Issue BfB watches the play off finals: Part one, Stevenage v Torquay United

As told by Jason Mckeown

45 minutes before the League Two play off final was due to start, it was announced kick off would be delayed by 15 minutes due to both sets of supporters struggling to get up the M6. It was just one of a number of indications over the unsuitability of Old Trafford as the venue for this showpiece occasion.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, and the booking of Manchester United’s home – with the Football League forced to find an alternative venue when their Wembley booking was torn up due to make way for the lucrative UEFA Champions League Final being staged in London – was made months before the play off line up was confirmed. But the 269 miles Torquay fans had to travel and 185 mile journey for Stevenage supporters meant Old Trafford was hardly an appropriate neutral venue for everyone involved.

And as the team’s walked out 15 minutes later than planned, the number of empty seats outranked those with occupants by some 6 to 1. The 76,000 capacity Old Trafford has just 11,484 attendees, as both clubs surely rue how many of the town’s floating supporters had elected to watch the game at home on TV rather than getting up extra early today.

Seeing Old Trafford so under-utilised only throws up more regret from a Bradford City point of view too. Of course we were nowhere near getting into the play offs this season, but – aside from the basement division’s promoted top three and the two teams involved today – every set of League Two supporters in the land were today wishing they could swap shoes with Torquay or Stevenage. 15 years on from City’s 2-0 victory over Notts County at Wembley, where over 30,000 Bradfordians amassed down South, one can’t help but wonder how much fuller Old Trafford would have looked today with City’s presence.

And what an advantage tens of thousands of our supporters could have offered the players compared to the 5,000 Torquay and Stevenage each took today.

Alas it was not to be for us, again. And viewed on Valley Parade evidence it seems Torquay will be clear winners today. Their 3-0 victory over us some seven weeks ago may have been aided by injury and contract issues that left us with without a right back, but the manner Paul Buckle’s men had zipped the ball around suggested a team on the brink of something special. We saw Stevenage last August, in one of the season’s strangest occasions. An unconvincing 1-0 victory over the newly-promoted visitors was infamously greeted by boos at the final whistle. It didn’t feel clever at the time, but viewed in the context of how both sides’ campaigns went the reaction now seems astonishing.

Yet Stevenage start much brighter this afternoon, attacking an anxious Torquay down both flanks with Darius Charles catching the eye out wide and Stacey Long probing in the centre. They create a couple of early half chances that cause Gulls defender Guy Branston into some timely blocks, while Charles heads over a glorious chance. Stevenage’s always lively supporters maintain the dale cavese chant, out-singing their counterparts.

Torquay gradually come more into it, despite star player Chris Zebroski looking somewhat below par on the right hand flank. On the opposite side Jake Robinson is in the thick of the action, befitting a man who has dominated much of Torquay’s headlines this season.

Robinson, you may remember, began the campaign with a hat trick against City for Shrewsbury. In late January he was loaned to Torquay, and the paperwork caused headaches for both clubs. First United played him before he was eligible – eventually leading to a one-point deduction. Shrewsbury, amazingly, failed to prevent Robinson from playing against them; an administrative error which came back to bite when Jake netted twice in a 5-0 romp for Torquay over Town. He also played twice against Shrewsbury as Torquay overcame them in the play off semis.

Just before half time Stevenage got the goal they deserved through a long range effort from the impressive midfielder John Mousinho. It opens up the game more and Branston almost equalises when he heads wide from a corner, but as the half time whistle goes he knows his team must improve.

There is a renewed determination as they attack towards their fans, with Zebroski forcing a good save from Chris Day and then Billy Kee messing up a great chance when played through one-on-one. Stevenage, who have built a reputation for playing physical football and possessing strong levels of fitness (training sessions last 10-5 each day), seem happy to soak up pressure and play on the counter attack. From a rare set piece, an unmarked Darren Murphy heads wide when he should make it 2-0.

It doesn’t look like Torquay’s day, a feeling reinforced when Robinson’s long range belter smacks the cross bar. The longer the half goes on, the rarer Gulls attacks become and the game seems decided before the four minutes stoppage time are signalled. They may be rattling around in an empty stadium, but the roar of Stevenage fans at full time is still impressive in volume.

Stevenage probably haven’t had the credit they deserve this season – the play off semi final win over Accrington widely put down to Stanley underperforming; while it can be argued Torquay didn’t turn up today, causing the defeat – but they will probably cope better in League One next year than last season’s play off victors, Dagenham & Redbridge. And there provide interesting ideas for others to consider – how many other teams will next season train until 5pm?

But in addition to feeling jealous at Stevenage celebrating, for us City fans the day ends back where it started in considering long distances. Next season’s League Two is already much more southern-based, so for the shorter journey of two clubs – Stevenage – to go up and Torquay to stay down is disappointing.

305 miles from Valley Parade to Plainmoor, though the distance between City and Stevenage is now much further than we’d ever have expected 10 months ago.