I hope that everybody had a good weekend. I know that it was a holiday weekend for a lot of us, with it being Memorial Day yesterday in the States and the imaginatively named Late May Bank Holiday here in the UK.
As you all know from my last post, I was at Wembley on Saturday to see Swindon Town take on Millwall in the League One Play-Off Final. Sadly, things didn’t go to plan and the Town ended up on the losing side of a 1-0 scoreline.
I headed out from here early in the day as we had to be at the County Ground by 9:00am to be ready to board the coach. It was a grey day when we left, with a few spots of rain in the air. As the day wore on, so the rain got harder ...and harder ....and harder! Maybe that was a sign of things to come! Anyway, the coach was waiting for us when we got to the ground and we hopped straight on. There were 62 “official” coaches being run by the club, with something like another 100 being put on by other groups, clubs, pubs, etc. We left spot on time, and made our way along the M4 motorway towards London.
The journey went quite quickly and we arrived at Wembley in very good time, and got straight into the car/coach park, which is something that never happens! Wembley Stadium is not the easiest place to get into, or out of, and the traffic is normally backed up for a number of miles as you approach it. But this time, as I said, we sailed straight in and parked up to the west of the stadium.
As we had so much time to kill – it was still another three and a half hours until the match kicked off – we decided to go and get something to eat and drink. First stop was a local McDonalds, which was bursting to the seams with both Swindon and Millwall supporters. It was literally Standing Room Only. Having refuelled ourselves we then headed out to find a pub for a little pre-match refreshment. On occasions like these, the local police allocate certain pubs to the fans of one team or the other, so that any trouble is minimized. So we set off to look for a “Swindon pub”. Of course, we went in entirely the wrong direction and the further we went the more and more Millwall fans were surrounding us.
I should explain here that, although football hooliganism in England is far less than it ever used to be, the Millwall following still has a bit of a reputation as being one of the most violent in the country, and from what I have read since, there were some incidents on Saturday. So, our being encircled by throngs of Millwall supporters was not exactly reassuring! Realizing that we were now in entirely the wrong part of town, we asked a policeman for directions to the “Swindon pubs”, and were told that we would have to go right back to where we started from. If only we had turned left instead of right! D’Oh!
Anyway, we made our way through the rain and the Millwall hordes back to virtually the stadium itself and then followed all the other Town fans to the nearest pub. The rain really was lashing down by this time. The pub had prepared well (I imagine they have plenty of practice being so close to the stadium) and had erected a marquee in the grounds, from which to sell beer. You can see the top of the marquee in this photo, behind all those sodden Town fans!
We had a couple of pints as we sheltered beneath the branches of the trees that bordered the beer garden, and then decided to head back to the stadium and hopefully some dryness :-)
The atmosphere was already building by the time we got there, and thankfully just as we did arrive so the rain finally eased off. I bought a programme and this T-shirt....
...and then we headed on out to find our seats. There was a little pre-match entertainment, including these floating flag things, and then the excitement jumped up a notch as kick-off time approached.
Sadly, as I mentioned earlier, the result was not what Swindon wanted. The team looked overawed by the occasion during the first half, and were very nervous. Millwall took the lead during that time, and though the Town played better in the second half, they were unable to score the goal that would have levelled the match. Their best chance fell to Charlie Austin, whose story this year has read like a fairytale. At the beginning of the season Charlie was working as a bricklayer and playing for a part-time club down on the South Coast in front of crowds of about 200 people per match. The Town management team spotted him, signed him on and believed that he may play 2 or 3 games by the season’s end. In actuality, Charlie played 31 games for the Town this season and scored a miraculous 20 goals. He is already being talked about as a possible future player for the national team. Anyway, having started the season in front of a crowd of 200, Charlie Austin ended the campaign at the National Stadium playing before some 73,000 fans. That is some journey.
As I said, Town’s best chance fell to Charlie, but unfortunately the Wembley pitch is not what it should be. There has been plenty of controversy about the state of the pitch lately, and it has had to be re-laid 12 times in 3 years! As he raced past the last defender and was about to fire the Town level again, the ball bounced up off the poor Wembley turf, causing it to hit Charlie on the shin and forcing his shot wide of the post. You could hear the shock go round the ground as everyone had been certain a goal was inevitable. And that was that. Town had some other half-chances but it was not to be.
The referee whistled to end the game and the dream was finally over. We all made our way back to the coaches and began the long journey home. Incidentally, it took forever to get out of the Wembley complex, after having got in so quickly. It was nearly an hour and a half before we were away from the stadium grounds and battling with the other traffic trying to get out of London and back to Wiltshire.
Another three hours later and I was walking in our front door - tired, disappointed but very proud of what the team have achieved this year. Nobody believed at the start of the season that they would be able to get anywhere near the top of the table, let alone enjoying a day out at Wembley for the Play-Off final. So I have to say congratulations to Millwall, and I hope that the Town can follow them into the Championship next year. It’s going to be tough, but the dream will be born again in August :-)
Come On You Reds!