It was the last home game of the season with York City’s Football League fate in the balance. Lawrence Edmonds climbed aboard the emotional rollercoaster
I nearly killed myself getting to Bootham Crescent on Saturday. As glorious as the long-awaited Spring sunshine was, it proved an unwelcome companion during the mad dash from the station. Sweating and swearing over Scarborough Bridge, painful memories returned of school cross country runs along this stretch of the Ouse, all under the watchful eye of our high-profile sports teacher: none other than ex-York City ace Graeme Murty.
Mr Murty (as we had to call him) had been a surprise addition to the PE department, and he wasted no time in trying to kill us all with a punishing fitness regime that he maintained had recently helped him destroy Everton. Stopping for a much-needed breather, my legs and lungs burning, I silently cursed him; not only for failing to impress a belief in personal fitness all those years ago, but also for kindling my love of York City.
That was in 1997, and there have been many such sprints to the Crescent ever since. What made this run even more agonising was City’s current plight, hovering above the League Two relegation zone and in serious danger of heading straight back down to the woes of the Conference. As I ran a thought crossed my mind: “If I die in the attempt to get to the game, will the team be galvanised by my brave efforts?”
It seemed unlikely, but the idea of football martyrdom was pleasing nonetheless and made the last few hundred metres more bearable.
By the time I eventually arrived, half-dead and staggering into a well-filled David Longhurst Stand, the score stood at 1-1. At least, that’s what I had been led to believe. Everyone I spoke to had a different opinion of proceedings. A day-dreaming steward assured me York were one goal to the good, while a fan nearby contradicted him by proclaiming that Southend had the lead.
Losing patience with these two I delved further into the crowd and continued my enquiries. Here I met a well-bearded man in a similarly confused state, who told me that he believed York were 2-0 up, while another had heard rumours of 2-2. It soon became apparent that many of these confused souls had, like me, arrived late and clearly had no idea what was going on.
Even after kick-off there had been queues to get in, another fan whined, and they had been forced to listen to a commentary of cheers and groans from those already inside in order to judge the score. Given the significance of the match such a situation was truly maddening.
To settle matters I initiated a quick text exchange with a friend, who (for then unknown reasons) was cowering in the away end. He quickly confirmed the 1-1 scoreline, news of which brought howls of disagreement from various corners of the stand.
In the midst of this furore the ball fell to Matty Blair, who hooked a sweet shot into the bottom corner, sending us all into spasms of joy. Not only was this hugely important strike another kick in the groin for relegation, but it finally ended the tiresome scoreline debate, which had provided one of the strangest introductions to a City match I have ever experienced.
Half-time brought a return to sanity and the good tidings of Barnet’s and Wimbledon’s joint failings. News that the latter were trailing 2-0 away at champions elect Gillingham was easy on the ear, and we knew (should things stay as they were) City were all but safe.
Football, however, has a funny way of spoiling an otherwise splendid afternoon.
The second half was a tense affair. City created little in the final third, and what they did manage to muster was usually squandered by a stray pass or the stoic Southend defence. The only true entertainment came from a Tom Platt header that whistled just past the post, much to the anguish of the crowd.
The feeling was shared by the young midfielder’s two-strong female fan club, who stood close by and grew ever more hysterical with his every touch of the ball. “Never mind Tom, we still think you’re fit,” one of them purred reassuringly.
As the second half progressed Southend grew ever more dangerous, and each of their forays forward increased the nauseous sensation in my gut. Given City’s own need for points, it was easy to forget that our opponents were still chasing a play-off spot. Such was the tension on both sides that at times it seemed better not to watch, but trying to distract myself by keeping track of events elsewhere on my phone proved a hopeless task, with the network jammed by thousands of similarly fretting supporters.
My friend in the away end (who, it turned out, had joined a hundred or so other City fans seeking an escape from the queues) was better connected and announced the grim news that Wimbledon had drawn level, dragging us back into the relegation dogfight.
In the midst of these dark thoughts the Southend fans suddenly burst into life, celebrating wildly as the ball nestled in our net. I could feel the blood draining from my face. No, please no… For a few awful seconds it appeared that the end had begun.
Never has the sight of a linesman’s flag been more welcome, or the simple joy of jeering a disallowed goal! Despite this huge let-off, the tension remained fierce. A goal-line clearance by the impressive Chris Smith a few minutes later did little to settle the nerves either, but (much like McGurk’s world-class tackle against Luton three years earlier) this spread belief and a strong conviction that the victory was deservedly ours.
The final whistle brought a collective sigh of relief, a feeling that sadly did not last for long. The news from Barnet was far from ideal, with the home side having scored a late goal and saved a penalty, the swines. You didn’t need to be a mathematical genius to realise the magnitude of that result and how it sucked City further towards the trapdoor, taking some of the gloss off an excellent performance.
As the players showed their appreciation to the home crowd for the final time of this topsy turvy season I stood a while on the terraces and lamented the continued good fortune of our opponents. “I remember when teams at the bottom used to lose,” Tweeted David McGurk later that evening. How true.
“Never mind, one more big push,” he added. One more big push, one more point and, hopefully, one more season in the Football League.