A Trip to Wembley

I’ve only been to a Wembley Cup Final once, in 2009, with my dad. Tottenham faced Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the League Cup for the chance to retain the trophy and win their third piece of silverware since the days of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne.

Our tickets that day were in a mixed section of the controversial Club Wembley experiment where we watched a United side boasting Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo win on penalties. As the disappointment sunk in, I’ll never forget the words of a Manchester United ‘fan’ next to us just moments after the winning penalty kick: “Who cares? It’s only the League Cup anyway.”

Last month, I took my 5-year-old son to the ProAct Stadium for the first time to see Chesterfield book their second visit to Wembley in three years. Since that night, the date has been circled in our calendar next to ‘Liverpool Away’, a crucial looking fixture in the race for a Champions League spot.

The intervening weeks haven’t been kind to either side. Spurs picked up six points in five games that included defeats to Arsenal, Chelsea, Norwich and Benfica while three wins in nine has left Chesterfield anxiously looking over their shoulder after a comfortable looking gap over the chasing pack has been closed to five points at the business end of the season.

So it was in hope rather than expectation that we made the trip south to Wembley with Jacob and his grandparents for the Football League Trophy Final against Peterborough United, managed by Alex Ferguson Jnr, at Wembley. Unless you’re supporting Manchester United in the League Cup, it seems, Wembley is exciting at any age; the unique combination of occasion and history combine to give the FA a venue that retains some hope of paying off the mammoth £757m mortgage.

Almost 36,000 filled the lower tiers yesterday – more than three times the combined average gates of both sides – suggesting we weren’t the only fans who’d hopped on the Wembley bandwagon.

Our glory carriage consisted of my dad, a lifelong Tottenham fan, my mum, who still cites Michael Owen as her favourite player based on a particularly exciting evening in 1998 and Jacob, who has taken a genuine interest in football in the few short weeks since he fell asleep on my knee at the ProAct.

We passed the long journey south learning songs. A mix of Paul Cook’s Blue and White Army and Clap Your Hands If Nanna’s Barmy did the trick. Two tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches and half a bag of Skittles later and the Wembley arch was visible on the horizon. The excitement of childhood visits bubbled up from somewhere deep, although that could have been the tuna.

Wembley Way was awash with blue. A Chesterfield fan walked past us on an iPhone, loudly announcing to the person on the other end that “it’s two bloody quid for a can of pop”. You can still pick up a Vimto for sixpence and a smile in North East Derbyshire.

The atmosphere inside the ground was loud and raucous for less than half full. With a foam hand (£5 in London, half a crown up north) and a complimentary Chesterfield clapper, Jacob soon joined in along with dozens of other children in the stands.

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The players came out of the tunnel to a small pyrotechnics display not dissimilar to an early episode of London’s Burning and lined up to God Save the Queen before applauding the travelling support and waving to family and friends.

Chesterfield started with confidence, full of attacking ambition and looking every inch the match for a Peterborough side a league above them. The underdogs were quickly undone though, Posh showing their clinical side just seven minutes in. Josh McQuoid got the opening goal, rounded off with an unnecessarily provocative celebration in front of the Chesterfield fans.

Things got worse just a few minutes later with Ollie Banks seemingly leaving the field in tears as injury finished his big afternoon in the 12th minute.

The Chesterfield support continued to rally behind their side who again pushed on, carving out great chances at the opposite end that were missed by Morsy and Evatt. These were to prove costly, with Posh capitalising from a set piece through Shaun Brisley who doubled the advantage with a powerful header from a corner before half-time. There was a deflated little boy sat next to me once again.

“I can’t see them coming back from this,” one man predicted as we joined a queue to pay £2.20 for a bottle of water (20p more than the can of pop, the scandal). It wasn’t looking good. The interval entertainment saw two fans from either side kicking balls at a large inflatable paint pot in a bid to win £500 from trophy sponsors Johnstone’s Paint. Chesterfield won, the first small victory of the afternoon.

Peterborough were even edging it on ‘celebrity’ fans. Sir Alex Ferguson, usually a jinx for his son Darren’s Peterborough side, was booed like a pantomime villain when he appeared on the big screen. For Chesterfield, Ian Hyland, former TV Critic for the News of the World. One all.

After the break, Chesterfield came out with renewed vigour and, attacking their home end, pulled one back. Morsy’s powerful run and cross found Eoin Doyle who had a moment to compose himself and find the back of the net in front of the delighted Spireites support. Jacob was focussed on the game so soon after half time and celebrated his first ever goal aided by me literally throwing him up in the air with delight.

My mum, who seemed to be enjoying her unconventional Mother’s Day trip, screamed something along the lines of “that’s more like it” in the way that mums who don’t really like football do. This was her second visit after the 2011 Final against Swindon where she’d mostly spent the afternoon developing a crush on Paulo Di Canio. Imagine him for a step-dad.

More drama ten minutes later with Morsy again involved, this time the recipient of a kick from Joe Newall who saw red and trudged off the field to leave Peterborough facing the final quarter of the game with ten men. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t negotiating how many Skittles were to be distributed and missed it, but a new wave of belief filled the Chesterfield end nonetheless.

It didn’t last long. With twelve minutes to go, Peterborough broke forward and surged into the box. “Don’t bring him down, don’t bring him down!” I screamed as Liam Cooper did just that, earning a yellow card in the process. Britt Assombalonga converted the resulting penalty and it was curtains for Chesterfield. A brave effort and an encouraging display against one of the better sides in a division they aspire to join next season.

Johnstone's Paint Trophy

“I hope it’s us that wins next time” said Jacob, disappointedly, as we watched the trophy being lifted. “Can we buy another foam hand next time? Then I’ll have two.”

His understandable bemusement at the beautiful game’s appeal was further confirmed as we sat in traffic listening to Tottenham lose 4-0 at Anfield.

We had a fun day. Apart from the coachload of Chesterfield fans on the hard shoulder at Junction 27 at half past seven last night, it’s fair to say everyone did. It was back to the respective promotion pushes for both sides this morning and back to school with a few new songs for Jacob.

“They’ll be a League One team next season,” Darren Ferguson said afterwards. Performances like this one in the clichéd six cup finals to come should prove him right.

Champions: The celebrations begin as Peterborough win on their first return to Wembley in 14 years

Image of Britt Assombalonga courtesy of Mike Egerton/PA via Guardian.com.

Image of Johnstone’s Paint trophy being lifted courtesy of Getty Images via Guardian.com

Jacob’s first game

It promised to be the game of the season so far. Pundits and journalists purred over likely formations and tactical battles. Two open, attacking sides going head to head; surely England’s best against Spain’s top side.

Instead, I shunned the tantalising prospect of Manchester City versus Barcelona, live in HD from the warmth of my own living room, to take my son to see Chesterfield face Fleetwood Town in the Northern Section Final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Second leg.

Jacob is five years old. Since starting primary school last September, his interest in football is slowly growing. Don’t get me wrong, he prefers Superman to Super Sunday. Mr Tumble and Ashley Young are still two very different characters. But we’re getting there.

Tonight, in his adopted hometown, he experienced his first competitive match. I have to admit I was a little nervous.

Born in Chesterfield, I spent my first 18 years here before moving back last summer after a decade away. I’ve always had a soft spot for my hometown club but feel some guilt that I don’t support them.

In 1994, aged nine, I sat in the away end of Meadow Lane with my Dad to watch his boyhood team, Tottenham Hotspur. It’s a game that’s fondly remembered as one of Notts County’s more notable giant killings of recent years.

They played us off the pitch for 90 minutes to comfortably reach the fourth round of the Coca Cola Cup. That 3-0 defeat was the end of Spurs legend Ossie Ardiles’ reign as manager and I returned to school with my swearing vocabulary quadrupled. I loved it and I was hooked.

I knew that wouldn’t be the case tonight. It couldn’t be. It’s hard to explain the significance of a trip to Wembley to such a small child. But, armed with a pocketful of Chewits and a little boy seeking a late-night adventure, we wrapped up warm and set off for the ProAct Stadium.

It’s impressive. Located by a large hotel, supermarket and dual carriage way, it’s a far cry from the terraced streets and wooden stands of Saltergate where Chesterfield played for 139 years until Derek Niven’s injury time winner against Bournemouth in May 2010. It’s given the town a boost too, hosting large music events. It’s hard to imagine Tom Jones or Elton John being keen to have visited the leaking changing rooms of the old ground.

We took our seats close to the corner flag in the family section and quickly spotted Chester the Field Mouse who visited Jacob’s school a few weeks ago. Football mascots seem like a daft British eccentricity through the eyes of an adult but, to Jacob, this was the early highlight of the evening.

The game started and Chesterfield attacked, looking to increase their 3-1 aggregate lead. I started to describe what this meant but quickly stopped, realising I was clearly muddying the waters by even trying to explain the hypothetical possibility of celebrating a defeat at full time. What next, the offside rule?

It was an entertaining game. As something resembling a neutral, things felt comfortable for Chesterfield. They were clearly the better side, neat in possession and looked to get the ball out wide where possible.

Fleetwood threatened, but their urgency occasionally matched their approach, lumping the ball towards chunky journeyman Jon Parkin to hold up play or attempt speculative shots from distance. Neymar, he is not.

The atmosphere was good. More than 6,000 others had shunned Adrian Chiles and co. and they were in fine voice with renditions of ‘We’re going to Wemberlee’ ringing out from the Kop end early on. We joined in, briefly.

With most of the action in Fleetwood’s final third, I could feel Jacob’s attention waning. I figured he was pondering how Lionel Messi would fare on a cold Tuesday night in Derbyshire.

Our tricky right winger floated in another aimless cross and a Buster Bloodvessel fan close by screamed obscenities. This seemed harsh but didn’t seem to register with Jacob, who starting to flick through his Match Attax collector cards.

“Is this one playing for us?” he said, intuitively matching the shirt colours of Chesterfield and Chelsea as he waved Fernando Torres under my nose.

“No mate. Even if he was, it’d still be 0-0.” I said, mentally high-fiving myself.

Half-time came and went, spent queuing for an instant hot chocolate and a toilet break, and the game continued. Jacob’s interest was at a new low as tiredness set in and he rested his head on my knee at around 70 minutes.

“Are we going home soon?” he said. “Not long to go now.” I replied.

The Wemberlee chant began again, much to the annoyance of the man sitting next to me.

“I hate it when they sing that. We’re not there yet.” I immediately felt guilty for tempting fate earlier. What if I’d jinxed it? I’ve had my fair share of gut-wrenching disappointment watching Tottenham for two decades to feel superstitious.

And then, in the final minute, the opening goal. Fleetwood scored it, Jon Parkin with a composed finish his hunger deserved (leave it) and I looked down to explain the gravity of the situation. His eyes were closed, not even flickering to register the disgust from the stands as the Fourth Official proudly displayed six minutes of added time in a half that had barely seen a stoppage.

Chesterfield saw it out. We’d lost but we’d won and now we were indeed going to Wemberlee. Jacob seemed pleased, then tired, then asked to go home again. We cheered the players and set off down the stairs towards the exit.

“Would you like to come again?” I asked him as we walked back to the car, trying not to sound desperate.

“Yes. But a different team. Maybe England. Or Barcelona!” he said, sounding genuinely excited at the prospect.

Chesterfield face Peterborough United at Wembley on March 30th, the same day Tottenham travel to Anfield for what will hopefully be an important match at the top of the table. We’ve both got a decision to make.

Either way, we’ll be recording Barcelona vs Espanyol.