Monday, 23 May 2016

22/05/2016 Review: Morpeth Town vs Hereford and Halifax Town vs Grimsby Town

Morpeth Town 4-1 Hereford (FA Vase Final)
Wembley Stadium [Match 1 of 2]

Sunday 22nd May, the day when history was made as the FA decided to host both the FA Vase and FA Trophy finals back-to-back live from the iconic Wembley Stadium. The day that I'd been waiting for had come upon me and I was ready to set off to London in search of any non-league fan's dream day out at Wembley. With a bag full of beer and a smile on my face, I found myself sat in Basildon train station at 8:55am with an otherwise grumpy bunch of Essex-folk who apparently weren't looking forward to the day as much as me. Spotting no other football fans on the train to London Fenchurch, I started to wonder at what point I would be hit by the inevitable flurry of fans from Hereford, the northern crowds of Halifax and Grimsby faithful and the light sprinkling of over-excited tangerine-coloured Morpethians. So far, the only tangerine-coloured people I'd seen were fresh from the sunbeds of Basildon's town centre.

The starting point for today's almighty adventure
With a trip to Barcelona on the horizon for me, today would be the first of three trips to some of Europe's biggest stadia. Camp Nou and Old Trafford both being on my agenda for the next month, but not to watch Barca or United- I'm not that mainstream. Anyway, back to London and after not planning my route to Wembley I was riding along on the tube hoping to head towards the general direction of the ground, knowing that I was meeting my friend Dean before the games. Upon arrival at Marylebone station I was finally greeted with a mass of fans, of whom at this time were mainly Hereford and Halifax. I was curious to see how many Halifax and Grimsby fans would get to Wembley early to watch what would be considered a warm-up game for them, before their own big final later in the afternoon. For Grimsby, this was a second trip within 8 days to the national ground, after they rose above Forest Green Rovers in the National League play-off final last weekend. I jumped on the train alongside the many supporters and headed for the promised land.

A big day out for the Shaymen
The clear favourites for the day were Hereford and Grimsby, who had both tasted success in the past and would hope to live up to their pre-match expectations by beating their opposition, although everybody knows that any team who has made it to a final will be up for a scrap. Morpeth Town are a relatively unknown team in terms of having national recognition, but the Northern Football League Division One outfit had fought their way into the final from the earliest stage of the competition. A journey that started with a home-tie against Padiham FC back in September had culminated in the biggest day of the club's history. Meanwhile for Hereford, their fans have been hoping and expecting days out at Wembley as a part of their efforts to rise from the ashes of the Midlands League and make their way back to the Football League from where they fell in 2012, alongside my beloved Macclesfield Town. My journey of course was not as long-winded as this one, having only jumped on the bandwagon for the final. I had, of course, been following the competitions and hoping that the Silkmen would make it to the Trophy final, before joining allegiance with Nantwich's great-run to the Semi-Final of the Trophy, which ended against Halifax. The Vase was a competition that had also caught my eye, with Bristol Manor Farm (a favoured team of Partizan Bristle) being a team that I'd followed up until them departing the competition to Morpeth. One Peth fan that I found myself sitting alongside had obviously been doing his pre-match prep, as I saw over his shoulder that he was reading an on-line copy of the official rules of referees- being from the non-league, it often seems the case that the fans know the rules better than some of the officials!

Here we go, here we go, here we go!
As the morning turned to 11am, I hopped off the train and made my way towards my base for the day- the absolutely sublime Wembley Stadium. With the ground starting to become busy, the time had come to meet up with my guest of the day, a Manchester United fan from Eastbourne, Dean. After many failed attempts to meet in various parts of the ground, we finally met outside Entrance F of the stadium- even though we were sitting in Entrance B. We had a quick catch-up and a chat with a beer before walking down to a merch stall down Wembley Way in search of a tee-shirt for Dean. I was sporting my Canvey Island top from my visit there in February, and I was apprehended twice by a fellow Yellow Army fan who was amazed to see the Gulls being represented by more than just herself. Dean, on the other hand, was wearing two thick jumpers on this very warm day and needed something to wear that wouldn't make him look like the sweaty lump of meat he was turning into. We found him a nice Morpeth Wembley shirt and we both grabbed a scarf so that we could be disguised amongst the rest of the Peth fans as friendly locals. And we almost managed to fit in too, until we stood in a part of the ground which we realised afterwards was labelled as a "Dog Relief Area"- I wondered why it was so quiet!

Fitting in as Geordies- minus the Canvey Island shirt and lack of Newcastle Brown
With half an hour until the first kick-off of the day, we headed into the ground and took a look around, taking in some of the "free entertainment" on display. We joined the queue to get a picture with a replica FA Cup, we listened in to a local rapper who had better timing than Tinie Tempah, and supped our over-priced beer. At this stage, the only thing that was non-league about the day was the fans. The Morpeth army were in full-swing now and the excitement had started to his us, but this could not be complete until we walked out into the stadium itself. I always get a tingling feeling when I step out into the sun-glazed pitch and see the pitch for the first time. It is always an unexplainable feeling of joy, amazement and being in one of the greatest places in the world.

Game time- and a few of the Halifax and Grimsby fans had started to filter in
With one-third of Hereford's population expected to attend and cheer on their side, it is safe to guess where a lot of the noise was coming from! As we reached kick-off, both sets of fans were in full-voice and the start of a terrible sore-throat for many was in progress. Hereford set the tempo of the match and within two minutes they had taken the lead. Rob Purdie was given far too much time and space for a cup final game and made the most of the chance with an unstoppable hit which nestled into the net to set the Hereford end alight. Morpeth 0-1 Hereford. My pre-match prediction of 3-1 to Hereford had started well, and despite wanting to see Morpeth lift the Vase, I couldn't help but feel the nerves would get the best of the Wembley virgins.

The Hereford masses couldn't believe the start- and the Peth faithful didn't want to
On the 4-minute mark it was almost 2-0, as the 20,000 Hereford fans thought the ball had flown in again- which led to taunts from the Morpeth crowd who were simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief at not being out of the game so early. As with any nervous start, Morpeth needed a moment to settle and for the first 15-minutes it just wasn't happening. Hereford looked sharp and aggressive, with shot after shot peppering the Morpeth goal. The side who had knocked out both North and South Shields on their run to the final had to carve a chance of their own and avoid being kicked into touch. One large chap sat in front of us burst out with the definite instruction of "put him on his arse, man!" as the Geordie language started to come out to try and encourage the Highwaymen.
Why aye, man!
Alas, it was Hereford who pressed again and a mazy run from midfield led to a strike against the Peth cross-bar. This appeared to be a bit of a wake-up call for Morpeth, who all of a sudden jumped into life and back into the game. Just before the half-hour mark a strike was hit into the side-netting from a Morpeth counter, and seconds later they earned a corner. Morpeth's centre-back powerhouse Chris Swailes, 45 years-young, marched up for the kick and when the ball crossed his path he used his sturdy-chest to conjure up the equaliser. What a moment for the veteran. Morpeth 1-1 Hereford. The game was becoming a true classic and both myself and Dean were now truly inducted as honorary Morpethians. So much so that Deano plucked up the courage to start a chant, which spread around the ground like wildfire. "Morpeeth, Morpeeth, Morpeeth!" was Dean's mispronounced roar, but I don't think anybody noticed.

That's more like it lads, let's see those smiles
As the crowd rallied, so did the players, and it should have been 2-1 by the end of the first-half. Luke Carr pulled the strings out-wide and his pull-back left the goal gaping for his partner. Unfortunately, it squirmed inches wide and left the scores level at the break. Based on the first 20 minutes from Hereford and the last 25 minutes from Morpeth, the score was fair so far and we had thus far witnessed a great game between two of the non-league's finest. We headed into the bar for a half-time pint and this ultimately proved to be a costly error. The queue was so long that by the time we had purchased and downed our pints, we had missed the crucial goal which gave Morpeth the lead. I was actually in the toilet when I heard a roar from within the ground, which led to an outburst of Peth fans running out to see who had broken the deadlock. Luckily, thanks to the joys of the game being televised, we didn't have to run far and as we re-emerged in the bar it was clear to see that Carr had hit home a controlled first-time hit. Morpeth 2-1 Hereford. This led me and Dean to head back out to our seats and try to start various unsuccessful chants. I still don't understand how "we buy any Carr, dot com!" didn't become an instant classic!

Beer Only Lane- it's as if they knew that's what people would want!
Following a dirty lunge from a Hereford player, I did eventually start off a chant of "off, off, off, off!" which the referee wasn't buying. The disgruntled fans soon perked up though as the groundsman, yes the groundsman (and striker), notched a third goal for Morpeth in the 60th minute, to send the fans into ecstasy. Morpeth 3-1 Hereford. The town, supposedly named after the Norman term for "murder path", were well and truly killing off the favourites and it appeared to be of no surprise to them. The fans had always backed their lads to come to Wembley and produce the goods, and barring the poor opening they had done just that. As time ran down, Hereford brought on some fresh-legs to try and force their way back in, but some meaty challenges from former Vase winner Keith Graydon were enough to subdue the pressure. A close effort from an all-out attack almost halved the goal difference for Hereford, but eventually it would prove to increase to three after Bell's deflected hit sealed the deal for Morpeth. Morpeth 4-1 Hereford. No more action followed in terms of goals, and that was that. Game one of two was over and the mighty Morpeth Town had won the Vase. We hung around to watch them lift the silverware and spread the champagne, whilst watching the tonnes of Hereford fans descend from the ground. You cannot help but appreciate the turnout from both sets of fans, but Hereford really did go above and beyond with their support and it is a credit to the club that they travelled in such numbers.

Party time for the Northumberlanders
Halifax Town 1-0 Grimsby Town (FA Trophy Final)
Wembley Stadium [Match 2 of 2]

And with all of the excitement still fresh in the mind of fans, it was hard to believe that we had another feast of football to come in just under two hours. This time though, in the form of non-league heavyweights Grimsby Town and Halifax Town. Throughout the course of the firs match, the stands started to fill with fans who wanted to catch the end of the Vase match, and now we were starting to see some of the fans from Morpeth and Hereford disappear, having had enough excitement for one day. Needless to say that me and Dean were in it for the long-haul and we took our place back in the bar to nibble on a couple of hot dogs whilst we waited for round two. As a Macclesfield Town fan, I felt that I owed it to Halifax to support them in this one, seems as how our draw with them at the end of the season relegated them just a few weekends ago. To test the waters, I told one Halifax fan that I was a Silkmen fan whilst in a queue for beer, to which his response was to pace away from the queue whilst saying "I'm not queueing with him!".

Was it something I said?
Between matches there wasn't too much to do, as I'm assuming Wembley's staff had underestimated the amount of fans who would actually hang around. Either way, there was a bar open so we weren't moaning, and after knocking back a couple more beers we went in search of some more "free entertainment". We found a juggler who was chucking Golden Balls about like a loonatic, and in the end I challenged him to hugely unsuccessful juggle-off. After being humiliated and offending Halifax fans, it was soon time to reassemble in the ground for the Trophy final. As the ground was partially empty at our side, we moved along a bit to find some people to sit with- and in the end found ourselves chatting with Grantham Town's management team. Here to support the non-league finals day like a couple of gents, they were looking forward to a solid display from Grimsby and had predicted a 3-0 pasting to follow-up last weekends win. I had made a pre-match prediction of 2-0 for this one, and it appears that we all had written off the Shaymen. Despite a good half of possession, Grimsby looked a bit lacklustre from the victory against FGR, and it is perhaps safe to say that Halifax wanted it more. The chance to end a relegation-season with silverware is enough to keep the passion flowing and with a couple of ex-Silkmen players in the squad I was pleasantly surprised by the Blues. It was 0-0 at half-time, and the tension of the game meant that a goal was going to be hard to come by. However, Halifax flew out of the blocks in the second-half and in a similar fashion to Morpeth earlier in the day they took the lead with the only goal of the game coming from a worldy from Scott McManus. Halifax 1-0 Grimsby. I had previously singled out Chard Town's opener at Hengrove as my Goal of the Season, but this topped it! A fine goal.

A great goal and well deserved
There were to be no more goals in this tightly-contested tie and Halifax will have been delighted to take the lead. I was happy for them too, and despite being frustrated by the referee Lee Mason and his seeming to not want the game to flow, the game ticked on and both sides looked like they could've grabbed a goal. Hamza Bencherif, who scored the first two goals I ever saw at a live game for Macclesfield against Burton, was solid at the back and was as happy as anyone to see the full-time whistle go. The Yorkshire side had overcome their Lincolnshire foes in this one and ended the season on a high. Grimsby will still be happy to have rejoined the Football League for the upcoming seadon, but they'll also know that they will need to play much better than today if they hope to stay there.
The Halifax fans at last had something to smile about
After watching the lads collect the Trophy, me and Dean departed the ground and headed off in our separate ways home. Until the next time, cheers for the great day out Wembley, we had a blast!

Up the Morpeth!

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