Non-League Football

Underdog day afternoon

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THE THICK-THIGHED, bearded man sat on the train from Wembley Stadium, Morpeth colours draped around his ample torso. He was grinning, for his team had pulled off a shock in winning the FA Vase. He struggled to keep awake for the short journey back to Marylebone, a day on the ale getting the better of him. He had a long journey home to Northumberland and he had probably not downed his last pint of beer. You sensed there was a lot of celebrating still left to suffer.

And celebrate he might, for Non-League Finals Day – which he had undoubtedly watched from start to finish – provided a lot of talking points. Two games, a pair of unlikely victories and a big crowd. Those that made the “march to the arch” would have been satisfied with the entertainment on offer.

First up was that Vase final between Hereford v Morpeth Town. The re-born club against a team that comes from a town whose name, loosely translated, means “murder path”. Now that’s a bit ominous.  There was meant to be 20,000 Hereford followers at the national stadium. Some, like the lad sitting next to me, were not over familiar with the club. They couldn’t be, for Hereford played in front of 2,800 at Edgar Street in the phoenix club’s inaugural campaign.

Not surprisingly, there was an air of confidence among most Hereford fans. Morpeth Town, from the Northern League, usually averaged 250 people at their home games. Hereford could be forgiven for being a little expectant. After all, they had notched up 108 points and 138 goals in 42 Midland League games. A season of steam-rolling the opposition had won them the league, although Alvechurch had run them a close second, just seven points behind. Most people expected Hereford to lift the FA Vase with some ease.

But the Northern League is strong and its members clubs are somewhat knowledgable about how to win the Vase. In recent years, Whitley Bay, Dunston UTS, Spennymoor and North Shields have all triumphed in the competition.

Wembley had to redeem itself after an error-strewn FA Cup final 24 hours earlier. The slightly delayed kick-off for the Manchester United v Crystal Palace game, seemingly caused by the late arrival of ill-placed rapper Tinie Tempah, was one thing, but then the “celebrity” singer of the National Anthem missed her cue, adding to the shambolic build-up. Why Wembley feels it has to put on a Super Bowl-style show for what is meant to be a showpiece end to the football (got it, football, not X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent) season is a mystery. It would not be so bad if the acoustics at Wembley lent themselves to “entertainment”, but they don’t.

Non-League Finals Day attempted to fill the cavernous stadium with thumping music, but it didn’t work. Hereford and Morpeth, though, gave the ground something you don’t normally get on Vase day – an atmosphere.

Predictions were floating around ranging from 3-0 to 6-0 in favour of Hereford, and after 1 minute 15 seconds, you had to concur – Hereford went a goal ahead with a stunning strike from Rob Purdie from 25 yards. You had to fear for Morpeth at this stage and for the next half hour, Hereford were on top and looking likely to score again. Sirdic Grant almost added a second when he struck the crossbar, but Morpeth kept their nerve.

It was still something of a shock when they equalised in the 34th minute, but when they did, it changed the game. Goalkeeper Martin Horsell, who had a quite unfortunate game between the sticks, flapped at a cross, the ball hit 45 year-old Chris Swailes on the chest and found its way into the net. Hereford’s massed support was silenced, while the black and amber-clad Morpeth fans in the lower deck went mad.

It got worse in the second half. It might be harsh to blame Horsell for all of Hereford’s sins, as their defence opened up – repeatedl y – like the Red Sea every time Morpeth attacked, but he should have done better with all three second half goals conceded by the favourites.

Just 40 seconds into the restart, Morpeth scored with a soft effort from Sean Taylor. Then, after 58 minutes, Taylor made it 3-1 for the underdogs, sending a low shot just inside Horsell’s left hand post. To really make it a miserable day for The hapless keeper, substitute Shaun Bell scored with another soft effort in added time. To say Hereford were shell-shocked was an understatement, but Morpeth were no Dunkirk, Sporting Khalsa or Rocester.

“We’re only at the start of our story,” said one Hereford fan. “We’ve done brilliantly to get this far.” And he was right, but hats off to Morpeth, they could have buckled after that early goal. Hereford will be back – and you had to give them credit for lining up to applaud Morpeth as they came down the steps with their newly-won FA Vase. The Hereford fans also accepted their defeat with grace.

The concept of non-league finals day was that a big crowd could enjoy both games, but it was Sunday afternoon and Hereford and Morpeth had long trips home, to commiserate and celebrate. Therefore, the Hereford end of Wembley was empty for the Trophy final, aside from a few people trying to eke out maximum value for money, which two games for less than £25 definitely was. The term VFM is not something usually associated with Wembley and true to form, the extortion lived on in the food and drink bars of the stadium.

Those that intended to watch the second feature of the double bill had little option than to spend vast sums of money, although anyone seeking a match programme would have been disappointed. “We sold out before the first game,” said the merchandising operative. “I don’t think they printed enough.” And Grimsby Town and Halifax fans had yet to arrive.

It was a more challenging 90 minutes for the crowd, although Halifax’s 10,000-strong following was clearly enjoying itself. They had seen their team suffer relegation from the National League and reach the FA Trophy final, while Grimsby had actually won promotion back to the Football League. So next year, the two teams will be two leagues apart.

You wouldn’t have thought it from the way the game went. Halifax looked the better side for most of it, although Grimsby’s forwards promised much but delivered little.

The winning goal came in the 48th minute, Scott McManus lobbing the keeper after Grimsby had failed to clear a Halifax attack. They came under pressure in the closing stages and only a goal-line clearance at the death prevented a Mariners’ equalizer, but they hung on to win the Trophy.

And so, a fine day’s entertainment. Was it a success for the Football Association? I think so, for the crowd was over 46,000. Last season, the Trophy final was watched by 16,000 people and the Vase just under 10,000, so 46,000 is real progress. You have to make some allowance for the 20,000 from Hereford, but still, the attendance has some substance and the mood was good. I suspect the FA will do it again – and if 2016-17 is as rewarding as this year, Non-League Finals Day should be a permanent fixture.

www.gameofthepeople.com

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