Wembley day out is still worth it

ANY honest Ipswich fan would have to admit to feeling a shiver down their spine as Wolves finally overcame their play-off hoodoo on Monday.

ANY honest Ipswich fan would have to admit to feeling a shiver down their spine as Wolves finally overcame their play-off hoodoo on Monday, writes Steve Mellen.

As the commentators trolled out the predictable puff about years of torment, long-suffering fans and repeated play-off agony, they could easily have been talking about Town. We went through the same emotional mangle the Wolves fans did, admittedly not for 19 years.

But can it really be three years since Burley's boys danced round the Wembley pitch with the play-off trophy, and hard men from Copdock and Clacton wiped tears off their cheeks?

Has it really been that long since a convoy of blue and white delight drove up the A12, under bridges dotted with those who couldn't make the game, before sweeping into Ipswich down Hadleigh Road, where some urchin reached out and grabbed the blue and white flag out of my hand?


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Well, to be honest, I can quite believe it has been that long. After all, it's not as if nothing has happened since May 2000.

We've had one superb season in the Premiership, another which involved nearly everything the club had achieved being thrown away, and two UEFA Cup campaigns.

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The day when Ron Atkinson compared Richard Naylor to Ferenc Puskas now has to jostle for room in the memory banks as other experiences come into play.

The play-off final is the door into the promised land, but nobody just stands in the front porch. It's too tempting to poke around in the kitchen, admire the lounge and have a nose upstairs.

Wembley was the springboard which launched the purple patch of the Burley era. We went to grounds a whole generation of fans had only seen on the TV, and won at some of them.

The pundits fawned over the small-town club who'd muscled their way into the big time and proved not all promoted sides are cannon-fodder for the big boys. Every time neutrals looked at the league table and saw Ipswich Town in the top half, they felt a warm glow inside.

But looking at how far the club fell, and the speed with which it all went wrong, it's tempting to draw a veil over the whole experience.

So we won at Anfield and Elland Road (when Leeds were good) and qualified for European football, great. A year later we couldn't stop Liverpool hitting six without reply at Portman Road, and jetting across the continent and back was costing us in the league.

This summer the fans who queued for hours upon hours for tickets to that epic with Barnsley find themselves being asked to bail the club out of financial difficulty while most of the riches assembled in the times of plenty have disappeared.

The cynic says that it wasn't worth it, that the price paid for all the memories the supporters have was too high. The club is worse off than it would have been if the team coach had never trundled up Wembley Way.

But the cynic is wrong.

On Tuesday the odds for next season's Premiership survival were released. Favourites for the drop: Why Wolves, Portsmouth and Leicester of course.

The Division One teams who went up, sides such as Wolves and Leicester, set their sights at fourth from bottom. Offer them that now and they'll snap your hand off.

There are no lofty ambitions of breaking into the top six. When you realise this, you have to accept that for a year at least, our glass was not just overflowing in 2000, it was in danger of a plumber being called.

And still the day at Wembley is the pinnacle of the whole story. Just as parents who cherish the birth of their child above all other memories, Ipswich fans look back at the beginning of the rollercoaster ride as the really special day.

It was a time before £20,000 a week contracts, expensive new stands and overseas signings that nobody could understand. It was a day when someone like Naylor, so often discarded to the bench, could be - and was - the star of the show.

Ipswich boy Richard Wright saved a crucial penalty, and the chairman who ended up on the board after writing to the directors to bemoan the way the club was being run saw his ambitious five-year plan realised early.

We couldn't have found more gracious losers than Barnsley, and we couldn't have wished for a better game. Six goals with incidents galore aside, and a real Quality Street moment at the end with Martijn Reuser racing clear to bullet home the clinching goal.

Everything about the day was perfect. There is no fear that the passage of time has led to us looking back through rose-tinted specs. It was that good.

The team that climbed the stairs to the Royal Box that day started breaking up in earnest last season as the Burley era ended and the Royle one began. The memories will take longer to fade.

People often refer to Wembley as the start of a wave which carried us through the next season to an incredible fifth-place finish in the Premiership. If that's the case then last year was where the surf finally spat us out back into the fish carcasses and seaweed of Division One.

But it was a great ride, and worth every minute.

steve.mellen@eadt.co.uk

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