Last waltz with The Grim Reaper
Tears, mud and ruined shoes on the Road to Wembley Immortality
Trafalgar Square on a drab Saturday night in late May 1999. The afternoon sunshine, hot and oppressive, had already given way to a grey fug which had upset the pigeons and sent the tourists scuttling into the nearest Angus Steak House. Amongst these damp scenes the first Blues were arriving and setting up camp around the great feet of the lions on the square. All low-key enough to allow me to keep my own wretched promotion jitters under control. Later on we would bump into a dangerously in-form Johnny Waters, fresh from yet another plummet from the plinth after too many breathless renditions of Blue Moon. With nowhere to stay and the drunks of central London gathering to plunder his precious belongings (all the way from Haarlem, North Holland, with a marathon bar and a vest in a Xenos carrier bag) we took him with us and offered him a narrow berth in Earls Court instead. I was royally compensated for this minor act of charity by Johnny’s rendition of the sinking of the Queen Mary during his sleep. “Was there a scrap in here in the night?” I asked on the Saturday morning in the prehistoric setting of the dilapidated Hemel Hempstead express. Needless to say, Johnny knew of no fighting and had heard no dinosaurs farting during the short four-hour sleep.
As Blues flashed past in trains going the opposite way to us, some yanked at their shirts and seeing we were similarly attired pointed towards London and shrugged. It had been a long time since we invaded Wembley’s tired old precinct but we did –at that stage at least- know what we were doing. Hemel Hempstead was where our tickets were being looked after by the Prestwich & Whitefield branch and, remembering my trip to Bradford the season before, when a lightly inebriated Don ("Raat, mate, zraaa tiggot") finally handed my ticket over to me at 3.05 outside Valley Parade, I was taking nothing for granted. None of us knew Wembley well enough to suggest a meeting point anyway. The last time I had been there, I was trying to be as angst-ridden as Morrissey and Mark Lillis was trying to be as goals-ridden as Neil Young. Neither of us cut a particularly neat figure and we had lost a bizarre game 5-4 to Chelsea. The Prestwich mob were to be found draped in various states of dysfunction around the chintz of the Hemel Hempstead Travel Inn, a gem of a place residing alongside Macdonald’s, just two kilometres past the middle of nowhere. These places are a testament to travelling reps everywhere and the propensity of the British to put up with Laura Ashley curtains and luke warm UHT milk on their Frosties. In this particular den of iniquity the fat lady in the breakfast room got our order wrong and then told us with her Watford twang “we’re reds anyway”, as if the seeming lack of cell tissue between her ears could be explained away by one simple phrase. So that was why she’d burnt our toast.....Having hidden our sausages in the Laura Ashley curtains for her to find later, we stalled a minute on the forecourt in case the Prestwich coach (circa Casey Jones) needed a push and then made our way back to our date with destiny: British Rail.
Back at Kings Cross, a mixture between Nam and a backdrop from El Alamein, Myriad Blues were shuffling into the grey morning trying to avoid the broken down tramps and wind-assisted litter that makes London such a popular European capital. Joined by John, who’d staggered in off the York train, we settled into the Friar & Firkin to chew on a few pints of Stella and get our heads fuzzy enough to attempt a visit to the Venue of Wet Hotdogs. The major talking point still seemed to be Johnny’s attempt at eine kleine Nachtmuzik and we wondered whether a noise like 40,000 Blues cheering a last minute winner could be a lucky omen, even if it had come out of Johnny’s trousers in the middle of the previous night. The Stella was making me nervous and I was soon spending more time in the toilets than at the table, a glitch that continued when we headed for the trains. Next stop Wembley, bladder withstanding.
It is obligatory to go the wrong way on the London underground. It is not that it is unduly confusing. Signs are many and they seem to say the right things. It is the sheer weight of people and, on this occasion, the weight of my bladder, which was by now humming again like a hammock with an elephant in it, that sent us off towards Epping Forest by mistake. It takes a matter of seconds to realise and, on this occasion, not much longer to rectify: put your head out the doors and follow the noise. A medieval scene of hamburger breath and all the wrinklies in Kent enveloped us with each stop. With carriages packed to the rafters, windows steaming up rapidly and a beer mist hanging over the throng, our train trundled unevenly towards its glorious destination. A pocket of Kents in jester hats (there’s original) and blue and black shirts with the creases still in tried to shout up for Gillingham and were drowned by our own ferocious cacophony. With both my bladder and my voice going already, this was clearly going to be a tough afternoon. Wembley Way, a squalid drag of discount stores and salmonella tents at the best of times, was looking particularly lacklustre as we reached its concourse. The heaving mass of humanity is always a sight to behold but the crumbling old heap at the top of the slope should have been swept away by the Taylor Report years ago.
Another damp grey tribute to the movers and shakers of the architecture world. The same man who had designed the fabulous Bescott Stadium, seemed to have been responsible for the burger van where John took his life in his hands for the sake of his rumbling intestine. Squinting at the price list he also realised that he’d left a 75 quid pair of glasses in the pub, so the day was getting predictably expensive already!
With our grip on reality slipping, we made it up the stairs just in time for a firework display and
a view of the sodden turf. Wembley. Let the nightmare begin. Looking back, the game started as a blur and lost focus from there. We started yelling our heads off and didn’t stop until the 81st minute. By then, according to the eight papers I read the next day, we had had a first minute penalty appeal turned down (don’t remember), hit the post (saw that one) and generally had most of the possession (err). With less than ten minutes to go, the Gillingham attack (this really feels hopeless recounting the epic moments of a
match I will never ever forget and having to use the word “Gillingham”) bore down on what was now a weaker City defence (Vaughan on for the mountainous Morrison, who had won everything that came at him), cut through the middle and Asaba scored high into the net. To be fair to them, they had looked handy going forward in a Barnes-Wallace sort of way, and despite their agricultural tactics now found themselves
with 9 minutes to hang on. We rallied and on 86 minutes, in traditional City fightback style, went 2 down. This was a moment when most of us got a feeling in the pits of our stomachs as the brawn of Kent danced in front of their new-found fans, that we had just eaten somebody’s carelessly discarded lawnmower. Head in hands time. Three minutes to go. Just under half the stadium awash with blue and black. Some noise at last from the Gillingham support. When I saw Gareth Taylor coming on it felt like someone was trying to get the lawnmower started. Not him surely. With Bishop also on for a curiously out-of-sorts Brown, things were looking distinctly stool coloured. As the clocks hit full time Kevin Horlock´s daisy cutter sloshed through the wet and into the net. Instinctively we were on our feet again. I feel ashamed (now I know what happened) to say I did not really feel like emptying my lungs one more time, but the sound began to grow and we went for it again. The man with the road sign said 5 more minutes and that really got us going. John and I had now moved way down to the front just left of the VIP area to take up our new seats, vacated by some of the lads and lasses now flooding back in again, having been told of the miraculous goings on by the hot dog people outside. The Alamo re-enactment brought its unbelievable, drama-drenched fruit in the last of the ref’s five extra minutes with Goater´s bulk getting in the way of attempted clearances and Dickov nipping in on the edge of the box. It could have gone anywhere of course, but left Dickov´s rain-soaked boot and soared straight and true into the top of the Gillingham net. Cue the sort of pandemonium not seen since Charlton Athletic visited Maine Road all those years ago. How must those fans at the other end have felt as the City support went off its head en masse? How many minutes elapsed before we were facing the right way again? The match was over by the time I had regained composure, but maybe I was a little over-exuberant in my celebration. Normally a level-headed enough sort of bloke, having hugged anyone in my way I had gone head long over the barriers into the bit below and still have great streaks of yellow paint across my boots to prove the height of my trajectory. If I had wet myself in the process it couldn’t have been more spectacular. The fella alongside looked like he had. There are those moments watching football where your whole life and philosophy towards it are summed up in a flash. Here we were, all together, on the brink of yet another Olympian-sized dose of humble pie and we had turned it round in a fashion that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up now. It was the confirmation from our maverick Blues that we were right to keep the faith, that it can’t all be black, that such a massive weight of hope and support has to bring something sometime. The lawn mower in my stomach had been replaced by archangels in suspenders trying to climb into my pants with their harps.
I go back to my stack of creased newspapers for memories of extra time. I remember little of it, save a Dickov header which could have won it for us. To think I had said to my companions “its penalties isn’t it?” halfway through the second half. How right I was, but how far off with the method of reaching them.
Gillingham looked out on their feet; their support had fallen deadly silent again. Our end (and sides) (and, for that matter, my end and sides) were in tumult. Despite the necessity of watching the penalties through cupped hands, they progressed in a manner that was tense but, thanks to a deadly combination of Nicky Weaver’s huge physical presence and a deafening crescendo from the Blues fans, never necessitated anything more than clenched buttocks and a lot of jumping up and down. This in itself is a tricky combination. Try it next time you're watching City at Wembley. The noise was dragging their penalties all over the place. If ears were bleeding high up where we were standing, it was hardly surprising that the opposition, shell-shocked in any case, could hardly walk forward to place the ball on the spot. The crescendo of howling clearly left them with no stomach whatsoever for this final indignity. And so it was that we too could play our part in this dramatic theatre. With unrequited blind faith, tainted love, stretched patience and empty bank accounts producing overwhelming logic to give up the drug and take up hedge trimming, Weaver sent us into orbit one last time. It would be months before any of us come down again.
“The Grim Reaper left Wembley with Gillingham under his arm” Mark Hodkinson wrote in the Times the next day. He had looked at us all that afternoon, right between the eyes, as he has done so often over the past tew years. Standing as firm as our quivering legs could hold us, we had, with our undying conviction and our searing onion breath, blown him clean away.