OK, so England have won one World Cup (nice to be better than Australia at something) and are well on the way to losing another (excuse me, Lord Triesman, can you speak up a bit? The microphone on my secret hidden tape recorder isn’t very powerful).
There is, though, only one big topic of sporting conversation this week: How on earth will Sky go about hyping up their live coverage of Morecambe’s play-off semi-final second leg against Dagenham and Redbridge tomorrow night?
Morecambe are 6-0 down after Sunday’s first leg, which means tomorrow’s game will be either the most pointless match Sky have ever shown live, or the most extraordinary.
The match will at least carry some local interest, as it will be the final game at Christie Park, with the Shrimps moving to the Globe Arena for the start of next season. And the fact that Morecambe reached the League Two play-offs at all is a tribute to the incredible progress they have made under manager Sammy McIlroy, who took them into the Football League three years ago.
Even this season, a relegation battle looked likely early on after they won one of their opening 14 league matches, and sat 21st in mid-October. Yet even then, those stats didn’t tell the full story. Of those 14 games, nine had been drawn, proving that Morecambe were a tough side to beat. And the one win had come, memorably, against the only Notts County line-up ever to include Sol Campbell.
While subsequent events suggested that Campbell would have quit Meadow Lane even without a good roughing up at Christie Park, it must still have come as a culture shock. It’s a cosy, tight, atmospheric, old-fashioned ground, with a manual scoreboard, a makeshift TV gantry and uncovered terracing down one side.
Campbell may have been the highest-profile visiting player to struggle at Christie Park this season, but he wasn’t the only one. Morecambe lost just three League Two games at home this season, fewer than any other club in the division bar Notts County. In a division where fortunes can fluctuate so wildly, and where there is so little to choose between many of the teams, good home form can make all the difference.
And so it did for Morecambe, who managed to get their momentum going when it mattered most. McIlroy’s signing of giant striker Paul Mullin – prised away from Accrington, where he had spent a decade – proved inspired. A run of seven wins in eight league games propelled them up the table before Christmas. And then, after a mid-season blip, they won seven of their final nine matches of the regular season to finish fourth.
Perhaps the most extraordinary of those wins came at home to Crewe on Good Friday. The Shrimps were losing 3-1 – and down to 10 men following the sending off of Andy Parrish – when they conceded a penalty with 17 minutes to go. Keeper Barry Roche saved Shaun Miller’s spot-kick, preventing Crewe from taking a 4-1 lead – but Morecambe were still two goals down going into the last five minutes.
What happened next was extraordinary. Wayne Curtis and Mullin scored to make it 3-3, before David Artell struck the winner in stoppage time. Those Peterborough fans who witnessed their side recover from four down to draw 4-4 with Cardiff just after Christmas might argue, but Morecambe’s victory was perhaps the comeback of the season.
Sky must be hoping the team spirit that enabled the Shrimps to pull off that victory shows up again tomorrow, at least to make a game of it. And on the subject of Sky, they did themselves few favours with the scheduling of Sunday’s first leg, which forced Morecambe’s fans to make a 250-mile trip from the North West to the South East in time for a 1.30pm kick-off. Although having paid millions for the rights to show Football League games, Sky may argue they can move matches to 4am on a Thursday if it suits them.
The attraction of the play-offs for Sky – and the reason they want to show every one of them live – is that they offer all-or-nothing drama. At least, they usually do.
Dagenham’s victory on Sunday was the biggest first-leg winning margin in Football League play-off history, and has effectively created a dead rubber tomorrow night. Even the local papers in Morecambe and Dagenham are struggling to get particularly excited about the match in its own right.
I’m not aware of a team ever turning round a six-goal deficit in a two-legged tie. But it’s a couple of hours of football to fill a quiet Thursday night on Sky. And perhaps the impossible will happen. Then again, perhaps it’s impossible.