Sunday 22nd May 2016 was the ‘Day of the Underdog’ – Wembley hosted the first ever Non-League Finals Day, with National League sides FC Halifax Town and Grimsby Town playing for the FA Trophy, and Hereford FC and Morpeth Town in the FA Vase final in one bumper afternoon.
The FA Trophy and FA Vase have for over forty years been the flagship prizes for clubs playing below the Football League. However with attendances for both disappointing in recent years, there were fears the finals could be moved away from the 90,000-seater Wembley Stadium.
In an attempt to arrest that decline, and keep the finals at the home of English football, the idea to play both finals on the same day was born, and rally the non-league community together to celebrate the national game under the famous arch.
So just a day after the FA Cup final, four clubs had their chance to play on the hallowed turf. And by in large the day was a huge success, with a total attendance for the day being 46,781, a vast improvement on the combined total of 24,259 for last year’s two separate finals.
That number was no doubt boosted though by the presence of Hereford FC in the FA Vase final. Much has been written about the sad demise of Hereford United at the end of 2014, and also about the fan-led revival club who in their first season were looking to win an incredible four trophies.
The old club never had the chance to play at Wembley, so for the reformed one to make it in their first season was an incredible achievement. The fans fully embraced their day in north-west London, with over 20,000 in white and black crammed into one corner of the stadium.
They by far dwarfed the smaller contingent supporting their opponents, Morpeth Town, and the noise they created made for a superb atmosphere for the game, even if events on the pitch meant it would be the northerners making all the noise by the end.
Although the majority of the Hereford fans didn’t stay on for the FA Trophy final, their absence was more than made up for by the Grimsby and Halifax fans who by now had made their way into the north side of the stadium. And for both games, it never felt like the atmosphere was being stifled by the sheer size of the arena, a problem in previous years.
The Vase final got off to a lightning start, as the Bulls charged ahead in just the second minute, with a low finish from Rob Purdie giving the favourites the perfect start to the match. Morpeth were having to weather the storm as Hereford continued to boss the opening stages, yet their failure to extend their lead would come back to haunt them.
When their keeper Martin Horsell failed to claim a corner, 45-year-old Chris Swailes chested the ball down towards goal, and although he might not have entirely intended it to be a shot, several Hereford defenders couldn’t scramble it away before the ball crossed the line.
Much was made of his involvement at the ripe old age of 45. And what a day it was for him – scoring a goal, being awarded the man-of-the-match award, and winning a third Vase winners medal (he previous won it with Bridlington Town and Dunston UTS).
If Hereford thought they’d scored early, then Morpeth struck even earlier at the start of the second half to take a lead they would not relinquish. Luke Carr put them ahead, with Sean Taylor soon adding a third to put them well in command.
Hereford just couldn’t find their way back into the match, with even 52-goal striker John Mills unable to make an impact off the bench; Morpeth ensured that the Vase was won by a Northern League club for an incredible sixth time in seven seasons when Shaun Bell got a fourth in stoppage time.
Hereford were more than gracious losers, and it was impressive to see the players remain on the pitch after they collected their medals in order to welcome the winning team back down with a guard of honour. It was a fine symbol of the spirit in which the day was being held.
Once the presentations were over, and a break of around two hours was endured, it was on to the FA Trophy final.
Grimsby were in the unique position of having two Wembley finals on consecutive Sundays, having played and won the National League promotion final against Forest Green the weekend before to secure a return to the Football League after six years away.
This final did not have the same energy to it, with the first half being a dour affair, and more a matter of intrigue. The two sides were a match for each other, perhaps surprising considering the contrasting league seasons of the two – Halifax were relegated from the National League.
There was a sense that they wanted it more than Grimsby, and this became even clearer in the second half. They took the initiative from the off, and took the lead with a superb curling strike from Scott McManus. He would be the hero, although he would have to make the climb up to the royal box on crutches after going on his ankle late in the game.
In the end Grimsby didn’t really do enough to get back in the game. But really they didn’t need to. After their play-off victory, this was just a bonus, and they would have much preferred losing this than be condemned to another season in non-league.
For Halifax it meant the perfect end to a difficult season, and it was a good send-off for manager Jim Harvey, who the club have decided to let go for next season – parallels with a certain Dutchman the day before.
It seems fitting that on a day that celebrated the ‘little men’ of English football that it was the underdogs that won – the small club from Northumberland beating a resurgent lower league powerhouse, and the relegation-bound Shaymen proving a point against a soon-to-be Football League team.
From a neutral perspective the day was a massive success, truly engaged the non-league community, and despite a few teething problems, including running out of programmes before the second match, surely this will now be an annual event. Although the challenge will be how to keep up the momentum, and how to attract big numbers when there isn’t a ‘bigger’ club to bump up the crowd.
And even though the FA might have undermined their own work by scheduling an England game for the game day, there were just under two thousand more people at Wembley than at the Etihad. Whilst there may not have been many who had to choose between one or the other, catering as they were for different audiences, it was still another plus point on a hugely successful day.