Wembley 2000: A 9 year old’s tale

Coach 10, Hamilton Square. Destination: London. That was my route down to Wembley last time Tranmere played there.

It is February 27th 2000 and it is early, very early, on a Sunday morning. I’m wearing a hideous tracksuit, but underneath is a beautiful new shirt, white with dark blue stripes, whilst a souvenir edition scarf is nestled in my lap.

My dad and I catch a lift to Birkenhead with a couple of family friends who were actually driving all the way to the capital themselves.

We hit a red light on the way and I distinctly remember the man turning to his wife and saying “that’s it, they’ll all be like this because you’re with me.”

Superstitious? Maybe. But this is the same guy who missed the League Cup semi-final because his clutch broke on the motorway on the way to Bolton.

Eventually we joined the hundreds, if not thousands, of other supporters making their way down south using the official club transport.

There were that many buses that they could not all leave Prenton Park at the same time. It was quite a sight. It was as if the Wirral was emptying itself.

Everybody was desperate for a piece of the action. Rovers had been in the mainstream media for the last decade or so, courtesy of the work of John King, Peter Johnson and co.

They had played at Wembley before. Firstly in the Mercantile Credit Football Festival in 1988, before reaching back-to-back play-off and Leyland DAF finals in 1990 and 1991.

This was different though. Tranmere had never reached a major cup final before. In fact, bar the previous few years, they had barely achieved anything,

John Aldridge was the man who guided them there, overcoming Blackpool, Coventry, Oxford, Barnsley, Middlesbrough and Bolton – and fortuitously being handed a home tie in each round.

I was only nine years old. But even then I knew just how exciting this was. Any kid interested in football knows getting to a final is a big deal. Perhaps what I could not comprehend was just how sensational this was for Tranmere Rovers.

The long journey started, and soon we were on the motorway. I had a mini-disc (remember them?) that my dad had made me. Perhaps aptly, one song I remember being on it was “Believe” by Cher, released just over a year earlier.

Another track had been copied over from a cassette, “Every Ball’s A White Ball” by Scotch on the Rocks.

This was the club’s official Wembley sound song. I still have the tape at home, and despite not listening to it for a good 15 years, I can probably remember it word for word.

The roads seemed a sea of white and blue. Everywhere you looked, there were coaches leapfrogging each other – fans dancing in the aisles – and cars flying flags and scarves.

We had some form of packed lunch, probably a classic Dairy Lea sandwich, and before you knew it, Coach 10 was pulling off the motorway and heading towards The Twin Towers.

What a sight. I have been fortunate enough to watch several great sporting events since, and visiting certain venues takes your breath away – such as walking into Wimbledon for the first time, or heading to your first Grand National at Aintree. This memory is right up there.

It was huge. I had not been to many away games by this stage in life, so, to me, Prenton Park was big. But Wembley was something completely different.

“You’ve never been in a crowd this big before,” my dad saying to me. And he was right. Everywhere you looked there were people, all of them heading to the game.

Wembley Way was stunning. This was not the hustle and bustle of any ordinary crowd. Each and every one was excited. What would the next few hours hold for them?

We bumped into a couple of Leicester fans, who sportingly stopped for a photo with me. I stood there, proud as punch, scarf lifted as high above my head as possible. Smiles all round.

Soon, we moved into the stadium. It took an age to get to our seats, positioned high in the stand and just to the right of the goal as you looked at the pitch.

As the stadium grew ever fuller, the music seemed to get louder and louder. Tranmere fans roundly booed “Simply The Best” by Tina Turner, Leicester’s designated League Cup Final song.

But they brought the house down when “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys was blasted out, changing the chorus to “Ooo Aaa, Davey Challinor” whilst making a throw-in action above their heads.

Before long, Wembley is full, and it’s unbelievably noisy. The Super White Army are playing their part, waving thousands of blue and white flags and getting evermore excited.

There is a firework display before kick off, whilst some huge inflatables, including one for each team, are removed from the field.

And then, the moment everybody had been waiting for. John Aldridge and Martin O’Neill lead out their troops. Ready for battle. Desperate for success. Committed to the cause.

I do not remember much of the first half, but Matt Elliott puts Leicester ahead within the opening 30 minutes, losing his man to head home via the crossbar and Joe Murphy’s back.

By now, Clint Hill had been booked, and shortly after half-time, the defender received his marching orders for a second yellow, this time for a foul on Emile Heskey.

This is familiar territory for Tranmere. It is not the first time their young centre-back had been sent off and, naturally, the fans responded by screaming “You Only Need Ten Men”.

Being a man down did give Rovers a mountain to climb though. The odds were stacked against them responding.

But boy did they fight back. Gareth Roberts punts a long, hopeful free-kick forward, Gary Jones flicks it on and David Kelly, the competition’s top scorer, slams past Tim Flowers.

Delirium. Joy. Disbelief. It is a goal I have watched hundreds of times since. It is the last time a Rovers player found the back of the net at Wembley.

The Super White Army went wild (as did Kelly, who sprinted behind the goal, rounding the advertising hoardings as he celebrated with glee). Could it really happen? Were “little” Tranmere going to win a major cup competition? Well now, at 1-1, they had a chance.

Unfortunately, their cheers did not last long. As “you’re not singing anymore” echoed around Wembley, Leicester won another corner, and once again Elliott headed home.

2-1. Hearts broken. Heads dropped. Eyes filling up. Half the stadium falls into deafening silence, the other produces a noise more nauseating than anything before.

Unfortunately, Tranmere cannot recover this time. “Boring, boring Leicester” their fans sing. The opposition do not care. They have won, and before long, up the famous steps they go to lift the trophy.

Elliott is named man of the match, a decision that is booed by the Rovers supporters, many of whom stay to sportingly watch the cup handed over. They do not know if they will ever be in this situation again.

After proudly clapping our boys back into the dressing room, we begin the long climb down and exit the stadium.

My dad tells me we have just walked past Gary Lineker. To be honest, I do not even know who Gary Lineker is. I do not even care. I am too upset. This result hurts big time.

We head back to the car park and re-board the coach. What we did not know was that Wembley was not built for shifting traffic quickly.

It takes an absolute age to get back on the main roads. Probably three or four hours, but after what has just happened, it feels like weeks.

By about 12pm, we are still nowhere near home and the coach pulls into a service station.

There, the driver is replaced. She has passed the legal limit and needs a break.

The passengers are all pretty fed up by now. The game was lost and they just want to get home.

But the new driver is, well, a bit different. “Call me Ducky” he proudly announces, much to the dismay of those on board, before blasting out a cassette that nobody bar him appreciates.

I am trying to sleep, but it is difficult with this racket on.

What seems like a lifetime later, we finally arrive back in Birkenhead. I have managed to nod off a little bit, but wake up with a huge bump on my head after banging it on the window.

I stagger down the steps and after a short taxi journey, we are back in Heswall.

I climb into the top bunk of my bed and with my head buzzing with the thoughts of the day, I finally drift off to sleep.

Because we got back so late, my mum gives me the next morning off school (what would the authorities say now?!). Year 5 maths can wait!

At the time, that felt like the best thing to come out of the day. That, and the memories that will last a life time. Today, more unforgettable moments are on the way.

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