QPR and Barnet savour final day to remember
Loftus Road and (eventually) Underhill
QPR waved goodbye to the Football League on Saturday with the same enthusiasm that Barnet celebrated being able to stay in it.
Rangers will play Premier League football next season after winning the Championship, while the Bees will be in League Two after ensuring survival with a dramatic last-day victory at Underhill.
The cash-rich, ambitious west Londoners and the modest outfit from the northern extremities of the capital might not have all that much in common, but they were unquestionably united by their collective sense of relief on Saturday.
QPR were the first to experience the highs the day had to offer, although in their case they had nothing to do with events on the pitch. Neil Warnock's team had already collected enough points to win the title before their game against Leeds; the question was whether or not they could keep them.
All the talk at Loftus Road on Saturday morning was whether Rangers would face a points deduction if they were found guilty of breaching regulations over the signing of midfielder Alejandro Faurlin in July 2009.
There were all sorts of rumours swirling around, many of them suggesting that the London side could be docked 15 points when the Football Association hearing - originally scheduled to finish on Friday - eventually concluded. An hour before the 1245 BST kick-off the answer, at least for me, came in the unexpected but undoubtedly emotional form of Rangers chairman Gianni Palladini.
The Italian ran out from the directors lounge and into the South Africa Road Stand, shouting at the top of his voice: "We are promoted, we are the champions, Rangers are in the Premier League."
The Italian lifted his arms in the air as he did so, fists clenched. It was a spontaneous outburst that spoke volumes about the pressure he has been under.
Close by the Rangers supporter who normally spends the hour before a match waving a Moroccan flag while sporting a rather flamboyant blue and white hat stopped singing about Adel Taarabt for once and started chanting about promotion. Martin Keown, down on the pitch alongside Dan Walker and Mark Lawrenson for Football Focus, looked up and smiled.
The news rippled around the streets outside the ground and a roar went up. Everywhere I looked people were on mobile phones, trying to work out if it was true. When the Rangers players emerged from the tunnel for their pre-match warm-up they positively charged out. I doubt whether Shaun Derry has ever run faster.
Shortly before kick-off it was announced over the tannoy that the club had been found guilty of two of the seven charges but would not have points taken away from them.
A mood of triumphalism took hold as supporters finally started to celebrate a promotion that they now knew would not be taken away from them. It must have been like being released from purgatory. Rangers wrapped up the title at Watford last Saturday but many fans had been unable to fully let themselves go. I imagine that sometimes supporting Rangers is like riding a rollercoaster as highs are often followed by lows.
There were QPR flags on every seat and these were enthusiastically waved, turning Loftus Road into a blur of blue and white. It looked like there was some kind of rally going on. Grown men hugged and embraced. The last time Rangers were in the top flight, 15 years ago, some of them would still have been at school.
When Heidar Helguson put QPR ahead inside 30 seconds after Kasper Schmeichel failed to hold Tommy Smith's shot it felt as though Saturday's script was being written from up on high. There was almost a sense of disbelief inside the ground.
Leeds, to their credit, battled back to win 2-1 but QPR fans had what they wanted and by the time the final whistle sounded I was already in a vehicle trying to cover the 16 miles to Barnet (so said the satnav) as quickly as possible.
I arrived at Underhill 20 minutes after the 1500 BST kick-off and immediately saw the Bees come within inches of scoring but Mark Byrne's strike narrowly missed. His effort elicited a mixture of frustration and excitement from the crowd. Barnet were on top and still in with a shout of survival but they surely had to make the most of their chances against a Port Vale side that had scored seven in their previous game.
Caretaker boss Giuliano Grazioli celebrates Barnet's great escape with the fans. Photo: PA
The Bees supporters had not been treated to any of the sort of pre-match news that ensured a carnival atmosphere at QPR. They were in for a nerve-shredding, nail-biting 90 minutes, pure and simple.
Barnet went into the final day in a two-way shoot-out with Lincoln. One of them would end the day relegated from League Two - and the Imps had a two-point advantage as well as a home game against an Aldershot Town lodged in mid-table. However, Barnet had a better goal difference and were in decent form.
The match at rickety but atmospheric Underhill was goalless at the break but that changed shortly after the restart when Izale McLeod scored from the spot after he had been fouled in the Vale area. Even so, the goal would be meaningless if Lincoln scored against the Shots.
At 1613 BST a roar went around the ground; Aldershot had been awarded and converted a penalty. Chants of "We are staying up" followed and the expectation increased when Aldershot doubled their lead 15 minutes later. The first I knew about Aldershot's second goal was when a man sitting several rows behind me started yelling out "Yes!" at the top of his voice.
"When the crowd started clapping and cheering I knew what was going on," said Bees boss Guiliano Grazioli. "With mobile phones and stuff we were always going to find out what was happening at Lincoln."
There is an intimacy at Underhill that connects the crowd with both the dug-out and the players on the pitch, but the Bees players retained their focus throughout. They played with incredible determination and thoroughly deserved their victory.
The final whistle - after six minutes of injury-time - prompted the inevitable pitch invasion but, unlike many I have seen recently, the players did not seem in any hurry to leave.
They looked happy to be patted on the back and, in some cases, lifted on the shoulders of supporters. The thought occurred to me that for some players the afternoon might in some ways be the highlight of their careers. Many gave away boots to young fans, while one older supporter that I saw lovingly kissed the centre circle.
After the players had briefly retired to their dressing room they returned for a lap of honour. Several cheekily sported police helmets (all later returned to their rightful owners) and Grazioli, who has only been in charge since early April when Martin Allen walked out on the club, was hoisted aloft by his players.
Chairman Tony Kleanthous wandered across the pitch shaking hands of players and fans alike. It felt like they were all in it together. As the crowd thinned out I saw players, stripped to their shorts by memento-hunting supporters, happily drinking a beer and chatting to fans about the events of the season.
"I have not slept for weeks," said Kleanthous afterwards. "And I won't tonight either because we will be having a big party.
"I was chairman when we were relegated from the Football League in 2001 and after that I asked myself if I could have done anything more. This time I made sure that I did absolutely everything I could.
"There is no doubt that here at Barnet we love a drama."
As I made my way out of the ground I realised I did not know the route to the nearest tube stop. I turned and asked a bloke walking past me. It was one of the Barnet players and he happily answered.
Supporters of both QPR and Barnet end the season with plenty to celebrate. They are doing so, of course, for completely different reasons but, as Saturday proved, in football victory can take many different forms.