04 June 2012

Alan Comfort on winning a play-off final and getting married on the same day

In this extract from my book Leyton Orient Greats, winger Alan Comfort looks back at how, on 3 June 1989, he starred in the Os play-off victory against Wrexham and got married on the same day... 

Alan had met Jill, the social worker who would become his wife, at the beginning of 1988. They were introduced by a mutual friend at a church service in Guildford, Surrey. ‘She was singing and she had a beautiful voice,’ says Alan. ‘When I talked to her she was so bubbly and enthusiastic; one of those people that makes everything brilliant. And obviously I quite fancied her.’

After a whirlwind romance the couple got engaged in the summer of 1988 and set their wedding for 3 June 1989. ‘Obviously as a footballer I needed to get married in June to fit in a honeymoon before pre-season training starts,’ says Alan. ‘I phoned the Football League and asked what the first free date would be after the Play-off Final. They told me 3 June would definitely be ok – the Play-offs had never gone into June.’

That year, however, the Hillsborough tragedy led to the football season being extended, and the Play-off Final was rescheduled for the very Saturday of Alan’s wedding. It meant that should Orient reach the Final, Alan was going to have the mother of all double bookings.

Alan in action against Crewe on 27 August 1988.
Orient had a bad start to the season
Not that there seemed any danger of that at the start of the season. Orient failed to win until their sixth game, were dumped out of the FA Cup by non-league Enfield and, despite thumping Colchester 8–0 in October, were nearer the bottom of the table than the top by Christmas. ‘It was the same old problem,’ says Alan. ‘We were relying on certain players to make things happen and they weren’t – myself included.’

Manager Frank Clark’s position looked under threat, though he can be credited with the signing of two players that helped turn things around in the New Year: Kevin Campbell on loan from Arsenal and Mark Cooper, signed from Gillingham. ‘They made the team work better,’ says Alan. ‘But at the same time we had some young boys that emerged as real players – Steve Castle, Terry Howard, Lee Harvey – and the experience of people like Steve Baker. We had a great side.’

Alan himself began to play perhaps the best football of his life, and was scoring regularly. ‘They were always typical goals,’ he laughs. ‘The ball would come over to the far post, and I’d drill it across the goal into the net. In training I’d do that every time. I could do it without thinking about it.’

Frank Clark had also changed the formation, giving his winger a freer role. Alan explains, ‘He said to me, “Just go and find the ball and play. Go anywhere to get it.” It meant I couldn’t be marked out of the game.’

Alan Comfort and Terry Howard
Clark himself says, ‘We ended up setting the team up to give Alan the best possible chance to do what he could do. We played a kind of 4-4-2 with him on the left, but we didn’t want to tie him down to being out wide because he was a good finisher. So we encouraged him to come inside at the right time and move into positions where he saw opportunity. Fortunately the other midfield players would adapt as Alan moved around to keep the balance. And it worked quite well. When Alan was on form he was unstoppable.’

Orient began to climb the table – and Jill began to worry. ‘When they changed the Play-off date Jill asked me if she needed to be concerned,’ says Alan. ‘At that point we were near the bottom of the table so I said she had nothing to worry about. Then we started winning again and again. I’d reassure her by saying, “It’s ok, we always blow it at the end.” But then I’d keep coming home on a Saturday night and saying, “I’m so sorry. I scored and we won.”’

The team lost just twice in their last 17 matches and secured a place in the Play-offs. Alan felt confident that Orient could win them. ‘We had momentum,’ he says. ‘We were playing so well by then – we’d beaten Scunthorpe 4–1 to deny them automatic promotion in the last game of the season. We’d hit form at the right time.’

The semi-final was against Scarborough – Alan’s bogey team. ‘Neil Warnock was the manager at the time,’ he recalls. ‘He was an absolute nightmare. He’d stand on the touchline and talk to me the whole time. He hated me! He’d say to the right-back, “Break his legs. Snap his legs.” And the right-back would come flying in from everywhere.’

Thankfully, Alan survived, as did Orient, qualifying for the final courtesy of a 2–0 victory at Brisbane Road followed by a 1–0 loss in Yorkshire. The first leg of the Final saw them draw 0–0 with Wrexham at the Racecourse Ground. The return leg was set for 3 June, leaving Alan with the slight problem of a wedding to consider.

The ceremony was set for 3pm in Bangor in County Down, where Jill’s family hail from. Invitations had been sent, guests had booked flights and hotels – there was no way the couple could cancel. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and just as he used to begin a mazy run towards goal from midfield, Alan embarked on a plan to get himself from Brisbane Road to Northern Ireland.

With the help of his brother-in-law, a newspaper editor, Alan got the Sunday Express to agree to print the story and make their helicopter available on the day. They would fly Alan from Leyton to Heathrow Airport, where a plane would take him to Belfast to connect with another flight to Newtownards, near Bangor. Everything was planned with military precision, and the wedding was moved to 5.30pm.

Manager Frank Clark persuaded
the police that the final should
kick off at 1pm
But that still didn’t leave time for Alan to play in the game, which was due to kick-off at 3pm. Which is where Frank Clark came in. ‘I did ask Alan to move his wedding but being the sort of lad that he was there was no way he was going to do it,’ says the former Orient manager. ‘So we had to figure out a way around it. I managed to persuade everyone that the game should be a lunchtime kick off. The police were keen on it too as they thought it would be easier to control things, so obviously we supported them 100 percent in that. I wanted to put out the best team I could and Alan was a part of that.’

On the day itself, the game actually kicked off 20 minutes late due to the number of fans still trying to get into the ground. Once on the field, however, Alan was focussed fully on the football. ‘It was so important I never thought about getting married,’ he says.

The game was tense, but some good play from Alan released Lee Harvey, who put Orient 1–0 up in the first half with a great strike from 20 yards. Wrexham equalised early in the second half with a header, and the game tightened up. ‘I think we were the better team,’ says Alan. ‘I always thought we were going to score. But as the half went on we were creating fewer and fewer chances so I didn’t know where it was going to come from.’

After 80 minutes the game remained locked at 1–1 and heading for extra-time. The Sunday Express helicopter was circling above the ground. ‘At this point I knew I was in trouble,’ says Alan. ‘I had a horrible feeling I wasn’t going to make it for my own wedding. I thought, “I just can’t do extra-time.” Of course I would have played, but I was thinking, “We need a goal from somewhere.”’

Alan – along with every Orient fan present on the day – remains eternally indebted to Mark Cooper who, with eight minutes to go, scored the goal that won the game. ‘I was standing behind him when he volleyed it,’ says Alan. ‘He struck it so sweetly. It was a goal that was worthy of winning the game.’

Alan makes a quick exit after the game
to be driven to his waiting helicopter
As the seconds ticked down to the final whistle Alan began to hug the touchline by the players’ tunnel, and as the game ended made a break for it, unable to spare the time to join the celebrations. ‘I ran into the dressing room, had a quick shower and put some clothes on,’ he recalls. ‘The helicopter couldn’t land on the pitch because of all the fans, so I had to jump in a car to Hackney Marshes. I had a bottle of champagne in one hand and my wedding suit in the other. As we landed at Heathrow Airport I tried to help to shut the door of the helicopter and it took off a chunk of my thumb, so I was pouring with blood too.’

Alan made his connection to his next flight, and was greeted by a police escort as he landed in Newtownards. ‘By now the Sunday Express reporter was so drunk that when the police asked if he was with me, I said no,’ he laughs. ‘So we left him behind.’

The groom had time for a quick bath in a house next to the church in Bangor, yet encountered another problem. ‘The cold water had broken down,’ he explains. ‘I had to have a scalding hot bath, and when I got out I was bright red and pouring with sweat. During the service the minister had to keep dabbing my forehead. I was also dripping blood everywhere from my thumb.’

Thankfully the ceremony went off without any further hitches, capping what for Alan was a monumental day. ‘It brought a whole lot of things together,’ he says. ‘Although I was exhausted I could sit back and see that, for me, it was a point where everything I could ever want – and more – I’d got.’

His one regret is that he didn’t get to celebrate Orient’s win with his teammates and the fans. ‘I missed the moment,’ he says. ‘In football you don’t succeed that often, so when you do you have to enjoy it. When I saw the pictures of the players celebrating I was sad that I never got to do that. But I still had the experience of getting there and playing the game and enjoyed that. The club deserved to get promoted, the fans deserved it and the team was full of so many good players that they deserved to succeed. It was the moment they rose up to be as good as they could be.’

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