Football is a game of high emotions and there are some games which stay with you forever.
Whether it’s that day at Preston when Swansea City first sealed promotion to the top flight in 1981, the 2011 Championship play-off victory at Wembley or that glorious night at the Mestalla back in 2013, just a fleeting memory of these events triggers a sudden burst of happiness in any fan who was lucky enough to be there.
It’s one of the great things about being a football fan, the fact we can reminisce about these great days and the emotions come flooding back. But there is a flip side to this.
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For every promotion or cup upset to celebrate, there’s also a result to regret – those awful days when hopes are dashed and dreams shattered by a single crushing defeat. This week marked the 25th anniversary of one such match.
A quarter of a century ago this week, thousands of fans made their way up the M4 to watch Swansea play at Wembley for only the second time in the club’s history. Confidence was high after a semi-final win over Chester and there was genuine optimism that Swansea could beat Northampton and win promotion to the third tier.
It was a nervy game and with the final whistle looming, it seemed destined to continue into extra time. There was just one last obstacle to overcome, a Northampton free-kick within shooting distance.
Three minutes into added time, John Frain stepped up and struck the ball into the Swansea wall, seemingly ensuring the game would head into extra time. But there was one final twist. The referee ordered a re-take and with virtually the last kick of the game, Frain guided the ball over the wall, past Roger Freestone and into the net.
I’m lucky I never had to endure the trauma of that afternoon. It would be another two years before I watched my first Swansea game, but everybody I know who went to Wembley that day will react in exactly the same way whenever the name John Frain is mentioned.
Faces contort as if they’ve just bitten into a particularly juicy lemon. They close their eyes and shake their heads as they relive the heartbreak.
Which Swansea match still haunts you? Have your say in our comments section here.
It’s irrelevant that Swansea have enjoyed four promotions since that fateful day, culminating in a seven-year Premier League stint and a season of European football, while Northampton have just rolled aimlessly back and forth between League Two and League One for 25 years, like a stray water bottle on the car floor.
Nothing cancels the memories, nothing soothes the bitterness and nothing cures the heartache. Football fans are very bad at letting go. We hold onto resentment from days like that, meaning even a game played before the invention of the Google can still leave fans seething after all these years.
When Northampton Town were miraculously pipped to promotion by Bristol Rovers on the final day of the League Two season a few weeks ago, there was widespread schadenfreude among Swansea fans on social media. There was even more revelling in Northampton misery when the Cobblers got knocked out of the play-offs by Mansfield a few weeks later, all because of Frain’s last minute re-taken free-kick.
It’s mad how matches played decades ago can still make us shudder but it’s part and parcel of being a football fan. There will always be those gut-wrenching memories from big games which leave deep scars.
I try to avoid thinking about the 2006 League One play-off final against Barnsley. With the Swans in fine form and the final just down the road in Cardiff, it felt like the whole event was set up for a day of celebration.
But after failing to find a winner in regulation time, the game went to extra-time where Swansea missed more chances, setting the stage for penalties. I still shiver when I think of Adebayo Akinfenwa’s spot kick soaring into row Z.
A few years later the Swans looked like promotion certainties, with a healthy lead at the top of League One, which should have freed up Roberto Martinez’s side to have a good cup run. After a bad-tempered draw with non-league brutes Havant and Waterlooville, the Swans were drawn away at Anfield in the fourth round. All they had to do was beat the ridiculously named hack-merchants in the replay, and they would have a dream tie against Liverpool.
But against all the odds, the high-flying Swans lost 4-2 and it was their lowly opponents who got the big day out at Anfield.
Since then I’ve had the pleasure of watching my side win several games against the European giants, including a league win at Anfield back in 2017, but I still wish Martinez’s special side of 2007-08 had the chance to play Liverpool that season and the regret of missing out on that away day still haunts me.
I remain absurdly bitter towards Havant and Waterlooville to this day. Another game which sticks in the memory is the last South Wales Derby at Ninian Park.
In the dying minutes, Joe Allen scored to make it 2-1 to the Swans, unleashing utter bedlam in the crowded away end. A youth product scoring his first ever goal for the club to win the final derby at the home of your biggest rivals? It couldn’t be more perfect.
Unfortunately a certain Mike Dean, never one to shirk the limelight, decided the game needed one last moment of drama. He gave Cardiff a controversial last-minute penalty which rescued a point for the Bluebirds and popped the Jack Army’s balloon in spectacular style.
Not many Swansea City supporters queued up to wish Dean a happy retirement after hanging up his whistle last week. To this day he remains persona non grata in west Wales.
The most recent example I can think of, where a Swansea defeat still feels all too raw to bury the hatchet, was the 2019 FA Cup quarter-final against Premier League champions Manchester City.
Swansea had not made it to an FA Cup semi-final for more than half a century and nobody gave Graham Potter’s side much hope against arguably the best team in the world at that time.
To everybody’s astonishment, Swansea took a 2-0 half-time lead thanks to a Matt Grimes penalty and a Bersant Celina curler which has to go down as one of the most beautiful team goals in the club’s history. Man City were the last big team left in the competition so a victory would not just have secured a trip to Wembley, it would have given Swansea a realistic hope of reaching the final or even winning the world’s oldest cup competition.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. City pulled it back to 2-1 before they were wrongfully awarded a controversial penalty to make it 2-2. The officials then failed to spot that Sergio Aguero was offside as he swept home the winner to seal an unbelievably painful cup exit for Swansea.
The fact Swansea were denied arguably their greatest ever cup upset and a potential place in the history books, just because their game was one of only two quarter-finals without VAR that year, has left a sore spot which still smarts to this day.
Other fans may have their own games which they simply can’t get over, but these are the main ones which stick out for me.
“Forgive and forget” isn’t really a thing in football. Fans are a touchy, over-emotional bunch and when we get our hearts broken, we struggle to truly move on.
That’s why grown men will still resent goals scored decades ago, hold fierce grudges against clubs they never even face anymore, and above all, never, ever forgive Mike Dean.