I should be fairly calm, or as calm as could be expected under the circumstances. Yes, it’s a play-off final, and our biggest game since our last biggest game, but I’ve done it before, my tickets, transport, and accommodation are all sorted, so everything’s cushty. Tickets sorted? Well, yes, but my mate sorted them because our accounts are linked so we can sit together at big games, so some time on Tuesday (according to the club) they’ll be winging their way through the ether to his email account. While he’s on holiday in Portugal. Please, please send them over to me.
Therefore, there’s a bit of added anxiety to add to the normal stuff about the game itself. In order to keep my mind otherwise occupied, I sorted some old football programmes that needed sorting before joining the collection in my shed. Apart from the usual memories that this sort of activity brings flooding back, there was confirmation that my first game wasn’t 2-0 against Wolves, but 3-1 against Stoke a year earlier. The scorers were Mulhall, Brand, and Suggett, with Gordon Harris scoring Stoke’s consolation for them, so that dates it. In the same box was the programme from the first time I saw Saturday’s opponents play. Tuesday October 3rd, 1989, I was working in Corby, Northants and at a loose end of an evening because I didn’t have time to get to Fulham for our League Cup tie (3-0, Marco. Marco, Armstrong), so I sought out a local football match. Just down the road was Kettering Town vs Wycombe Wanderers, at a time when those two clubs were among the biggest hitters in “non-league.” I remember little of the game other than a forward who was about forty, and that I forgot to get a programme – so I asked a steward after the game, and he directed me to that strange tower structure at the corner of the Rockingham Road ground. They wouldn’t take any money for the programme and gave me a club tie as well, but that’s not the point today.
The Saturday before, we’d drawn 1-1 at home to Sheffield Utd, and the Saturday after we won 3-2 at Bournemouth on our way to the second-tier play-off final. Against Swindon, and that’s a story all on its own.
Today, it’s about how far the two clubs have gone in various directions, and where we’ve ended up. Wycombe, before that day in 1989, had played in the Southern League, the Great Western Suburban League, the Spartan League, the Isthmian League, the Alliance Premier League in 1985, and back to the Isthmian for a spell before going back up to the newly named GM Vauxhall Conference- which is where I popped along. Since then, thanks in no small part to a bloke called Martin O’Neill, they got into the Football League in 1993, and hopped about between the third and fourth tiers for a while until they were somehow promoted to the Championship in 2020 thanks to an EFL algorithm as dodgy as a Paul Pogba haircut. Of course, they came straight back down, but find themselves with another chance of promotion this weekend.
We, on the other hand, have been promoted and relegated more times than I care to count, and find ourselves in a position to claim yet another promotion. I know we’ve done play-offs before, but this one feels different, especially to the last one. In 2019, it was our second Wembley appearance in a few months, and the club and the fans were, I think, drained. This time, we’re heading to Wembley on the back of an impressive unbeaten run with a disciplined team, not dropping from the automatic positions. This time, the fans are being realistic, with the recent experience of Charlton still very much in fresh in the memory. The same goes for the players, a few of whom were at the club in 2019, and more who won the Papa John Trophy last year. Collectively, we’re not taking anything for granted, we know Wycombe and the way they play, and the way they basically assaulted old boy Luke O’9 for 90 minutes in March 2019 in a crazy game that ended nine a side after eleven added minutes.
How we could have done with VAR that day. Hang on, we’re getting it on Saturday, which means that for many of us it’ll be the first game we’ve attended with that technological nightmare/revelation in place. If it’s got League One referees in the VAR control centre, wherever that may be, they’ll struggle to switch it on. However, if the right people are in control, Wycombe could be in for a very difficult afternoon, and all those naughty little (and big) things they do behind the ref’s back should (should, not would) be spotted. It can’t ensure fair play, but it can punish foul play.
For the romantics, two big players could be making their final appearances for their clubs. Akinfenwe, parts of whom will probably be caught offside by VAR, is retiring, and McGeady has just turned 36 and been out injured for six months. Are they players for the big occasion? Geads certainly is, with his top-level experience, and Akinfenwe might have played at Wembley, but it was an empty stadium. This weekend it will be far from empty, with Wycombe having sold four times their home average and us having shifted 43,000 and requested more. Even if we don’t get those, we’ll outnumber the Chairboys’ support two to one. There’ll be noise like Wycombe have never heard, there’ll be flags, there’ll be shirts and scarves, and there’ll be the Alex Neil-inspired steel in our defence and our persistence for every second of the game.
Anyway, only three more sleeps until at all begins. Head south when our Ian finishes work on Friday, check into the hotel in Stevenage, meet the rest of the Durham crew. Saturday will be a short train ride into London and the tube back out to Wembley, the match, the post-match shenanigans, and home on Sunday. Nerves? I’ve got plenty to spare.