When winning wasn't enough

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pete Green

3 October 2002

You've probably heard the old philosophical conundrum that asks: if a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound? To which your average Pontoonite, being far too clever to get caught out by this sort of stuff, will respond: course it bloody does. But if you win 4-0 and get relegated the same day, have you still won?

It was 4 May 1997. We were at home to Southend. An hour into the match somebody knocked over my cup of tea and I was close to hysteria. Football is often sad, and sometimes strange, but seldom is it this sad and this strange simultaneously. I sweated and shivered at the same time.

The game was the last in a season that saw Brian Laws' two-year trail of destruction brought to an end - but not soon enough, as it turned out, to avoid the plunge to Division Two. With six home defeats by the end of October and a 6-1 mauling at Bolton, the good times of the previous season - when an Ivano Bonetti-inspired Town soared to second in the Division One table - were never coming back.

Step forward, then, Mr Kenny Swain. Curiously, Swain had been appointed Laws' assistant by the directors rather than by the chicken sandwich flinger himself. More curiously still, Swain remained caretaker manager following a four-match unbeaten run that saw wins over Charlton and Palace; and it was only after January's 7-1 FA Cup humiliation at Sheffield Wednesday that then chairman Bill Carr decided Swain was made of the right stuff and gave him a contract to the end of the season. You had to wonder.

Looking back now at the Southend match, it stands out not only as a very peculiar game of football - a sort of gruesome parody of the last-day win against Sheffield United in 1980, by the same score, with which we celebrated promotion to the same division we were kissing goodbye to in 1997 - but as the culmination of my season of inadvisably heavy drinking, which seemed to wax and wane according to Town's results. I even established a formula u=bp2, where b represented the number of times my boss shouted at me, p equalled Town's league position and u was the number of units of alcohol I drank in one week.

In an effort to wrest control of my life back from algebra, I vowed teetotalism for the month of January, but fell just short after seeing Town lose 3-2 at home to Barnsley on the 28th. An early goal from John Oster was cancelled out by a John Hendrie strike on the half-hour; within minutes Mark Lever had been sent off for waving his head in an aggressive manner; Hendrie added two more either side of a goal from Michael Appleton, then on loan from Manchester United; and I was off to the Spider's Web to counterbalance 90 minutes of footballing agony with 90 minutes before last orders to make up for a month's lost drinking time.Before the final match

Town's form improved under Swain but remained patchy, and by the final day we were third from bottom. But a win against Southend - good old Southend, who were already relegated, and nearly always let us beat them - coupled with Bradford failing to beat QPR would see us safe. The west London outfit were still quite good at the time but had just missed out on a play-off place; the long-term future of my liver, then, would depend on whether they'd play better with the pressure now off or would just lie back and think of Benidorm.

The final round of Division 1 fixtures had been moved forward to the Sunday (where, of course, they remain) for Sky's jaunty little around-the-grounds close-up shots of torment and agony on fans' faces. On the Saturday night I was playing a gig here in Birmingham, and by lucky hap was able to cadge a lift to north-east Lincs afterwards with punchy Grimsby combo The Nannas, who were also on the bill. I remember wearing my Town shirt for the first four tunes of our set, and nervously introducing one of them as ‘a relegation song', but the rest is a boozy blur. After the music: 180 miles in a very old camper van, with inevitably tempestuous conditions on the M1. I staggered, nauseous, into my parents' house at 5am, and headed straight to the bathroom for some bonding with the basin.

At 10 o'clock I rose, hoarse and weakened from singing and throwing up, for warm milk and Ceefax. It was going to be a long day.

Sunshine courted optimism; but the cynical consensus was that QPR would do their bit and turn Bradford over quite comfortably while Town pissed it away by failing even to score. The tension continued through most of the first half, until Nicky Southall put us ahead on 44 minutes. Tommy Widdrington ran snarling along the touchline in front of the Stones - it was the liveliest he'd looked all season - like a crazy Geordie prophet preaching first division salvation. But the fans, radios pressed to ears, knew the worst - that Bradford were already two-nil up. On the streets of Grimsby, the letters QPR were about to become a synonym for abject betrayal.

Fates thus being sealed, Blundell Park was a melancholy carnival for the second half. News of Bradford's third soon left only children and dreamers their unvoiced song of stupid hope. Clive Mendonca marked his swansong with a brace; and perversely inspired by futility, like a wildlife-film zebra writhing in the jaws of a lion, Town tore Southend apart with their most powerfully fluent football of the season.

The half was further distinguished by a series of surreal tableaux that left me wondering whether I was hallucinating. Stewards forcing onto the pitch the bearers of a banner advocating the removal of Bill Carr. Tommy Widdrington snatching the banner and hurling it into the mud. (Widdrington was roundly booed for the rest of the afternoon and was spared abusive chanting only by virtue of having too many syllables in his name for it to scan properly.) A burly man in the upper Stones dressed in drag: "Young men, young men! Carr out!" A confused fox doing circuits of the perimeter fencing, prompting the chant: "Carr out - fox in!" And as if all of this were not reason enough to doubt the evidence of one's senses, it was followed by the sight of Jason Lee scoring a goal.After the last match

The final whistle: the most final I have ever heard. My train threads west through more wasted sunshine. Exhausted, I doze; desultory thoughts of Division Two drift and recede. Finally New Street station, and a biting wind embitters the buswaiting. Alongside stands a bloke in a West Brom shirt. He clocks my Town top. I've spoken to West Brom fans a lot this past year or two, since Buckley decamped, and wonder what he'd say if we started talking; but I can't be doing with it, not now.

A week or two later, I meet my girlfriend down the pub. She's got the idea from somewhere that John McDermott is definitely leaving Town on a free. Knowing no different, I buy it - and weep uncontrollably into my beer for about 20 minutes. Weird. It takes me until about the time the new fixture list comes out to realise that this outburst was the delayed reaction to a whole season of exasperation and fear, and most of all to the despair and wasted hope of that final, perplexing game of the season, when the simple deal we make with our team every time we watch - win and I'll be happy - was broken, and winning wasn't enough.