Last season saw me get a little bit more involved in watching the FA Vase than I have been in previous seasons. The competition was found 39 years ago in 1974 when the FA Amateur Cup was scrapped by the FA to try and abolish the distinction of paid amateur players playing for amateur teams at not being illigible for the Amateur Cup.
The competition is now open to all clubs at from level 9 (or step 4) of the English Football Pyramid. The list of previous winners covers the length and breadth of the country from Truro City, Taunton Town and Tiverton Town in the south west to Whitley Bay, Dunston UTS and Whitby in the north east. Whitley Bay (who once sold Ian Johnson to Torquay for 6 footballs) are the competitions most successful club with 4 Cup final victories followed by Billericay Town with 3 wins, then Tiverton Town, Brigg Town and Halesowen Town with 2 wins apiece. In recent years the Cup has been monopolised since 2008 by clubs in the north east. The season before last saw all North East tie between Dunston UTS and West Auckland Town which Dunston won 2-0 to keep the cup safely near Hadrian’s Wall.
Of course we shouldn’t be greatly surprised by the north east dominance. The region is served proudly by Newcastle United, Sunderland, Middlesborough and Hartlepool. It’s a hot bed of footballing talent as supplementing the main football league clubs are a whole myriad of well supported non league clubs. Everyone’s heard of Blyth Spartans, the return of Darlington and the likes of Tow Law Town in the national non league circles but underneath these clubs there are a whole heap of clubs in the Northern Football League Division One like previous Vase winners Whitley Bay and Dunston UTS, Vase finalists Bedlington Terriers, Guisborough Town and West Auckland Town and other clubs such as Billingham Synthonia, Consett (think Phileas Fogg crisps), Ashington (who produced Jackie Milburn, Bobby and Jack Charlton), Bishop Auckland, Durham City, Spenymoor Town, Crook Town and Shildon. All towns involved in heavy industry and coal mining. Tough communities with proud football clubs. Besides you have to love a League who’ve refused to call their top division “Premier”. Much respect. The league is a well respected one anyway. It attracts better players than a normal level 9 would normally do owing primarily to it’s geographical location and the amount of local footballing talent. A lot of these clubs like staying in this league as forays further up the pyramid expose the region’s clubs to extra travelling and lower numbers of away supporters attending matches.
So in the semi finals these year it was all set up for another North East clash at Wembley. Spenymoor were pitted against flavour-of-the-month media-darlings Guernsey whilst Shildon were drawn against Tunbridge Wells. Both north eastern clubs were most people’s favourites to go through.
So at the end of March I found myself travelling down to Tunbridge’s Culverden stadium on a very wet day. The club’s official Twitter made a plea to the local population to pop down to the ground with a pitch fork before the game in order to make the pitch playable. By 3pm the already sodden and muddy pitch looked anything but playable but the game went ahead. A decent crowd of 1,700 or so packed into the hard standing areas as by half time the rest of the ground looked began to look like a summer music festival with suction mud everywhere. Shildon probably just shaded the first half. They had a slightly better technique and slightly smaller and nimble looking bunch of players. However as the game went on the bigger players of Tunbridge began to swing the tide back in their favour and the game back to some sort of parity. The pitch had by now turned into some sort of bubbling Rotoruan mudbath. Then Tunbridge managed to bag a couple of late goals. A scrappy finish and a penalty which given the conditions looked a little harsh. The match finished 2-0 to the Kent side. Shildon fans were still confident about still winning the tie and took some largely good natured ribbing pretty well until some mouthy Kentish prat in front of me told the dimiuative Shildon striker Sam Garvie to “get back down that pit boy” until a rough looking Shildon fan told him “to watch his fucking mouth”. Kentish prat was old enough to know better. In the other semi final Spenymoor beat Guernsey 3-1 in Guernsey which pretty much finished the tie.
A week later saw me sitting in the back of a metallic blue Citroen Xsara Picasso on the A1(M) a couple of like-minded mentalists for the return match at Shildon’s lovely Dean Street ground with it’s excellent main stand. The weather was much better than it was a week earlier. Shildon had also played on the Monday after the saturday to try and catch up with their 11 games in hand. They’d lost 8-1 away to Bedlington Terriers.
Dean Street is one of those non league grounds which makes the purist in me purr. Sandwiched in between red bricked terrace houses, down the road from an excellent chippy. It boasts hard standing all around, a decent covered terraced and a very impressive main stand.
Shildon started the match with gusto and raced into a 2-0 lead after 23 minutes. They were dominating the game and on 63 minutes scored again to make it 3-0 only for Tunbridge level things up 8 minutes later. Extra time beckoned. Shildon had a decent penalty shout turned down at 3-1 but Perry Spackman then scored for Tunbridge to swing the pendulum back at 3-2 (3-4 on aggregate). Shildon then had a scrappy rebound goal ruled out for offside right at the last knockings. But Tunbridge held on and went through to the final. It was quite some match and on reflection Shildon probably deserved more from the two ties but Tunbridge were a tough resiliant bunch who made the most of the little they created. Unfortunately their fans had a few issues outside the ground after the match after some local shitheads decided to attack them as they were getting on the supporters coaches. A police escort was needed.
Then the unthinkable happened. The chippy ran out of chips. I had to find an alternative one on the smartphone. We found one. The chips were good but the fish was average and the service lousy. Some horrible permed woman who sighed audibly when I had the indignity to ask for salt and vinegar as she had to wrapped them up without asking me. She unwrapped them in a huff and even made me apply the salt and vinegar myself. A new one for me. A fantastic day watching football up north slightly ruined by a miserable cow in a chip shop.
Spenymoor draw 1-1 at home to Guernsey later on in the day and triumphed 2-1 against Tunbridge Wells in the final to keep the FA Vase safely in the confines of the north east. Shildon had to play another 14 matches in April and May. They won 5, drew 3 and lost 6 of them to finish 8th in the League.