Conference South play-off semi-final 2nd leg
Cressing Road Stadium, Braintree
after extra time, Braintree Town win 4-2 on penalties
Usually I throw in a few photos of the day’s goings on to colour up the textual verbosity. I shan’t today. Writing these words twenty hours after, it strikes me that yesterday now has no colour. Fisher was ALL about the colour, but yesterday has quickly turned monochromatic in my head. Do not take that as depressive though, as while it may not be about the colour, yesterday was all about a collective passion. Like old war-time footage, there is a sense of loss, but with it an intense pride.
I said in the Fisher piece that I’d talk about the goings on off the pitch between our clubs since our meeting at West Leigh Park in February, but to draw too much attention to them now would suggest sourness on my part, and that really isn’t there. No Braintree players to blame, and no match officials to blame, either. In fact, they had a very good game. If you’re intrigued by our recent history with the ‘Tree though, read first this, then this, and draw your own conclusions.
Instead, let me tell you about a moment after the penalties, which for me sums up our season. As the players walked off, Shaun Wilkinson was beckoned by one of my fellow supporters. This supporter, one of our most committed, had initially reacted angrily back in January to Shaun’s return to the club, having left us twice to join (cough, spit) Weymouth, and having not been astute in his choice of words about doing so on either occasion. The supporter, who would probably not object to me saying that he doesn’t project the image of a sensitive, shrinking violet type, wrapped his arms around Wilko, before dropping himself nose-deep into the torso of another fan, and its relevant to point out that these two gents have had their disagreements over the years, although I am pleased to say not recently.
This moment spoke volumes, to my mind. It reflects the unity that now does credit to our club. Between the team, the management, the directors and as a group of fans, never have I felt the bond to be stronger throughout. Also, never have we had a better season. The Millwall game in the FA Cup was a new peak, an expensive one certainly, but unforgettable. Now, we can add this play-off epic.
There is a close relationship between agony/ecstasy; pleasure/pain; delight/despair. This game teetered on that tight-rope, and will continue to do so in afterthought, and the reason why is simple. To battle and give yourself a chance when things appear lost, particularly against a strong opponent, is what elevates sport, especially when the stakes are somewhat higher than the usual. This was, essentially, a league game, but death or glory knockout all the same. You might consider it odd that I should illustrate the valour of the fight by recalling a joke, but here I go. In one of the series’ that Dave Allen did for ITV in the mid-90’s, he performed a gag which suggested the journey of the sperm to the egg was like swimming from the British Isles to America. In glue. It is much the same playing against Braintree.
They are as organised, sturdy and virtually impassable as the Thames Barrier with its shutters up, but over two legs, we never caved in the face of it. We had to become an immovable object to combat their impenetrable force, and so very nearly did so. In the first leg at West Leigh Park last Wednesday night, Jefferson Louis, with an exquisite lob, cancelled out their 45th minute goal with two minutes left on the clock. Then today we had to overcome a setback, despite having much the better chances; Jamie Cook hitting the post early on, and Rocky Baptiste going agonisingly close twice in a minute in the second half, squaring a ball too fast and loose when a shot may have been a better bet. As the ball eventually found its way back across the gaping net, Rocky’s diving forehead was an inch away from contact. What a difference a set of corn-rows make. The cry has already gone out to Rocky on our message boards: UNFURL THE AFRO!!
However, on 75 minutes, Bertie Brayley unleashed a skidder that flipped up in front of Ryan Harrison, our keeper signed on an emergency loan at the start of the week after injuries to both Shane Gore and Gareth Howells, and flipped his fingers before hitting the back of the net. Despite allowing ourselves a couple of minutes of deflation, the Hawks did not give up, and again with only a few minutes to go, we equalised. Awarded a penalty, and regular taker Baptiste having been substituted, Jamie Collins grabbed the ball like he was about to have a tantrum, claim ownership and go home with it, and scored between the collapsed netball-hoop arms of their Redwood of a keeper, Nicky Morgan, thus provoking the biggest outpouring of Hawk joy since we brought the Millwall back to level-pegging in November. Some might also suggest the last minute equaliser against Salisbury City two weeks ago, but I didn’t bear witness to that, so I cannot be one hundred percent sure in telling you that it definitely happened. I was busy watching a tree fall noisily in a forest at the time.
Believe me, it was exhausting stuff. I, for one, had to sink to my knees and flop over a barrier for a minute to catch breath, thoughts, as well as the moment for mental posterity. The singing upped a notch and continued throughout an intense period of extra time, possibly the most emotionally draining half an hour that Havant & Waterlooville have thus enjoyed. And I say enjoyed, for as tortuous as it might be, the outcome of the penalty kicks being so devastating n'all, these are the periods that take the partisan following of sport up a notch. I felt much the same when I was at the last day of the Old Trafford Ashes Test in 2005. The body all a-tingle, the fingernails nibbled to extinction, and the breath slow and deliberate. It is a sick kind of enjoyment, I'll grant you that.
Would I rather we had limped through the season, semi-satisfied with a mid-table finish? Certainly not. Would I rather we had just acquiesced to defeat after Brayley’s goal, rather than be put through the wringer for that extra hour? Not a chance. To be there competing for the longed-for prize. To put up a fight and take it to the very last. These are the things that swell the chest in black and white hindsight.
Drained then, gutted, but proud, and let me add confident.
Next year will be another to remember.
Extreme Groundhopping's take on the first leg
Braintree Town website
Havant & Waterlooville website