Football League Division Two Play-off Final, 21/05/06, 3.00pm
By Luke Fairweather
The roof is closed on the Millennium Stadium, despite the fact that the sun is shining outside. Inside this huge steel cauldron of a stadium, the noise is unbelievable. Not coordinated singing and chanting, you understand, although we are doing our very best, but just sheer bedlam - deafening, breathtaking, lung busting walls of sound that reverberate around the ground. We are a fully merchandised, new model army of supporters, our yellow and red a writhing mass of dancing, jumping and waving. And the teams are not yet on the pitch! Bloody hell.
Supporters of the (allegedly) Mighty Whites of Yorkshire have the edge on coordinated singing, but it will be the only advantage that they will take on this truly amazing afternoon. The journey to Cardiff has been more than a simple schlep up the M4. No, this has been the rebirth and re-emergence of the 'Orns as a team that we can all believe in. I read in my programme that Matt has suggested that Aidy has given the team "frightening levels of self belief"; well, that confidence seems to have been main lined directly into our collective consciousness. The previous evening in a TV interview, Aidy was talking about "playing the game not the occasion" and even I was caught by his infectious self belief. Defeat was not just an unlikely option, but success the only outcome. So why at 2.55 was I so damn nervous, Aidy?
The game kicks off and the bloke who is officially now my "New Best Mate" - having acquired sufficient tickets for us to attend as a merry band - looks like he might have a seizure. We have played some great stuff and scored some sublime goals this season but today seems to be all about the pressure and who can handle it better, and I don't just mean the players. The details and match facts are well reported elsewhere so it seems pointless to harp on about our set pieces and pressing game, but as the net bulges from Demerit's header I open my mouth to yell, but my voice is lost, drowned in the vast noise that emanates from the yellow end of the stadium. A text from a Manc supporting mate back at home simply reads, "Get in there, just loving it!" It is living proof that we are everyone's favourite "other team" today, albeit for a variety of self-interested and duplicitous reasons.
Second half, and we are there to bear witness to a goal that is the antithesis of Nicky Wright's stunning strike at Wembley. Whereas that was sublime, this is astonishing, but for very different reasons. As the ball finally bounces goal-wards off Sullivan, it seems to dwell on the line for an eternity until our collective will power shifts it sufficiently over the line to count. Cue more ecstasy and pandemonium in the yellow end.
After that there is only one outcome, even if the woman in front of me turns around and prematurely declares that "we're there, we're there". Before I can reply, her kids bring her back to earth by pointing out the bleeding obvious, that there is the best part of thirty minutes of gut wrenching tension and anxiety to go. Thirty minutes which we now have to lose it, thirty minutes which are as unreal as anything I have ever witnessed in a football stadium. Leeds seem already dead on their feet. Their onslaught and revenge never materialises. Their attacks seem laboured and full of hope rather than expectation while Marlon and Young run rings around them and Spring seems to pop up everywhere. When the penalty arrives and is despatched by Doris, the yellow half of the stadium prepares to party, eclipsing all and any celebrations that have gone before. "Are you watching Luton Town?" is bellowed lustily from around me.
Final whistle, and our collective orgasmic joy floods down the terrace and on to the pitch. The man we used to call Betty, but whom we now refer to with considerably more respect and just a little awe, punches the air and holds the trophy aloft with Mahon. I notice the directors, the so called "Salad Boys", cavorting across the turf in a demented jig, appearing like bizarre dwarfs to Simpson's Gandalf. New Best Mate reports that the Salad Boys, judging from their girth, appear to be relative strangers to the salad bar themselves and would be more likely spotted at the kebab counter. But who cares, who bloody cares. The not premier, not a ship not only beckons but is now a reality. Only Betty believed it was really possible, but now, what price Europe next season? New Best Mate declares the journey was especially useful as a dry run for next season, when we will be back for the FA Cup Final - no, he doesn't believe Wembley will be ready either, but he does believe we will be that good!
The journey back home along the M4 is festooned with 'Orns fans in all manner of vehicles. Some travel in one of the eighty or so official coaches, colours blazing and billowing, but a great many are under their own steam. The sheer diversity of transport is amazing. We pass, or are overtaken by middle class 'Orns in limousines quaffing champagne and waving royally from their tinted windows, we pass others doing their best to party in old Ford Fiestas and Metros. At service stations along the route, mini yellow festivals take place and the sound of "Yooooooo 'Orns" echoes around the car parks.
As Sir Alex Ferguson once said, coincidentally in 1999, "Football...bloody hell."
What wise counsel.