Just over a week ago I finished off my season with a trip to the home of football, Wembley. And for me the second time in three years at Non League Finals Day, where the FA Vase for Step 5 and 6 clubs and the FA Trophy for Step 4 to Step 1 clubs come together as one and a place for all to celebrate another season of non league football.
For the players, supporters, officials and volunteers of Thatcham Town, Stockton Town, Bromley and Brackley Town a just reward for the efforts put in over the last 9 or so months and without those volunteers who offer so many unpaid hours per week just to keep these clubs running, grassroots football will surely disappear. As a committee member and website editor for Wick FC and newly named press officer for Worthing FC, these are the days you hope to see your club have their day in the spotlight.
Five years ago, I was lucky enough to be one of 13,000 following Tunbridge Wells to Wembley in the Vase final of 2013. The momentum that these trophies can propel can be seen clearly from that year as Spennymoor triumphed and 5 years later are two promotions from the Football League.
The idea of both finals coming together has almost probably saved the opportunity of playing at Wembley instead of a high capacity Premier League ground. And it works well, well almost. Having only sat in Club Wembley, the neutral fan section, I can’t comment on what the other sections are open to, but the ‘in-between moment’ of the two games needs some working on, both on and off the pitch.
On the pitch is non-existent, off the pitch the food and drink certainly needs a re-visit around that area if nowhere else. The choice is poor and the cost is around the same price you would pay to watch these teams on a Saturday afternoon on it’s own. I know it’s Wembley and it’s London, but a second mortgage shouldn’t be needed to eat and water yourself for a near 6 hr marathon, especially when you can’t leave the stadium and return at any point.
But let’s not detract from the action on the pitch! Both Thatcham and Stockton gave us a superb 1-0 game, played on one of the hottest May day’s. Water breaks were common and expected, and while Stockton settled more quickly it was Thatcham who scored the only goal of the game, Shane Cooper-Clark’s penalty was his 63rd goal of the season and proved to be the winner.
The goal did knock Stockton for a while, but they came again in the second half as did Thatcham and both sides had chances for a winner and an equaliser. How Stockton didn’t score in the final five minutes is beyond me, being literally camped in the Thatcham penalty box and throwing everything they could towards the goal. However, it’s nice to see a Southern side win the Vase, the Northern stranglehold on the competition is well known and they do produce some fantastic sides able to withstand 46 league games, Vase and other cup runs amongst some of the worst weather in England.
And so to the Trophy final, Bromley backed superbly by 16,000 fans from Kent (must be something about Kent clubs and big followings to North London) and Brackley with a town population of just over 13,000. One just missing out on the play-offs and one losing in the play-offs and although Bromley made the early running given the lead by soon to be free agent Omar Bugiel, just like Thatcham they had some good chances to extend their lead.
The Ravens boss Neil Smith played it safe as Brackley increased the tempo after the interval and began withdrawing attacking players in order to preserve their lead, but in the final minute of stoppage time after waves of Brackley attacks, they got their reward and took the game to extra time.
Neither side looked set to take it beyond sparring during the extra half an hour and so it went to penalties. Bugiel shot over the bar when taking what would have been the winning penalty had he scored, Adam Walker then levelled the scores at 4-4. It was down to Bromley’s impressive captain Jack Holland to win the trophy for the Kent club, but the post denied him leaving Andy Brown to cap a remarkable turnaround and send the 4,500 Brackley fans into raptures, but something they deserved for going right to the end and finishing the stronger side.
Kevin Wilkin’s side have played some great football this year, indeed Wilkin was mentioned in dispatches for the then vacant Barnet job and when you consider some of the big clubs and budgets in the National League North, Brackley have performed beyond expectations.
£25 for two games of football is extremely good value in my opinion, we saw two excellent games at the end of a long season for all 4 teams given the weather conditions for the most of January – March meant cramming games in left, right and centre just to finish the season off.
The only slightly disappointing point was the crowd figure of around 31,000 which was down on previous years. Hereford of course inflated the figure two years ago, but maybe the FA need to look more at encouraging clubs to get themselves to Wembley to support their fellow teams and make it an even better atmosphere. There won’t be a Bromley or Hereford every year and to stop the attendance dropping even lower, surely each club that enters both competitions can be asked to take a ticket or two, and use it or them for whatever they wish, a raffle or generous gift to their own volunteers? We have to look after our own grass roots if no one else is going to.