Wembley may not be full but for fans of two former League clubs the Blue Square play-off final represents more than just a day out. And for the players, there’s the chance to meet Martin O’Neill. Taylor Parkes was there

One of the innumerable problems with the concentration of power in 21st century football is the banalisation of the big event. Like boy pharaohs fed powdered gold, fans of the chosen few grow blase and faintly nauseous (“not Barcelona again!”), while the rest exist in a world of shadows and reflections, where up and down begin to lose their meaning. Days like this can restore your faith. Neither Cambridge nor Torquay are strangers to League football, so re-entry is an itch that must be scratched, more than an adventure – but for everyone involved, this is a very big deal. Wembley Park station is heaving, not just with shaven-headed forty-somethings but kids and old ladies, girlfriends and boyfriends, well-wishers and day-trippers (and a child in a Chelsea shirt who doesn’t quite get it). Grey skies and high winds don’t so much dampen the festive mood as accentuate the drama, as we weave through police horse dung down old Olympic Way, towards what will, for men of a certain age, always be “the new” Wembley Stadium.

It’s impressive all right, this new Wembley, if a little lacking in character: basically, it’s the Emirates with a handle. While the old place nestled quite naturally in its rather shabby surroundings, there’s something incongruous about this thing – this tribute to farcical wealth and a never-ending boom – gleaming in a gloomy, windswept retail park, next to a branch of Comet, a timber warehouse and an opportunistic Indian restaurant improbably named Moore Spice (1966). And yet, anyone who suffered through a game at old Wembley, football’s answer to the Birmingham Bull Ring, can only embrace the change: gone are the lousy sightlines that left you looking upwards at the pitch, gone are the pillars in front of your face, the marks of a stadium thrown up in a hurry on the cheap (neither of which, let’s face it, could be said of the current model).

The metal detector bleeps all over my keys, coins and lighter, but no one seems to care. “Press? You need to go to the West Media Lounge,” smiles a guard. “Don’t try to get into the East one, it’s closed. There’s only 57 of you.” In the toilets, alongside the handwash are bottles of “Wembley Stadium” moisturiser (very thoughtful, given the care most football journalists lavish on their appearance), and a hand-dryer containing the 1987 hurricane. Out in the lounge are the best cheese salad rolls in town. If this is how they treat the hacks, it’s no wonder those corporate guests at England games are reluctant to leave whatever inconceivable luxury might be laid on, to sit in a crosswind and watch Peter Crouch frustrated by a butcher’s assistant from Tórshavn.

Still, it’s good to get outside, where a slow, misty rain falls as kick off approaches. The top tier is closed, which should take the edge off the atmosphere, but actually seems to add something – a tightness, a certain intimacy. It’s often the case that the fewer people care about something, the more intense their attachment, and while modest in scale, today’s event has nothing in common with the flash impersonality of the modern day mega-match. The pitchside ads are electronic, but their legends are down-at-heel: Bargain Booze, and Brut – “For Real Men”.

Pre-match entertainment – as ever, a misnomer – is the final of the Blue Square keepy-up contest. This involves a bunch of blokes keeping-up a ball that is both blue and square, and is less exciting than it sounds. The eventual winner is Jack from Basingstoke, who walks on whirling his arms to whip up some noise, and is rewarded with an eerie silence; when he wins, he boots the cube high into the air, rips off his shirt and strikes an exaggerated rock’n’roll pose. Jack’s extravagant showmanship, tiny on that great Wembley pitch, is faintly tragic, and might be moving were it not for the fact that he’s clearly an unbearable bell-end.

Finally, as the MC screams implausibly about “millions watching around the world”, the teams emerge through a shower of coloured ticker tape supplied by the Cambridge faithful. This is fairly magnificent, even when you realise that it might solve the mystery of why the station platform was strewn with ripped-up copies of the Yellow Pages. Fireworks; the Old Spice music; towers of flame shooting up from black barrels, like a tramp’s puked meths into his oil-drum brazier – no cliche is too cliched, and no one feels ashamed. The teams shake hands with Martin O’Neill, the guest of honour; as he passes Danny Stevens, the 5ft 1in Torquay winger, he does an involuntary double-take. Now surely, that won’t help the lad’s confidence. When O’Neill shakes the last hand, the MC booms: “Please stand for the national anthem, sung by Martin...” – half the stadium inhales in anticipation – “...Toal.” Oh well. Exhale. For a second there, I thought we were going to get something really spectacular.

It takes a bit of violence to get the game going. Torquay’s Tim Sills – the kind of striker who might politely be described as “combative” – executes a forearm smash on Cambridge defender Wayne Hatswell, which earns only a lecture from the ref. You sense that Sills is more than happy to be pantomime villain, considering the relish with which he wears that burglar’s mask (a trophy won a few weeks back by whacking someone in the head with his face), and Cambridge fans are happy to oblige. Hatswell, as though still dazed, hits a weedy free-kick along the ground, before walking into a second clobbering from Sills. This time Zorro gets a yellow card; moments later, Hatswell stomps on Sills’ heel, none too discreetly, and is booked himself. This promising feud is cut short by the realisation that “letting your opponent know you’re there” can be rendered pointless by you not being there any more, and things calm down. By which point this is a pretty good game.

Like a lot of non-League matches it’s agreeably open, since neither side is quite slick enough to contain the play, and as such it lacks the customary caution of the big occasion, the regulation hyped-up flop. Cambridge are just about on top: the coolly-named Jai Reason hits a curler, which is almost dropped by Torquay’s less-coolly-named keeper, Michael Poke. Phil Bolland is impressively steady at centre-back, sweeping up with some beautifully-timed interceptions, and one breathtaking sliding tackle to break a chain of stepovers.

Then, as the game swings open wider still, Cambridge get caught out. Torquay forward Elliot Benyon and his captain Chris Hargreaves (who looks like one of the Manson Family who’s shaved for a job interview) spot a gap in the Cambridge defence, which yawns for just a couple of seconds. Benyon slides the ball into it, Hargreaves charges through, and hits a shot from the edge of the box which rises to perfection. After 36 minutes in which they’ve looked like cheery amateurs facing a budget Barcelona, Torquay are ahead, with a goal as neat as this stadium has seen. Gary Brabin, Cambridge’s mountainous manager, steps into his technical area and stomps around ineffectually. With his shiny bullet head and beastlike physique, in a sombre dark suit, he looks like a porn star at a funeral.

At half time, Martin Toal is back to give us another song – his surprise choice is Nessun Dorma. When he finally shuts up, the sun comes out.

The second half begins well for Torquay. The Lilliputian Danny Stevens, seemingly unruffled by Martin O’Neill’s pre-match faux-pas, starts to run wild: he may look like he’s only on the pitch because he wrote to Jim’ll Fix It, but he twists and darts like some uncatchable minnow, slithering through the holes in the net. Brabin’s half time rage can’t be as fearsome as his beef would suggest – for a team on course to lose their second play-off final in a row, Cambridge look terribly complacent. Bolland, so commanding in the first half, now looks oddly unconcerned with the game, or his involvement in it. First, he curtails a Torquay break by extending a contemptuous leg, and is booked. Then as Benyon dawdles harmlessly towards the corner flag, he jogs over and scythes him down, as if for a laugh. He’s off, and the Cambridge defence is now reduced to nothing: the notorious Mr Sills, unmarked on the penalty spot, leaps at a vague cross and scores with his big scary head. Two-nil, with 15 minutes to go, and blank-faced Cambridge fans start sneaking out. The players, too, seem not to have grasped that there’s still a chance they might not lose – by stoppage time, Torquay play the ball lazily across their defence, as their opponents look on dreamily.

At the final whistle, Benyon and Stevens leap into the crowd; their team-mates sit down in the centre circle, as though about to unwrap a picnic. The goalscorers get interviewed by smiley blonde women from Setanta Sports, jolly and bustling in their neat white blazers, like the ghosts of Butlins redcoats. Rather than the royal box, the losers ascend to what the MC calls “the royal verandah”, though the closest thing to royalty they find there is the managing director of Blue Square – and Martin O’Neill, of course, who hands out losers’ medals with the sympathetic grace of a primary school teacher. Cambridge’s soundtrack is Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now, reminding them that they have lost the Conference play-off final right here, and indeed, right now.

Torquay are penned into a hastily assembled wood-and-cardboard construction and by a placard confirming their glory, wobbling in the breeze like a For Sale sign. They jig up and down, as unselfconscious as deer, to Rocking All Over The World (a song which may lose its appeal next season, as trips to the largely northern grounds of League Two start to feel like something Phileas Fogg would be reluctant to undertake).

Though Torquay won’t complain, it seems almost a shame to leave the Blue Square Premier, its sharp edges and primary colours. There’s something truly great about this level, where so many of us got our first taste of football (and less agreeably, Bovril), standing within earshot of on-pitch obscenities, peering over guard rails in provincial sleet. It’s daft, of course – no professional footballer shares this sappy sentimentality, neither do very many fans; neither do I, most of the time. Still, rather this than pranged Jags, soul-sapping surplus and nightclubs full of people to punch in the face. It’s cold down here, but it’s not lonely, and it’s not such a bad place to be

From WSC 269 July 2009

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