Saturday, 19 May 2012

Que sera sera...

You wrote us off, who gives a ****, we are the Cheltenham and we are going up...
Well, maybe, but you get the idea.
Wembley? Play-off final?
Hang on, that wasn't meant to happen.
According to the so-called pundits (here's one of them... http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/football-league-blog/2011/aug/03/league-two-2011-12-season-preview) we were supposed to be licking our wounds, and digging out the directions for Alfreton's Impact Arena or Cressing Road in Braintree - yet here we sit, 90 minutes away from the Ricoh Arena or Fratton Park.
All quite mad really.
Plainmoor on Thursday night was a little 90-minute microcosm of the rollercoaster that our season has been, emotional, tense and ultimately euphoric.
It was also apt that 14 years to the day from the start of our amazing run of success, Jason Eaton's winner in the 1998 FA Trophy final under the old Twin Towers, we should book our return to the new National Stadium.
There was a link with those days, as Bob Bloomer, an unsung hero of that team and a stalwart of Cheltenham Town until his poorly-handled departure, was stood in front of me in the away end.
He was rubbing shoulders with Jack Butland, a star of the future who could have a European Championships or Olympic Games to occupy his mind in the next few weeks and months.
That night will go down in CTFC folklore. It will join Dover, Rushden, Yeovil, Rotherham, Doncaster and that Southport final and the Rushden and Grimsby wins as days to recall, and say 'I was there.'
Even though we had that 2-0 cushion from the first leg, there was no complacency.
It was all about the first goal ... about those first 15-20 minutes ... about quietening down the crowd ... no silly mistakes ...
It was also about our team selection.
4-4-2 to go for it, pace on the counter-attack, try and nick a goal?
Or 4-5-1, solidity, shape, frustrate them, invite them to break us down, while also having that outlet on the break.
Yatesy went for the former - opting not to change a winning team, putting his trust in those who had got to half-time in fine fettle to go out and finish off the job.
The first half was all about one man, someone who has had far more than his fair share of brickbats to deal with in the past, and after this display will fully deserve his place in CTFC folklore.
His performance was all the more amazing having been in, out, in, out and then back in the side this season - and with Butland standing barely 20 yards behind him, watching on.
Scott Brown made three fantastic saves, each one better than the previous one. There was tip over the bar, a fingertip stop from Ryan Jarvis and then the pick of the crop from Mark Ellis' powerful downward header.
It was a stunning stop and I cannot think of many better from a CTFC keeper in my 30 years of watching us. Ellis was stood holding his head for about 30 seconds afterwards. He couldn't believe Scotty had saved it.
In front of him, Alan Bennett and Steve Elliott were magnificent, while Keith Lowe, after a tricky start against Danny Stevens, and Sido Jombati were equally solid.
After the Brown saves and seeing Kevin Nicholson's brilliant free-kick leave the bar shaking, Torquay might as well just have packed up and gone home. It was going to be our night.
That was rubbed in after half-time when Benno deflected a header and, with the ball looping towards the top corner, there was Browny again to claw it away.
They battered us in that first half, let's be honest about it. I wonder now if Martin Ling regrets leaving Taiwo Atieno on the bench and making the curious decision to play Jarvis down the middle.
Lee Mansell and Eunan O'Kane, backed up by Damon Lathrope, were getting the better of our midfield, winning those all-important second balls and driving forward.
So credit to Yatesy for making that half-time change, with Russ Penn coming on for Jimmy Spencer.
The ball had not been sticking up front and Jimmy had almost been playing as the third man in midfield, so Yatesy opted for solidity with Russ, and it worked.
It gave us more of a foothold in the game, and we were able to get Jermaine McGlashan and Kaid Mohamed on the ball more and relieve the pressure on our back four.
We seemed to have drawn the sting out of them and they threw Atieno on and sent Ellis up front, which opened up the space for Kaid to thread Jermaine through, and just like the first leg he did the necessary off the post.
Finally, that was that, and Jermaine has repaid his transfer fee (whatever it was) with two touches of the ball, whatever he does in his CTFC career from now on.
Atieno's goal was annoying as we deserved a clean sheet, it was a consolation for Torquay and they merited it for their efforts over the two games, but with five minutes and two goals needed just for extra time, the jitters were mild as Sergio Aguero was nowhere to be seen.
Marlon Pack was, and he ended any doubt whatsoever about the winner of the CTFC goal of the season award with a sublime free-kick.
Sky's Don Goodman called it 'Premier League quality' and it is hard to argue with that, and it put the cap on what was a memorable night.
All it left me to do was to try to stick my roving mic under the noses of some happy CTFC players and officials without any of them swearing on live radio, and - despite the jobsworth Plainmoor steward who wouldn't let me out of the away end - I managed it.
Mo gave me a few jitters when he ran over to talk to his dad, but a scream of 'Get in there' on being asked how he felt about the prospects of playing at Wembley saw off that little worry!
So here we go again, off we go to the Smoke.
After the old Wembley, two trips to the Millennium Stadium resulting in two promotions and FA Cup games with West Brom, Fulham, Newcastle and Spurs, the CTFC soap opera moves to the new Wembley.
When we walk out there on Sunday, we will have completed the hat-trick of major stadia in 14 years, and not many sides have done that.
Yes, in among these heady days we have had two relegations and spent some time in depression with mad managers and close relegation calls, but that's all part of being a football fan.
You enjoy the highs and ride through the lows as something is always round the corner, and this club seems to have a knack of coming up with the unexpected.
That's what makes this trip to Wembley extra-special in my eyes - the fact that it is so unexpected, and that we have proved so many people (including some of our own fans) so wrong over the past eight months or so.
I have looked at the odds, and once again we are the underdogs - but at Crewe 11-10 and us evens, you could put a cigarette paper between the sides.
Much is being made of their 18-game unbeaten run, but we go in with six wins out of seven, and an unbeaten record in play-off games.
Nick Powell is the name on everyone's lips, but how will the young players like him cope with the big occasion? We have a bit more experience in our ranks, which may work in our favour.
But as the song goes, whatever will be, will be. Win or lose, the rollercoaster has been a fantastic ride.

Player by player
Scott Brown - Impeccable. His best performance in a CTFC shirt, topped off by THAT save from Mark Ellis' header.
Keith Lowe - Struggled early on against Danny Stevens but got to grips with him and nullified the threat. Brilliant goal-line clearance in the first half.
Sido Jombati - Kept Ian Morris more or less out of the game and defended solidly.
Alan Bennett - Led from the front and has re-discovered his form at just the right time.
Steve Elliott - Another braveheart display. Won just about every header and put his body on the line/
Marlon Pack - What a free-kick. Not sure he should have been man of the match but that goal will never be forgotten.
Luke Summerfield - Grew into the game and was magnificent in the second half as we got to grips with their midfield.
Kaid Mohamed - Not much ball in the first half but caused problems in the second, setting up Jermaine's goal.
Jermaine McGlashan - Runs down the wing for me... Our play-off talisman, with another goal. Can he make it three in three at Wembley??
Jimmy Spencer - Little chance to shine in the first half and was sacrificed as we changed shape after the break.
Ben Burgess - Ineffective in the first half as we knocked it too long but better in the second as we played more to his strengths.

Substitutes
Russ Penn (for Jimmy Spencer, 45 mins) - Stiffened us up in the second half and looked fresh after his recent rest.
Jeff Goulding (for Ben Burgess, 82 mins) - Did a good job when he came on, holding the ball up and winning the free-kick for Marlon to score.
Harry Hooman (for Jermaine McGlashan, 90 mins) - Got himself on TV...