This time, it’s definitely the final weekend of the season. I promise. I know what you’re thinking here – “How can we trust him on this? He said it on the last day of the Football League season, he said it on the last day of the Premiership season, he said it before the FA Cup Final, and I think he might even have said it before the European Cup final”. This time, though, I mean it. Well, sort of. There are international matches to follow, though those fall into the category of that strangest of beasts, the “Close Season”. This weekend, though, is where we can safely draw the line under the 2007/08 season. In this country, it’s the Football League play-off finals over the next three days, culminating Derby County and West Bromwich Albion doing battle for a place in the Premier League.
This afternoon, Bristol Rovers play Shrewsbury Town at Wembley in the League Two final. I have a soft spot for both of these teams. I will almost certainly post something up here about the trials and tribulations of Bristol Rovers over the last quarter of a century or so at some point, and I have a soft spot for them, the origins of which I can’t quite place. Shrewsbury Town occupy a peculiar place in my football universe. You know how your childhood perceptions of something can skew your viewpoint for years and years, even if they’re not correct? Well, that’s me and Shrewsbury Town. They reached the FA Cup quarter finals in 1982 and lost 5-2 to Leicester City at Filbert Street, in a match memorable for Leicester having to use three different goalkeepers. Ever since then, I’ve had this perception of them being a bigger club than they actually are. Notably, this match is being called “The Weetabix Final”, thanks to this story, which thrills me on many levels, from the Bristol Rovers website:
“The story behind the Weetabix appearing when ever Rovers play Shrewsbury started a few seasons ago before a league match at Gay Meadow. A few Gasheads got together and raised some money for the trip up to Shrewsbury. They hired a coach for the day after which about £300 was left in the kitty. So it was decided to go to the pub before the game where £200 was stuck behind the bar to pay for drinks. After a while, a few Gasheads started feeling hungry but unfortunately the pub didn’t serve food. The landlord then told them there was a supermarket near by for them to get food and that he wouldn’t mind them eating it in the pub. A lonesome Gashead was then dispatched to fetch the grub with £75 after taking out the £25 owed to the coach driver. At the time this Gashead was slightly the worse for drink and returned to the pub armed with £75 worth of Weetabix.
The following day, they took all of their stuff into the ground, and noticed some birds on the pitch. Being the kind souls that they are, they decided to feed them all of their Weetabix. By the time they had finished throwing them liberally around the terraces, the penalty area in front of the away section had turned from green to brown.
A few years later Rovers played Shrewsbury again and the same group were seen wearing T-shirts saying ‘Weetabix Invasion Of Gay Meadow’ and of course throwing plenty of Weetabix around. Unfortunately, whenever Rovers now play Shrewsbury the police are instructed to confiscate all forms of breakfast cereal at the game.”
In League One, Blackpool are playing Yeovil Town tomorrow afternoon. Consider this: In December 1987, about fifty of us hardened souls travelled down to see Yeovil Town play St Albans City in the Vauxhall-Opel League Premier Division. Yeovil had just got to the FA Cup third round, and were selling tickets for their home match against QPR that day. Used, as we were, to crowds of three or four hundred, it was something of a culture shock to be playing in front of a crowd of over 6,000, but St Albans gave a reasonably good account of themselves, holding their hosts to a 0-0 draw, and even hitting the post with about ten minutes to play. Two decades on, and St Albans are relegated to exactly the same level that they were at then, whilst Yeovil could be playing a division above Leeds United and Nottingham Forest. Strange times, indeed. I’m moderately fond of Blackpool, too. I grew up reading many of my dad’s football books from the 1950s and 1960s, and grew up with a perception of them being a big-ish club. Unlike Shrewsbury, though, my perception isn’t a million miles away from the truth here. They had Matthews and Mortensen in the 1950s, and Alan Ball and Jimmy Armfield in the 1960s. They haven’t played in the top two divisions for almost thirty years. For whoever wins tomorrow, it will be a new experience – at least it certainly will be if they’re under fifty years old.
Finally, The Championship. You can always enliven the Championship play-off final match by running a sweepstake on how many times the commentator mentions how much money the winners will get. You can also have an auction on how much they think it will be worth. Will it be twenty million? Thirty million? Fifty million? My bet is that someone will top all previous years and say £100m. There’s something crushingly inevitable about West Bromwich Albion winning this match, and completing, for the first time in years, all three relegated teams being promoted straight back, but Derby are a good enough team to put up a decent fight, and The Championship, after a brilliant season, deserves a better finale than the outside perception than that it’s easy to go straight back up.