THIS year marks the 10th anniversary of Boston United’s historic Conference title-winning season.
That 2-0 victory at Hayes on the final day of the season saw the Pilgrims pip Dagenham and Redbridge to the championship, and earn promotion to the Football League.
In the first of a series of interviews with those involved with the club that season, sports editor Duncan Browne speaks to right back Mark Clifford...
“THINKING about it still gives me goosebumps,” said Mark Clifford, reflecting on the day he lifted the Conference championship trophy.
“It was something that will always stay with me.
“Every time I watch another team win a title or a cup on TV, that moment at Hayes always flashes back into my head.”
Clifford, back then an attacking right back whose cockiness on the field was matched by his bravado off it, looks back on that day (Sunday, April 28) as his proudest in football.
But those memories of his time at York Street will always be tinged with sadness, as those late-night celebrations saw him remember the murder of his best friend Tommy.
Clifford was with his pal the night he died. They had got into separate taxis and set off for home.
The next day he arrived at Freiston to train with his Boston teammates when his phone rang. It was his mother, telling him Tommy had died.
A disagreement over a woman had seen him stabbed 44 times.
Tommy’s funeral was on Monday, February 18, the same day Boston United hosted Hereford United in a televised match.
Manager Steve Evans, who knew Tommy as he had travelled to matches to support Clifford, told his player he could have the night off, but such was the cameraderie in the York Street dressing room, Clifford didn’t want to let his teammates down.
He rushed from the funeral in Nottingham to Boston and played the full 90 minutes.
Boston may have lost that game 4-3, but what happened after Daryl Clare gave the Pilgrims the lead reassured the defender he had made the right decision.
“We scored first and we all ran to the camera making big T-signs for him,” he said.
“It was emotional for me and I know there were members of his family who I’d left to get to the game who were moved to tears.
“But that’s how good the bunch of lads were.”
And that support for Clifford lasted throughout the season, even as he drank with his teammates to toast their promotions.
“After we’d won at Hayes we were celebrating at the hotel, and Des Wood (who was in the process of buying the club) brought over a bottle of Champagne and told me ‘that’s for your friend’.
“That was massive for me. It was an emotional year and to have someone do that was a big gesture.”
Clifford - who started all but two competitive matches that season - looks back at those moments as proof of how close-knit the whole club was at that time.
And that was, he believes, what helped United keep their cool during that tense run-in.
United arrived at Hayes level on points with Dagenham and Redbridge, but with the healthier goal difference.
They knew victory was their only option.
And that determination to win was only enhanced when the team bus arrived at Hayes, where the town centre was redecorated amber and black courtesy of the 2,000-plus travelling fans.
He said: “We prepared well for the final game.
“Obviously, there were nerves, but when the team bus turned the corner towards the ground we were met by so many fans.
“They were jumping up and down, drinking in the street and hanging off lampposts.
“They were getting behind us and that settled our nerves as we knew, from that moment, we wanted to do it for them as much as we did for ourselves.”
Those supporters may have been an incentive for Clifford.
But at the final whistle, as they rushed onto the pitch, the right back admitted their support was, at first, a little less welcome.
“To be honest, I was scared at the final whistle,” he said.
“I turned around and just saw a wall of people running at me.
“I went straight into the dressing room and Jim Rodwell did the same.
“Then we realised that the rest weren’t coming in.
“Eventually, the others starting coming in, one lad was stripped down to his briefs.
“Things cleared up a bit and we did get to go out and lift the trophy. That was something special. Nobody wanted that moment to end.”
But end it did. And 10 years on, Clifford has matured from the cocksure youngster who used to cut his teammates’ trouser legs off as they showered after training – and once removed a wheel from Clare’s car ‘for as laugh’.
Now his day job is working with youngsters, helping them get their lives on track.
But he is still involved in football. Last week he completed his UEFA B coaching course and currently runs a team called Real United in the Central Midlands League.
The club has close ties with Notts County and prides itself on helping young footballers have a second chance in the game.
Having taken them from bottom of the league to 10th in his first season, Clifford hopes this can one day launch his managerial career.
Unlike some, he has fond memories of working under Steve Evans (‘we were both fiery and he sacked me four times that season, but he knew how to assemble a good squad’) and ex-Boston striker Keith Alexander at Ilkeston.
He even turned down the chance to be reunited with Alexander, opting not to move from United to Lincoln City as ‘I couldn’t go to the rivals, I love Boston’.
No matter where his managerial dreams take him, however, Clifford will always have a reminder of his playing days.
He added: “I’ve still got my number two shirt, signed by the whole team, up in my spare bedroom. My little boy’s only three and he keeps telling me someone’s drawn on it.
“One day,” Clifford laughed “he’ll realise just what that shirt means to me.”