Football: Fan's Eye View: Play-off insanity prevails: No 71: York City

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The Independent Online
IN MORE sedate times, I used to say that the fractions of a second that surround a York City goal were the occasions of my truest sanity. Nowadays, each such event, riven with emotional intensity, might test the most balanced of minds.

The days are long gone when the brandishing of a pounds 20 note at the turnstile brought rumours of a takeover bid, when it was alleged that 98 per cent of City supporters were old men and small children (the other 2 per cent being me and my brother), and our playing surface was the finest in the land, because the manager put so much shit on it. Not any more.

Now, the current manager, Alan Little, cuts a very cool and statesmanlike figure as his side stand on the brink of another series of play-offs, and perhaps the second Wembley appearance in 12 months. Can the febrile grey matter take another day like that?

The first would have tested the most Zen-calm of human psyches. Those who are used to following the club round the rocks and hard places of the League's nether regions found the well-loved red shirts landing on a very different planet last May. It ought never to have been that way. We should have won the championship, everyone knows that.

But there we were. And 25 years of standing on the Shippo at Bootham Crescent simply had not prepared me for such an occasion. Still, inhibitions were shed, the daft hats donned, and even the most usually reserved among us could be heard mumbling 'Red Army, Red Army' as the side took to the sun-soaked turf.

Our opponents were Crewe, the Alex, a club not unlike our own: well-run, but having spent most of their life in the League's unstarlit ranks. And they could yet wreck everything. The soul was wrenched through a goalless 90 minutes, though when Swann scored in extra time, a divine justice seemed at last on its way - we are the Minster Men and God knows our hearts are pure and needy . . .

But the faith was sorely tested with three minutes to go and the conceding of a needless penalty. Oh, tut tut, Tutill, did you know what you were doing to us? Just the thought of it brings on the curious habit of self- depilation, visions of well-intentioned men in white coats . . . There, there, never mind. With Ginner Hall's final penalty of the shoot-out, the last kick of the longest season known to madmen and City players alike, we were up, into the ether of psychotic relief, and the Second Division.

Once there, no one knew what to expect. Mid-table 'consolidation' is the usual tepid aspiration. But after a decent start to the campaign, a hiccup or two, New Year's Day came and at the precise moment of Paul Barnes's goal against Port Vale, suddenly there was no one to fear. And it could all happen again.

Past achievements flicker in the boiling head - two stoutly fought seasons in the old Second Division, the Fourth Division championship, the stuffing of Arsenal 1-0. The names come, too - the defensive backbones of Jackson, Swallow, the grace of Boyer, Byrne, the goals of MacDougall, Aimson, Walwyn. But I cannot remember a side quite as fast maturing and effective as the present one - Jon McCarthy's slicing and filleting of a defence, Barnes's pitiless strikes, Dean Kiely's palpable goalkeeping confidence. Everyone respects us.

And in a few weeks' time we could be back at Wembley and one's sanity will once again be on the line. The mind simmers, babbles. Is it worth the price?

Give me the address of the madhouse.

Paul Sayer won the Whitbread Book of the Year award in 1988 with his first novel, The Comforts of Madness. His fourth, The Storm-Bringer, will be published in May, play-off dates permitting.