A memorable sporting event can show up where you least expect it, or so it seems right now as I thaw out in my hotel room in Northeast England. A last-minute decision I made, based mostly on industrial park hotel boredom, led me to Glanford Park, a tiny football stadium nestled behind a strip-center. Yes, an American-made Toys R Us, KFC, McDonalds, Travelodge ensemble that had me thinking for a second that my pony-tailed cab driver made a wrong turn on Doncaster Rd. and put us somewhere outside Fort Myers, Fla.
The 35-mile trip was for a match between Scunthorpe United (aka The Iron) and Tranmere Rovers in the Northern Semi-Final of a competition known as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
If that don’t get the juices flowin’, nothing will.
I got to the ground in time for a pre-game pint and a little pre-game conversation with Scunthorpe fans at the Iron Club. I settled into a standing-room spot behind the goal in the home supporters end, got myself a Pukka Pie (it was a meat and onion pie, and I purposely did not ask for the pronuncation of “Pukka”).
It was yet another one of those taste sensations that is both delicious and gross at the same time (see previous blog item about Sour Patch Kids and the McDonald's Southern Style Chicken Biscuit). Pies are all the rage at football matches in England, more popular than hot dogs by a long shot. The Pukka Pie did not agree with me, or perhaps it was the sausage roll I chased it with. I was later told that you don't go with back to back pastry.
It would be too easy to say the game was like a minor league baseball game, because the crowd size, about 2,600 would remind you of a Class-A game somewhere in the U.S., but as I listened to conversation all around me, it became clear that, to the good folks of Scunthorpe, this is The Show. These guys dissected the lineup, criticized the formation, ripped into players who have been "in poor form" of late. They took this match and their team seriously. Mere mention of Premier League Club Hull City, who in recent years have battled against The Iron got the following reaction. "F--- Hull City." Brilliant then.
In all likelihood, most of the fans’ fathers were Scunthorpe fans, as well as their grandfathers and great grandfathers…and “mums” and “nans” too. You're born into this stuff and it sticks.
When The Iron took a 1-0 lead in the first half, the home fans began to sing, “Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be. We’re going to Wem-ble-lee.” That would be Wembley Stadium in London, where the finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy will be held. For a club like Scunthorpe or Tranmere Rovers to play at Wembley is a thrill, even if it's to play for a less-than-glamorous trophy named after a paint company.
Tranmere tied the match, 1-1, in the second half and their supporters (about 300 made the two-hour trip from Liverpool on a Tuesday night) sang the same song.
As the minutes ticked off the clock, I was told that there would be no extra time if the game ended in a tie. It would be straight to penalty kicks. “But,” the fellow next to me said, “We have a flair for the dramatic. We have been known to score in stoppage time.”
On this night, however, it did not seem likely as the clock moved past 90 minutes. That was when Scunthorpe manager Nigel Atkins brought in striker Paul Hayes, who had broken his cheekbone and was too injured to play the game. He was being brought in for the purpose of taking one of his team’s penalties in the shootout and was wearing a half face mask reminiscent of Jason in Friday the 13th. But with the referee just about to blow his whistle to end the game, a foul was called on a Tranmere player about 30 yards from the net. Hayes stepped up to the ball and banged a hard right-footed shot that deflected off a Trannere defender, skipped off the wet grass, then clanged off the right post and into the net. The masked man had done it.
“Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be. We’re going to Wem-ble-lee,” the Scunthorpe fans sang once again. “Told you so!” my new friend said to me, giving me a high-five.
Indeed you did, mate, and I won’t forget it.