While the title races across some of Europe’s top leagues are all but over before the end of January, and the pool of potential winners in national and continental cups begins to narrow, there are still some competitions in football that can’t be predicted before a ball is kicked. Take the FA Vase for example, the knockout cup for non-league teams that sees a squad of semi-professional footballers lift a trophy at Wembley stadium every year. Since its inception in 1975, only two sides have won the FA Vase more than twice, with 37 teams in total listing the trophy among their honours. From Diss to Deal, and from Colne to Coalville, the FA Vase remains a celebration of some of England’s forgotten corners of football.
Ahead of this weekend’s fifth round fixutres, we’ve invited a man who knows a great deal about non-league football to share a his memories of a particularly painful defeat in the Vase. Peter Dudley is a football writer and co-host on a Grassroots Football Show on East London Radio. Having grown up watching non-league football with his late father, Peter interest in all things grassroots has led him to set up a website covering the Essex Senior League, as well as a stint as secretary at Southend Manor. This week, Peter looks back on the evening plucky Bowers & Pitsea’s FA Vase dream turned to dust in the north-east.
Morpeth Town 2-1 Bowers & Pitsea
FA Vase Semi-Final
16th March 2016
The team I am going to talk about today was a member of the Essex Senior League before they gained promotion a couple of seasons ago, and that team is Bowers & Pitsea. The game in question was an FA Vase Semi Final second leg tie in the 2015/16 season, and with the teams locked at 2-2 going into the second leg, it was all to play for with the victors earning a day out at Wembley in the final.
This was such an important game for me too, in the context that I’d seen the club struggle at the foot of the Essex Senior League for a number of years, but now the club were on an upturn and chasing league and FA Vase glory, and knowing most of the players, staff and officials at the club I knew how much this meant to them, so I really wanted them to succeed.
The game was taking place on the outskirts of Morpeth in Northumberland at a ground called Craik Park, home of Morpeth Town who were one of the powerhouses in the Northern League Division One, a league that had dominated the FA Vase for some time. The surroundings were a nice woodland and trees, the ground was a mile or so outside the town so thankfully I got a lift to and from the venue.
Pre-match expectations were this was going to be a difficult assignment for the visitors although they had battled back from 2-0 down in the home leg to draw 2-2, so we were cautiously optimistic as kick-off approached. The match itself was a bit of a rollercoaster, beginning in the worst possible way for Bowers & Pitsea as they fell behind after just three minutes to a thunderbolt. The 1,200+ crowd inside the small stadium were well up for the match, as were the Morpeth players, and you feared for Bowers initially. Gradually they got back into the game and scored before half time, meaning it was 1-1 at the break and still all to play for.
Bowers saw a player sent off in the second period but were finishing the stronger as Morpeth began to tire, and with time running out Bowers so nearly took the lead, but hit the post. Moments later, deep into stoppage time, Morpeth struck the winner to break Bowers hearts, it was a cruel way to lose such a closely hard fought semi-final, and the dream of Wembley was gone.
As I said, the match was a rollercoaster; from terror when Bowers fell behind so early, to optimism when they levelled after weathering the storm from the hosts, to disbelief when they came a post width away from winning the tie, to absolute despair when Morpeth struck the winner so late on in the contest. At full time my gut feeling was sheer disappointment for Bowers & Pitsea, my mates out on the pitch and in the stands, and afterwards I went onto the pitch to console as many of them as I could, they were all in tears and some were inconsolable. They had come so close to earning a day out at Wembley and after all the club had been through to get this far, it seemed so unfair that this journey was at an end.
I remember one of the Morpeth players trying to console one of the Bowers supporters who was bawling his eyes out after just seeing his team lose in the most dramatic way after coming so close to utter joy. Both teams gained a lot of respect for each other over the course of the tie, and Morpeth were so humble afterwards and couldn’t have been more hospitable if they had tried. I know the Bowers players went out in Newcastle that night, though I politely declined a request for me to join them! I wanted to make it home in one piece the next day if possible!
I had been watching football for several years prior to this anyway but you always learn things along the way. This game certainly teaches you to be humble and gracious in defeat and to be the same in victory too. There must always be a winner and a loser and once the battle is over on the pitch you must congratulate or commiserate your opponents.
As a footnote: I went to Wembley to cheer on Morpeth as they defeated Hereford United 4-1 to lift the Vase, so there was a happy ending for them at least. Remember always stay true to yourself and remain humble and dignified, it will always be respected by others and will always make you better in the long run.
Oh and Bowers won the league later that season to gain promotion.