Days Of Yesteryear #1 – Eastlands 2011

Continuing the theme of kicking off a summer historical feature with events that have just happened, and acknowledging I never actually managed to knock out a report at the time, the Anonymous Don reminisces about the good old days of, erm, last month… in fact the Dons last competitive game…

Once all the bitterness relating to the choice of venue (with which I never had too much of a problem with) and ticket pricing policy (which I most certainly did) had passed, I actually found the build up to the Conference playoff final at Eastlands pretty comfortable. Well, actually it was completely uncomfortable, but the point is it could have been a lot worse. Remembering the old military adage of the five P’s, or seven P’s… however many P’s, I had prepared long in advance. But I didn’t want to jinx anything either, so I decided a trip to visit my family, relocated years ago to the Doncaster area, could solve my problems… and then, if anything happened to be going on in Manchester on the Saturday, we could just drive over…

A brilliant strategy, one only partially wrecked by the subsequent announcement of ticket costs meaning it would just be my dad and I travelling. I had kind of imagined such an event would see the seats around me filled with family and friends, the decision to play the game at Eastlands kind of killed the latter (with the exception of those who follow the Dons, naturally), but the costs involved in bringing the folks meant it became a no-no for everyone except the old man (he had to come, he was driving…). Plus a well-intentioned gesture at his own expense saw my dad purchase tickets in the upper tier – a great view but this would mean separation from those on the lower tier, including those I most regularly travel with. Still, there’s always scope for a few beers before the game…

The week, or rather more accurately the four days I actually went in before travelling on the Friday, was probably the easiest working week I can remember, largely because I didn’t really give a crap, my mind being prematurely two hundred miles north. Still, this wasn’t a carefree ‘Office Space’ style attitude, I was thinking about the game, thinking about it some more, then realising I had over thought it, scrapped all my previous thinking and started again. Occasionally I would snap out of it momentarily and realise I’d spent the best part of five minutes staring at a pencil, or completing a task I’d already completed. My colleagues must have had a great deal of fun over the following days clearing up the mistakes I must have made. This was an occasion I had no point of reference for, the only game that even came close was 1988 (which will be getting the Yesteryear treatment itself pretty soon); the difference being the prize on offer… our return to the Football League. Was it a bigger game than ’88? It felt like it, certainly, although its difficult to weigh up the relative importance of league and cup games, never mind those in different eras.

The journey across the M62 brought reminders this was the only game of any note taking place in England, although supporters coaches ferrying fans back and forth along the M62 were a familiar sight, albeit carrying Rugby League fans… arriving at Manchester early, we found our way to the ‘fan zone’ style bars of City Square. While we have been away, the average Premier League fan has found themselves spoil beyond what we could ever have imagined on our journeys to place like The Dell and The County Ground in our experiences of the early years of the competition. Such facilities don’t replace pubs entirely (they don’t have the capacity for a start, as I was soon to find out…), but Premier League fans pay through the nose for it, and I wonder just how active a fan I would be if the Dons had somehow survived that final day in 2000 and gone on to entrench themselves in the top flight, I might not have been priced out of home games, but trips to stadiums such as this would be the exception rather than the norm.

It was at this stage we decided to take a quick walk across City Square to the food outlets, somehow the fact the food had the Marco Pierre White seal of approval made that £4.00 sausage in baguette seem a little easier to swallow. I mean it wasn’t worth the money, but was definitely worth a pound more than similar fare served in the outlets at KM… perhaps we could get our own deal with Ainsley Harriott? The problem was this twenty-minute trip across the square cost us, our vision blocked by the City Megastore or whatever it is, the bar had filled thanks to the arrival of the first dozen or so supporter coaches. Thinking back I’m certain my dad might have engineered this, although he is supportive of the Dons on the whole, he seems to have it in for Dons fans in general thanks to an incident at an FA Cup replay at Goodison Park (away capacity 5,000) where a Dons fan (one of approximately 80 there on the night) managed to tread on his foot…

A short abortive conversation over the barrier with those now in the bar later, nerves had got the better of me, and it was time to head into the stadium. Empty, Eastlands doesn’t disappoint (although to be fair it didn’t exactly fill up…). The view from block 230 was worth the extra fiver, becoming aware I could see the opposite corner flag a bonus considering some of the grounds we have played at over the last nine years. The organisers had tried their best to entertain, although the opera guy might have checked whether either side had any chants that went with his selection before urging everyone to sing along, and its fair to say even those in the ground early of an 18,000 crowd would be by far the largest audience the winner of Mecca’s Got Talent (seriously) has ever performed in front of.

The arrival of the players saw flames leap thirty or forty feet in the air from what I had previously presumed were speakers, finally it was game time. I had set myself up to expect Wimbledon to concede a couple of early goals, so seeing Mohamed Kaid’s shot parried into the path of Danny Kedwell for the captain to fire home seemed too good to be true. Sorry, it WAS too good to be true, a linesman’s flag cutting the celebrations short as Keds had strayed offside. My memory of ’88 was restricted to the big moments, I had presumed this was because it was so long ago and I was quite young, but writing this just over two weeks later I can’t visualise the details… I remember the Dons looking good, vaguely threatening throughout, but Luton having chances too. The guy sitting next to me identified a nervous Sam Hatton as our weak link, obviously not a regular I told him he was our Player of the Year…

I don’ really remember much more about the second half either. Luton came into it more, but Wimbledon were getting the counter attacking side of their game together and it looked like a pacy break might be enough, but final balls were lacking and shot blocked. Unfortunately a few Dons forwards started to cramp up… Kedwell wasn’t dropping as deep to collect the ball anymore, for example, and all of a sudden the pitch was looking larger by the minute. For those out there on the pitch standing on the edge of their own box, the opposite goal must have seemed miles away.

Then a heart in mouth moment, a huge ‘what if?’ if ever I saw one (in fact that’s an idea for a future feature…). A cross into the Dons box, Luton’s Walker gets his head on the ball, it hits the post… as far as I can see it’s in, its rolled back into the goal… Seb Brown has clutched the ball but surely it went over the line… from a hundred yards away I couldn’t understand why the Luton players weren’t celebrating. But play continued… somehow the ball didn’t go in. A huge escape.

Then of course there was the penalty incident, or as I saw it at the time the ‘ cleared off the line’ incident. I’ve since seen it on YouTube, and from that high angle that followed the player I’ve seen them given. The bigger picture being the forward managed to get his cross/shot away as Brown came out to spread himself there was an inevitable collision. Fortunately that’s how the referee saw it, and the Dons were able to scramble the ball away from danger.

Full time, and far from celebrating or leaving, we prepared for an extra half an hour. It wasn’t just Kedwell struggling now, Mohamed went down early in the period, all over the field players were struggling. Looking back it seems miraculous there wasn’t a goal. There so nearly was. Luke Moore somehow failed to turn in a low ball into the box… a similar move sees Mohamed side foot past Tyler, we’re already on our feet celebrating, but the ball bounces away off the outside of the post. The agony continues… one final chance, a deep ball into the Luton box with Kedwell and Yakubu unmarked an queuing up at the far post with Tyler stranded. Yakubu took responsibility, but his header nestled in the side netting rather than the back of the net – and before we knew it, after nine months, forty-six games, a two leg semi-final and 120 minutes, it was going to take ten penalty kicks to separate the two sides.

There are undoubtedly fairer ways to decide a football match. In the good old days both sides would have replayed a few days later (well, being pedantic the Dons would have gone up as runners-up without all this nonsense…). And yet I’ve always thought if you’re going to settle a game on the day, penalties are probably the best way of doing it. They aren’t the lottery they are sometimes made out to be. I’ve seen the Dons lose shootouts before, and it hasn’t changed my opinion, whether I’d be cursing them now if we had lost I’m not sure. Victory in a shootout depends on a number of things, keeping your nerve, accurate finishing, and perhaps most importantly, a goalkeeper with excellent reactions… and whose research is up to scratch…

Much has been made of Seb’s scrap of paper, I certainly didn’t notice it at the time, and wonder how many of the Luton players did. Even if there was any writing on it, you would have hoped Seb and the management tem had found every video clip, every match report, everywhere a description of a potential Luton penalty takers technique might have been, I’m sure they would have looked. But at the time, none of these thoughts crossed my mind. I was convinced we had blown our best chance in extra time, and spent the ten minutes or so while the shootout was organised attempting to mentally prepare for defeat.

You will have all relived the penalties by now, and will at least be familiar enough not to require a blow-by-blow account. Suffice to say from my point of view Seb saving the first penalty was bad news, as shootouts have a habit of swinging, Mohamed’s miss was a sign the shootout had indeed swung in Luton’s favour, and Browns second save was little more than miraculous as far as I was concerned. Still, I only really believed when Yakubu stuck away his penalty, knowing who was coming last, we were as good as in the Football League… which didn’t stop me needing to bend double just to get some air in, convinced I would faint at any moment…

Once the penalty went in, everything was a blur. I screamed until my throat hurt (which didn’t take very long…). I literally floated out of the stadium, saw and old school friend through the crowd and ran like a kid to shake his hand. Getting the car out of the car park saw me hanging out of the car window shouting to those waiting for coaches, singing with passers-by… and then before I knew it the stadium was long behind me. Then, a surreal moment, we got lost trying to find the motorway…

The thing is, the week before I told myself no matter how hard it was, if we won, if we went back to the Football League, I’d feel like I was floating on air. And I was… at least, I though I was. It turned out I had the flu, and celebrating returning to the Football League mainly involved a week in bed watching media clips over and over and over again. Still, I’m sure I’ll get a chance to do a big game properly when we reach the JPT final in 2019…

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