We're taking a quick break from all the present doom and gloom to look back at the first season for a generation that we felt any genuine doom and gloom - the relegation season of 2000-01. For years before that season we thought we were being put through the mental wringer when we finished out of the Top 5 in the league! By the start of the current century Peter Morris's grim brand of football was no longer delivering the goods or the 2000 plus crowds.
We eventually slipped out of the league, despite the Herculean efforts of the team once Mallinger had finally shown Morris the door and installed Carl Shutt as our first player/manager for many years. Morris's last hurrah was a small but eventful FA Cup run to the second round.
Now, beware, from this stage on in this piece I am having to rely on my own less than perfect memory to fill out the details! The run began in the fourth qualifying round with a reasonably comfortable 2-0 win away to Chesham United. The only point of interest I can recall from this game was the temporary participation of Matt Fisher. One can only assume that he was annoyed to be on the bench, because when he came on he had steam coming out of his ears and within minutes was heading for an early bath. But don't worry, Matt wasn't done with the season's cup run.
Our "reward" for dispatching mighty Chesham was a home tie with Hull City. This was not the Hull City of recent years. The Hull City of Premier League football, 30,000 capacity stadia, and Phil Brown crooning into the microphone like a drunk dad at a kid's party. No, this was the basement division Hull City of crumbling ground, and long-standing joke of being the largest city in the whole of Europe never to play in a top division.
The game ended 0-0 at Rockingham Road in front of a large 2800+ gate. I can't remember a single detail of the encounter, but still decided the instant it was over that I simply must make my way up to glamorous Hull for the replay. Such was the attraction of rushing straight out of work and up the A1 to the back of beyond that the entire PATGOD posse bundled into the editor's car for the trip. We still managed to get there in time for a couple of pints before entering Boothferry Park and an away end even smaller than the one at Rockingham Road. Not that this was a problem - tonight was a die-hards only outing! The fact that we'd just won four games all season had thinned the glory-hunters out of our ranks. Boothferry Park was a great old ground, with acres of terracing, rusty stands and peeling paint to the fore. Imagine Rockingham Road if it could hold 20,000!
The game was a tight one and quite exciting. That man Matt Fisher was much at the centre of the action - this time for the right reason. Picking up the ball well outside the Hull penalty area he thumped the ball (rather than an opposition player for once) into the home team's net. What! The Poppies were winning? We'd quite forgotten what this feeling was like! Hull never really threatened and we saw out the game quite comfortably. Why couldn't we do this in the league?
After the game there was, for me at least, an unsavoury moment. Occasionally, I suppose like all groups of supporters, some of our number lack class, or at least, good grace. Whilst the home fans were filing out they generously applauded both us and our team, only for one of our spuds to rub their noses in losing to a part-time team. A tacky gesture when the opposition fans were being noble at a time when they probably felt like shit.
With FA Cup progress temporarily disguising the train wreck masquerading as a league season, we drew Championship Bristol City in the second round. A (numerically) healthy following made the trip down to Ashton Gate far more in hope than expectation. After a couple of hours drinking in the kind of estates pub that you only feel comfortable in when surrounded by forty or fifty like-minded individuals we rolled into another impressively sized stadium to see what Morris's boys could serve up for us.
I may be entirely wrong about this, and if so, please let me know, but my I seem to recall this game marked Darren Collins's debut for the Poppies? If so, it was some debut as he crashed a volley into the City net after half an hour to give us a half time lead. Something we consistently failed to do against teams in our own division!
Perhaps I am confusing Collins's debut with his former Direones partner Dale Watkins who made a mysterious debut the season before at our match away to Scarborough. The missus and I had been up on the North Yorkshire coast ahead of the match, and, this being the days before mass Internet usage, and the fact the local newspaper, "The Grumbling Yorkshireman", wasn't as fulsome in its Poppies coverage as it might have been, meant we had no idea Watkins had signed for us. We spent the vast majority of the game watching this little bald forward who certainly looked like Watkins darting around, making runs that our labouring midfield wouldn't have spotted even if they were issued with binoculars. Of course the partnership of Direones Watkins and Collins had it's second flowering the following season when we won the Southern League. Who can forget Dale's shed load of goals, tireless effort and mighty celebrations at Tiverton? And who can forget Collins berating his strike partner all season for not putting the ball exactly on his foot when he was standing on the edge of the 6-yard box, and yelling out the always confusing instruction to him of "Half and half" every time we had a throw-in?
Of course, as we know, Bristol hit back, but the 1-3 scoreline wasn't too dispiriting, and we could all turn our attention back to the league (oh, goody!) Morris's last tilt at glory was over, and relegation for the first time in a generation was looming. A lot has happened since to make that relegation look like more of a holiday than a demotion, but at the time it felt like the end of the world. Boy, we really had no idea back then, did we?