IN just a few hours’ time, the wait will be over for Oxford United fans.

A season that began 345 days ago with a 1-1 draw at Sunderland culminates this evening at Wembley Stadium against Wycombe Wanderers.

The Sky Bet League One play-off final is undoubtedly one of the U’s biggest matches in years, with a place in the Championship for the first time since 1999 on the line.

Although a sea of yellow cannot descend on the national stadium for the behind closed doors game, United supporters from all walks of life will be watching.

Among those will be television presenter and U’s fan Jim Rosenthal, who has experienced the highs and lows of following the club.

The ex-Oxford Mail journalist has seen United at Wembley three times and knows supporters will hate missing out.

He said: “Not being able to see your team there is hugely tough and I do sympathise with the fans.

“The team have done so well to get there.

“There are some big clubs in League One, with some big budgets.

“But when you’re at Wembley you only want one result.

“The play-offs is the way to get promoted if you do it right, but it really does shred the nerves.

“It can be a cruel business, because one game decides a season.”

The 72-year-old is responsible for one of the most iconic moments in United’s history.

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While presenting ITV’s coverage of the 1986 Milk Cup final between the U’s and Queens Park Rangers, Mr Rosenthal donned a horned hat to celebrate Maurice Evans’s side’s 3-0 triumph.

The respected broadcaster tweeted a photo of him wearing a similar number for United’s play-off semi-final second leg against Portsmouth last Monday.

He said: “I’ll be wearing that for the final, for sure.”

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Picture: Twitter/@rosenthal_jim

The U’s second visit to Wembley was not until 2010, when they beat York City 3-1 in the Conference play-off final.

On target that day was United legend James Constable, the club’s second-highest goalscorer.

Karl Robinson’s side will not have 33,000 fans in the stands like the striker and his teammates did ten years ago, but Mr Constable believes it will still feel like an occasion.

He said: “The first time you walk down the tunnel and out onto the pitch you realise how big it is.

“I’ve played at other grounds, but nothing comes close.

“The noise was something you never forget.”

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He added: “If they’re part of the team that gets the club to the Championship I don’t think they’ll worry too much.

“With the semi-finals being behind closed doors they’re already pretty drilled on what to expect.”

United are aiming for their third promotion in a decade and Mr Constable says it would beat his team’s achievement.

He said: “I don’t think anyone in 2010 thought in our wildest dreams that ten years on Oxford would be 90 minutes from the Championship.

“The turnaround is phenomenal and the lads have been different class.

“We’re obviously proud of what we did, but when you compare it to what they’re on the cusp of it’s two different worlds.”

The striker will be supporting the U’s from home like thousands of fans, including Oxfordshire County Council leader Ian Hudspeth.

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The Bladon resident has barely stopped during lockdown, but has made sure he has no prior engagements tonight.

“It’s massively exciting and giving everybody a buzz”, he said.

“They look as if they’re the real deal – they’ve got that desire and belief within themselves.

“This is a big opportunity for the club and if they get into the Championship it will be a massive difference next season.

“It’s been a ridiculously busy time, but my diary is clear – it’s all about Oxford United.”

For many supporters, United playing at Wembley stirs memories of unforgettable days with friends and family.

The U’s last visit, the 2-1 Checkatrade Trophy final loss to Coventry City in April 2017, was the last big game attended by lifelong fan Derek Coles before he died five months later.

His daughter, Diane Newsham, has attended all four of United’s trips to Wembley and admitted victory tonight would be extra special.

“It’s a real community and I think the club have been amazing during this time,” she said.

“I’m quietly confident, but there’s always that horrible Oxford United feeling in the back of your head.

“They never make it easy for us.

“Dad would have absolutely loved to have been part of this.”

The 62-year-old, her dad and sister Julie Coles will all be represented at Wembley through cardboard cut-outs in the stands.

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Read also: cut-outs of Julie Coles, Diane Newsham and their late father Derek Coles

More than 1,000 were at the Kassam Stadium for the second leg against Portsmouth, alongside a display of flags and banners.

It came after United’s independent supporters’ trust OxVox organised a motivational video of fans sending encouragement to the squad.

And U’s midfielder Alex Gorrin says these touches have given the team a huge boost at a strange time.

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He said: “I know everyone was watching at home. We knew what it meant to the fans, but we got a little reminder before the game and it was nice.

It (the video) was very emotional. It means a lot to a lot of people. We just want to do it for them.”

He added: “The fans make every game way more special and you get to appreciate it now they’re not there.

“It’s not just me, every player will be looking forward to having everyone back in the stadiums.”