An altogether civilised experience

YOU couldn’t really get two contrasting Wembley days: the FA Cup final, full of rabid supporters, followed by the low-key, low-octane event that is Non-League Finals Day.

The latter has more in keeping with cricket or rugby in terms of the audience, but after experiencing 88,000 people struggling in and out of Wembley, the relative calm of the non-league showpiece was very welcoming.

For the fans of clubs like Stockton and Thatcham, who kicked-off the day, playing at Wembley was almost surreal. Thatcham won the Hellenic League on goal difference after ending up level on points with Bracknell – 129-25 versus 129-27. They normally attracted 133 fans to their league games and even if everyone from the Berkshire town turned up at the final, it would amount to just 26,000 people. Their opponents, Stockton, finished sixth in the Northern League but beat eventual champions Marske in the semi-final. Their average gate in 2017-18 was 222.

Gareth (Gaz) Dean of Brackley Town celebrates scoring his sides first goal during The Buildbase FA Trophy Final match between Brackley Town and Bromley at Wembley, London, England on 20 May 2018. Photo: PA

The Northern League has dominated the FA Vase for the past decade, so many assumed Stockton would lift the trophy in 2017-18. However, they were up against a strong, fast and robust Thatcham team. Stockton could have opened the scoring early on, but the decisive goal came from the penalty spot after 23 minutes. The scorer was Thatcham’s Shane Cooper-Clark, who had scored an extraordinary 60 goals before the Vase final. He didn’t take his kick too well, though, and Stockton keeper Michael Arthur almost saved the effort.

Thatcham hit the woodwork in the second half, but Stockton rarely looked like they were going to save the day. The Hellenic League side deserved their victory, leaving Stockton’s fans with a very long journey home to reflect on what might have been.

As for the crowd, they had a couple of hours to kill before the next item on the agenda, the FA Trophy final between Brackley Town and Bromley. Wembley tried to make the wait bearable by putting on Real Ale bars and a spot of music, the Brass Funkeys, a London-based New Orleans-style band, certainly made the afternoon more pleasant.

By this time, Brackley and Bromley fans had started to arrive – interestingly, the non-league finals day has yet to capture the attention of the neutral, although there were fans from other clubs present. Three years into the arrangement, the event has not yet attained the status of FA Amateur Cup finals when the non-league community would back the occasion.

The crowd for the 2017-18 day was 31,403 – the lowest since the two finals were held on the same day. In 2015-16 it was 46,781 and 2016-17 38,224. Has the concept peaked already, one might ask? Not at all, the appeal of the finals depends on the potential audience that each club can bring to the stadium. In 2016, the combined average gates for the four finalists was 8,997 – the final gate was 46,781 which represented just over five times the combined averages. In 2016-17, the multiple was seven and this season, it was 14. The finalists’ combined average this season was 2,219 – considerably lower than past non-league finals days. So, Wembley need not worry.

The FA Trophy final was, understandably, a better quality game in terms of technique, but the first period was dull, with Bromley taking the lead through Omar Bugiel. Brackley, who looked half a yard slower, woke up dramatically in the second half. They pressured Bromley throughout and wasted a number of good chances. The neutral, at this stage, was cheering on Brackley and in added time, they scored a mess of a goal, the ball hitting the post and being turned home by a combination of a defender and Brackley’s Gareth Dean. And so, extra time featuring two tired teams and a penalty shoot-out that eventually swung Brackley’s way. Frankly, they earned it.

At just £ 25, Non-League Finals Day is one of those rare moments in football where you feel you’ve had value for money. A great afternoon out for the non-league fan and, generally, a good spirit (although the Brackley fan who berated two young girls, who then walked out very upset needs a good talking to). It’s time that more people discovered it, Wembley only has real atmosphere when it’s almost full.

 

Stockport County: X factor in the FA Trophy

IN  1977-78, Stockport County versus Southport could easily have been game number 40 on a Littlewoods Pools coupon – as a Football League Division Four fixture. The 1977-78 season was the last time the two clubs met in the league, for at the end of that campaign, Southport were voted out and replaced by Wigan Athletic. Stockport were relegated in 2011 and suffered a second drop in 2013. Both clubs are now in the National League North.

The mere thought of Stockport is a reminder that industrialised football began in the north of England and Scotland and clubs like Stockport, along with Rochdale, Bury, Oldham and others, represented the heart of “real football”, clubs that were part of the community and places where the working man could unwind went on his way home from the mill, the factory or the mine.

Arguably, they belong to a model that has almost become extinct, with in-town grounds being replaced by cookie-cutter stadiums and the old client base that trudged to the match, all flat caps, Bovril and rattles, has been transformed. It hangs on in certain places, but the environment that gave us clubs like Stockport has changed, and it won’t be coming back.

It would be harsh and a little patronising to say that clubs like Stockport were left behind as football reinvented itself in the 1990s because you only have to go back 20 years to find that the club reached the semi-final of the Football League Cup. And in 2002, they were in the Championship, so what went wrong?

Financial problems, constantly changing management, on and off the field and declining crowds, which have remained remarkably loyal during this turbulent period, paint a gloomy picture of the recent history of a club that has always struggled in the shadow of the Manchester giants just up the road. But there is a strong heart beating in Stockport’s Edgeley Park ground.

“The scarf my father wore”, a slogan emblazoned along the back of the big stand behind the goal, on a giant blue and white scarf, tells you that people really care about their club. True, they’ve seen better days, but they do have a plan. They’re currently part-time, but they hope to change that in the near future. Two years ago, the club’s directors issued a document that outlined their hopes for Stockport County, including the aspiration to return to the Football League by 2020.

It’s a tall order, although Stockport are one of the best supported non-league clubs around, averaging more than 3,000 per game. The National League North is an interesting competition, with a lot of clubs with Football League links or ancestry seemingly biding their time, including Bradford Park Avenue, Boston United, Southport, York City, Kidderminster Harriers and Darlington. Then there’s FC United and Salford City to make it more competitive, not to mention Blyth Spartans. Stockport stand out as a sizeable fish in that pond.

Stockport itself is a town of 136,000 people and although the catchment area is broader, it is an area that includes lots of clubs, not least United and City. It is a town that featured in many paintings by L.S. Lowry. It’s easy to wallow in a bit of cloth cap nostalgia about the place, but it’s a different, more challenging and uncertain world today than when good-to-honest working class folk occupied the terraces of Edgeley Park and were not as easily distracted by events at Old Trafford and Maine Road.

Stockport County were founded in 1883 with the wonderful name of Heaton Norris Rovers and first joined the Football League in 1900. They dropped out in 1904, spending one year in the Midland League before returning in 1905. Their opening game of 1905-06 was against league new-boys Chelsea, who played the first ever game of their history at Stockport, with the County winning 1-0.

Edgeley Park opened in 1903 and remains one of the best appointed grounds in the country. It’s a 10 minute walk – at best – from the railway station, a stroll that takes you past red-brick industrial revolution-era buildings – the Bluebell Hotel, for example, and past rows of terraced houses that were undoubtedly the homes of mill workers and hat-makers from the town. They provide the sort of approach that was typical of inner-city football grounds until the concept of out-of-town was invented. At Stockport there’s what looks like a disused factory or workshop outside the stadium which probably made overalls or similar industrial clothing in its heyday. While this is evocative of a different time, you wonder how long it will be until the area is developed – isn’t that the script these days?

I got into discussion with two Stockport fans who sell used replica shirts, in some places, they’d be called “vintage” and attract a premium. “We don’t expect many people today, perhaps 1,200 as it’s the Trophy,” said one of the blue-shirted loyalists. Lo and behold, the crowd was as low as that. Pity, as the game wasn’t bad at all.

Stockport took the lead after 11 minutes, Jason Oswell setting up Bohan Dixon to score from close range. But Southport were behind for just three minutes as Andy White netted from 12 yards. Southport looked the better side for long periods and went ahead on 68 minutes when Brad Jackson crossed for the impressive Jason Gilchrist (making his debut after signing from FC United) to score. It looked ominous for the home side at this point, but four minutes from time, substitute Darren Stephenson (Daz to his friends) grabbed the equaliser, meeting Gary Stopforth’s low cross to send the FA Trophy tie to a replay.

It had not been a disappointing day, although the weather was cold, very damp and a stern reminder that winter was coming. Stockport are a club with no airs and graces – some former league outfits would consider themselves too good for the level they’re playing, but I found none of that at Edgeley Park. And a tenner to get in at step two? Good value. I walked away from this club wishing them only good things in the future.

Oh yes, 2-2 on the pools coupon would definitely be a firm X.