How on earth did we cope before the Football League play-offs? Where once the season ended with an abrupt, unappetising grey splat, now it sizzles and fizzles in a stuffed-crust 16-inch meat feast pizza of ecstatic, calorific joy and – simultaneously – abject, artery-clogging, piss-splattered agony.
Huddersfield Town fans have stuffed their faces at the ’Eat All You Can For The Extortionate Price Of A Play-Off Ticket’ buffet more than most and it’s usually been a tale of crippling stomach cramps followed by projectile vomiting and several hours on the toilet.
The first time we took a bite of the play-off shit calzone was in 1992 against Peterborough United. We finished third, they finished sixth so we were at their place first. Our strong finish was due in no small part to the loan signing of midfielder Peter Butler from Southend but, in a crappy situation that never seems to be the case now, we weren’t allowed to use him in the play-offs. At first, it appeared we wouldn’t need him as we had the better of a 2-2 draw at their place. But, in a night remembered as much for some shocking hooliganism as it was for the football, we lost 2-1 at Leeds Road. The very next day, the first artist’s impressions of the magnificent McAlpine Stadium were revealed but that certainly wasn’t cheering me up.
Essentially because I’m a twat, I have missed both Town’s successful play-off final appearances. Our win over Bristol Rovers in 1995 came the year after I’d been to Wembley to watch Town in the Autoglass Trophy final. I was at university drinking and smoking shit and, as I remember it, I just couldn’t be arsed. I’d spent the previous five years as an unrewarded-in-any-way season ticket holder and my enthusiasm had drained.
The defeat of Mansfield at Cardiff in 2004 was a slightly different story. My boss initially told me I couldn’t have the time off work (I worked for a daily newspaper – no such thing as weekends or bank holidays there) but then changed her mind, by which time it was too late for me to get a ticket. I watched it on telly and fondly remember this as a defining moment in our history.
That victory in Wales got us out of the bottom drawer and we’ve been in the old third division ever since. Many times we’ve been favourites to go up but have fallen short. That’s especially been the case in the past two seasons when we’ve had a bigger budget than most and signed a lot of average, expensive players. Like a fat, wild boar, we’ve romped toward the finishing line before gorging on truffles and being overtaken by the lame asthamtic hog with all its shit-eating, piss-taking supporters.
Four times now we’ve got as far as the play-offs and three times we’ve fucked it up.
Against Barnsley in 2006, we stood a real chance. We won 1-0 at their shop thanks to a late winner but then crumbled like 100-year-old sun-scorched putty in the second leg, demolished 3-1 in front of nearly 20,000 people. This was also the season we did this which was just a case of unfortunate timing all round. Barnsley played well that night and I remember looking at their manager Andy Ritchie and thinking, ‘I wish he was our manager – look how he’s inspired those players’. If only I knew (short version -we did get him in. He was complete shit.).
Then there was Millwall in 2009. There wasn’t much optimism about this one and after a lacklustre 0-0 at Huddersfield, they blew us away 2-0 at The New Den. I went to the away leg and it was pretty horrible. They find it necessary to segregate away fans from the moment they get off the train by means of a Northern Irish-style peace wall. I was relieved we lost to be honest – I was nervous enough about speaking on the way home, lest my accent betray me and I be chased back to Kent, so God knows how I’d have felt if we’d won.
Last season is still raw as buggery and really brought home to me what a good, hard, metaphorical kick in the bollocks can feel like when you’re not expecting it, when it’s really undeserved and when you have to drive 200 miles home afterwards.
First the good bit – the semi-final against Bournemouth. I watched the first leg on telly, then drove up to Huddersfield for the second leg. In one of the best games I’ve ever attended and in the most blistering atmosphere the often cemetery-like Galpharm has produced, we edged out our south coast rivals on penalties. What that meant was two things – firstly we were going to
Wembley Old Trafford for the play-off final, secondly the extra time and penalties had ensured I wouldn’t get home to Kent until gone 4am. Ah well.
There was an 11-day gap between qualifying for Old Trafford and playing there and, as excitment built, I spent most of it teaching the kids the words to this song (which you might have heard on Saturday in a slightly louder but no less rousing rendition).
Old Trafford was a quintessentially miserable experience. I wad due to meet me old muckers Jez, Wifter and Mountain in a pub in Eccles, so I dumped the car at Old Trafford and jumped on the tram through Salford. Every sidestreet we passed was packed with blue and white stripes, it was as if we’d taken over the city for the day and there wasn’t a Peterborough shirt to be seen. Out of 48,000 fans, 30,000 of them were from Huddersfield, not that that counts for anything. United shaded the first half but we went in 0-0 and came out all guns blazing in the second. Playing toward the precipitious Kirklees swarm, it was wave after wave of attack for half an hour – until they scored three goals in seven minutes.
Leaving the ground was like a scene from a zombie film – 30,000 mutes in jeans heading for the railway station. Cowed. Finished. Beaten.
But the agony didn’t stop there. Inevitably, there was this. Perhaps less predictably, there was also this. If some of the parties from the first story had managed to get their hands on one of the parties from the second, there would have been a far more satisfactory outcome. As it was, it was all sickeningly foul.
Dazed, I returned to Gillingham, the only fans in the country who can justifiably say they have had a bigger play-off heartbreak than us. (That must be the biggest day in City’s history, surely. I mean, it’s not as if they’ve ever needed two goals to win a game and therefore beat United to the Premier League title in the 93rd minute and then got…oh, hang on).
For two days I managed to stop habitually checking this and this, even going so far as to delete them from my internet favourites before sheepishly adding them back in, like a man bound up in self loathing who dumps his ‘adult art pamphlets’ in a skip on Monday and is seen rummaging round in the same skip 48 hours later.
Saturday’s victory over MK Dons puts us in a good place for the return leg but nothing’s safe till it’s dead, as Hitler used to be so fond of saying.
The play-offs are unique in their potency – one group of fans’ ecstasy is simultaneously another’s exquisite torture and there’s more at stake than any cup final. This is the game’s ultimate prize and, God, if you’re reading, IT’S OUR FUCKING TURN.
Huddersfield Town have never been automatically promoted in all the time I’ve watched them – 23 years.
For some idea of what the play-offs mean, check out this little baby (another game I missed).