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Lifelong Town fan Nick Judd reflects on the ecstasy and agony of the play-offs...
I’ve re-written this blog about seven times, but it wasn’t until yesterday I could put something together that wasn’t simply the angry and upset rantings of a mad man.
Losing in the play-off final is not a feeling I would wish on anyone. OK, maybe Oxford. It’s the most painful defeat a lower league fan can stomach, and it’ll take some time to heal.
The play-offs have been a cruel mistress. You spend nine months courting them, then they toy with your emotions. After the first leg of the semi-final against Charlton, there was hope. Town outplayed their opponents and were unlucky not to win by three or four. Yet the visitors were offered salvation with a goal against the run of play and with hope came fear. Paralysing fear. Had we done enough?
Turns out we had - just, although at half-time at The Valley during the second leg pre-match optimism had all but disappeared. An early injury to our starting keeper set the tone for a night on which everything seemed to go against us. An own goal gave Charlton the impetus to grab a second, which would have been enough to see them through. From nowhere, and I mean nowhere, we grabbed a goal and showed tremendous spirit, even having a man sent off, to hold out for penalties.
If the goal sparked pandemonium in the away end, penalties left us apoplectic. History is against us when it comes to spot-kicks, but we converted all five. Ironically, the man who missed for them was the very player who had been so instrumental in keeping them in the top six for much of the season, Nicky Bailey.
The celebrations that night will live long in the memory. The game itself was riddled with crippling angst, which is why the outpouring afterwards was so memorable. Town have flirted with the financial abyss too many times to mention in the last 10 years and at last we had a chance to show genuine pride in our club and what it had achieved under the guidance of a new and committed board and savvy manager.
Maybe our emotions were spent at The Valley, but at Wembley the performance was flat on and off the pitch. More than 30,000 supporters made the trip up the M4, but as a unit inside the stadium we simply couldn’t match Millwall’s togetherness. Sadly, it was the same on the playing surface. More on that later.
And we weren’t even wearing red.
There has been a lot of soul-searching since Saturday and the overwhelming feeling is that while Millwall were focused and intent on not feeling the ignominy of defeat at the final hurdle for the second time in 12 months, we were perhaps a little content just to be there. We had a lot of day-trippers in our midst. I’m sure Millwall did, too, but our support was disparate.
Lessons learned, we won’t make that mistake again, given the chance.
And then there was Charlie’s bobble... we all knew the game was going to be tight. We expected to play better than we did, but when our chance came along, our hero was thwarted by an unfortunate bobble that sent his effort wide of the post when he was clean through on goal.
He’s scored with more difficult opportunities and he was disconsolate afterwards, but had it not been for his revelatory introduction to league football this season, we probably wouldn’t have been there at all. He should hold his head up high and if he hangs about for a second crack at promotion, he could further establish his already cult status.
The fall-out from last weekend has been spectacular. Our chairman – arguably the club’s most important signing in recent history – was interviewed after the game and couldn’t hide his disappointment, leading to speculation he may walk away. He’s since committed his future.
Billy Paynter’s also committed his future... to Leeds. The 29-goal striker has also been one of the stars of the show this season, and he goes with our best wishes. Always overlooked when Simon Cox was at the club and again a peripheral figure following the emergence of Austin, the tattooed Scouser understandably wants to grab a chance of Championship football - and move closer to home in the bargain.
Then came some news that puts the whole experience into context. Turns out our Haitian defender Jean Francois Lecsinel, who had been playing for most of the season despite not knowing whether his sister had got through the earthquake in their homeland, had carried on during the play-offs knowing she hadn’t survived.
Any disappointment felt by the players, officials and fans must pale into comparison to what he’s going through.
For me, I’ll continue to think about ‘what if’ throughout the summer. Like a drinker after a heavy night, I’ve vowed to stay off football for a while, but I’m sure that’ll change when England begin their campaign.
As football fans we always go back. We’re gluttons for punishment. Transfer speculation has already started and the fixtures are out in a couple of weeks. Excitement is already rising. Same time next season?
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I couldnt have put it any better myself, the valley was a fantastic night that had everything. Wembley proved a bridge to far - the team never got any momentum going and ive heard more atmosphere at pre season friendlys than there was in the swindon end. I think every true swindon fan will always be playing the austin bobble over and over in their head for a time to come. I just wish people would not forget what a great season our club gave us last year.
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