Thursday 01st September 2005

The Real Deal - Wembley Manuscript
by Tommy Sampson

Chapter 13

Amazingly the Kent League Management Committee insisted we play a midweek game between the two legs. Canterbury City away would not have caused us too many problems under normal circumstances but I was adamant that no player involved in Sunday’s win at Newcastle would play in the league fixture.

We won 2-1 against the league’s basement team and I was grateful to see Phil Turner and Paul Roberts come through unscathed. 

During the week the Charles Sports Ground was being transformed from its normally Spartan facility to an arena in which the gladiators would have been proud to perform.  Two massive 500 seater standbehind the dugouts were erected. 

A 100 seater hospitality stand for all the dignitaries went up alongside the bar and an imposing hospitality marquee carpeted and heated also rose from what was the car park.    The nearby Royal Cinque Ports Golf greensmen were in every day preparing the pitch to a standard which had never been seen before. 

That week was the most humbling week of my footballing life.  

Roy had organised for staff to work round-the-clock ensuring tickets would be sold and all eventualities met.  

Annette Bryant, our commercial manager, Billie Smith, Roy’s wife, Graham Johns, club vice chairman, the Fox girls, Dave Dadd, myself and a few willing volunteers were all given various duties to perform to ensure the Sunday would run smoothly. 

All week a steady stream of people filed in and out of the Club’s Portakabin facility to purchase tickets for the game.  

I use the word ‘humble’ because the wonderful stories of people whose mothers, fathers, uncles , aunts and various friends had been involved over many years with Deal Town and who were all behind this team I had given them.  

I constantly had to remind people who saw the second leg as a foregone conclusion that football had a nasty habit of turning on you if you took it for granted.  

That said I found it hard myself to stay focused on Sunday because it was so easy to allow yourself thoughts of Wembley. 

The television people were all over us now and were going to do a live outside broadcast from our ground on Sunday. which only added to the excitement.  

Press, radio, the whole thing was taking on ‘Match of the Day’ proportions and yet I couldn’t help thinking more “Match of a lifetime”.  

The last thing I did on Friday afternoon was to sit on the very top row of one of the portable stands and look out over the scene.  

My wife had died in 1994 and my mum in 1998, both from cancer.  I took out the photograph I always carry, showing the pair of them flanking me at an end-of-season dinner.  I asked them both to look out for me on Sunday, not to help me win, just be there regardless of what was to happen.   I wiped away a tear, got in my car and drove home.  

I popped in the ground on Saturday morning for a couple of hours and went off to watch Herne Bay play in the afternoon with my assistant manager, Keith Lissenden.  

The kick-off on Sunday was 2 O’clock.   The gates opened at 12.30pm and, as the police had given us a capacity of 2,500, there was a rush for the last 400 tickets. 

The stewarding arrangements were organised by officials from Dover Athletic Football Club and you couldn’t walk 10 yards without an orange bib catching your eye. 

During the warm-up the players were getting applauded all around and the tingle I felt I am sure was shared by everybody in the ground.  

I saw my brother Tony and his wife Karen.   It only confirmed the importance of the game because Tony hadn’t been to watch football since Sir Alf Ramsey was just plain Alf. 

The previous day Chippenham had won through to the final by beating Vauxhall Motors with a Mark Cutler goal in extra time.  

I already had personal experience of Mark, who had terrorised my defenders in a fourth round Vase tie whilst playing for Taunton against Herne Bay two years before. 

I tried to contact Tommy Saunders on Saturday night but not surprisingly couldn’t get through.   I was again full of envy that his dream had been realised while I still had to suffer another agonising afternoon before I could join him.

So at 1.50pm on that Sunday my players walked out behind the officials and shoulder-to-shoulder with our Staffordshire opponents to play for perhaps the most coveted prize in any non-league players’ career, an appearance at the most famous stadium in the world.  

With the Charles Sports ground packed to its 2,500-capacity the game kicked-off and within moments I realised that the photograph of my late mother and wife was still in my briefcase, which I had left on the other side of the ground.  

I realised I couldn’t just wander around and collect it so I asked Ricky Bennett, who was injured and not in the named sixteen, to go and retrieve it.  

Armed with he combination for the case Ricky fought his way through the crowd.   Nearly five minutes later he returned minus the photograph saying the instructions I’d given him had not been clear enough.  Furnished once again with the details written on a piece of paper he set off again to complete what seemed to him a pointless mission. 

Good friends Martin Farne and Graham Hll, who had been quite close to both my mum and Carole, had in their possession a photograph each which I gave them and asked them to carry with them over the course of the two semi-final legs.  

I was struggling to watch the early minutes of the game because strange as it may seem to others the missing photograph had unsettled  me. 

I was annoyed that having got the photo ready to place in my blazer pocket I had allowed myself to be distracted and left it in the hospitality office area. 

Ricky finally arrived back puffing and blowing having fought his way through the six deep crowd twice.   Taking it from him I looked at it quickly and slipped it into my blazer breast inside pocket.  Able now to give my full concentration to the game after nearly ten minutes I sat back and watched as Steve Best broke through into the penalty area. 

That “Besty” was on his left foot meant that the quality of his delivery left a lot to be desired.   Pulling his cross behind our oncoming forwards meant a comfortable clearance for the lanky Newcastle town defender.........and then amazingly the ball was whistling into the Newcastle Town top left hand corner for the most bizarre of goals.  

The attempted clearance had struck Roly Graham flush on the knee and flown like a rocket past everyone and into the net.  

The ground erupted, Roly danced around the corner flag, once, before disappearing under a sea of black and white shirts.  We had established a three-goal cushion with 79 minutes football to play.  

After an animated minute of finger pointing, clapping and bellowing to my players I sat back into the dug-out to take stock and Jon Warden leaned over to me and said with a huge grin on his face “Your names on this, we’re going to Wembley”.  

I reached into my breast pocket and gazed momentarily  at two images beaming at me from the photograph.  

I still believe that they had heard me as I sat alone at the top of the temporary seating on  that Friday and were certainly going to take care of me on this, the most important afternoon of my career.