THE FA VASE might not register with a lot of people until it starts to get interesting, but there was no doubt that the quarter-final tie between Kidlington and Bowers & Pitsea had captured the attention of local people.
Kidlington is the sort of place you see signposted on a roundabout and wonder what goes on there. It’s notable for being the home of Oxford airport, the Thames Valley Police and a brass band that dates back to the 19th century. “It’s part of Oxford,” I was told when I asked where it might be. The local people might not be too keen on that description, particularly as it’s about six miles from the centre of the ancient seat of learning.
To get to the last eight of the Vase means you have been on a marathon already. It is a huge competition and invariably, if you’re still involved at the business end of it, your league programme has suffered. On the morning of their replay with Bowers, Kidlington were in fourth place in the Hellenic Premier Division, 10 points behind the leaders, Thatcham, but four games in hand. Kidlington had lost just three games all season in the league, all away from their Yarnton Road ground.
Bowers & Pitsea were also way behind on games with nine in hand on Essex Senior League leaders FC Romania and 19 points behind. In theory, both Kidlington and Bowers should be in with a shout when it comes to handing out prizes at the end of the season.
Bowers United were formed in 1946 by one Bert Salmon. Pitsea started life as a youth club and in 2003-04 the two clubs merged to form Bowers & Pitsea. They play at the Len Salmon Stadium.
The two teams had been through five rounds before meeting a week earlier at the Len Salmon, drawing 3-3. Kidlington had disposed of Ashford, Deal, Thame, Knaphill and Cleethorpes on route. Bowers were victorious against Hanworth, Flackwell Heath, Broxbourne, Sutton Common Rovers and Ipswich Wanderers.
The replay had prompted much activity among Kidlington’s band of volunteers. The club, anxious to upgrade the ground for possible promotion, had installed some extra seating and a new turnstile block. “We are in the middle of a full refurbishment,” one Yarnton Road regular told me before the game. “We are quite ambitious.”
By the time kick-off came, that ground was filling-up nicely. Bowers brought a small band of supporters, but mostly it was curious locals. Considering the official gate was 545, it was very quiet, which can really be attributed to the fact that most of the crowd were probably watching their first Kidlington game.
Their team started well, with midfielder Lewis Coyle looking impressive. In the 20th minute, Kristian Thomas headed against the bar with Bowers keeper Martyn Guest beaten.
But four minutes later, the visitors further silenced the home crowd with a goal from James Stevens, who shot in off the post after good work by Chris Bryan.
Just before the interval, Kidlington should have equalised when Henry Owen shot straight at Guest when a free kick fell invitingly for him in the six yard box.
After the break, the game swung heavily in Bowers’ favour. In the 49th minute, Kidlington’s Lewis Gabbidon was sent off for a nasty tackle on Stevens. He looked astonished that the referee had brandished the red card, but it was a case of studs down the back of the leg and it effectively ended the game for Stevens. Before Kidlington could regroup, they had fallen further behind to a soft goal, a Lewis Wilson header sailing beyond Sam Warrell.
Kidlington were fortunate not to lose another player after Jack Quainton’s careless challenge on Bowers substitute Jamie Salmon, but the referee gave him a yellow card. Kidlington’s shape and discipline had gone by this time and Bowers were able to take advantage.
In the 71st minute, Bowers killed off any comeback hopes when Alfie Hilton’s cross to the far post was met by the head of Lewis Manor and as the ball rolled against the post, the still-limping Salmon finished from close range.
Nine minutes later, the Kidlington defence was caught napping as Ross Adams added a fourth to make the score an emphatic 4-0. The once expectant home crowd had started to drift away and there were big gaps along the perimeter of the pitch where there were once supporters – perhaps enticed away by the England v Ireland rugby international.
The final whistle was greeted by ecstatic scenes from the Bowers team. Their boyish manager, Rob Small, was ebullient: “Who would have thought it?, a little club like Bowers & Pitsea just two games from the FA Vase final. I am very pleased for everyone involved, including our supporters who travelled to Oxford today.”
You had to feel sorry for Kidlington manager Martin Wilkinson, whose team had failed to rise to the occasion in front of a crowd almost 10 times the normal Yarnton Road attendance. “We didn’t take our chances and we were punished,” he admitted. “You cannot afford to do that in a FA Vase quarter-final.”
But he was very gracious in defeat. “Full credit to Rob and his team,” he said. “They worked hard and deserved their win – I have no problem with the result. Good luck to them in the semi.”
Small, meanwhile, was enjoying the moment. “This was always going to be hard for us today after last week’s draw. And the way Kidlington started suggested we might get buried, but we got to grips with the game and there’s no doubt the sending-off helped. We are delighted to still be involved in the competition.”
So that was it, Bowers move on to face Morpeth in the semi-finals. Kidlington? – they go back to chasing the Hellenic League title with a tough game at Longlevens. “We’ve got to lift the lads quickly,” said Wilkinson with just a hint of remorse in his voice.
One thing that stood out after the game was the reaction of the managers. It’s easy to be a nice guy when you’ve won, but Rob Small thanked each and every one of the travelling fans for attending. Kidlington’s Martin Wilkinson was very generous in his post-match reaction and congratulated Rob Small and his team. Good luck to both.
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