And so there we have it. A season that promised so little in August, came within 20 minutes of being one of the most amazing we have ever seen.
I remember reading HoF back in the summer and feeling that the general consensus was that mid table was the best we could hope for but what we wanted to see was an improvement – the team heading in the right direction. We had made a small number of signings and there was the late loan deal for Tresor Kandol but nothing to really get excited about. There were a few notable optimists that said we could win this league but equally some pessimists that felt we would do well to avoid another relegation battle.
The opening game at Oldham confused everyone. Scoring the first goal of all the 3 o’clock kick offs that day was Tresor Kandol with his first touch as a lions player inside 30 seconds. In an hour we were 3-1 up and all seemed well. But then what was to become a recurring theme, the referee intervened, sent Robinson off and we lose 4-3 with late goals turning it around. We had no idea of the symmetry that would give to our season by May 24th.
So most people did not really know what to expect when we showed up for our first home game a few days later in the league cup. The 3000 left utterly bemused 90 minutes later as an abject home side slid to a dreadful defeat in the same manner as we had witnessed for the past 4 seasons. However, it was only the cup (!) and perhaps the league would be different on Saturday. It wasn’t.
Another awful, turgid game against Southend was lifted in injury time by a Brkovic goal (remember him???) as we scraped a draw. But no one was fooled; this was really poor stuff.
An away draw at Northampton was followed by another 89 minutes of huff and puff at home to Huddersfield who at the time were with us in the bottom four. However this time we had managed to take the lead, turning over a 1-0 deficit only for another referee to attempt to spoil it all with an appalling penalty decision given to the Yorkshiremen.
David Unsworth let rip with a pile driver from 12 yards, but it was beaten away by Forde – who was starting to get some stick from the fans – and our first win was secured.
It seemed to be the turning point as despite being dumped out if the JPT by Colchester, suddenly the team played with some confidence in the league games that followed. Hackett and Grabban were excellent down the right, the defence seemed solid and the midfield was winning the battles. Four straight league wins, including a magnificent away win at Leicester (their only home defeat as it turned out) propelled us to 4th place and some belief appeared.
A bizarre home game against MK Dons where we managed to lose by 4 goals despite having the majority of the play punctured the run, but that only galvanised the side as we powered past Leeds at home and sneaked our own bizarre win at Colchester when we only had two shots on goal ourselves and won despite being played off the park.
We found ourselves second in the table – to Scunthorpe. And our next game was? Yep, away at Scunthorpe.
Scunthorpe were 3 up after 50 minutes due to some generous defending and refereeing (again) added to our own wastelfulness infront of goal, with Grabban and Kandol mainly guilty. But our fighting sprit was on show and we almost completed a great comeback with an astonishing last minute save by their keeper from Laird to keep the score at 3-2. But we just came up short. Again, symmetry.
We had got to Christmas in good shape in the league. We were third and the run towards the half way stage just enforced the view that the league was not actually that good and a well organised and hard working side could do well. While we were not particularly exciting to watch, we were certainly hard working and solid.
But goal scoring was an issue. We had only scored 33 goals by then and all of the teams around us well into the mid 40’s. People were arriving at games praying we would not concede as there was little confidence we could score more than once. Taking the cup games out, we only scored 3 goals in a game once from Leeds in October to Cheltenham at the end of February. It was a real concern.
An FA cup replay win against Crewe set up a possible tie against Newcastle, but they promptly lost to Hull so off to the KC stadium we went. A game we could have won if again some refereeing was fair, was in the end comfortably lost. But if Warner had been sent off as he should have been, it may have been a different game.
Back in the league, we kept sneaking wins by the odd goal. And then Scunthorpe rolled into town at the end of January. Despite being the better side and dominating the majority of the chances, Gary Alexander only had one goal to show for his efforts when really he should have had a hat-trick….more symmetry. We lead 1-0 with 17 minutes remaining only for Scunthorpe to turn it around and win 2-1 with some good counter attcking. More sym….oh, you get the idea by now.
Next was a live TV defeat at Leeds with more poor refereeing. This time denying us a clear penalty and missing the elbow on Forde by Beckford, thus allowing him to settle the match late on with a second goal. We had played very well and considered ourselves unlucky to come away with nothing.
But there were no excuses for the following games. Despite a creditable draw away at Stockport, we squeaked a home draw against struggling Swindon with the goal of the season from James Henry (until May 24th anyway) and against Brighton we were abject. We were in a bad run and most now were fearing the worst. Automatic promotion which had seemed unlikely but possible was now replaced by the fear of missing out altogether. Yet despite our poor run and form, we were still sixth.
A win against hapless Cheltenham was the minimum requirement but Lee Hughes burst the bubble the following week with his stupid dance as Oldham yet again turned us over. February could not end quick enough as our season was falling apart.
Yet March changed everything. We had 8 matches in a tough month but we came through with 6 wins including a sensational win at MK Dons. We were third and with all sides apart from Leicester stalling, we found ourselves with a real chance of automatic promotion.
But perhaps it was the two defeats that were most telling. Leicester had beaten us at a canter. While the score was only 1-0, they had so much in reserve and you felt that had we got an equaliser, they would have just trotted up the other end and popped another one in.
The Colchester defeat was a bad one. We went into the game with a real chance of going up. But our troubles came home to roost that night as despite having nearly all the play, we gave away a sloppy goal towards the end and hardly created a chance worthy of the name. Yes Alexander was forced off and we had a new loanee in Price, but driving home that night I would not work out how on earth we were third in the table in the first place.
I had not seen much this season to make me believe that we could go up. Maybe I was being unfair and comparing the side to the team of 2001, but I didn’t think so. Yet had we won that match, with Peterborough due in town on Easter Monday, we could have found ourselves in second place.
A win against Walsall was followed by the death knell for automatic promotion – our first ever defeat to Yeovil. We had thrown away our advantage in the league and despite having no idea how we got it in the first place, we lost it.
The irony being that we played Peterborough off the park and reminded me that we do have a good side when it wants to play.
The play offs were confirmed soon after and a nice win over the cockney kids from the east, the regular season petered out with a flat defeat at Carlisle.
But we had bigger fish to fry; Leeds awaited us in the play offs.
The home game bristled with tension and although it had an early kick off, it did not affect the atmosphere. Cometh the hour cometh the man and Neil Harris buried the winner to take the roof off the place and give us an advantage going to Elland Road
With the ticketing nonsense and sky TV, plus the real fear of being beaten, just under 1000 made the journey north. And were they well rewarded! Leeds had forgotten that 37,000 fans and being a big club with a big history counts for nothing if you forget to play the opposing team. They thought they only had to turn up and after Forde’s penalty save denied them, they got their goal and mentally they though they had done it. They switched off. Jimmy Abdou popped up and slotted home to eruptions in south London and NW Kent, let alone one small corner of Elland road!
Cue wild celebrations at the final whistle, we were going to Wembley!
Could the season that promised little deliver the ultimate prize? Of course not, it’s Millwall we are talking about. No point in going over what happened there, it’s all too fresh.
But the warning signs were all there. It’s all in the symmetry.
So the season ended as it began with defeat from the jaws of victory. But did we really deserve to be there? Well, yes. The league does not lie and we were the 5th best team in that division and we won the play off semi.
But I, along with Brighton and Colchester fans in particular find that hard to believe.
At times we looked no different to the past few seasons. We lacked goals, we lacked quality and despite having a decent defence, you always felt they could switch off at any point or miss time a tackle and give a silly goal away.
Yet at other times we looked simply brilliant for this level. Peterborough and Leeds at home were performances as good as I have seen since Mark McGhee left. But Colchester and Brighton and Swindon were as bad as anything served up by Colin Lee, Tuttle, Spackman or Donachie.
That is probably unfair as this side has a real heart. Their sides didn’t. What it lacks in quality it has effort and work rate aplenty. And I for one really appreciate that.
And as a final note, it does look good for next year. The league is attractive with plenty of interesting sides with sizeable away followings. We have a team with no real stars. There is no one we really rely on. Losing any player this summer is not going to be a disaster as all our players are replaceable.
I go in to the break drained. I will never get over Sunday. Even if we win the league with 120 points next year, the pain of those last 5 minutes will never go away. I need to refresh and be ready for August and I am certain the players feel the same.
And ultimately that is why I am encouraged. I genuinely feel the players feel the same as I do right now. And I have not felt that for a long while.
See you in August.