Max Bygraves' Story Of 2010-2011 - Part Thirteen
The Greatest Escape
It’s taken me a while to actually compose myself and start typing this. I would love to write this piece with real ‘will we, wont we’ style suspense; but I just cant. Saturday 7th May 2011 is a day that will stay with me until my last one.
The last part of this season review ended with a look at the table and the job that remained. We all knew it off by heart. We had to win and hope Lincoln City continued their capitulation, at home to Aldershot. Could you think about anything else that week? It was only a four day one due to the May Day Bank Holiday Monday – it felt like double that. You know a football match probably means too much to you when you can’t sleep on the Thursday night prior to it, for nerves. I was a wreck.
Thankfully, for myself and seven lucky others, we had the edge taken off things a little, in the form of a live TV appearance. We’d found out on the Wednesday, that the morning before the game we would be appearing on Soccer AM as ‘fans of the week.’ In the week, I hadn’t given it too much thought, but in the hours preceding the big kick off, it was the perfect distraction.
I wont harp on too much about it, but what a great experience. Getting up at 5:45 on a Saturday morning wasn’t too much fun, but from pick up time by the Queens Arms in Barnet at 7am, it was fun-filled. Various members of the Soccer AM crew praised us afterwards as one of the best sets they’d had on there. Well, we don’t mind a laugh do we? When those cameras first began to roll there were a few nerves all round, but after a while it was all pretty natural. Highlights included; the introduction to us by DJ ‘David Ghetto’, one of our lot randomly shouting out “KEN MONKOU” whilst he was being interviewed across the studio, a cheeky peck on the cheek dished out the Soccerette after unveiling the ‘Tekkers’ t-shirt from one, three of us notching goals on the ‘Road to Wembley’ game and a hilarious arse-over-tit fall right near the end of the show from our Ken Monkou loving friend. Brilliant. But, as soon as we were in our lifts back to Barnet, thoughts began to cast towards the huge game ahead of us...
A few pints were consumed on the cricket pitch by the Pavilion and yet more media work, with a few of us being interviewed by BBC Late Kick Off. Naturally, for a game of such magnitude, it was a good turn out and this was one no one was missing out on, so we made for the ground about half two, splitting off into various stands, myself and a few others making for the all-Barnet for the day East Terrace.
It was packed, it was loud, but it was flipping tense. The next ninety minutes were going to be excruciating and you’d be hard pressed to say they were in the slightest bit enjoyable.
The first half saw Barnet come out, as expected and needed, all guns blazing. The little chaps in the midfield; Byrne, Deering and Marshall were involved in pretty much everything as we busied ourselves trying to find an early goal. Several attempts went close, Mark Byrne’s effort against the post the pick of them. I honestly can’t talk about it all too much, I can feel my hands shaking thinking back to it.
Half time; 0-0. The score was being replicated at Sincil Bank. As it stood, just one goal would be enough to take us out the bottom two. From vague live text reports on people’s phones, the game at Lincoln was fairly incident free, though Lincoln had tested Aldershot’s ‘keeper on one occasion. The half time break at Underhill also saw a hideously embarrassing Mexican wave led by the bloke with a microphone on the pitch. NEVER AGAIN, PLEASE!
Back to the serious stuff though and it was time to chew those fingernails again as the second half began. Well, sort of. Literally seconds into the second period and McLeod gets the ball just inside the ‘D’ of the halfway line, in the opposition half. Now, Izale doesn’t really do running, but he certainly did his best to suggest something like it here. No real challenges, he’s skipped past a couple, he’s getting closer to the goal here. He’s in the box. That’s a tackle...and a bad one. Ref! Got to be? IT IS! Penalty.
Many of the 4000 odd home fans went mad. I wasn’t so eager. I never celebrate penalties being given. I couldn’t help but immediately think back to the last Barnet one I had seen. A certain Mr McLeod’s moment of madness at Gillingham. It was always going to be him to take this one. Would he keep his head? Kabba’s penalty at Burton had been nerve-wracking, both of Izale’s spot kicks at Gillingham had been an anxious wait, but this was something else. This was a penalty that could potentially preserve our league status. Deep breath. Come on Izale.
The referee blows his whistle. McLeod runs up. A collective breath in around Underhill. He’s hit it down the middle, that’s bloody close to the ‘keeper. He’s got a hand to it...but it’s not enough. YEEEESSSSSSSSSS!!!!! Barnet 1 Port Vale 0.
Naturally, scenes of absolute mayhem around the stadium (barring the Vale support behind the goal at the other end). Was this the moment that was going to save us? Or had we scored too early? There was still a hell of a lot of time on the clock. Vale are by no means a bad side, even if they’ve got nothing to play for. Heads were going to need to be firmly kept and bottle in tact, big time.
This was all going incredibly well, certainly by Barnet’s standards when it comes to the big occasion. They were about to get even better, courtesy of something happening about 130 miles North. Little pockets of the ground began jumping up and down. It’s weird watching news like that filter around a stadium. Yep, Lincoln City 0 Aldershot 1. Danny Hylton, a North London boy and mate of my friend I was stood with had done us a huge favour, like McLeod, converting a penalty to give the Shots a lead and meaning that as it stood, Lincoln needed to score twice to stay up. This was in the 57th minute.
Though it was nice to know Lincoln were losing, it didn’t make watching proceedings at Underhill any easier. Every kick made me nervous. We were still on top, but at 1-0, it was a precarious position to be in, regardless of our general dominance and the fact Vale had had to sub their goalkeeper for a very dubious looking second choice, after their number one injured himself attempting to save Barnet’s penalty. Then on top of all these nerves, a vicious rumour began circulating the East Terrace; that it was 1-1 at Sincil Bank. Belief somewhat sapped out of me when I heard that. Had Lincoln got the momentum now to go on and make our score purely academic? We all scrambled for confirmation of this, however and no one’s phone seemed to say a new score. After phone calls to people watching Soccer Saturday, it proved this was a bogus rumour. Whoever started that one, you are an absolute prick. Do you have any idea what you did to me and several others for a few minutes?
Soon though, there WAS another goal at Lincoln. It was factual news...and it was beautiful news. Lincoln City 0 Aldershot 2, Luke Guttridge becoming another honorary Barnet hero with his strike twenty one minutes from time. Surely that was Lincoln’s hopes of the win dead and buried? It was increasingly falling into our hands, having been totally up to Lincoln at the start of play. However, we still only led 1-0. This was going to be a very, very long twenty minutes.
Not half. Barnet continued to huff and puff, already taking the ball to the corner when there was still five minutes of normal time on the clock. We were all bricking it in the stands, the lads just had to keep their nerve on the field. It completely bypassed me, but during the latter stages, Aldershot went 3-0 up at Lincoln, just to really rub it in. The Imps were battered, it was entirely up to us now.
One of those scenarios now where every successful touch of the ball by a Barnet player is celebrated. When Sam Walker made the correct judgement and superbly raced out of his goal late doors to smother the ball denying Port Vale a possible one-on-one chance, it was like we’d scored. Sheer relief. Time was ticking away, but the fourth official thought he’d make it even more horrible to endure. WHERE ON EARTH HAS HE GOT SIX MINUTES FROM!? 6!
In this time, Sam Walker almost gave us all a heart attack and could have gone from hero to zero and then some, had his bizarre control of the ball with his shin, needlessly, resulted in a Vale equaliser. This was all getting too much to watch. I was a mess. Somehow, many of our fans had the confidence to wait down the front for the end of season pitch invasion. I couldn’t even think about tempting fate like that. This could still end it disaster.
...It didn’t, though, did it? (The size of the grin on my face typing that!)
After ninety six of the least enjoyable minutes of football I’ve ever put myself through, the referee blew the whistle. Barnet, bottom and out of it as late as March 26th, had stayed up, against all the odds.
Comfortably the best pitch invasion I have witnessed at Underhill followed. People spilled on from across the ground. Grown men were crying with joy. The players were mobbed, Grazioli was mobbed even more, incredible scenes. Unlike most pitch invasions where the players dart off as quick as they can, they pretty much all stayed on and had it with us. I ran on in a state of utter delirium. Initially I ran past pretty much everyone, just going absolutely mental in a little world of my own, skipping around the Underhill pitch in total disbelief at what we had just achieved.
When I got my bearings I began finding some of the players. The 2010-11 players, for months lambasted by many (myself totally included) as some of the worst to pull on the shirt, now, being lauded as heroes. First Mark Hughes appeared through a crowd of bodies for a cuddle and dance, then the match winner himself, Mr McLeod. He was on the receiving end of a huge hug, kiss and being told he was a “F***ing beauty” by yours truly. Whose over there? Sam Deering? Come here you little geezer! Oh and then Jordan Parkes, fair play, you’ve stepped up when it mattered, give us a cuddle and all. Then who else is knocking about? Nice one Clovis, Jude, even you Sam Walker! You’ve all played your part! YES! This is unbelievable! YES! YES! YES!
People had no intention of getting off that pitch for a while. When they’d cleared the vast majority off, the players began a lap of honour. Last year, I walked out at this point. Last year’s time didn’t deserve any recognition? This lot on the other hand? No, they wouldn’t have a few weeks back, but as far as I was concerned, the season had started again in the past month and a half. You get born-again Christians and what have you, well these were born-again footballers. Players we could be proud of. Players who were so clearly proud themselves of what they’d just achieved. The clear happiness coming from the likes of Mark Marshall, Mark Byrne and Sam Deering, along with even fringe players such as Liam O’Brien and Ricky Holmes was a sight to behold. This lot cared and knew exactly what they’d just pulled off and how much it meant to us.
I was one of the reprobates who stayed on the edges of the pitch after the general clearance and decided to further join the player’s party. After managing to sneak my way into a huddle of players when they lofted Grazioli on their shoulders, singing his name, I finally made my way out of Underhill and down to the Pavilion, for one of the sweetest pints out of a plastic cup I will ever consume. I have no concept of time, in terms of how long we were on the pitch for. A lot of it is a total blur, the whole situation bordered on ridiculous, how the hell had we pulled this off?
I went on celebrating, like many others I’m sure, until the very small hours. Yes, this was celebrating surviving by the skin of our teeth, rather than winning something, but it felt just as good in terms of the manner we’d achieved. If not better.
Personally, the feeling this day gave me was probably greater than the experience of winning the league in 2005. We were amazing that year and it was very special, but it was over nine months and in the end, it was when, not if. This was truly a stunning achievement, to pull ourselves out of the mire so late in the day. Yes, we got lucky in how much Lincoln collapsed, but make no mistake, we witnessed a very special change from a group of largely young players in the final six or seven weeks of the 2010-11 season. I’ll never forget it, I’m sure many more of you wont either. Let’s just hope we’re not back in that position again anytime soon.
I’ll bore you further with some sort of closing summary and a look to the future in the final instalment. But, eh...we did it!
The GRAZ Escape. The Greatest Escape.
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