Although there are many full time professional teams and some big clubs in the National League it is still defined as “Non League Football” There is nothing wrong at all with non league football, I have spent a big chunk of my career coming up through that pathway and had some great times. However I got used to coaching at some fantastic grounds in League One such as Brammall Lane, home of Sheffield Utd, The Ricoh arena home of Coventry City, Ashton Gate, Home of Bristol City and although many see the County Ground as being run down, I always got a huge buzz out of walking out to warm the keepers up there.
The first thing I noticed in the National League and this might sound silly and a small factor to some, was the fact on the opening day of the season at Boreham Wood (and this happened at many not just Boreham Wood) I was back warming the keepers up with just a couple of poles for a goal. In the football league every club had a proper full size warm up goal.
At home, at the New Lawn we were well looked after with a great pitch provided by our grounds-man Adam Witchell and also with a full size goal to warm up in. However pitches at Bromley, Dagenham, North Ferriby and Southport to name a few left a lot to be desired and it was strange being involved in an official league game on the 4G pitches at Sutton and Maidstone.
I think my over-riding memory of the season really fuelling my desire to see us get promoted was walking out to warm up Sam (our keeper) at North Ferriby and there was a dog running around all over the pitch and nobody batted an eye-lid like it was the usual!
It was a long tough season with us having a great run at the start, followed by a poor run of form, then a good run then a few disappointing results late on. Lincoln City were without doubt the strongest team over the course of the season and thoroughly deserved to win the league and this made getting promoted even tougher as only one team goes up automatically meaning we had to achieve our aim via the play offs. Tranmere Rovers, a big club had also had a cracking season and finished strongly in second and despite drawing at home and beating them away with a smash and grab win we knew the final at Wembley would be a huge game which could go either way.
I have said this before, that there are far bigger and better names in professional football than me who have never got to Wembley in a final and in my teens, twenties and early thirties I never ever dreamed I would get to walk out there! However I experienced it only two years ago getting to the League One Play Off final with Swindon playing Preston North End. The build up was brilliant and walking out that day gave me goose bumps! The anticipation and adrenaline was flying but that came crashing down when we found ourselves 2-0 down inside 13 minutes and 3 down by half time. It was a long 90 minutes of despair and people have said Wembley is a great place to win but an awful place to lose and I realised that day what they meant about losing there. Myself and the other Swindon staff and players stood on that pitch at the end devastated watching Preston walk up the Wembley steps and collect the trophy and their medals.
On the 14th May 2017 we stepped out at Wembley, my second time, and we got off to a great start scoring inside 12 minutes. Despite the equaliser Tranmere picked up just ten minutes later, this time I felt confident and not nervous at all at this stage. We then scored two goals in 5 minutes just before half time to put ourselves in a great position at the break. All through the build up pre-game and during the first half I didn’t feel nervous at all. In the second half however I don’t mind admitting nerves started kicking in as Tranmere pressured us, I sat there thinking we are just 45 minutes away from getting the club in the football league, something it hadn’t achieved in 128 years.
Sam Russell, our goalkeeper was playing in his 54th game of the season having not missed a single minute which is a fantastic achievement in itself. Just before half time he made a brilliant save with James Norwood through on him one v one with the score at 1-1. Early in the second half however he gave everybody connected with Forest Green Rovers a heart failure when he “chopped” not one Tranmere player but two and was tackled. With the goal gaping it looked like Tranmere would pull one back but Lady Luck shone on us in that moment when the Tranmere player blazed over when he should have scored! Sam went on to prove what a good goalkeeper he really is though when he made a fantastic save from a header down low at a corner to keep Tranmere out.
The final 15 minutes including 6 minutes of injury time seemed like an eternity and myself and the staff were literally sat on the edge of our comfortable Wembley dugout seats. When the final whistle went it’s hard to describe the feeling of excitement and relief at the same time I went through. I hobbled onto the pitch as fast as I could with my injured ankle (long story) and spent the next few minutes hugging players and staff alike and clapping our excited fans.
Having seen some huge names in world football walking up the famous Wembley steps to collect a trophy and their medal it seemed incredible that only a few minutes later I was doing the same. As I walked up the steps I spotted some friends of mine and some former Swindon staff colleagues and finally reached the top. Every player and staff member crammed in tight and our captain raised the trophy aloft as we all chanted “We Are Going Up” like maniacs! We each received our medals and individually lifted the trophy like you see on the television and as I walked back down the steps and saw my wife and I don’t mind admitting it got emotional! Back on the pitch and back to the celebrations of a team photo with champagne being sprayed everywhere as once again we chanted loud “We Are Going Up”
From a club point of view it’s such a brilliant achievement, into the football league for the first time ever. Everybody writes and criticises our budget but the figures bandied about are ridiculous, it’s good and competitive but I don’t think it’s the biggest in the league. Having resources helps but it guarantees nothing otherwise Leicester City would not have won the Premiership last season. We have a fantastic chairman in Dale Vince who backs us not just financially, he trusts and allows the manager and us as staff to get on with our jobs, doesn’t interfere in any way, simply encourages and supports us in the background and we are all so pleased for him to have won this promotion.
On a personal level having made that tough decision to drop down two leagues I am just so happy to have achieved promotion and looking forward to being back coaching in the football league next season.
It will be a tough summer for me as after my first holiday I go under the surgeon’s knife on June 8th for an operation on my ankle. It’s been an ongoing problem for the last two years through not being diagnosed properly which came to a head at Southport towards the end of the season. I split the tendons in the ankle during the warm up which left me unable to serve while coaching at the end of the season. With 6 weeks on crutches and not being able to drive followed by 6 weeks rehab it’s something on one hand I’m not looking forward to but on the other I want to get done and get resolved once and for all and get back to striking some balls while I’m coaching......Back in the football league!