My favourite play-off memory: Scunthorpe United
Ahh, the play-offs. Don’t we love them? Scunthorpe fan Nicola Kilmore recalls the Iron’s triumphant Wembley success against Millwall two years ago…
Playing at Wembley, whether it be the famous twin towers of old or the futuristic arch of the new, is what all players and fans in this country dream about.
As a Scunthorpe fan, I’ve been lucky enough to witness my team at Wembley on three occasions. The first arrived in 1999 and kick-started my love affair with the Iron; the second proved a day I would rather forget, and the third was a magical day that becomes the subject of this piece.
In the wake of our bitterly disappointing 3-2 extra time defeat at the hands of Luton Town in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final, one man made an incredible vow: “Get your heads up and let’s get back here next month and achieve our ultimate season long aim: promotion back to the Championship at the first attempt.”
That man was Scunthorpe United’s ‘Mr Positivity Personified’, Nigel Adkins, the humble physio who defied all expectations to guide Scunthorpe to a sensational first place finish in League One in 2007.
They may have dropped straight back down after a taste of the Championship, but this was a man determined to bring them back. He instilled incredible belief, drive, and determination into his players, and you know what? They only went and bloody did it.
Just over one month later Scunthorpe United returned to Wembley for the League One play-off final against Millwall. Urgh. ‘Play-off’s’ – the word alone is enough to send shivers down the spine of any fan in the Football League. There’s no ride quite as exhilarating – or as cruel – as the play-offs.
Scunthorpe’s chequered history with Wembley read like this: penalty shoot-out heartache in 1992, early elation and promotion in 1999, and derby despair in the semi-finals against Lincoln City in 2003. Our journey to Wembley this time around was perhaps the biggest roller-coaster ride of them all.
Despite Adkins’ rallying cry, Scunthorpe suffered a hangover from the defeat at Wembley to stumble over the top six finishing line. A last gasp effort from Iron talisman Cliff Byrne snatched a precious late point from Tranmere Rovers, and was all the Iron needed to seal the final play-off berth.
The 88th-minute goal sparked wild and jubilant celebrations amongst the Iron faithful and set up a semi-final showdown against third-placed finishers, and some way ahead, MK Dons. The first leg at Glanford Park ended all square with a goal apiece, leaving it all to play for at Stadium:MK.
A hammer blow on the journey down arrived with the news star striker Gary Hooper would play no part in the game. The nerve jangling on the coach was not helped by our driver getting hopelessly lost with kick-off fast approaching, but we finally arrived to witness both teams grind out a nail-biting goalless draw after extra-time. The dreaded penalty shoot-out would decide the tie — and what drama.
Watching it live in the stadium, I can tell you how tense it was as 14,000 fans plus management from both sides watched on helplessly as the teams dished out what can only be described as ‘heart attack inducing entertainment’.
Barely able to look, I steeled myself, gripping the seat in front of me for support as we took the first penalty. In fact, the first three Scunthorpe penalties and the first three Dons penalties were all dispatched confidently, indicating a long, tense night in store.
Then began the drama; Cliff Byrne stepped up to take Scunthorpe’s fourth and blasted high and over, before Joe Murphy proved hero to claw away Jason Puncheon’s effort. With the next two penalties successful we were now into sudden death territory. This proved all too much for my poor old Dad, who had by now walked out the stadium. Matt Sparrow hit the crossbar to hand match point to the Dons.
But with everyone in claret and blue willing on Jude Stirling to find row Z, instead it was the fabulous Murphy who came to our rescue once again to beat out the full-back’s effort. Penalties from Jonathan Forte, Dean Lewington, Sam Togwell and Willy Gueret were all dispatched with fingernails fast running out.
By now I was clinging to the guy next to me, a total stranger also barely able to look, as Ian Morris stepped up to take the 17th penalty of an epic shootout. I was almost too exhausted to cheer when he scored.
Former Chelsea star Tore Andre Flo put the ball on the spot for a potential decider, and smashed the ball towards the top corner. Murphy was beaten, I felt the despair well up inside again as I contemplated the thought of more agony to come — but hang on – he hit the crossbar! We were through! Myself and the stranger embraced wildly. I knew I was crying with the emotion of the occasion, but I didn’t care.
There was little over a week until our return Wembley trip, and on the morning of the game itself it was hard to know what to feel. Sure there was excitement, but it was tempered by the recent bitter memories of defeat on the same ground. “I cannot stomach defeat at Wembley again,” I thought. I had to hope this desire was reflected by the players.
We were in the same end as the Luton game, we knew the layout, where our blocks were, exactly how overpriced the food and drink was and even what the stewards looked like. The only difference was that, incredibly, we had even less fans than the Johnstone’s Paint encounter. It was hard not to feel intimidated once again by the 50,000-strong Millwall contingent packing out the south end of the stadium.
But as I looked around as kick off approached, I felt a massive swell of pride to be part of it all, and in those moments had never felt prouder to call myself a Scunthorpe fan.
Kicking off in the brilliant sunshine, both teams started the first half kicking towards their own fans. In the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final we had scored after just 10 minutes, and we did it again after just seven this time when penalty villain Matt Sparrow instantly redeemed himself with a low drive into the bottom corner.
Naturally we went utterly bonkers, but there was an air of caution too – we all know what happened last time we took an early lead. There was still a long way to go and the Millwall fans knew it.
As the game ticked on, I was feeling confident that we were going to head into the break with a neat one-goal lead to build on. How wrong I was. Millwall turned the game on its head in a sensational three minutes which resulted in them heading into a half-time lead.
The first was a moment of sheer brilliance from Gary Alexander as his sensational 35-yard effort flew past a shell-shocked Murphy. It was the goal of a lifetime, one of those that you should just really stand up and applaud, but forgive me for staying in my seat with the stakes this high.
With Scunthorpe reeling, Millwall cranked it up and hit a second just two minutes later. Alexander again was the man to grab the goal, his hopeful header squirming agonisingly under Murphy.
The half-time whistle went and the north end of the stadium had been stunned into total silence. I sat slumped in my chair, unwilling to talk to anyone, struggling to take in how we could now be behind. But we still had another half to get this right. All we could do was hope.
There was no let-up in second-half action; rich entertainment for any neutral I’m sure, but tense stuff for the suffering fans concerned. Chances came and went for both teams in the early stages, and even though time was ticking on, there was no doubt in my mind that there were more goals in this game.
In the 70th minute, to my immense and wild relief, Scunthorpe grabbed an equaliser. Sparrow again proved the unlikely saviour, meeting a delightful Martyn Woolford cross to thump home past David Forde.
The game was on a knife edge now, and just six minutes later Millwall had an incredible opportunity to re-take the lead. Alexander was presented with a glorious opportunity of a hat-trick, but fluffed his free header wide and into the ground. It felt inevitable – I winced in pain expecting the back of the net to bulge, but it never came.
The miss proved costly. With time running out and nobody craving extra-time, both sides went hell-for-leather in search of a third goal. Thankfully for me, we had it in the 86th minute. Sparrow and Woolford were again involved, with the latter powering in a rebound underneath Forde after Sparrow saw his header saved off the line.
We were so close now – hang on and promotion would be ours. Of course there was more drama to come and we held our collective breaths as Murphy saved brilliantly from Neil Harris. There were just four precious additional minutes to survive and it is safe to say they were the longest of my life.
The noise I let out at the final whistle was probably something quite inhumane, I had little voice left, Iron fans embraced wildly, and a few tears were shed here and there from the most emotional of our party (me).
For a small club like Scunthorpe, winning the League One title was astonishing. Reaching the Championship beyond our wildest dreams, but to get there twice and bouncing straight back up? Words cannot describe how much that means to any Iron fan.
Nothing could dampen the feelings of the Scunthorpe fans there that day, and for the likes of Martyn Woolford – Conference hopeful to Championship player in one incredible debut season. Adkins said he would get us back there. It seemed a bold prediction but he’d be damned if he didn’t make it happen.
Salute to Scunthorpe United, my team, my passion!