It was always set to be a game of monumental importance, a game which would have serious repercussions about the future direction of our club. That game was the 2012 Play-Off final against Sheffield United. The reasons for this were abundantly clear.
The previous year, after winning a thrilling and dramatic play-off semi-final against Bournemouth on penalties through a momentarily heart-stopping Anthony Kay penalty which ricocheted in off the bar, we were then subjected to manager Lee Clark’s negative tactics playing Benik Afobe up front on his own against a Peterborough defence which had leaked over seventy goals and witnessing a defensive capitulation which saw us embarrass ourselves at Old Trafford in a 3-0 defeat. ‘Believe’ t-shirts were strewn across the pitch and dejected fans including myself trudged back home.
The Sheffield United game, however, represented something of a crossroad for our club. Owner Dean Hoyle had finally lost patience with Lee Clark and installed former Leeds boss Simon Grayson to steer us over the finishing line but the permutations for what could have happened if we had lost could have been disastrous.
Who knows if Hoyle would have been happy to keep ploughing his millions into a club that continued to fail when the pressure was on? Would he decide he had taken the club as far as he could? How many players would have stayed to continue the fight for promotion? The answer is probably not as many as some fans would like to think. Thankfully, in the end, history looked kindly on us.
The game itself was a microcosm of my entire life supporting town; a complete rollercoaster from start to finish. On the day I took two friends who wanted to show their support and enjoy a great day out at Wembley. By the end of the game even they had become completely engrossed in what they were watching.
From a neutral’s perspective, the game was probably a slightly exciting affair; a tight but emotionally tense game that threatened to burst into life without actually doing so. Both teams carved out several big opportunities but failed to take them. Danny Ward hit the bar just after half-time, Tommy Miller had a shot cleared off the line and Steve Simonsen pulled off a great save against Alan Lee in the last moments of injury time to pick out a few.
What followed next was a penalty shoot-out which I don’t think will ever be repeated again in playoff history.
As Tommy Miller stepped up to take the first penalty, I already had a huge sense of dread for what was to come. There was also a great sense of bafflement as to why a holding central midfielder who had never taken a penalty for us was going first. He duly missed and the torture began.
After Damien Johnson and then Alan ‘Alan’ Lee both missed Town’s next two penalties my heart began to sink and the possible repercussions began to etch into my mind; “We could spend another ten years in League One, why on earth have we let those three take our first pens, we’re going to lose all the best players in this team” I bemoaned, exasperated at us staring into the jaws of another soul-destroying play-off final defeat. Fortunately, the outcome was not going to fulfil these pessimistic prophecies.
After Captain Peter Clarke scored our 4th penalty to ensure we stayed in the game, the scores became tied at 2-2 and sudden death ensued. What no one could have predicted next was the rest of both team’s outfield players all scoring their penalties consecutively and with aplomb.
The job of securing promotion then came down to both team’s goalkeepers. Town goalkeeper and local Huddersfield lad Alex Smithies stepped up to take the 11th penalty and smashed it through Steve Simonsen’s despairing fingertips. Hope levels grew and when Steve Simonsen duly sent his penalty flying over the crossbar, my emotional rollercoaster was complete.
I had journeyed from the brink of despair, dejection and desolation to pure ecstasy in the space of ten minutes. Every positive emotion began coursing through me at that moment, hugging strangers and celebrating like only football can make you celebrate, an emotional catharsis of epic proportions.
There have been many other fantastic memories I have had watching Town but only this one captured the very essence of what it means to follow football and the emotional journey it puts you through. Heartache, joy, crushing dejection and delirium all combined into one unforgettable day that remains to this date my best memory watching town.
If we’re lucky, it could be superseded very soon.