Football Rascal Guest Post by life long York City supporter Phil Blacker.
It’s not just Chelsea making history – we are York and we’re proud of it.
Just when it appeared season 2011/12 had already drained every last drop of drama and stretched the boundaries of the believable to breaking point with the craziest of climaxes to the Premier League season, along comes yet another helping of history a week later, the deliverance of a dream in defiance of all logic and expectation.
For me this season will be remembered forever by the events of this weekend – of a team coming together to defeat the odds, as well as more favoured opponents, and achieve their holy grail after years of trying, of getting so close only to come up just short. This time, despite being outnumbered in terms of support, they weren’t intimidated, they rode their luck at times and came from behind to complete a trophy double – this time was their time.
And Chelsea’s Champions League triumph the day before was fairly remarkable as well. But I refer instead to York City ending an 8 year exile from the Football League by winning at Wembley for the second successive weekend – the first team in history, as far as I can determine, to be able to lay claim to that particular statistic. FA Trophy winners 8 days earlier, now gloriously denied the chance to defend non-league football’s premier Cup competition as they are no longer a non-league team.
If success was determined by the size of a club, its history and previous achievements, the number of tickets sold and expectations of those fans who bought them, then York City would not have beaten Luton Town in the Conference Premier promotion final. In the same way the whole of Bavaria and beyond expected Bayern Munich to banish Chelsea’s challenge in their own backyard.
But a collective will to win, unbreakable team spirit which had been questioned by some earlier in the season, a helping of good fortune (perhaps as payback for a lack of it in previous years ) and big game players rising to the occasion all combined to help rip up the script and spoil the planned parties of illustrious and expectant opponents.
For Didier Drogba, Chelsea’s Cup final specialist and now immortalised at Stamford Bridge, read Matty Blair – boasting decisive Wembley strikes on successive weekends, having also scored the goals in the respective semi-finals to send his side to the national stadium. Quite some contribution in his debut season for the club from a player who less than 3 years ago was lining up against City in the FA Cup for Bedworth Town.
But York fans of course will hope this season is just the start of the story for Blair at Bootham Crescent, as opposed to a possible Drogba-style sign off, and that he’ll embrace the Football League as he did the big stage and the big occasion this year. Although to reflect for too long on any one individual would be to neglect the key contribution to the success story of this season of all seasons – the remarkable team ethic instilled by manager Gary Mills that has been evident throughout the campaign.
Whilst the Chelsea tale of togetherness only really began in March under Roberto Di Matteo after months of infighting and dressing room disharmony – a situation that makes their success since in winning 2 trophies all the more astonishing – the York squad and support have stayed united since the first ball was kicked at Ebbsfleet back in August. Of course there have been significant setbacks along the way and that faith severely tested – an early loss at home to AFC Telford, 3 successive defeats in November and more recently what could’ve been a costly slip-up against Southport. But at no stage did anyone at the club lose sight of the ultimate aim.
A place back in the Football League was of course always the priority, but whereas many managers would’ve seen a Cup run as an unnecessary distraction, Mills challenged his players to go all the way in the FA Trophy as well, right from the very first round when it took an injury time equaliser from Jon Challinor to rescue a 2-2 home draw against Blue Square North side Solihull Motors. The replay wasn’t viewed as an unwanted extra fixture, but as a second chance in a competition in which they also had unfinished business having lost the Wembley final to Stevenage in 2009. Righting that wrong would ultimately prove ideal preparation for a repeat performance in the play-offs.
And so as forthcoming rounds were safely negotiated, and a promotion challenge maintained despite the numerous fixture re-arrangements that were required as a result, the dream of 2 visits to Wembley was born and carefully cultivated, and in the final months of the season that fantasy began to become reality. Belief was fostered by performances and the notion strengthened that this team had the capability to rise to the big occasion. 3-0 wins over Wrexham and Luton serving as testament to such a declaration.
By the time a place in the Trophy final had been secured and Mansfield edged out in the play-off semi’s, the sense that something special was happening was impossible to ignore. And yet still the pain of previous disappointments served as a sobering warning, a refusal to allow optimism to entirely overtake a guarded caution developed over many years of suffering supporting City. But there’s something in the football supporters psyche that always allows hope to surface to some extent, whatever the wounds of campaigns gone by, however ill-advised or inadvertent this may be. Even after conceding with just a minute gone in the play-off final at Wembley.
In over a quarter of century of attending York City matches, only fleetingly have those dreams not been dashed and reality suspended. Those glorious exceptions are therefore all the more special because of it and will remain forever etched in the memory; the Wembley win in 93 against Crewe (until this weekend the only time I’d ever seen my team promoted), the mind-blowing 3-0 League Cup triumph at Old Trafford against the Manchester United of Beckham and Giggs, the goals of Paul Barnes taking the team to the heady heights of the Division 2 (now League One) play-offs in 1994. But to me, the last week of this season has surpassed all of those and the way those dreams came true at Wembley has re-ignited my love affair with football.
I should explain here that at no stage had I ever turned my back on the beautiful game, and I’m sure at no stage will that happen. But I will admit to the odd, shall we say, lovers tiff earlier this season. I am in the incredibly privileged position to earn a living from talking about the game I love and am always careful to remember just how fortunate I am to be able to say that. But there have been times recently when I’ve had to remind myself more frequently, when covering certain games and certain stories have made my job seem more like work than indulging in a passion.
Racism allegations and counter allegations, obscenely paid players refusing to do what they’re obscenely paid to do, diving debates, financial crises, the continuing struggles of the England national team. It all served to dull the lustre of the national game. But that now all suddenly seems a long time ago. In fairness much of the damage had already been repaired in my eyes during the incredible last day developments in the Premier League. A timely reminder of the capacity of football to deliver the unscripted, real-life drama that any fiction writer would consider ludicrously far-fetched.
Manchester City supporters will certainly never forget 2011/12, neither will Chelsea, and now York City can take their proud place alongside them in a list of clubs who re-wrote their history over the last 9 months in the most breathtaking of fashions. Watching the scenes of celebration from behind the goal at Wembley and the TV pictures of the outpouring of emotion on the streets of York as the open-top bus tour ground to a halt the next day because of the sheer size of the crowds provided confirmation, if it had ever been needed, of the incredible ability of this game to unite, to inspire, to fire the imagination, to instil and express an overwhelming sense of pride in YOUR team, YOUR city, YORK CITY.
When referee Jeremy Simpson checked his watch at Wembley after 4 minutes of stoppage time on Sunday and I realised there was no time for yet another Luton attack and that confirmation of a return to the promised land was just seconds away, I closed my eyes briefly and it wasn’t to the scenes of previous triumphs that I was transported. I was instead back at Maine Road reporting for Radio York on the remarkable sequence of results that saw City spend just minutes of the 1998/99 season in the Division 2 drop zone – the last few minutes. I had to relay the news of their relegation.
5 years later I was at the Valley, my career having taken me to London by then, listening down the line after covering a Charlton game for confirmation of the defeat at Doncaster that ended a 75 year stay in the Football League. I was reminiscing afterwards in the tunnel with Dean Kiely who shared my pain. I was watching the scenes at Bootham Crescent a week later when the wake everyone expected didn’t materialise, when the fans said farewell to the Football League with a roar of defiance despite defeat to Leyton Orient, listening to the words of Chris Brass on the pitch promising we would be back.
I was poring over the newspaper reports from 2002 reading with alarm how the clubs board were resigning, of how they would be leaving Bootham Crescent. I was donating to the Save City Campaign, I was following the ill-fated reign of John Batchelor with an increasing sense of fore-boding and dread, I was awaiting the outcome of attempts to find a buyer when administration was confirmed on the 28th November 2002. I was wondering if the match against Swansea less than 2 months later would be our last and considering what I would do if I my football club no longer existed, would that mean a lifetime with no team to support anymore?
I was joining the Supporters Trust to try and play even the tiniest part in ensuring it wouldn’t come to that and applauding the outstanding efforts of others who dedicated their lives to that same cause. Then I was watching on TV in 2007 when defeat at Morecambe ended a play-off push at the semi-final stage and we were so near but still so far from a return to the League.
Finally I was at Wembley 2 years ago, a step closer, watching Oxford United celebrate the end of their own exile in the play-off final and wondering if it would ever happen for us – knowing that team that had come so close would be broken up and yet again it was back to the drawing board.
And then the sweet, shrill sound of the referees whistle and suddenly I was back at Wembley – amidst a seething throng of red and blue and it was real , it was happening, we’d won. At Wembley. For the second week running. Promotion, jubilation, exultation, disbelief, a cocktail of potent emotion. The Wembley double had come true and, during the week in between, planning permission was finally approved for a new stadium, after well over a decade of uncertainty and argument.
A new purpose built home for sport in York to secure the long term future of the football club, a future that would now be in the Football League. 8 days ago all we had was hope – that hadn’t tended to mean too much in the past – but now we had 2 trophies and were heading for a new home – a sensational hat-trick that has to make this the greatest week in the history of my club. A fairytale finish to the season, a month after the passing of perhaps the clubs greatest ever striker – Arthur Bottom’s goals took the Minstermen to the semi-finals of the FA Cup in 1955. Maybe it was just meant to be.
But it only happened because of the efforts of a group of players brought together by that unbreakable spirit and never say die attitude. A new generation of City heroes. The goals of Jason Walker in the early part of the season reminiscent of Paul Barnes at his best, as prolific as the fearless Keith Walwyn who’s heroic displays first captured my imagination as an 8 year old. I’d see Ashley Chambers fire a Wembley wonder goal and think of Jon McCarthy coming a crossbar’s width of doing the same against Crewe some 19 years earlier.
Matty Blair was racing down the wing in the way that Tony Canham used to do, taking on allcomers in a TC Wonderland. Michael Ingham’s safe handling inspired confidence in the way Dean Kiely or before him Chris Marples used to, Chris Smith organising the defence in the manner of Paul Stancliffe, Jon Challinor tidy in possession like Andy Mac, our fullback. There was only one Ginner with his penalty winner in 93 but Banjo wrote his own headlines with the winning goal against Newport to bring home the FA Trophy. For Houchen and Ford and Murty, we have Reed, McLaughlin and Meredith. Where there was Tutill, Bushell and Gabbiadini there is McGurk, Parslow and Kerr. To go on would only be to over-indulge in magnificent memories and wander too far down memory lane.
But of course also deserving of mention is Gary Mills our manager, sliding on his knees, punching the air – mission accomplished in stunning style this season, and more than a touch of the Cloughie’s about his approach to management. He’s clearly learnt well from one of the greats with whom he won a European Cup as an 18 year old. And now he’s the man who’s made dreams come true and led York City back to the Football League, where hopefully we can hold on to him. An achievement which has to rank up there with Denis Smith’s century of points as Division 4 title winners and Alan Little stepping into the breach in 93 to win promotion at Wembley.
Because that’s exactly what we’ve done again. When it last happened I was a wide eyed 14 year old, captivated by the occasion. I slept in my York City shirt that night, devoured all the newspaper coverage over the following days, kept all the cuttings, recorded all the snippets of our success on TV, marvelled at mentions of our little club in the national media. These days, working in that said media I may be that much more cynical, and certainly a little less fresh faced, but you know what? Nothing else has changed. I’m still doing all of the above whilst writing this over the course of a day of reflection
When heading home from Wembley I may have only been going as far as Bromley this time, rather than Green Hammerton. And I may have been caught up in and certainly outnumbered by Chelsea fans on their way back from their own victory parade, watching the remnants of their celebrations which made me briefly wonder what it would be like to support a ‘big’ club – one winning European Cups rather than FA Trophies. And I realised. It wouldn’t feel any different – it certainly couldn’t be any more intense. I will almost certainly never find out but I wouldn’t have it any other way. From the time I was treated to a trip to Bootham Crescent for my 8th birthday in October 1986 and saw them well beaten by Mansfield Town I had my team and I wouldn’t and couldn’t change them for the world.
The fortunes of York City ever since have become ingrained with my own life. I remember personal milestones by recalling my teams progress at the time. Secondary school banter was fuelled by boasts of Carling Cup wins over Manchester United and Everton. University days coincided with league meetings against Manchester City – victory at Bootham Crescent, relegation at Maine Road. Descent into non-league football came at a time when conversely my own career began to take off in London. And then there’s this season, the achievement of a lifetime ambition for me personally with a breakthrough into national television commentary – Wembley for the FA trophy as a fan one day, Swansea for Sky Sports to commentate on Liverpool the next – hand in hand with the achievements of my team. A year ago it was all just a dream, what’s followed in the week since is a fairytale for this football club.
And that is why this game will never be just a game. You can keep your films and your soap operas and your theatre productions – for me the beautiful game will never be surpassed in stirring emotion, in thrilling, in dashing, in entertaining, in enthralling, in infuriating, in providing those ‘I was there’ occasions when years of hurt and frustration can be wiped away by moments you didn’t dare to dream were achievable. It is real, it is raw, football unites, football grieves together – when praying for Muamba this season we were also remembering David Longhurst. That day in September 1990 still sends a chill down the spine. Football doesn’t forget.
And to those who’s focus on football doesn’t extend beyond the popularity of the Premier League, who pour scorn on supporting a so-called lesser club, well hopefully you may just have an insight into why I would never trade places with you. Because York City Football Club has been part of my life every step of the way, it might not define it but it certainly provides a backdrop. That’s not to belittle or begrudge your own experiences winning league titles or European Cups, it’s just an explanation as to why this success tastes so sweet – any true fan of any club will understand. I will sign off now, finally, before the tear in my eye or the lump in my throat get too great, as they did at Wembley. So here’s raising a glass to season 2011/12 – you will never be forgotten and you may take some topping but here’s to trying and, whatever the future may bring, one thing is for sure ‘We are York, and we’re proud of it’