Sunday, 5 May 2013

Staying up, staying up, staying up!

Anyone who bumps into me in the street this week might have to look twice. I may look hangdog. My face may be lined, hair greying and receded. There may be a look of haunted oblivion in my eyes. All because yesterday afternoon I aged 10 years as Huddersfield Town put me and 22,000 others through the wringer.

Surely we couldn't get relegated. We had three points more than our opponents Barnsley, who occupied the final place in the relegation zone. There were three other teams between us and them. All had to better our result - or even win, in two cases, just to get level with us. A year on from a Wembley promotion, all anyone expected was survival. Hence a massive crowd, the second largest League crowd in the stadium's history.

The atmosphere was almost play-off like. Ten thousand clappers had been handed out. The roar as the teams emerged was deafening. Belief flooded the stadium and stayed there for about five minutes, before Barnsley started to dictate play. Town were a Chris O'Grady goal down before too long, having not gotten into the game at all. Then bombshells started to arrive. Peterborough led at Palace, taking them above us. Worse, Sheffield Wednesday also led, and Millwall were drawing. As things stood at half-time, we were in the drop zone with the preposterous total of 57 points.

News filtered through the stands at the interval that Crystal Palace had converted a stoppage-time penalty against Peterborough. Suddenly we were out of the bottom three. And not long after the restart we were doing what we needed to do - Jermaine Beckford latched on to Danny Ward's through ball and lifted it over the Barnsley keeper to equalise. Cue pandemonium. Barnsley's fans were silenced.

Sheffield Wednesday already had their game against horribly out of form Middlesbrough sewn up. Attention shifted from game to game. Peterborough took the lead again, meaning that Barnsley had to score to put us in the bottom three... which they duly did through Jason Scotland. Heads went in hands in sheer despair. It couldn't happen to us again, could it? No side had ever been relegated with more than 52 points, we surely couldn't go down with 57?

The introduction of Lee Novak with nine minutes to go brought instant rewards as he teed James Vaughan up for a second equaliser, dumping Barnsley back in the bottom 3 with 55 points. We had 58; all we needed to do was hang on, something easier said than done with Barnsley throwing the kitchen sink at our defence in their desperation.

Suddenly Crystal Palace were level. There were seven minutes to go at Selhurst Park and veteran striker Kevin Phillips had toe-poked the Eagles ahead. News rippled around the McAlpine. Some measure of relaxation started to go around the ground; even a tentative rendition of, 'We are staying up!' went around the home ends. Still, all it needed to doom us was another Peterborough goal and for Barnsley to snatch a winner.

Two minutes later, news broke of Derby taking the lead against Millwall. Suddenly three goals needed to go in in five minutes to relegate us, one of which had to be against us. But Barnsley still needed a goal - they had to better Peterborough's result, going into the game with the same points but a worse goal difference. They continued to press. Fingernails took a hammering as crosses whipped into the box and Town failed to clear their lines, all too aware that a goal against could be disastrous.

Somehow Town broke out and managed to force a Barnsley dead ball. And that was when the man who sits in the row below turned around and said, "Crystal Palace are winning."

Word passed through the stadium like wildfire. Pockets of celebration broke out in the Barnsley end. As things stood, they were safe and Peterborough were down. We were entering five minutes of injury time. All that needed to happen was for results to stay as they were. For three more fraught, tense minutes Town and Barnsley went at it, hammer and tongs. Both sides pressed for a winner for those few moments, until the news of the score in London finally made its way to the Barnsley bench.

Barnsley had a goal kick. Luke Steele, the goalkeeper, rushed to get it taken, only for the entire bench to erupt and order him to slow it down. They'd done enough, as it was. There was no need to rush. After a moment, the goal kick was taken, and Peter Clarke, the Town skipper, cleared it back to Steele. Under no pressure, he dribbled around his area for just over a minute. 22,000 fans, knowing what was happening, spontaneously burst out into a unified chant of 'Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!' Adam Clayton, the Town midfielder, danced over to the Kilner Bank and started his celebrations a minute early. Jack Hunt, exhausted after a pulsating Yorkshire derby, sat down near the halfway line, waiting for the whistle. The whistle went, and Town had secured the point needed to guarantee Championship football.

A few moments later confirmation of the final score at Selhurst Park came through: Crystal Palace 3-2 Peterborough United. Barnsley were also safe. Results had contrived to send the Posh down.

The scenes post-match were incredible. Town fans had invaded the pitch on the final whistle, and were celebrating. It took a moment for the full Barnsley support to join in, waiting for the moment when Peterborough's defeat was confirmed. The whole stadium was unified in its joy. Every chant was echoed by the supporters of the other side, and time after time it came back to the same chant of  'Yorkshire!'

Both managers addressed the stadium and were greeted by rapturous applause from all four sides of the ground. There was the feeling of a special bond between the two clubs, a mutual respect almost unheard of in football. As Town fans applauded Barnsley's celebrations, so did Barnsley's fans stay to applaud the Town team on its lap of honour.

In almost 20 years of watching football - and almost 600 games - I've never seen anything like it. The atmosphere was something else to start with. By the end it had transcended football and become a statement of solidarity in celebration. It was wonderful to behold and be a part of.

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