3/4 Always Him

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I’ve been rather involved with other things this week after the promotion Huddersfield Town enjoyed on Monday, so the final two of my Tunbridge Wells poems got rather forgotten. Here they are, starting with (yet) another paean to the vintage wunderman of the year.

Its always Stevens, always him,
Saunters back, then bundles in,
And every ball goes where it should,
And every ball is bloody good,
And Sussex barely swing the wood,
When Stevens does his thing.

Yet Matt Coles at the Railway End,
Is less tight than his older friend,
Still every ball zips in at pace,
Each one, he thinks, will be the ace,
But with that sometimes see the face,
They do not just defend.

So Stevens keeps unerring line,
The older ball now losing shine,
If anything is there, its found,
He presses and he probes around,
And stumps go flying out the ground,
A legend in his time

More Rambling Than I Thought – The Playoff Final.

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I started with the idea of writing one paragraph here, but it got stretched. That paragraph is somewhere in the middle (spotter’s badge if you get it), but once I got going I couldn’t stop.

Firstly, there’s something I need to say. I am a Huddersfield Town supporter and yesterday I saw my team promoted to the Premier League. Twenty-four hours on, and it still seems as unlikely as it felt when Michael Hefele was punching the turf having seen a (poor) penalty saved by Ali Al Habsi.

Yet the Terriers showed the spirit of the dog whose name they bear and bit back. A few moments later, I was able to text ‘Schindler’s Last’ to my fiancée, who I thought was watching the game at home. As it was, the message came into a room inhabited only by a cat that has become a little too insistent on the doorstep when we return home. A good joke, but lost by the time she had returned to the room to read it – as the row of question marks I received a few minutes later attested.

I didn’t see that message for some time however. The immediate relief and jubiliation took some time – hugging the people I was with, awkwardly hugging the people around me that weren’t being hugged at the time, shaking hands with those too far away to hug; anyone who has been in a situation like that knows the drill.

What struck me then, and it was something that had been apparent throughout the day at Wembley, was the spread of supporters in the Huddersfield end.

The newspaper reports made quite a thing of it being 45 years since Town were in the top flight (they are Town to me and always will be – just as Manchester United are United to a lot of folks, they’re Manchester U to me and always will be) and there was a great many people there who had lived through all of those seasons.

There have been great years in that time, that’s why they still go. The generation above mine talk in hushed tones of the great Mick Buxton side of 1979/80 that scored 101 goals and won Division 4. That is the last time the club lifted a real trophy – I know they give out Playoff Trophies, but the prize is promoted, I know equally that they won the 1994 Yorkshire Electricity Cup – they beat Hull City 4-2 in the final. I was there. It isn’t a real cup.

They had some hard times, too – dropping back down the leagues again, that year of Malcolm McDonald and the 10-1 defeat at Manchester City. To hear the stories, there were more at Maine Road that day than at Wembley yesterday.

My generation had that YEB Cup season – the 1994/95 season, the year of Brentford away in the playoffs (and no, for all my visits to Brentford, and it is regularly my only game of the season, I did not go to that) and Chris Billy- the last time Town scored a goal in a playoff final. They have won three since then.

The generation below me had 2003/04 – a season that a lot of us have thought back to, a recent low point still fresh in the memory. In April 2004, Huddersfield Town lost a league game at Kidderminster Harriers; and that wasn’t even the low point of the year, there was a 6-2 tonking at Scunthorpe and a 4-0 whupping by Macclesfield to contend with.

They wasted the chance of automatic promotion and fell into the playoffs after a backpass against Cheltenham by Pawel Abbott that not only had to be seen to be believed, but that I also saw him apologise for on Twitter (no doubt for the umpteenth time) in the last few days. Pawel, if you’re reading, you did some great things that year. That was not one of them, but it does not tarnish your reputation with the club. They won that playoff final after a 0-0 draw through a penalty competition that made Liam Lawrence (he played for Mansfield) a hero in Huddersfield. He was not to be the last).

A few years down the line, there was the 43 game unbeaten run that contained a playoff defeat by Peterborough, the unending penalty shootout that earned Sheffield United goalkeeper Steve Simonsen legendary status, and another generation had their moment.

I thought then that this was as high as the club would go. Even the best years, between Billy and Lawrence had seen, for a variety of reasons, any potential of leaving the second tier by the top exit out of reach, most painfully vanishing in a run of three defeats in four games in the Spring of 2000 that saw Town drop from 6th to 8th while another Town (Ipswich, recently furnished with our former striker Marcus Stewart) went on to claim promotion to the Premier League. The season after brought relegation.

Returning to the Championship in 2012, I did not realise how hard it would be. Before, Town were not a big side, but they were competing with teams who weren’t big sides either. In 1995/96, we played Tranmere, Grimsby and Luton in that division. Admittedly, Sunderland and West Brom were there, but it was an altogether more forgiving proposition.

In 2012/13, it was full of monsters; a veritable who’s who of teams who are big even though their achievements aren’t as recent as you think – Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, Leicester City.

It felt like every game, and every season was a case of keeping our head above water – the familiar refrain of ‘improve every year’, and they did.

But then David Wagner came along, and something happened. The North Stand Loyal deserve credit, too. There has been, over the last two seasons, a great marriage between the club and its supporters. I know Crystal Palace were cited as an example in the early days, and I also know I don’t attend many games.

What I do know is that when I was sat in Wembley on Sunday afternoon, my colourless hair (it was recently described as ‘ashen’) going grey while I waited for an outcome with this club that are so entrenched in my blood to go one way or another that there was a section of Huddersfield support that never stopped singing, never stopped jumping, and made a constant noise of positivity. That was apparenty in the stadium, and even moreso when I listened to the game on Five Live on my way home tonight.

I attended the game with three lads from Medway (it was meant to be four – one pulled out late, but he was a Peterborough fan, so y’know, too bad) who were along because they could be. We were talking before the game about going to see Gillingham at the playoffs in 2009. One of them told a story (and hello if you’re reading) about going through the turnstile at Wembley and looking to his right and seeing a kid that he went to primary school with, but hadn’t seen since those days and how wonderful it is to see a whole town decamp en masse for an occasion like that

What I saw in Wembley, and around Wembley, was just that. Huddersfield Town might have travelled to London, but so had Huddersfield. I have a great deal of pride in coming from Huddersfield, and to see everyone assembled yesterday only added to that.

There was so many inter-generational groups, so many sets of people who were there sharing not just their dreams, but their mum and dad’s dreams, and their mum and dad’s dreams before them.

You could see it in the faces of the parents, and you could see it in the faces of the children – people looking at one another utterly taken in by the joy in their loved ones, finally seeing the team they’d introduced them to, or been introduced to, achieving something truly special. A lot of my recent writing (except the cricket poetry) has been about the nature of love in sport, and its something I’ll probably keep feeling; how people are brought into football, and a football club by somebody they love, and how that love is the impetus for them staying attached, as it becomes irrevocably entwined. 45 years might be a long time, but if you saw any of the coverage of the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series in 108 years, the pointedness of people celebrating the love they had for people who hadn’t lasted long enough to see it brought tears to my eyes then, and can do the same now. Sport means nothing, and we all know that, but the relationship we have with sport can mean everything – for so many of us it is the best way of communicating with our loved ones.

That’s for another day.

I went up to London with three lads (and I’d like to think they got enough out of the game that they might find Huddersfield rank amongst their second team – or third – behind Chelsea, Manchester Utd, Arsenal and Gillingham now) I sat through it with my mum’s partner of however many years.

Stepping back briefly, he introduced me to Town – I thought of mentioning the first game we went to together, I remember it well, it was in April 1993, at the Deva Stadium in Chester; Town won 2-0. That was 24 years ago, and we’ve sat together, and apart, and together, and apart (depending on whether I was with friends, or on my own, or on a coach, or coming in from Norwich – life, and football is like that, you don’t always share it in the same way) countless times since then. It was an honour to be able to share that moment with him, to think back through some of those games – so many of the stories we tell are of things that happened around football – over the 24 years, just as so many others in the crowd were doing the same.

Most of our relationship is based on Town. He still goes every other week, and I know that every time we meet, we’ll seldom talk of anything else. It’s a brilliant link, and while I sometimes feel bad that I’m not as close to the team any more, I still feel the same way. I wrote the team’s season preview for When Saturday Comes this year, and ran it by him first – we had a long conversation about predicting the league positions of every club in the Championship; I respect his opinion, he’s seen them all, for crying out loud and my support of the club is only really there because of his and my mum’s.

I only got to the game because of my mum – she got the ticket because of her membership but couldn’t make it, so I felt bound to attend, make sure she was represented in spirit. In some ways she got the easy way out, I think she managed to avoid most of it on radio, which is what I’d planned to do.

That’s what Huddersfield Town is. The players on the pitch might be the focal point, but the club exists for the people who go there and share it. The squad yesterday have etched themselves into Huddersfield’s history now. David Wagner, Christopher Schindler and Danny Ward will be forever remembered in the town, and this season held up as one of those greats.

In thirty years time, whatever next year brings, people will talk of the victory at Newcastle, they will talk of the defeat of Brighton (that game, that beautiful game, have Town ever played better?) and they’ll talk of that penalty shootout. They’ll talk of the astounding impact that Dean Hoyle had on a club that appeared to be stagnating and how proud everyone is of the work of all aspects of the club, as well as just the playing side.

A lot of the messages I received when my phone finally started to receive them were to compliment the interviews of Wagner, and of Dean Hoyle particularly – both of them gentlemen and both of them as good a representative of a football team as one could hope. I can’t imagine many set of fans chanting the name of their chairman before any of their players after a promotion, but it happened yesterday.

What won’t be talked of in thirty years time is the money that comes into the club, nor the likely pummelling that the side will get in some games next year – though having been smashed twice by Fulham this time around, there’s no doubt that they might get beaten a couple or three times.

So while my generation had a moment, and the one before, and the one after had a moment, they were something for us to hang our hat on. They were a line in the sand that we knew we’d fallen hopelessly in love with this club that (because its what football teams do – at the most 1 in 20 is successful, and that’s better odds than any season I’ve ever seen in my life) will inevitably lose more often than they’ll win.

Yesterday was a moment for every Huddersfield Town supporter, and every person in Huddersfield; it was for the whole town and surrounding areas, and those further afield (bless those who woke up at stupid o’clock, or stayed up until stupid o’clock to watch in wherever in the world they are – Huddersfield Town is their club, too, they just spread the gospel further afield) and, perhaps more than I’ve ever felt before when watching Huddersfield Town, it was a moment for us.

I’m a Huddersfield Town supporter, and yesterday I saw my team promoted to the Premier League.

2/4 The Nineteenth Step

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I’m sure that people have watched Darren Stevens joyfully for many years; he’s an evergreen hero of the county scene who seems to be getting better and better with age. Add me to that list – he bowled non-stop up to lunch today, and looked like taking a wicket with every ball.

The hat gone,
The jumper gone,
A now familiar sight.
Ambling towards the pavilion Stevens,
His head turns as he catches the ball,
He knows this place.
He knows this moment.

He turns, Stevens.
Slowly at first, then quicker.
As if working from muscle memory,
A scene played out 20,000 times.
He knows this place.
He knows this moment.

Quicker still.
The number on his back ripples gently,
He approaches the stumps,
At the nineteenth step he releases,
He knows this place.
He knows this moment.

The ball thuds into Finch’s pads,
Stevens knows. Stevens roars.
We all know this moment,
Finch is out.
For Finch the pavilion,
For Stevens the nineteen steps.