‘Home to Wigan Athletic’ - doesn’t sound much of an event, written down. Recent ‘Home to Wigan Athletic’s can’t have been especially memorable – the last that springs to mind found us 2-0 down after four minutes at Withdean.
Not so this one. Nobody will forget this one for a long, long time.
Oh my. What a day.
What. A. Day.
The Amex was resplendent in the pre-match sunshine, capacity crowd buzzing with anticipation of history in the making. The pre-match montage. Highlights of a succession of recent wins – a runaway Albion train gobbling up the decisive points whilst Newcastle and Huddersfield stuttered. Warm applause for the players warming up, then a rousing ovation for an all-time favourite – Saint Inigo Calderon flown back from Cyprus by the club. A very special guest on a very special day. Calde puffed out his cheeks, visibly moved by the strength of the collective affection towards him.
What a guy. Such a great pity that his legs wouldn’t carry him at this exalted level for one more season – to fully share the joy of the club’s achievement. Nobody deserves it more. From one hero though, to an entire squad of them – Beram Kayal and Gaeten Bong back in today, in place of Sidwell and Pocognoli – a recent churn of one or two changes per game continued, as the side power on to the finale – a beautifully tuned machine at just the right time.
Wigan for their part, arrived in desperate need of the points, and expected to scrap for them. There is a reason they are where they are in the table, though. They are shit. If any Albion fans were fearing a nervy afternoon, they needn’t have worried – a less threatening opponent you’d struggle to hand-pick. Gabriel Obertan, once of Manchester United, ran around on his own up front, rarely within 30 yards of the football. Dan Burn at the back was notable, if only for being a freakish foot taller than all his team-mates. The Latics’ stand-out performer though was Jakob Haugaard – and not in a good way – a creditable challenge to David Gonzalez’ long held ‘Worst Goalkeeping Performance at the Amex’ title.
The Dane, on loan from Stoke City, single-handedly set about destroying any fragile confidence his back four might have had, by fumbling pretty much everything that came his way. That he ultimately was not personally responsible for conceding at any point, entirely down to blind luck, rather than his constant lack of judgement. At 0-0 he dropped a cross straight onto the onrushing Lewis Dunk (and smothered the resulting effort, to atone).
As the first period began to tick by, the crowd became a little flat – the joyous romp to fulfilment not quite panning out – and then - bedlam. A long ball forward from Dunk – the giant Burn bullied by Tomer Hemed – the ball offered up to Glenn Murray – who else? – to drive home from the edge of the box. Noise off the scale. Absolute scenes. Mental.
Moments later, further delirium cut short – the hapless Haugaard fumbling Murray’s header over the line – his blushes saved by the linesman’s flag – Knockaert’s corner having swung out of play. Our little French hero was properly up for this, as you’d expect. Not at his sparkling best, but positively bursting with energy – to chase down possession – to take people on – to hilariously square up to the towering Burn, after the Latics’ man punched the ball out of his hands. I’d have backed him, too.
A half-time of quiet contemplation – no chatter – or refreshment queues – or toilet run – just sat soaking it all up. It’s really, really going to happen.
Back under way for more Haugaard merriment – spilling a low cross at the feet of Hemed – rescued by his colleague Buxton, blocking the Israeli’s shot on the line – and then by the referee’s whistle, as he pulled down Knockaert in the ensuing scramble for the ball.
Full relief from any tension, achieved soon after – more Knockaert magic, to beat three, then tee up Solly March in the centre – the youngster’s first touch sending Buxton and Burn sliding helplessly past, before drilling the ball through Haugaard. You can’t write this stuff – if you could, then THE goal would be created by the genius around whom the season’s story has revolved, and finished off by a boy from Sussex.
A spoilsport of a linesman denied Knockaert the cherry on the cake, before Powell’s consolation header prompted five minutes of unwelcome nerves – and then back to the celebrations. Three minutes of added time – one scary break repelled – and it was over. And just beginning. Recent near-misses consigned to history, in joyous, exuberant scenes. A huge outpouring of emotion, as the pitch turned blue and white before our eyes. The Albion players made their way slowly off, through the celebrations, some escaping with a semblance of dignity…
…before they all reappeared immediately behind the benches, in the press box. As the massed broadcasters and big name writers sat bemused, Warren and JC kept going manfully, as semi-naked Albion heroes bounced up and down on their shoulders.
The microphone passed from player to player, leading the crowd in out-of-tune renditions of each others’ signature songs, before a climax of the side’s adopted victory tune, Sweet Caroline. Good times never seemed so good. Quite.
With that the players retreated to the dressing room, for Skybet-branded champagne and photos. Steve Sidwell proclaimed the squad’s ‘determination and professionalism’ by posting a picture of Jiri Skalak – in pants and crocs, with his shirt on back-to-front and a beer in hand.
Promotion was at this point, of course, effectively yet not mathematically confirmed. Little more than an hour later, with thousands in the concourses and the squad crowded around the TVs in the players’ lounge, a late Derby equalizer v Huddersfield sealed the deal – Jacob Butterfield joining Burton’s Jackson Irvine in the list of notable walk-on parts in the glorious Albion 2016/17 story.
Scenes in the players’ lounge as the goal went in…
…followed by more at the whistle…
…its done. A ‘P’ on the table.
Fans back on the pitch, under a different balcony – more songs – more speeches – and then the party moved on – from the Amex to the station and beyond. The players heading into town with the fans, in fabulous and hilarious scenes captured on a thousand mobile phones. Scenes reminiscent of Italy or Spain, rather than provincial England – International footballers crowd surfing down train carriages, being carried down Queens Road by the fans, and leading more songs in West Street. Local Boy (he’s one of our own) Lewis Dunk and Knockaert at the centre of everything. The loveably hatstand Skalak having the time of his life. What a night.
The bright harsh light of the next morning brought worldwide headlines proclaiming the return of the Albion to the top table, and plenty of sore heads through Sussex and beyond. And (ever the gent) a ‘thank you for having me’ from Calde…
And one more tweet for Jiri, 21 hours after the final whistle, still in his back-to-front kit, wrapped in Albion flags, stood on a chair in his back garden. As you do.