The ludicrously high stakes around a play-off final can do strange things to football fans.
An otherwise pleasant footballer, someone who you might even have a soft spot for in normal circumstances, can become public enemy number one on the strength of a minute or two on a Wembley or Cardiff pitch.
Or, indeed, both. Bobby Zamora broke Derby County hearts in 2014, striking in the 90th minute to send 10-man QPR to the Premier League at the Rams’ expense, but it was not the first time the London-born striker was the source of unmitigated joy for one set of fans and outright misery for another.
Going into the 2005 Play-Off Final at the Millennium Stadium, there was little to choose between Preston North End and their opponents West Ham United. Billy Davies’ team had done the league double over Alan Pardew’s Hammers, winning 2-1 home and away, but just two points separated the clubs in the league standings and the Londoners had the experience of having made it to Cardiff the previous season before losing 1-0 to Crystal Palace.
“At the time, it was in my mind that we had beaten West Ham twice that season, and simply had to do it one more time to reach the Premier League,” sports journalist and Preston fan Olly Dawes recalls.
“Of course, that isn’t necessarily how football works, but at the time I remember thinking that we had a good chance of winning based on previous displays against West Ham.
The opening 45 minutes saw the two teams trade blows without either coming particularly close to breaking the deadlock. In essence, it looked like a battle between two teams who were separated by just a couple of points over 46 games, with the added nervousness that comes with the carrot of promotion to the Premier League.
The longer a game of this magnitude remains goalless, the higher the tension ratchets up to the point that narrow margins will make one man a hero for life to one group of fans and a villain for life to another. That man would be Bobby Zamora, whose second-half finish from a Matty Etherington cross ended up being the only goal of the game.
A play-off final defeat can be an immediate body blow for some clubs, to the point that it takes years for them to recover.
Blackpool’s defeat against West Ham in 2012 has been followed by a steady decline exacerbated by off-field matters, while Reading – who famously threw away a two-goal lead in the 1995 final – subsequently took some time out in the third tier before their next top-six appearance in 2003.
That Preston didn’t suffer the same fate is somewhat bittersweet. They repeated their top-six finish 12 months on, but couldn’t emulate West Ham by following up a play-off final defeat with victory at the same stage the following year.
“I’d say the 2005-06 team, whilst it didn’t reach the play-off final, was actually the better of the two sides, and fell short of what they were capable of against Leeds, though the team to face West Ham was also one of our strongest in recent memory,” Dawes says.
Since falling short in 2006, Preston have endured a decade including just two finishes in the top 10 of the Championship (and four years one league below), so one might forgive their supporters for confining Zamora’s name to a folder marked ‘distant memories’.
However they probably didn’t count on Zamora becoming the first man to score Championship play-off final winners both at the Millennium Stadium and the new Wembley.
Considering the manner of his 2014 winner, a last-minute strike that helped 10-man QPR see off Derby County, one might have expected a deep-seated hatred for Zamora among Rams supporters, but such an assumption would be wide of the mark.
As one Derby fan told me, “To be honest he’s one of those players most fans of all clubs see as someone who’s alright, honest etc – a cult figure to some if you like.”
This is despite what many consider a “feel-good factor” and a certain level of expectation ahead of Derby’s trip to Wembley. That Preston fans are the ones with a painful attachment to Zamora’s Wembley winner would make little sense to those who do not follow football. But to fans of the game, and especially fans of clubs below the Premier League, it couldn’t be more understandable.
“It certainly brought back memories of Zamora crushing our Premier League dream – especially as we were in League One, with no realistic Premier League hopes,” Dawes says.
“To score the winning goal in two play-off finals is remarkable, and I’m just glad he won’t spoil any more of our seasons having retired last year.”
While Zamora’s record of scoring winners in London and Cardiff finals will likely never be matched, plenty of those taking to the field for Reading and Huddersfield Town have notable play-off moments to their names.
Town striker Nakhi Wells scored at Wembley to help Bradford City escape League Two in 2013, while three years earlier Yann Kermorgant – the man whose penalty sent Reading to this year’s final, famously missed from the spot for Leicester City.
A few years down the line we may well see opposition fans speak about either one of them in the same manner that North End supporters recall Bobby Zamora – that’s what a crucial Wembley winner can do.