Some self-indulgent reflections following York City's return to the Football League after a play-off win over Luton last weekend.
Some ten years ago, York were almost out of business. It's not a coincidence that so many clubs that have found themselves in financial trouble have had the ownership of the ground transferred away from them. This was true of York. The board decided that it was better for the club not to own the stadium any more and placed it in a holding company. The plan to sell the ground for housing effectively left the club without a home. Then along came John 'I fuck companies' Batchelor, the Walter Mitty of our time. Fancy promises were his modus operandum, just fancy enough to make you think 'hmm, that sounds ludicrous, but it could work' for long enough that you'd be distracted while he helped himself to the takings. Having failed to deliver anything other than a swanky new house for himself, Batchelor steered the club into administration. It was steered out by a determined effort from supporters. Times were hard.
They were on the pitch as well as off it. Manager Terry Dolan was sacked in March 2003 with the board citing financial reasons. In his place, Chris Brass was put in charge at the age of 27. Under his leadership, the club managed find a way of not winning any of their final 20 games of the 2003/4 season and were relegated to the Conference.
Seven seasons and five managers later, York are back. Billy McEwan got the club to the play-offs once and Martin Foyle to the final. While both of those played their part in rebuilding the football side of the club, it was when Gary Mills arrived at the club in October 2010 that things started to happen. As a teenager, Mills won a European Cup with Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough and, like so many others that learned under Clough, he's clearly picked up a bit. He's very forthright and has a particular style that he will not detract from. I've written about formations and philosophies before, theorising that there's no 'right' way to do it, so long as there's 'a' way. Any theory or method is equally as good as any other, providing that your recruitment and training is geared towards that. Chelsea want to play deep and hit on the counter - fine. Barcelona want to play tiki-take - equally fine. Mills likes a 4-3-3, possession oriented game with a high tempo. He got players comfortable in that style on board and hasn't deviated from that.
And that was the team that took the field at Wembley - Gary Mills's team. With 8000 supporters from York and Luton with around four times that amount, Luton went in front inside 80 seconds. But York came roaring back and led 45 minutes later. They closed it out brilliantly, Luton reduced to shooting from range.
Inside the ground, it was impossible to enjoy. The previous weekend was the FA Trophy final, a nice day out for all. During the intervening week, I'd had broadcast commitments at the second leg of Huddersfield Town's play-off against Milton Keynes and a big Super League game between Huddersfield and Wigan to distract me. From 10pm on Friday though, there was nothing else to worry about. By the time kick-off arrived, I was in bits. This never happens. I'm the last of the pragmatists. I'm cold, laid back and rational, not a quivering mess of nerves. I believed that if we played anything like, then we'd win. After all, in four games against Luton this season, we'd won three and drawn one. We'd beaten them in the FA Trophy semi-final, we'd seen off the physical threats of Mansfield and Newport and are generally better against sides like Luton who come out and play. But logic and reason had taken a leave of absence.
While the game itself - and the stadium hot dog, which tasted of fish - was anything but enjoyable, the win eliciting feelings of relief rather than happiness or even satisfaction, I had the chance to watch it back. It turns out that my friends watching at home were right - it was a really good game. And Matty Blair was at least a yard offside for what proved to be the winner. Luton must be fed up of the sight of us - they've won one of eleven games against us in non-league football - and they, along with Wrexham, must be favourites to go up next season.
So it's farewell to the Conference. Farewell to a league where the fixtures are drawn by hand. No trips to Forest Green - now on their own as the longest serving club in the division - or Braintree, Barrow and Tamworth. Over the non-league years, I've been to Salisbury, Weymouth, Grays, Ebbsfleet, Rushden, Kettering, Kiddersminster, Woking and many others. While it's a relief to be promoted, I've had some good times at these places. There's no more qualifying rounds for the FA Cup and no more FA Trophy at all. What we do have is the FA Trophy on our list of honours, a permanent reminder of where we were and where we should determine we don't return. Instead, we can look forward to Bradford, Rotherham, Rochdale and Chesterfield, Plymouth, Torquay and Exeter. The Johnstones Paint Trophy and the League Cup. It also means central funding for the youth system, something which charitable donations have paid for over the last five years as funding ceases after three years outside the Football League.
The ten years since our ground was effectively taken from us feel nicely bookended by a week in which we've won something, got permission to advance plans for a new community stadium and got promoted back to the Football League. It's good to be back.