Forget fancy notions of skill and tactics. Relegation battles, the professionals tell us, are all about belief. Nobody – not the manager, players or supporters – believes Coventry can stay up more than the psychotically optimistic radio presenter I am listening to on the way to today's game. For him, survival is almost guaranteed. "All we have to do," he insists, "is win our remaining five home games." He is not deflated by the knowledge they have managed only seven victories all season. They are due a change of fortune. You begin to wonder what it would take to undermine his chirpiness. His wife could ask for a divorce during Donna and Althea's Uptown Top Ranking and he would be back on air seconds later, joshing his way through the traffic and travel.
I am from the Welsh end of the Midlands – barely 40 miles away – but Hereford is a mystery to me. A town that can only be reached by train from London via Abergavenny, it is one of those places everyone has heard of but no one knows that much about. A rather olde-worlde town centre; some tasty estates round the edge, most probably. Cider and cattle and Mott The Hoople, or were they from Ross-on-Wye? This part of the country is a strange place, anyway, lacking the South's self-confidence, the North's reflexive pride or even the cheery irreverence of the West Midlands proper. It is very pretty in parts, but – as I recall – prone to a quiet pessimism, a sense of being nowhere in particular. Especially here; especially today.
In August 2001, the Liverpool goalkeeper Sander Westerveld brought his career at the club to an early close with a late blunder that sent newly promoted Bolton Wanderers to the top of the table just three games into their current Premier League stint. Establishing themselves in the top division after years of ups and downs, Bolton became a tricky fixture for their distinguished guests. Liverpool collected just five points from their next five visits
to the Reebok.
On April 29, 1939, as Portsmouth pulled off a surprise 4-1 FA Cup final win over Wolves at Wembley, only 4,000 Southampton fans showed up for a home league game on the same day, preferring to cheer on their neighbours while listening to the radio. When the trophy was brought back to the south coast, it was displayed for a short time at Southampton Guildhall and even paraded around The Dell for Saints fans to salute Pompey's achievements. One wonders, then, what Hampshire's pre-war football supporters would make of Operation Delphin, which the police deemed necessary to prevent trouble before and after the south-coast derby on December 18. As a condition of purchasing a ticket, all travelling Saints fans agreed to be bussed in a "bubble" under police escort between the two cities, while eight-foot-high barriers were erected north-east of Fratton Park in order to keep a minority of idiots from both sides coming into contact with each other.
Step into the parish hall of St Luke the Evangelist church on the corner of Goodison Road and Gwladys Street, and you enter a world that could not be any further removed from the ad-man's fantasy of the face-painted, replica-shirted modern "footy" fan and their agony-and-ecstasy matchday experience.
The first professional football match I ever attended was just over 40 years ago in September 1971. A treat for my ninth birthday, en route back from a late summer holiday at the Golden Sands Chalet Park in Withernsea. It was at Hull City, as it happens, at the old Boothferry Park. In later years, with Kwik Save and Iceland stores embedded into its queasy, dirty yellow structure, it cut a grim spectacle indeed (it was home to Hull until 2002) but back then, to my young eyes, it was a veritable Humberside Xanadu, wreathed in the alluring odour of fried onions, a mass plumage of hats and scarves, the floodlights towering with Wellesian awe like gigantic alien overlords at all four corners of the stadium.
It's the Saturday of the Junior Great North Run. At Newcastle Central Station the usual hordes of stag and hen-nighters in identikit Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, nurse's uniforms and pink cowboy hats with signs saying "sperm donor needed" have been temporarily displaced by mobs of enthusiastic tots in running gear, herded together by harassed adult helpers. ("Emma, man, if you drink any more of that pop before you set off you're gonna throw up, I'm telling you.")
Away, at Hillsborough. In the days leading up to and following this match, it is in the news again with speculation about relatives of the 1989 disaster victims getting access to crucial documents and Billy Bragg releasing a song about the phone hacking scandal called Scousers Never Buy The Sun.
The last time I went to a Fulham game was on a dull and cold night in Hamburg last year, when a late extra-time goal from Diego Forlán denied them an unlikely European trophy. Watching the team at Seaview, the compact home of Irish League part-timers Crusaders, I wonder if any of the players involved against Atlético Madrid allow themselves to think that tonight's game could be an early step to a similar occasion next May. Do they, in the words of their supporters' song, still believe?
The essential character of this Championship play-off final was determined 13 days earlier when Reading won the second semi-final. With Cardiff’s elimination it became, as a Swans-supporting friend texted, “a football match, not a civil war”.