Not with a bang but a Shrimper

The game: Southend United v. Wycombe Wanderers.
The ground: Wembley Stadium.
The conditions: appropriate to the start of the great British summer; positively dismal.

My first season in the lower leagues was coming to a close and so, on pure impulse, I decided last week to treat myself to one last, luxurious outing at the end of the campaign. Poring over final fixtures of the footballing calendar, I settled upon the League Two play-off final between the ‘Shrimpers’ of Southend United and the ‘Chairboys’ of Wycombe Wanderers – the venue none other than Wembley Stadium. Come Saturday morning, my overexcitement was starting to worry my loved ones. “What do they know?!” I thought, as I stepped out of the front door. Completely nude bar my Southend-Wanderers half-scarf, I knew this was going to be a great day out.

Okay, yes, that last part is an exaggeration for comic effect. I would never wear a half-scarf. Still, I was very excited; with Southend and Wycombe having both finished the regular season on eighty-four points – the former formidable defensively, the latter with more by way of goals – I had a strong feeling that this would be a match of fine margins, a game replete with tension and tightly-fought drama from the get go. Arriving at Wembley Park, catching sight of the stadium’s iconic arch, my anticipation only grew. It was then temporarily diminished by the looped chanting of the Irn Bru-sponsored ‘Bru Are Ya!’ bridge, the giant signs along Wembley Way that warned the gathering League Two crowds against ‘persistent standing’ and the bitterly acrimonious process of collecting tickets. All that horror over, I went back to enjoying myself.

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Though I’m sure every seat in the house had a sweet view, mine in the second tier of the Wycombe end was quite exceptional. As I settled down five minutes before kick off, yellow balloons and blue paper aeroplanes were already filling the air below; songs from both sets of fans just about blotted out the Alan Partridge-esque interjections from the hype man on the tannoy. Suddenly, the on-pitch pyro flared. The teams were led out to a thunderous roar. Phil Brown and Gareth Ainsworth took their places in the technical areas. The whole thing started to feel legitimately bloody epic.

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I was brought back down to earth by the most League Two start to proceedings imaginable. From the kick off, after literally six seconds, Southend midfielder Will Atkinson clattered Wycombe counterpart Sam Saunders – the latter had to be substituted only three minutes into the game. This may have set a rather rudimentary precedent for the first half, yet there were several good chances for both sides to take an early lead. In the fifth minute, a looping cross from Chairboy Hogan Ephraim caused chaos in the Southend box; Shrimpers’ left back Ben Coker made the crucial clearance, but the ball could have gone anywhere. Ten minutes later, after significant Southend pressure at the other end, defender Cian Bolger worked a free header from a corner; he belted just past the upright, much to Wanderers’ relief.

In the twenty-second, Southend had the ball in the back of the net; another free leap in the area was afforded to long-serving Shrimper Barry Corr, and the striker planted a beautiful header into the top left. Unfortunately for him, this was disallowed for a pretty blatant shove by Bolger on Chairboys’ centre back Alfie Mawson in the build up. A chorus of boos rang out from the Southend fans, only silenced when Wycombe striker Paul Hayes made the Southend net bulge not two minutes later – this was ruled out for a narrow offside.

After that, the rest of the first half was very, very bitty. Wycombe had a couple of good opportunities around the fortieth-minute mark, Hayes seeing a low shot saved at the feet of Southend keeper Daniel Bentley before midfielder Sam Wood sent a twenty-yard curler inches over the crossbar. Apart from that, it was all robust fouls, even endeavour and punted free kicks. The break came with the game goalless. Both sides had plenty of room to improve.

It took a while longer, but improve they did. Though it was much the same up until the seventieth minute – the Shrimpers had the best chance of this period, Corr forcing an acrobatic save from young Chairboys’ stopper Alex Lynch with a firm header from five yards – the tempo was hugely upped with full time looming. In the seventy-fifth, Wycombe should have opened the scoring; a rare one-touch passing move on the edge of the Southend box allowed Hayes to burst into the left side of the area but, with a great sight of goal, his shot at the far corner was too close to Bentley – the keeper made the save. A flurry of Wycombe efforts followed, but it was their opponents who should have struck next; in the seventy-ninth, Shrimpers’ substitute striker Joe Pigott thrashed just wide from ten yards.

Wycombe had a last chance to snatch a win in regulation time, centre half Aaron Pierre with a bullet header which was tipped over superbly by Bentley late on. Despite the overdue flourish, the ninetieth minute ticked past without a score for either side. The extra time tension ramped up. The Chairboys’ paper planes collected by the side of the pitch like some sort of bright blue aviation graveyard. A bad omen, perhaps.

It certainly didn’t look a bad omen for Wycombe when, four minutes after the restart, they went one-nil up. Wanderers’ striker Aaron Holloway won a free kick twenty-five yards out, just to the right of goal. Left-back Joe Jacobson stepped up, then bent a gorgeous shot onto the underside of the crossbar – and in off the diving Bentley’s back. The Chairboys went wild, half of Wembley erupting in jubilation. A stony silence descended over the Shrimpers. Now could the Chairboys sit tight?

The answer was, well, astounding. Wycombe defended valiantly for the rest of extra time. In the hundred-and-fifteenth minute, they could and certainly should have put the game to bed; Holloway burst through Southend’s desperately high line, went through one on one with Bentley and, with a couple of teammates in support, overplayed to the point that Coker got back and made an emphatic tackle to keep his team clinging on. Then, twenty seconds from the final whistle, as the Wycombe fans jumped and celebrated in glee, the game truly delivered on all the pre-match excitement. Southend attacked. The cross came in from the left. Corr headed down to Piggott. Piggott turned in the Chairboys’ box, unchallenged. He rifled a low shot into the bottom right. Equaliser. Mega scenes from the Shrimpers. A low murmur of anguish around me.

So it went to penalties. The teams stretched out along the halfway line. Southend were up first.

The heroic Joe Piggott made the long walk. A moment’s hesitation. Scored.

Wycombe’s Peter Murphy was up next. To the keeper’s left. Scored.

Then it was the turn of the man with the crucial tackle, Ben Coker. Saved! Lynch had done it!

Alfie Mawson scored. Wycombe were ahead.

Ryan Leonard tucked away for Southend, Paul Hayes for Wycombe.

Jack Payne kept the Shrimpers within touching distance, pinging home.

Matt Bloomfield trudged forward for Wanderers’ fourth. Bentley got a hand to it! Screams of Southend relief!

The tension was now unbearable. Seven more penalties were taken, all converted. Southend now led seven-six.

Sam Wood stepped up to take Wycombe level once more.

Bentley stopped him.

The Southend players raced wildly from the touchline, arms outstretched toward their disbelieving keeper. The Wycombe players and supporters crumpled alike. A last minute equaliser, then the cold calculation of spot kicks. Southend had calculated the better, and now the noise of primal joy reverberated around Wembley, cutting through the total hush amongst the stricken Chairboys – the fans who had come so close.

Southend will play League One football next season, while Wanderers will have to regroup and challenge once more come August; keep their squad and management together and, despite this cruel loss, they should be in a good position to do so. As for The Luxury Fan, there is no telling what highs and lows future football will bring. To make an educated guess, however, the lows will probably involve drinking Bovril on a frozen terrace in mid-December. Just a guess, that.

Result (AET): Southend United 1 (7) Wycombe Wanderers 1 (6).
My MoM: Joe Piggott. Lively from the moment he came on, took his penalty well. Oh, and scored a leveller with half a minute to go.
Best fans: anyone who persistently stood. Take that, Wembley.

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Not with a bang but a Shrimper

Gate expectations

The game: Hendon v. Margate.
The ground: Earlsmead Stadium.
The conditions: nice and hot; reminded me that I must book a mini break.

A season’s hard slog. The elation of victories, the bitter taste of defeats. Forty-six sapping league fixtures played each. A tough play-off semi-final overcome. Through it all, through every high and low, Hendon and Margate had been working toward a single purpose. That purpose was to win this match, the Ryman Premier play-off final, and gain promotion to the prestigious Conference South. This was the climax of their respective campaigns. Now, at this late and momentous hour, only one club could triumph.

With 1,228 fans rammed into the Earlsmead – Margate’s impressive travelling contingent included – the atmosphere befitted the occasion; the Gate’s Blue & White Army and Hendon’s Green equivalent assembled behind the goals before kick off, supporters jostling for space on the sun-soaked terraces and rivalling each other with songs, drums and air horns from the off. The home section of the ground had most cause to be confident pre-match; as they had been in the semi-final, the long-unbeaten Greens were certainly favourites to win out. However, the away fans showed no signs of anxiety as the players walked out onto the pitch. The roar from the Margate end was ear-splitting. The contest was about to begin in earnest.

For the first ten minutes, neither side was particularly fluent; Margate midfielder Charlie Allen did have a good chance in the fifth minute – firing over the crossbar from ten yards – yet it was an otherwise cautious start to proceedings. In the twelfth minute, Gate striker Ryan Moss was booked for a traditional non-league tackle on Oliver Sprague; some puffed out chests and insistent pushing followed, suggesting things might be about to flare up a little. All the same, nobody could have predicted what was to happen next.

In the fifteenth, Hendon forward Aaron Morgan tussled with Gate right back Tambeson Eyong over an innocuous middle-third ball. Morgan seemed to put in a robust challenge in the tangle of legs, Eyong going down hard. The referee was surrounded by both sets of players. He hesitated, then produced the straight red card. Morgan’s hands went to his head. Devastation.

This decision seemed a bit harsh to me, though my position was perhaps not the best; whether it was objectively justified or not, it’s bound to divide fan opinion for years to come. Either way, it certainly gave Margate the momentum. Profiting from the extra man on the overlap, the Gate’s attackers started to bombard the Greens’ net with crosses and shots. In the twenty-first minute, full back Sam Rents saw a stinging effort desperately blocked. Five minutes later, with Hendon’s back four overworked and overstretched, a scuffed clearance fell to Allen just outside the box. His half volley was curling away from Greens’ keeper Ben McNamara, yet somehow the man between the home sticks managed to claw it to temporary safety. Still, there was little respite. The Gate kept on coming.

Margate midfielder Kane Wills had two long-range drives at goal around the thirtieth-minute mark. McNamara saved both. In the thirty-fourth, Eyong proved himself indifferent to the boos from the sidelines as he cut in from the right and unleashed a low stinger toward the near post. McNamara saved again. For a while, with the keeper in such fine fettle, it felt as if Hendon’s goal might just hold out against the prolonged Blue & White assault. Then, in the fortieth minute, Margate finally broke the home side down.

It took a beautiful team move to do so. First Wills played a neat pass to wide man Lewis Taylor on the left flank. Taylor in turn sent striker Freddie Ladapo rampaging his way into the left side of the area. Beating a couple of markers, Ladapo cut a clean cross across the face of goal. This was met by the waiting Moss. With several Hendon defenders converging on him, he turned on his ankle and popped the ball into the bottom right. Absolute madness amongst the Margate fans. One-nil.

The Gate could have doubled their lead on the stroke of half time; Taylor burst toward goal, this time from the right, but his shot was saved by McNamara – as were a couple of follow ups from Moss and Ladapo. Greens’ centre back Charlie Goode eventually cleared, and that was the last significant act of the first forty-five. The two sides went back to the dressing rooms with very different prospects. Hendon would have to do something drastic after the break to change theirs.

To their great credit, the ten men gave absolutely everything to find a leveller in the second half. Getting hold of the ball themselves, they began to match Margate across the pitch. Their newfound impetus almost paid off in the fifty-second minute, midfielder Lee O’Leary latching onto a long free kick in the away area before snapping a shot at goal; this was blocked a couple of yards out. The Gate were largely restricted to pot shots in reply, though Rents soon sent one mid-range whistler just past the upright.

Hendon continued to battle, but they struggled to make space for themselves; it took fifteen minutes of hard-fought hustle before they created another clear-cut opportunity. This opportunity was a good one, however. In the sixty-ninth, Dave Diedhiou sliced through the middle of the park before rolling the perfect pass to Leon Smith five yards out. Much to the home supporters’ dismay, the tightly-marked Smith could only blast over the crossbar. There wouldn’t be many better chances than that.

Smith continued to cause Margate’s defence problems, especially so in the seventy-seventh when it took a crucial hooked clearance from Charlie Wassmer to stop the Greens’ fourteen from going through one on one. Even so, the last good chance of the game fell to fellow substitute Tony Taggart. In the eighty-sixth, a long Hendon free kick was pumped forward in desperation. Taggart seized upon the ball as it bobbled in the crowded goalmouth. His shot was half blocked, half saved a yard from the line. The clearance was made. Margate played shrewdly to the corners. Time ticked away. The final whistle went.

Margate’s fans charged onto the pitch to celebrate with the jubilant players, while Hendon’s fans and staff looked on dejectedly. It was a cruel end to the season for the hosts, especially having gone so long undefeated. Nonetheless, the Gate capitalised on the day. They happily join Maidstone in the Conference South. Hendon remain a Ryman Premier side. For now.

Result: Hendon 0 Margate 1.
My MoM: Ben McNamara (Hendon). Could not have done more to keep Margate out. The scrambling triple save just before half time a particular highlight.
Best fans: the Gate’s Blue & White Army. A significant portion of Margate’s total population in attendance. Overjoyed at the close, and rightly so.

Gate expectations