Monday, 30 May 2016

Non-League Finals Day: Part One - Hereford FC vs Morpeth Town A.F.C., FA Vase Final 2016, Wembley Stadium (22/05/16)

You can read, Non-League Finals Day: Part Two - HERE

Well this is it, games thirty nine and forty, our curtain closer for the 2015/16 season, and our second visit to Wembley within a week. One could not ask for nicer weather, it’s warm, the sky is blue, there is a slight breeze, and I feel, well I don't feel that great. Always one for an early night, and limiting myself to a glass of sherry with the Queen's speech each year, and maybe another at the chimes of Big Ben on December 31st if I'm feeling a little spontaneous, my fiancee’s birthday celebrations the previous night, were relatively speaking quite boozy, and therefore I’m not feeling my best.

Fuzzy is the word I would probably use to describe my condition, which is only compounded by the fact I have to get up at 08:00 on a Sunday, yes 08:00 on God's special, it's not like I’m off to do a paper round.

You could be quite correct in thinking that perhaps we are off on some far distant ‘Away Day’, but no Wembley is only up the road, perhaps I hear you ask, today's game is part of a ‘Sky Super Sunday’ situation, where the kick-off, 12:15, is decided purely for their convenience and no-one else's so they can squeeze in three average games instead of two, well you're close, I would reply, only it’s not Sky, it’s BT televising today's matches, and yes I do mean the plural, it's not another fine example of my poor punctuation, because the only thing that is getting me out of bed, is the FA Vase and FA Trophy double header, the inaugural ‘Non League Finals Day’.

My bus ride is far more pleasant this week, than last, which I’m sure has a lot to do with the time. Although feeling grim for a different reason, than seven days previously, the distinct lack of screaming children, allows me to concentrate on continually sipping from the two litre bottle of water I have on the seat next to me.

The quiet, if not ever so bumpy and wobbly ride, allows me to reminisce about perhaps the most emotional football match I have ever been to, the FA Trophy Final 2015. It feels like it’s only yesterday I was crying my eyes out, following North Ferriby’s dramatic penalty shoot out win over Wrexham. The cries of “Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire” can still be heard faintly on the wind if you listen close enough. Even now I can still feel the whipping scarf of the pensioner sitting behind me, who for well over two hours smacked me in the back of the head, every time she got excited.

Tom as ever is a compassionate friend, sending me pics of his morning coffee and muffin, and is all bright eyed and bushy tailed when we talk on the phone, “oh the tables have turned” he says smugly, “I’m as fresh as a daisy”, good for you!

In life you must be thankful, and always remember that there are people worse off than you. I in comparison to the woman staggering onto the bus, holding a can of Carlsberg and being guided up the stairs by a less than impressed looking friend/boyfriend/husband, feel absolutely fantastic.

The swaths of black and white Grimsby Town FC fans are nowhere to be seen, in fact there are very few fans of any team on Bridge Road the final stretch before Wembley Park station. The pub that had been overrun a week ago was not even open, no singing could be heard, there was a definite Sunday morning feel about.

On arrival the previous days FA Cup signs and posters are all still up, an older couple, both in Manchester United shirts pull their luggage slowly towards the tube from a nearby hotel, they look like they feel about halfway between me and the bus drinker.

Much like last week, one group of fans vastly outnumber an other. It’s already clear that the Hereford FC (HFC) ranks outweigh those of the opposition, as Tom and a passing HFC fan both say, almost simultaneously, “where is the other team?”. The other team, whose fans so far are a little thin on the ground is Morpeth Town A.F.C. (MT) whose Northumberland ground all six hundred miles plus round trip away, we visited for the FA Vase semi-final second leg.

“We got flat caps and horns” says the man at one of the flag flying stalls that line the way to the stadium, to a woman who needs a few minutes to weigh up her options. The stall much like the rest of Olympic Way is still covered in FA Cup paraphernalia, Crystal Palace and Manchester United scarves are still on show amongst their lower league cousins. One HFC fan, perhaps deliberating the same question ‘cap or horn’ is doing it with a a lot more consideration, standing a few steps back, in a black and white wig, black and white face paint, and sunglasses, his glare is unwavering and intense, never has a person looked at polyester, quite like him, it's verging on the menacing. I would just go for the horn mate, it's really not that big of a deal.

With more and more people arriving every minute, I’m once again able to cross a few things off in my ‘Non-league I Spy’ book, like the woman wearing a Herefordshire county flag like an apron, a man in black and white check trousers or the groups wearing the scalped remains of Friesian cows, horns and all, in some kind of sick pagan nod to the HFC bull.

HFC are famous for many reasons, many reasons that could fill a hundred blogs or more, such as
their much fabled win over Newcastle in the FA Cup, or the fact they that they parade a very large bull, one not dissimilar to that on the club's badge, around the ground before matches, much more interesting than the cheerleaders at Selhurst Park, if you ask me. Their more recent history is initially a sad and increasingly familiar story of a team ‘Hereford United FC’ in this case, going under, only to be reborn in their current guise 'Hereford FC' and since then they have had quite the meteoric rise, this season alone they have achieved a league and cup treble.

My understanding is that the club have been given special dispensation to parade all 1,200KG of Ronaldo, the club mascot around the Wembley pitch before kick-off. The chance of seeing such a sight has us making our way to our seats that little bit early, but not before we dodge, like many others, although some are falling foul as they film the build up on their camcorders or phones, to what I think is Ronaldo's dung. Perhaps some pre-game nerves have kicked in, although I’m sure whoever is in charge is happy it's out here, rather than in there.

“I've seen four Halifax and two Morpeth” says Tom on fan watch, all are still paling into insignificance in comparison to the HFC hoards in white, one holds a large banner over the balcony in front of the Bobby Moore statue, “loud and proud” is written across it. 

Tom’s keen ear picks up on something “I can hear a drum”, zeroing in on it like a bat using sonar, he points out a group of HFC supporters following the drummer, whose small drum is hanging from a strap slung over his shoulder. Their enthusiasm knows no bounds, stopping at one point to devise a chant aimed at a stationary ice cream van.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the countless coaches arriving, full of more and more HFC fans  “their support is going to be mental” says tom. Their black and white flags are quickly hoisted, fluttering perfectly as they are caught in the breeze. In what feels like a matter of moments the concourse around the ground is bustling with black and white rosettes with a golden bull at its centre, shirts with ‘Wembley 2016’ on the back, or for those who like a pun ones with ‘Wem-bully 2016’ on the front with a picture of what looks like at a glance Bully from Bullseye, but without the red and white shirt.

Perhaps a taste of things to come we see our first fish, of the inflatable kind, being carried by a Grimsby Town FC fan, but at the moment it's all about the bovine.

“Doors are now open” announces a voice, he also reminds smokers to have “one last ciggie” as once you're in, and you leave, there is no readmittance. With this in mind, we hold off heading in, and instead take in a lap of the whole of Wembley, not that we are likely to see  anything different, because HFC have taken over.

“I feel like a salmon” says Tom as we battle the wrong way against the tide, only the men with their yellow paper boy bags selling match day programs are unmovable, like rocks in white water, we on the other hand have to bob and weave through the crowd. When we do spot any MT fans they are in small tight groups, doing their best to avoid getting picked off by the great white shark surrounding us, “I bet they feel outnumbered” says Tom.

Although low in number, they are at least a bit more colourful, their black and yellow is a nice contrast from all the white which is close to giving me snow blindness, and they are doing their best to make themselves heard, one gives a few blasts on his air horn, and gets a noisy reply “Morpeth, Morpeth, Morpeth”.

One group is led by a man whose short hair has been dyed appropriately to match the club's colours, and is a definite first for the ‘I Spy Book’. One little mob of MT causal wannabes, are doing their best to look tough, but just end up looking like nice boys with scarves, out for a day at the footy.

“Oh no, not the clappers” groans Tom, when we pass a table handing them out. Not a fan of the atmosphere enhancers, it will be interesting to see how he copes as the day goes on.

Stop, hold the presses, this has gotta be worth a prize of some kind, this must be a first, because I think I have just spotted a Mayor, no not Boris stuck on a zip line, but a man in a HFC shirt wearing his ceremonial gold Mayoral collar. My ‘I Spy Book’ doesn't have a section for such a rare sighting.

First the decapitated cow hats, now the severed head cow logo of the British Burger Co truck who is clearly a relative of the one on the HFC crest, the resemblance is uncanny, will this barbarity ever end?, have people no heart?, more salt rubbed into beefy wounds, I have had enough of this, it's time to find our seats.

Through the glass we can see the ‘Club Wembley” lot, coolly riding the escalator on the way to their padded red throne’s, they disgust me. There are so many more than last week, when we briefly joined the jet set, but today we are with the real fans, not with the jewellery rattlers, we take our proper tickets, not printed off ones, and make our way to our block.

The deja vu is ever so slightly overwhelming, the set up is almost a carbon copy of the week before, does the bald man from BT never go home?, has he set up camp in the away dugout? He along with the cameras are set up at the mouth of the tunnel, the only slight difference is instead of one trophy on a plinth there are two, both looking very splendid in the bright sun.

Thinking we had arrived in enough time to be in place for the battle of the mascots, Ronaldo Vs The Highwayman, we are slightly disappointed not to see the prize heifer doing the rounds, but just a man dressed as Dick Turpin, thrusting his plastic sword, and looking every bit as dandy as Adam Ant.

HFC’s section is ginormous, all three tiers are almost full, MT’s next door is a little more modest, but both have been adorned with flags and banners, one of MT’s largest reads “Morpeth Pride Of Northumberland” with the red and yellow of the county flag. When the HFC supporters break into a spontaneous song, the noise level goes through the roof.

With both teams warming up, watching MT go through the motions it's hard not to think that if only for the width of a post, that could be Bowers & Pitsea FC, and what a day that would have been. It’s also hard not to imagine that the MT players must be delighted to not be playing on the sandy, mess of a pitch they had to play on at Craik Park when we went.

“Oh when the Peth go marching in, oh when the Peth go marching in” sing some MT fans on the big screens, who are being interviewed outside. When the camera sweeps the crowd, Tom is highly amused “I love how people get on camera” he says laughing, as people going about their everyday business, are nudged by a loved one informing them that their five seconds of fame has arrived, and all of a sudden grown men turn into audience members from a children's game show. It is however a distraction from the clappers which are already starting to grate a little, the only respite is when the people with one hold them stretched out to display the messages they have penned upon them, like the ones you see at the darts, but the lack of rhythm, timing or any sense of reason from one nearby Grimsby fan, whacking his randomly as and when he sees fit, means we are both close to pulling out our hair.

“A celebration of non-league” announces the voice over the tannoy, as the players finish up, and head in, both teams are read out, each HFC player getting an almighty cheer. Two men appear carrying what at first looks like the world's largest fruit roll up, only to unravel what is in fact the red carpet, this is also the queue for an army of flag bearing children to appear, who line one side of the pitch.

Sitting behind us it's hard not to hear, what I think is fair to say is a running commentary on what is going on around us. I’m sure most people have been to a match and have had the displeasure of sitting behind a know it all, a motor mouth, that person who finds it necessary to give his non stop opinion and how he would do things 'better'. Today it's different, today it’s far more touching and life affirming, completely the opposite to that bloke who has leafed through half a copy of a Jonathan Wilson book, today gives us both a little faith in humanity and reaffirms why we love football.

“Been to places as hideous as Worksop Town, but never been here for a game” says the partially sighted man to his totally blind friend. His descriptions have us both gripped, leaning back in our seats tuning into the stream of facts and information he effortlessly reels off. It’s only the din of the HFC fans singing “we’re on our way, we’re on our way”, that forces us to break away from listening, as we realise the players are arriving.

On a small white plinth, next to the lined up players who have now shaked all the required hands, a lady in a summer dress, sings the national anthem. I honestly don’t think I can see an empty seat red seat, amongst the HFC supporters, more flags have appeared, a Union Jack is hanging over the edge of the highest section, “that won't last long” comments Tom, after our encounter with the ‘covering up advertising police’ at the National League Promotion Final.

Even for a sun worshiper like Tom, the high temperature in combination with his goth all black outfit, means the heat is getting a bit much, “I’m on fire”, much like HFC who go a goal ahead less than two minutes after the start. A long range shot flies past the MT keeper and into the corner of the net, I’ve not even really settled down, as the players are piling on top of each other, and absolute pandemonium has broken out.

“That might be the fastest goal I have ever seen” says Tom, looking at me with the same, ‘that caught me out a bit’ look, that I'm probably giving him back.

When the players have composed themselves, I think the fans are still dancing, they almost grab another goal, a one on one chance is saved. HFC have come out of the traps flying, one Grimsby fan near by puts it perfectly “Morpeth snap out of it” if they don't, this game will be out of sight before it's even begun. I recognise their very shouty manager from the semi final on the sidelines, he is gesturing wildly, but I can't make out what he is saying over the still singing HFC fans.

“I’m gonna burn bad today, I shouldn't of worn black” says Tom, he should take a leaf out of the HFC manager in his grey cup final suit, who has popped on a baseball cap to keep the sun out of his eyes, and looks much calmer than his gesticulating opposite number.

We all have goals in life, work goals, family goals, football goals. Some people want to be CEO by the age of thirty five, some want lots of kids, some want to do ‘The 92’. My brothers football goal was achieved at an England friendly in this very stadium a few years ago when he was able to catch the ball after it went into the crowd, and threw it back to a player, I don't think I have ever seen him so happy. I therefore recognise better than most, the grin and delight across one nearby man's face, when he plucks the ball from the air, which was going at quite a pace, and tosses it back on to the pitch. “Catch” says Tom like a spectator at Lord’s. Knowing exactly what he’s done, but not milking it though, he just turns to those around him, and accepts their manly ‘well done mate’ looks.

HFC continue to make chances, the MT keeper on more than one occasion makes a bit of a meal of keeping them out, but manages it. MT get their first shot on goal around fifteen minutes in, a rasping shot, which is just tipped over, the effort gets a round of applause from the MT subs warming up in front of us.

MT are slowly but surely starting to look less and less overrun, but still seem a little shaky, “Hereford are on the attack” says our nearby commentator, it doesn't look like it would take much effort for them to score again, just as easily as they did their first.

Number 17 for HFC is tricky, with quick feet, he drives to the edge of the box, shoots and hit's the crossbar. The opportunity to double their lead seems a certainty, after some good play down the flanks, the ball into the box is slightly behind his intended teammate. When he attempts a shot he’s all sixes and sevens, he seems to tie himself in knots “ahhhh” shouts the HFC end.

“Who are ya, who are ya, who are ya” sing the HFC fans following the premature MT celebrations, after their fans think they have scored, but its wide, the ripple of the net was misleading, and gave an altogether different impression.

Tom is not impressed, “some people go their whole lives, not even catching one”, after the same guy manages to catch ball number two, admittedly not with the poise of the first, but nonetheless, he has his brace.

Not long after hearing the MT fans in full voice for the first time, “Morpeth, Morpeth, Morpeth”, they equalise, completely against the run of play. A corner is fumbled at the back post by HFC keeper, the ball slipping through his hands, and straight onto the chest of an MT player who knows very little about the ball bouncing off him and into the back of the net.

The celebration is slightly delayed, perhaps wanting to avoid a repeat of the previous mistake, but when the MT players run to the corner flag, arms out stretched, their fans know this one counted. “You're not signing anymore, you're not singing anymore” they sing, the man behind us tells his friend, who has been so used to hearing HFC, that its “Morpeth who are the loudest now”.

His following statement encapsulates the past thirty five minutes or so perfectly “they have not disgraced themselves, they have not rolled over and died”. In fact MT almost go ahead, and slowly but surely in the final minutes of the half, they start to turn the tide. Within seconds of the sentence “Morpeth are finishing the game stronger” barely leaving Tom's lips it’s HFC’s turn to almost score, following a mind boggling solo run, getting closer enough to shoot, he puts it over, he would have gone down in folklore if it had gone in, there would have been a stand named after him before he had even got home.

The half somehow finishes all square.

Being a football steward can't be much fun, squatting on a plastic stool all day, their backs to the action, the high chance of being punched by an idiot, or freezing half to death on a “cold night in Stoke” it can’t make it a very enticing job opportunity, but very rarely are they as interesting as the woman near us, well to be clear, the hair of the woman near us. Perhaps it is Tom’s professional curiosity, he’s a barber, that has kicked in, or maybe it is just a bizarre curiosity, but we find ourselves flat out staring at the lady down front whose hair honestly looks like it is sculpted from the wax from mini Babybels, Tom thinks she might be from the “Fifth Element”.

A beer only lane, that sounds like a good idea doesn't it? Hair of the dog or a massive mistake are the two ways this half time drink is going, for me at least. Tom is breaking his self imposed ‘not eating at Wembley’ embargo, and is contemplating a “little sausage roll”, its £3 it better be fucking massive. He is also talking about having “lunch between games” like there is going to be some sit down meal in a Versailles banquet hall.

He gives in, I come to the realisation that we aren't going anywhere, the subliminal and not too subliminal message of the day ‘no readmittance’ has been drilled into me, and it might be a good idea to have something other than 2 litres of water and a beer inside of me, so I opt for a pasty. “I might have regretted my choice” says Tom, “feel the weight of that” he says as he hands over his fragile sausage roll, “now feel that” he says as he hands over my weighty and robust pasty, I have clearly come out of this better.

Tucking in, Tom is no stranger to being a little messy, let's say, when eating at football, for some reason his well bred North London table manners go out the window, and he has been known to leave a game with a mustard stain or three. One member of Wembley staff is particularly unimpressed, standing next to him and sweeping up the deluge of flaky pastry raining down as he devours the world's lightest and most expensive sausage roll.

Before heading back to our seats, we enjoy, well I’m not sure that is the right word, we witness a woman swinging a piece of skewered chicken around like a cutlass, who is trying to figure out how to get the meat off the stick and on to the flat bread and rocket below. She starts to strip it with her hands, considering the obvious lack of cutlery available this seems acceptable, but when she starts to use her teeth to perform the same task, I’m done, I’m off, football has gone mad.

The problem for going for a pint, or even if the queue for the toilet is a bit long, you can end up getting back to your seat a bit late, and considering the propensity for early goals so far in this match, you would think we would have been back long before kick-off. As we descend the stairs to our seat, dead ahead of us, we arrive just in time to watch MT grab a second, less than one minute after the restart, amazingly they are now in the lead.

HFC’s end has gone very quiet, only the thudding of the drum can be heard, but somehow even that sounds subdued, considering their already stellar season, they were very much the favourites, things are not going to plan, and its about to go further south.

Like a kid at a school disco the scorer of MT’s third, yes third goal, knee slides across the pitch, and then makes up the bottom layer of a near all team pile on. A mention has to go to the assist from MT’s number 4, diminutive in stature, he has blossomed in the second half, his range of passing and marshalling of central midfield is a joy to watch, I’m almost certain he put in an equally impressive performance in the semi final.

“Wow never saw that coming” adds Tom, I’m not sure anyone did after their less than ideal start. The MT bench is entwined in a mass group hug, the shouty manager looks delighted, and pumps his fist to someone in the crowd. It’s time for the MT fans to “sing their non league hearts out” says the partially sighted man to his friend so perfectly once again, “you're not singing anymore, you're not signing anymore”.

It’s starting to sink in for the MT fans, some are on their feet, swaying their arms like its a concert, but I don't see any lighters, “we love you Morpeth, we do, we love you Morpeth we do”. Watching on from the sidelines is their substitute keeper, who Toms describes as being “tonks” and looking like he is from the “UFC” the guy has some serious guns on him. He, the fans and the rest of the team don't have long to wait, “eight and a half minutes” to be precise, according to the timekeeper behind us, who also reiterates the score, like a human videprinter “Hereford 1, Morpeth 3”.

Such is the MT fans confidence, they are now “ollaying” the team, as they pass the ball between themselves, running down the clock, one pass at a time. They almost come a cropper, when one lofty pass to the keeper, almost goes a bit ‘Lee Dixon’, the scorer of the greatest own goal in history don't forget, only for him to deal with it, like it's no big deal.

“Four additional minutes of time” announces the Replicant sounding stadium announcer, who is set to ‘sound a bit like a game show host’.

On the break, and outnumbered at the back HFC concede a fourth, the route is complete. MT’s keeper runs to join the celebration in front of their fans once again, I’m sure in the melee I see more than one player rocking the ‘Dab’.

“Championes, championes, championes” rings out from the MT supporters and players as the final whistle is blown, the whole bench streams across the pitch colliding with the near hysterical players halfway. Before joining in, the MT manager dishes out his double fist pump only reserved for special occasions. “MORPETH, MORPETH, MORPETH”, accompanies the flag waving and scarf swinging, from the handful from Northumberland.

HFC get a round of applause by all as they climb the stand to get their runners up medals, the MT team wait, some now sporting hats, scarves and flags that have been tossed from the crowd. One player takes his chance to grab a quick hug with his small child, who is passed to him from the crowd in an oversized shirt and hat.

C3-PO is now on the pitch with a microphone in hand, and is bang on when he says in English, but could also have said it in any of the other six million other languages known by a protocol droid, that it's a “momentous occasion” the underdogs have prevailed. Queen’s “We are the champions” blasts out once MT have filled the balcony, and lifted the cup. HFC have formed a guard of honour at the foot of the steps, a very classy gesture, clapping the victors as they make their way towards their fans. More Queen follows, then a bit of Tina Turner ‘Simply the best’ and I have a brief flashback to my parents parties, when air guitar with a badminton racquet was all the rage.

MT are not able to revel in their achievement for too long, because the air is soon filled with the smell of petrol and the low hum of a fleet of ride-on mowers, buzzing up and down in perfect formation, like the red arrows, in preparation for game number two.

“It’s a bit eerie now” says a Grimsby fan, following the speedy exit of the HFC fans, along with almost everyone else. Kids are handed activity books by the stewards, “something to keep you occupied” they are told, their is almost a two hour wait until the FA Trophy final, so it's a nice way to kill the time, wish I could have one. I am clearly not as prepared as Tom, who tells me he's “got Vikings to watch” and asks me “what are you gonna do?”.


For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

You can read, Non-League Finals Day: Part Two - HERE


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