Whilst Ross Stewart and Elliot Embleton will rightly get the plaudits from Saturday’s League One Play Off Final, the real unsung hero was ‘John The Driver’. When our day seemed dead and buried, this Derby County supporting legend rolled into the services in his replacement bus to seal his place in Wearside folklore.
This was my ninth Wembley visit, the previous eight all unsuccessful, but nothing could prepare me for what this trip had in store.
Over the years we’ve tried most forms of transport. We’ve driven, done the mini bus, train, bus, first class train with five star hotels, but the journey is usually a minor part of the tale. Not this year.
After a minor disagreement with a clipboard warrior, we left Sunderland just after six, a decent bunch on the bus all in good spirits. It didn’t take long for the doubts to creep in. Whether it was the accidental coming off the A19 on a slip road, or the windows being kept open to let the fresh air in, or the driver guzzling a litre bottle of Coke, the signs were there. The rumours spread around the bus and WhatsApp shows I was messaging mates at 8.47am saying the driver was falling asleep.
At 10.15am we crashed.
The bus clipped a concrete barrier and veered into the traffic, taking out two cars, one full of Sunderland fans. They lost a wheel and it raced down the M1.
Luckily we managed to pull onto a slip road and miraculously nobody was hurt.
My thought process in those few seconds went something like this. “Shit I’m going to die”, “Shit is anybody hurt?” then “Shit, I’m going to miss Wembley.”
Whilst I took to social media looking for help, and my brother was looking at options of somehow getting to a train station, a couple more sensible passengers sprung into action and got in touch with the travel company.
After a tense drive to the next service station, we didn’t have to wait long for our saviour to turn up. I’ve never been so happy to see a bus. I’ve never been so happy to spot Wembley in the distance, and I’ve never been so relieved as I was getting through the turnstiles.
A couple of medicinal pints later and I was in my seat. A young lass asked me to hold her drink and ticket then took out a vial. I’ll admit that my first thought was that she was going to snort a line in front of me, but she emptied the contents onto the steps. “My Grandad’s ashes,” she said.
My reply of “Best place for him” possibly wasn’t as fitting a tribute as the moment deserved, but I’d had a long day.
The atmosphere somehow felt bigger and better than previous visits and maybe, just maybe, I’d used up all the bad luck this time.
I’ll leave the match report to the sports writers, but it was special, very special. The release of emotion after the two goals and the utter relief at full time will stay with me forever.
I didn’t know what to do when the final whistle blew, I’ve never been in this position before, but hugging strangers seemed appropriate.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what went on, I have enough material to fill another five novels. But ‘John The Driver’, who told us a little tale about Mart Poom before we got off the bus, you have gone down in Wembley History.