I was gutted to see that Cheltenham goal hit the back of the net and – like a few thousand others – I was on the pitch a few minutes later wondering what the hell I thought I was doing and feeling, vaguely, that I should do something to mark the occasion. That something, turned into patting a few of the team on the back and exchanging commiserations with other members of the stunned Blue Army. I snapped off a picture or two as well. One of which should be somewhere around this column.
It still hurts me to be looking at the Conference next year. The unfamiliar sight of Forest Green, Farnborough and Gravesend on the forthcoming fixture list still has the same kind of shock value as looking at your car the day after a shunt and still feeling a slight disbelief as you survey the mangled damage. But at least we have a fixture list and a future, not things I was always convinced we’d have under Knighton. More to the point, I’m feeling really positive about next season.
The thing that’s made all the difference to me is that this is the first season in over a decade where I really feel confident that our hopes and the reality on the pitch will come together. I know the message board has seen debate from ‘we’re gonna make the Conference weep,’ to ‘Let’s not be too hasty, it’s a tougher league than we think.’ But I’m still really looking forward to next season.
Let’s face it, the ‘heroes’ we’ve cheered for the last few seasons were either people who displayed toughness in the face of impossible odds, like Richard Prokas. People who displayed skills above and beyond what we’d become used to, like Matt Jansen. Or people who simply proved themselves dependable, like Matty Glennon. You’ve got to go back to David Reeves, Rod Thomas and David Currie to find a team where all of these qualities were present the whole time. A team we turned up to watch with confidence and a real sense of pride. I know I felt real pride watching us cut down the points gap and fight for survival last season but it was never a confident pride. Whatever Craig Farrell did to opposing defences there was still the news passing round from Five Live about the latest Scunthorpe or Leyton Orient goal to give us a reality check.
The one thing I think for sure next season is that we can be heroes. We’ve held on to enough players from the team that turned round the form book and – most importantly – we’ve still got Simmo. Predicting our final position next year is a mug’s game. However, I think we can safely predict that we’ll head into a lot of unfamiliar grounds with a real sense of expectation and a belief that the players we have can shine at this level. We won’t be looking behind us all the time because the bottom of the Conference really is beneath us. Believe me, I was parked outside the Gravesend ground a few weeks ago. It’s better than Borough Park, but not by much!
We’ve got a manager who got the best out of a range of diverse talents last year. We’ve got players who proved how much they care and some with youth on their side and talents still developing. I’ve got faith in this squad, and this manager and whilst I’m not so confident as to say we’ll walk to the championship I do think we can enjoy a season like the one ten years ago. A season when there was real expectation when the ball fell to the feet of certain players and a real pride to be had as we watched the moves taking shape and knew we had a team on the pitch that could deliver. That 94/95 team were simply more fun to watch because they displayed talent. I know they failed at Wembley where we succeeded a couple of seasons later. But there was more flair and more fun in Reevsie’s team. Hell, there’s a whole generation of fans that have grown up not knowing what that felt like. I’m the dad of one of them and it’s about time I took my impressionable son to watch a team that he could believe in.
So, regardless of the final league position in 2005, this has to be a season about restoring pride. Drowning out the chants of the opposing supporters, cheering as Matty proves himself equal to the best shots that Canvey can scramble and having a laugh on a Saturday afternoon for the first time in ages.
The thing that’s really cheered me about Euro 2004 is seeing Premiership subs, a bloke from Bolton and several others from the less fashionable end of football really enjoying themselves. Zidane, Beckham and Oliver Kahn looked bloody jaded to me. Too much big match club action probably. Despite the pressure on them some of the other players looked like they were out to make the most of every second. Let’s face it, Greece didn’t deserve to win their semi but did they milk that moment for every ounce of enjoyment or what?
We could do with some of those moments next season and I think we’re going to get them. As The Streets have it, ‘there’s plenty more fish in the sea.’ So, whilst finding Woking and Dagenham’s grounds was never an ambition of mine, I’m going to take each match as it comes. I’m looking forward to a season where the stomach churning and nerves don’t start with getting into the car and rise steadily on the way to the ground. Most of all, I’m looking forward to enjoying my football more than I have in a decade. Bring it on.