Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Redux: Wembley Stadium

Cleethorpes Town 0 South Shields 4 
FA Vase Final

Macclesfield Town 2 York City 3
FA Trophy Final
Sunday 21st May 2017

Much like the slovenly bachelor must accept that his Jack-o'-lantern is past it's prime come mid-November when it's been reduced to a brown, pungent lump in his front garden, so too must we acknowledge the end of the 2016/17 season. There was however one last event for me before I draw the line under another successful year for Partizan Bristle, where I visited 24 new grounds in strange and exotic lands such as the Balearic Islands, County Louth and Burslem. Tony Incenzo Day Non-League Finals Day is an opportunity for the savvy football fan to punctuate their season with a trip to the national stadium to take in two cup finals for the price of one: the FA Trophy and the FA Vase.

I was keen to make the trip in order to actually cover Wembley Stadium, as opposed to 2015 when I was too emotionally exhausted to do anything other than stick the pictures up. Also in the equation was the small matter of my old groundhopping pal Daz's beloved Macclesfield Town being in the final of the Trophy, seeking the third win that would make them joint-most successful team in the 48 year old competition. Hoping to stop that from happening were York City, who were aiming to do what Halifax Town did the year previous and lift the trophy in the same season they are relegated from the Conference National. Before that though there is the small matter of the FA Vase final being contested by South Shields and Cleethorpes Town who were champions of their respective level 9 leagues this season.

The day began at 6:20 when my good lady wife Becky was kind enough to drive me into town to catch the Megabus to London Victoria. The early start didn't deter our driver Jerry from unleashing the summer camp style banter as he did the safety announcements:

Jerry: "Good morning folks"
Me and one other person, sleepily: "Mornin'..."
Jerry: *pretends to fall asleep for a few seconds* "I SAID GOOD MORNING!"
Me: *polite laughter* "Good morning!" *screams internally*

Jerry: "Welcome to this Megabus service to London Victoria stopping at UWE, Carlisle, Edinburgh, Oslo, Greenland..."
Me: *eyes emergency exit longingly*  

One hilarious coach journey later I grabbed the tube and met Holly at Finchley Road, taking the opportunity to crack open my spiced rum and coke while I waited. Go hard or go home. As Holly and I walked up Wembley Way it became clear that South Shields were going to win the all important who can bring the most bodies to Wembley contest. The place was positively lousy with claret and blue clad Geordies hanging flags, blowing horns and generally having a lovely time. In total around 13,000 South Shields fans made the 5 hour tip to London, representing a staggering 17% of the town's population. In many ways this is staggering and commendable for a club at this level but it should be noted that Shields have just had an absolute dream season, winning the Northern League Division One title, the Durham Challenge Cup and the Northern League Cup, so this was their shot at a rare quadruple. They seem to be a club going from strength-to-strength at the moment and have a range of league talent (including the Romanian and American leagues, bizarrely) on their books, most notably former Sunderland and Middlesbrough man Julio Arca.

That's not to diminish the efforts of Cleethorpes Town who have pulled a blinder getting to the final in what is only their 19th year of existence, the bulk of that time as a soccer school by former Grimsby Town midfielder Tommy Watson. The Owls are going for a mere triple (the amateurs) in the Vase to go with their brand new Lincolnshire County Senior Trophy and Northern Counties East League title. They overcame some big players to reach the final including well-supported Greater Manchester side Atherton Collieries and Bromsgrove Sporting, who knocked out Partizan Bristle favourites Bristol Manor Farm. Weirdly, Cleethorpes Town play just down the road in Grimsby whereas Grimsby Town's Blundell Park, their home since 1899, is in Cleethorpes.

Before the games began I had predicted wins for South Shields and York City (which I didn't tell Daz) on the day but I put a small bet on Cleethorpes just to get me invested. Unfortunately for me South Shields entered half-time in the lead, only 1-0 up as a result of a penalty but they certainly looked in control throughout. They would have to wait for the 80th minute to score a second, a free kick curled towards the post which was headbutted powerfully down towards goal by Dillon Morse and the keeper couldn't get down quick enough. It was testament to Cleethorpes' dogged determination to stay in the game that Shields weren't able to score from open play until the 85th minute when David Foley was played into a one on one with the goal keeper via a Michael Richardson through-ball. Foley struck again from just outside to notch himself a brace in the 88th minute but by this time Cleethorpes looked pretty deflated and were no doubt just hoping for the final whistle. 

The first final ended and we suddenly had over an hour to kill inside the bowels of Wembley Stadium. This is how they get you. Every drink is the wrong side of £4 and the whole place has been done up like a mini shopping mall with food stalls, sweet shops and pop-up emporiums of assorted Wembley branded tat primed and ready to extract the last dime from the trapped masses. On the other hand they also had table football, so we held our noses, brought a round of mortgage pints and spent most of the time failing one-by-one to beat Daz who is unnaturally good at the game. I decided to take this opportunity to start my long-contemplated quest to get a selfie with a shirt-wearing fan of all 92 league clubs. I just love having shit to tick off.

Back out in the stands and it became apparent that the majority of Cleethorpes and South Shield fans had opted to start on the long road back home rather than stay to watch the second match. This lead me to question why the event was at Wembley at all, considering the contests had been all northern and midland teams since mid-March. As previously mentioned, I was fully expecting pressure-free York City to spoil the Silkmen's big day but I didn't let on to Daz who'd been looking forward to seeing the Macc lads on the big stage for months. Having vicariously gained a bit of affection for Macclesfield myself I had decided to get help the war effort by bringing my blue and white scarf and a couple of blue balloons I'd found at work and getting very drunk so I could get all the chants loudly wrong.

Macc got off to a bad start within the first 2 minutes when York's Cheltenham-loanee forward Amari Morgan-Smith went down in the box after having his arm pulled but the referee waved the calls for a penalty away. Despite this setback it was the Minstermen that netted the first goal through dogged man-fridge Jon Parkin, who neatly headed in a beautiful cross from Danny Holmes in the 8th minute. Daz was so sure the former Macc player would net that he stuck £2 on it during the break. Didn't do much to cheer him up though. Luckily Macclesfield were soon back in it through Rhys Browne who wriggled onto the end of a misplaced defensive header from Vadaine Oliver who was trying to clear a free-kick from the wing. The Antigua and Barbuda international showed great poise to knock the ball forward for himself with his first touch, beating the panicked defenders in the box with him and sticking it through the keepers legs. Shortly after this Macc were denied what looked to be a stonewall penalty when Chris Holroyd took a mighty barge from Chippenham Polak Yan Klukowski in the box.

Oliver was able to make up for his fluffed defensive header on 22 minutes as Parkin held up the ball and passed to Holmes who put in a through-ball to Sean Newton who caught up with it on the edge of the box and crossed it to Oliver by the far post to slide in for York's second. A nice team goal that stretched the Macc defence. That wasn't it for the half though and Norburn replied for the Silkmen in spectacular fashion in added time with a thunderous strike into the top-centre of goal from 30 yards. I'd been impressed by Norburn on the day and how much he'd come on since leaving the Gas three years ago. The second half was a very tight affair with plenty of chances for both sides. Most notable of these was a Kingsley James volley from close range which was cleared off the line by Hamza Bencherif. Cheshire hearts would be broken in the 86th minute when a shot from Parkin bounced up and over Scott Flinders in the Macclesfield net as a defender slid in to try and stop it. As the shot bounced lethargically towards goal, Aidan Connolly pounced to add the probably unnecessary final touch centimetres from the line. 

So York City leave London with the FA Trophy on this occasion, much needed salve to the burn of relegation. Despite our disappointment it was still a treat to watch two games at Wembley with some good pals in the glorious sunshine. Not a bad way to end the season. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank my readers for your kind words and encouragement over the last season. I hope to do the usual and get to the odd WSL fixture over the summer but expect the blog to be quiet until July when we start the whole sordid affair over again at Weston-Super-Mare with the mighty Gas. Have a good summer kids.

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