So, you play a forty-six match season in which you have finished in third place, some distance clear of the opposition. At the end of that season, you have take part in a play-off match against a team that finished three league places and eleven points behind you, and you fail to kill them off over the 210 minutes of open played that transpire, and the tie goes to a penalty shoot-out. At 3-3, the opposition miss, giving you a golden opportunity to take the lead, but your player misses. At 4-4, the opposition miss again and you are just one kick away from a Wembley final. And you miss it again. Then, at 7-6 down, your former international striker, a man that has played in the Premier League, the Champions League and the World Cup Finals, misses. And that’s it. You’ve blown it.
Sometimes it’s surprising how magnanimous football supporters can be. Most of us know the aching pain of losing after a penalty shoot-out, missing out on promotion by the breadth of a goalpost or any of the other myriad of misfortunes that can blow your entire season, and we understand that there is something fundamentally cruel about the end of season play-offs. Leeds United may still be widely loathed (to be frank, it’s disproportionate, considering that they have now been two years in League One and have lost in the play-offs both times), but they still got a considerable amount of sympathy for a courageous performance against Millwall last night. For you, though, devastated by your defeat and looking around for a consoling gesture, there will only be laughter. Some of it will be loud, and in your face. Some will be smirking, a barely repressed grin trying to escape from a face. The message, though, will come through loud and clear.
One might have been forgiven for thinking that Scunthorpe United had blown their chance after the first leg at Glanford Park. They took an early lead in front of their own supporters but were pegged back well before half-time, and they started the second leg at the stadium that Asda have three-quarters built for their hosts as the underdogs. Scunthorpe played, however, with purpose and drive. They came under considerable pressure but didn’t buckle and, most importantly, they had a plan. They played as if they understood that it was more important than anything else not to concede and have to chase the game. In extra-time, they pushed forward in search of a winner and nearly got it with five minutes to go in the second period, when David Mirfin’s shot bounced agonisingly off the far post and wide of the goal.
And if you’re thinking about offering supporters of the home side any sympathy, consider what their club did. Take a moment to think about the protests, an empty Selhurst Park, the sale of a place in the Football League to a town that seemed to feel – and still seems to feel – as if it had a birthright to this without working its way up, as hundreds of towns and cities continue to work towards today. A town which never even sought to offer the common courtesy of apologising for what it did to another club. Consider the dangerous precedent that their actions set and the fact that it has taken years of dedicated protest to ensure that their actions have become complete anathema. Their continuing failure – and let’s not forget that they were essentially sold as “bringing Premier League football to a whole new audience” – and the considerable pleasure that this gives to so many football supporters, many of whom look at what happened to Wimbledon, shudder and think “there but for the grace of God go I”, goes some way towards helping to ensure that this should never happen again.
Scunthorpe United’s victory was a victory for all of us, and we should take a moment to thank them for it. Every year that football franchising continues to languish in the lower divisions of the Football League is another year that we can say: Wimbledon may have lost that battle – and even that much is debatable – but we are still winning the war.