So, after five seasons of languishing in non-league, Exeter City are finally back where they belong, after a tense one-nil win against Cambridge at Wembley. Unsurprisingly I'm a tad hungover today and have very little voice. To be honest, it's still sinking in. The run up to the game was a little strange for me. Last year, when City lost to Morecambe in the final, I was working as a journalist in Exeter and was churning out Wembley story after Wembley story and generally completely caught up in the whole buzz. Hell, my commentary from the semi-final even featured on an Exeter-themed reworking of Walk Like an Egyptian done by the morning DJs at the station I worked at. My life was Wembley, Wembley, Wembley.
Fast forward a year, and I'm now in London and having one of the busiest weeks at work since I started my new job (although it's not really new, given I've been there for seven months). Weird as it may sound, I was so focused on work, I'd not had time to get caught up in the pre-game hype. Even on Saturday night I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow - I was that knackered.
Plus there was the lost from last year playing on my mind. Exeter had been to Wembley once and lost, and I really didn't want that to happen again. Plus, in my stomach I had an unexplained pessimistic feeling that we were going to get hammered. Yes, I was excited and nervous, but there was also a gritty determination not too get too carried away.
Sunday started leisurely, as I ambled towards Hampstead for an excellent lunch in an Italian cafe. No alcohol was involved, as I wanted to be focused. Plus, the area around Wembley is not pleasant. The regeneration-in-progress for the area can be seen as you walk along Wembley Way, but it's still a run-down part of London with local pubs that aren't too friendly, and a lingering sense of menace if you walk too far from the Stadium.
Instead my friend Rob and I made our way to a Hampstead boozer - a pre-arranged meet with the other Exeter London Exiles - for a couple of drinks before the game. Again, there wasn't a feeling amongst the fans that this was a day out, just a determination to cheer our team all the way to victory.
We were joined by my housemate and two more friend, including Megan, who'd only been to one other game: Tiverton Town at the Old Wembley in the FA Vase many years ago.
"So," asked Megan, "what does it mean if you win and go up?"
I paused for a moment. "Well, it means we move up from visiting some absolute shit-holes to places that are slightly less shit-hole like."
I've liked the Conference, but five years is a long time in non-league if you've not been there before. We'd come so close, I just wanted to be in the league again.
Stepping off the Jubilee line we found ourselves in the midst of a large number of Cambridge fans, and the difference was marked. They reminded me of how we felt last year: there was a buzz around them as they made their way to the stadium, but this was a day-tripping buzz. There were photos, there were lots of very cocky songs aimed at the Exeter fans, and many comments along the lines of "We're at Wembley! Wow!"
In contrast, there were songs from the Exeter fans but there was less lighthearted enjoyment and fewer photos as we headed into the stadium, and once we took our seats the noise was focused. Last year, the singing was dissapated throughout the stadium. This year, with the bulk of singers behind the goal, there were no feelings of just being there and enjoying the day out: just a desire to win. Returning after a loss at Wembley does that to you.
And then the kick-off. The noise from the City fans made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and within the first ten minutes my voice was close to going, due to some incredibly loud singing.
Now, I'd love to be able to tell you about the game itself and give a calm, rational analysis, but that's just impossible as it is a complete blur. I remember going mental when Rob Edwards headed us into the lead on 22 minutes. I can also tell you that the last 15 minutes were some of the tensest of my entire life, as Cambridge pushed forward for the equaliser. I have no idea what I was screaming at this stage, but I know for a fact I was making one hell of a lot of noise.
All around us, fans had given up on any pretence of sitting down and the chants were coming thick and fast. Cambridge were looking more threatening as they hoofed the ball towards their three large centre-forwards but each time we repelled their attack. And the team were remaining calm. There was no sticking the ball anywhere, the players were still passing the ball around and local hero, and contender for man of the match, Dean Moxey broke through with two minutes remaining and was unlucky not to score, thanks to a good save from Danny Potter.
And then came the tensest of the tense minutes as we got into injury time. The referee seemed to be toying with the fans, looking at his watch, raising his whistle to his mouth, and then playing on a bit longer. I have no fingernails left as a result of this.
When the final whistle eventually came, I'm not afraid to say that, for want of a better word, I went mental. Friends and strangers were hugged, my voice found extra strength to cheer louder and longer, and there may have even been a hint of a tear in my eye.
If we were enjoying it, then the players were on another level. Champagne was being sprayed all over the pitch and the team were soaking in the applause for all it was worth. I've no idea how long we spent cheering our heroes, or how long they stayed on the pitch, but by the time we made it back to the pub in Hampstead I was absolutely exhausted and is desperate need of a pint.
I'm not surprised the barmaids asked us to tone down the singing a bit. We were making a lot noise. But there was no angry reaction. We quitened down and continued to drink and celebrate, albeit a bit quieter.
Of course no good football match is complete without a celebratory curry and my friend Ross and I made our way, somewhat woozily, to a curry house nearby my house for, in my case, a Saag Paneer that was well worth the wait, and a delicious naan. Another drink back home and a few games of Pro Evo, where I practically fell asleep on my sofa. I'm not sure what time I eventually made it to bed, but when I woke up I was still singing.
Exeter City: League Two. It sounds good.