Dan Palmer

I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up supporting Basingstoke Town Football Club.

The house I grew up in is on the same road as the ground - The Camrose - and the window in my old bedroom offers a fantastic view of the main stand.

On one occasion, I was playing football in the garden and managed to score in my tiny net at the same time as a Basingstoke goal, meaning it felt like the roar from the stand was for me.

My dad would have taken me to my first game. I don't remember who it was against, but we would have walked for barely a couple of minutes, out of the back gate and across the potholed-filled car park to the turnstiles.

With a clickety-clack we were in, before paying an extra pound to watch from the stand.

In 1997 the club reached the first round of the FA Cup - a huge deal for any non-league football side in England - and were drawn away against Football League Division Two outfit Wycombe Wanderers.

Basingstoke claimed a heroic 2-2 draw, battling back from 2-0 down. In the replay at The Camrose, the game finished 2-2 again but the home side won on penalties - a famous giant-killing.

Dan Palmer wearing a Basingstoke shirt in Laos in 2006 ©ITG
Dan Palmer wearing a Basingstoke shirt in Laos in 2006 ©ITG

The reward was a trip to Northampton Town, another Division Two side. I wasn't expecting to go but my dad folded up a ticket inside a wooden advent calendar I had and we drove up.

Northampton took the lead but Basingstoke earned a 1-1 draw and another replay. Amazingly, this finished 0-0 and it was penalties again, this time in front of the Sky Sports cameras on a night often described as the coldest in Basingstoke's history.

By now I was ill with gastroenteritis, but somehow I still managed to attend the game and not go to school the next day. 

Northampton prevailed, earning a trip to Premier League side Leicester City, but the FA Cup bandwagon would not be enough for me and I started supporting the club full-time.

When I was old enough I began going to away games, heading off from the town to equally glamorous locations across the south of England - Hornchurch, Bromley, Thurrock, Braintree, Bishop's Stortford, Slough, Hayes, Worthing.

There were some definite high points along the way, with the FA Cup victory at Chesterfield in 2006 the best of the lot.

For a club playing in the regional leagues it was a thrill to venture to the north of the country, with myself and a mate catching a train at 6am in order to maximise drinking time in unfamiliar pubs at the other end.

League One's Chesterfield had been the heroes of that season's League Cup, knocking out Premier League clubs Manchester City and West Ham United, so we were not expecting much, especially as Basingstoke were rock bottom of the Conference South.

The travelling fans were housed in the corner of a side stand, and although nobody was allowed on the terracing behind the goal we were permitted to hang flags.

I tied up an Argentina flag we had brought in honour of our player Cristian Levis. The Basingstoke support broke into a chant of "ARG-EN-TINA" as I pretended to be an orchestra conductor.

On 25 minutes, Matt Warner scored and incredibly the visitors held on for the win to spark wild scenes. It was straight into nearby Sheffield, which had the added bonus of being my former university city, to kick-start the celebrations.

At a particularly late hour a fire alarm forced the evacuation of one bar. It was coming up to 24 hours since that 6am train and I dread to think how much beer I had consumed as I led a chant of "Basingstoke" among a confused group, shivering in the November cold.

Occasionally the club has received national media attention. In 2014, The Camrose was re-named the Soccer AM Stadium after a link-up with the television show, leading to some excellent exposure. 

Later in the year, it was announced that Basingstoke had made an audacious bid for Brazilian World Cup winner Ronaldinho, a venture which was certain to fail but again generated headlines.

Basingstoke's audacious approach for Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho garnered national attention ©Getty Images
Basingstoke's audacious approach for Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho garnered national attention ©Getty Images

In 2019, Basingstoke beat Staines 10-3, a scoreline more suitable for rugby. My phone pinged repeatedly with messages from people who had spotted the result.

Despite these highs, supporting Basingstoke has normally been an experience tinged with disappointment.

As celebrity owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have found out at Wrexham, gaining promotion from a non-league division is notoriously difficult as there is often only one automatic spot available.

Below that is the stress of the playoffs, something Basingstoke has never managed to negotiate.

Relegation occurs much more easily, with the club plummeting to two levels beneath the Conference South where they played on that halcyon Chesterfield day.

More recently, the club was evicted from The Camrose due to the former chairman's plan to sell the site for housing.

Parts of the stadium appeared for sale on eBay and the pitch was dug up. If you go to my old bedroom now, you can still see the main stand from the window but also graffiti and vandalism.

The club was forced to play 20 miles down the road in Winchester before moving back to the town to a facility which is far too small.

With all of this upheaval, only the most positive fan was expecting any success on the pitch. My impression of the club is normally that they might get close to glory but will ultimately fall short. 

It felt like good positions would always be squandered and that something like a promotion would be reserved for other clubs. "Typical Basingstoke" is how some fans have described an assumed mentality problem and the acceptance that we will only ever witness heartbreak. 

None of these feelings went away when, in January, Basingstoke went top of the Isthmian South Central Division, seven promotions adrift of the Premier League.

At one point we were seven points clear and enjoyed an amazing streak of 15 victories in a row - a sequence which would have wrapped up the title comfortably most years.

However, without a league title in 38 years and such is the luck of the club, it was never going to be that easy.

The view of The Camrose main stand, now daubed with graffiti after the club was evicted ©ITG
The view of The Camrose main stand, now daubed with graffiti after the club was evicted ©ITG

Walton & Hersham, powered by a goal machine dentist called Eddie Simon, recorded their own run of 14 straight wins in a fascinating title race.

I have realised that you are never happy as a football fan. Of course, I was always unhappy with relegations, playoff defeats and midtable obscurity. 

But being top of the league was horrible too, as I could not enjoy the wins fully as Walton had always won as well.

My wife suggested that I should stop following the club if it brought no joy, but I said this was impossible and would be like unfollowing our two boys. 

She said this was a stupid comparison, but anyone with a football club in their blood will know what I mean.

Basingstoke's seven-point lead was swiftly cut to four when Walton won their game in hand. And when the 15-game run came to an end with defeat, Walton triumphed to narrow the gap to just one.

The following weekend, the two clubs met and Walton won 5-1 to go top, a truly disastrous day. Some of their fans invaded the pitch, thinking the job was done. Many Basingstoke fans thought it was too. Typical Basingstoke, they had fluffed it again and it was going to be the playoffs.

Optimists said there were still four games to go. But with the club now two points behind, the fear was the season would drift away. 

In the song Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want by The Smiths, there is the lyric "good times for a change, see the luck I've had can make a good man turn bad" and I began singing it as a coping mechanism.

Dan Brownlie's men, though, had other ideas and refused to give in, showing a psychological steel that the club has perhaps been lacking.

They did not drop points again and, suddenly, were back level at the top after Walton drew 0-0 at Guernsey.

The title race went to the final day with Basingstoke hosting South Park Reigate and Walton visiting Thatcham Town. But the latter's superior goal difference meant they remained firmly in the driving seat.

South Park claimed a first half lead to cement the inevitability of the playoffs which was being felt around the ground, before Basingstoke's own deadly striker Brad Wilson levelled with a penalty.

Walton went in 0-0 at the break and as the second-half began, there was suddenly bedlam behind the goal as news drifted in that Thatcham had scored.

Basingstoke Town are represented at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil ©ITG
Basingstoke Town are represented at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil ©ITG

In the 1986 film Clockwise, John Cleese's character says the line "I can take the despair, it's the hope I can't stand" which has always seemed appropriate for supporting Basingstoke.

After Wilson's second penalty had given Basingstoke the lead, I could still not believe. Surely this was fate cruelly giving us one last glimmer of hope which it would soon swiftly extinguish?

Of course it was. Walton came to life and went 2-1 in front. Despite Basingstoke making it three, a silence descended as both games entered stoppage time - the ground resigned to the fate of the 38-year wait continuing.

But then, abruptly and joyously, the calm was broken. A man began screaming in delight and there was pandemonium everywhere else. Had Thatcham scored? I was unable to believe it. I have been at end-of-season showdowns before and know that "goals" elsewhere can quickly spread around grounds when they haven't in fact been scored.

Phone out, I checked Twitter but it was still saying 2-1 to Walton. Where was this information coming from? Refresh. Nothing. Refresh. Nope...

And then, unbelievably, it was there. A man, a magical, magical man called Ashley Howell, had equalised for Thatcham, dribbling past a couple of defenders and curling a finish into the top corner. Wow.

It was still too early to celebrate - the Walton game wasn't over and there was still time for them. Could there be one final twist, the cruellest of them all?

Suddenly there were more cheers. Is it all over, have we done it? Another refresh and there's no confirmation of full-time. Refresh, refresh - this is killing me. It's the hope I can't stand. The internet is starting to get patchy, but then, it appears. Full-time at Thatcham and Walton have been held. Basingstoke are going to be champions.

Our game ends and people begin to spill onto the pitch. I join them, vaulting over a fence and sprinting into a scrum of delirious people. Hugs follow with players and strangers. We are going up and it's exhilarating. 

The boy who grew up on the same street as the ground has something to celebrate at long last. My dad passed away in 2014, far too young, and there is a tear in my eye.

I have celebrated sporting results before, of course, but nothing comes close to the indescribable high of your home town winning, after all the miles travelled and disappointments, in such dramatic circumstances.

Pure elation, pure joy - the ultimate release of emotion. I thought a day like this might never come but at long, long last it was our turn. 

You are never happy as a football fan. Until, it seems, you are.