After 45 years, 146 grounds, well over 2,000 matches, eight promotions, seven relegations and three administrations, it all came down to 10 spot-kicks.
This was Les Payne’s last ever match as a Rotherham United writer. And here he was in the Press box at Wembley as his team prepared for the ultimate in cruel yet inspiring sporting drama, the penalty shoot-out.
The Millers v Leyton Orient. Heroes about to be created, villains on the verge of being made. Which team would hold their nerve?
What a way for The Star man to bow out.
And how fitting. For, as you’ll see later, if there’s one thing Les understands, it’s the art of taking penalties.
Les has loved the club since boyhood. But not once since that first match in February 1969, a 5-1 away defeat to Watford which was shown on Match of the Day, has he allowed his passion to cloud his professional judgement.
He’s always called it as he’s seen it. And he’s always seen it with an expert eye and knack for a memorable line that few others have been able to match.
That has won him an army of readers and legions of admirers among his peers in the Yorkshire media corps.
Star deputy editor (sport)Bob Westerdale said: “It is hard to imagine how we are going to go on in our office without the energy and commitment which he has displayed every day for the last four decades. Les is more reliable than any website or book - his brain is a bank vault of sporting knowledge (and some trivia) that cannot be rivalled. His masterful command of the subject matter has been matched by his passion for sport and print journalism.”
Paul Walker, Radio Sheffield sports editor, reflected: “It’s been a real honour and a privilege to have known Les. His passion and enthusiasm for local sport, especially football, is reflected in the quality of his writing.”
And the Rotherham Advertiser’s Millers expert, David Beddows, described him as “a shining light in the Press box”, adding: “Les is the complete football reporter, a great reader of the game and an entertaining and engaging writer.”
But back to Wembley and promotion to the Championship via the League One Play-off Final. Les had predicted his and the Millers’ journey would end this way.
We’d met up on Wembley Way a few hours before kick-off and he’d breezily informed my two boys: “Shoot-out, it’ll go to a shoot-out.”
As his prediction was proved right, some fans could barely bring themselves to watch and hearts and heads dropped as the Millers went behind.
Except for one man.
“I knew they’d win,” he said. “When I saw who the penalty-takers were, I never had any doubts about it.”
Les, in his more-than-decent playing days in the higher echelons of local football, had made converting from 12 yards his speciality - 31 goals in 32 attempts, a record any Premier League player would be proud off.
Agard goal, Frecklington miss, Pringle goal, Tavernier goal, Collin save, Smallwood goal. Then that last, fateful Collin save from Dagnall.
And so as Wembley gave itself up to the wild, frenzied celebrations of 20,000 mad Millers no-one amid the red-and-white delirium stood calmer than Les did.
He allowed himself the luxury of pausing in his work to drink in the unforgettable scenes, savouring the moment and the raw emotion that great sport thrillingly stirs within you. Just once, on this of all occasions, his deadline could wait a while.
He interviewed joyful players, he spoke with the ecstatic manager, he grabbed quotes from the beaming chairman.
And then, for the final ever time, he filed his match report.
Job done for the Millers.
Job done for a great, great writer.
Further tributes to Les:
“You quickly become aware of those who don’t play by the rules in their pursuit of a story. Les is not one of those people; he’s one of the good guys, plain and simple. He is a trusted, respected member of the Press, liked by everyone. I’ve never met anybody with a bad word to say against him.”
“He’s been a supportive colleague as well as a critical friend. If you get a fact wrong, he’ll be quick to point it out. Equally, if you write something he likes, he’ll tell you. I’ll miss Les’s company and insight in the Press box. There’s surely a future for him as a football scout.”
Millers media chief
“A prolific wordsmith whose reports and columns I had admired and enjoyed prior to my involvement in journalism, and also a first class individual who would go out of his way to help and advise others. Les must be the most respected member of the Press box I have ever known.”
EX-Radio Sheffield commentator
“We were colleagues for 23 years, travelling and working together. As a journalist, he demonstrated the highest standards in football knowledge, insight and fairness. As a person, he is caring and reliable and someone I am proud to call a friend. A wonderful talent with words.”
chief soccer writer
“Never mind naming the Press room after my good mate, it should be the Les Payne Stadium in Rotherham ...”