The 25th May 2003 was my 39th birthday. When the fixture list came out last summer, I sensed fate would decree we would be playing at Cardiff on my birthday - I’m a part-time witch! We arrived at our hotel in Newport on Saturday afternoon, proudly wearing our hoops. The hotel was the Celtic Manor - Lincoln City stayed there, we stayed there and Sheffield United stayed there. My witch-like tendencies hadn’t foreseen that the first person I would see in the lobby was Tommy Williams, phone stuck to his ear. The second person I saw was Kenny Jackett, who was just checking in. Kenny saw my shirt and we chatted. It took a while but it eventually dawned on me that I was staying in the same hotel as the team.
Seeing some of them on Saturday evening, looking pretty chilled, Olly was saying how proud he was of all the players, whatever happened on Sunday. The remarkable thing for me was that nothing was too much trouble for any of them - signing autographs or having photos taken. I managed to speak in turn to Paul Furlong, Stephen Kelly, Kevin McLeod, Andy Thomson, Danny Shittu and Clarke Carlisle, although confess to being a bit star-struck. When that happens, I just ramble on - so God knows what I was saying to the poor guys.
Sunday morning. Another year older and a birthday photo with Kevin Gallen and Marc Bircham. Kevin is my hero. Could it get any better? Oh yes, about the fire alarm. It went off at about 3.00am - and as we all now know was captured on CCTV. It revealed that Sam Hamman’s ex-minder, Neil MacNamara, walked out of his room, pressed the fire bell and went back to his room. In the morning I noticed David Davies looking pretty hacked off and asking staff if the bloke was still in custody. Those players I saw in the morning seemed okay and I only heard a couple of them pass any comment about it.
Supporters lined up in the lobby to applaud the team as they left for the Millennium Stadium. The funniest sight was watching them trying to pin on their button-holes - I guess we should have helped them but we were all too busy being snap happy. The noise of 80-odd supporters in the lobby singing “You R’s” was deafening. The players looked well chuffed. The best thing was hearing the team sing “Chim-chiminey...” as Danny got on the coach. Most of us had tears in our eyes as we waved them off.
And again, of course, when they arrived back. We’ve all cried our eyes out since then - not being one to hide my emotions, I was blubbing away as they all walked back into the lobby, looking absolutely gutted. Should we applaud? Cheer? No-one really knew what to do. We said the odd words of comfort and a few of us clapped. I sobbed. But the personal highlight for me was when Chris Day saw me blubbing and just came over and gave me a big hug, telling me not to worry, we’ll be back stronger next year, everything will be okay.
Clarke walked in and just kept saying, “I am so very sorry.” Shortly afterwards he was in the bar and a young lad asked him if he would mind signing an autograph - there were quite a few supporters sitting around then. He responded to the young lad and to all of us within earshot that after what we had all been through, we could ask for anything we liked. I resisted the temptation to say that he needed a healing shag, as my boyfriend was there!
Danny? Well this was heartbreaking. He is quite shy anyway and there were a few people from the club talking to him, saying what a fantastic job he had done. He just kept shaking his head, eyes looking at the ground, barely speaking. When I got a chance, I just went up to him and said that we were all so proud of him. He said “thank you” - but was so upset he just wanted to spend the night in his room on his own. I just felt for him and the tears were welling up (yes, again!).
In the bar I saw Chris Day and he came over to check that I was okay. He apologised for spoiling my birthday and pointed out that the play-offs will be the same time next year. He was even delaying his wedding. I told him not to because we don’t want to have to go through this again. I’d prefer finishing as champions, thanks! I saw Stephen Kelly in the lift and genuinely believe he was gutted. He said that he couldn’t believe the last few months. Before he came to us, he hadn’t even played in the league - and here he was, having played at the Millennium Stadium. He said he had to go back to Spurs but wanted to stay with us if he could. He was my biggest worry because in the morning he was the only one who looked really nervous. I’m not sure how many times he stabbed himself with his button-hole pin - until Steve Palmer came to the rescue.
Tommy Williams seemed to spend a great deal of time on his own. When I saw other players, they were always together in twos or threes. Even Mcleod and Kelly, who have been with us a relatively short time, seemed to be more ‘in’ with the rest of the team than Williams. I don’t know, maybe I was imagining it - but I start thinking about that chance... It was only later that I learned he was making his own video diary of the weekend - and the reason I saw him on his own so much was because he was always running around the hotel looking for his camcorder. I’m amazed he captured anything.
I then saw Langers. Turns out he hadn’t stayed at the hotel the previous night when the alarm nonsense happened. I was rambling on about how different it would have been had he been there, telling him about the ranting email exchange I’d had with the Football League after his two-game suspension had been confirmed. He was actually in mid-autograph and stopped. He looked really shocked and said: “You wrote to the Football League about me?” I said “yes” - and that lots of people had done. I don’t think he could quite believe it. He said: “Thank you very much. The supporters are just amazing.” Another tug at the heart strings.
Next was Stevie Palmer. His programme notes for the Oldham game had started the tears the week before - the lyrics of the Jam song Ghosts was very pertinent. As an oldie, I tend to associate songs from the Gift album with the happy days of the early 80s, getting to Wembley and winning the Second Division. Reading his notes after the game just set me off - and I told him so. He said he was sorry that the song didn’t bring the same luck to us today. The following day, we saw him again and my mate Dean said something along the lines of, “We’ll be stronger for this experience.” He replied: “Yes, the club will grow and be strong.”
By now, I’d had a couple of vodkas and was brave enough to chat to Tom Williams about that chance. I resisted the temptation to stamp my foot and shout, “Why, why, why” - and instead asked him very calmly what was going through his head. He said that as soon he’d passed the defenders, his legs just went - but his pain was pretty obvious. By this time I knew the team were having a ‘party’ somewhere in the hotel - somebody wearing a club blazer quietly walked over to where we were sitting and told us where it was and to come down. I was a bit gobsmacked, but we decided to go. Can’t miss a chance like this! There wasn’t much of an atmosphere - players were either sitting around tables with family or out in the bar.
My friend Dean had his baby daughter, Ella, with him and we asked Olly if we could have a photo. Olly was amazing. He said: “On one condition - I want to have a cuddle (with the baby that is!).” So he promptly took Ella and showed her off to his wife. Everyone was laughing saying, “You’re not getting broody again, Olly!” He happily stood there chatting, with babe in arms, saying again how proud he was of the team and that he would do everything in his power to keep them together, and hoped there would be investment to get more players. He said: “I’m saying this loudly so hopefully the directors will hear!” He was going to try to hold on to the loan players, but when I asked about Lee Cook, he shook his head and said that was pretty unlikely.
We managed to chat to Kenny Jackett and Kevin Gallen again. Kevin laughed at me when he saw I was wearing his T-shirt (club shop, £14.99!). For a while I was lost in my own thoughts just watching the players around me - who did they talk to, how did they seem? Many were with family, others were alone, like Andy Thomson and Matt Rose (minus sling). The young lads were together, like Dennis Oli, Marcus Bean, Leroy Griffiths and Terrell Forbes - he seems to be the comedian.
We left at about 10.00pm as everyone filed into eat. Later on we heard the music had been turned up and I’m sure I caught a rendition of Build Me Up Buttercup. Our rooms were on the same floor as the players and we met a few in the lift much later. They looked odd with their new suits and, by now, trainers. I think the new shoes were a tad uncomfortable. I saw Chris Plummer again and wished him well for next season, wherever he ended up. I then saw Danny Shittu (it’s about midnight) and asked him if he’d been up here all this time. He said “yes”, but felt it was time that he should be with the rest of the lads. I was so pleased after seeing him in total despair earlier. I said that if there was one person who deserved to party, it was him.
By now I couldn’t sleep and ended up chatting for ages to a youth team player who everyone called Maz (think it’s short for Marion) and Dennis Oli’s cousin. We talked about the game, referees, games/players of past eras - it took me a while to realise that neither of them were born when we played in the FA Cup Final. By now many of the players were turning in for the night. Some were trying to wake up Marcus Bean - whilst Terrell Forbes was running around on heat. I was told that he fancied Stephen Kelly’s sister and when she came up we had to give her his room number. I felt like a teacher at a school disco!
The next morning we made it down to breakfast and I was surprised to see a few of them down there - Tom Williams with his other half, Nick Culkin, Tony Roberts, Prav; Andy Thomson was also there but no sign of his homesick wife. I had a quick chat with him as he munched his toast (no shame, me!). He said he was thinking about his header. He felt the disappointment had hit him today. I said the thing for me was the thought of playing Brentford again. He said that’s exactly what all the players had said afterwards in the dressing-room. He obliged again with a photo, which we were sending to a Gillingham supporter who regards him as God. He was pretty chuffed when I told him that. I also saw Marc Bircham and he said that he felt worse today. I asked him about his injury in extra-time. He said it was his calf muscle but there was no way he was coming off because he was one of the penalty-takers.
We sat in the lobby and watched the Wolves and Sheffield United fans getting ready to go off. If only we could turn the clock back. Then, one by one, our merry band of hangover types made their way on to the coach. It was comical watching Scott Rushton and Kenny Jackett ringing up the players, telling them to get a move on. At one point they looked at us in despair, eyes to the heavens. I said it was like herding cats - no sooner had they got one on the coach, another one came off. Eventually they got fed up and said if we saw any more of the players, tell them that the coach had left. And it did. There was another one but it was hidden out of sight. I felt a bit mean saying that the coach had gone to the likes of Oli, Daly, Griffiths, Bean and Forbes, who said: “Well, I’m going on the Sheffield United coach back to Cardiff!”
The funniest sights were Kevin McLeod, who I don’t think had even slept, looking a bit unsteady to say the least and saying that someone should have had a camcorder in his room; Danny Murphy (looking like Noel Gallagher’s little brother), who propped himself up against a pillar and then decided to lie down on a pile of bags in the middle of the lobby; and another player, who shall remain nameless, who completely went into one when he realised on checking out that the club was paying for everything and if he’d realised he would have cleaned out the mini-bar - bless.
Finally it was sad to see the likes of Karl Connolly and Chris Plummer saying goodbye to the others - a real end-of-term feel. My pain was ever so slightly eased by seeing and speaking to the players. It was eased further on Monday evening, as I went to see Bruce Springsteen in concert. He certainly tried to take a knife and cut the pain from my heart. My ears are still ringing. I proudly wore my Rangers shirt to the concert and got quite a few “You R’s” directed at me - including the Goldrange security guards. Two of them actually said: “Make some room, people, we have a special lady in a hooped shirt coming through!” I will always be able to look back at the weekend with some feelings of happiness. Roll on August. And please, please - I do not want to be celebrating my 40th birthday in Cardiff next year. No pressure, lads!
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