Saturday, 16 May 2009

They Think It's All Over

My FA Vase campaign started at a rain–soaked Oakwood in Sussex back in September against a strong Chertsey Town side. As you may recall, Chertsey stormed into a 3-0 lead after only 5 minutes, only to be pegged back to 3-3, with the game ultimately, and controversially, abandoned at the full-time whistle. That game set the tone for the run, as I was treated to games of high drama, great entertainment and no shortage of goals.

In total, I saw 49 goals hit the back of the net, not including penalty shoot-outs, an incredible average of over 4 goals per game. Quite predictably, attendances started off low (e.g. 65 and 69) but grew steadily throughout the rounds, the largest (after the Final) being 1582 who packed into Glossop North End’s Surrey Street for the Semi-Final 2nd Leg. Fans' interest in the FA Vase really gathered momentum at the national stages and I was extremely fortunate to pick up with Glossop, my town of birth, from the Fifth Round. Any attempts to stay neutral from that point were futile.

I have seen some fantastic football and I consider myself well and truly converted to the non League game. At that first game in Oakwood I remember pulling up to the ground and being asked to pay £5. I thought that was the car park charge, and I was a little shocked, before I realised the single blue note I handed over paid not only for the parking, but also for entry to the game and the programme. I parked right behind the goal. A £5 entrance fee was the norm at most games. In all, I watched 12 matches and covered 1778 miles and it was worth every penny. In between the FA Vase ties, I managed to take in other non League games at Chertsey Town, Dartford, Egham Town, Hampton & Richmond Borough, Metropolitan Police, Staines Town, Woking and Windsor & Eton, plus an FA Cup game at AFC Hornchurch. Not a Premier League ground in sight.

The season has now drawn to a close for the vast majority of non League clubs, and planning is already well underway for next season. There will be moves up, down and across the pyramid structure for many; others will stay exactly where they are whilst some battle to even survive. But what of the teams I watched in this season’s FA Vase? Here’s how their League seasons panned out:

Oakwood struggled in Division One of the Sussex County League finishing next to bottom, just above Worthing United, winning only eight League games all season. Hassocks also had a difficult campaign in the same League, finishing three places above Oakwood whilst Arundel fared best out of the Sussex trio with a runners-up spot, only two points behind champions Eastbourne United Association.

Chertsey Town were amongst the favourites for promotion from the Combined Counties League Premier Division, in no small part due to the amount of money pumped into the club. They finished 3rd in the League behind North Greenford United and winners Bedfont Green as the Surrey outfit limped across the finishing line with a congested end-of-season fixture list and a squad depleted by injuries. In the same League, Banstead Athletic coped well with managerial upheaval to finish in a credible mid-table position. There was also a mid-table finish for Cogenhoe United; The Cooks from Northamptonshire ended the season in 9th place of the United Counties Premier League.

Bitton AFC, Marske United and Chalfont St Peter can all lay claim to successful seasons. Bitton’s FA Vase run left them playing catch-up in the League. But with a great run-in, Bitton clinched the Western Premier League title, topping the table above 2nd placed Frome Town. Congratulations to everyone down at Bitton. Marske United missed out on promotion from Division Two of the Northern League by two places, finishing in 5th slot. Going into the final few games of the season, Chalfont St Peter were still challenging for the South Midlands Premier Division crown, but a couple of costly draws and a defeat against champions Biggleswade Town resulted in a 3rd placed finish.

Glossop North End and Whitley Bay not only contested the FA Vase Final, and enjoyed a day in the sun at Wembley, they also enjoyed good League campaigns. Glossop were for a while also in with a shout at the title, but their League form suffered during their marvellous FA Vase run. The Hillmen came 5th in the Premier Division of the North West Counties League, won by last season’s FA Vase winners AFC Fylde. Whitley Bay missed out on a League and Cup double by only two points, the margin that separated them from Northern League winners Newcastle Benfield. Whitley Bay finished 3rd behind Consett.

So congratulations to Whitley Bay, winners of the 2008-09 FA Vase. Whilst the teams I watched in the competition had mixed seasons, it was a pleasure to see them all and if it hadn’t been for the FA Vase I would never have considered going to watch any of them play. My abiding memory is the warmth with which I was welcomed at all the clubs, no matter which part of the country nor at which stage of the competition. To the clubs, officials, volunteers and fans that I have met along the way, thanks for your support and friendship. It has been a real joy to share a small part of your season, and most importantly, to share your passion.

Roll on 2009-10, whatever that may bring...

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Game 12: Glossop North End 0, Whitley Bay 2

The FA Carlsberg Vase Final ~ Sunday 10th May 2009
Venue: Wembley Stadium
Attendance: 12212

Distance travelled: 58 miles

I fully expected that anti-climactic, end of journey feeling after the FA Vase Final, but it still hit me between the eyes like a bullet. A culmination of a little less than 1780 miles covered, and 12 games watched, it really does feel like the morning after. Glossop North End players and club officials no doubt feel the same way having arrived at Wembley determined to leave with the Vase. It was Whitley Bay who won the ultimate encounter and it is they who had it all to celebrate come the end of game party. The blue and whites from the North East recaptured the silverware that they won in 2002 and will be experiencing a quite different morning after feeling than their Derbyshire opponents.

Both teams produced a display worthy of a Final. Whitley Bay were physically stronger and defensively superior whereas Glossop enjoyed more possession and attacked with pace, but failed to convert their chances. In balance, Whitley Bay deserved their 2-0 win with two good goals but Glossop played their part to keep the 12,212 crowd entertained throughout.

The first 15 minutes of the game were rather cagey, but open, as each team sized up their opponents on the large Wembley pitch. Glossop, playing in their new all white away kit, had the first sight of goal in the opening minute, Rick Bailey shooting tamely. Both sides won a couple of corners and free-kicks, but amounted to nothing. Glossop soon began to enjoy space down the left through the ever-impressive Dave Hodges while Whitley Bay were containing well and looking dangerous on the break. Although both teams were keen to attack from the off the first talking point of the game didn't arrive until the 16th minute with what was almost a spectacular goal; Adam Johnston produced a great strike from inside his own half which had the Glossop keeper Matt Cooper frantically back-peddling. Cooper somehow managed to get back to push the ball onto his bar.

Glossop were the next to strike the woodwork, after 21 minutes. Nick Allen drifted in from the right and with his left foot struck the bar with a rising shot from outside the area. A couple of minutes later Darren Hamilton got behind the Whitley Bay defence to square across goal but none of his team mates had joined him in advanced positions.

Clear-cut chances were at a premium for either side; Glossop were enjoying most of the possession but Whitley Bay broke well and won a couple of corners. The game was really end-to-end by this stage, and Glossop almost opened the scoring when Hamilton forced Terry Burke to smother at the foot of the post. With ten minutes of the half to go, Dave Morris fed Hodges down the left, but his cross was well held by Burke who was by now the busier keeper.

But it was Whitley Bay that broke the deadlock, and it took a great piece of individual skill to do so. Paul Chow’s ball found Lee Kerr on the edge of the North End penalty area. Kerr flicked the ball neatly between his two markers (Jamie Kay and Jay Gorton) and into the box, and with his next touch fired a sweet low shot across Cooper and into the corner. 1-0 to Whitley Bay after 36 minutes.

Glossop responded well and again looked to attack. Rick Bailey and Hamilton frequently exploited space on the right and with 3 minutes to go before the break it was Rick Bailey who jinked into the area only to scuff his shot. But just as the scoreline looked to remain intact through to the half-time whistle, Whitley Bay doubled their advantage. Glossop could so easily have equalised though; a scramble in the Whitley Bay box fell to a Bay, rather than a North End, player. The clearance found Johnston in space and with the two holding Glossop defenders isolated, he slipped the ball inside to Chow. Chow controlled the ball and finished well, hitting his shot beyond the reach of Cooper. In a harsh few moments for Glossop, Whitley Bay found themselves in the driving seat.

Glossop really needed an early break in the second half to get back into the match, but it was Whitley Bay who emerged the more determined. By now it was evident just how strong the Whitley Bay defence were, particularly their centre-half pairing, who coped with everything thrown at them. 2-0 almost became 3-0 within a few minutes of the restart as Chow waltzed into the area to shoot just over the bar.

Glossop slowly played their way back into the tie and grappled back possession for a spell. Gorton put an effort wide from distance and on 54 minutes Rick Bailey broke into the area only for his shot to be deflected for a corner. Then back up the other end and it was the seemingly tireless Johnston who almost sealed the game but Cooper again saved well. As the game reached the hour mark, Glossop’s constant running on the lush surface started to take its toll and they visibly began to tire. After 67 minutes the crossbar rattled yet again when Chow, the man-of-the-match, headed against the frame of the goal. Moments later Chow found space in the box to head a cross just over.

With Whitley Bay now in control they created further chances from set pieces. But just as it seemed that Glossop were running out of ideas and out of legs, and their fans had been silenced, they enjoyed an exciting spell of pressure from around the 76 minute mark. Hodges broke free, refusing to give up, and clipped the ball over Burke, but also over the goal. On 79 minutes, Hodges sent in a deep cross and Burke, who had been solid up to now, dropped the ball which was finally scrambled away.

This spurred Glossop on for one last push. In a barnstorming finish they forced four successive corners; the Glossop fans were now on their feet and I felt that at least a consolation goal should be their just reward. Half-chances fell to Mark Balfe and Tom Bailey, but this was just not going to be their day. The Whitley Bay defence held firm to the whistle which, when blown, was greeted by the large travelling support form the North East with cheers loud enough to be heard back home. The Glossop fans were magnanimous in defeat and stood to a man to show their appreciation their own team’s not inconsiderable effort, not only in this game but in their whole FA Vase campaign. In a nice touch at the end, both sets of players went to applaud the opposing fans and both sets of supporters responded well.

My trip to Wembley was a family and friends affair, making the short journey from Surrey to North London in plenty of time to sample some of the pre-match atmosphere and the fine weather. It was a strange experience for me watching the game in the stadium that was well under a quarter full. My previous visits had been for one of last season’s FA Cup Semi-Finals and the Final itself, when I had seen the place full to the rafters. On this visit I had to remind myself that both teams, Step 5 clubs remember, were extremely well supported on the day and the 12,000 plus attendance was a respectably healthy figure. Yet I couldn’t quite nail why this eerie, cavernous sensation troubled me. We were sitting behind the goal in the West End of the stadium, and I thought that it was because we were almost at the edge of the Glossop support, with the empty seats stretching away to our right, that I felt a little exposed. It wasn’t until later I realised why I had felt that way: the Wembley Final had been far removed from the games I had seen at the small grounds on route. That intimacy had gone; standing against rails, chatting with the club Chairman, players at touching distance and the smell of the Wintergreen. That was it. However, there was never any doubt in my mind that the Final should have been anywhere other than at Wembley, but I may well write to the FA to ask why they couldn’t have done more to get those empty seats filled.

So there you have it: Whitley Bay are the 2009 FA Vase winners. The Final turned out to be a great advert for the non League game, which is in keeping with everything I have experienced throughout this season’s FA Vase competition. Well done to The Seahorses but credit must also go to The Hillmen, not only for playing their part in an entertaining Wembley Final, but for being fantastic hosts in the latter rounds of the competition.

I can now banish those morning after blues safe in the knowledge that I have been on another enthralling journey. A journey that started for me back in September in front of a crowd of only 65 and gave me the wonderful opportunity to meet people who all share the passion, many of whom I hope to keep in touch with. A journey that has taken me and my friends from Surrey to Gloucestershire, from Sussex to Derbyshire and ended with the trophy heading off to North Tyneside.

For more of my photos, please click [here].

Friday, 8 May 2009

Blubbing Like A Baby

There are few sports that impassions as much as football. From players to fans, managers to commentators, the game hauls you kicking and screaming, blubbing and weeping through the emotional mangle. The game tugs at every sense in the same way as compelling film, dramatic theatre or a gripping read. It matters not where you are; on the terrace, in the dugout, on the pitch, in the front room or in the pub.

In the aftermath of the emotional eruption at the end of the Chelsea-Barcelona game midweek, there have been a million-and-one flavoured reactions to the Stamford Bridge shenanigans. I can understand the huge disappointment of Chelsea fans and players. I can understand how painful it must have been to be so, so close to playing in the Champions League Final in Rome and then have the dream snuffed out at the death. I can also understand how Darren Fletcher must be feeling after his Rome dream was also snatched away by a poor refereeing decision in the other Semi-Final. And while the debate rumbles on about the over-reaction of the players, the inability to control high emotion, how the role models for our children should, or should not, behave, part of me struggles to be sympathetic for these guys.

At that level of football, at the pinnacle of the game, the players enjoy unimaginable wealth. They have their yachts, their Ferraris, their luxury apartments. They play at a standard of football that suggests, if they miss out on this year’s Champions League Final, they should get a reasonable chance to have another crack at it before their career fades. And they will experience other ‘huge’ games. There is no doubting their passion for the game, their gut-wrenching disappointment at seeing something they have worked so hard for come to nothing, but they have a couple of safety nets to cushion their fall.

I tried hard to feel very sorry for Chelsea, but I failed.

In the build up to the Glossop North End v Whitley Bay FA Vase Final on Sunday – it is here at last – I have been reminded how the emotion of football can really hit home. Whilst the Champions League stars seem so removed from reality, the players who ply their trade in the non League reaches of English football, and the fans who watch them, are not averse to exactly the same level of emotions. The joy, the despair, the ecstasy and the distress. For many who watch this level of football I would argue the emotion is closer to hand, it is easier to share and feel part of, and therefore it seems more real.

Pause and think for a minute how the Glossop and Whitley Bay players must be feeling this very moment. They are two days away from playing at Wembley. They do not get paid to play the game they love. This really is a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. Likewise for the supporters and club officials. Who would have thought they would ever be able to say “I’m going to watch Glossop play at Wembley on Sunday”. Think also for a minute therefore of the players and fans of Chalfont St Peter and Lowestoft Town who lost in the Semi-Finals. Try telling me that they felt any less hurt, any less upset or dejected than those associated with Chelsea do this week.

This week I posed some questions to a couple of unsung heroes up at Glossop North End FC. Jonathan Haggart and Neil Rimmer are two of the volunteers who spent most of their spare time and waking hours working behind the scenes at Surrey Street. The latter stages of this FA Vase run has seen their workloads balloon to popping point. I asked them both how they felt about this FA Vase run, what it means for the club and the fan base, what the high and low points were. Their responses included facts about improving attendances, the financial benefits and the plans for ground improvements. However, the single most powerful message that pervaded the responses was the emotion that the whole FA Vase experience has wrought.

I asked Neil how he feels about Glossop’s FA Vase Run. “Proud” he said “for all the volunteers who started the season helping out a struggling step 5 club and who now get the reward of a trip to Wembley. For all the supporters who were supporters before Vase mania took over. For all the players that have played at Glossop this season because they love the place, and the beautiful game, and who now get the reward that their efforts and commitment deserve”. Here’s Jonathan talking about that win over Chalfont in the Semis: “And then we scored and all hell broke loose. The emotion I felt when Kelvin scored was overwhelming...but mostly it was bewilderment. There have been many days that I'll never forget on this run, but that moment will be vivid when I'm 102”.

And what about the big day on Sunday? “This is everything I wanted as a kid," explained Jonathan "but I was never nearly good enough as a player. To do things as an up Wembley way, visit the dressing rooms, sit on the benches, and maybe even step on the turf...amazing”. Neil will get to see his own son lead the Glossop team out at Wembley as team mascot. A truly special moment.

In a week where football fans around the globe were implored to feel for Chelsea, I was reminded that there is a much more worthy cause. I listened with moist eyes to a montage of Glossop’s FA Vase highlights on High Peak Radio around the same time Drogba was screaming and swearing into our living rooms. At the climax of the piece, as commentator Ben Price’s emotions exploded over the airwaves in reaction to Glossop’s winning penalty, I wiped away a tear in the same way I had done on that day back in early April.

On Sunday, when Glossop and Whitley Bay step out under the arch, emotions will be running high, but for all the right reasons. Come the end of the day there will be cheers and there will be tears. If the emotion of the occasion gets too much for me, I’m not ashamed to say that I will end up blubbing like a baby. Football just does that to you.