THE SECOND Non-League Finals Day was a test, perhaps more than people realised. In 2015-16, Hereford United had swelled the crowd to 46,000 – a respectable attendance for the FA Vase and FA Trophy given previous years. If it had not worked, the future of the finals was in doubt, certainly at the national stadium which has stood three quarters empty for most of these occasions. People talk about atmosphere, but there’s nothing atmospheric about an empty Wembley, a vast chasm of a ground resembling a multi-storey car park. No, it was successful in 2016, but this year, there was no Hereford, just four non-league clubs of modest potential. How would the public react?
Pretty well, actually. The combined average attendances of the four clubs amounted to less than 5,500 so expectations had to be realistic. Moreover, it was the final day of the Premier League, so there were distractions.
But non-league folk are not generally worried too much about the Premier, but equally, they are football fans and the modern era is not really the age of the neutral. That said, the crowd at Wembley included a lot of people wearing the colours of clubs who had long fallen by the wayside in both competitions – Dulwich, Ebbsfleet, Ossett Albion, Stockport County, Tiverton and Bromley to name but a few. This coming together of the tribe was something that characterised FA Amateur Cup finals in the 1950s and 1960s, so perhaps the Football Association have finally got it right with non-league finals day?
They are certainly trying, installing real ale “pop-up” pubs in each corner of the ground. If you wanted to stereotype non-league football, you could easily categorise it along with steam trains and CAMRA disciples, and the number of beards and beer festival t-shirts on display seemed to add fuel to that generalisation. Somebody has clearly told the FA that if you plant a real ale bar in the stadium, the non-league fraternity will flock to places like “The Linden”. Like the day, it seemed to be effective, even if a fiver for a pint reminded us that Wembley is, after all, a cash cow that likes to feed itself at the expense of a captive audience.
This year, the north of England came to Wembley. As usual, the Northern League had its representative, this time in the form of South Shields. London’s Metropolitan Line was awash with claret and blue-shirted supporters, speaking in a dialect that left other passengers somewhat confused. Cleethorpes Town, their opponents for the lunchtime Vase final, were dramatically outnumbered – apparently there were 13,000 from the North East – but they were still enjoying their day. Many, one assumed, were seeing their first “Clee Town” game of the season.
Predictably, a day at Wembley provided the chance for some to dress up in silly clothing, paint their face, get drunk and perhaps do a little bit of sight-seeing. “I never thought the Houses of Parliament were so big,” said one middle-aged woman from the North-East. “Course it is, got to get all those bloody big heads in there,” replied one wag. “And Theresa May’s legs”.
Wembley was doing its best to build an atmosphere, but the hordes of South Shields fans made sure there was plenty of noise. They had a lot to sing about, for their team outplayed a somewhat nervous Cleethorpes Town side. At half-time, it was only 1-0 thanks to a penalty by Carl Finnigan, an experienced Jarrow-born forward. Although Cleethorpes held out until the latter stages, they were always under pressure and found it hard to deal with the tenacious Gavin Cogdon, a former Vase winner with Spennymoor Town. They finally cracked, though, conceding three goals in the last 10 minutes of the game. Perhaps 4-0 was a little harsh, but South Shields were far superior.
Not many decided to stay for the FA Trophy final, although the Linden did healthy trade between finals. With a Sunday journey back north, you can hardly blame people from exiting after their game had been played. By the time 4pm arrived, 15 minutes before kick-off, York City and Macclesfield Town fans had filled their sides of the stadium. York’s supporters deserve great credit for turning out after a second successive relegation.
Macclesfield were the favourites – they finished ninth in the National League, while the Minstermen were 21st in the final analysis. But York beat the Silkmen twice in the league, so they obviously knew how to play them.
The quality of the game was significantly higher than the Vase final. York led twice in the first half, but at the interval, it was 2-2. It was a richly entertaining 45 minutes, capped by a superb goal from Macclesfield’s Oliver Norburn just before the break.
Macclesfield dominated in the second half but four minutes from time, the diminutive Aidan Connolly finished off a scruffy move to put York ahead once more. It proved to be the winner, much to the disgust of Macclesfield fans, who couldn’t quite believe they had lost the game.
But fair play to York, they’ve had such a miserable time they could easily have folded against a fast-moving Macclesfield team. It had been a great afternoon’s feast of football – nine goals in two games. The attendance was 38,224 which must have pleased the Football Association. “See you next year,” said the Wembley staff as the crowd filed out. If every year is as entertaining, they won’t have much trouble enticing people back.