It Hasn’t Sunk In Yet!

Cat’s Whiskers TV’s Paul Balm with a beautifully written account of an incredible weekend

I once wrote an article about the 2011 (I think) play-offs that ended with the phrase “you had to be there”. This weekend was different. This time I had to be there and after a bit of planning, a lot of Internet searches and fair bit of prevaricating the conclusion was reached that if we were going to win the league the chances were pretty high that it would be a the Belfast double-header. Ferry prices seemed to be rising daily, hotel room numbers were dwindling just as rapidly the decision was made to take the gamble and go. OK, it wasn’t all that much of a gamble – we were going to get a weekend in Belfast whatever happened but winning the league would make it that much sweeter.

One victory could win us the league. I know that’s stating the obvious but it felt like I needed to keep repeating it. We’d not been in a situation as good as this in 18 years. The Panthers don’t get in situations like this, we’re cursed, doomed to be the eternal bridesmaids to the Sheffield’s and Belfast’s of this world. Weren’t we the team at everyone chanted “1956” at? And here we were needing to win one game out of four? Surely, this would be our time or would the 2012-3 Nottingham Panthers go down in history as the replacement for Devon Loch?

I don’t think I can remember the last time I was awake at 4:30 in the morning but it’s amazing how the daunting thought of driving all the way to the west coast of Scotland (I can hear Jono shouting “being driven” at his screen but I’ll ignore him) to catch a ferry across to Northern Ireland can get you up and out of bed so quickly at that time of the day.

Nothing much happened on that journey so I won’t bore you with the details except to say that there must be a certain line of latitude above which all forms of architectural individuality are nullified. As soon as you go west from Scotch Corner and up onto the moors there’s only one style of architecture out there –windswept grim! When you get to Scotland you get a bit of pebble-dashing thrown in but that’s about it.

If you get the chance to go to Cairnryan ferry terminal – don’t. There’s nothing there, in fact there’s less than nothing. All you get is a big car park, a ramp for a boat and a new but utterly characterless shed that passes as the terminal. Think I’m joking? Try this for an example: The most exciting thing that happened in the 45 minutes we were there was the discovery that they sold haggis flavoured crisps!

After a quick ferry journey and drive into Belfast we checked into the hotel, threw our bags into our room (who needs to unpack?) and headed for one of the greatest pubs I’ve ever been in (and trust me I’ve been in a lot) – Rockies. Our view on entering Rockies set the scene for the rest of the weekend – everywhere you looked were Panthers fans. We’d been speculating on how many fans had made the trip over and opinions ranged from 500 to a thousand. The view seemed to confirm it.

If there’s one thing Panthers fans aren’t normal known for it’s positivity. I know I’ve spent weeks on Cats Whiskers TV saying I’m not confident but I can’t have been the only one. You would have thought so in Rockies before that first game. I don’t think I spoke to anyone who didn’t think we were going to do it and do it that night. It wasn’t until after the game, well past midnight that I spoke to someone who thought we’d lose the first game and win it on Saturday. And these were Panthers fans. Maybe it was the Guinness that was flowing that had gone to their heads or the dizzying prices that were being charged all over Belfast for it (Belfast is not a cheap place to drink). It might even have been the gigantic (and delicious) roast pork filled Belfast Baps that were on sale but the air wafting around the hockey shirts hanging in the rafters was thick with expectation.

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Plenty of people have written about the game, and far better than I can so I won’t cover it here but it should be feted as one of the greats. It had everything, intensity, fights, goals, fights, more intensity, you get what I mean. Both teams came out pumped. You don’t agree? David Clarke had a fight, David Clarke! He doesn’t fight but he did that night because he was there to win.

From where we sat it looked like our predictions about the size of our travelling support were pretty much spot on. There must have been about seven or eight hundred Panthers fans in the building (hardly the small pocket of travelling fans that the Belfast Telegraph claimed) and, although I do say so myself we were great. We were loud all game, even in those periods in the third where things were getting more and more nerve-wracking we never shut up all night and we remained confident.

As soon as Pat Galivan roofed his shot past Murphy (extra points for hitting the water bottle) to put us in front I knew it was ours. That’s easy to say now as I look back on that game but that’s how it felt. I just didn’t think Belfast looked like equalizing again. I wasn’t alone. A surge of fans headed from their seats to the plexi counting down the time towards that final hooter. The clock stopped with about a minute left and I stood (I don’t think I could sit down if I wanted to) looking at it. As I did a thought struck me. There were only sixty seconds left in the game. That might seem like an obvious statement but it was sort of like looking at your watch at 11:59 on New Years Eve. We were almost there. This game hadn’t lasted 59 minutes it had lasted (for me) thirty three years. We were finally going to win the league. After all those years our time had come! It was like those Mastercard ads (and all the following spoofs) that list all the pain, cost and trauma for one priceless moment.

Francis scored the empty-netter and the surge became a tidal wave. I wish I’d gone down there now, I never get on any of the pictures but I’m also sort of glad I stayed up in my seat, able to watch the scenes unfolding in front of me. There was nearly a repeat of the famous Challenge Cup final fiasco in London with confetti on the ice but common sense prevailed. Murphy was back in his net, the puck was passed about behind ours and I don’t think we had a single player on the bench after the last five seconds.

I’m not sure what the final whistle brought. Which was greater he ecstasy or the relief? Even now I don’t know which and I don’t really care. They can exist in equal measures can’t they. We were league champions! I don’t think that fact has sunken in yet. I was grabbed by Jono, another friend came bounding up the steps saw us and came and hugged us. We were champions! 33 years of pain (and a fair amount of pleasure let’s not forget that) condensed into a single moment of joy. It felt different to all those other moments of joy and I’m still not entirely sure why. Maybe it was the fact we’d done something we’d never done before in my lifetime but after that few minutes of intense ecstasy I almost seemed to swing between the euphoric high and a strange dazed numbness. Did I get emotional? A bit. Was I the only one? Nowhere near. Am I going to say any more about that? No.

There was a 12 day old baby behind us. It hardly seems fair really – she achieved in 12 days what it had taken us 33, 57 or whatever your own personal figure is. I’ll apologise now if her mother thought I was strange when I turned round in those moments and told her to tell her daughter that she was there on that day. I must have looked a bit wild-eyed at that point.

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In fact I know I looked wild-eyed, I’ve seen the footage. There’s a 4 minute video of our fans (and a few from Belfast) on the concourse under the stands. For reasons I can’t remember I’m on it about three times. In my defence I don’t look any better or worse than anyone else in there.

Whilst I’m apologising I just want to say sorry to my family for the rather manic phone calls as we left the arena. I wish you could all have been there. I wish every Panthers fan could have been there.

Once we left the arena I didn’t know what to do with myself. We headed towards Rockies, went in, took one look at the crowd around the bar and decided to leave it for a while. It was cooler in the foyer anyway and we wanted to film some fans and players (if they appeared) so it seemed better to stay where we were for a while. I couldn’t stay still anyway. I seemed full of nervous energy walking about in circles I would never have been able to cover if I was in a packed Rockies. There’s an interview with me from around then. The wild-eyed look has gone but it’s been replaced by a massive grin and an inability to form proper sentences.

The player and fan interviews are available through Cats Whiskers TV so there’s not much point repeating them here but I’d like to express my gratitude to everyone who answered our questions when we stuck a camera in their face and delayed them from getting to the bar. There’s some brilliant footage on there (and my interview), some of it really, really funny and not always intentional either.

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We got to the bar eventually and ordered and drank the quickest two pints of our lives. I spoke to so many people that night, so many happy people, so many people asking where the Student was. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to being recognised but it led to so many great conversations that night that I didn’t mind one bit. I lost count of how many people told me how long they’d been watching as we mingled with the players until the early hours.

Adrenaline has got a lot to answer for. How else could I get up at 4:30 one day, go to bed 22 hours later and still be awake after about 4 and a half hours sleep? After a while listening to Jono snore (twin beds, people, twin beds!) I decided to get up and go for a walk along the river. It felt really good to have a bit of time to myself to reflect on the previous night. It still hadn’t sunk in and I still had to tell myself we were champions as I kept forgetting. We’d been following comments from a lot of people via Twitter throughout the course of the previous evening and as I walked along the Titanic slipway just up from our hotel I remembered one from a fan of another team saying our league record was still rubbish. Typical sour grapes but they were right it isn’t but as I walked along that concrete expanse I couldn’t have cared less. We were league champions and nobody could say anything at that stage to spoil it.

Any hockey trip of more than a day will throw up the thorny question of what to do with the time between games? Some take in a bit of culture, some, like me, head for the pub. And if you’re in Belfast that pub has to be The Crown. Walking to The Crown convinced of two things. 1) it always rains in Belfast and 2) more importantly we were basically living in a bubble and had been ever since we left the previous morning. Everywhere we went, everyone we talked to were Panthers fans. You expected it in your hotel or in Rockies but The Crown was right over the other side of town and yet when we walked in the first people we saw were Panthers fans. It seemed weird at the time but it’s when it bursts and you’re returned to reality where no one is all that bothered about ice hockey that the full force of that bubble becomes apparent.

I’m not going to dwell on Saturday’s game. A great fight and a great conga, and Giants fans celebrating like they’d just won the Stanley Cup every time they scored a goal were the only highlights, but we hadn’t paid to watch a game of hockey we’d paid to go to a party. Inevitably that party headed to Rockies after the game but after a quick pint we didn’t fancy hanging about so headed over the river to McHughs for a couple before heading back to the hotel bar. A quieter night than Friday but it was spent in that same bubble with Panthers fans in both venues. A quieter night but just as enjoyable and a great way to wind down towards the journey we had ahead of us the following morning and reflect on the weekend.

One of the joys of staying in the same hotel as the team is you get so see them at breakfast. It then gives you the whole day to tell people stopping elsewhere that you had breakfast with the players (even if they were sat halfway across the restaurant it counts right?) and that such and such looked OK whilst someone else was a little the worse for wear and that’s exactly how it was on Sunday morning. I’m not going to name names but some were definitely the worse for wear and frankly who could blame them. They’re league champions.

After a leisurely breakfast (with the players, did I mention that?) it was time to head back to Larne for the ferry. Larne doesn’t have the shed it just has a car park and it was a good job we didn’t have as long to kill as we did on Friday. If the journey to Belfast had flown on a mixture of banter, conjecture and confidence then the trip home dragged. The monotony was only broken by the news and pictures from East Midlands Airport, a sighting of Neilson’s Monument and the snowstorm as we came over the Pennines. We could probably have done without the snow but at least it added to the interest.

I think the journey gave us time to reflect though both individually and collectively on what we’d experienced over the past 60 odd hours. We’d travelled those roads full of expectation and trepidation and we were returning with a feeling of satisfaction on top of all the other feelings of joy and excitement. We’d gone there to do a job and we had. The team went to get the final win to secure the league and the fans went to support them. We did it. We finally did it.

I vaguely remember talking to David Ling on the Friday night after the game. I thanked him for helping win us the league and he thanked me back. I didn’t really get that and asked why he’d said that, admitting I hadn’t really done a lot. He said that it was amazing how much the fans helped. That sort of sums things up for me.

We’re league champions and you know what? It still hasn’t sunk in yet.


4 Responses to “It Hasn’t Sunk In Yet!”

  1. 1 dave bryan March 19, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    We followed the game on twitter as we did the roadtrip to scotland as it was my 50th which was great! Your description just sums up what we were feeling here at home, it must have been sublime!! Well done to all Panthers fans who went and to the lads. Our time to celebrate is Friday, and as you, been smiling all week and will be for ages yet! Cheers Paul a great account

  2. 2 Lynne March 19, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Great piece of writing, it really captures the spirit of the weekend!

  3. 3 Andrea March 19, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    What a succinct piece of writing – you captured our feelings exactly and we didn’t make it to Belfast! We watched in the Arena and it was manic AND i cried….lots! I was beginning to think the day would never arrive (33 years girl and woman) and when it did it was magical! Shame about the headache the next day!

  4. 4 Gary March 20, 2013 at 12:29 am

    This brings it all flooding back – brilliantly!

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