"It’s better that we did it ourselves rather than rely on Northampton to do it for us." That’s how one triumphantly relieved Leyton Orient fan summed up their dramatic injury time victory at Oxford United that earned them automatic promotion regardless of whether or not Northampton could hold off Grimsby.
At the end of regulation time, with the score at 2-2, the day’s theme song looked destined to be "Everybody Hurts" as a draw was neither enough for Orient’s promotion nor Oxford’s league survival. Four minutes later there were four and a half thousand shiny happy people from East London near wild heaven. Everywhere else in the stadium it was the end of the world as they knew it.
Injury time took up where the ninety minutes had left off. "Too tense! Too tense! We had a radio to know what was going on and just the noise and… way too tense!" As far back as Thursday Orient fans had described difficulty in eating and sleeping. Numbness was now descending. Grimsby led at Northampton. Late substitute Daryl McMahon fired limply wide. Keeper Glyn Garner flailed a clearing punch away from a charging Oxford forward. Opening goalscorer Craig Easton committed a foul and punched the earth in frustration.
Suddenly another substitute, Jabo Ibehre, is behind the defence. He’s clear. There’s only the Oxford goalkeeper to beat. Twelve yards. The whole season…
Ibehre later admits to being overwhelmed with tension. Now Garner’s taking a free kick ten yards inside the Oxford half. His three defenders are behind him. The Oxford attackers they’re marking outnumber them. Gary Alexander, scorer of the second, receives it on the left. His cross reaches striker Lee Steele. It’s an acrobatic lunge, but it’s wide.
Then, suddenly, the whole Orient stand is up, bellowing delight. They’re punching holes in the sky. They think it’s all over.
Oxford fans, realising Northampton must have equalised, plead for Orient to let them score, but the game’s momentum is irresistible and Alexander has the ball on the left again. He’s past the only two Oxford defenders. And so are four of his team-mates. He slides it into the middle. It’s Lee Steele. He joined Orient from Oxford. He hasn’t scored this year.
He has now.
On one side of the stadium a party began that was still going strong forty-five minutes later before people remembered they had to drive home. Two stands and one wooden fence full of Oxford fans, hypnotised with shock, stayed to grieve, to come to terms. Seventy yards away there was good-natured bedlam. Orient players, bare-chested, cavorted with their loyal fans and team officials. Beaming chairman Barry Hearn gave interviews claiming this meant more to him than any of his famous boxing or snooker achievements.
For those who’ve been to Carlisle, to Torquay, to Darlington season after season, this is why. After the despair of Wembley ’99 and Cardiff ’01, at long last a rapturous repeat of the promotion campaign of 1989. Football fans can never be sure when they might celebrate so joyously again. Or can they?
"We’re going to do a Southend. Two on the bounce, definitely!"