IN the second part of three, Chris Groves’ look at our play-off campaign recalls the wild celebrations at Home Park, and the hard work and emotions carrying us on our trip to Wembley…
"If nothing happens here, it will be extra time. Carey's corner, deep swing on it... and the ball goes in!"
As Gordon Sparks talked Peter Hartley’s header into the net, the metaphorical roof came off of Home Park – though just like many other stories I have heard from fans, the aftermath to me is a bit of a blur. Working from my spot in the Chisholm, between the grandstand and away fans, I could not tell for a brief moment if Argyle had scored, but the incredible roar from the fans confirmed as much. I faintly remember jumping up and instinctively embracing a couple of friends sat with me, and my throat becoming sore from the cheering. Far from dignified - but so, so worth it.
I am desperate to know if that visceral roar of emotion was anything like the 1996 semi-final against Colchester United, or the day we clinched promotion against Queens Park Rangers in 2004. I was a little too young to attend or fully comprehend the importance of those matches, so nothing I have experienced first-hand at a sporting event comes close to watching Hartley’s header go in, and the ensuing celebrations are something I will never forget.
The ‘Que Sera Sera’ sing-along; walking to the press conference through a sea of smiles; getting high-fives and hugs from friends who are not usually the tactile type - every tiny aspect of those post-match antics was special.
The temptation once the dust began to settle was to break down the minutiae of the entire match, to analyse and rationalise, but moments like that should just be enjoyed to their fullest. I could not sleep until well into the early hours of Monday because I was on such a high, and I regularly caught myself randomly smiling in the days after the match as it all began to sink in. Argyle did it: we really were going to Wembley.
A final at Wembley Stadium is obviously not your average game, but what can often be forgotten is the preparations behind the scenes that are turned up a notch in order to accommodate the fixture.
The moment that trip to London was confirmed, the club has been drowned in paperwork, phone calls, deadlines and deliverables to ensure May 30 goes as smoothly as possible for players and fans alike.
In fact, plans were in place well before the second leg against Portsmouth commenced, to get a head start on the hysteria. Booking hotels; green-lighting new merchandise; the ticket rush; interviews; television coverage; press and hospitality passes – and it doesn’t even end when the final kicks off. Alternative plans for the aftermath are in place, depending on the outcome.
Everything has raised a level and it is a very high workload, but no-one in the office is complaining or shying away from it all. These are the occasions that any football fan lives for, and playing any part at all in ensuring this memorable day goes as smoothly as possible is extremely rewarding. It feels like the entire club is working in unison – from the players, to the staff, to the supporters – to make sure this occasion is as special as we can possibly make it.
Whilst the players know it is up to them to deliver, the staff understand that they have to make the situation as comfortable as possible for those who put on the green shirt – and both parties realise they have a responsibility to the fans to put this club in the best possible position to win. That is where Derek Adams’ comments about this club being united ring true; with a calm and positive atmosphere around this club from the boardroom, to the pitch, to the Devonport End.
There is plenty of excitement everywhere but it is mixed with necessary professionalism; a great example coming in recent press conferences, where the calmness exuding from the players has been admirable. Many of the squad have been milling around the ground a little more than usual, just to help pass the time and soak it all in – and to get a suit fitted, of course. Curtis Nelson is one such Pilgrim, who dropped in last week to run a couple of errands. The captain ended up interrupting a very important staff meeting; had anyone else done it they would be met with death stares and silence. Nelse, however, was met practically with a standing ovation.
I found this year’s FA Cup final more enjoyable to watch than most of its predecessors, knowing that like many other Argyle fans, I get to make my first visit to Wembley soon – aside from a stadium tour last April, where I found myself eyeing up the press box and mixed zone instead of the dressing rooms and dugout.
It is only now that the play-off final is beginning to feel somewhat tangible, meaning the nerves mercilessly return. As joyous as the past few days have been, Argyle have not achieved anything just yet, and as Derek said immediately after the second leg victory, it is great that we get to have a great day out at Wembley – but those days only remain great if your team wins. Argyle now know their opponent, which means the predicting can commence, and one thing that can be easily predicted is that very few neutrals will want the Pilgrims to win. AFC Wimbledon are on the brink of writing another chapter in the club’s compelling narrative, and will have the backing of plenty of those on the fence.
But we have our own story: a story well profiled and one that I will get into more in the final chapter, but whilst many neutrals may overlook Argyle’s journey to this match, we know what it took to get here. I have talked a lot about emotions in this story so far, but as we edge closer to our moment in the sun, the one emotion that easily overcomes the nerves, excitement and tension, is pride. Pride in the players for remaining positive and delivering in such a high-stakes semi-final to get us here. Pride in the staff – some of whom stood on the brink of extinction with this club not too long ago – ensuring the day can be enjoyed by over 33,000 supporters who will take over London on Bank Holiday Monday.
Thirty. Three. Thousand. That number fills me with pride, and regardless of the result in the final, we should all be proud.
Would be brilliant if we won, though...