A year ago as I journeyed to Manchester for the Blue Square Bet Premier Play-Off Final, I had to admit that I didn’t travel as a neutral, as I declared my support for AFC Wimbledon that day over their opponents Luton Town. As I take my seat on the train down to London for this year’s fixture between Luton Town and York City, I will be doing so as an impartial observer.
It’s a grey old morning at Leeds station as people slowly drift around the concourse and dip their toe into the day ahead. A group of Blackpool fans just returned from London disconsolately drown their sorrows with an early morning pint. I board the 10:05 and settle down with a copy of the Non-League Paper and take in the pre-match opinions and articles as the journey South begins.
Yesterday saw the biggest game in European club football take place in Munich and yesterday at Wembley what is dubbed the ‘richest game in football’ also took place. Today is the biggest game in Non-League football.
Luton having lost out on penalties last season, have once more battled to be one game from returning to the Football League. The Hatters finished the Conference season in the last Play-Off spot and took on Wrexham over two legs. Luton ended the season keeping five clean sheets and this was extended to six in their First Leg game against the team from North Wales, as Luton recorded a 2-0 win. Town started brightly in the Second Leg and were 3-0 up on aggregate after a George Pilkington penalty on twenty five minutes. However, Wrexham came back strongly and with thirteen minutes to go they had taken a 2-1 lead, knowing another goal would take the game to extra time. The Hatters held firm and booked a place in the Wembley Final. Is it their day to erase the painful memories of that Final in Manchester last May?
York City faced Mansfield Town over two games and must have thought an appearance at the Final was slipping away from them after only managing a 1-1 draw in their home leg against the ten men of Mansfield. However, in the game at Field Mill after ninety minutes there were no goals and penalties must have been on the players minds as the second period of extra-time began. Matty Blair though gave The Minstermen the break through and his goal was enough to see City through to the Final. York have already tasted Wembley triumph this season, having beaten Newport County in the Carlsberg FA Trophy last weekend.
In the League meetings between Luton and York, the men from Bootham Crescent took all six points. In the game at York in September, City demolished Luton 3-0 with a double from Ashley Chambers and a goal from Jason Walker. At Kenilworth Road in March, Andre Gray put The Hatters ahead, but strikes from Patrick McLaughlin and James Meredith in the last ten minutes turned the game for York. These two sides also met in the FA Trophy Semi-Final over two-legs. In the opening game York emerged 1-0 winners thanks to a Jamie Reed penalty. At Kenilworth Road, Luton made the tie all square after a first half goal from Robbie Willmott. Then with extra-time looming, Matty Blair came up with a header in the eighty ninth minute to send The Minstermen through to the Final. Will York complete another victory against The Hatters and return to the Football League?
As the train arrives into Kings Cross and I make my way to the underground there are fans aplenty adorned in their respective colours. The red and blue of York is discernable amongst the orange hordes of the Luton army as they make their way to Wembley Park tube station. After a twenty minute journey I emerge onto Wembley Way and see the ‘new’ Stadium for the first time. It was 1975 when I first saw a game here and then the famous old Twin Towers gleamed under the floodlights that damp March night as England took on West Germany. As I get nearer the stadium, the size of the place is apparent as is the imperious statue of Bobby Moore, perched overseeing Wembley Way. It is slightly disappointing that the walkway is dominated by all the npower Play-Off banners, as today is about the Blue Square Bet (BSB) Conference, but I then notice a huge balloon adorned with the BSB logo in its distinct blue and white colours.
On entering the ground the overwhelming size of the structure is evident and how completely different a construction this ‘new’ Wembley is. Once into the Press Box, I take-in the low key murmur of noise around the ground as fans start to filter in, and banners and flags are hung from every vantage point. With fifty-five minutes to kick-off, the Luton fans start to applaud as The Hatters keepers come out to warm up and minutes later the York fans provide a similar greeting for their own goalkeeping team. With the game just three quarters of an hour away the outfield squads of the Finalists emerge and for the first time there are genuine expectant roars from the two sets of fans, although it is apparent that York will be outnumbered by the Luton faithful. It is rumoured that there will be 30,000 from Kenilworth Road; some achievement for The Hatters.
For the next thirty minutes, the teams go through their warm-ups, whilst the noise in the stadium increases and the pre-match operatic entertainment helps builds up the tension. The players leave the pitch – Luton as a unit applauding all the sections of their support which is provding a vast sea of orange. York also leave the Wembley turf but in a much more low-key way. There is a brief lull, until there is a run-through of the team line-ups on the big screens and once again cheers and jeers fill the air. Luton fans reserve their biggest displeasure for their ex-player Jason Walker. The players are out, the National Anthem comes and goes and after the formal presentation of the teams, the teams part to their respective ends of the stadium.
Both sides go into a huddle. What is going on in their heads? What are the last words of wisdom and encouragement? Who feels more confident? Does the ghost of last years defeat hang heavy over Luton? Will York be supremely confident given they have not lost to The Hatters in four games this season? The crowd roars in readiness for the start and Luton kick-off. Town are quick out of the block and incredibly with less than two minutes on the clock, they take the lead. Robbie Willmott who has looked dangerous already feeds the ball into Andre Gray who calmly slots the ball into the York net. Pandemonium breaks out amongst the Luton players, management team and fans, whilst the York end is silent, stunned and still. The opening ten minutes belong to Luton, as Willmott continues to looks dangerous running at the York defence and he has shots, along with Watkins and Lawless on The Minstermen goal. At last York get forward and Jason Walker gets behind the Luton back four and crosses for Ashley Chambers who shots wide. The York faithful nervously applaud their first forage into enemy territory. This marks a good ten minute spell for York. Firstly from a free-kick into the Luton box, it breaks to Jon Challinor, who goal-bound effort is blocked by Janos Kovacs. There follows a number of corners which Lanre Oyebanjo swings dangerously into The Hatters box. From one of these there is a shout for hand-ball, the replays suggest there was contact with the hand of a Luton player, but whether there was intent is decidedly unclear. James Walker is linking up nicely and causing his previous club problems and Luton are unable to clear their lines. The York fans feel their side is getting back into the game and get behind their side. Luton manages a corner of their own and a wayward shot from Stuart Fleetwood. However, this is a temporary reprieve from the head of steam that York is building. On twenty six minutes York gets their reward. Luton never properly clears a free-kick into the box and as the ball is knocked back across goal by Chris Smith, an unmarked Ashley Chambers smashes in the equaliser. It is no more than the team from Yorkshire deserve. Back come Luton and they dominate the next ten minutes as Gray and Howells both have shots on target for Town. However, Ingham in the York goal is looking solid and comes a long way to take a Willmott corner. On thirty six minutes York are forced into a change as Scott Brown replaces the injured Jon Challinor. Luton continue to dominate as the first half comes to an end, and Ingham again cuts out a dangerous corner and also saves comfortably from Lawless and Fleetwood. The whistle blows and the teams leave to cheers from the crowd with the scores level at 1-1. It has been a pulsating first half, which maybe Luton just shaded.
The managers now will have their time to work their magic and the fans catch their breath with the dream of promotion still alive.
The second-half kicks off with many people not back in their seats, and as many drift back in, York win a throw deep in Luton territory. From the throw Walker flicks it on and Matty Blair tucks home from close range. The York fans explode into joy. In the press box we consult our screens and quite clearly see that the York player was off-side and it was not even close. It is a terrible feeling knowing that here in our privileged position that the goal should not have been allowed. For me it is another case that supports the call for technology to be used in the game, but when will this come?
York are now in the ascendency, they pour forward, roared on by the Bootham faithful, but Chambers is caught off-side. The Orange Army is quiet and it takes them five or six minutes into the second half before they find their voice. York have dominated the second-half so far and create another decent chance as Tyler is forced into a save by Chambers. Luton manager Paul Buckle know that he has to make a change and on the hour makes a double substitution, with Craig McAllister on for Stuart Fleetwood and John Kissock on for Adam Watkins. It brings some fresh impetus in the next five minutes for The Hatters, but their final pass is not good enough. With twenty five minutes remaining it appears that York are happy to play on the break and the dangerous Chambers forces another save from Tyler. As the game reaches the seventy minute mark, the Luton faithful roar and try to urge their team on. The Hatters have a glorious chance to equalise from a corner, but Gray completely misses his kick and the chance is gone. Shortly after, McAllister throws himself bravely into a challenge but suffers a bad cut and the Luton man has to depart. Luton are back in charge; another attack sees a cut-back from the bye-line wasted. Gary Mills makes a change for York with thirteen minutes to go, as goal-scorer Chambers is replaced by James Reed. The second-half has taken place at a whirlwind pace and I can’t believe there are only ten minutes left. Luton come forward again and York keeper Ingham can only palm a cross away, as the ball breaks Luton substitute Kissock dives in amongst flailing York boots to try and grab an equaliser. However, all that Kissock gets is a bloodied nose for his troubles. It is not all one way though and Walker shows how dangerous he is with a strike on target. It is his last action as with eighty four minutes gone Patrick McLaughlin replaces him. The Luton fans seem subdued as the stewards start to move around the stadium to take up their positions as the attendance of 39, 265 is announced; both signs that the final whistle is not long away. With two minutes to go, the Town fans try to rouse their team to one final effort, but there only reward is a wayward effort from Robbie Willmott.
As the ninety minutes are up, there are now just four minutes of time added-on for Luton to grab an equaliser and send the game into extra time. The York fans are understandably whistling for the game to end, but deep-down know there is still time to go. Luton continue to press, but their efforts are looking more desperate as Aaron O’Connor shoots high and wide. Only two minutes remaining and York have won a corner and simply just try to keep the ball in the Luton half and wind down the clock. Luton keep going though and Keith Keane fires a hopeful long shot, but is well off target. With a minute left, Luton fans start to leave as the intensity of the whistles from the York faithful increases. City win a free-kick as The Hatters desperately try to regain possession in the dying seconds, but it is all too late.
As the whistle goes, fans celebrate wildly at the York end of the stadium. I glimpse City manager Gary Mills slump to his knees in what seems to be equal measures of relieve and joy. The noise from the York fans is reflected at the other end of the stadium by silent disbelief from the Luton faithful. Many don’t wait to applaud their team off and are quickly making for the exits. There is also a small group trying to get onto the pitch, but they are swiftly dealt with by the stewards. I can’t begin to imagine the disappointment The Hatters fans must be experiencing. The pain of losing out on penalties last season is now added to with defeat to an off-side goal.
As the York players take the plaudits and lift the trophy and the sheer joy erupts amongst the City supporters, the Luton players lay distraught and dazed on the pitch. It makes you realise that any Final is no place for losers. The short journey back to Bedfordshire will be an awfully long one.
Leaving the York fans to celebrate, I make my way to the post match press conference. First in is the suited figure of Paul Buckle. Before he even says a word, his body language gives away his inner feelings of utter despair at the loss his side have just suffered. Unsurprisingly, the first question to The Hatters boss is about the York winner. Buckle replies that if it is nip and tuck, then it is one of those things, but this goal was so far offside and was completely clear to see. The Luton manager added that he didn’t go and see the referee at the end of the game as there was no point, but it would be nice if he got a knock on his door or a phone call regarding the incident. Buckle said that as a manager he had done his job and he expected the officials to do the same.
The Hatters boss then reflects on the game overall. Buckle said that Luton had a great start with the early goal, but got ragged in phases through the first and second half and that the plan to press Jason Walker didn’t work fully. Having instilled in his players the importance of set-pieces (both from a defensive and attacking perspective), he was disappointed with the equaliser for York when Alex Lawless lost Ashley Chambers in the box. Buckle adds that sometimes you just think that maybe it isn’t going to be your day and the bad cut for Craig McAllister which caused him to be substituted was typical of Luton’s lack of luck on the day. Buckle believed that his team hadn’t taken their chances and were a fitter unit than when he came into the job, which is this game had York hanging on at the end. However, despite the circumstances, sportingly Buckle adds that he doesn’t begrudge York their win.
The final question to the Paul Buckle asks what will happen next season. Sensibly, it is a stock response as he says that there needs to be time to let the dust settle after the game and then take it from there. He praises his players who have given their all and the incredible support of the fans. The Luton manager has been gracious in his responses, but he rises now to leave and the pain of defeat is evident.
Within minutes the energy changes within the room as winning manager Gary Mills and his assistant Darren Gee enter. It is evident that like his Luton counterpart, Mills is emotionally drained. The York boss though looks slightly bewildered as he prepares to take his first question. Indeed The Minstermen manager acknowledges that it is all quiet unbelievable and what has just been achieved has not sunk in yet. Mills reflects that it has been an incredible eight days, with the FA Trophy triumph over Newport County last Saturday, the ‘green-light’ for the building of a new ground in midweek and now promotion back to the Football League today.
Mills accepts that his team started slowly, but once they got into the game York grew from there and that in his opinion this victory was reward for an incredible season. He adds that winning the European Cup with Forest was an incredible experience, but that gaining victory in this game topped that.
As with Paul Buckle, Gary Mills is asked about what happens next season. Mills starts by outlining how the Chairman had sold York to him and the desire (bordering on desperation) of the club to get back into the Football League. Only through work ‘on and off’ the pitch has this been achieved. In terms of next season, Mills accepts that there will be new players in and some of the squad will go. Mills is not afraid of having to make hard decisions and his dropping of Patrick McLaughlin to the bench today demonstrates that. Mills says that it is his philosophy is to ‘say thanks, shake hands and move on’. The Minstermen manager also adds that the spirit of his team has shone through all season and they had stuck together in a way that Mills considered to be even greater than that demonstrated by Chelsea in yesterdays Champions League Final.
A smiling Matty Blair, York scarf round his neck, enters the conference. The ‘Man of the Match’ is asked about the winning goal and Blair responds that he has been told that it was off-side, but that you need a bit of luck sometimes. Mills interjects that there is nothing to discuss, in that it is a goal and nothing will change that. Talk turns again to next season and Blair admits that he hadn’t really thought about life in the Football League, although he believes the standard is not much different to the Conference. The questions to Blair end on a lighter note as there is reference to Matty’s ‘dog’, which has become a feature of the season and spurned its own Twitter account.
Gary Mills adds that this is typical of the relaxed approach he has tried to engender throughout the season and revealed in the press conference that he took the players for a pint last night to talk about anything other than the Play-Off fixture. Mills also tells the press that he never talks about the opposition in preparation for a game. I reflect how much influence Cloughie had on Mills and his management style.
Throughout the press conference assistant manager Darren Gee has sat taking it all in, as Mills and Blair take centre stage. Gee simply chips in with the fact that through the 16 year management relationship with Mills they have essentially done the same things. He adds that it is essentially a simple system with a central theme of being there for players and creating a relaxed environment.
Finally, Mills is asked about the fans and the fact that York were so outnumbered by those from Luton. Mills reflects that it is something that the players have got used to and cited the League meeting this season when the 600 York fans were outnumbered by the 6,000 home fans – it was just something that they had adjusted to. The Minstermen manager continues that City had a great away record this season and today was just like another away game. Mills closes by thanking all the fans who had supported them all season and through the last two Wembley trips which would have been costly and to all those at home watching and listening whether on the radio or the television. Suddenly the room empties and the business of the day is done.
Now all that remains is the journey back North. Having attended the Press Conference, the crowds have mainly drifted away, so it is an easy journey back on the tube from Wembley Park to Kings Cross. Here, York fans mingle with Chelsea fans who are fresh from watching the European Cup being paraded around West London. On the train, the City supporters I see wear a contented, but weary smile as they head ever nearer home, safe with the knowledge that their club has reached its destination, that of the Football League.