Half-past two on a blustery and rainy afternoon in Wembley. The famous Wembley Way is near deserted and the small number of vendors are struggling to retain their enthusiasm for FA Vase final day. “Get your souvenir scarf, only a fiver,” pleaded one desperate stallholder. He was not going to get rich today.
Ironically, my journey into London had started by bumping into someone who had won the Vase at Wembley in 1995 with Arlesey Town, former Watford defender Colin Hull. A sheer coincidence but a good omen and a reminder of the joy a Vase win can bring.
That game, Arlesey v Oxford City, was watched by around 13,000 people. The crowd for Sholing of the Wessex League v West Auckland from the Northern League was a pitifully low 5,431. If anyone wanted to make an argument for shifting the Vase final to a smaller venue they would only have to take a look at this game for some strong evidence. The whole build-up, approach and atmosphere smacked of non-event.
The fans of both clubs may disagree with that summary, but less than five and a half thousand in a 80,000 stadium is a pointless exercise. The FA, the Non-League Paper and the clubs themselves will tell you Vase Final day had a great atmosphere, but it was as flat as the Netherlands. There was no Dutch to be heard but some crazy German groundhoppers were wandering around and a group of Swedes, one wrapped in the Svenska Flaggen, sat patiently waiting for something to happen. There was plenty of “Tack” and “Nej Tack” in the air (Thanks and No Thanks). It was like an episode of one of the Scandinavian dramas recently shown on UK television.
West Auckland’s fans arrived late. “We came down yesterday and we’ve seen the sights….Westfield, Oxford Street,” said one bewigged Geordie woman as she tried to find her seat. “You can’t smoke anywhere in London,” complained her accomplice. “You should get one of these,” was the reply as she held up an e-cigarette in West Auckland’s yellow and black colours.
The “West” fans were a gritty but happy bunch, unlike any non-league crowd I’ve come across. That could be because most of them were not regular fans, despite their claims that, “Oh West Auckland, is won-der-ful, oh West Auckland is wonderful, it’s full of….(you know the rest).”
They sang their way through the first 15 minutes of the game, which was really quite poor. The pre-match announcer said that the fans would be heard by all 22 players on the pitch, but with such a small crowd in cavernous Wembley, the crowd would hear every word coming from the players!.
The opening exchanges
Typically, both sides looked a little anxious in a very poor opening 20 minutes. The first chance of note fell to Sholing when striker Lee Wort was set clear but ran into West Auckland keeper Jordan Nixon.
Long balls dominated the first half, with West forcing the pace but Sholing looking very dangerous on the break. The game came alive just before half-time and it was the northerners who took the initiative. Shaun Vipond, who used to play in Sweden (so there was the connection…?), forced Matt Brown into a good save, and then a free kick from Robert Briggs was stopped by a flying save by the Sholing keeper.
As the teams filed off for a rest, West Auckland’s supporters felt good. “We’ve had the best of it,” they were muttering as they exited for their half time ale, many not returning until well into the restart.
Sholing came out of their shell in the early minutes of the second half, with Tyronne Bowers shooting just wide with a long-range effort and then Byron Mason denied by Nixon racing from his comfort zone. Mason had two more chances as Sholing exposed some gaps down the left flank.
West Auckland had an excellent chance when the normally steadfast Sholing defence opened up, but Mattie Moffat, captain in 2012 when West were beaten in the final, and a prolific scorer in his career, skied his shot. It was a miss that West would regret.
In the 70th minute, Sholing took the lead. The ball was played through and helped on by a defender and Marvin McLean nipped in, nod the ball down and sent his shot over Nixon and into the net. The West Auckland contingent fell silent, aside from some jeering when McLean’s name was announced, and the delayed cheering all came from the Sholing fans at the far end.
But West Auckland responded well and the final 20 minutes were fairly frenetic compared to the lack lustre fare that had gone before.
This was Sholing keeper Brown’s time. He was quite magnificent as he stopped everything that was thrown at him. John Campbell’s low shot was palmed away and a free kick by Dennis Knight was tipped over the bar as West Auckland peppered Brown’s goal.
As the second ticked away, Brown’s opposite number, Nixon, joined the attack. Knight struck the crossbar with a header from a free kick but the Sholing backline was quite superb, remaining calm to the end.
It was, apparently, Sholing manager Dave Diaper’s last game in charge of the club. Wessex League champions and FA Vase winners, he couldn’t have gone out any higher. You had to feel sorry for West Auckland, though. They didn’t deserve to lose what was a disappointing game. A little bit more vigour and they could have won. Three times they’ve been to Wembley and they’ve lost the lot. There was some consolation for their fans, arriving back at London Kings Cross for the journey back north – presumably to Newcastle. “It’s only 5.30, we’ve got two hours on the ale to drown our sorrows,” said one fan, his spiky jester’s hat now looking a little limp and inappropriate. “It’s been a grand day, though,” his pal replied. “Aye, champion.” Sadly, that’s the one thing their team had not achieved….