or two familiar faces from long years past including Paul Beckett, Colin Grant and Ian Colley. Gillian knew way more faces than I did which was just as well because when she wasn't chatting to her London Owls mates, she was busy regaling Ems with some of my less finer moments as a younger, single chap in Southend. I consoled myself with another pint of the Adnams Secret Springs tropical pale ale which continued to be bloody lovely.

We left The Preston at one o'clock and headed back to the tube station via the chippy. The train to Wembley Park duly arrived and, once again, a kindly person (a different kindly person this time) offered up their seat to my miniature friend. Courtesy of my two pale ales, I found this ridiculously amusing. I may be sixty four but, thankfully, nobody seems inclined to take pity on me in similar vein just yet. Anyway, we arrived at Wembley Park and joined the throng of blue and white heading up Olympic Way towards the stadium. Generally speaking, the build-up to a Wembley final is a joyous occasion in its own right, never mind that there's a football match to be played at the end of it, but at some stage along Olympic Way it suddenly dawns on you that the football match is actually why you're there and the prospect of emerging as the eventual loser is simply too painful to contemplate. Surely, having won through to Wembley with the greatest comeback of all time, the fates must be on our side this time round?

Ems and I weren't among the forty four thousand who had bought their match ticket through the club. We had been too far down the priority list to make that particular cut so we had managed to obtain tickets through the wider EFL (English Football League) family. Upon entering the stadium, the real ale bar did not go unnoticed and so we treated ourselves to a pint and a half of Courage Best between us and even managed some change out of a tenner. We supped up and then went to find our sixty-two quid seats. Wow! Block G, row 13 offering a great view of the pitch, pretty much level with the penalty spot, surrounded by fellow Wednesdayites and fully in the sunshine. I mean fully in the sunshine. Oh for my shorts back at Euston. 

Possibly not a Wednesdayite was the employee of Brent Council, sat two rows behind us, dressed from head to foot in heavy black clothing, with head scarf, mask and shades, a get-up that could have possibly served me well on the floor at Luton airport the night before but most definitely not suitable for the sunny side of Wembley stadium in which we were sat. Heavy black clothing, shorts or whatever, the temperatures were such that dehydration and heat exhaustion were real possibilities in our corner of the stadium so fingers crossed that the match wasn't going to go into extra time. Which of course it did.

The fates did appear to want to be on Wednesday's side. Barnsley had a player sent off early in the second half but not before Wednesday had survived a penalty appeal which could easily have gone the other way. I felt we were marginally the better side in the first half but Barnsley, once down to ten men, were better than us in the second half albeit we created more chances. The match went into extra time and Wednesday played with more control than hitherto, creating the bulk of the opportunities although the best chance in the first fifteen minutes fell to Barnsley but their player made a complete hash of his shot and will forever be known as Mr Sitter. Second half of extra time and Wednesday were upping the ante without ever looking really convincing until a smart move saw our midfielder Will Vaulks lash the ball into the net from just outside the penalty area. Bedlam ensued. I am jumping up and down like a demented idiot, completely missing the fact that the linesman has his flag up and the effort is ruled out for offside. Noooooooo! Surely we're not going to cock this up. A one-man advantage for seventy minutes and the match is heading to penalties. I feel sick to the stomach at this prospect. Three minutes of injury time are added to the final period. Wednesday are huffing and puffing to find that one last chance. With thirty seconds to go, the ball is played to our goalkeeper Cam Dawson and he humps the ball up-field. The ball is headed down to Fisayo Dele-Bashiru who plays the ball forward to Lee Gregory. Instead of playing the ball back to Dele-Bashiru, Gregory turns towards goal and looks to go past the defender. He stops, turns again and creates a yard of space for himself as he picks out a cross into space between the six yard box and the penalty spot. Our striker Josh Windass is nowhere near the the destination of Gregory's cross but he has seen it coming and charges into the area, launching himself into a diving header, the pace on which is too much for Barnsley's man-of-the-match keeper Harry Istead who can only get sufficient glove on it to help it into the net. There are three seconds of injury time left as the ball hits the back of the net. Bedlam does not cover it.

This is the stuff of football fantasy. A winning goal with the last kick of the match. At Wembley stadium. Forty six thousand Wednesday fans are jumping up and down like demented idiots and this time there is no offside flag to spoil the party. The absolute best way to win a football match. The absolute worst way to lose one. Everyone in the stadium knows that that’s it. Match won and lost. Barnsley are allowed the right to kick-off but immediately the ball is played the referee blows the whistle for full time. In over fifty years of following this club, I can tell you that this sort of thing does not happen to Sheffield Wednesday, yet here I am in disbelief, laughing, crying, jumping and hugging Emily all at the same time. The old chap (about my age probably) next to Emily joins in and the three of us form a laughing, crying, jumping, hugging threesome. All around us, the Wednesday fans are in a similar state of delirium. Probably not so our friend from Brent Council though. She had melted by now and all that remained was a pile of heavy black clothing, head scarf, mask, a pair of shades and a pair of shoes in a small puddle on the floor. 

The Barnsley fans were also melting away. There is little consolation in knowing that your team has played well but lost. The joyous occasion of the day is well and truly - and in this case abruptly - ended and the immediate priority is to get away from the scene of defeat as quickly as possible. If I was to sum up the day from a Barnsley viewpoint, I would have to conclude that the fates were against them. And let’s face it, what would be the point of the greatest comeback in the history of the English football league play-offs if you didn’t go on to win the final with the last kick of the match? This was always going to be Wednesday’s final.

The celebrations on and off the pitch ensured that the Barnsley fans had a half an hour head start to make good their getaway. Ems and I lingered in the stadium until the last of the Wednesday team had disappeared off the pitch before we joined the sea of blue and white heading back up Olympic Way to Wembley Park station. We met up again with Darren and Gillian at a pre-arranged meeting point and continued on to the tube station where we squeezed into the train with our fellow Wednesdayites to head back into central London. No chance of a seat on this one I joked but, yet again, I had reckoned without the ability of my very tiny friend to garner sympathetic gestures and, yet again, a (third of the day) kindly person offered up their seat to her. Hilarious.

By now, we were also in the company of Darren’s old Southend schoolmate Paul and his son Kai, both of whom were bitten by the Wednesday bug having previously gone to matches with Darren. The Sheffield Wednesday Southend Supporters Club appears to be going from strength to strength.

We decided to head to The Sir John Oldcastle in Farringdon, another Wetherspoons pub, although Ems had a seven thirty train to catch back to Preston so I temporarily left the Southend Owls contingent and made sure that Ems caught her train. I then walked to the Exmouth Arms to retrieve my rucksack and I really wish I had taken a bit more notice of the place when depositing said rucksack earlier in the day. Titanic Plum Porter on hand pump. Ooh, now that would have been tempting but I had promised I wouldn’t be far behind on the way to Farringdon so, slightly reluctantly, I swerved this potential treat and headed back to Euston Square underground station. London was still swarming with Wednesday fans. Every pub I passed had blue and white clad punters celebrating our Wembley victory which served only to hasten my appetite to do same. Ten minutes later and I was in Farringdon with a pint of American Pale Ale to quench this desire. Strangely we must have been all footballed-out because our football chat gave way to all sorts of this-is-what’s-wrong-with-the-world type of nonsense but, sensibly, Darren concentrated on his Stowford Press cider. 

It was thirty years ago when Gillian first introduced Mrs C and I to Darren and despite the age gap (Darren is fourteen years younger than me) we hit it off right away. My travelling days with the London Owls had been replaced by the car, driving direct from Southend, and Darren accompanied us and then (post children) just me to numerous matches around the country. Now that I live in Burnley and spend a lot of my time in Spain, we don’t really get much chance to see each other but when we do meet up, it’s as if it’s about a week since the last time. He’s a good lad.

Aside from the football, it was great meeting up again with Darren and Gillian after so long but of course it is the football, specifically Sheffield Wednesday football club, which unites us. We took a leaf out of Darren’s book and stopped talking world-related nonsense and got another pint in and back on to the footie chat. Before we knew it, Paul and Kai had to set off for home and Darren, Gillian and myself had one more for t’road before heading off in our respective directions, mine of course being Luton airport.

Kings Cross St Pancras station is a very confusing place at nearly ten in the evening when you’ve just finished the day’s celebrations with a large Jamesons. Fortunately, the staff member I spoke to knew exactly where I needed to be. He was an Everton fan as it turned out, and very happy/ relieved that his side had avoided relegation from the Premier League the previous day. Living in Burnley as I do, I told him that we all love Sean Dyche up there and our three minute chat, congratulating each other on our teams’ achievements over that weekend, was like a brief romantic entanglement; unexpected, enjoyable and over before you know it. I was clearly fading rather quickly.

The ten fifteen train to Corby set off to the echoes of Wednesday songs elsewhere in the station. Twenty two minutes later I was back at Luton Airport Parkway station, then on to the shuttle back to the airport itself. It wasn’t late but I was cream-crackered and there was little doubt that I would sleep tonight, whatever my resting place circumstances. In the event, I managed a comfortable ninety minutes on the nice, padded bench seats at Pret before another ninety minutes on the floor by Arrivals, staring up at the arse of a life-sized model baby elephant. At around half past three I went through security into the Departures lounge and wandered all the way to Gate number 1 where a slatted wood sofa proved to be rather more comfortable than it looked. This provided a good final sixty minutes of kip before my flight departure at Gate number 43 was confirmed. 

I was back home, at our apartment in Spain, by around half past ten in the morning, local time. I spent most of Tuesday re-living the experiences of the previous day via Twitter before crashing out at half past eight and remaining crashed out for the next eleven and a half hours. Sad to admit as a sixty-four year old but Sheffield Wednesday has been a life-long obsession for me and with way, way more lows than highs over the years. But yesterday was as good as it gets. And you need to have experienced the lows in order to truly appreciate the highs. To do so with my lovely daughter Emily and my friends of many years Darren and Gillian was truly special. 

Football eh?