A couple of days after Tunbridge Wells came a huge football match for my team, and my town. I was Wembley-bound.
As a distant Huddersfield Town supporter, even the 2016/17 season is a bit of a blur. I remember bits of it, snippets I heard, or saw, or lived vicariously as the bandwagon really started to roll on social media.
I remember the televised game against Brighton, and how well Town played. We were in a pub that night, and a couple of lads came across to congratulate me on being from Huddersfield. These were peculiar times.
I remember beating Leeds right at the death and the effervescent, heroic, bear Michael Hefele swearing in the interview he gave postgame.
I remember the churning awfulness of the season skidding to a dramatic and calamitous halt once automatic promotion was out of our reach and I remember the two stagnant playoff semi-finals against Sheffield Wednesday. The second of those, at Hillsborough, was like medieval torture. We were all stretched and warped through 90 minutes of breathless agony, before the ratchets were cranked again for another half hour.
Most teams would collapse under such stress, but it took the red hot poker of penalties before Wednesday finally cracked. They say that once somebody breaks, they stay broken. The Owls have only ever been a shell of the side they were since that night, no matter how well their wounds appear to have healed.
There is something more at play here, something bigger, something more personal, and something that explains why I’m telling the story this way, rather than any other.
I had started the evening not watching the second leg, only tuning in with around half an hour to go, with Town trailing to Steven Fletcher’s opener.Time was, I would almost certainly have been at Hillsborough. Back when I lived in the North, I watched Huddersfield a lot, I’ve seen them play maybe 500 times, home and away. I’ve had seasons with 50, 60, 70 games in them, and when you do that, they become your team.
You know them instinctively, you can tell at a glimpse whether it will be a good or bad day, that proprietary feeling makes you protective, even. They’re your team, playing for you. I see it now looking back on that campaign – the big moments, the big games, my mind was elsewhere.
That team were not my team. I couldn’t name a definite XI, I certainly don’t know their results off by heart, and though I was pleased when Fernando Forestieri slammed his penalty kick high into the twinkling South Yorkshire night, I was looking forward to Tunbridge Wells, not Wembley.
I had intended not to go. I’d been to Old Wembley before, as Town had thrilled and spilled against Bristol Rovers, winning deservedly in a game that saw more chances than playoff finals often do and, as a result, more gut-wrenching incidents.
I’d been to Cardiff way back when, as Peter Jackson’s side bored Mansfield into submission and won on penalties after a turgid match that Town had possibly, but only possibly, edged.
I’d been to Old Trafford when Lee Clark had inexplicably selected Benik Afobe instead of Jordan Rhodes, only to see his side humbled by a Peterborough side who definitely deserved it.
I had opted to avoid Wembley on Town’s last visit there to see Simon Grayson’s side bored Sheffield United into submission and won on penalties after a turgid match that Town had possibly, but only possibly, edged.
So I was happy to sit this one out, despite its importance. I was happy to bimble around Medway trying to avoid all contact with the game until it was late enough that I could cry my heart out one way or another.
I don’t know why football has that power, although… I’m from Huddersfield, of course. While the Town has contributed greatly on the global stage, it does not cause a huge ripple in national, let alone world terms.
Too often do I have to explain where it is, and it is forever denigrating to have to refer to one’s own home town only in the context of others. Long ago, I forsook identifying it as halfway between Manchester and Leeds and have moved to using natural landmarks – I thank Simon Armitage for this, a conversation I listened in on on Radio 3, about the importance and immutability of the Pennines, and how that can anchor a person. I use the hills instead now.Huddersfield is just enough East of the Pennines, I’ll say. Its right on the edge of the Pennines, on the good side. Depends who I’m talking to.
So the civic pride in my home town is one thing. The desire that the garden in which one grew to bloom should be seen as just as pretty as any other.
Then there’s the history that I have, personally, with the club.
If I tell you about the two Johns that I intertwine with Huddersfield Town and why, every time they succeed, I think of those two, to give it a context in which I can legitimately enjoy it myself.
The first John was the husband of my mum’s friend when I was very young. My mum was a single parent and apart from my Grandad, there weren’t a huge number of men in my life at that point. John was a headteacher, he smoked a pipe, and he loved Huddersfield Town. I didn’t appreciate that enough at the time, I don’t think. It probably felt like an eccentricity, but he would go home and away to watch them; way back before the 92 was a thing, I can’t even imagine how many grounds he’s seen them play at, how many games, how many disappointments and how many joys.
The former always seem to outweigh the latter. Perhaps football, sport, is designed that way. If you succeed, then you go on to a more difficult contest. By definition, you are more likely to fail that time.So he made a mark, John. Certainly when I smell a pipe nowadays, with a specfic tobacco (no idea which, I was a small child at the time, and one doesn’t make such enquiries when smelling pipesmoke as an adult) burning, he comes readily to mind, with his deep, resonant, laugh and seemingly constant smile.
He took me to an open day at Leeds Road sometime in the late 80s or very early 90s, a behind the scenes look at the ground and tour – something that felt like it was entirely for me, but thinking now, I’m sure he relished the opportunity just as much as I did.
He didn’t take any penalties at then-Town keeper Lee Martin, though. I did. Two shanks and I got the last on target and it went in. He let it in, I’m sure, but as a kid you don’t mind that.
Perhaps he planted a seed, perhaps he showed me what I might grow up to be – hell, I’d have been happy enough to do so.
I still have a poster of Leeds Road on my bedroom wall, the End of an Era that was printed at the time. Twenty six years on and it hangs pristine, the stands empty but the car parks full, as what looks like a reserve game against Bradford takes place on the pitch.
The other John has been my mum’s partner since around the time of that open day. He had spent his time watching Town home and away, and though he introduced the fact that he might want to watch them more often slowly, those trips became more and more regular during 1993. There is, and I’ve mentioned it before, a photograph of us in the main stand at Leeds Road around 1993.
I’m dressed in the way that people seem to be, as though that continuum between 80s and 90s was blurred – without knowing when it was, you might say 1987 – but just a couple of seats away is one of my closest friends in the world, some five or six years before we met. He’s Jonny, and if he’s reading this, hello – we seem to be the only Town fans with any positive memories of that Peterborough game. By the time Town had moved over the way from Leeds Road, we were a family of folks with a season ticket in a football ground. Our football ground.
Now, this John will feature more heavily in the story to come. He was the driver for most of the early away games I went to, though my mum seems to have chosen the destinations. That’s why we went to Chester (lovely town) and Shrewsbury (lovely town) but not Wigan or Stockport. It was from his house that we walked to home games and it is the view from the top of Kilner Bank with the glow of the floodlights through the trees that is the very best way to look at the John Smith’s Stadium. We were told that the ground looked like a UFO when it was first constructed – I have a feeling that Lee Sinnott said that – and it sort of does, but from the top of the Kilner Bank, it feels as though it has just landed.
Whensoever football returns, I will pilgrimage to the top of that hill and look down on the ground, and the town, that made me.Eventually, I moved away from Huddersfield, from John. Having sat next to him for the first four years or so of the new stadium, I moved my season ticket closer to the front. I still walked there and back with him and my mum, but I sat with a friend. We still went to away games together, although as I got older, we used to travel on the supporter’s coach (or even train sometimes) alone.
This John is just steeped in Huddersfield Town, just as blue, just as white, and just as likely to forgive them any sins from one Saturday to the next.As a consequence, the Huddersfield Town team of 2016/17 was still his team and, because they still went together, and still sat in the same seats, even if they got to fewer away games now, my mum’s team.However, she’d recently had a hip operation which kept her out of action for a significant part of that season and meant that, with the extended periods of sitting and relatively compact spaces it would entail, she was unable to go to Wembley. You can’t really send a man off to Wembley on his own from Huddersfield, can you? Can’t make him sit on his own amongst people he doesn’t know. What will he do when they score?
Perhaps she knew in advance, mothers do, don’t they? Anyway, the week before the playoff final, I’d agreed that I’d meet John somewhere outside Wembley, he’d be travelling down with a group of his daughter’s partner’s friends, and we had two seats together, somewhere away from them.I had family going as well, my nephew realising that opportunities to watch football at Wembley come relatively cheaply for playoff finals, and that seeing which team would be visiting his beloved Manchester Utd the next year was as good a way to spend the afternoon as any. He took two friends with him, including one that had been in the opposite end of Old Trafford as a (genuine) Peterborough fan a few years before. That rankled a little. Still does.
I travelled up with that trio, and we made it with enough time to taste the atmosphere of the pubs around Wembley. Playoff finals, unlike league games, are quite a positive event to attend. Both sets of supporters are in good spirits before the game (you are shielded from one another afterwards, of course) and both sets are bolstered with huge numbers of those who are just there for a day out.
Culture being what it is, they are recognisable in that they wear the merchandise from one of the previous successes of the club. That means the more dedicated fans show their colours by wearing the shirts of failures, or any of those seasons that blur indistiguishably from one to the next. The playoffs might have added excitement to the Football League, but it is still possible to become marooned for years on end in the same division. When that happens, your team become like a car in a cartoon, seemingly not moving as only the scenery around them changes.
Town had had that in League One before the arrival of Dean Hoyle. From 2005 to 2009, each year was the same as the last; starting with positivity but eventually fading to disappointment. I was living back in Huddersfield for the start of that spell, but had moved away by the end. I didn’t miss them.I did a quick hunt through those seasons to see what distinguishing features each had.
- 2004/05 – Nope, nothing. Luke Beckett joining on loan? Losing to Leeds in the League Cup?
- 2005/06 – Barnsley playoff defeat. Getting walloped at home by Scunthorpe.
- 2006/07 – Lost twice to Yeovil.
- 2007/08 – Lost to Chelsea in the FA Cup, beat Leeds at home (the Andy Holdsworth one).
- 2008/09 – Andy Booth retired, beat Leeds at home (the Nathan Clarke one)
The pubs, then, were thronging with people in the 1994/95 shirt, and the 2003/04 one; it was all a bit busy, and all a bit strange. The real action, we were told, was a march ‘on’ Wembley with a couple of hours before kickoff. We resolved that we ought to get closer to the stadium than that, or at least I did, as I still had to meet John.
Amongst these numbers, as I have at every single away game I’ve attended, I looked out for the other John. I know he is older now (that’s how time works) but I don’t know what he used as a decider of which games to attend, and which games not to. I figured he might be at Wembley, so I kept my eyes peeled throughout.
Eventually, the van of lads arrived and I was able to make contact with John. There’d been some harem scarem moments to get to that point, he not being someone who keeps his mobile phone on when it isn’t in use, but we met up, clambered the staircases, and went inside.There’s not much to add that people won’t already know of Wembley. The areas under the stands are immense, the range of food and drink is huge, everything is overpriced and the cabling is immaculate.
There’s not a huge amount to add about the game, to be honest.I sat through two hours at Wembley as David Wagner’s side bored Reading into submission and won on penalties after a turgid match that Town had probably, but only probably, edged. If it was rhythmic gymnastics, Town would have won, but football isn’t rhythmic, which makes it a lot less watchable most of the time.
What I did have was two hours with John, two hours of living a Huddersfield Town together again. For two hours we were as one, every kick, every breath, every shot (and there weren’t many). He would not be one for partying John, or the other John, so that day, and the season after, were their reward. For the years and years they uncomplainingly put in to Huddersfield Town being rewarded with a signing like Jon Newby or Lee Ashcroft. For the people they chose to share their love of the club with, me in this case, and the sacrifices they made and the places they drove to or travelled to and the things they missed out on in order to do so.
When Christopher Schindler converted his penalty, sorry for ruining the ending, I turned to John delighted. We hugged, in a way we had never done before. It was, in that moment, all worth it. All the times it wasn’t worth it, erased with one kick of a ball.
All the times it wasn’t worth it – and these are just mine, and just the ones I’ve got tickets for, so not many home games.
All the jealousy at the Reebok Stadium being identical to ours, and then Per Frandsen scoring for Bolton, who built up a head of steam and walloped us before the break – worth it.
All that arguing to get off French on a Friday afternoon to go to bloody Swindon in the pissing rain for Iffy Bloody Onuora to score after about three seconds and being three nil down before they let us take cover from the torrent in the main stand – worth it.
All that travelling down to Fratton Park just for Steve Claridge to prod home a shitty corner after about four minutes and then nothing else to happen all game – worth it.
All the hope of Chris Beech’s goal at Pride Park that meant for half an hour it was us going to Highbury only for Francesco Baiano to turn things around after the break – worth it.
All that glorious August Bank Holiday at Belle Vue only for Doncaster… Doncaster! to turn into Barcelona all of a sudden and wipe the floor with us. Worth it.
All the freezing cold Keepmoat Stadiums on the first day of 2007, only to see Doncaster (again!) smash us 3-0 with Mark McBloodyCammon scoring from 30 yards after about five minutes and Town get two men sent off – worth it.
All that trip to Yeovil a few days later to be 1-0 down after barely a breath, 3-0 down at half time and barely muster a shot worthy of the name all match – worth it.
All the Blackpools away in the League Cup in the pissing rain in August, to concede to a crappy late Ben Burgess goal – worth it.
Having to buy a samosa in a curry house in Beacontree because I’d drunk too much in London and needed a wee so I ran off the train before we got to Dagenham – worth it.
All those playoffs. All… those… playoffs…. worth it.
All of those moments didn’t matter any more. It was as though we’d climbed the impossible staircase, come out into the bright lights and suddenly all things were ours, all things were possible and Huddersfield – Huddersfield! – mattered.I didn’t see Huddersfield Town in the Premier League. Not once. The bubble burst, the dream died, and they’re back almost where they started from, today’s kids gathering their tickets so they can rant about how bad things were in their day.
But they weren’t, were they? That’s what I learned from the Johns. I never went to Town expecting them to win, to be promoted, to be wonderful. I went to see them be Town. I wanted to see those blokes in blue and white shirts play the game I love and I wanted to do it either with the people I loved or so that I could tell the people I loved about it.
My mum wasn’t at Wembley. She’d have loved it. I’m sure John told her about it when he got home. I know I did.
I thought long and hard about this game before writing. Is it the most important Huddersfield Town game I’ve ever seen? Undoubtedly. Is it the best? Nothing like. Is it my favourite? Even now, no. My favourite was my Huddersfield Town, their game, their moment.Gaze upon these highlights in wonder. Time it was, and what a time it was. A time of innocence. Link