THE FA Vase has been dominated by Northern League clubs for the past few years. And there’s a good reason for this – regardless of whether these teams are just simply of a higher quality than the rest of the Vase’s entrants, there’s a feeling at this level of the game that the Northern League belongs to a higher step.
It’s a situation that the FA and the Northern League have created. The league refused to be part of the pyramid for a long time, unable to accept a role as a feeder league to the Conference. They joined the pyramid in 1991 by which time, they had lost their place at the table. Most people consider this was something of a misjudgement on the part of the league. Then, in 1995, the FA effectively “relegated” the Northern League by sending its clubs into the Vase rather than the Trophy.
The league, which has always had a bit of mystique about it, has some fine old names from the non-league game – Bishop Auckland, Crook Town et al – and there can be no doubting the passion of fans from the far north. Given the relatively low attendances, the clubs from this region certainly punch above their weighting.
In this year’s Vase, the Northern League is once more well represented in the latter stages, with both Marske United and Stockton Town making the last four. Invariably, fans from the rest of the country have to scour a map when they’re drawn against a club from the North-East and there will have been many Bracknell Town supporters who headed for Google Maps when they heard the draw for the quarter-finals: Bracknell Town v Marske United.
For the romantic, the opportunity to see an old fashioned South v North clash was too much to overlook – a team from the London commuter belt against a weather-beaten village some 280 miles away. This is what cup – or should we say, Vase – football should be all about: the unknown.
Bracknell became a “new town” after the second world war and now has around 80,000 people. While Bracknell has been called part of the UK’s so-called “silicon valley”, Marske-by-the-Sea has six pubs, four churches, two railway stations and a population of around 8,000.
Invariably, when a team embarks on a FA Vase run, which can be rather lengthy, it comes at the expense of a bid for their league title. More often than not, teams in the latter stages are way behind on games, although they will nearly always be among the front-runners. Take Bracknell and Marske – Bracknell went into this tie six games in hand on leaders Highworth Town. They may have been 20 points behind, but their form in the Hellenic Premier (unbeaten at home, just four defeats away) suggests they will, should they come through their fixture pile-up without too many injuries and suspensions, have a say in the championship race.
Marske were 11 games in hand on Northern League leaders Morpeth and 24 points behind. Their big disadvantage will be the number of away fixtures they have to fulfil in the closing weeks of the season. It’s not easy being a team on a mission for FA Vase glory.
Bracknell is an hour out of London from Waterloo, but the Marske fans left home very early on Saturday morning. By the time they arrived in town, they were in alcohol-induced high spirits. “Bracknell’s a shit hole, I want to go home…soft southern bastards,” they sang as they perched along the touchline with their flags and drum. By contrast, the Bracknell crowd displayed typical southern reserve, although one or two were showing signs of resentment at the comments being made by Marske’s travelling support. It was all good natured stuff, though.
“Best football’s in the North-East, mate,” said one Marske fan to a group of locals, brandishing a can of lager as he squeezed past. “Oh, yeah, pal…Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough….best football’s in the North-East, we see that every week!.”
By the time kick-off came, there were 1,100 people in the Larges Lane ground with scarcely a vantage point to be had, notably behind the goals, which provided very narrow access. The Bracknell pitch was yet another artificial surface, which merely underlined the growing value of these investments.
Bracknell are the best supported team in the Hellenic Premier with just under 250 people watching them week-in, week-out. But it is a club that has seen better days in terms of status, although the neat, functional ground suggests they are well organised and have a plan. Like many non-league clubs, they have experienced their ups-and-downs, but in the mid-1980s they were playing in Isthmian Division One. Marske, who attract fewer than 200 to their Mount Pleasant home, have won the Northern League just once, in 2015.
Marske looked a more robust outfit than their hosts and early on, Bracknell keeper Chris Grace had to tip over a long-range effort by Glen Butterworth. Marske’s defence looked very solid, with impressive performances from Leon Carling and Adam Wheatley. “They look like proper men at the back,” said one Bracknell fan, watching another attack from his team break down thanks to the head of Wheatley.
Bracknell had a setback in the 10th minute when Jesse Wilson was injured and was replaced by Kensley Maloney (who had “a tireless work ethic” according to the programme), who made a difference from the moment he took the field. They might have taken the lead when TJ Bohane’s shot rolled across the goalmouth after he had carved out an opening. Bracknell also hit the woodwork when full back Dave Hancock’s cross sailed beyond his team-mates and scraped the crossbar. But on the stroke of half-time, Butterworth gave Marske the lead with a low drive.
Bracknell’s managerial duo of Jeff Lamb and Paul McGrotty probably told their team not to concede early on in the second half, but that’s exactly what Bracknell did, a quickly taken free kick finding Curtis Round who produced a nice finish. The Marske players joined their fans in celebration, who now started to realise they were a step closer to Wembley.
The home team was finished and in the final minutes, tired legs started to show as Marske added a third through the busy Danny Earl. Three-nil was a shade flattering, but Bracknell had either frozen or had simply come up against a more accomplished team. It was more the latter.
Marske move on to a two-legged semi-final against their local rivals, Stockton, which means the prospect of an all-Northern League final has gone. Bracknell, meanwhile, have sacked their managers, which shows what a cruel game football can be.