A Trip To Wembley 2017
An account of our journey to the 2017 play-off final
As of 2:10pm on Saturday 6th May 2017, Tranmere Rovers had officially beaten Aldershot Town in the Vanarama National League play-off semi-finals and the fans' thoughts could, after a quick show of appreciation during the 'lap of honour', turn to the business of making arrangements for a first trip to Wembley in seventeen years. For many, this would be a maiden voyage to England's national stadium.
For those unfamiliar with the 'process' of going to Wembley, which, let's be honest, is most Tranmere fans, the next forty-eight hours encapsulated the whirlwind of anxious excitement that could only be generated by a fan base desperate to witness what, for some, was a first-in-a-lifetime event. Friends and family scrambled around, trading messages and phone calls in an attempt to entomb themselves in a sea of familiar faces come the big day. Once the seats had been chosen, it was time to navigate an infuriating payment system. Do you subvert the ludicrous 'print at home' charges by having the tickets posted to you at an even greater cost and the risk, to a Wembley novice, of the tickets not arriving in time?
Having made the decision that paying four times the amount for postage represented a somewhat Pyrrhic victory, the self-service option was chosen at around 12.30am on Sunday 7th. Happy that we were going, it was time for bed.
Waking up later that morning, everything was going well until a mid-afternoon social media frenzy sends the rumour mill into overdrive. Apparently, the coaches were sold out! How could this be? It had never crossed my mind that we'd not be able to get there. Surely the most important thing was to obtain a match ticket to ensure entry? A few tense exchanges later, Monday's itinerary now included an early-morning dash to Prenton Park to secure a place on one of the standard coaches the club had helpfully informed us all were still available in limited numbers.
In the queue from 8.10am (the shop didn't open until 9am), we'd done enough to book our slot and we could leave the stadium in a somewhat calmer state having taken the Club's plea to book as early as possible to heart. We, like the team, were on our way. Now it was just a matter of waiting.
Paper coach ticket in hand, the focus again turned to the match tickets, more specifically the email that Wembley were to send with an attached PDF file. That file could then be printed and you'd have your key to entry. As with the coach tickets, social media was abuzz with “have your e-tickets arrived yet?”-type posts, raising the anxiety levels ever so slightly with each new affirmation. How had theirs arrived and ours hadn't? Hitting the refresh button on the email server with the regularity of someone trying to bluff their way through their hazard perception test, the email finally arrived around 6pm on Monday evening. Immediately printed out and set aside with the coach tickets, it was finally time to relax. In roughly five days and twelve hours, we were going to Wembley, on the coach, with a match ticket that meant we were in the vicinity of our regular match company.
The week leading up to Sunday dragged, the anticipation of what could be achieved in less than week starting to give way to 'newness' of the experience. As a non-League club, Tranmere get very good coverage for their level, yet it would be accurate to say that the media seas are not awash with Rovers-related content. This week, however, it was different. You couldn't go too far without seeing a Micky Mellon quote here or a Mark Palios statement there. The Club itself launched a range of Wembley memorabilia in what must be the single quickest capitalisation on an opportunity in Tranmere's recent commercial history. On Wednesday, an hour-long Tranmere special on local radio saw Mark Palios joined by legends such as Chris Malkin and David 'Ned' Kelly in giving their thoughts on the events to come. Having listened to that, there was a two-hour Club podcast special that again discussed the match itself, with former player Alex Hay and current player Mitch Duggan sharing insight into what the week meant for them.
By Friday, there were short TV specials to watch before listening to both managers' pre-match press briefings. There was, after all, a match to be played in amongst the hype. And finally, it was the night before the day after, twenty-four hours until kick-off at Wembley. The Club asked fans to arrive by 7am, meaning the alarm was set for 5.15am (just to be sure) and the evening was spent tolerating the background noise that was the Eurovision Song Contest before escaping to go to bed. The fact Portugal won reminded me of Portugal's unlikely victory at UEFA Euro 2016 last year, comforted by the notion that a side unfamiliar with success finally rewarded their fans with a win. With a trophy. It was time to dream of that same outcome for the SWA. Not that I envisaged getting much sleep.
As predicted, sleep was at a premium. A combination of nervous excitement, a realisation that ten months of hard work could all be for nothing come 5pm on Sunday and a determination to hear the alarm meant that rest was intermittent at best.
Come 5am, I was awake, my mind too preoccupied to bother waiting for the dulcet tones of the mobile alarm to sound. A pre-journey check allowed us to leave in the confidence that we'd taken everything, including a small packed-lunch for the coach trip, and we set off for Prenton Park at 6.45am. Here's how the rest of the day unfolded:
7.05AM Having walked along Borough Road, there was a definite sense of atmosphere building as we approached the corner of Prenton Road West. Turning the corner, we were greeted by a crowd of people surrounding the John King statue waving flags, wishing each other good luck and arranging their late-night transport. Inside the car park, some fans were gathering in the Trust tent whilst others preferred to browse the Club shop for last-minute Wembley purchases. The smell of coffee and bacon sandwiches, presumably coming from somewhere in the locality, helped to set a tone on a Sunday morning that would be almost impossible to find at 3pm on a regular Saturday afternoon.
Looking beyond the closed gates to the main car park, our eyes were greeted with a fleet of coaches waiting to depart for London. The crowd continued to build and it was subsequently communicated that the Club were waiting for the rest of the forty-seven coaches to arrive before passengers could start alighting. At this point, there were thirty-two coaches on the cark park, with more arriving at regular intervals. One couldn't help but struggle to comprehend the sheer scale of the operation at hand. “We're taking an army down here”, said one bystander. He was right.
7:50AM After a short delay, the crowds were permitted to find their coaches and take their seats in preparation of the journey. The coach steward checked everyone was on board, filled up some empty spaces and then, at around 8am, the coach took up a slow, deliberate crawl out of its parking space, joining the convoy of coaches that exited the Prenton Park gates to a background of waving, cheering and flag-waving from those unable to make the trip in person, but whose spirits and hopes were certainly along for the ride.
Once we had reached the motorway, it wasn't long before you started spotting the odd car here and there with TRFC flags and scarves flailing in the wind. We were in for a long drive yet it was somehow made easier knowing we were united in our efforts with our fellow fans. Driving past the grounds of Walsall and Aston Villa, we were shortly to arrive at the service station that was to serve as our designated stopping point.
10:39AM Perhaps it was the speed of the motorway. Or maybe the staggered departure from Prenton Park. Whatever the reason, it wasn't until we reached the service station that the true scale of the support making the journey was revealed. Jumping off the increasingly humid coach, we made our way to a small patch of grass adorned with a scattering of wooden picnic benches in an attempt to eat our aforementioned packed lunches in time to join the sizable queue for the toilets.
Sitting at the bench, we were able to watch as earlier coaches departed and later coaches arrived, with ever-increasing numbers of Tranmere fans converging on the service station shops, concourse and outdoor spaces. Having finished our lunches, we headed for the facilities, where we were met with queue even greater than that which we had expected. Vintage shirts, scarves, wigs and flags made for an interesting pit stop, dodging and weaving on the way to the hand dryer a seemingly 'normal' course of events given the circumstances.
Even on the way out of the service station at Warwick, over two hours drive from Birkenhead, there was a table set up selling hats, flags and other collectables. As we climbed the steps of the coach and found our seats again, it was still hard to grasp the magnitude of the day's events. I'd certainly never seen anything like this before.
13:00PM At exactly 1pm, the now famous arch of Wembley Stadium first came into view from the coach window. The scene of triumph and agony in equal measure, the stadium more readily associated with the England national team or the giants of the domestic game such as Manchester United or Chelsea appeared before us. We were no longer on our way, we were here.
Pulling into the car park, the SWA had already started to arrive, rows and rows of coaches parked up around the edges of the lot to allow the later arrivals to park in the middle. It was a vast and spacious area, yet the quantity of the Rovers contingent meant we never felt dwarfed by the surroundings.
Pausing to take a photograph of the outside of the stadium, we made our way past the Forest Green Rovers fan zone. Although they were fewer in numbers, the nature of the Forest Green home shirt meant it was easy to pick out the lime green stripes against the backdrop of a blue sky and grey stadium. Continuing under the modern incarnation of Wembley Way, we turned the corner into a sea of more familiar white and blue, the SWA having a great time in the Tranmere fan zone situated outside the west end of the stadium.
We looked up at the electronic boards on the outside of the stadium's structure, noticing that the Club's badge was displayed proudly for all to see. Forget London's own Arsenal and Chelsea, who will contest the FA Cup Final in a fortnight. Ignore the fact that another London club, Tottenham Hotspur, will play all their home matches at the venue during 2017-18. On that day, perhaps for that day only, Wembley belonged to Tranmere Rovers. After waiting, and waiting, for the digital display to complete its cycle, we got the photograph and headed up the steps to gain entry.
14:51PM Having negotiated our way through the automatic entry system, we grabbed a souvenir programme and headed up to the entrance to our block of seats. Even on the approach, the stadium made an impression. Once we had entered the pitch-side area, it was simply stunning. From the vibrant green carpet that constituted the playing surface to the imposing roof high above the multiple tiers of bright red seating, the behemoth structure reinforced the magnitude and importance of the events to take place in just a few short minutes.
In awe of the surroundings, my first-ever visit to either Wembley left me taking as many photographs as I could. For a short spell, I forgot about the match at hand, instead caught up in the sight of the Tranmere crest up on the Wembley scoreboard accompanied by the national anthem, a first for any match I've ever attended in my support of Rovers. As the players lined up along the red carpet to shake hands with the distinguished guests of honour, the SWA had filtered into the bottom tier, the swathes of white and blue a stark contrast to the patches of green and black dispersed around the opposite end. It was time to deliver.
15:12PM Oh no! An early Kaiyne Woolery goal puts Forest Green ahead. He picked the ball up on the righthand side, cut inside and unleashed a fierce shot into the bottom righthand corner of Scott Davies' goal. A good strike to make it 1-0 to Forest Green.
15:22PM GOAL! Lois Maynard controls the ball on the edge of the area before laying it off to Connor Jennings, who puts his foot through the ball, watching it sail into the top righthand corner, past the out-stretched fingertips of Sam Russell in the Forest Green goal. Cue mass celebration in the West Stand, Jennings running towards the corner before sliding on his knees in celebration just in front of the SWA. Game on, let's go Rovers!
15:40PM Five minutes to go until half time. We've had our chances to take the lead. Norwood broke free before placing a 1-1 directly into the goalkeeper's body and Andy Mangan was a stud-length away from connecting with a cross at the far post. Keep it tight and we've got this in the second half.
15:41PM NO! Just before half time, Christian Doidge picks the ball up from the lefthand side before firing an unstoppable shot across Davies into the far side of the goal, sending the Forest Green travelling contingent into wild celebrations for the second time.
15:44PM OH MY GOODNESS! (expletives cleaned up, of course). They've scored again, Kaiyne Woolery taking advantage of a mix-up at the back to run through on goal before calmly slotting the ball past Davies into the bottom lefthand corner. 3-1 to Forest Green after 2 goals in 3 minutes just before the interval. “We're on our way” sing the Forest Green fans. They know it's highly unlikely we'll come back from that, but most importantly the SWA realise the gravity of the situation unfolding before them.
16.50PM After 5 minutes of injury time, the final whistle blows on the game. Forest Green Rovers 3-1 Tranmere Rovers FT. Just like that, the season is over and the dreams of promotion are cruelly snatched away at the last opportunity. Heartbroken by the bitter disappointment of the day, we left rather abruptly after a second half in which we threatened very little of note. Cole Stockton forced an excellent save out of Russell and Jack Dunn came close with a piledriver from distance, but in truth the second half fizzled out amongst scenes of unsavoury gamesmanship and ill-tempered frustration. In hindsight, it was probably a disservice to the players of Forest Green to leave without at least acknowledging their achievement, but there were very few Tranmere fans who wanted to stay to see them lift the trophy. After watching the likes of Bury celebrate promotion on the turf of Prenton Park, there was no way to stomach watching yet another team celebrate at our expense, and certainly not at Wembley.
17:24PM After making our way to the coaches, we left the car park less than half an hour after the final whistle as we embarked on the long journey home. Plenty of time lay ahead in which to reflect on what we'd just witnessed and its impact in a longer-term context. The sky above had morphed into a depressing swirl of grey and black, a precursor to the physical downpour set to follow the metaphorical one inflicted on Tranmere's proverbial bonfire less than thirty minutes prior.
22:50PM A sombre return journey draws to an end. A quick game of spot the ball sees me select Hearts, a somewhat ironic selection given the likelihood that every person making the trip back to Wirral had just had theirs broken a few short hours ago. In the end, it went to the person who chose Leeds United and we arrived back at the gates of the Prenton Park shortly after, the blue lights of the Tranmere Rovers Football Club sign a welcoming beacon to the hordes of the SWA returning home empty-handed. A few courteous goodbyes, a round of “see you next season” and the crowd made their way to back to the various destinations from which they had set off in the small hours of the morning.
We may not have won the prize. We may have to endure a further season in the National League. However, in time, the hurt will subside and we can look back with pride on a season the likes of which were unknown to a large portion of the fan base. The 'time since Wembley' clock will, for the foreseeable future, be measured in weeks and months as opposed to years and decades. The memory of that Connor Jennings thunderbolt will remain etched in the minds of young and old alike, either the first, the most recent or sadly, in some cases, the last goal they witnessed Tranmere score at Wembley.
On the day, Forest Green deserved to win the football match. Winning is an event, but being a winner is an attitude. For the first time in years, Tranmere feels like a club full of winners, of people unwilling to accept the defeat at Wembley as anything other than the end of the beginning of the journey. To a lot of clubs, that would be that, but the noises coming out of Prenton Park in the forty-eight hours since the defeat have made it clear that we'll dust ourselves down and go again next term.
Roll on August.