One year ago to the day we traversed London in the name of T’entertainment on a day since know as the Perfect Storm. So successful was that day that we have renamed the day New Balls Day – the moment when one sport finishes for the season and another really begins – well certainly in viewing terms. The agenda was similar. 1pm start at Lords for a Clydesdale Bank game then up the Jubilee line to Wembley for the richest game in Non-League football – the Blue Square Premier Play Off final. The only change this year was that we wouldn’t be heading back to the o2 Arena as we did last year – Michael Buble is not really my cup of tea. What makes the day better is that we get to experience the media facilities at both the home of cricket and the home of football. Thanks to our friends at the MCC and The Football Conference we were in for a great day of sport. I was meeting Danny Last, our Brighton correspondent and official TAT librarian of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, although of course TFL had decided to muck our plans up as much as possible by suspending the Jubilee line to Wembley – it’s OK chaps the 35,000 fans going to the play off game will just in a cab or something! The Clydesdale Bank 40 is a new name for an old competition. The cricketing authorities are still struggling to come up with a plan to bring back the crowds to domestic games since the successful launch of the Twenty20 format. The 40 over game is still too much of a halfway house. Some razzmatazz such as coloured kits and squad style numbering has been introduced but the game still doesn’t capture the neutrals imagination like the shorter game. This season the competition had been extended with “national” teams Scotland, Ireland and Holland included as well as a team made up of the best Saturday league players – i.e Non League ones who were known as the Unicorns. We were walking through the Grace gates and up into the space ship designed media centre to watch Middlesex take on Holland. Nearly a year ago I was here to witness the Dutch’s finest ever cricketing moment when in the opening game of the Twenty20 World Cup they stunned the sporting world by beating hosts England. A year on and they were “relegated” to playing county sides whilst England were taking on Australia in the final of the World Cup again in Barbados. Holland are becoming a world force on the sporting stage. The football team have been there for a few years, always just on the fringes of the final knock out stages of major tournaments but were currently the World Champions. Yep, you have read it right – the Dutch are current football World Champions. Check it out for yourself here. It’s the same logic of course that once motivated the Scottish to claim they were World Champions in 1967 as well as West Ham currently being Champions League winners (well sort of). Then a few years ago there emerged the man known as “Barney” who took the world darts stage by storm and has since won 15 major honours and is recognised as the second best player in the world behind Phil “The Power” Taylor. And finally you had the emergence of Julian Hardt as the World Champion Lock Picker after the Dutch Open Championships in Sneek. Sunday didn’t exactly bring Perfect Storm weather. Very cloudy, rain hanging in the air and certainly not shirt sleeve order. But after a quick tour around the Lords museum, viewing the Ashes in the most nondescript case we headed up to the space ship to take in the game. Middlesex Panthers v Holland – Clydesdale 40 Cup – Lords – Sunday 16th May Why don’t the Dutch have a team name? Middlesex are “The Panthers”, Sussex are “The Sharks” and Kent are “The Spitfires” where as the Dutch are simply “The Netherlands”. Surely there has not been a better team to create a nickname for….Surely the advertising men could have been really creative on this one – “Holland Whores” would be my bet. Middlesex won the toss and batted, with Andrew Strauss hitting a quick fire 26 off 24 balls. Oh how Strauss must have been chuffed to bits to be playing in front of a hundred or so fans in the cloudy London gloom whilst his England team makes were facing their first major final in decades in the sunshine of Barbados later in the day. One not to ask him at the press conference later I think. After he departed, caught at slip by the only Dutch sounding player in the team, Bas Zuiderent, at slip it was left to the youngster Dawid Malan to keep the run rate around the 5 an over mark before he departed on 28, clean bowled by the ever-so-Dutch sounding Mohammad Kashif (born in Pakistan). Shah, another England player probably green with envy at the events in Barbados dug in at this point and along with Berg put on a swift 90 before the rain started falling and we took this as our opportunity to leave one comfortable media area for another. (Post script – the game was later abandoned as a draw at this point thus giving The Netherlands their best result against an English county team since a win versus Durham in the C & G cup in 1999) Thank’s to TFL’s fantastic planning we had to head south before we could head north up to Wemberlee. After last season’s ex-league club final between Cambridge United and Torquay United, we were looking forward to another showdown of two clubs with a league pedigree. It was also a match up between two of the most feared strikers outside the Football League. Step forward York City’s Richard Brodie and Oxford United’s James Constable. Constable has previous at the stadium, scoring twice for Kidderminster Harriers in the 2007 FA Trophy final, and in the process becoming the scorer of the first competitive goal at the stadium (Pop Quiz – who scored the first non-competitive goal at the stadium? Scroll to the bottom of the post to find out). “I have had a dream about scoring at Wembley, but it might have been the goals for Kiddy coming back to me,” said Constable. Oxford United had for long periods looked like the only team that could seriously challenge Stevenage Borough, but as they have in the past few seasons they faded after Christmas and ended up giving away second spot to Luton Town. However, you cannot ever doubt the passion and number of their support. They had brought over 30,000 for this game down the M40 and hoped to be returning back to the league where they left 4 years ago. York’s exile had been a couple of years longer, losing their Football League status in 2004. Last season the team finished in 17th place, and for a few weeks at the end of the season were in serious danger of dropping down another division. However, this season with the 31 goals of Richard Brodie they had climbed the league since Christmas and fully deserved their place at Wembley after beating favourites Luton Town in a game that was marred by violence at Kenilworth Road. “I think we’re definitely more equipped as a club and as a team and a squad to go there this year and do the job. It is a great occasion but the top and bottom of it is we’re there to win a game of football.” Says Brodie. York too can be very proud of their support. They are recognised as some of the most loyal in the Blue Square Premier, and last season brought over 20,000 to Wembley for the FA Trophy final. This time around they would be bringing less, perhaps knowing that today was simply not going to be their day. Oxford United 3 York City 1 – Blue Square Premier Play Off Final – Wembley Stadium – Sunday 16th May Coming out of the station we were met with a wall of yellow. Oxford was going to be a very quiet place today as around 35,000 fans had travelled down the M40 for their first visit to Wembley since that heady day in spring 1986 when they beat QPR 3-0 to win the Milk Cup. We helped ourselves to the delights of the press lounge and took our prime seats. The team emerged to an impressive fireworks opening and lined up for one of the quickest ceremonial presentations ever as Sir Geoff Hurst flew down the line, shaking hands as if he was speed dating, although the heavy rain probably didn’t help his desire to stay out too long! Preparation is the key in this game and Oxford couldn’t get enough, heading off behind the goal for a last minute warm up with the coach before the game kicked off. First blood was so nearly drawn by York City, and it was down to the”bloody Wembley pitch” again. A York freekick was cleared by the Oxford defence and when the ball was played back in by David McGurk from all of 50 yards, it skidded up off the turf and caused the Oxford keeper Ryan Clarke to have to parry the ball over from under his own cross bar. But it was Oxford who scored first. Fifteen minutes gone and a ball over the top caused confusion in the York defence. Ingham came out to clear but the ball was hacked over his head and fell to Matt Green who from the edge of the box turned and smashed the ball into the roof of a virtual unguarded net. Five minutes later it was two nil as James Constable’s dream came true. Another long ball over the top wasn’t dealt with by the York defence and a misguided header fell to the Oxford captain as he ran through and he powered home the ball past Ingham. Cue the TV cameras panning onto the Royal Box where the two Jim’s (Smith and Rosenthal) were smiling away. Queue even harder rain and even more Oxford pressure. From a corner in the 26th minute Jack Midson lost his marker and hit the post with a header where he really should have scored. York were on the ropes. The Jorvik Ultras behind the goal looked deflated, soaked by the weather and the explosive start by Oxford. Fight is what they demanded from their team but perhaps not in the Lawless sense as the York midfielder was booked for a late tackle which would have been a red on less auspicious occasions. Forty two minutes on the clock and it was the “bloody weather” this time to blame for the next piece of action. Ben Purkiss put a deep cross into the Oxford box and Ryan Clarke appeared to catch the ball comfortably but then seemed collide with his own defender on the goal line, causing the ball to spill into the net. A truly bizarre own goal but exactly what York needed. So half time came, and both keepers couldn’t wait to get into the dressing room, hardly covering themselves in glory in the first half, although the conditions could probably be blamed for two of the three goals. The rain simply didn’t want to stop and that made for a very entertaining half. York came out the stronger, with Brodie causing problems with his pace and if it wasn’t for Tackle of the Season© by Oxford’s Mark Creighton it would have been all square. Oxford then went up the other end and Simon Clist went close as his effort was well saved by Ingham. The second half flew by as both teams showed a real positive spirit in one of the best finals I think Wembley has ever seen since it re-opened three years ago. York probably just shaded it in terms of possession and chances but it was Oxford who broke the hearts as a York corner was cleared up to the half way line in the 90th minute and a smart one two left Alfie Potter with the simplest of jobs to score a third and thus win promotion back to the Football League. So Oxford took the cup (a bigger one than league winners Stevenage actually) and York could only reflect on what could have been. Credit where credit is due as their players stayed on the pitch to watch Oxford collect the trophy when all they probably wanted to do was go home and get smashed. Oxford worthy winners? Certainly a Football League team that has been hiding in the Conference for too long (as too have York) and I am sure the mistakes both on and off the field that saw them relegated out of the Football League will not be repeated.
Our fun hadn’t quite finished though. We headed down to the press conference and hear some words of humility from Martin Foyle before Chris Wilder came out and gave the press some direct answers, very different from the standard fayre dished up by Alfie Potter and James Constable on either side of him. Wilder ended the conference by telling the assembled audience that he intended to “spend the next 2 weeks ripping the arse out of this victory”. A quote that probably wont make the Guardian tomorrow!
We headed back upstairs looking for a beer but couldn’t find a bar that was willing to take our money. So we tried to head out of the stadium. After waiting 5 minutes for the lifts we decided to take the stairs, finding ourselves on the deserted concourse. All exit doors were firmly locked but we found a group of staff from Wembley who tried to help us. They took us down into the bowels of Wembley. But our path was blocked as we were barred from walking down past the team coaches. After a few more minutes where numerous phone calls were made we were allowed to pass “just this one time” and then were directed around a corner, down some stairs and finally allowed to exit the stadium after having to explain to a security guard why we wanted to exit the stadium through his exit. Congratulations Wembley – nothing like making a mountain out of a molehill. I would write and complain to Lord Triesman but I hear he’s already resigned over the issue. Or something like it.Same time, same place next year anyone? More pictures from the day can be found on our Flickr page. Danny Last’s more humours view of events can be found here. *The scorer of the first non-competitive goal in a game at Wembley Stadium was Mark Bright in a charity game in March 2007