When Dave Went Up is the fairy-tale story of Wimbledon’s famous 1988 FA Cup win over Liverpool, and how a small team overcame the giants of English football.

More than just a recollection of the final itself, the book takes us through the tournament round by round, from the third round to the semi-final, and everything in between.

We all know that Lawrie Sanchez got the winning goal, but did you know he was in the wrong place for the free kick? The story shows what great team spirit and sheer hard work can achieve. With tales from the key players in the side, the staff, the fans, plus some of the opposition, this is the definitive account of how Wimbledon FC won the FA Cup.

Along the way you’ll discover how the Dons fell in love with the competition, with background info on their run in the 1974/75 season, when Dickie Guy become a household name overnight after saving a penalty against Leeds United.

If you don’t know about the Dons’ connection with the famous old cup, you certainly will after reading this fascinating book.

(Publisher:  Pitch Publishing Ltd. May 2023. Hardcover: 320 pages)


Buy the book here: When Dave Went Up

Euro Ramblings – Final: England v Germany

‘Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing/but then I know it’s growing strong… Good times never seemed so good/I’ve been inclined to believe they never would.’ The lyrics to the song that has once again become an anthem this summer, ‘Sweet Caroline’, but how fitting those words seem in particular relation to women’s football after the Lionesses’ historic victory against Germany. Banned and ridiculed not so long ago, Leah Williamson and her teammates have given the game in England its biggest boost yet, whilst many of football’s foremothers and those who experienced it in its darker days may have believed such a time would never come. It is no surprise, therefore, that when the final whistle blew after 120 epic minutes at Wembley on Sunday that so many watching on found themselves teary-eyed or downright sobbing. What was so wonderful perhaps though about this outpouring of emotion was that it wasn’t just the Lionesses’ existing fans who have been caught up and carried along in the journey this summer, but a whole new audience of supporters who have been won over not only by the skill and ambition of these women, not only by the fair play and integrity of the game, not only by the friendly atmosphere and inclusivity of the stadiums, but also by that shared dream of English football fans to see football come home after over half a century. How we would have all loved to see the Three Lions triumph last year against Italy, but maybe there was something bigger, something predestined in the women achieving that success, on home soil, against the behemoth of Germany, to really lay the marker for the women’s game. A marker now that can never be erased. We needed permanence and prestige for the women’s game and it doesn’t come any bigger, any better than being written into the history books for all time.

Women’s Euro Trophy

In truth, the final was probably not the best game of football, and definitely not the Lionesses’ best performance, of the tournament, but there was something fitting about a nail-biting, hard-fought 2-1 victory over perennial winners Germany. In earlier games, England had shown various strings to their bow, with a determined 1-0 win over Austria, an 8-0 masterclass over Norway, a 4-0 demolition of Sweden and a dogged comeback against Spain. Being pegged back in the final proved a different test for the Lionesses and one that in previous years may have been their undoing. Indeed, many may have felt as if England had perhaps come unstuck once more after Lina Magull’s equaliser, but this is a different team led by a different manager, and an extra-time win only served to add yet another string to the Lionesses’ bow. They can rip teams apart, they can come back from the brink, and they can rally in adversity – in essence, they couldn’t be beaten. And with the backing of not only a record-breaking Euros attendance but of a growing national support, this England team proved just what can be achieved, wrapping up a memorable tournament but only just beginning their legacy.

It would be remiss not to mention the two English goalscorers of the final – Ella Toone and Chloe Kelly – whose names will go down in history and very probably be quiz answers in decades to come. Toone’s goal would have been a fitting finale for England’s victory, a snapshot of the quality and skill that this tournament has evidenced, but Kelly’s own personal journey to triumph after injury setback is perhaps just as intrinsic to the Lionesses’ story of struggle and determination. Beth Mead walked away with the Golden Boot honours after her own disappointment at being left out of the Olympic squad last year, as well as the Player of the Tournament. And whilst I don’t want to take anything away from her and would happily have seen any of the 23-woman squad take the honour, for me Millie Bright and Keira Walsh were the unsung heroes, hardly ever putting a foot wrong and both playing vital if often understated roles throughout the tournament. As I said though, it’s impossible not to sing the praises of all of the team; from Mary Earps’ impressive game-changing saves, Leah Williamson’s top-notch reading of the game, Ellen White’s harrying forward play to Alessio Russo’s effervescent cameos. And, of course, who could forget the woman who oversaw it all – Sarina Wiegman. If she doesn’t get the manager of the year across the board, there’s something very wrong. In ten months, she has transformed not only the team’s fortunes but also revitalised the game in this country through the Lionesses and has done it all with a calmness, composure and humility that astounds.

(c) Naomi Baker/Getty Images

And while Sarina should be collecting this year’s managerial accolades, the Lionesses should be nailed on for all other team and individual awards. Without wanting to draw comparison, if this was the men’s team, there would be national honours, books deals and every other endorsement under the sun, and rightly so. However, it seems as if the women have already slipped under the radar with a joyous yet strangely timed and grossly undervalued ceremony in Trafalgar Square. This may not have been a world triumph, but surely a parade and a Wembley-stadium sized reception would have not been too much to except and too little to deserve for conquering Euro and bringing home the first international trophy since 1966? This is the time that the powers that be should really be galvanising the support and enthusiasm in the women’s game and making hay. Alex Scott’s impassioned calling out of several stadium partners who failed to support Euro 2022 was a reminder that the women’s rise to the top has often been played out against a backdrop of challenges and barriers even in their own back yard. But for hosts such as Rotherham, Brighton and Milton Keynes, their support of the tournament not only reflected positively on them but also showcased some of the country’s stadium gems. And it is this sense of support and endorsement not only from the hosts, but pundits and presenters, and most crucially fans young and old, new and existing, that will be one of the lasting memories of this tournament and England’s impressive victory. And long may it continue.

Jade Craddock

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Day 31

European Championship Final

Italy v England (Wembley Stadium)

Matchday – the last of the delayed 2020 European Championship. And incredibly, the Three Lions have made it to their first Final – that alone has seen history being made. As I write this morning, I feel pretty calm, but kick-off is still just under nine hours away.

Gareth Southgate will not doubt have been and continue to say to players that it’s just another game and will try and keep the routine today as it has been throughout the competition to date. As a fan the superstition bug has kicked in and I’ll be following my own routine that has served me well to date. I’ll once again be wearing my Umbro England Euro96 t-shirt (an original – and yes it still fits, if a little tighter!) a couple of hours before kick-off. There will only be me and my football-suffering other half, who has secretly enjoyed the tournament watching at home – no trips to another venue or anybody invited here, and it has to be the BBC coverage. Additionally, I’ve not shaved my beard since the start of the tournament and that will be left until tomorrow. I will also need to make the same trip to the local shop to get in a box of beers (has to be bottles, not cans) for match supply. During the game the action isn’t paused for going to the kitchen for more drinks and snacks or indeed toilet breaks! I surely won’t be the only one in the country who has suddenly been struck by some strange foibles in the build up to the game against Italy.

For me the Azzurri are the favourites, and although that usually brings pressure, in a strange way they will know that the expectation is even greater on England to win in front of a home crowd. Italy have shown adaptability in this competition, with their Semi-Final win over Spain showing their incredible defensive abilities without the ball, against their attacking prowess displayed in the group stages. England in the group games were functional at best but launched their push for the trophy with a stirring win over Germany, an incredible demolition of Ukraine in Rome and a gritty come-back victory over Denmark.

The Three Lions recent record against Italy is not a great one, with just two victories in the last fourteen matches between the countries. One of those in 1997 was in a tournament, the Tournoi de France a warm-up event for the 1998 World Cup in which England took the trophy against Brazil, France and Italy. The Three Lions beat the Azzurri 2-0 with first-half goals from Ian Wright and Paul Scholes at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes. The last victory was in August 2013, when England faced Italy at the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf in Switzerland. Italy led through De Rossi after fifteen minutes, with Phil Jagielka levelling twelve minutes later. The winner came from Jermaine Defoe eleven minutes from time sealing a 2-1 win for the Three Lions. In the Euros and World Cup Finals, the Azzurri definitely have the upper hand, with a 1-0 victory in Turin at the 1980 Euros Finals at the group stage and at Euro 2012, a Quarter-Finals win on penalties (4-2) after the game had finished 0-0. At the World Cup it doesn’t make for better reading either, England lost 2-1 in the Third Place Play-off game at Italia90, and it was the same score in Brazil at the 2014 tournament as both sides failed to make it out of the group.

It’s time then that this run of results is changed. C’mon England!

Euro Ramblings – England & Italy: A combined XI by Jade Craddock

Coming into Sunday’s Final, I think it’s fair to say that England and Italy have been the most impressive teams this tournament, in terms of both their collective performances and individual performances. Whilst Italy have perhaps been the most eye-catching team, pairing their typical Azzurri solidity with dynamism and energy, England have combined stability with patience and a quiet confidence and both sides have looked assured and resolute. Each player has played their role and stood up to be counted, so, as the two teams prepare to meet, why not let’s indulge in naming a combined XI based on the Euros so far.

Donnarumma – Perhaps one of the trickier positions to call. Pickford kept a record five clean sheets in the first five matches of the tournament and has conceded only once, to Denmark in the Semi-Final, whilst Donnarumma kept three clean sheets in the opening group games, being breached in the 114th minute of extra-time in their Round-of-16 match, but not before setting national records for the most consecutive victories without conceding a goal (11 matches), and most minutes without conceding a goal (1,168). Pickford arguably had a Man-of-the-match performance against Germany, but looked a little unsettled against Denmark, whilst Donnarumma perhaps has not had as much to do (making 9 saves to Pickford’s 11) but was integral to the Azzurri’s penalty triumph against Spain. Five years Pickford’s junior, Donnarumma has perhaps shown slightly more consistency so far.

Walker – For me, this has very much been a tournament for full/wing backs, with some of the most impressive performances coming from the likes of Denzel Dumfries, Robin Gosens and Joakim Maehle, to name a handful. But few can compete with Kyle Walker in terms of his recovery and pace. Whilst he hasn’t got forward as much as usual, his presence at the back has been reassuring. Even when not having the best of games, he can still be relied upon in high-pressure situations and one-on-one footraces with any player in the competition. And even after 120 minutes against Denmark, he still looked fresh as a daisy as he sprinted from one end of the pitch to the other to take the ball into the corner. Aged 31, he’d be forgiven for seeing a drop-off in his fitness, but he makes 31 look the new 21.

Maguire – In tournaments past, England have anxiously awaited the fitness of its attacking players – David Beckham in 2002, Wayne Rooney in 2006 – so it says a lot when the nation was holding its breath on the fitness of a centre-back prior to this Euros. Tyrone Mings deputised impressively in Maguire’s absence in the first two group games and his contribution shouldn’t be forgotten, but Maguire’s return against the Czech Republic proved the mettle of the man. Having not played competitively for weeks, it would be natural for a player to take a while to find his feet, especially in an international competition, but Maguire looked like he’d never been away, in fact, if anything, he looked like he was playing at a different level. He has been a behemoth at the back – and let’s not forget his goal against Ukraine up top – so whatever fitness regime he’s followed with the staff at St George’s Park needs rolling out on the NHS asap.

Chiellini – Chiellini or Bonucci? Bonucci or Chiellini? It’s like choosing between a pair of equally fine vintage wines, one slightly older and earthier, the other marginally more refined and supple. Whilst Bonucci is slightly more cultured in his passing, Chiellini is the man you’d want beside you when backs were against the wall. His passion for football, for winning, for the Italians is unbounded and, as has been regularly noted throughout this tournament, he just damn well loves defending, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, it might be said. But this is a man who would throw himself in front of every ball, head out every cross and lay down on the goal-line to prevent a goal. Indeed, he seems to view goals against his side like an affront, a matter of honour and integrity, but he also plays the mind games incredibly well too. A good old-fashioned throwback of a player, but someone you’d definitely rather have on your side than on the opposition.

Shaw – My earlier allusion to full-backs deliberately excluded two notable names – Leonardo Spinazzola and Luke Shaw. Spinazzola has arguably been the player of the tournament, consistently impressing as a right-footed left wingback with his attacking intent and energy – he’s not bad at defending either! For wont of a cruel injury, he would get the nod here, but that’s no criticism of Luke Shaw, as I’d pretty much have Spinazzola as the first name on my teamsheet. In fact, Spinazzola aside, Luke Shaw has been one of the best performers, particularly in the latter rounds of the tournament, growing into games and in belief. He has perhaps been the most complete of the full-backs, never neglecting his primary duty at the back, but also playing an integral part in England’s attack – indeed, he’s joint-second on the list of assists and the only defender in the top five, ahead of the likes of Memphis Depay, Kevin De Bruyne and Joshua Kimmich – you’d take that.

Phillips – One of England’s earliest revelations in this tournament, what a difference that extra year made. Indeed, twelve months ago, Phillips had just won promotion out of the Championship, but outside of Leeds was largely under the radar, and had yet to be picked for his country. That all changed in August 2020 when Phillips was first selected by Southgate and, as they say, the rest is history. It is almost impossible now to imagine an England team without Phillips – or to give him his rightful moniker, the Yorkshire Pirlo – who quickly settled into the side and announced himself on the world stage with his first performance in the Euros. Only Jordan Pickford and John Stones have played more than Phillips’ 545 minutes for England at the tournament and this for a midfielder who covers every blade of grass – in fact, he’s covered 67.3kms of grass – the further of any England player. If Walker is England’s sprint king, Phillips is their marathon man.

Rice – Midfield partnerships haven’t always been the easiest things to come by for England, but in Phillips and Rice, Southgate has hit on a formidable defensive duo. Both humble, hardworking and selfless, Phillips and Rice go together like Ant and Dec, like Baddiel and Skinner, like Bonucci and Chiellini. The rise of Declan Rice has been similarly impressive to his midfield buddy, first making his breakthrough for England in 2019 before a couple of particularly effective seasons at West Ham pushed him to the fore of Southgate’s plans. It is easy to forget that Rice is still only 22 and there is still plenty of time for him to push on even more, but he already has the heart and enthusiasm of a lion.

Barella – In truth, there is an embarrassment of midfield riches across both sides and one of a number of players could complete the set. Jorginho and Verratti offer composure and bite, Manuel Locatelli dynamism, Mason Mount intelligence and Jack Grealish craft. Grealish is arguably the most impressive of the lot, but his ability to genuinely change the game from the bench – which is something that not all players can do – has, to some extent, made him a victim of his own success in this limited role, and if this team could only have one sub, it would, without question be Grealish; if it could have twelve players by some quirk of the ref miscounting, that would also be Grealish, but, alas, I think VAR may spot that one. Barella’s ability to pop up with a goal and get in and around the box and recover the ball, however, makes him an effective option and he’s rightly been a mainstay in the Azzurri’s setup.

Sterling – Going into the tournament, there were questions over Sterling’s form at Manchester City, with 10 goals to his name last season, on the back of 20 the previous season, despite seven assists to his name, and another Premier League and League Cup title. Southgate, however, stuck by a player who has been a regular for him and has stood in as captain on occasions, and the manager has been duly rewarded, with Sterling netting the first three of England’s goals in this campaign, including the match-winners in both the Croatia and Czech Republic games, and playing a crucial part in England’s equaliser against Denmark and the penalty that would secure England’s first final in 55 years and first ever in the Euros. He has played some 521 minutes and covered the third-most distance for England in his six appearances and is being widely touted as the Player of the tournament.

Kane – Oh how Spain and Germany must wish for Harry Kane – and oh how grateful all England fans are that he’s English. Despite a slow start, there never should have been any doubts over the three-time Premier League Golden Boot winner and having been written off after a ‘goal drought’ of three games at this tournament, Kane is now only one goal behind front-runners Ronaldo and Schick in the race for the tournament’s Golden Boot. And while his goals are crucial of course, this tournament has seen him play a real team role as a true captain does, going deeper to effect play and look to start attacks. When England were awarded their penalty in extra-time against Denmark, there is absolutely no other player you would have wanted stepping up then than the England captain, and even when the initial shot was saved, he was the first to react and to finish at the second time of asking. Kane proves the value of having a top-class striker in your side – just ask Spain.

Chiesa – Another position that is blessed with talent on both sides, including Lorenzo Insigne and Domenico Berardi for the Italians and Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden for The Three Lions. But while my heart screams Bukayo Saka, my head says Federico Chiesa to complete the line-up. At 19, Saka took to his first senior match at an international tournament just as convincingly as he has done all season for Arsenal and put in the performance of a seasoned pro. Four years his senior, Chiesa too has looked impressive in his first tournament for Italy. Despite not starting the first two games, Chiesa’s performances in his cameos, scoring the first in extra-time of the Round-of-16 game against Austria, has made him an integral part of Mancini’s thinking in the latter stages of the tournament and he hasn’t let his manager down, always looking to get into the box and take the shot on.

Manager: Southgate – Ultimately, the manager – and, to some extent, the players – will be judged only on what happens in the final, but really the job Southgate has done should not be limited to one game, however it goes. Of course, if (when?) England win, he will be heralded as a national hero, but he’s already made a very strong case for being considered as such right now. Indeed, the job of England manager has often been seen as the ultimate poison chalice in football and has taken some big scalps in the past, but Southgate has gone about his job both on and off the pitch in such a way that he has rewritten the script. Indeed, as much as he has helped to shape this England team on the pitch, his role in developing a new philosophy, building bridges with the media and fans and, crucially, leading from the front on important national and social issues is perhaps an even greater and more important achievement. He has united a nation, restored pride and instilled belief and he has done so with the utmost integrity, calmness and decency. Win or lose on Sunday, in Gareth, England should give thanks.

UEFA 2020 Euro Championship – Day 28

England (1) 2 – 1 (1) Denmark [AET]

Goalscorers: England – Kjaer (39’og), Kane (104′). Denmark – Damsgaard (30′)

Wembley Stadium, London

Well, well, well…in the words of Chris Kamara, “Unbelievable Jeff”. I had noted yesterday how history had indicated that a 1-0 result was a common one between these two sides, and when Damsgaard bent in a marvellous free-kick and then Schmeichel saved from Raheem Sterling from point-blank range shortly after, that prediction had a worrying predictability about it. However, it was nice to be proved wrong when just nine minutes after going behind, England were level. Kane played a delightful ball inside the Danish defence allowing Saka to skip to the bye-line before delivering a tantalising cross that Kjaer could only knock into his own net with Sterling lurking for a tap-in. 1-1 at the break and the nerves were jangling. The second-half saw both sides look for the winner, with Schmeichel producing a save from Harry Maguire that mirrored the one that the Dane pulled off in the FA Cup Final, incidentally at the same end of the ground and also to a header which he pushed away to his right. England looked to have a decent penalty shout turned down when Kane looked to have been fouled, and one wondered what VAR had missed when turning it down. One aspect that helped the Three Lions during this period was that the Danes used five substitutions during the second-half, compared to Gareth Southgate’s single change. It meant that in extra-time, England were able to freshen the side with a number of changes, whilst the Danes simply had one further substitute to use. The winner came as the first period was coming to an end. Sterling who has been outstanding in this competition was bundled over as two Danes closed in on the Manchester City player. The referee pointed to the spot and after checking VAR the award was confirmed, whilst the Danes understandably complained about the decision. Captain Kane stepped up and although his spot-kick was saved, it fell kindly for him to stroke in and set off scenes of unadulterated joy in the stadium and across the country. It was all of a bit of a blur from then as England saw out the game and after 55 years return to a major Final. That turgid game against Scotland now seems a lifetime away.


Euro Ramblings – Final Four assessment by Jade Craddock

Two Semi-Finals, two periods of extra-time, three missed penalties, one ‘controversial’ penalty, a first Final for England in 55 years and the return of the tiny, tiny car. As a nation prepares for its biggest moment in sporting history for over half a century, there’s a brief moment to reflect on the teams that made it to the final four.

Spain: It was a case of so near, yet so far for a Spanish team, which, in all honesty, played their usual neat and tidy game in this tournament, but never looked completely convincing. Whilst their obvious issue was a lack of a clinical, decisive finisher, with Morata, Oyarzabal and Moreno all struggling to fill the berth, their World Cup victory in 2010 was predicated on the false 9, but La Roja came unstuck this time, despite impressive performances from 18-year-old Pedri and 23-year-old Dani Olmo, who will surely be integral to the Spanish side moving forward. Somewhat surprisingly, Spain are currently the highest goal-scorers at the tournament, with 13, to Denmark and Italy’s 12, and England’s 10, in large part to a five-goal demolition of Slovakia in the group stage and a 5-3 thriller against Croatia in the round of 16. So there is no doubt they can score goals and when everything clicks, they are still a hugely impressive and dangerous team, but, unfortunately, too many times in this tournament, it just didn’t click, including in their opening 0-0 clash with Sweden and a 1-1 draw with Poland in the next match. At times, they seemed to be crying out for something different, and with Adama Traore on their bench, a sum total of 13 minutes across six matches seemed bewildering. The Semi-Final against Italy looked to be the perfect set-up for a player who has tormented defenders in the Premier League against two centre-backs with a combined age of 70 and a majority of players who won’t have faced the tricky winger regularly, but Traore was brought off the subs bench to enter the affray only to return there without stepping foot on the pitch. Of course, one will never know whether he would have made a difference, but it all seemed a bit too safe and samey from Luis Enrique. With only three of the starting eleven for the match against Italy in their thirties, there is still time for this side to push on for next year’s World Cup.

Rating: 7

Denmark: If the Danes had been playing anyone else but the Three Lions, I think it could be safely assumed that we’d all have liked to see them in the Final. Theirs has been the most challenging tournament imaginable, with the events of the very first match inevitably casting a shadow over all that followed. Other teams would have most likely crumbled, and it did seem in the conclusion of that first game against Finland as if the Danes would struggle to overcome what they had witnessed, losing 1-0 in a game in which the result was largely insignificant. Despite rallying against Belgium, an impressive Kevin de Bruyne display led to the Danes’ second defeat in two and threatened to end their tournament prematurely. Bottom of the group with no points heading into the final game against Russia, Denmark had it all to do, but if there is anything this team have proved from that first match is that they rally in adversity. And in that decisive match, Denmark didn’t just rally, they conquered, with an impressive 4-1 thrashing. Having progressed out of the group stage against all odds, Denmark looked galvanised in their matches against Wales and the Czech Republic, with 21-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard growing into the tournament, alongside Kasper Dolberg and Joakim Maehle. From the brink, people began asking whether Denmark could repeat their triumphs of 1992 and it was a team that itself was obviously growing in belief. They made the Semi-Final a tricky affair for England but eventually bowed out after 120 minutes with their heads held high. Their journey was much more about football, and in everything that they did, they made a nation and a footballing community hugely proud and gained themselves a legion of fans for the way responded not only in their darkest of moments but in all they achieved thereafter. Whilst the hope would have been to win the tournament for Eriksen, themselves and their country, in many ways Denmark won so much more, and in Simon Kjaer they have the standout captain of the Euros.

Rating: 8

Italy: Whilst France, Belgium and Portugal all got the big build-up going into the tournament, Italy generally flew under the radar, until their first game against Turkey in which they clearly set out their stall with an emphatic 3-0 win. In truth, perhaps the Azzurri should have been on everyone’s radar, having come into the Euros with a hugely impressive winning streak and clean sheet run. Indeed, they continued to set records on both fronts in the group stage, with a second 3-0 triumph over Switzerland and 1-0 win, arguably with a second string XI, against Wales. Though Austria provided the first real test for Mancini’s men, it was clear that this Azzurri side were one with typical Italian grit and determination to go with the flair and skill. Many saw their Quarter-Final clash with Belgium as a potential banana skin, but they came through relatively untroubled, continuing to play an attractive and energetic style that perhaps has not always been characteristic of the Italians. Another difficult tie faced them in the Semi-Final against Spain, which was a much tighter affair, going all the way to penalties, but there is something about this group which gives them the edge. Indeed, it has felt throughout this tournament as if they have somehow been destined to make the Final and they have overcome every obstacle in their way through a combination of skill, talent, passion and tenacity. Their football has been amongst the most impressive on display, and as well as the team collective, there have been superb individual performances from the likes of Federico Chiesa and Manuel Locatelli, whilst Bonucci and Chiellini defy age in defence. However, Leonardo Spinazzola has arguably been the player of the entire tournament, putting in displays from left-back that are frankly mind-boggling. His injury against Belgium was a massive blow, not only for the Azzurri but for the tournament in general, but Italy’s strength in depth and squad quality has been another factor in their success. With an unbeaten run of 33 matches now – and a new record for the longest winning run in the Euros of 15 matches – Italy have set themselves as the ones to beat – but, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

Rating: 9

England: Oh, where to begin? Well, there’s only one place, surely, their progress to a first Final in 55 years. For the older generation, 1966 lives long in the memory, but for those born after that triumph, the Three Lions story has been one of varying degrees of hope and inevitable disappointment. Whilst there was the usual excitement and anticipation pre-tournament, few, I think, who would really have believed in England’s chances (I was one of the few), but three points in the opening game soon galvanised a nation, which had been kept out of football stadiums for some eighteen months. Of course, though, this wouldn’t be England without an anti-climax and that came in the next game against Scotland. A win against the Czech Republic secured England’s progress out of the group stage and a top-of-the-table finish and whilst hopes were high, a clash against Germany in the Round of 16 was viewed by many as the real test. A test that England came through with aplomb, but even better was to come three days later in Rome. England, away from Wembley for the first time, without their legion of fans and having had the extra hassle of travel, would be forgiven for being a bit sloppy, but no, this was the performance a nation needed to cement belief that this may just be England’s time. Ukraine may not have been the biggest scalp, but they still stood in England’s way, although not for very long, it has to be said, with Harry Kane’s fourth minute goal practically sealing the deal there and then. As Jurgen Klinsmann reflected, it had all been too perfect for England. Plain sailing is not something English football fans are familiar with, and this was the closest thing to plain sailing in recent history. We all knew it couldn’t last, but it was a question of how England would react to going behind, to adversity, to pressure, that would determine whether this team were just a carbon copy of those gone by or, indeed, the real thing. And Denmark posed that very question of the Three Lions, scoring first in their Semi-Final clash, with England conceding their first goal in over 600 minutes. With backs against the walls, an expectant home crowd and the ghost of 55 years, this would be the test of this team, and where England teams of tournaments past would have wilted, Kane and his band of brothers showed the resilience, determination and drive perhaps lacking in previous teams to cross that hallowed line into the Final. Italy will be yet a tougher test, but this victory – against a spirited Denmark side, coming from behind and with England far from their best – will surely add to the growing confidence and belief. Once again for me, despite the embarrassment of riches up front, it was the defence, so questioned pre-tournament, that were key. Pickford, who so impressed against Germany, had a nervier time of it last night, but hopefully he’s got that out of his system, while the four players in front of him – or make that six with Rice and Phillips’ dogged performances – rose to the occasion: Stones was largely unruffled, Maguire was imperious, Shaw tenacious and Walker just superhuman. Whilst there was controversy over the eventual penalty that separated the two teams, whether or not it was or wasn’t a penalty – and the same could be said of the Kane incident earlier in the match – England have been on the end of a fair few contentious decisions of their own and everyone knows you need some luck to win tournaments. There is more to this team than luck though, and Southgate’s men are doing a nation proud. With the Final at Wembley on Sunday, the trophy is in England waiting to be lifted – did someone say it’s coming home?

Rating: 9

Euro ramblings – Arrivederci or Adios? By Jade Craddock

Italy v Spain (Wembley Stadium)

Today sees the clash between two heavyweights of the footballing world, with a combined nine World Cup and Euro Championships between them. Despite their combined footballing pedigree, one of them will be heading for the door marked EXIT at the end of the game. Ahead of the Semi-Final fixture, here’s a round-up of five icons of each team whose autobiographies – either already published or which would be worth publishing – would make for a good read.


Gianluigi Buffon – The most capped player for The Azzurri with 176 appearances to his name – and the second-most capped European international – Buffon’s national career spanned some 21 years, in which time he won the World Cup in 2006 and the Golden Glove in the same year. He also has the most appearances for Italy as captain. Domestically, his senior career started in 1995 with Parma, before a 17-year spell, comprising 509 appearances for Juventus, followed by a short spell at PSG before he returned to The Old Lady in 2019. Buffon won a host of awards, just missing out on the Ballon d’Or in 2006, and holds a multitude of records, including most appearances in Serie A and most minutes played for Juventus – his 61,412 minutes for the club equating to some 1,023 hours or 42 days! His autobiography, Numero 1, was published in Italian in 2009, but surely it’s time for an update.

Fabio Cannavaro – Italy has always been blessed with enviable defensive talent – Baresi, Maldini, Nesta, as well as the current crop of Bonucci, Chiellini, Spinazzola and Di Lorenzo, but it was Fabio Cannavaro who captained The Azzurri to their first World Cup triumph in almost a quarter of a century. The centre-back represented his nation across thirteen years, notching up some 136 caps, having already won consecutive European U21 championships in 1994 and 1996. He featured for Italy at four World Cups, two Euros, an Olympics and a Confederations Cup. His domestic career took in Napoli, Parma, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid and he won the 2006 Ballon d’Or. His book – La Nostra Bambina – was published in Italian in 2016.

Andrea Pirlo – Few players enter the football psyche quite like midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo. Starting out at Brescia, his career took him to three of Italian football’s biggest hitters, in Inter Milan, AC Milan and Juventus, where he did the clean sweep of Serie A, Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italia, Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup. His national career saw him appear at every age range from U15 through to the senior team, for which he made 116 appearances and scored 13 goals and was intrinsic to the 2006 World Cup triumph. He was man of the match in the World Cup Final and finished as the top assist maker in the tournament. His book, I Think, Therefore I Play, was published in 2014.

Gianluca Vialli – The Premier League has welcomed over 70 Italian players since its inception in 1992, including the likes of Dino Baggio, Massimo Maccarone and Fabrizio Ravenelli, but amongst the greatest imports is one Gianluca Vialli, who called Chelsea his home for three years, making 58 appearances and scoring 21 goals. Prior to his move to England, Vialli had represented Cremonese, Sampdoria and Juventus and is the only forward to have won the three main European competitions. He made 59 appearances for The Azzurri across seven years and scored 16 goals, and although there are perhaps more prolific and significant Italian strikers in the likes of Rossi, Baggio et al, Vialli’s health struggles in recent times make his book Goals – published in May – an important read. A previous autobiography, The Italian Job, is also available, whilst La Bella Stagione by Vialli and Roberto Mancini was published in Italian earlier this year.

Mario Balotelli – Mario Balotelli may not be the first name that comes to mind when you think of Italian strikers, but let’s be honest, if there is any footballer with a story to tell it’s surely this former Man City maverick. His stats for Italy are fairly impressive, with some 14 goals in only 36 appearances, in which time he featured at Euro 2012, the 2013 Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup and, interestingly, he is both the Azzurri’s joint top scorer in the European Championship and Confederations Cup. In his domestic career, Balotelli has played in three of Europe’s biggest leagues, as well as representing two of English football’s biggest hitters in Manchester City and Liverpool. Whilst an autobiography is yet to be published, if you’re looking for something to fill the void, Francesco Totti is not a bad replacement and his book, Gladiator, is slated for publication in English in September.



Iker Casillas – With 167 caps to his name across a 16-year stint, Iker Casillas is the second most capped player in Spain’s history and amongst the most iconic goalkeepers of a generation. Representing La Roja at U15 level all the way through to the senior team, he captained the side at the 2010 World Cup, where he led them to their first ever World Cup triumph, picking up the Yashin Award for best goalkeeper en route. He picked up two European Championship wins in 2008 and 2012, whilst at club level he won all major trophies in almost two decades at Real Madrid. With 1,119 appearances in his career, he is one of only some 32 players to have played over 1,000 times and has the record for the most clean sheets in the Champions League. No autobiography has yet been published but would be on the list for any football fans.

Sergio Ramos – Despite being dropped from the Euro 2020 squad, Sergio Ramos remains the most capped Spanish player of all time, with 180 caps to his name, and 23 goals, and was the youngest Spanish player to reach 100 caps. Representing La Roja at four World Cups and three Euros, he has won one World Cup and two Euros trophies. Whilst his domestic career started at Sevilla, Ramos became a figurehead at Real Madrid, where he played some 469 games across a 16-year spell, winning five La Liga titles, two Copa del Reys, four Supercopa de Espana, four Champions Leagues, three Super Cups and four Club World Cups. Having been surprisingly let go from Madrid this summer, his future is yet to be determined, but perhaps a move to the Premier League could prove his swansong and add a nice chapter to a potential autobiography.

Santi Cazorla – It’s practically impossible to choose between the incredible midfielders that Spain have been endowed with in the last decade alone. Where do you start in separating the likes of Xavi, Fabregas, David Silva, Xabi Alonso, Juan Mata… But when it comes to personality to match their talent, Santi Cazorla is perhaps in a league of his own. Despite competing against these Spanish heavyweights, Cazorla achieved 81 caps for La Roja, scoring 15 times and was Spain’s Player of the Year in 2007. His domestic career took in Villareal, Recreativo Huelva and Malaga in Spain, but he made his name in the Premier League in a six-year spell at Arsenal, where he faced a career-threatening injury. Whilst Juan Mata is the only one of these midfield options to have an autobiography to his name (Suddenly a Footballer), Cazorla et al are surely each worthy of their own tomes.

Andres Iniesta – One man missing from that midfield list is none other than Andres Iniesta – a player who won La Liga’s Best Spanish player in 2009, was five times La Liga’s Best Midfielder, featured in nine consecutive FIFA FIFPro World11’s, six UEFA Teams of the Year, the 2010 FIFA World Cup Dream Team, won UEFA’s Best Player in Europe Award in 2012 and the Euro Player of the Tournament in the same year… you get the drift. With Spain, Iniesta won the World Cup and two Euros, being named man of the match in the 2010 World Cup Final and the Euro 2012 Final, and notched 131 caps for La Roja, scoring 13 goals across a 12-year spell. His domestic career was spent predominantly at Barcelona, where he made 442 appearances, and won 35 trophies, including two trebles, in 2009 and 2015. His autobiography, aptly named The Artist, was published in English in 2016.

Diego Costa – While Raul and Fernando Torres may take the accolades as Spain’s top strikers in recent years, the mercurial Diego Costa is an autobiography dream. His international appearances may have been limited to only 24, but he managed 10 goals in that time. Meanwhile, his domestic career has seen him traverse Portugal, Spain and England, moving from Braga to Atletico Madrid to Valladolid, back to Atletico, before heading to Chelsea, and returning once more to Atleti. Despite his nomadic career, he’s racked up two La Liga triumphs, a Copa del Rey, Europa League success, three Super Cups, as well as two Premier League titles and a Football League Cup, and interest (and controversy) has followed him along the way. Fran Guillen’s book, Diego Costa: The Art of War, perhaps sums up the image of the man, but it would be fascinating to get a more personal insight into his character. And in terms of a head-to-head, it doesn’t get much better than him and Balotelli.

2012/13 Blue Square Bet Premier Conference Play-Off Final: Newport County AFC v Wrexham

Journey to the Final

With Mansfield Town securing a win on the last day of the Conference season, their return to the Football League after relegation in 2007/08, was confirmed. It also meant that Kidderminster Harriers, Wrexham, Newport County AFC and Grimsby Town were the four teams fighting it out for the other promotion place via the Play-offs.

In the First-Leg games, Kidderminster (who finished in second place) visited Wrexham (who finished in fifth place). David Artell scored with a header in time added-on at the end of the first-half to send Wrexham 1-0 ahead at the break, but The Harriers were level on fifty seven minutes when Michael Gash scored from the penalty spot. With the game entering the last five minutes, the deadlock was broken when Wrexham were awarded a penalty of their own and Neil Ashton converted it to give The Reds a 2-1 advantage. In the other Semi-Final game, Newport County AFC (who finished in third place) travelled to Grimsby Town (who finished in fourth place) and came away with a 1-0 win after an eighty ninth minute goal from a Ismail Yakubu header which went in off Town defender Ian Miller.

Back at Kidderminster for the Second-Leg, The Harriers task was made all the more difficult when Brett Ormerod scored on twenty nine minutes for Wrexham to give them a 1-0 lead and 3-1 aggregate advantage. Kidderminster equalised on sixty four minutes through Cheyenne Dunkley, but hopes of a comeback were short-lived as just five minutes later a Joe Clarke free-kick restored the Wrexham lead. A spot at Wembley was sealed when with eighty five minutes gone Neil Ashton converted a penalty to wrap the game up at 3-1 and a 5-2 aggregate win. An all-Welsh Conference Play-off Final was confirmed when Christian Jolley scored on thirty one minutes for Newport, sealing a 1-0 win on the day and a 2-0 aggregate win over Grimsby.


2012/13 League encounters

In the league meeting at Wrexham in September, The Reds won the encounter 2-0 with goals from Adrian Cieslewicz and Danny Wright. At Newport in January, County had the chance to go ahead on twenty seven minutes, but Wrexham keeper Joslain Mayebi saved Andy Sandell’s spot-kick. The visitors then took the lead on thirty four minutes through Danny Wright. However, Newport salvaged a draw on fifty six minutes through Max Porter.


Other Conference Meetings


Blue Square Bet Premier

22 October 2011            Wrexham  (0) – (0)  Newport County

24 April 2012                 Newport County  (0) – (1)  Wrexham



Blue Square Bet Premier

27 March 2011              Wrexham  (1) – (0)  Newport County

5 September 2010         Newport County  (1) – (1)  Wrexham


Last Football League Fixtures


League Division Four

24 October 1987            Newport County (2) – (0) Wrexham

26 March 1988              Wrexham (4) – (1) Newport County


Sunday 05 May 2013 – Leeds to London

The 09:45 train from Leeds to St Pancras International is my mode of transport down to London for the game. Whilst unsurprisingly there are no Newport or Wrexham fans evident in the station, groups of Bradford City fans, resplendent in Claret and Amber shirts, merrily gather on their way to Burton for their npower League Two Semi-Final Second-Leg fixture. The Bantams supporters seem in exceedingly bright spirits given that their team trails 3-2 from the First-Leg game in Bradford. Leaving them to dream of a second Wembley visit this season, my train pulls out and the journey to the National Stadium begins. The great thing with this trip is the time it allows you to relax and think about the game ahead. So with coffee and The Non-League Paper as my companions, I settle in for the long haul and a bit of ground spotting along the way as the East Stand at Elland Road appears then disappears from view very quickly.

It’s the third Play-off Final I will be covering and the first in which Luton Town won’t be featuring. The Hatters finished down in seventh place and thirteen points away from the last Play-off spot, in what was a difficult season. Without the team from Bedford, I’m a Northern gate-crasher at an all Welsh Final between Newport County AFC and Wrexham. My thoughts are broken as I catch sight of the various pitches and building that make up the West Riding County FA Headquarters at Woodlesford, a venue which has hosted the West Riding County Cup Final.

Today and for the Bank Holiday tomorrow the forecast is for a bright and sunny couple of days, but the reality of the early Sunday morning weather hasn’t yet matched that forecast. As the train reaches Barnsley, the grey sky is punctuated by shafts of sunlight which linger over Oakwell; the town still slumbering, no doubt sleeping off the celebrations of yesterday as the club retained its status in the Championship. As the journey through South Yorkshire continues, the train stops at Sheffield – a station busy with people and a city still with football matters on its mind this season. Whilst Wednesday fans can rest easy in their beds this morning after their team ensured there will be Championship football at Hillsborough next season, United followers have a Semi-Final Second Leg encounter at Yeovil tomorrow to see if the dream of promotion can be brought one step nearer.

As the train leaves sunny Sheffield, I doze slightly and only half consciously take in the next part of the journey as stops at Chesterfield, Derby, East Midlands Parkway, Loughborough, Leicester and Market Harborough vanish in a blink. I get another coffee at Kettering and take in the pretty uninspiring flat landscape outside set under what is now a grey sky. Wellingborough passes too and at Bedford as the sun once more fleetingly appears I check on the Bradford City score as the game approaches half-time and see that The Bantams are a goal to the good. I close my eyes once more and awake to see that the journey is nearly at an end as the train hurtles parallel to the M1 into North London and the arch at Wembley Stadium flashes past my eye-line. A last check of the Bradford score sees The Bantams incredibly ahead 3-1 and heading for the Play-off Final, although there is still time left for Burton to grab a game changing goal. For now the result will have to wait as I make my way from St Pancras to catch the Underground to Wembley Park.


The Match – Newport County AFC v Wrexham

Arriving at Wembley Park an hour before kick-off it is evident from the lack of people on and around Wembley Way that there is not going to a crowd of any significant numbers today. Indeed the estimates pre-game were that it would be around the 17,000 mark with Wrexham outnumbering their Newport counterparts 2 to 1. As I get set-up in the press area, on the pitch the two teams go through their warm up sessions, whilst the stadium announcer does his best to engender some atmosphere to the occasion. A few opera pieces are belted out by Martin Toal who closes his set with the tune that became so much associated with Italia ’90, Nessun Dorma, reminding the crowd of the closing words, “…I will win, I will win, I will win…” Those in the stadium are appreciative of the efforts of Toal and give him a warm reception as he leaves the pitch.

With fifteen minutes to kick-off, Newport are first to exit the hallowed turf to be followed minutes later by Wrexham. The respective squads return to their dressing rooms for the final preparation and I wonder how relevant the statistics around this game are and whether the coaching teams use them to provide a last minute psychological boost. Would for instance The Reds player-manager Andy Morrell tell his players that Wrexham had never lost to Newport in all the six Conference encounters with Newport, or would he say that York City won the FA Trophy and then went on to win promotion via the Play-off Final last season and that Wrexham had the chance to do exactly the same this season. Across in The Exiles dressing room was Justin Edinburgh reminding his players that in the ten years of the Play-offs, that no team from 5th place (this season, Wrexham) had ever won promotion via the Final and that the team finishing in 3rd spot (this season, Newport) has emerged victorious on five occasions.

Both teams await the guest of honour.

The crowd now start to appreciate that kick-off is fast approaching and both sets of fans start to crank up the noise. As they do, the grounds-staff replaces the divots on the pitch and red carpets are laid out for the pre-match presentation of the games dignitaries on the half-way line. The television monitors in the press area show that the teams have gathered in the tunnel and the camera pans to a tense looking Justin Edinburgh. Moments later both teams emerge to roars of encouragement from the crowd and line-up awaiting the match guest of honour, Richard Scudamore, Chief Executive of The Premier League.

Given that it is an all-Welsh Final, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) is played and rousingly sung by both sets of supporters. Unsurprisingly, the English National Anthem, God Save the Queen, is not received with quite so much warmth. At the close of the two Anthems, the two teams break rank with kick-off now just minutes away. Wrexham seem more animated as various players buzz round giving last minutes words of encouragement. Newport by comparison seem more static and the only significant movement sees captain David Pipe briefly speak to his manager Justin Edinburgh on the touchline.

Wrexham resplendent in red and white kick-off and attack the Amber and Black end of the ground where the Newport fans are situated. It’s a nervous start from Wrexham as Davis Artell slices the ball out of play, but from the resultant throw Newport are unable to threaten and the ball goes through comfortably to Chris Maxwell in the Wrexham goal. Indeed the opening minutes are ragged as an early Wrexham cross is over-hit and Newport captain David Pipe is guilty of putting a long-ball directly into touch. However, on three minutes there is a first concerted effort on goal from County’s Michael Flynn, although the shot lacks power and is easily gathered by The Reds keeper Maxwell. The Exiles are struggling in the opening ten minutes as Wrexham settle the better of the teams and force Newport to concede a number of free-kicks. Justin Edinburgh spots something and tries to get a message to his skipper David Pipe. Newport attempt to get a foothold in the game but their long-balls forward are over-hit. However, County do win the first corner of the game on thirteen minutes, but it is well taken by keeper Maxwell. Wrexham continue to dominate and after good build-up play, Brett Ormerod fires wide just three minutes later. Jolley and Crow are having little impact on the game so far, and are unable to get any meaningful possession. When Newport do have a chance to break on nineteen minutes, Andy Sandell wastes the opportunity with a long-range effort that sails high and wide. Seconds later Sandell has another effort which is again wasteful, but at least The Exiles are getting into the game. Wrexham though quickly respond on twenty one minutes, with a diving header from Ormerod, but he is always struggling to make a clean connection and Pidgeley in the County goal is untroubled. Shortly afterwards due to a clash of heads Ormerod has to change his bloodied number ten shirt to reappear wearing a shirt without a number. Newport are looking to get behind Wrexham, but the balls through continue to be too long for their intended targets and the County boss visibly shows his displeasure. Unlike his Newport counterparts upfront, Ormerod is causing problems and constantly involved in all the pressure Wrexham are exerting. On thirty minutes Joe Clarke has an effort from distance for The Reds but it rises way over the bar. Just three minutes later Wrexham create an excellent chance when good inter-play with Hunt allows Ormerod a good shooting chance around the penalty-spot, but it is always going wide. The Reds striker has another chance on thirty six minutes and this effort from outside the box is again the wrong side of the post. There is respite from the Wrexham pressure a minute later when Newport win a free-kick in a good position. Michael Flynn delivers it into the box and Maxwell displays excellent handling in claiming it. As the game enters the last five minutes, Newport enjoy their best spell of the game. On forty minutes, Michael Flynn has an effort on goal comfortably gathered by Maxwell, but the best chance occurs on forty three minutes as Christian Jolley curls an effort from inside the box just wide. With time running out in the half, Newport win a free-kick which Andy Sandell takes, the ball into the box is met by Lee Minshull, but the connection isn’t as clean as he would have liked, so Maxwell is able to make the save. The stadium announcer informs the crowd there is one minute of time added on and it passes without incident, sending the teams into the tunnel level at 0-0.

006As the players depart to the dressing-rooms my immediate thought is whether Wrexham will come to regret the chances that Brett Ormerod had but was unable to convert. The impression so far is that the club from North Wales have had the better of the half, so it is interesting to read the stats from the opening forty five minutes. It shows that Newport had 52% of the possession, with both teams having six shots, although Wrexham only had one on target compared to three for Newport…Lies, damned lies, and statistics. Back on the pitch, the grounds-staff are ensuring the divots are replaced and the pitch is ready for the second-half.

Newport are first out and when Wrexham arrive and line-up for kick-off the game doesn’t immediately start as the referee waits for the ‘green-light’ from the television production team. The Exiles kick-off the second period, playing towards their own fans. As with the first-half, the opening minutes are scrappy with the teams trading free-kicks. The Wrexham fans try to up the tempo and up the volume and they are rewarded for their efforts when on fifty five minutes as Brett Ormerod has a header off-target. Wrexham have momentum now and win two corners in quick succession. In keeping them out, Lenny Pidgeley goes down injured and requires a few minutes treatment before he can resume. On fifty six minutes from another Wrexham corner the balls breaks to Joe Clarke, but like so many of The Reds efforts today it is wide. The chances continue to come for Wrexham and just before the hour mark, player-manager Andy Morrell has his effort saved by Pidgeley, the ball breaks to Ormerod in the six-yard box, but the veteran striker cannot capitalise on this guilt-edged chance. Newport are struggling and manager Edinburgh decides to try and change things with Danny Crow being replaced by Aaron O’Connor. However, there is no immediate impact and instead The Exiles have keeper Pidgeley to thank for keeping the score at 0-0, as he makes an excellent save from Johnny Hunt. Brett Ormerod’s day doesn’t get any better when on sixty four minutes he is booked for a foul on Byron Anthony. At last Newport enjoy a spell of possession, but on sixty seven minutes Jolley is winded after colliding with a Wrexham defender, so that the impetus of the game is once more interrupted. However, it provides some time for the coaches to talk to the players whilst they take on some fluids. Once play resumes, Wrexham continue to ring the changes as player-manager Andy Morrell gives way to Adrian Cieslewicz on sixty eight minutes, with Morrell having run himself into the ground. The second-half has flown by and there are only twenty minutes left with the game still in the balance. The game enters a scruffy phase as free-kicks awarded to both teams break up any flow and suddenly there are just ten minutes remaining and the spectre of energy sapping extra-time looms. Another name enters the referees’ book with Newport’s Alex Gilbey receiving a yellow card and it also marks another substitution for The Reds as Glen Little replaces Dean Keates. An air of apprehension starts to filter through from the crowd and Wrexham’s Jay Harris long-range effort reflects the anxiety as the clock ticks down. On eighty three minutes Jolley has a header which goes wide and suddenly the Newport striker is starting to buzz as a minute later he has a shot blocked by Wrexham defender Riley. With four minutes to go Byron Anthony plays a long-ball down the Wrexham left where David Artell’s header only succeeds in flicking the ball backwards into the path of Christian Jolley. Having collected the ball The Exiles striker continues into the six-yard box before coolly slipping the ball over the advancing Chris Maxwell. The Newport faithful explode in celebration whilst there is stunned silence from the Wrexham fans. As Wrexham kick-off Wembley reverberates to the noise of celebration from The Exiles fans. With just two minutes left, some Wrexham fans are already making for the exits as Jay Harris is replaced by Dele Adebola. Coaches from both team in the technical areas urge their respective set of fans to up the noise levels. The goal seems to have knocked the wind out of The Reds fans and they seem unable to create any significant sound. The announcer relays the fact that there are four minutes added time to be played. With ninety minutes up, Wrexham pepper the Newport box and win a corner, which The Exiles are grateful to clear anywhere up-field. Back come The Reds and they win another corner, but Newport hold firm as Pidgeley easily gathers the header from Ormerod. Newport though draws breath and as the seconds tick away they break down the left with Jolley. He cuts into the box and plays the ball across to the right for Aaron O’Connor, whose initial shot is saved by the knees of Chris Maxwell; as the ball rebounds out, O’Connor lashes it into the top right-hand corner to send the Newport fans behind the goal into dreamland. The entire coaching staff and substitutes of Newport know that promotion has been sealed, whilst the disbelief of the Wrexham fans at the dramatic close of the game is palpable. Goal-scorer O’Connor is booked for taking his shirt off during his goal celebration and as soon as Wrexham kick-off the referee blows for time.

Agony: the desolation of losing for Wrexham

The images at either end of the ground are ones that I have witnessed at these Play-off Finals over the last three years. Quite simply – ecstasy and agony, the faces of winning and losing. Many Wrexham fans have already gone, but those that stay applaud the efforts of their team as they collect their losers medals. The Newport fans are a black and amber sea of noise and movement and await the moment that David Pipe raises the trophy to acknowledge that Newport County are back in the Football League.


Post-Match Interviews

First into the room is the Wrexham player-manager, Andy Morrell. His tiredness from not only his physical exertions on the pitch, but the emotional exhaustion of defeat is apparent. Despite this he puts on a brave face and is dignified, honest and respectful to the questions asked; a credit to himself and the club. Morrell is initially asked how he feels right now. His response is entirely understandable in that he says he is hurting and disappointed, but so proud of his players. He adds that he believes Wrexham have played all the football, creating a number of excellent chances, but that it was just not The Reds day.

Next Morrell is asked as to whether the tough end of season schedule has taken its toll on his players. He replies that he didn’t feel that it had and looking at the game the first-half was a very cagey affair which became stretched into the second period. Morrell continues that he had said to his players that Newport would look to get behind them and for 85 minutes Wrexham dealt with it. However, when that crucial chance came, Christian Jolley capitalised; the Wrexham player-manager adds that he thought the Newport forward had been the difference for the South Wales side this season in terms of gaining promotion. Morrell is asked if he had been interested in signing Jolley, he acknowledges that there had been discussions, but that the funds required to sign him weren’t available.

The next question to the Wrexham player-manager asks why the game took a while to ‘warm-up’. Morrell says that there was no point going ‘gung-ho’ as had happened in previous Play-off games and that the approach was to be patient and then exploit the situation when the game opened-up in the second-half.

Morrell is then questioned as to how the club will deal with the defeat today. He responds that as in previous years, they just had to bounce back. He continues that it is a horrible situation, but they had no choice other than to deal with it. Morrell adds it will next be a case of speaking to the players, his staff and the Board to see what is decided and therefore plan for next season.

Given that Wrexham had won the FA Trophy, Morrell is asked what sort of season it has been. He replies that of course to win a cup was an achievement, but that having lost today it was a ‘good’ season rather than a ‘great’ season.

The next question is in relation to what the Wrexham player-manager had said to the players at half-time. He replies that he had told them that it had been a good half, adding that the second-half would ‘open-up’. Morrell continues that Brett Ormerod is down in the dressing room still apologising for the missed chances. However, Morrell says that the defeat wasn’t just down to him.

Moving on, the Wrexham boss is asked about squad strengthening next season, to which he simply replies that it was purely down to finances. He continues that at the end of the day the squad wasn’t too far off and he is proud of the players, some of whom had been wrapped in ‘cotton-wool’ all week whilst others needed injections to get them onto the pitch today.

Finally, Morrell is asked if he thought the team had done itself justice. He is emphatic in his answer, in stating that they certainly had, and in reality on the day the strikers for Newport had made the difference.

Once Andy Morrell departs there is a brief wait until the victorious Newport manager, Justin Edinburgh comes into the interview room. He is immediately asked to put into words how he feels right now. The Exiles boss says that he is extremely emotional and has felt the importance of the occasion all week. Edinburgh adds that it was special given that it is the clubs Centenary and twenty five years since relegation from the Football League. He continues that it is life-changing for him and the victory is dedicated to all those who had worked to reform the club and kept it going to this day. Edinburgh goes on to say that this was the best moment of his footballing career, as could probably be seen after his celebration for the second goal!

Focusing on the ‘story’ of the revival of the club, Edinburgh is asked how it was going to be, given after victory today he will have legendary status in the city. He jokes that there will be some celebrating over the next few days and a few people not making it into work come Tuesday! He adds though on a more serious note, that the hard work starts now as League Two is a highly competitive competition. Edinburgh says that being at the club has enabled him to fall back in love with the game after the problems at Rushden & Diamonds which saw the club go into liquidation.

Edinburgh acknowledges that Newport is a ‘special’ club with equally ‘special’ fans and that County was fortunate to have a Chairman in Lee Scadding. He continues that he believes the Chairman will continue to back the club in League Two, but that in order to survive and go forward, Newport needs growth in other areas of investment; stability is vital.

The Newport manager is asked about what he had said to the players at half-time. He responds that he thought they had been nervous, anxious even and wanted to get behind Wrexham too quickly. Edinburgh accepts that Newport had to weather the Wrexham pressure and The Exiles keeper Lenny Pidgeley had to make a couple of saves. However, he continues, with forwards like Jolley and O’Connor you hope they will seize the chances when they come. In relation to Aaron O’Connor, the Newport boss is asked if the introduction of the striker had changed the game. Edinburgh replies that insomuch that when the striker was brought on the game was still 0-0, then the introduction of O’Connor could be seen as pivotal, but ultimately he was part of a team that achieved the result.

Next Edinburgh is asked as to whether the history and story of the club has filtered down through the squad. He replies that he believed that it was essential for the players to know and that it had played a part in providing them with determination and focus.

Staying on the topic of the playing squad, the Newport boss is asked if it will stay together. Edinburgh says that it was never in doubt and that the focus and aim at the start of the season was promotion. He adds that the squad has a great togetherness and that he had spoken to all the players out of contract prior to the Final. Edinburgh continues that having now got promotion, contract discussions would be part of the work over the coming summer.

It was pointed out to The Exiles manager that going into the Play-offs, Newport were, despite finishing third in the league, considered an outside bet. Edinburgh replies that he thought it was harsh that his team were dismissed so easily and it was to some extent disrespectful. Robbie Savage had prior to the Final pledged his support for Wrexham, and Edinburgh says that this was typical of many people outside the game who gave no respect to Newport; he adds all this did was to provide extra motivation for The Exiles.

Edinburgh is next asked if he was preparing for extra-time the longer the game went on at 0-0. He says even though the second-half opened up and became stretched, he honestly felt as if the teams were heading for an extra thirty minutes. However, Edinburgh continues that the game can turn in minutes and that ‘Man of the Match’ Jolley had remained cool, calm and collected when the time came. He also praises Aaron O’Connor who despite being the leading scorer started on the bench, but proved his worth with the second killer goal.

Given his successes as a player at Wembley with Spurs (FA Cup winners and League Cup winners) and now as a manager, Edinburgh is asked what the secret is. He replies that it is a bit of fortune and a lot of positive belief. He adds that ultimately it is down to and about the players. Edinburgh goes on to say that although Newport didn’t win the league, they were never out of the top five all season. He continues that the fixture schedule had done them no favours and had been ridiculous, but that it had worked as motivation for the squad.

In closing the interview Edinburgh says how proud he is to be part of a wonderful season for South Wales.



Even a couple of hours after kick-off it still feels a bit like Newport did a late ‘smash and grab’ raid to win the game today. But is that fair? Looking at the stats of the game, Wrexham edged possession with 54%, whilst both teams had fourteen attempts on goal. Of these though Newport had nine on target to five for Wrexham, but looking back on the game the efforts for The Reds worked the keeper more. Wrexham also had seven corners to just one for Newport, which does confirm the feeling that they mounted more pressure up-front than The Exiles. However, the reality is that the decent chances created by Wrexham weren’t converted and that ultimately Newport were clinical when in that last dramatic part of the Final.

One disappointing aspect of the day was the attendance. Yesterday the FA Vase Final was here at Wembley and attracted a crowd of 16,751, which was bigger than that today (16,346). Since the return to Wembley, crowds for the Play-off have ranged from 35,000 up to 42,500, so the turn-out today was a major disappointment. Various reasons have circulated in the press and internet forums. Some blame ticket prices, whilst others claim that traveling on a Sunday was prohibitive. Throw into the mix that Wrexham had been at Wembley six weeks earlier for the FA Trophy Final and that both sets of fans had only a week’s notice to make the necessary arrangements, and the factors are starting to stack up. It may be that it is simply a one-off and that come next season the 35,000 plus crowd will return. However, what about considering staging all three Conference Finals (Premier, North and South) on the same day with kick-offs at midday, 3.00pm and 6.00pm, with fans having a ticket that entitles them to watch all three games? Wembley could accommodate all the fans, but would mean for segregation purposes that each competing team would have to be allocated different levels and areas; not logistically impossible. Rugby Union and Rugby League both have events where a number of games take place on the same day in the same venue and at which fans from across a range of clubs are accommodated. A Conference Festival of Football Finals?

Some other thoughts about the venue from today, include whether players are still inspired by Wembley when the arena is only a third full? Are the teams nervous and react both positively and negatively because of the occasion or the location? Is it all about the ‘prize’ of promotion and not the venue? So as an example did gaining League status mean any less to AFC Wimbledon because the victory was achieved at the City of Manchester Stadium rather than Wembley? A player wants to play at Wembley, but if that only occasion in his career is on a losing team, then then surely the dream is only partially achieved? Maybe it’s just all about the winning – certainly a Final is no place for losers whether a player or fan.

Newport County AFC captain David Pipe lifts the trophy.

Finally, it’s been one hell of a season for South Wales, with Swansea City winning the (Capital One) League Cup, Cardiff City winning the Championship and promotion to the Premier League and of course, today Newport County returning to the league after twenty five years. I wonder how many of those 1,627 who witnessed the last League meeting between Wrexham and Newport in March 1988 at The Racecourse Ground sat through the drama today. It’s been some journey, but The Exiles are back!