The first competitive match of the season is usually on a Saturday, but this year the league cup got underway before the league. That meant our first competitive action was on a Tuesday night in Derby, and it's a point of honour with me never to miss the start. So I booked myself into a basic but extremely reasonably-priced guesthouse and laid my plans accordingly.
One big advantage of going to Derby was that I could break my journey in Nottingham and stock up on various bits I wouldn't be able to find in Grantham. Exciting jewellery-making supplies were easily found, but the quest for an alternative clothing shop I found on the internet turned into an exhausting and frustrating trek along several wrong roads. Finally, sore-footed and irritable, I boarded a train to Derby, only to spend another hour roaming the streets in search of the guesthouse. At least that search proved successful, but I only had time for a brief rest before I had to set out once more for Pride Park.
My first sight of the Iron looked promising. Derby, as befitted a Championship side, pressed hard, but our defence looked organised and competent, and Sam Slocombe managed several magnificent saves. True, we did virtually nothing in front of the Rams' goal, but there would be time enough for that. But then Derby had an effort that Slocombe couldn't keep out, and things looked very different. We tried to rise to the occasion, and produced something that, viewed charitably, might have been considered a shot on target. Then Derby came back at us, Slocombe fumbled somehow, and the ball was in our net once more.
Tired of slumping in my seat and contemplating the way the game was slipping away from us, I limped down to the concourse to beat the half-time drinks rush. As I queued, the home fans erupted once more in celebration; any chance I could convince myself that noise had come from the Scunthorpe contingent evaporated as the tannoy announce "the Rams' third goal". When I returned to my seat, Karen informed me, "You missed one," to which I bitterly recalled the time when turning away from the action guaranteed a Scunthorpe goal.
At half time, the only consolation I could see was that Saturday's opponents, Crawley, were drawing. Perhaps if they had to endure extra time, they would be easier to beat. "Just as long as we don't score lots of goals in the second half," said Suz's fella. A more ridiculous prospect was hard to imagine.
But we began the second half looking better. Andy Barcham skipped through the Derby defence and slotted the ball confidently into the net to make the score a slightly more respectable 3-1; at first I just cheered a very welcome piece of attacking skill, but a moment later I was dreaming of an unlikely fightback. Those hopes were almost immediately crushed, as Derby virtually went up to the other end and made it 4-1. But once we'd proved we could put the ball in the net, we did it again, as summer arrival Mike Grella, ably assisted by the goal post, made it 4-2.
I loudly predicted that Derby would regain their cushion just as they had after our first goal, but the minutes ticket past and it didn't happen. Then someone went down in the distant penalty area: as far as I could see, the culprit was a patch of damp turf, but the referee pointed to the spot. Instead of screaming at the striker to miss - my usual habit in these cases - I fixed my attention on Slocombe, hoping he still had some of the magic we'd seen in the first half. He dived the right way and punched the penalty away, and I cheered as loudly as if we'd scored. Then, surely no more than ninety seconds later, the ball was down in front of us and I was cheering once more as Bobby Grant made it 4-3.
Half time now seemed a long time ago. However this match ended, it wouldn't be the routine humiliation it had looked like becoming. So charged was the atmosphere that I made my usual prediction of doom - that Derby would make it 5-3 and destroy all hope - in a spirit of philosophical resignation. Our struggle would be over, but we could look back on our second-half performance with pride. And when the fifth Derby goal indeed went in a few minutes later, I remained fairly cheerful. Crawley's game still looked destined for extra time, and things could have been a lot worse.
At the end of the ninety minutes, we were heading out, but there were still five minutes of stoppage time. With two or three left, we pulled back another goal to make it 5-4. Pride. The chance to have the last word. We deserved it after the way we'd fought back. I didn't hope for an equaliser, but I did note that we were still pressing. Someone went down in the penalty area with a defender's hand on his shoulder blade. The referee ignored it. Mark Duffy sprawled on the ground in what looked to me like a blatant dive. The referee pointed to the penalty spot.
Bobby Grant stepped up and struck the penalty calmly into the net. That was the last kick of regular time, which meant that we too were playing the extra thirty minutes. Suz's fella asked me when my train home left - just as well that I'd planned all along for an overnight stay. The home fans were decidedly unhappy at the turn the game had taken, and the Scunthorpe fans gleefully serenaded them: "3-0, and you fucked it up ... 4-1, and you fucked it up."
I don't know how much of extra time I really took in. I had my head in my hands for a lot of it - out of nerves rather than despair. I bit my knuckles hard enough to leave teeth marks, and regretted having trimmed my fingernails and left myself nothing to gnaw. I wanted a goal - wanted the match to be over - so badly that I hardly cared who scored it. But naturally, no goals were forthcoming. This game had always been destined to end in penalties.
The penalties were taken at the far end, which left us straining to see what happened against a backdrop of nausea-inducing scrolling adverts. Slocombe made two more saves, but the Derby keeper saved one and another Iron penalty hit the post. "I'm thinking of a place name," I said as the shoot-out went to sudden death. "It's got two words: the first starts with M and the second starts with K." For each Scunthorpe penalty, I announced, "He's going to miss this." For each Derby penalty, I whispered, "Come on Sam."
Karen suggested that we would run through the whole team, that Sam Slocombe would be called upon to take a penalty and then pick himself up to make the winning save. The woman in front of me didn't relish this prospect, and suggested she would enjoy seeing the next Derby player send his penalty over the bar. "Nah," I said. "He'll score this easily." She hoped - as indeed I did - that my prediction would prove as false as all the others. The penalty, much like Tore Andre Flo's in Milton Keynes, hit the bar and bounced down. The Scunthorpe outfield players swarmed Slocombe in celebration. Fans around me cheered. From 3-0 down at half time, we had emerged victorious.