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The other cup finals

Alright: it says, very clearly in the TV schedules, that Manchester City are playing Stoke City in the cup final this Saturday.

But spare a thought for the few who have their own cup finals to bear – bear being the operative word, because you never enjoy seeing the work of a season boiling down to the hundred and eighty minutes’ worth of floodlit tension that is the play-offs.

I was one of the seven thousand, two hundred odd who almost filled the Racecourse on Thursday night for their play-off semi. Wrexham have had a quietly heroic season: whilst the headlines have raged off the pitch about the future and the ownership of the club, on the pitch, they’ve been consistent: good enough to finish fourth in a league which is basically Division Two in exile.

And then came Thursday night: if you don’t care about football, you might wonder why it matters that much to play Torquay or Morecambe at home rather than Bath City or Gateshead. The answer – as every parent knows – is it just is. Being one of those 92 clubs up there in the football league means – well, more coverage, your match gets a few paragraphs more worth of reviews in the papers. Fall into being non-league and you get relegated to a smaller type size.

It also means more money; more prestige; how many people living in Sussex or Kent had only heard of Wrexham because they were part of the non-religious litany of the football scores?

Now the play-offs are supposed to be the Christmas present for football lovers, the end of season party. You’re guaranteed drama. A whole season turns on two semi final games – and then that other cup final. And like any Christmas, it can be a whopping disappointment: which is exactly what Thursday night at the Racecourse was. Three (very good) goals down to Luton by half time. And a long trip away to Bedfordshire to follow.

It seems the secret – sorry, Cardiff and Swansea fans – is that the play-offs are wonderful, as long as you don’t support a team that’s actually in them. Otherwise, relegate your hopes and expectations to a hundred and eighty minutes of watching grown men between the gaps in your fingers, wondering that if you go out for a quick hotdog, they might score, and preparing yourself for what might happen if a climax to the season suddenly turns into a massive anti climax. Because what happened from that first, sunny game in August, when the cricket season was raging, through the long dark Saturday afternoons of winter and back into Spring counts for absolutely nothing. These games are all about momentum: the talent you showed and all those points you gathered are just another country, as far away as Queen of the South.

And as for Wrexham? I was watching (between my fingers) on Thursday and wondering what on earth the manager, Dean Saunders, could say to the team after losing three nil at home. And then I remembered a line from the film The Longest Day, when one general – played by Henry Fonda – gathers his men together on a beach in Normandy.

He says: ‘ Men, it seems we have been sent to the wrong part of the beach. We can’t do much about that now. So I intend to start the war from here.’

Wrexham, you might be three nil down; Cardiff and Swansea fans, separated from the Premier League by that cruel ninety million pound line that lies between automatic promotion and the play-offs in the table, you might be looking back at the season and remembering just how you did against Forest and Reading.

But all that was so last season. You start the war from here.


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