He'll carry on regardless
They'll bleed his heart 'til there's no more blood
But carry on regardless
(Dave Rotheray/Paul Heaton)
Dusk falling on Saturday night and as our coach wound its steady way back up the M1 I described the day's denouement as devastatingly inevitable. Many fans of other clubs graciously commiserated and said it was the worst way to lose. It is, whether it lasts 4 or 5 penalties or goes all the way through to 11, or beyond.
The fact that we finished, over 46 games, 9 points clear in third makes it even harder to bear. The reality is that over 120 minutes at Wembley, when it mattered, we were second best on the pitch and unable to hold our nerve when it really mattered. I could talk about my long-held lack of agreement with the play-off system, but given the timing that would just come across as bitter and I am not. These are the rules, this is the system in place and we knew what finishing third meant.
The inevitability may seem odd, it may seem like a typically pessimistic comment from a football fan managing expectations, but this was United's fourth play-off final and Saturday's result leaves us with a record of Won 0 Goals Scored 0 Goals Against 5. You would struggle to find a club with such a poor play off final record.
Throw in the sequence of events at the culmination of this season, from the jailing of Ched Evans and its impact on morale and team structure, to the injuries to subsequent key players such as Hoskins, Cresswell and McDonald, to the reckless stupidity of James Beattie's sending off in the final league game at Exeter and the relentless and ultimately successful pursuit of second by Wednesday. All have contributed to what has felt like a slow and painful death by a thousand cuts, the final swipe at around 6:35 pm on Saturday was the deepest and finally proved fatal.
Despite playing poorly and riding our luck a little we took it to extra time, somewhere we had never taken a final before. They even had me believing in the shoot-out. After Town had missed their first three penalties, I honestly believed Lowton would score and that would leave us two up with two penalties left.
He missed. I clutched my little boy's hand, more for my emotional support rather than his, and early in the sudden death element of the shoot-out he turned to me and said;
"Daddy, can we go back to the coach now?"
"No, the shootout is still happening, why do you want to leave?"
"Because they (Huddersfield) are going to win"
Very perceptive my boy, he has learned "The Blades Way" of doing things at a tender age. For those of us much older we become hardened by it. We are used to disappointment and despite the positive support and encouragement we give the team, we train our minds to expect the worst. It doesn't make it any easier to deal with.
The support was more positive and lively than at previous finals, but Wembley has a horribly negative effect on atmosphere, with chants starting within groups of fans cast around the stadium and the sound seemingly travelling with a delay. At one point there were about four versions of the Greasy Chip Butty song drifting around the stadium at various stages of fulfilment. The creation of a single unifying chant seemed difficult unless it was more rudimentary in nature and benefitted from the rhythm of clappers, as used by Huddersfield fans.
The match was poor. United applying what in effect was a 4-5-1 formation, although the management would claim that Stephen Quinn was to push on from midfield to make it a 4-4-1-1. The aim clearly being to stifle the threat from Huddersfield and try and nick a goal, as we had against Stevenage. It was a similarly gritty match to the Stevenage games, with little skill on show, plenty of mistakes and scrappy play.
What frustrated me was United's contentment in launching the ball forward, instead of playing it from the back in a manner which had brought success all season. Clearly missing our midfield playmaker Kevin McDonald I would have liked to have seen Lee Williamson playing alongside Michael Doyle, giving someone to put a foot on the ball, steady the nerves and dictate possession. United offered little attacking threat. The final ball often letting us down, with two few players attacking the area and for those that did the ball was played behind them or too close to Smithies in the Town goal.
Huddersfield were the better side and provided more attacking threat throughout. On the day I can't argue with the outcome. We didn't play positively enough and lacked the fluency with which we have played all season. Whilst I couldn't say that we didn't turn up - an accusation levelled at the United team at previous finals - we didn't play to our strengths and had the look of a tired side shorn of our most potent threats.
On Sunday, whilst uploading my photos from the day, I named the folder "Wembley 2013". I could blame it on tiredness or a touch of sunstroke, but it wasn't until later in the day I noticed I had done it. When I realised my mistake the first thought in my head was,
"Please God, No!"
If Wembley 2013 does happen, many United fans won't be there; not prepared to endure more potential heartbreak at such a significant mental and financial cost and do you know what? A bit of me doesn't blame them.
Maybe, in this age of bragging over levels of support, where attendances seem more important than on pitch results to some; where measuring fan loyalty and tiresome debates of how big a fan you are become increasingly prevalent; such an attitude seems odd.
But for everyone there is a breaking point. For my dad that was the last final versus Burnley three years ago. This time, at 70 years old, the cost, the long journey, the "buggering about" before the match and past disappointment all caught up with him. I missed him not being there. He will still be there at Bramall Lane next season though and still supports the team with a passion, but for him the big days out are finished through choice. I still have an appetite for it, slightly dimmed, but it's still there.
I still believe our day in the sun, with a result to match, will come and I want to be there for it. It might be a League One play off it may be a JP Trophy final, but if and when Wembley comes round again I'll be there and, despite the mental damage limitation, I'll still believe.
On leaving The Green Man pub pre-match I saw a large flag attached to a garden fence backing on to the beer garden. Sheffield United - Carry On Regardless. Three words which sum up the life of a football fan and a song whose lyrics can be used to demonstrate the vain hope of football fans who place their faith in the universal liar.
I want my love, my joy, my laugh, my smile, my needs
Not in the star signs
Or the palm that she reads
I want my sun-drenched, wind-swept Ingrid Bergman kiss
Not in the next life
I want it in this
I want it in this
For those who read my last blog post; "Me, My Son and Wembley" I am pleased to say that despite the result we had a fun day out. We ate sweets and crisps, til we were full, I drank beer in the sun whilst we played football, we walked down Wembley Way to mingle with the crowds, he waved his flag and blew his horn and, thanks to some tweeting I did for the Football League, we were able to go pitch-side for photos as the players warmed up.
We held hands tightly as the penalties were taken and grasped them even tighter as we navigated the crowds back to the coach. Eventually, despite his protests about not being tired, he fell asleep on me as the coach neared Sheffield. His painted Blades badge, a sweat-smeared red and white smudge across his cheek. It was a day that filled up our senses and that at times he struggled to take in, but we have some great photos and some great memories to remind us in future years. We will just choose to forget about the match.