“Emotion” is a much over-used and over-rated word in football circles, but this weekend the last day of the regular season in the Football League Championship delivered about as much of the spectrum of emotions, hopes and expectations that a football supporter can feel, from the conventional agony to ecstasy, through gallows humour and false hope to absurdity and melodrama. Above any other end of season, perhaps in the entire history of professional football in England, this was the mother-lode, a coming together of chance that was as exhilarating and it was unexpected, a finale that lived beyond what anybody could have expected of it.
It all started before a ball had even been kicked when the Watford goalkeeper Manuel Almunia contrived a way to injure himself in the warm-up before their match against Leeds United. Watford needed a better result than Hull City, who started the day in second place in the table behind the already-crowned champions of the division, Cardiff City, could manage. Cardiff, wearing simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar blue and white, might have been mistaken for treating this match as the football equivalent of hanging around in an airport departure lounge before taking off for their summer holidays, but as half-time approached it seemed as if even their lethargy wouldn’t be enough to take the sting out of this round of matches. The man who had replaced Almunia, Jonathan Bond, himself ended up on a stretcher and Leeds then took the lead through Dominic Poleon just before half-time. The length of time that Bond was down for led to a jaw-dropping sixteen minutes of stoppage at the end of the first half and Almen Abdi scored five minutes into it to bring Watford level before the break, whilst The KC Stadium remained ominously goalless. Half-time arrived, eventually in Watford’s case, with the two sides back to where they had started from before a ball was even kicked in anger.
Four minutes into Hull City’s second half, though, the pendulum swung back in Watford’s favour when Frazier Campbell broke for Cardiff and gave them the lead. Watford, however, were stuttering against Leeds United and Hull City scored two goals in five minutes, from Nick Proschwitz and Paul Shane, gave them the lead against Cardiff. The clock ran down and it felt as if time was up when a nudge on David Meyler gave Hull a penalty two minutes into stoppage time. After the clearance of a pitch invasion from home supporters who had believed that the whistle for the penalty had been the full-time whistle, though, Proschwitz’s kick was saved by David Marshall, Cardiff broke to the other end of the pitch and won a penalty of their own for handball, which Nicky Maynard scored to take matters back out of Hull’s hands with a little over ten minutes to play at Vicarage Road.
For Watford, however, the goal that they needed against Leeds United wouldn’t come, and as the clock finally ticked over ninety minutes the visitors broke and Ross McCormack’s lob was spilled by Watford’s third goalkeeper of the afternoon, Jack Bonham, and dropped over the line to send Hull City up and leave Watford dazed, confused and sitting in the play-off places. As the television cameras focused on the Hull City players celebrating their eventual promotion to the Premier League, the Watford manager Gianfranco Zola is now left with the job of lifting his players for their now-looming play-off matches.
And this, of course, was only the top three clubs in the division. At the bottom of the table Wolverhampton Wanderers travelled to the south coast to play Brighton & Hove Albion needing an unlikely sequence of events to avoid the drop, but two first half goals were enough to secure a fourth place finish for Brighton and condemn Wolves to a second successive relegation. A plaintive rendition of “Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Shrewsbury” seemed to sum up their afternoon, but the drama at the bottom of the table was happening elsewhere as Wolves slipped through the trapdoor – the first club to be relegated twice in succession from the top division, having done this once before, in 1985 – with barely a whimper. It promises to be a summer of discontent at Molineux.
A little higher up the table, the scramble to avoid that third relegation place was as frantic as we might have expected. Peterborough United looked as if they must surely have done enough to avoid the drop when they took the lead twice at Crystal Palace, but a combination of throwing their lead away – Palace’s winning goal came after eighty-nine minutes from Mile Jedinak – and results elsewhere eventually condemned them relegation. Huddersfield Town were also coming from behind, twice at home against Barnsley, with a goal from James Vaughan eventually securing a single point which was enough for both clubs to avoid relegation, whilst the recently free-falling Millwall were also only spared by Peterborough’s defeat when Connor Sammon scored with five minutes to play for Derby County against them.
And on top of all this, there was still a race for the division’s last two play-off places between four clubs, two of which were playing each other. Crystal Palace secured their place – and a likely fractious semi-final against Brighton – albeit by taking a tortuous route which involved falling behind twice against Peterborough. Bolton Wanderers had started the day in the final play-off place, but went two goals down at home against Blackpool before coming back to draw, meaning that many eyes now turned to the East Midlands derby match between Nottingham Forest and Leicester City, and it was Leicester who won by three goals to two, yet again in a dramatic fashion, thanks to a goal from Anthony Knockaert in stoppage time at the end of the match.
It is, of course, entirely appropriate that the regular season in the Football League Championship should have ended in such a manner. While the top divisions across Europe have all largely fizzled out into a series of processions – Manchester United lead the Premier League by thirteen points and Juventus lead Serie A by eleven points, while Barcelona are eight points ahead of Real Madrid with a game in hand in Spain and Bayern Munich lead the Bundesliga by twenty points – the entire three divisions of the Football League in England had drama to the last minutes of the last day of the season, and yesterday afternoon’s excitement was a timely reminder, during cynical times, of why we throw our lot in with this frequently ridiculous game in the first place. Perhaps the increasing gap between the haves and have nots of football will mean that days like yesterday will, in the fullness of time, become a thing in the past, and it is this lingering suspicion which leads to the feeling that we should enjoy days like yesterday while we still can. It may be too much to ask for, but a repeat next season across all three divisions would be most welcome.
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