Somehow, partly by luck but mainly by hard work from those in the hot-seats, April 28th arrived with just the last round of league fixtures and the cup final to play, as well as the now decided play-offs for promotion.
A public vote, naturally conducted via Gary Lineker’s Twitter page had decided that promotion and relegation between leagues would echo the old system, the bottom three of the Phoenix, being replaced by the top two of the Ashes league, with a Wembley play-off between 3rd place and the winners of a single game between 4th and 5th.
A similar arrangement for the switch between Ashes and Conference, however the final of their play-off would be hosted at a venue equidistant between the teams, and perhaps surprisingly, a mini- knockout tournament of non-league applicants would offer one team to challenge the 60th placed team for a winner-takes-all claim to a league spot next term – if next term should definitely go ahead, that is.
Despite all the controversy the season had provided, with one game to play nearly everything was settled, The first-ever Phoenix League Titleholders had been confirmed with two games to play, Southampton having slipped away after the transfer window robbed them of their goalscorer Foden. The title had been handed to Burnley, who had played a remarkably calm season, almost under the radar, Manager Joey Barton had built a team of physical, but fair, flair free footballers and had entered the last three games nine points ahead of Southampton, with the teams facing off on April 14th. It was all to be in Burnley’s hands, or, more accurately it would be out of Southampton ‘Keepers Ridley Chase, who dropped a cross onto the boot of Burnley midfielder Bryce Barton (no relation). A 1-0 victory for Burnley to claim the title.
Relegation for three teams would be confirmed within the following week, Norwich simply had never got going again after a cruel triple red-card incident in February took them from a potential 1-0 win to a 3-1 loss away at Sheffield United, Referee Daryl Murphy saw fit to send off the Canaries Keeper Chris Candage for a clash resulting in a penalty. Then, bizarrely, substitute ‘keeper and younger brother of Candage, Carl chose to ‘tell Murphy what he thought of him’ which saw Candage junior head for the changing rooms too. Captain and half-brother of the two ‘keepers Daniel Candage-Baggin then saw red for a cynical tackle on United striker Heath, which led to a very awkward journey home for the Candage crew, especially as the father of all three dismissed players is Norwich Manager, Ivan Candage.
Joining Norwich in relegation would be a rather surprising two from three, Arsenal, West Ham and Tottenham all finding life in the new era very hard, with the large percentage of talented players not wanting to spend too much time in London. All three teams had struggled for form, in the end, Arsenal would be saved by a last-ditch winner at the Bobby Moore Stadium, sending the Hammers to the Ashes with seconds left.
The top two places in the Ashes were claimed early, Sunderland and Coventry Wanderers had been relentless in their campaigns, leaving third-placed Ipswich fourteen points behind, and anxiously awaiting the play-off contenders, Middlesbrough, with Charlton needing to see off Peterborough on the last day to claim 5th.
Relegated to the Conference would be Blackmore Fleet, Oxford and Hull, and being replaced by St Georges Park, Cornwall County and the eventual winner from Plymouth, Tranmere and Bury.
Awaiting the lottery of the face-off game against a non-league team (widely expected to be AFC Man- Citizens) would be Port Vale, bemoaning an injury crisis and a severe run of bad luck, in truth it was the lack of a recognised sub-goalkeeper for the first half of the season when your first (and only) choice gets arrested for affray.
All eyes were now on the cup final, non-league AFC Man-Citizens had beaten teams from each tier on their way to Wembley, and were now set to face St George’s, whos run-in had been remarkably less taxing. St George’s had beaten Port Vale, Carlisle and Northampton, whilst Citizens had faced both Liverpool and Manchester United either side of Essex United on their journey.
Wembley was decidedly unevenly split, Citizens had the majority of supporters there, yet for some reason, their tickets would not register in the turnstiles, and the game kicked off in front of fewer than 10,000 fans, mostly dignitaries and St George’s fans, St George’s fan base had been mainly growing in the areas where teams had folded, a lot of threadbare Chelsea shirts were on show, Bournemouth too.
The game sparked into life in the 18th minute, Referee Walcott (who had been outstanding all season) blew up for a free-kick against Alexander-Arnold, no protest from A.A. about the alleged shirt pulling, but Mason Mount clearly disagreed, earning a yellow card for his dramatic protest.
From 25 yards out, Citizens part-time full-back Daniel Frost whipped the mitre delta into the six-yard box which found the forehead of Citizens old-style target man, the aptly named Dave Targett, 1-0 or was it?
VAR had been brought back into football for the final, but nothing showed up on the big screen, a kerfuffle in the FA directors box was obscured by the smoke-screened glass, and referee Walcott was clutching his earpiece, it appeared he was arguing with someone. The substitute referee, Bradley Wright-Phillips, seemed to be warming up, but Walcott was not leaving the field, instead, he signalled the goal would stand, and play resumed.
Citizens assistant manager Jamie Vardy disappeared from the touchline, more disquiet in the Director’s box. and Vardy reemerged, laughing and carrying a pint.
St George’s was now hitting top gear, and Citizens found themselves defending for the remainder of the first half, Harry Wright making multiple saves. At this rate, Citizens will be fending off a St George approach for him in the summer. Half-time 1-0
The second half began in a similar style, but on the break Frost, playing the game of his life squeezed between the St George pair of Mount and Grealish, to slot the ball through to an unmarked Targett. 2-0 and no chance of VAR involvement, especially as it appeared Walcott was no longer wearing an earpiece.
St Georges were losing to a team without a league place, and that was unacceptable, Ferdinand, looking uncomfortable in his four-piece suit and cravat kept screaming at his players, but nothing seemed to work, rarely it does. On the 89th minute, Foden blasted wide, and it signalled the end for St Georges, gifting the ball back to the industrious Citizens meant that realistically the game was over, and six added minutes later it was.
The first season back was over, an unlikely Champion in both the League and the Cup, Burnley and Citizens overcoming the odds, and in Citizens case, the FA too.
The following morning a statement appeared on Twitter, but it was not from Lineker, but the original FA twitter handle.
The FA would like to announce the vacancies for Chair, Vice-Chair and ten board members are now all advertised on. Indeed, we thank our first regime for their efforts, but have decided we would prefer a more honest approach in future.