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

Best be beelieving

The game: Barnet v. Gateshead.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: highly nebulous, much like the future of the Conference title at kick off.

It was five o’ clock on Saturday afternoon, and I had just arrived at The Hive for the biggest game in Barnet’s recent history and the last of the regular Conference season. While the Bees were about to face the mid-table ‘Tynesiders’ of Gateshead knowing that a win would guarantee them the league title, close rivals Bristol Rovers – only a point behind the league leaders – were readying to pounce on any slip by Martin Allen’s men in their own fixture against Alfreton Town. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher.

With a capacity, ground record 5,233 in attendance, the pre-match atmosphere was quite unprecedented. Flags and banners abounded, the stands lurched with fans, all four sides of the ground chanted for promotion in unison – tight at the top as it was, there was an indubitable air of belief about the place. The teams soon emerged to thunderous cheers and then – after an immaculately-observed minute’s silence on the anniversary of the Bradford City fire – a huge round of applause and appreciation shook the stadium to its foundations. The two sides formed up. The whistle screeched over the din.

Barnet certainly took confidence from the support; the home side started very much on the front foot. In fact, having had all the initial possession, they should have scored in the fifth minute; Barnet striker Michael Gash pressured Gateshead keeper Adam Bartlett into shanking a clearance straight to main man John Akinde; the Bees’ number nine raced to the by-line before squaring for Curtis Weston five yards out, but he saw his snatched effort scrambled off the line.

A minute later, Mauro Vilhete found midfielder Conor Clifford on the edge of the box; he pumped a shot over the crossbar. The lively Vilhete teed up Weston just after that, but his effort was much the same. The home supporters were crying out for their side to take an early lead when the Tynesiders quickly counterattacked in the tenth and Alex Rodman unleashed a low shot on target; Graham Stack had this well covered, yet it was a reminder that the visiting outfit might just have a sting in the tail. Barnet settled, reorganised and almost immediately had the ball in the back of the net via the boot of Andy Yiadom – unfortunately for the Bees, he had quite clearly fouled Gateshead defender James Curtis prior to stroking in.

It had been a lightning-fast start; Barnet rather sensibly calmed things down for a while after that. Bar a shot wide from Tynesider Josh Gillies, the Bees totally stifled the opposition. Playing keep ball amongst themselves, they edged closer and closer to the away area. Soon enough, they held a stranglehold on the final third.

Inevitably, this led to the opening goal. The visitors were struggling to relieve the pressure; in the twenty-fifth minute, Gateshead’s Jamie Chandler couldn’t help but foul the rampant Akinde fifteen yards out. From there, set-piece specialist Sam Togwell chipped a sweet ball over the defence. He found Vilhete completely unmarked; Barnet’s number sixteen leapt high and – momentarily suspended in flight – then nestled his close-range header in the far corner of the net.

The crowd reacted with boggle-eyed delirium. The Bees swarmed Vilhete in euphoria and relief. Nonetheless, even as ‘We’re on the pitch – if we go up!’ rang in their ears, the home players managed to regain their concentration and reorganise once more. In the thirty-second, after Akinde had held a long ball up just outside the area, Clifford smashed another shot just over the bar. Four minutes later, with Akinde again the architect, Weston took aim from twelve yards; he ballooned an effort against the woodwork. Hands on heads.

There were a couple of nervous moments just before the half, the Tynesiders spurning two passable opportunities. First, in the fortieth minute, Stack sliced a goal kick straight to Gateshead forward Kevin Sainte-Luce thirty yards out; with the Bees’ keeper off his line, Sainte-Luce couldn’t get an early shot away – he was eventually cut out by Bondz N’Gala. Then, just before the break, Sainte-Luce found Matty Pattison in space twenty yards out. Pattison sent a swerving shot at goal, but Stack redeemed his earlier mistake by saving and holding well.

The referee brought the half to an end, this the signal for 5,233 people to frantically check their phones for the Bristol Rovers score. The murmur went round. Rovers had gone in 3-0 up. Barnet absolutely had to see out the win.

Their chances of doing so were massively increased four minutes after the restart. A long kick forward from Stack was taken down by Akinde, who then skilfully won a corner on the left. Togwell fired in a perfect delivery and found Gash leaping highest; his glancing header was saved superbly, yet the rebound fell for Vilhete to smash in from a couple of yards. Pandemonium.

Gateshead should have pulled one back immediately, forward Carl Finnegan heading a cross downward at pace for what looked a certain goal; Stack made the save of the match to keep him out, stretching low to his right to palm the ball to safety. Despite the fact that the home stopper was still to charge off his line like a lunatic a couple of times before the end of play, this was a crucial intervention. Barnet were back in the groove not long afterward, Gash going close before Yiadom glanced another Togwell-delivered corner onto the underside of the bar.

The last half-an-hour was a little dicey at times, the Bees allowing Gateshead considerably more time on the ball – even if neither side was exceptionally threatening. Sainte-Luce caused the Barnet defence some problems, not least in the seventy-third minute when he dinked a pass to Chandler on the edge of the home box; he belted his header just high.

Martin Allen brought Jack Saville on for the last ten minutes, shoring up his back line with an extra man; this was a shrewd move and shut down any hopes of a Gateshead comeback. The visitors did see the Bees’ net bulge in the eighty-sixth via a volley from substitute Jon Shaw, yet the Tynesiders’ number nine had run far too early and been caught well offside. Now, as the game edged toward its close, the fans edged nearer to the pitch. A glitter cannon went off on the South Terrace. The party was almost in full swing.

The referee blew. The pitch was instantly awash with a sea of amber and black. Players were mobbed, kids were held aloft, whirling mosh pits tumbled across the luxurious turf – all in wondrous delight. Gateshead had played their part on the day, but Barnet were worthy winners of the match. More importantly, regardless of an eventual seven-nil victory for Bristol Rovers, the Bees were worthy champions of the Conference. Time to celebrate in style.

Result: Barnet 2 Gateshead 0.
My MoM: Togwell deserves high praise for his two set-piece assists, but the top accolade must of course go to Mauro Vilhete. Hero goals.
Best fans: Barnet fans. I cannot condone pitch invasions. But nice pitch invasion.

Best be beelieving