In some ways, the FA Vase is the real FA Cup, the still beating heart of the damaged football pyramid. When the FA Cup started, communities were, obviously, more localised than now, they were the sporting equivalent of a royal street party. Those living within a holler of the ground would come together on big occasions and have a bit of a sing song and support their town’s own folk. The final of the Vase was played last Sunday, the show-piece of lower league football. People went to Wembley and they saw a little bit of football history at the ‘home’ of English football. Two communities, spurring on their own town in competition against but also in unison with each other, as part of a football community.
Meanwhile, some fans, fans of much bigger clubs, sat in front of their computers, miles from Wembley, high on insularity, childish tartrazine-fuelled fury, overflowing with bitterness, antagonistic to fellow fans. They were confused and angry that people with even a big connection to a smaller local community could feel pride and joy in a team other than their every-day team, especially one considerably further down the football pyramid. And they simply couldn’t stop themselves spitting bile at the many thousands of fans of THEIR teams who were just going for a day out at Wembley to include themselves in the narrative of another team, with which they actually shared an intrinsic link that pre-dates their link to the bigger club.
These football Meldrews simply cannot enjoy a footballing moment that does not include their team, they have no truck with the footballing pleasure of others, even peers and colleagues who they otherwise call ‘friends’. You have to wonder if these people even enjoy the game of football? Their football support is conditional, they appear not to even understand what they are part of, that football is not simply a vacuum in which their one club exists.
It is quite sad that such people cannot celebrate football for what it is, a game.
We were there as one of the derided onlookers, one of us with absolutely no connection to either side. Another, me, with a short ten year association with the town but a mere three as borderline fan. One of our cohorts for the day, Andy, suggested I was not a fan, just that I had a soft spot for them, which is true but I think it would edge beyond if I lived there. If Whitley played Ipswich, I’d want to see an entertaining Horses victory but not a disrespectful one. Maybe 3-1. If it was Whitley Bay .v. Dulwich Hamlet, I’d want any form of away win. But against any other side I’d be wanting Bay flying at them, chowing down on defences and kerrling balls into the top corner.
Andy’s right though, it’s not quite there yet, it’s definitely a soft spot because there is still sufficient detachment that allows me to stand by and capture the atmosphere and the moments of excitement for others while they celebrate. And that atmosphere was different to last year. All confident, rowdy and ebullient last May to face the clear underdogs, Wroxham, the atmosphere on Sunday among they Bay fans was the meditative calm of experience tinged with a slight wariness of dangerous opposition. The frisson of tension rendered the notoriously boisterous Bell End Choir strangely mute, although not fearful.
It turns out they’d gauged the opposition as well as pundits had. Both hypothetically and, it turned out, in reality Coalville were more than a match for Bay. If you’d asked anyone in the ground after 25 minutes what the final score might be I’m fairly sure everyone would have said ‘Coalville’ by two or three to nil. But Ian Chandler’s boys are a resilient lot. Take last year’s semi final against Barwell. 3-1 down after 88 minutes of the first leg and staring an uphill task in the face, they scored twice to head to the home leg in ruud health. And against Poole in this year’s semi final first leg, 1-0 down heading into injury time they somehow finished the game as 2-1 winners. Never. Ever, think you’ve got Bay beat. You haven’t.
The Whitley Choir had been subdued with the kind of inspirational dynamism from Coalville that really gets fans blood pumping. They played a high tempo game that energised their fans. But MacFarlane’s purposeful burst past the full back and inch perfect cross into the six yard box gave Chow one of the easiest finishes he’ll have had in the Vase. 1-0 to Whitley and the noise switched briefly from right to left. Not for long though. The Coalville fans were genuinely very happy to be there and I do not mean that with even the slightest hint of condescension. It may even now be cliché to say that in the foundation of every cliche lies the concrete of truth. But the power of a first (or rare) outing to the national stadium in a cup final cannot be underestimated. Coalville were debuting and their team’s doubling of effort quickly stirred the crowd back into action.
Whitley somehow held out until half time and beyond. It was an hour before the inevitable Matt Moore equalising goal arrived and things looked distinctly dodgy for the Bay. While they looked very dangerous on the break and likely to score, they too often found themselves penned back. We should have known that the very next example of the former would see a curling, inviting cross from last week’s realfacup interviewee, Paul Robinson, and Kerr executing one of the most textbook headed goals you’re ever likely to see.
For the next 20 minutes Coalville’s siege to the Whitley goal was broken several times by a Bay break and Burke made two great saves, one of which the 38 year old tipped over the bar with agility that brought applause from much younger, suppler human beings. In between, Coalville hit the woodwork but no end of quality wing play and crossing seemed able to get past Burke in Whitley’s goal.
When Anthony Carney, Coalville’s most dangerous player, crossed to the penalty spot and Matt Goodby leapt to meet it, the crowd expected another Burke save but this header left him no chance and The Ravens were level again. 2-2. Consensus was sure there would only be one winner now but whatever Bay lacked in possession, they did not lack in resilience, potency or fortune. Kerr swept a 20 yard freekick over the wall, it hit something, bounced down, hit something else and went in. It turned out to be Chow, who emerged from a crowd of players in classic ‘wheeling away’ fashion and Whitley were up 3-2 with 5 minutes left. Could they hold on? It seemed possible this time, Coalville were adept at building pressure over time but they didn’t have much of it left this time.
We had some classic keeper-in-the-opposition-box action but it was to no avail. Whitley were victorious again, this time they were record breakers, Chow was a record breaker, Chandler was a record breaker and Burke & Chow were heroic. In fact Burke was the hero, he was the man-of-the-match, Les Sealey-esque in his recall the previous week. That has to go down as a managerial masterstroke. For me, Coalville’s Carney was close to MoM, he looks a terrific prospect, his ability to find a yard of room for a cross and then providing a good one was a stand-out, although Robinson’s cross for Kerr’s goal was the pick of the day’s many.
Coalville could, and perhaps should, have won the game, their manager said as much, Bay’s went as far as to say a draw at 90 would have been fair. The Ravens fans were very impressive, I can’t imagine what simile Stuart Hall might have come up with. They will rue missed chances less than cursing a keeper in form but will regret defensive lapses when up against a quite accomplished twin pronged Jarrow finishing machine. Although disappointed, the fans were out in force afterwards. Hands were shaken, memories shared.
Glory hunting is looked down upon, rightly so when it results in regular fans missing out on access to big occasions, but when there are plenty of tickets to go round, the small profits go to the clubs involved, the teams benefit from a rare big-game-big-crowd experience, where’s the harm? What’s not to like about this game? Why would anyone who hasn’t joined in get so worked up about other people enjoying the fortune and happiness of another club? What possible purpose does it serve? What does it prove? Does it make them feel ‘better’ fans than us fly-by-nights? It’s quite a shame really, they don’t know what they’re missing.
As a postscript, I found out on the way home that Paul Chow had been offered a slot in Blackburn Rovers’ end of season first team/reserve team game. A rather nice gesture in recognition of a prolific lower league goalscorer. I wonder if he impresses enough to get a deal …
*Hat Tip to the Hudsons – Andy for the Chow info and Michael for highlighting the Jarrow influence. Zero silver realfacup trophies to the pub for the worst burger I’ve ever had. And *ahem* a few apologies to Coalville for the slightly Whitley-centric match report, although I don’t think we were too biased