as the final whistle blew last Sunday at the Abbey Stadium, eight FC Halifax Town players slumped to the turf. The other three stood there, statue-like, staring into the distance.
All were visibly stunned. The dream of a trip to Wembley and, more importantly, a return to the Football League had been dashed.
Behind the goal that Halifax had been defending in the second half, the vast majority of the 1,074 fans who had travelled 150 miles to cheer on Neil Aspin’s men looked equally crest-fallen. A few clapped their fallen heroes but the rest just stared ahead, as hundreds of Cambridge United fans invaded the pitch in celebration.
Police and stewards rushed on in the wake of those interlopers to form a line of segregation between the two sets of fans but it was not needed. Malice was not in the air, just the contrasting emotions that come with winning or losing a play-off semi-final.
As the numbers on the pitch swelled, the euphoric celebrations were, even to someone who so wanted Halifax’s fairytale to get the happy ending at Wembley that it deserved, a sight to behold.
It reminded me of a night almost exactly 13 years earlier when, while covering Leeds United’s Champions League Odyssey coming to an end, I was witness to the most wonderful party atmosphere as thousands upon thousands of Valencia fans celebrated in the square that sits behind the main stand at the Mestella.
Like Halifax last weekend, I had been hoping to report on a famous Yorkshire victory that night in Spain. But the euphoric scenes and jubilation that those Valencia fans displayed because their side had booked a place in the final left me thinking, ‘If a Yorkshire team can’t win it, I really hope this lot do instead’.
What those Valencia fans vividly illustrated as the fireworks went off above the Mestella was that success for their football team mattered. And while there were no fireworks in Cambridge last weekend, the sentiment was the same. Cambridge United’s quest to return to the Football League mattered to its home city and the people who live there.
Which is why when the first leaks emerged about a possible restructure at the base of the football pyramid, I hoped that the scribes had got it wrong.
But no, yesterday’s publication of Greg Dyke’s England Commission included – among a raft of proposals designed to increase the number of English players in the top flight – a proposal to establish a new League Three in 2016-17 that would be made up of 10 Premier League B teams and 10 from the Conference.
Any B team squad would, under Dyke’s plan, be restricted to 25 players, 19 of whom should be under the age of 21. Twenty of the 25 should also satisfy the home-grown rule and no non-EU players will be allowed. No B team will be able to rise higher than League One and always be a minimum of one division below their parent club.
So far, Liverpool, both Manchester clubs, Spurs and Stoke have shown interest in taking part in this new structure.
The Football League came out against the idea straight away, with chief executive Shaun Harvey insisting that the report lacks, “a solution that is acceptable at the current time”.
In the jargon of the world inhabited by football governing bodies, that usually translates to, ‘Forget it, pal’.
It is to be hoped, therefore, that the League back up this stance and protect their members because, from yesterday’s report, the FA certainly have no intention of doing so.
Even if it could be proved that this B team proposal was going to improve the ratio of English footballers playing in the top flight – and I have my reservations – then why destroy what is a perfectly good set-up?
Okay, money may be tight in the lower echelons of League Two and the Conference. But the two leagues are fantastic competitions in their own right and deserve to stay that way.
What Dyke and his fellow panel members should be addressing is how Premier League clubs are able to stockpile youth talent from all over the world when, in reality, there is precious little chance of these players finding a path through to the first-team set-up.
Quotas for senior squads and the like are all well and good, but surely the best way to nurture potential is to sign the best lads at a young age and then develop them through a strong coaching set-up.
Chucking them in at 19 or 20 against Luton Town, Grimsby Town or whoever might aid that development but such an opportunity already exists to give the most promising talent a taste of lower league football. It is called the loan system.
The England team that turned out in the autumn regularly featured nine or 10 players who had either started their careers in the lower leagues or had a spell on loan there as a teenager.
For Frank Lampard, Swansea City was his learning ground. Danny Welbeck, meanwhile, had a stint at Preston, as did David Beckham. All developed into international players without Dyke’s proposal. So, why risk destroying the current League set-up when it can throw up such wonderful drama as last weekend’s play-off semi-finals.