At their second attempt to make the Football League, FC Hotspur of Tottenham failed again. They finished 3rd in the Conference, but were upset in the first round by Grimsby Town. They spent the summer assessing where they needed to improve, and in 2021-22, FC Hotspur enjoyed their best campaign yet in the Conference. They went into the final day in second, a point ahead of Macclesfield Town, knowing that a win would see them promoted to the Football League for the first time in their history.
"Seventy-eight, not out, Mike Trout! Mike Trout! Seventy-eight, not out, Mike Trout! Mike Trout!"
He was the owner of the most famous statistic in global sport -- 78 not out. Mike Trout's showing in the first ever Twenty20 BaseCricket match was more world-renown than Pele's 1000 goals, Lionel Messi's 100 goals in a year or Bill Russell's 11 NBA championships. Every time he stepped up to bat for Tottenham Hotspur BaseCricket Club or the United States of America, the crowd chanted the same thing. "Seventy-eight not out! Mike Trout! Mike Trout!"
The former Angels baseball player had become the global sporting icon. It helped that the rise of BaseCricket was perfectly correlated with the physical decline of Messi, the greatest footballer the world had never seen. No young stars were even close to attaining the level of the Argentine phenomenon or his greatest rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, causing casual sports fans to shift their attention elsewhere.
Trout was the first athlete to ever become equally popular in Europe, India and the United States. He was mobbed everywhere he went. A billion people had alerts sent to their phones every time he came up to bat. There had never been a global phenomenon quite like him.
He made Sporting Tottenham Hotspur dump trucks full of money.
* * *
Tottenham Hotspur Football Club had continued success too, continuously contending in the Premier League. A year after winning the title, they were set to finish third in the league, securing yet another season of Champions League football. They won the League Cup, were going to face Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals, and did it all with Harry Kane in the starting lineup.
But Kane would be the last of Spurs' great prospects. They were kept around as backups to fill Champions League home grown requirements, then promptly sold off whenever another youngster on lower wages got good enough to take their place. Dele Alli was the only other Englishman or academy product that got regular playing time for the club.
Director of Football Peter Crouch had a different vision, but no power to implement it. He was asked to execute a certain strategy, to fill the squad with world class players from a variety of nations, using the sale of local talent to fund it. He did as he was told.
* * *
Michael Woodburn never felt small, and he never saw his lack of size as something that he needed to overcome. When he took the pitch as a Leyton Orient youth player, in the amateur divisions with FC Hotspur and in the professional ranks in the Conference, he just thought of himself as a footballer. Lots of players who fell into his situation talked about how they used the things coaches told them about their lack of size to motivate them, but Woodburn wasn't like that. That was just irrelevant to him.
Negativity motivated a lot of players. Someone doubted them at some point in their career, and one of the things that motivated them most was proving that person or those people wrong. Woodburn wasn't mad at anyone, and had no desire to prove anything to any doubters. He just wanted to play first team football for his neighborhood club. While other players saw FCHT as a stepping stone to the Football League in general or a great environment to help them stick it to whoever did them wrong, Woodburn joined because he thought it was the best vehicle to get him back to Orient.
"We're not going to fail this time." Ryan Mason knew that building up Woodburn's confidence was crucial before the final game of the season against Wrexham. FCHT had gone through the promotion playoffs for two years in a row and failed to make it to Wembley. Mason didn't want to go through that again.
This was the season where Woodburn stopped being a promising young player and started being one of the top players in the lower divisions. He was the perfect hybrid No. 10/second striker, and his 18 goal, 20 assist season caught the eye of bigger clubs. FC Hotspur would need to win promotion to have any chance of keeping him, and even if they did go up, they might receive a bid too lucrative to decline.
* * *
In the grass outside Ledley King Park, a 14-year-old neighborhood boy and his friends were playing 5-a-side with trash bins as goals before they went into the match. He played for a local academy side unaffiliated with any professional club, and he was their gem, destined for greatness. The only problem was that his parents wouldn't let him sign with a pro team until he completed his GCSEs.
It might have hindered his physical and tactical progress, but certainly not his technical ability. He spent the entirety of the game doing stepovers and Cruyff Turns, nutmegging his mates constantly as they threatened to knock him out.
"You'd be the next Messi if your mum let you join Spurs," said one of his friends.
"I'm going to be better than Messi anyway," replied the prodigy, confidently.
"You're going to be one of those sad blokes at the pub chatting s--t about how they could have been a top pro if they weren't so unlucky," said another friend.
"You want to get nutmegged again?"
* * *
Not every game at Ledley King Park was a sellout. FCHT were still a 5th division side, after all. But on the day they could secure automatic promotion to the Football League, 10,000 supporters turned out and packed the ground.
The FC Hotspur starting XI was a who's who of Spurs academy washouts. Shaq Coulthirst started up top ahead of Woodburn, Kenny McEvoy played on the left, and Conor Ogilvie backed him up and Grant Ward manned the right wing.
Wrexham weren't in the promotion or relegation push and had little to play for but pride. That wasn't enough motivation for them to overcome 10,000 rabid fans and a hyper-motivated side with talent that was more than good enough for League Two.
20th minute. Mason to Woodburn to Coulthirst. Goal.
33rd minute. Mason to Woodburn to Yeganeh. Goal.
44th minute. Mason to Ward to McEvoy. Goal.
They were easy, and FC Hotspur just passed around in circles as the supporters shouted their "OLE!"s throughout the second half. A community-owned club with community-developed players, run by two local lads, had made their way all the way from the lowest division of English football to the Football League.
On the same day, third-placed Tottenham Hotspur FC played 14th placed Burnley at StubHub Stadium at White Hart Lane. For the first time in the new stadium's history, the match was not a sell-out.