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...


Haggis said...

Hi Andy,

As an aside, both Glossop and Whitley Bay had open top bus parades this weekend. You would definitely think that Whitley had earned theirs - after all they were the victors - but at least 1000 people turned out in Glossop's Norfolk Square on Saturday to congratulate the Hillmen players.

If councils up and down the country had any doubt to the power of sport, and football in particular, to unite a community, they need only look at the effect the Vase run had on my town. My mum, no football fan by any stretch of the imagination, enjoyed her day at Wembley so much she is coming to a few games next season. Kids around the town (and chertsey!) are wearing North End replica shirts. It is STILL the main topic of conversation and will be for weeks to come.

The point being that local authorities put scant investment into sports facilities up and down the country, and they all must do better. Glossop's leisure centre was built in 1981. Since then, the town's population has gone up 33%. Sports facilities have decreased, with the removal of public tennis courts in the park.

I hope this run opens the eyes of High Peak Borough Council. They bought the deeds to our ground in a dodgy deal that saw our then money man go to prison for fraud. We pay a peppercorn rent, but could really do with that security to help us invest. With the club at a 100 year high standing in the community, what better opportunity to make Surrey Street the hub of a proper sporting area for the town. Don't hold your breath.

Ollers said...

Hi Haggis,

I couldn't agree more. One only has to look at the way sport is funded in many European countries, where sport for kids is virtually free; it is little surprise that Britain is often found lacking in some of the major sports.

The thing that really galls me is the attitude of councils & politicians when the country produces sportsmen & sportwomen of worth - they are the first to jump on the bandwagon and proclaim "haven't we done well" without any irony whatsoever. The Olympics last year was a classic case in point as councils couldn't jump quick enough to welcome home 'their' heroes and rename their streets, parks and town centres after the medal winners. Yet where were they when the same athletes were scrimping and saving every penny, relying on handouts and scrounging off their families just so they could afford to train every week?

I think some councils are slightly more forward thinking than others and kids have it better now than when I was young. But there is still a huge reliance on schools & parents when it comes to funding sport, almost akin to a postcode lottery. I agree with your comment that the FA Vase run has been a real boost for Glossop, but it is scandalous that it takes something so significant to stir councils from their stupor. Spare a thought for the other 500+ towns up and down the country who didn't reach Wembley this season and continue to struggle to attract much needed money to provide some sort of sporting future for our kids.

That's the real shame.