So, after a flat out sprint towards the finishing line we have just 3 days before it’s time to go again. Three days to recover, get our breath back, refuel, take on fluids and ease those tired muscles. Hopefully the players will do the same!
We head into the playoffs on a wave of confidence, and why not after 9 straight wins, almost more in a month than in the previous two seasons. But before we get too carried away with ourselves, there are three other teams in the frame, all of them having earned the right. It may be true to say that we have been the best team in the division since the turn of the year, but not by a wide margin and anything can happen in 90 minutes.
This is the suddenly-a-bit-nervous perspective of someone who well remembers our two previous playoff excursions. Number 1 was 2005, when we scraped into the shootout at the end of the first Conference North campaign with a team that lacked enough quality to go up. Nonetheless, a battling win at Droylsden earned us a home final against Altrincham, with the winners in those days going on to contest a further final against the Conf South playoffs winners at a neutral ground, which I dimly recall was Stoke City.
Our record in big end of season games at Rockingham Road wasn’t great – this being the traditional moment to send the fans away into the summer with a crashing disappointment to digest. And so it proved again. Altrincham always had that little bit extra but we took the game into extra time, and when Ollie Burgess made it 2-2 the place was buzzing. Then came the moment that Martin Matthews, under no immediate pressure, firmly planted a header into his own net. Game over, season over, Matthews over.
Never mind a hundred solid, workmanlike shifts in whatever position he was asked to fill, this is the moment that MM will always be remembered for. Afterwards, touched by his obvious pain, my son wrote to him to commiserate, explaining that he too had suffered a similar misfortune in a key match, and life must go on. Thoughtful words which I hope were some comfort to Martin at a difficult time. He may also have appreciated the crayon drawing of a sad faced footballer crying.
Our second taste of playoffs pain came two years later. This time, far from scraping into them, we were chasing automatic promotion with Morell Maison’s cavalier collection of exotically named entertainers who couldn’t defend for toffee. While Rene, Moses, Jean Paul etc were fannying around upfield, sides like Redditch could score 4 at the other end. Concerned, with two games to go, that this defensive frailty could cost us the title, Ladak weighed up his options and decided the safest bet was to sack the manager. In came Graham Westley: some called it a controversial choice, others were less complimentary. Seemingly on a mission to make himself even more unpopular than he already was, Westley tried to change the style of play overnight. Result: trench warfare but less fun.
Those few games under Westley were like watching paint dry. His game plan against Farsley in the semi final was to win 1-0. That was way too ambitious, though, and the Farsley keeper barely touched the ball – including the penalty shootout. Even then we seemed reluctant to make an attempt on goal, so much so that Howe, our best striker, declined to take a penalty at all.
So all things considered, not the greatest of memories. But the difference this time – hopefully – is momentum. Unlike 2005 and 2007 we haven’t stumbled into the playoffs, we have surged into them with a tremendous run of form. Given recent results Daventry are the best opposition we could have faced, then perhaps it will be a trip to Rugby which if anything could suit us better than another home game. Decent pitch, good stadium and a huge Poppies turnout. Bring it on.
Westley: always guaranteed of a big welcome in these parts