Competition dominated by Conference National clubs over recent years
27 March ~ With so many ex-League clubs in non-League's upper reaches, it's easy for the FA Trophy final to catch the eye of the casual fan. This year, Wrexham, now in their seventh season in the Conference, are favourites, against North Ferriby United from a division below.
Playing in the Trophy is just one of the adjustments faced by relegated sides. The competition, devised in 1969, was aimed at semi-professional clubs excluded from the FA Amateur Cup, and finally gave Macclesfield, Scarborough and other powerful non-League sides their own national tournament. Clubs from the allegedly tougher Northern Premier League won nine of the first ten finals, though Conference Premier clubs now dominate the competition. Before North Ferriby's success this season, only two finalists in the past decade (Grays and Gosport) had come from outside non-League's top tier.
Wrexham's defeat of Grimsby in the 2013 final showed their commitment to the competition, while Humberside-based Ferriby – quarter-finalists last year – will join only three other clubs to have appeared in both Vase and Trophy finals. For a club from a village of less than 4,000, it is a notable achievement. Even so, there's something indecent about reaching a Wembley final on penalties; the sense of a valuable occasion too cheaply bought. But that's how Ferriby overcame Bath in the semis, with the shootout described – inevitably – as “dramatic" on the club website.
The other semi-final paired Wrexham and Torquay (Wrexham won 5-1 on aggregate) and deprived the FA of the game, and the Wembley crowd, they probably wanted; Wrexham's previous final (with Grimsby, two year ago) pulled in 35,000. But at least Ferriby's presence reminds us that this is a non-League match. Recent finals – Darlington v Mansfield, York v Newport – had the feel of a poor man's Football League Trophy, so it is refreshing that both Wrexham boss Kevin Wilkin (ex-Nuneaton Town) and Ferriby's Billy Heath, who won the Northern Counties East League with Bridlington Town, have impeccable non-League credentials.
Heath has praised goalkeeper Adam Nicklin, whose performance in the third round win at Farnborough's Paddy Power Park (yes, really) he described as “unbelievable”. Nicklin justified his billing with two saves in the shootout against Bath, and will be the busier of the two custodians if the match goes to form. For his part, Wilkin will hope to repeat the Trophy success of Wrexham predecessor Andy Morrell, but not the run of form that saw him resign 11 months later.
Though the absence of both finalists from the play-offs may attract more to this game, BT's live coverage and Ferriby's small support (their record crowd is less than 2,000), could have the FA nervously eyeing the attendance figures, and wincing at acres of empty red seats. On-the-day admission of £30 will not attract the floating fan, while the Brazil v Chile fixture at the Emirates the same afternoon is another distraction the fixture could do without.
As for the outcome, status and resources suggest another victory for Wrexham's full-timers. In Louis Moult, the club have a physical striker capable of unnerving defences (he currently tops Wrexham's goals and fouls league), while Black Country-born captain Dean Keates – one of four survivors from the 2013 final squad – will add Wembley experience. If North Ferriby have a match-winner, it could be St Kitts international and ex-Darlington winger Jason St Juste, who scored one and created the other in the 2-2 draw at Bath in the semi-final first leg.
Whatever the odds (and they were 11-4 on before the semi-finals), the stakes are high for Wrexham, who followed defeat to Newport in the 2013 play-off final with 17th place in the Conference a year later. With the club in lower mid-table, promotion is out of reach, and defeat to North Ferriby could presage something far worse. Wrexham, who plan to celebrate the club's 150th anniversary at Wembley, will hope it doesn't become a wake. Paul Caulfield