There’s something about Saturday mornings as a football supporter that can turn you from a regular (in some cases) person into a spontaneous and often irrational being that suddenly decides that for that afternoon the centre of the universe is the obscure place that your team has gone to kick a ball about on some grass. The morning of the Barrow game started like a regular person’s Saturday for me, new sofa being delivered at about 10:30 and no real plans for the afternoon…and then came the text from one of those like-minded fools you’ve all joined forces with down the years: “setting off about 11 – fancy it?”. So at 10:55 I stood in front of the sofa, adjusting my white and blue scarf, and declared the couch “gorgeous” – a word I had already shamelessly used to secure my pass for the day. There had been well-reported flooding across Cumbria and as we headed towards the M6 I sifted past the devastating news of damaged bridges and flooded villages to see if Barrow’s ground had been affected. To my relief Twitter showed me a shiny picture of their unharmed grass and a longer than expected while later we were parked outside Barrow’s main attraction: ASDA.
The first few seconds inside the away turnstiles is a tough moment for our supporters this season, having played in some of the country’s finest stadiums and still having fresh memories of playing in a major cup final, the current reality is humbling. Traditional and long-standing football grounds have a warm, historic feel about them though and that novelty soon takes over after the now traditional big sigh and the voice in your head re-assuring you it’s a mere sabbatical. So the best thing to do is try and enjoy it – after all, those symmetrical Lego stadiums are all the same anyway and the £3 you’re about to pay for a horseburger might help keep a team afloat. Our sizeable away support is almost charitable by it’s very nature, at Braintree we travelled over 4 hours to get there and had more fans than them so more than doubled their gate receipts.
On entering the ground the ‘segregation’ actually made me glad that we weren’t playing one of our more traditional north-west away-days. What separated the SWA from the home fans on the terracing was a small gate that is normally used for stopping 10 year olds skipping the queue for the ghost train and a solitary motionless steward. The players were out though and the focus turned to watching them warm up and wondering why our most dangerous goalscorer James Norwood was wearing more layers than the supporters and not preparing fully. Then after they’d headed back to the changing rooms the news came that he was out of the team with a stomach problem, which was a problem for me too as I’d backed him to score first! The pre-match tannoy announcer had some catching up to do as Barrow hadn’t played at home since November and it seemed as though most of it was bad news. We all paused to remember one by one those that couldn’t be there that day and it seemed quite a list. I then got a text to say it was rumoured Norwood was en route to hospital with stomach problems. Had he eaten a burger? Did anyone have any good news?
Then the players ran out..it doesn’t matter if it’s Wembley or Woking, seeing Tranmere Rovers jog out at 2:55pm, jumping to head an imaginary ball and jogging on the spot always brings feelings of anticipation and hope. Regularly over recent season’s though, the hope of a has been steadily reduced so almost as expected it wasn’t the greatest first half, but we seemed to be defending well, controlling the midfield and looked far more likely to score, which was nice. It was my first glimpse of Jeff Hughes and he looked impressive and getting the ball wide to him and Mekki seemed to be the way to break them down. Then out of nothing, a stupid push in the area and a penalty to TRFC – an absolute gift for us and Mekki slotted home for 1-0. And that was it really, a solid 15 minute rendition of ‘SUPERWHITEARMY’ from the away end and everyone was happy at Half Time in what was starting to look like a routine win. In fact, the Barrow announcer sounded more positive too and said a ‘large amount of money’ had been found and to contact a steward to collect it. Having surveyed the area though, I figured the many hopeful claimants would be disappointed to find out it was probably the quid I’d dropped outside ASDA.
The second half started like it was a case of job done, with neither team looking likely to score and most of the crowd starting to think about their plans for the evening and things like whether they were allowed to eat on the new couch. But then about 30 seconds after Steve Jennings had put a half tackle in our area the referee 20 yards away realised that his assistant 100 yards away on the other side of the pitch could see it better and at their request gave them a penalty. 1-1, nice one. The equaliser was totally against the run of play so the feeling was that we could raise it a gear and reclaim the lead, mixed with the frustration that we can’t seem to put dominated games out of sight. And then on 82 minutes the goal came, the one most of the supporters who have watched us these last 3 years secretly expected: a goal for Barrow. 2-1. Heads in hands time on the away terrace, and then as we pushed forward looking for a late equaliser that would slightly ease the pain, the almost inevitable happened – they broke away on the counter attack and got a 3rd. Gasps. 3-1. Game over.
That goal was just about enough for many of the travelling faithful. A few just left and for some it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and emotion poured out of them. 36 months of freefall that had seen us slip from the top of League One to a non-league side who were losing to Barrow was too much. They were useless and were beating us 3-1. The evident frustration was understandable but not enjoyable and we decided as it reached 90 minutes that it was best to leave. With a couple of miserable and silent road hours of ahead of us, I decided to head for the toilet first. Stood in a small queue outside what resembled my nan’s old outdoor loo, freezing cold and miles from home I pondered briefly why I even bother. There was a concerned steward nearby calling for assistance ahead of the Full Time whistle and just as he was telling a colleague how ‘unhappy, really unhappy’ the away crowd were there was a loud cheer and we’d pulled one back. Maynard had struck a last minute consolation goal to make it 3-2. But then came some comforting words in my ear (and there’s not many of those in a public toilet): “there will be 5 minutes of injury time”. I raised my eyebrows (appropriately) to a fellow toilet goer and I headed back to my comrade near the exit and we agreed that if we grabbed an injury time equaliser, life would be much better.
Stood in the corner and urging a last gasp goal to salvage a 3-3 draw, the footballing gods shone in the eyes of the Barrow’s defence who had a moment to forget. Clumsy play on the edge of the area was seized upon by Hughes who drove past them, had the composure to round the keeper and slot home into the empty net. YES !!! YES!!! YES!!! 3-3 !!! I just started running, involuntarily. God bless terracing, it was a cut-shins moment in a seated area, but there was nothing stopping me. I ran all the way to behind the goal, dodging those jumping in various directions and back to where i’d watched the game. Faces that i’d last seen a couple of minutes earlier glazed with despair were now oozing relief. As the celebrations settled down, I gathered myself and began walking back towards my friend near the exit. I stopped halfway to turn and watch the final whistle, beaming and almost in disbelief at two last minute goals…And then came one of those football moments that I will remember until my last day, a moment that I will tell my bored grandchildren in years to come and a moment that those who think football is a television programme will never understand. Jake Kirby cut inside on the edge of the area and hit a powerful shot that took a slight deflection off a defenders leg and flew above the diving keeper and smashed into the back of the net!! 3-4!! … The next few seconds are a blare really, it was delirium! I ran back towards the goal again and there was now a mini mosh-pit at the front. For a brief moment I was in a bear hug with a lad i’ve never met, holding each other like lottery winners and I looked around to see people with a disbelieving look of joy, shaking their heads and punching the air. What a feeling, back from the brink and through a range of emotions that’s almost incomparable. If a bailiff ever knocks at your house, tells you he’s taking everything you own and then suddenly Mila Kunis appears, pays the debt and comes in for tea, you’ll be close.
My signal didn’t come back onto my phone until we’d reached the M6 again and by that time we were the talk of the football corner of the internet. I had messages from friends asking if I was there and those who knew I was asking if i’d left early and missed the action (almost). I got home to my dad and relayed it all. Back in work on Monday I had to tell the story a dozen times and here weeks later i’m loving reliving it again. Could that match be this season’s turning point? Early signs are promising that it has helped re-ignite the whole place and we’ve looked a vastly improved side in the following weeks…but whatever happens, it’ll be five minutes i’ll never forget. Never lose hope.