IT’S good news that tickets for the non-league finals day are going pretty well, mostly driven by the enthusiasm of Hereford’s fans. According to press reports, 15,000 tickets have been sold by the phoenix club, which will hopefully ensure a healthy turn out on May 22.
The move to combine the two finals on the same day was long overdue. If the FA hadn’t done so, the pragmatists would argue that holding the FA Vase and FA Trophy at the national stadium was pure folly.
Last season, the Vase was watched by 9,674 people, whereas the Trophy was 15,585. Between them just over 25,000 – still relatively small when played in the vast bowl that is Wembley Stadium. The year before, the Vase attracted less than 5,500. In non-league terms, these may be good attendances, but to play the final in a deserted stadium makes little sense.
The romantics will argue, of course – and with some justification – that playing at Wembley makes it a day to remember for the players, and yes, there’s some credibility in that. They might talk about the atmosphere at Wembley and so on. But having been to a few Vase and Trophy finals, my overall impression of these games is a distinct lack of atmosphere, of a ghost town and a subdued feeling about the place. In short, it’s just too damn big to host 5,000 people!
Modern football grounds, unlike some of the classic, vintage and historic venues, do not have much atmosphere when they are empty. The fans make the vibe and when you have a small gathering in a huge stadium, it gets lost in space. And as we know, in space, nobody can hear you scream!
There was a time when a trip to Wembley was special for supporters, but overuse of the stadium has certainly diluted the uniqueness of the place. Wembley, a la twin towers and spongy turf, was only used for Cup finals and internationals, but the “reward” aspect has been devalued by the demands of commerce. Therefore, it’s not the “once in a lifetime” experience it once was.
Nevertheless, the fans of Morpeth, Hereford, Grimsby and Halifax will look forward to a day in town and the chance to win some prestigious silverware. If all four clubs brought along their average gates, the total would not touch 9,000 but the signs are that there could be a healthy crowd on May 22 – the latest news from the FA suggested that more than 20,000 tickets have already been sold, and there’s more than a month to go. Dare I say, the final count could reach 30,000?
But to be a real success, it should not just be about the four clubs involved. Back in the black and white days, occasions like the FA Amateur Cup and the FA Cup would attract a lot of neutrals, the latter still does if people get the chance to attend. Non-league clubs would often send a coach down (or up) to Wembley to see the amateur game’s big day. It was a social event, part of the calendar. Despite the valiant attempts of the groundhopper, the day of the wandering neutral is not what it was, but as more than one publisher has told me, the majority of football fans are only really interested in their own club.
Most fans, though, dream of seeing their team play in a big cup final like the Vase and Trophy, so why not honour the clubs that have made it all the way? (the Vase is something of an endurance test, after all). By supporting this unique event – two finals for the price of one! – the fans may just be guaranteeing that non-league’s big day can remain at Wembley Stadium in the future. If it’s a flop, the financial sense of hosting them at such a vast football ground may eventually force the bean-counters to suggest that another ground hosts the finals. While there are many fine stadiums around in Britain today, a lot of people would mourn the loss of the big stage for non-league’s premier knockout finals. You could say the public may, ultimately, decide!