May 17, 1998 was the day everything changed. Prior to that point the history of Cheltenham Town Football Club had comprised brief moments of success separated by what can only be described as long periods of mediocrity.
John Murphy's team of stylish battlers, recruited from within a 50-mile radius of Whaddon Road, had taken the Robins into the National League in 1985 but by 1997 they were back in regional semi-professional football and making mighty hard work of trying to get back out.
Yet still there was a nagging feeling among those of us who dedicated much of our time and energy to help the club along. Cheltenham was a town of over 100,000 people and the wider region numbered more than a quarter of a million. Surely the area would be capable of supporting a higher level of football if only a way could be found to bring that dream to life.
Enter one Steve Cotterill, Cheltenham born and bred and like many from our town he spent his formative football years on the pitches of KGV Playing Field in Rowanfield. After a career in the professional game that had been cruelly cut short by injury, he had turned to coaching and had shown early promise during a spell at Sligo Rovers in Ireland.
His first steps as manager of Cheltenham Town were inauspicious enough with defeats in his first two games but slowly Cotterill managed to drag consistent performances out of some undoubtedly talented players.
Promotion back to the National League was achieved on the final day of the 1996-97 season and the momentum continued into the following campaign. During the club's previous seven-year sojourn in the top division of 'non-league' football the Robins had rarely troubled the top half of the table but suddenly there was a different kind of belief around the place and it wasn't just down to the manager.
A capable and enthusiastic Board of local businessmen led by the 41-year old Paul Baker took on the challenge of backing their ambitious young manager and the team embarked upon a run to the FA Cup third round combined with a challenge towards the top of the league. Although champions Halifax Town appeared nailed on for promotion from the early stages, there was much to admire in Cheltenham Town's refusal to be intimidated by anyone they faced. Furthermore, the FA Trophy offered the genuine chance of a Wembley final and there was no logical reason why Cheltenham couldn't get there, if only they could believe it was possible.
The furthest Cheltenham had ever got in the competition was the quarter-final stage on two occasions but this time the early rounds breezed by with wins over Enfield, Rushden & Diamonds and Ashton United. Hayes were defeated 1-0 in a bad-tempered quarter-final at Whaddon Road then Cheltenham took a 2-1 lead in the semi-final first leg at home to Dover Athletic. The second leg was a tense affair but after a nerve-shredding 90 minutes the Robins emerged with a 2-2 draw and a place at the home of English football for the first time. It was going to take a while to sink in but a three-and-a-half hour coach journey home did the trick, the players and staff enjoying a memorable mobile party back along the highways and byways to Cheltenhamshire.
The town's people responded in fine style. Dayglo posters advertising the final appeared in all the shop windows - this was a long time before social media - and around 17,000 fans made the pilgrimage to the twin towers on a beautiful sunny afternoon.
The game itself contained very little of note. In fact, as a football match it was one of the poorest of the whole season. Opponents Southport, a former Football League club with a dangerous mixture of Scousers and Mancunians in their team nearly got in front during the second half but goalkeeper Steve Book made a fine save at the feet of Brian Ross. It was a tight, physical, nervous 90 minutes but Cheltenham found the key to unlock proceedings in the closing stages courtesy of two substitutes. Jimmy Smith won a free-kick on the right and Russell Milton, back in the squad after an injury scare, delivered a delicious ball across the box. Jamie Victory flicked it on and there, left alone at the far post, was Jason Eaton to nod home.
Heading back into town after the match there were people outside all the pubs celebrating and walking through town, still wearing my Wembley buttonhole, it seemed that nearly everyone I'd grown up with or played football with had been to the game and was out enjoying an unprecedented sporting and civic success.
The crowds for the open top bus parade were even larger as the team paraded the trophy through the streets and then up to the town hall balcony. Cheltenham had literally seen nothing like it since VE Day.
The challenge for the club was to make sure it was not a one-off, not that Cotterill would have allowed that to happen. The next four years bought two further promotions and an established place within the Football League that had seemed unthinkable only a short time before.
And since then? Like every club we've had our ups and downs but there have certainly been more of the former including a club record 15th place finish in League One last season. We can look back and allow ourselves some measure of pride at 25 years of progress, punching above our weight, recovering from adversity and confounding the odds and predictions. It's taken a lot of hard work but that hunch we had way back in the 1990s that Cheltenham Town had potential to fulfil proved correct all along. And Wembley 1998 was the start of it all.
Next season we're setting out to break new ground once again, targeting an unprecedented fourth League One season in a row and we want you to join us on that journey. Purchase your 2023/24 season ticket online now.