It nearly didn't happen. And then it gloriously did. How a day at Wembley unfolded for Papa John's Trophy winners Rotherham United

THIS wasn't the towering arch that dominates the Wembley skyline.
Papa John's Trophy champions. Pictures by Dave PoucherPapa John's Trophy champions. Pictures by Dave Poucher
Papa John's Trophy champions. Pictures by Dave Poucher

This was a smaller one that had been carried out on to the pitch at the national stadium.

The words, 'PAPA JOHN'S TROPHY FINAL 2022', were emblazoned on it.

A couple of minutes before the first whistle, players of the two Uniteds, Rotherham and Sutton, intermingled under it as they posed for pictures - a brief show of friendliness towards each other before a Sunday-afternoon battle that would swing one way and then the other with near-unbearable intensity.

Earlier in the day, much earlier, just after 8am while the sun was still climbing, the town centre had been thrillingly alive, buzzing and throbbing with coaches and anticipation.

Families, wrapped in flags and sporting red-and-white wigs, waited further out at designated pick-up points for their communal transport to arrive. Rotherham was on the move.

The M1 down to London was thick with support. Coaches hogged the slow lane as the name, Wilfreda Beeehive, popped up for mile upon mile. In the fast lane, cars whipped past with red-and-white flags blowing in the wind, hammering out a Millers rat-a-tat-tat as they battered back and forth against the windows from which they protruded.

Like 200 other fans, I caught my breath at Wealdstone Football Club whose Ruislip home had been thrown open for Rotherham's use.

Before a quick Tube ride to the match, supporters basked outdoors with beers, warmed by the welcome, the free parking, the weather, the heat of the barbecue that was charging northern prices and doing a brisk trade.

The Underground decanted its Millers haul on to Wembley Way. It was strangely quiet, too subdued. Something was missing. Alcohol. None was on sale and none was allowed to be consumed - the price to be paid for the yobbery of last year's England Euro Final.

'F*cking sort it out, Rotherham.'

It's fair to say the game wasn't going according to plan. This was Wembley and these days Rotherham always win at Wembley, don’t they? Rotherham were top of League One, they shouldn't be losing to League Two opposition. But they were.

One manic follower, close to the press box, was vocal above the din in his despairing appeal.

Rawmarsh's finest, Ben Wiles, obliged with a worldie and all was good with the world. 'He's one of our own, he's one of our own,' sang the fan along with nearly 13,000 others.

Then 2-1 Sutton. 'F*ck off! Not good enough, Warney.'

Ninety-six minutes of 97 had been played when it happened. Jordi Osei-Tutu in space. Jordi. Osei. 2-2.

The delirium built in dream-tinged stages ... the ball across goal ... the wait ... the substitute taking aim ... 13,000 Millers fans half on their feet ... the strike ... fully on their feet ... off their feet ... off their heads ... the scenes, the absolute scenes.

Extra time was all Rotherham. Like the motorway scarves, Millers players battered back and forth, taking the game away from spent opponents who'd put up such a worthy challenge.

'Come on, you Reds. Warney, Warney, give us a wave.' The manager had been forgiven.

Richard Wood and Michael Smith, two big, hard men, stood giggling together like two little boys before the captain was the first to take his turn lifting the trophy, and the cheers from the crowd continued to ring out as the silverware passed down the line.

Jordi Osei-Tutu equalises deep into added time

Decency prevailed. Sutton boss Matt Gray waited to shake the hand of every Miller as they descended the steps from the royal box, Paul Warne chose not to wear his medal as he began his media rounds, stopping first to commiserate with Sutton's Rotherham old boy, Rob Milsom.

So, the first part of the ‘double’ was in the bag.

Rotherham players, spilling towards the exit, came through the mixed zone, a cavernous hall in the bowels of Wembley where journalists wait with their pens and their pads and their voice recorders.

None of them refused an interview request, pausing to chat as their Sutton counterparts slipped by in the background carrying boxes of free Papa John's pizza as their only reward for their Herculean effort.

Wood was tired after extra time, tired of talking yet never wanting the questions to end. He'd been soaked in champagne - a drink he doesn’t like - and had turned to a beverage of another kind, the hands that had held aloft the cup now gripping a can of lager.

"Don't put that in the paper, will you?" he grinned. "I won't," I lied.

Chairman Tony Stewart, tanned and camel-coated, breezed by joking about 96 minutes and three pacemakers.

Many of Warne's squad were spending the night in the capital but the manager was going home with the trophy and his family for company.

"They're staying in the hotel just around the corner," he said. "I've given them Monday off and they'll be absolutely useless on Tuesday.

"I'll be on the team bus and I've saved a couple of quid because my wife and kids can come on it instead of paying for a train.

"I'll probably get on it, have a pizza and then have a sleep because I am absolutely exhausted."

There'd been no mixed zone for him. His main interview had been in the press-conference auditorium and more than once he had to bite down on his lip as he talked about his pride in his men.

At the end, the Sutton seats had emptied while Rotherham's remained full.

Green and gold Papa John's ribbons erupted and then cascaded. 'New York, New York,' sang the Millers fans in their loudest, proudest Sinatra voices. Start spreading the news. And the champers.

Rotherham players and staff had their official celebration pictures taken in front of a phalanx of blue-bibbed photographers.

They were under an arch again, a different version, a new one that had appeared after the final whistle.

'PAPA JOHN'S TROPHY FINAL 2022' it proclaimed, just like its predecessor had in the moments prior to kick-off.

Only this time an extra word had been added:

'WINNERS'.