We got there in the end. After the frustration of Stevenage and the heartache of Harrogate, United finally picked up the points they needed to secure automatic promotion to League One.
Pub gardens and living rooms all over the city were packed in nervous anticipation as fans logged on to iFollow for hopefully the last time. At the Abbey a band of fans gathered in Cut Throat Lane and on Newmarket Road, a little more subdued than the welcoming party that was there for the Stevenage game, but in fine voice regardless. In the dressing room Mark Bonner was addressing the players, telling them to play their game and the results would come. No need to panic.
Bonner made three changes from the side that played that rollercoaster match at Harrogate, defenders Jack Iredale and Declan Drysdale making way for Harrison Dunk and Jubril Okedina, and in midfield Hiram Boateng found himself on the bench to allow Liam O’Neil to take his place in the midfield.
In windy conditions United struggled to break down a Grimsby side playing for pride – an early shot from Mullin was tame, and Joe Ironside was getting smashed all over the place although the referee wasn’t paying any attention. On 25 mins the ref did finally notice a foul as Luke Hannant was felled on the edge of the box – he floated in his free kick which Ironside headed back towards Liam O’Neil to volley in and put United 1-0 up. The sense of relief around the ground was huge, the look on Liam’s face as he sprinted towards the corner flag told you how much it meant.
After taking the lead United allowed Grimsby a lot of the ball, although they weren’t doing much with it. Greg Taylor was marshalling his defence superbly, in midfield Paul Digby was the loudest voice in the ground. With the wind against them the U’s managed to restrict Grimsby’s chances and went in at half time with a small but comfortable lead.
The second half saw United carry on much as they left off, comfortable controlled possession, with a calmness about the players. None of the panicky defending we saw at Harrogate, United knew that if they continued to play then the result would come, just like Bonner said. On the hour mark United got another free kick thanks to a Grimsby handball, and Wes Hoolahan stepped up to send the ball into the box. The ball evaded pretty much all the players in the box, took a bounce and nestled in the far corner of the net. 2-0. Did he mean it? Probably not. Is he undoubtedly the greatest player to ever wear the Amber and Black? Absolutely yes.
The second goal gave United a much needed cushion and deflated Grimsby, so it wasn’t a surprise when United added a third twenty minutes later. It was even less of a surprise when the goalscorers name was announced as Paul Mullin, his well-struck three kick becoming his thirty-second goal of the season. A League Two record, a club record and one that secured him the golden boot.
The last time United got promoted we had to sit through an agonising ten minutes of injury time at Wembley against a rampant Gateshead side. The last ten minutes, plus one minute of added time against Grimsby felt like thirty seconds as the players saw out the result knowing that whatever was happening elsewhere, they were going up.
As the referee blew his whistle and the players celebrated, Harrison Dunk, United’s longest serving player and legend of the Conference promotion season, sunk to his knees in tears of joy. Mark Bonner hugged his coaching staff on the touchline before climbing the stands to embrace Ian Mather. Gaz Daniels and EFL staff rushed onto the pitch with the promotion hoardings, which they had wisely left hidden in a van this time, quickly erecting the board which was just as quickly crushed by a celebrating Hiram Boateng.
After a few photos on the pitch the players ran to the Newmarket Road End, climbing onto the turnstile block roof to greet the hordes of U’s fans gathered in the car park. As yellow and black smoke rose above the stadium the players danced and sang with the greatest fans in the country as the police and stewards begged them to come down. They were joined by man of the moment Mark Bonner who led the crowd in a rendition of E-I-E-I-E-I-O as years of emotions (and litres and litres of beer) flowed out. Shaun Derry. Colin Calderwood. Thrashings at Luton and MK Dons, the 4-0 home defeat to Salford and the 4-0 capitulation to Stevenage just after, all the utter shite we’ve been through over the past few seasons banished from memory.
So, we made hard work of the last couple of weeks. No U’s fan will ever want to watch a match like Harrogate ever again. The game against Stevenage has been forgotten about already. No-one is thinking about that any more. We’re thinking about trips to Sheffield Wednesday, to Portsmouth and Wigan and Ipswich Town. Who knows what next season holds? Who cares right now, let’s just enjoy this feeling whilst it lasts. It doesn’t come round often.
Man of the Match: Really you could pick any of them, over the course of the season you could pick any of them. Greg Taylor was magnificent in defence, Jubril Okedina looking ten years older than he is with a composed display. Kyle Knoyle, Harrison Dunk, Luke Hannant all fantastic. Paul Digby playing with a passion not seen since Paul Wanless. Wes Hoolahan a genius in midfield, Liam O’Neil proving all the doubters wrong. Joe Ironside, being Joe Ironside, going twelve rounds with every defender in the League this season and emerging victorious every time. Paul Mullin finishing the season how he started – with a goal. Callum Burton for keeping another clean sheet. The subs, the injured players, those that left the Abbey this season. Gary Waddock, Barry Corr, Mark Bunn and all the coaching team for what has been achieved this season is as much down to them as it is the players. But the one standout of Saturday, of the season really, it can only be Mark Bonner. In his first full season as manager, a fan who once had a season ticket in the Main Stand leading his club, this club, our club, to promotion.
Soundtrack of The Match: Probably the easiest one we’ve picked all season – Billy Cotton – I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts