As we face the second leg of the semi-final with Brighton, I thought it would be good to dust off one of my first ever blog posts, from during our last play-off campaign. It was written after the nerve-frazzling semi-final victory on penalties against Southampton.
I thought it was lost in the mists of time – I couldn’t find it anywhere on my emails and the website I originally wrote it for is long gone – but Tommo, the glass-half-empty hero of this piece, reminded me recently that it was stored as a note on my personal Facebook page. So there you go – Mark Zuckerberg’s invention turned out to be useful for something.
I sincerely hope we don’t have to face another penalty shoot-out this time, but let’s wait and see…
Pessimism: A Case Study
Two hours of raw emotion, of screaming, leaping from my seat, hugging people, swearing at men, women and children in yellow shirts, singing, agonising and now, it has come to this. Penalties.
I couldn’t believe it. The threat had been lurking at the back of mind on the drive down and in the days beforehand, but I hadn’t allowed myself to really believe that the dreaded shoot-out would decide whether we made it to Wembley or not.
Tommo legged it as soon as the final whistle had gone. I wondered if he’d decided to go and walk around the concourse, or just leave the ground, but he returned a couple of minutes later, as the players concluded their huddle and, in the driving rain, prepared to face elimination or success in the most dramatic of circumstances.
Southampton’s young striker Leon Best stepped up first, in front of the away end. We ran down to the barriers to stand and watch at pitchside.
Best planted the kick well wide of goalkeeper Stephen Bywater’s left hand post. Cue pandemonium.
David Jones, £1million worth of Manchester United-trained midfielder, stepped up first for Derby.
“Not Jones! He’s left footed. They always miss”, wailed Tommo, turning away.
I grabbed him and forced him to watch as Jones slotted the penalty home. 1-0 Derby.
At this point, I went so wild that my head started to send very clear signals to me that I had reached my excitement threshold and any further nervous strain could well lead me into unconsciousness. As I bounced around, hugging Tommo and a complete stranger, I realised it was now physically impossible to become any more emotionally involved than I already was.
The three of us stood with our arms around each other’s shoulders as Southampton scored their second penalty and we stayed that way as Stevie Howard stepped up for Derby.
Howard, another £1m player, the target man signed from Luton Town, has never let the club down since his arrival at the start of the season. Our regular penalty taker, our top scorer.
“Howard’s bound to miss, he’s due to miss one”, gabbled Tommo, trying to turn away. I wouldn’t let him and Howard’s penalty was so much more authoritative than the one that had just crept past Białkowski in the first leg of the semi final, to win us that game 2-1.
2-1 was now the score in the shoot-out. Then Southampton scored again. 2-2, but Saints had taken three, to our two.
Next up, Giles Barnes. The teenage attacking midfield prodigy, much admired in the media and apparently coveted by top Premiership sides, had been ruled out of the playoffs through injury, but, Lazarus-like, had recovered enough to come on as substitute, sporting a pair of garish new yellow boots.
“Barnes is bound to miss, he’s too cocky… He’ll fuck it up”, said You Know Who. Again, my grip on him was steely and Barnes smashed the penalty into the back of the net. No chance Kelvin Davis.
The ex-Derby striker Rasiak stepped up and, inevitably, scored for Southampton, despite our thoughtful cries of ‘WANKER, WANKER, WANKER’. What now seemed like hours ago, in the 89th minute of the match, he had netted crisply right in front of us to take the tie into extra time.
3-3, but still advantage Derby.
Next up, to my surprise, the young left back, Jay McEveley. £600,000 of Scouser, signed from Blackburn in the last transfer window.
Tommo is not a fan.
“No, not McEveley, McEveley’s shit!”
McEveley was not fannying around. He fairly ran up to the spot with the ball, placed it, jogged back into position and started his run up. The referee, who didn’t seem ready, whistled a split second before McEveley crashed the spot kick left-footed, high into the top corner.
Up steps Iñigo Idiakez for Southampton. Ex-Derby County player of the year and free kick specialist.
“If they miss this, we’ve won, haven’t we?” Tommo says.
We’re pitchside, me, him and our new mate, whose name I would never catch.
Idiakez lines up the free kick. Curls it over the wall.
Had he been thirty yards out, it would have been another Iñigo special and Bywater could have done nothing about it. But Idiakez was twelve yards out, there was no wall and the penalty kick sails high into the bank of yellow Southampton shirts and the noise is like silence.
We’re confronted with one young steward, who doesn’t look interested in trying to stop the inevitable pitch invasion. Into the driving rain we race, stopping to gather grass from the pitch and stuffing it into our back pockets, to take something of this feeling away with us. Matt Oakley, Southampton player man and boy, but Derby captain now, races past me towards the tunnel, lest he is mobbed. Rasiak staggers past, desolate. I pat him on the back and turn round to face the black and white, dancing, singing West Stand, who, en masse, will be going to Wembley…
The next morning, somewhat bleary, hungover and still soaked through, we are about to start the drive back to Manchester. We have bought Derby Evening Telegraphs as mementos and I am reading through the coverage of last night’s events.
“Oh, that’s interesting.” I said. “You know how we only had to take four of our penalties, because they missed two of their five?”
“Well, Stephen Bywater would have taken our fifth.”
“He would have missed,” Tommo says. “His kicking’s shit!”