When York’s Wembley double winners were ‘Barcelona of the Conference’
Having beaten Notts County 3-1 in the National League play-off final in August and secured an historic first promotion to the Football League (EFL), the Sulphurites returned to the home of football in early May, sinking Concord Rangers to belatedly win an FA Trophy final drastically delayed by Covid-19.
As special as that feat is for any club, let alone one the size of Harrogate, it cannot be forgotten that nine years earlier, North Yorkshire rivals York City pulled off exactly the same thing, just in somewhat rather more conventional fashion.
Without the chaos of a global pandemic to contend with, Gary Mills’s Minstermen did things the opposite way around during what was without question one of the most glorious weeks in their long history, seeing off Newport County 2-0 to wrap up the 2011-12 Trophy before going on to face Luton Town for a place in League Two.
Though City would eventually go on to record a 2-1 success courtesy of goals from Ashley Chambers and Matty Blair, the EFL looked a long way off when a young Andre Gray fired a neat low finish beyond Michael Ingham to hand the Hatters the ascendancy, sending their 30,000 supporters present inside the stadium into raptures.
From a York perspective, it was the stuff of nightmares. They could barely have made a more disastrous start to proceedings, though manager Mills insisted post-game that he never doubted his players would turn things around.
“I always believed because we’ve done it so many times this season and we’ve done it against Luton a couple of times,” he said.
“I knew we could do it again if we stuck to what we are about and didn’t panic.”
But what of the City players out on the pitch? A goal down and being blasted from all sides by a cacophony of raucous Luton fans, they were massively up against it.
But, according to goalkeeper Michael Ingham, not one of those 11 men were fazed, even for a minute.
“I always remember that when they scored the first goal early on their players and fans went crazy and we just got back in our formation and waited for them,” the former Northern Ireland international told The Yorkshire Post.
“I didn’t even smash the ball out of the back of the net after Andre Gray scored. We just passed it through the lads and waited in formation for them so we could start playing again.
“They were 1-0 up and going wild, but we’d silenced them (the Hatters’ supporters) after 10 minutes. Even Luton’s fans knew what was coming.”
What Ingham is alluding to is the fact that City had become the Bedfordshire outfit’s nemesis, beating them home and away during the regular season, including a 2-1 comeback win just six weeks previously which saw the Minstermen net twice in the last 10 minutes of the match.
That victory meant that York had got the better of their opponents on six of the previous 10 occasions that they had met. It was also one of 11 successes from their final 19 games of the campaign which secured a fourth-placed finish and meant that Ingham and his team-mates headed to the home of football in good form, high spirits and believing they held a psychological advantage.
“I’ve said this a number of times, we had Luton’s number. Our record against them was really strong,” the 40-year-old former Sunderland No 1 added.
“I think the biggest game for us was the second leg of the semi-final, away at Mansfield. I always believed that if we came through that game then we would go on to win both.
“We were on a roll towards the end of the season heading into the play-offs so we were confident.
“We had experienced players who had played at Wembley before and then the Newport game in the Trophy final helped some of the more inexperienced boys acclimatise ahead of Luton.
“We were playing really good football at the time, we were flying, we were winning games, on a run which meant that we had, I think, the best form going into the play-offs.
“We just had that confidence. We had belief in each other. That was the best changing room that I ever played in. We knew our own game and everyone knew everybody else’s strengths and weaknesses.”
One of City’s main strengths as a collective was their ability to retain possession and pass the football effectively.
A big weakness should have been the fact that they were missing key midfield duo Paddy McLaughlin and Scott Kerr through injury and were forced to deploy a number of players out of position in both Wembley showpieces.
But, for the ‘Barcelona of the Conference’, this was a problem that they could overcome.
“I think some people forget that for those two finals we had a lot of midfielders injured and we played with three defenders in midfield,” continued Ingham.
“We had Danny Parslow who is a centre-half playing holding midfield, we had James Merdedith and Lanre Oyebanjo in there as well, out of position.
“But, we knew how we wanted to play and we still played our own game and there were always goals in our front-three.
“We just passed the ball. I think we were probably the Barcelona of the Conference at the time. Some people liked it, some people didn’t because it was sometimes a bit slow and some people wanted us to get the ball forward quicker but we just had a style of play which Millsy wanted us to play and we all loved it.
“We loved training, we loved playing in that system and it brought the very best out of the squad that we had. We enjoyed everything, playing, training, travelling to away games together.”
That those players did love their football so much owed a great deal to the way that Mills handled them, and Ingham is adamant that it was the City chief’s man-management style that was key to the club’s 2011-12 success.
“Millsy was the greatest man-manager I’ve ever played under. He’d always put his arm around you, or tell you little things,” he added.
“I remember before the second Wembley game he came up to me and said ‘I had a dream last night that you were the hero and even if it goes to penalties you’ll save them, I’ve got complete belief in you’.
“I turned around and said to him ‘look gaffer, you don’t need to do that to me, I’m all right’ – but that’s what he was like, he was always trying to find a way to try and encourage all the players.
“I think he is the main reason that we achieved what we did because of his man-management.”
MID-May 2012 was a golden period for York City.
The Minstermen beat Newport County 2-0 in the FA Trophy final at Wembley on May 12 courtesy of goals from Matty Blair and Lanre Oyebanjo.
Five days later, City of York Council gave its approval for the club to relocate from their home at Bootham Crescent to a new development at Monks Cross, a move that was said to be crucial to guaranteeing their long-term future.
Then, on May 20, Ashley Chambers and that man Blair were on target as Gary Mills’s men saw off Luton Town to bring to an end their eight-season absence from the Football League.
Speaking at the time, goal-scoring hero Blair reflected: “It’s been one hell of a week, not just for me, for the whole of York City. We won the Trophy, we got the approval for the ground on Thursday and we’re now promoted. It’s like the hat-trick for York City.”
Fast-forward to 2021 and City are languishing in the sixth tier and their move to their new stadium has only recently been completed.
“It’s just unfortunate that the club has gone one way and Luton have gone the other way,” said goalkeeper Michael Ingham. “You’d probably have thought it would have been roles reversed if you asked me back in 2012.”