By Andy Thorlby
The two-week gap between semi final victory and the Wembley final is a time to dream and revel in the excitement, the anticipation, the dream of the possibilities. Wembley glory. Imagine that.
Mixed with that, the chaotic stress of the baffling online booking. But for Tim Penfold’s timely Facebook instructions, we could have been watching in the local pub. Planning the logistics of getting there and away. Steeling myself, not just for sharing the tube with Millwall fans, but getting my kids up at 6 o clock on a Saturday.
I drop in at the Broadway pop up BCFC shop, to get the kids Wembley t- shirts, and buy a Wembley flag on impulse. My son stares at me. “Dad…you normally grumble about buying anything- and you’re paying that for a FLAG?”
Saturday morning kicks off with military precision. Except that, in dropping one of my kids off at a friend’s house at 7am, I ring his very loud doorbell. His wife doesn’t do early mornings, and may be more scary than Millwall. “You are in BIG trouble now” says my friend…
The Wembley scarf is hanging out the car window, as we pass groups of Bantams waiting for coaches, and see the odd Bantam decked car. I expect to see plenty of other supporters heading south, but we go down the A1, and appear to to be the sole Bantam representatives heading down there, until we see one other car in north London.
At a coffee stop, the kids dive on over large bags of sweets…because they don’t have enough energy and hype in them already. I covertly buy them, on the strict understanding that they tell their mum that they’ve only had fruit and vegetables all weekend…
I decided, to avoid the potential for trouble, that none of us will wear club gear going to the stadium. The flag is folded up in my pocket, but as I get on the bus, the plastic pole looks like weapon, which I realise defeats the purpose of the exercise….until i discover I can fit it up my coat sleeve…although I can’t then bend my arm…the comedy incognito fan.
On the tube platform at Kings Cross, we immediately relax when we bump into the first Bantam fans. Tension builds though when we get into Baker St, and some Millwall fans and police get on. When we arrive at Wembley Park, our train and another disgorge a lot of Millwall fans, who immediately launch into the Monk Chant, which unnerves the kids. As we walk down Wembley Way, I point out to my kids, families in Millwall colours – normal people like us. They still look worried in the photo I take of them in front of the stadium.
Inside, we walk through the tunnel, and my kids see for the first time the hallowed turf, and the stadium. It’s an emotional thing, as I know they’ll remember this moment for the rest of their lives. We’ve got to the stadium 90 minutes before kick off, and we revel in the experience.
We walk around on the concourse behind the seats, and bump into a number of friends. This is what i like about following a club like BCFC..I often think it’s like a small town community all of its own, we always bump into people that we know. The seats are a luxury, comfortable and with space for my legs, unlike Valley Parade!
By kick off, over 50,000 fans fill the lower stands. I’ve been here twice before, for a music concert and an international friendly, but this is something very different. The raw energy, the shared purpose, the tribe passionately supporting its own, the Twelfth Man. I tell my kids regularly that we aren’t there as customers just to be entertained. We’re an extension of the players on the pitch, an extended part of the squad. We have to will them to win.
The view of the whole pitch is great, but we’re used to being close to pitch side. Normally, we don’t see the panoramic view of the whole game, but see the close up ball skills, and determination on the face of the players, when they hurtle into our corner of the pitch. Today, I can imagine that determined look on those distant figures, that has been the hallmark of this squad this season.
The pattern of the game has been described by others. The first half swings one way then the other, excitement and tension in equal measure. But in the second half, anxiety builds…a slow sinking feeling that we aren’t going to do it. So agonising close…just 10 minutes and a couple of inches from championship promotion.
At the whistle, we don’t hang about, and head out quickly to the tube. We hear the monk chant behind us, but don’t look back, and walk past the silent squads of riot police in the side streets. We get the first tube train, mostly filled with Bantam fans, gloomy and resigned. My son sits next to an old guy, coming back from a round of golf. He’s a Barnet fan, and chats to us about Mark Marshall, and his early career with them.
One of the few Millwall fans in our carriage passes a small football to my younger son, and I shake his hand. As we get to Kings Cross, I notice him quietly taking off his Millwall scarf and tucking it away – another incognito fan, not wanting trouble.
For my boys and me, its been an adventure, a day to remember for a long time. The result was not what any of us were wanting, but it’s been a fantastic ride this year. We’re proud of this team, who gave it their all. Automatic promotion maybe the way to Championship riches, but I wouldn’t have missed the thrill of the play offs and this day for anything.