There's a final out there somewhere...

There’s a final out there somewhere…

Just 18,000 people saw the FA Trophy final at Wembley, a second-half stroll for Cambridge United against Gosport Borough. The attendance doesn’t sound impressive, but it’s probably five times the combined average gates of the two participants. But 18,000 in a cavernous Wembley that still had space for the entire populations of two small towns was a bare, echoey and apathetic place. There was no atmosphere at all.

If you can’t hear the opposition at the other end of the ground, you know the place is empty. A couple of Gosport fans boasted before kick-off that their club had sold 12,000 tickets to Cambridge’s 11,500, figures that clearly had no substance. They talk of “the magic of Wembley” and a “unique atmosphere”, but you need spectators to create that.

I sat among the Gosport “fans” and most of them were watching their first Gosport game of the season. It was deathly quiet, no cheering, no urging their favourites on. More vocal support came from behind the goal, where a gaggle of Portsmouth fans lent their backing. They may also have been checking out non-league football given the dire straits that Pompey find themselves in.

For both clubs, the FA Trophy probably didn’t rank as their number one priority. Cambridge are looking to get back to the Football League and Gosport are trying to stay in Conference South. It all seemed a bit sudued, partly due to the fact that tumbleweed was blowing through three quarters of the stadium.

It begs the question, why bother holding these games at Wembley when a smaller, arguably full, ground would create the atmosphere a final deserves?

Reality check

In reality, the crowd for this game was never going to get beyond 20,000. We no longer live in a world occupied by “general” football supporters who would watch anything involving a kick-around with a pig’s bladder. In days of old, when rattles and bobble hats ruled the world, the FA Amateur Cup was patronized by fans of all clubs, coming to share the big day. No longer, although there are a few people remaining who fall into this category.

Wembley 2 (200x250)Wembley is supposed to provide prestige to the occasion, but it clearly doesn’t work, otherwise more people would turn up. And it is not as if Wembley occasions are rare, the location is grossly over-used to the point where the currency of reaching the hallowed turf has become very diluted. Once you are inside you could be anywhere, all the big stadia look alike these days.

There are dozens of grounds that could host the FA Trophy and Vase finals and be more suitable for the sort of crowd they attract. The alternative is a very hollow atmosphere where the teams feel very removed from the supporters. It won’t change, because the FA will always feel obliged to host their finals at “their” stadium.

It was all yellow

For this afternoon, the stadium belonged to Cambridge United and Gosport Borough, or at least the lower tier did. “We’re the famous Cambridge United and we’re going to Wembley,” sang the fans on the tube train. Teams like Cambridge don’t get there very often unless it’s a play-off, which the “Amber Army” had experienced twice, in 1990 and 2009. In terms of cup success, most Cambridge fans don’t remember when they last won a knockout competition – it was the Southern League Cup in 1968-69. A year later, they were elected to the Football League and they stayed there until 2005. It’s hard to imagine now, but Cambridge got into the old second division (Championship) and played host to teams like Chelsea. After going through some pretty harrowing times, United are on their way back and although they have lost the title battle to Luton Town, they should be able to secure a play-off place and have a crack at getting back to the League. They reached Wembley by beating Salisbury, St.Albans, Luton, Eastleigh and Grimsby Town.

If anyone had suggested a few years ago that Gosport Borough would be playing at Wembley, the assumption would be that it would be the final of the FA Vase. They were the first side from outside the Conference Premier to reach the Trophy final since Grays Athletic in 2005-06. But it was only two seasons ago that they were playing in Southern League South-West and 2007 when they won the Wessex League. They have come a long way, and they are still at a level where their players are accessible and known by their christian names.

Gosport, though, may have flown too high, too soon. They won promotion to the Conference South last season via a play-off. Earlier in the campaign, they struggled, but went on a spectacular run that ended in unexpected success. This season, they have struggled, although their FA Trophy run, which has seen them dispose of Dorchester, Concord Rangers, Nuneaton, Hungerford and Hampshire rivals Havant, has meant they have games to catch up on. Avoiding the drop is a distinct possibility.

A mad half hour

Wembley 3 (250x141)Certainly if they play like they did in the opening half hour at Wembley, escaping relegation will be a formality. Gosport took the game to Cambridge and might have taken the lead early on through Justin Bennett and Michael Gosney.

You sensed, however, that Cambridge were allowing Gosport to burn themselves out while keeping plenty in reserve themselves. And so ir proved, as in the 38th minute, Ryan Bird lobbed the ball over the head of Ashmore. It was the only redeeming feature of a poor first half.

By the fifth minute of the second period, it was game over. Ryan Donaldson racing wide of the goalkeeper and shooting into the net. Ten minutes on, Donaldson scored his second goal, finishing from close range after a scramble.

To Gosport’s credit, they didn’t give up, although they were visibly tired after their first half exertion. Gosney almost pulled a goal back with a scuffed shot, Bennett also had a late effort that almost found the back of the net.

Cambridge scored again – they looked likely to at every surge forward – from the penalty spot through Luke Berry. This prompted a firedrill response from some sections of the crowd. Four-nil it may have been, but Gosport didn’t let themselves down.

Déjà vu

The FA Trophy would have half a chance if it was indeed “the showpiece of the non-league season”, which is what the matchday programme was trying to suggest. But a chilly Sunday afternoon, at the end of March, with both teams still uncertain of their future, does not lend itself to a grand finale. The FA have done their best to relegate the FA Cup to a sideshow, the Trophy is getting the same treatment. It wouldn’t take much to change that, would it? And it doesn’t have to be Wembley at all costs.