Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head to Wembley to experience the agony and the ecstasy of the National League Play-Off Final.
Words by Daniel Magner. Photographs by Tom Sparks.
Sitting on the bus, sweltering, wishing I hadn’t worn a great big woolly jumper, I’m still humming, even singing quietly under my breath a song I last heard over twelve hours and 300 miles ago, but can’t get it out of my head, “we’re on our way……”. With a 99% chance of hearing it again today, a lot, I’m not sure I’m ever going to be able to shake it.
Following our previous day’s trip to West Yorkshire, the first part of our National League promotion double header, I’m bloody knackered. If I’m honest if we hadn’t had such a good time at last year’s National League Promotion Final, where we watched Grimsby go up, and the repetitive chant “FISH” was the one seared into my brain that day, as well as today’s tickets costing us £41, each, then I think I might well have stayed in bed. Speaking to Tom just before I head off, he told me he had slept for “eleven hours” and I reckon he could have slept for eleven more.
Turning onto the final run into Wembley Park station, I expected the pub on the corner, the normal haunt of one set of fans, to be heaving with some of the 12,000 odd Tranmere FC (TR) fans expected today, but there are hardly any to be seen, the queue for the nearby burger van, non existent.
“Just got that out of my head” says the aviator wearing Tom, standing waiting for me on the bridge over Wembley Way, with Wembley stadium looking particularly picturesque in the spring sunshine. Someone walking towards the ground, hoots a horn, getting a song from the smattering of fans doing the same, “we’re on our way”.
The gulf in support between both clubs is clear, although it’s far from busy, the TR fans already outnumber those of Forest Green Rovers FC (FGR), their opponents today. After seeing much crowing on social media about the enormous turnout coming down from Birkenhead, I would’ve expected to see more, even if we are as ever well early. Last year, I’m sure at roughly the same time before kick off, there were inflatable haddocks, men in black and white striped suits and Hawaiian hula skirts everywhere, for the moment at least, the biggest group of people are those sitting outside Costa.
At the base of the ramp heading up to the stadium, where people stop for the customary picture of them and the arch, a man slightly ruins the mood, as he insists on being sick on the floor, his loved ones just looking on traumatized before shepherding him away.
It’s here we get an inkling for the first time as to where all these thousands of TR fans may well be, that the big figures being bandied about on Twitter, are not just wishful thinking. In the shadow of the arch, in the forecourt of Wembley Arena, a fan space has been set up, that as we get closer to it, the music gets louder, and Tom says it’s like a “nightclub”.
The DJ in his booth blasts out a succession of dubious chart hits, that mingle with the songs being sung by the men in giant sombreros or being played by the boy on his gleaming silver trumpet. With the sun out, a never ending queue for beer, and peoples high spirits, there is a definite feel of a Balearic island party about it, just in the concrete and glass surrounds of North West London and not the sandy beaches of Ibiza, but I am hopeful of the arrival of some foam.
Not personally being a huge fan of fancy dress, I think its never being able to get anything cool to wear, there is only so many times you can go as Walter from the Big Lebowski, as well as a theory I think I share with some that it seems a way to make a dull persons party exciting, fancy dress at football on the other hand I’m very much in favour of. Who doesn’t want to see a stand full of Buzz Lightyear’s on the final day of the season.
The TR fans have certainly adopted this mantra, among the people having their faces painted, boys in jester hats, flags hanging from fences, one with a submarine on, there are a group in sombreros, men in Viking helmets, and lots and lots of melons. Not only are there people dressed as melons, watermelons to be precise not gala or honeydew, in fact there is a chorus line of watermelons at the front of the crowd who are leading the fans in a song after being handed a mike, by a man in a Vanarama t-shirt who talks like an MTV host, in that overly exaggerated way, “we’re on our way”.
Although there is no real explainable reason I can think of why someone would be dressed up as a Mexican or a marauding sea based pillager. That is somehow more computable, than trying to fathom why you would want to dress up as an ingredient from a fruit salad. Deep in debate about the choice of outfits, Tom and I are politely interrupted by a woman, who has overheard us talking, and puts us straight, “manager’s name is Micky Mellon”, ahhhhhhhhhhh, I see, well that makes perfect sense then.
“I need to eat”, says Tom, “not eating in there” he adds, nodding towards the money black hole behind us that is Wembley Stadium. We leave those playing football pool, and the group of kids leading the grown ups in a song, “oh Birkenhead is wonderful”, and the Chorley FC mascot, a giant magpie whose wandering around, is he lost?
Climbing the stairs, people in the white and blue of TR are everywhere, the sound of a horn, is more often than not followed by the sound of a song, “we’re the famous Tranmere Rovers and we’re going to Wembley”. The concourse is a buzz with all the hustle and bustle of a big football match. Moving along it, in search of some lunch for Tom, the crowd starts to thin, the atmosphere starts to dissipate, and we are soon on the black asphalt covered dark side of the moon, the FGR end.
A few FGR black and green shirt wearing fans, shirts with the sign of Sea Shepherd the marine conservation organisaton at its base, mill around in near silence. We eventually see some signs of life, in the form of a very low patronised burger bar, the picnic tables in front sparsely populated, those who are sitting down eating, in the eerie quiet, have a look on their faces, that I imagine we have too, ‘where is everyone?’.
“Poshest burger I’ve ever had” comments Tom, returning with his paper wrapped behemoth, he certainly got a lot for his £7, however no burger at football should cost that much. Always fully committed to eat at a match, I can probably count on one hand the times he hasn’t in over two years, and that would’ve only been because there was none for him to eat, he is relieved in some small way this is our final match of the season, “be good to eat less burgers over the summer”.
The wind gusting across this desolate waste ground is playing havoc, one person is forced to chase the top of his burger, and Tom loses his napkins, which he certainly needs. The majority of the burger
sauce is currently in his beard.
Food done, we don’t hang around in no man’s land for long, we complete our circumnavigation, passing Bobby Moore, and the people having their picture with him. Although our walk is devoid of much life, none of the jollity we’d seen round the other side, anyone who has been to our nation’s national stadium, will know it’s never really quiet as they insist on playing loud, obnoxious, “pop music” as Tom describes it like a 1950’s Dad. Today it’s slightly harder to hate this obsession with playing music all the time at football, this attempt to manage the atmosphere, when that’s the fans job, because the choice of the Arctic Monkeys and Foo Fighters, is a lot more agreeable than the shit they normally play.
I think the fan space might have called final orders, down below which not long ago was a sea of people, is now a sea of discarded plastic pint glasses, and all those who were there, are now filling up the stairs and ramps, making their way inside. After our moonwalk, the atmosphere is finally restored.
Through the turnstile, and it’s no different, if anything it’s louder, the noise now contained within the concrete walls. The chap with a 1930’s style cinema usherettes tray selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts, is getting a few odd looks, while the family of watermelons, four or five strong, don’t get a second glance.
The gleaming trumpet leads the fans, like a conductor his choice of tune, dictates the song that is going to be sung next, his most frequent number is one I now know for sure, I will never, ever be able to forget, “we’re on our way”. The watermelons, Mexicans and Vikings all join in. One chap, not sure what he has come as, a Space Cowboy perhaps, a Jamiroquai fan? In his black stetson, and shades with LED display running across the lenses, stands next to the trumpeter, whirling his wooden rattle.
A few rows shy of the back, directly behind the goal, my many prayers to the football Gods have been answered, an aisle seat, in what according to the Wembley Ticket booking system is the ‘singing section’. On first impressions the divisions between singing and non singing sections, are thoroughly blurred, the whole TR end is awash with song. More wigs, more Vikings and plenty of melons fill the seats as blue balloons, with a inflatable football added in for good measure, jump around over the heads of the crowd.
“Half an hour to kick off, are you ready?” asks the stadium announcer, “Forest Green?”, nothing. I can hear little if anything from their small turnout opposite, “Tranmere”. Let’s say their response was the opposite of quiet.
Much like both sets of players, the referee is also warming up, when he ventures down our end, he is greeted with a chorus of boos.
Time for some more music, and the first of the live offerings today. Standing on the pitch, his picture filling the whole of the big screen, a man belts out Jerusalem. Obviously keen singers themselves, the TR fans respond, but with their own song, it might be one you know, we certainly do, “we’re on our way”, even with the assistance of the booming PA, they go very close to drowning him out.
Not content with one song, “he’s off again”, says Tom, the singer telling us he is about to serenade us with a familiar tune about Mexico, is at least what I think he says, which will appeal to some of the gringos in their big hats, however TR fans are so loud, “super white army”, I struggle to hear him.
“Is he still singing?” asks a returning fan, indeed he is. On to song three, it’s all just a little bit cruise ship or 1970’s Greek holiday resort evening entertainment for me, it’s not floating my boat, neither would it seem that of many of the fans who continue with their own songs, “oh when the whites go marching in”.
Musical interlude done, a triangle of deep red carpet is rolled out, as the military band in their dark green uniforms take up position, their instruments almost as sparkling as the TR fans trumpet, but not quite. With a giant slush puppy and a box of popcorn in hand, I make way for a child, fully stocked for the approaching match. At this point Tom divulges his objectives for the day, “I want a melon” one of the inflatable kind, not an old lady dressed up as one, he also expresses his relief that we are “not sitting behind the three sombreros” a few rows in front of us.
Another soldier appears, carrying the trophy, not long after the stadium announcer’s voice comes on, introducing the teams, who both arrive single file, walking either side of today’s silverware. Horns blasting, scarves held up above heads, flags swishing from side to side, balloons and fluttering home made confetti, made up of torn up newspaper, fill my view. A young child walks to his seat wearing ear defenders, like from a construction site, he is well prepared, the noise levels are extraordinary, “Tranmere, Tranmere, Tranmere”
The latest rendition of “we’re on our way” overlaps ever so slightly with the national anthem, but the song soon changes and those around us belt out ‘God Save the Queen’.
FGR’s team is read out, each name followed by a hearty boo. The TR fans reply with even more enthusiasm for their own players, and then tell the small pockets of FGR fans that their “support is fucking shit”. It’s just before kick off that I notice one of the balloons, is not in fact a balloon, but an inflated condom.
“Fucking helmet” shouts a TR fan, after a poorly taken early corner.
There is a slight let up in the noise for the first time, preceding the eighth minute FGR free kick, which fails to result in anything, and all that I can really hear for a brief moment are the distant horns of the FGR fans. When it’s clear the threat level of the set piece has diminished, TR start to sing once more, like someone has turned them on all off a sudden. This enthusiasm and considerable support is truly tested for the first time, less than five minutes later, when FGR take the lead.
“Good strike that” says a pragmatic TR fan close by, it was. It caught me a bit by surprise and by the looks of it the TR keeper too. The FGR players run goes unabated, he is allowed to get closer and closer to the area. From about twenty five yards he almost looks to toe poke the ball, and with a ping off the post, it’s 1 – 0 FGR.
Getting back to his feet the man in goal for TR remonstrates with his players for not even trying to
stop the scorers run, while he, followed by his teammates head towards their fans, whose turnout admittedly is only a fraction of the size of TR’s, but they are going just as mental. Their celebrations almost sounding a bit tinny, just because of how few there are and how big Wembley is.
There is a quick reply of a song, “super white army”, but it’s muted. Just over ten minutes in, its clear TR have not settled into the game, “not started very well have they” states a TR fan, the one right in front of me is sitting down, as are a lot of people for the first time since we got in. He is being consoled by his girlfriend, although no amount of tender arms strokes, are going to get him out of his current funk.
It’s FGR’s turn to sing that song, you know the one, the one about being on their way somewhere. One of the TR drums tries to rally, I can just make out the tops of his sticks through the crowd, however everyone is a bit stunned. One fan is far from happy with the football his team are playing, “stop playing the hoofy ball”. Another has just resorted to calling anyone and anything a “shithouse cunt”, he could maybe do with a few arm strokes.
That’s more like it, twenty three minutes gone and parity is restored, as all the fun and hysteria of the fan space and pre kickoff returns. Receiving the ball, around the same distance out as the FGR scorer, TR’s number 11, takes a touch, then swipes his foot at the bobbling ball, sending it well out of the reach of the full stretch neon pink wearing FGR keeper, his goal interrupting probably the loudest chant since going behind, “super white army”, but I’m sure they won’t mind.
Running off towards the corner flag, arms outstretched, number 11 knee slides across the pitch, one player before joining the celebrations, wallops the ball that’s bounced out the goal, back into it, just to make sure.
Flags are back to being waved with full force, more confetti litters the floor, people are dancing, hugging, going berserk in the aisles, in their seats, wherever they are able. Relief, that’s the only way I can describe the moments following the equaliser, a huge outpouring of relief. As one fan puts it, it was a “nervous first fifteen” for TR, now they are back in the game, but so far I’m not sure their performance warrants it.
TR almost turn the game right around, when a miss timed header from a FGR player, inadvertently turns into an excellent assist, which is brilliantly anticipated by one quick thinking player. It perfectly dissects the FGR defence, with only the keeper to beat, the forward shoots low into the keepers knees. “Best chance, weren’t it?” says a nearby person to his neighbour, other than the goal, chances of this type have been few and far between with thirty minutes gone. That one will go in the ‘gilt edged’ pile, or even the ‘might regret that’ one.
A save right from the top draw, stops TR going behind once more, just when they started to impose themselves in a small way on the game. A FGR ball over the top, is controlled first time by the player running in behind the static defence, hareing out to meet him the keeper is a fraction slow, allowing the attacker his second touch, a deftly hit lob, stranding the keeper neither here nor there. Destined to go in, and with a second FGR player poised to knock it into the empty net, TR’s man in goal back peddles expertly, and with one hand scoops the ball clear, excellent stuff.
Two minutes later, TR fans are left wondering how have they not scored, with the ball slid right across the front of the FGR goal, one player in white sliding in at the back post, and in a near perfect replica of England Vs Germany at Euro 96, much like Gazza, if his boot was a couple of sizes bigger, they would be ahead. With the game continuing, the player who just missed is lying on his back half in the goal, his hands clasped to the back of his head, many around us adopt a similar pose, and can’t believe it didn’t go in.
The next five minutes are some of the toughest we have endured, even as neutrals it’s painful to watch the two goal body blow FGR are about to inflict on the team in front of us, and the fans around us.
Once more the TR defense back off, allowing the attacker to get closer and closer to their goal, before with little resistance, he is allowed to cut the ball on to his right foot, unleashing another super strike, putting FGR back in the lead. Silence, literal near silence. A single voice breaks the awful quiet, “come on Rovers”.
Running towards the supporters, a teammate jumps on the scorers back. Not unsurprisingly the FGR fans are ecstatic, one player sidesteps the main celebrations and gives a mighty Stuart Pearce against Spain fist pump towards the crowd, it’s like a Euro ‘96 reenactment day.
A full two and a half minutes later the knock down is complete, TR have gone from staggering around the ring, to flat out on the canvas. On this occasion it’s not because of some well hit strike, but a bit of woeful defending. A dawdling TR defender is eventually and far too easily muscled off the ball by the pursuing FGR player, and no amount of masterful goalkeeping can stop his calm side footed finish.
Running towards that same corner to celebrate, there’s no knee slide, more of a bum skid. One TR supporter has seen enough, lashing out he kicks the chair in front of him, breaking it. As the FGR end breaks into that song again, the TR fan picks up and holds a large shard of red plastic, that he describes as his “souvenir”.
One solemn fan behind us boils down FGR’s performance perfectly in four words, “three shots, three goals”. Half time could not come soon enough.
“M & M?” offers Tom from a small yellow bag he has just got out of his rucksack. If we had enough to handout to the TR fans, I would happily, they need a little pick me up. The appearance of a marching band, does little to raise a smile, and only freaks out the sound system, causing some epic feedback and distortion. Although as horrific a noise it is, it’s something to pierce the deathly quiet. The odd fan makes an attempt to wake them from their languor, but it falls on deaf ears.
When it’s announced that the first half highlights are about to be shown on the big screen, one fan turns his back to the pitch and tilts his head up to watch it all again, another makes his opinion of the offer to rub more salt in the wound abundantly clear, “FUCK OFF”
TR are out first, those watching the final moments of the highlights, just shake their heads. “Give it a fucking go, aye” demands a fan. There is a cry of “come on Rovers”, as FGR kick off the new half. “Come one boys” shouts supporter, the attempted song “super white army” is a little lackluster.
Tom returns from a toilet run, to tell me “everybody is smoking” that’s certainly one way to relieve the tension.
“Put up a fucking fight” orders a fan, and certainly in the opening moments TR look like a team who have well and truly had a rocket put up them. Three minutes into the new half, its FGR’s keepers time to dazzle with a bit of his own heroics.
A TR corner is whipped in, it’s well met, the header angled downwards looks well on target. People are halfway out of their seats, sure in a second or two their team will be back in the game. However, this is cut short, through the arms of the people in front, they like me are realising that somehow, it’s not gone in. It’s only thanks to the replay, it wasn’t obvious through the crowd of players in the box, that the FGR keeper had pulled off a very smart one handed save of his own.
All the noise is now in the FGR end, the occasional toot of a horn and the odd tap of the drum, can’t stir the fans. When they do shout, it’s out of annoyance. They are having a lion’s share of possession, but it’s just not happening where it matters, “it’s simple stuff” says a bamboozled fan, at his team’s inability to make that all important final pass.
Not able to make their own chances, FGR kindly hand them one on a plate instead, their failure to capitalise, just about sums up their afternoon. The FGR keeper goes all Cruyff, or should I say Ben Foster. His attempt at the Dutchman’s signature move, not quite coming off, he loses possession just inside his area, the loose ball falling kindly to a TR player, all he has to do, is put it in the empty net.
If I was kind I could maybe blame his miss on the fact that the FGR keeper was all over him trying to recover after his mistake, as Tom put it “all he had to do was roll it in over the line”. The fans around us are less than sympathetic, the chap in front is now beyond consolable, his head permanently in his hands.
Tom as ever is able to say in a few words, what always takes me too many, “Tranmere need to score soon”.
When TR do make a chance, they are still it would seem completely and utterly unable to take it. On the hour mark they flash a header agonisingly wide “COME ON” screams one fan, begging his team to get their act together. The TR manager motions from the sidelines, that he also wants more from the players. The atmosphere is really going south, one fan takes to his feet, asking his fellow fans to sing and to stand up, “fucking hell come on” he says gesturing with his arms, but their are few takers, other than those immediately around him.
The crowd turn on the referee, “cheat, cheat, cheat” they chant, just not feeling anything is going their way, the man behind us, just says, what he has been saying all day, “shithouse”. When in their eyes, they eventually get something their way, there are cheers, one fan thinking it’s been a long time coming, “about time knobhead”.
It’s never a good sign when as one fan puts it, supporters are “scrapping” among themselves. A small pocket of something or another breaks out, bringing people to their feet, for a good peer over at the ruckus. One person not interested in the punch up or watching the match live, he stands with his back to the game, choosing instead to watch it on the big screen. Another woman just sits in her chair, hiding behind her scarf.
FGR’s end has not stopped, one TR fan makes the current situation perfectly clear, “20 minutes boys, COME ON”.
Edging closer to the end, FGR start to really implement their own ‘tactics’ that have become so increasingly blatant, that their own manager tells a player being subbed off to hurry up. This approach is not a new one by all accounts, fans behind us discuss a similar method at this season’s home match.
One FGR player is branded as “disgusting” by one outraged TR fan, I’m not far off agreeing with them, following his execution of the action plan. With plenty pushed up in support, an FGR attack breaks down, TR win the ball back and look good for their own counter attack. The “disgusting” player goes down in a heap, by the looks of it feigning injury, forcing the referee to blow up, stopping the TR move before it’s got going.
“Come out this half with that mindset” says Tom, sharing the opinion of the FGR second half mentality with those around us. They are doing everything they can to slow the game right down.
A few shirts are off in the FGR end, which is bathed in sunlight, our end very much in the shade, in darkness, on so many levels. Those with tops off and tops on, are singing, the notion of being a Football League club getting ever closer, “we’re on our way”.
Shaping up to shoot on his left, the TR number 16, cuts it back onto his right, just outside the areas far right corner, with three or four teammates in the box. Instead of crossing or passing, he takes a wild swipe at it, sending it well high and wide. He knows he fucked up, he stays bent over double as the rest of his team, jog back down field, with the FGR fans mocking cheers, ringing in his ears. Not impressed with the players attempt with so little of the game left, one fan calls him a “fucking knobhead”.
FGR’s blatant time wasting ends up riling the TR players so much there is a moment of handbags. Another FGR player goes down far too easily, one fed up TR player picks him straight back up like a giant toddler. Miraculously his injury has disappeared and he is quick to fight back, not delighted with having been manhandled like he was, and to be shown up as a bit of a, “shithouse”.
Having kicked the ball out for the supposed ‘injury’, TR expect the ball to be passed back, instead the FGR player kicks the ball into touch, he is rightly declared a “wanker” by more than one person, and is quickly mobbed on the pitch for a spot of posturing and rutting, but not much more.
Five minutes of extra time is shown, one TR fan wills his team to “score, score, score”. There is one last rallying cry from the supporters around us, “Tranmere till I die” conveying their unwavering devotion, despite what has been a woeful afternoon. One man has had enough, he leaves, noticeably emotional, crying even. When the FGR keeper claims the ball, falling slowly on top of it, in no rush to get up, there is an almighty roar from the FGR end, with only seconds left of extra time, the result is all but official, they sing almost in a trance in the bright sun, some still bare chested, “we are going up”.
TR’s fans applaud their players. FGR’s players join hands for a Jurgen Klopp/Borussia Dortmund slide towards theirs. A few TR players have crumpled to the floor, one goes round, not allowing them to dwell on defeat to long, picking them up. One TR drummer sits, his drum on this lap, occasionally hitting it, but never mustering up enough energy to break out into a full tune, the fans numbers have thinned considerably, a white surge straight towards the exits.
Out of those who have remained, many are in the throes of inconsolable sadness, one young man is crying, red faced, his father standing alongside him, the absolute agony of losing a final, plain to see, don’t anyone dare tell me, ‘it’s just a football match’.
Many discarded flags now litter the floors, along with all the other detritus you see post football match, the aisles all but empty, the red seats mostly folded upwards. We hold back, to watch FGR lift the trophy, once they have ascended the “one hundred and twenty one steps” the announcer informs us.
He rolls his R’s in a slightly overly dramatic fashion, when he presents the winners “Forest Green Rovers” who I’m sure floated up the hundred odd steps. Taking their place on the balcony, TR look on, waiting to collect their runners up medals. As they make their way up, FGR are making their way down, stopping every so to often to celebrate with supporters and a few very proud family members and friends. The TR fans who have stuck out the presentation sing one last song to them, a small boy in a blue wig passes us, accompanied by his mum, he looks like he’s seen enough.
On the pitch all that is necessary for a photo opportunity and some low level fireworks has been set up, awaiting the players. We stay to watch FGR lift the trophy once more, behind them gold and silver shimmering metallic streamers go up, then slowly fall above them.
It’s no secret I can get somewhat emotionally invested in football, there were no tears from me today, but I can sympathize with anyone who shed a few, in joy or sadness. We football fans pour so much of ourselves into this game, it would be odd not to let it get the better of you once in a while, be that kicking and breaking a chair, which isn’t ideal, or blubbering into your hanky. Which in some quarters might not be seen as ‘manly’, but I can tell you from experience, it’s very cathartic.
In the ‘Battle of the Rovers’ which I’m sure only Sky Sports would have called today, FGR prevailed, from what I have seen on social media, they are not the most popular club in the world. A lot of that it would seem being down to them not selling meat at their ground, which if that is the main reason people can come up with to dislike you, then you’re doing something right. After the heartbreak of missing out last year, what a day it must have been to be an FGR supporter. As I said about Grimsby, FGR are ‘non league no more’, for them the first time in their history.
Out side the heavens have opened, a few FGR fans that have left are in a good mood to say the least “green army” they shout and they aren’t at all bothered about the increasing rain, in fact a small group of them have gone all Gene Kelly, “singing in the rain”. One young fan without a care in the world is marching around in ray bans, a popcorn bucket as a hat and green and white chequered flag over his shoulder.
There is not a TR supporter to be seen, except one, who approaches a group of FGR fans, exchanges a hug with one, and I just hear him say, “stay up lad”.
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