The waiting is almost over.
For some I suspect it’s been a long old week and a bit, given the hoops folk have gone through to get their tickets and travel sorted for Wembley, but finally the angst can make way for undiluted excitement.
And if anyone’s appetite needed whetting, yesterday’s League Two play-off final between Southend and Wycombe Wanderers offered us a clue as to what we can expect.
For those that didn’t, a tense, edgy, stop-start 90 minutes gave way to extra-time where Wycombe took an early lead only to be cruelly undone by a 122nd minute Southend equaliser – one of their few shots of the game.
In the excruciating penalty shoot-out that followed the Shrimpers won 7-6. Ecstacy for Phil Brown’s men. Numbness for Gareth Ainsworth’s.
But it was enthralling. The footballing equivalent of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Thirteen years have passed since that day at the Millennium Stadium yet seeing the pain felt by the good folk of Wycombe yesterday brought it all back. The agony of the long (very long) walk back to the coach. The torturous journey from west to east. All accompanied by that feeling of what might have been.
Poor old Mullers and Sutchy. That bloody Darren Carter.
And so amidst the excitement and anticipation just around the corner in the London Borough of Brent lies one of those two extremes. Just like last Saturday.
Yesterday’s play-off final also offered us another timely reminder: the best team doesn’t always win. And while this is of course true in every game of football, the unforgiving nature of a Wembley final merely magnifies the sense of injustice when you’re on the receiving end.
Just ask Derby County.
By their own admission, QPR were battered by the Rams in last season’s championship play-off final yet, even minus a red-carded Gary O’Neil, somehow managed to conjure up a late winner.
So, when someone tells me not to stress because, despite losing twice to Boro, we’re actually the better side please forgive me if I don’t go straight for the cigars. I can’t dispute the logic – we do have more strength in depth – but as a veteran of too many City induced heartbreaks I’m not counting any chickens.
My own Wembley debut was in 1975 when the Canaries played Aston Villa in the League Cup Final. As a mere slip of a lad under the tutelage of my dad, I can still recall the horror of seeing Kevin Keelan push Ray Graydon’s penalty on to the post only for the latter to score from the rebound. And that was it – game over.
I was heartbroken. How could football be so cruel?
Little though did I realise it was merely the aperitif for a lifetime of City-induced heartaches – all part of my Norwich supporting apprenticeship. And, as Malcolm (Robertson) described so beautifully yesterday, it all forms part of why tomorrow is so special.
Malcolm wrote of the debacles, the disasters and the no-shows, yet there are also the ‘what could have beens’ and the ‘if onlys’. The times when it all went so wrong but was within a whisker of going so right. Those occasions when we departed the scene still with the chest puffed out and with the ‘never mind the danger’ spirit intact.
Whether tomorrow will be one of those or one of the glory days will ultimately be determined by the footballing gods but if the calm that continues to be exuded by Alex Neil is anything to go by City’s preparation as at 3pm tomorrow will be well-nigh perfect.
For all the soundbites and mind-games that have rather typically emerged from the Boro camp (do any of us actually believe that Patrick Bamford will miss the game?), Neil has handled the plethora of media interviews with an aura of someone in total control.
Such has been the quality of his decision making, the debates around whether he opts for Lewis Grabban ahead of Cameron Jerome or if opts to play Wes Hoolahan and Nathan Redmond at the expense of Graham Dorrans are largely futile.
Neil and Frankie’s plan A will be well thought through and made crystal clear to the personnel involved, and if it doesn’t work they’ll move on to plan B. Few dramas. And if it isn’t good enough on the day they’ll take comfort in the knowledge it just wasn’t to be.
But, unlike our friends from the north-east, I’m not convinced it’s a waste of time us turning up tomorrow. I have an inkling it’ll be rather tighter than the comfortable win many in red and white are predicting for their team.
Alex and co have understandably made little of Middlesbrough’s antics in the 1-0 win at Carrow Road and the ‘r’ word has been taboo. But not for us.
I’m still irked by Tomlin’s nonchalance, by Vossen’s theatrics, by Konstantopoulos’ play-acting, by Karanka’s Jose Mourinho impersonation and by the Boro fans celebrating as if promotion had already been achieved.
The aforementioned hurt was rife that night and regardless of Wembley, play-off finals and £120 million, we owe them one. And all week I’ve been dreaming…
Dreaming of walking down Wembley Way amidst a sea of yellow and green.
Of On the Ball City echoing around Wembley for the first time.
Of those electrifying few minutes before the teams emerge from the tunnel.
Of Alex, in a suit, leading out eleven heroes in yellow.
Of that first crunching challenge from Tettey.
Of Wes running rings round Grant Leadbitter.
Of Cameron running Ayala ragged in Wembley’s big open spaces.
Of the sight and sound of a Norwich goal.
And dreaming of Russ lifting aloft that trophy.
Alas, they don’t always come true, but I also dreamt of departing Wembley amidst that same sea of yellow, amongst friends and of feeling proud and lucky to be part such a wonderful football club, in victory or defeat.
And if I needed reminding quite how wonderful, there was news that City’s mascot for the day is to be fifteen-year old Kieran Smith – a player in the Foundation’s Elite Player Development Centre whose dad sadly died recently and who was a Carrow Road season ticket holder.
A fine gesture.
So, enjoy your day young man and make Dad proud.
And the rest… have an unforgettable one, have a safe one and depart Wembley hoarse and with your heads held high.
“Never mind the danger…”