As the FA Trophy Final approaches on Non-League Finals Day, which is, by the way, a revolutionary idea to give fans – and neutrals like myself – the chance to watch two finals for £25. First up is the FA Vase just after midday, then it’s the Trophy final at 4:15. Well played FA, giving fans the chance to go to Wembley for very little expense.
But let’s rewind a little. Let’s go back to March 17, the date of the FA Trophy semi-final first leg at Brackley Town’s St James’s Park. It’s a ground I know well from my FA Cup Quest two years ago. I visited St James’s on three occasions that year, but this time, if anything, the stakes were higher. This time Wembley was the prize for the winner, but Wealdstone stood in their way, backed by a large and very boisterous away contingent.
There had been an early pitch inspection as the weather was quite simply appalling. A frozen pitch and/or the forecast of snow had threatened to derail this tie but it was game on. But, as the snow swirled around the ground and the wind whipped across the pitch, the players found it increasingly harder to play any kind of football whatsoever, and chances were scarce. In fact, I can honestly say that I have never been so cold at a football match, and I’ve been to Hartlepool in November!
At one point, during a second half I can barely remember, I stood at one corner of the ground as a blizzard blew in my eyes and I thought to myself “Why am I doing this?”. My fingers were literally too cold to Tweet and I contemplated binning the game off and just getting another shandy from the clubhouse. But then, from nowhere, the game’s one moment of true quality was witnessed through the maelstrom of snow.
The ball fell to Brackley’s Alex Gudger on the corner of the six-yard box and he rifled an unstoppable half volley into the corner of the net.
Wealdstone’s noisy lot were silenced, and with that, it was advantage Brackley. For me, I’ve never been so pleased to see my Peogeot knowing that it had fully operational heaters! Although I swear I didn’t totally thaw out until I stopped at Castle Donington services!
A week later, it was down the M40 to Wealdstone for the crucial second leg. Grosvenor Vale is a ground full of character, and the fulcrum of a community who clearly love their football.
The atmosphere before kick off was electric. Stones fans truly believed they could overcome the deficit and reach Wembley, as they had done in 1985.
The club house doubles as a community venue, The Ruislip Social Club, and is adorned with Wealdstone memorabilia everywhere you turn. My particular favourite, as a Forest fan, was a framed 1991 Forest shirt signed by Wealdstone’s finest export, Stuart Pearce. He made his debut as a marauding, hard-as-nails left-back at Wealdstone in 1977.
The match itself was delayed 10 minutes to allow fans to cram themselves in. And once you were in you were in. There was very little room for manoeuvre.
Stones fans once again were in excellent voice, but once again they were silenced by Brackley when the visitors took the lead when Shane Bryce’s low free kick found the bottom corner. Game over? Not according to Stones supporters, who raised the voices once more. But alas, in the closing stages, as it became apparent to all that time had run out, Aaron Williams made absolutely certain that it was Brackley who would go to Wembley with Town’s second.
With the aggregate score now 3-0 to the visitors, many home fans began to trickle out. Their dream was over.
So it’s Brackley who I follow to Wembley. They play Bromley in what should be a cracker.
I’ll sign off by saying how amazing Wealdstone’s supporters were. At both games they sang their hearts out and got behind their side for the duration of both ties. The club reminds me of Wimbledon, a proper community club, loved by an army of devout supporters. I wish them well.
For me, though, Wembley awaits.
Photos from Brackley
Photos from Wealdstone