Sensible pricing meant improved attendances at the non-League finals
31 May ~ Well, how wrong can you be? In hindsight, my diatribe about hosting both the FA Vase and Trophy finals at Wembley on the same day looks needlessly miserable. In the event, a Finals Day attendance of 46,781 (around a third from Hereford) will see the experiment judged a success.
The crowd was 21,000 more than the combined Vase and Trophy figure last year. Attractive prices, with the double header ticket £5 cheaper than for last year's Trophy final, are an idea that might catch on in NW9. And “Kids for a Quid” showed that the FA, possibly stung by last year's low crowds, had made efforts to fix things
Not that all the fans watched all the football. Morpeth (and their supporters) left pretty quickly after the 4-1 win over their fancied opponents, while the defeated Hereford hordes vacated Wembley almost immediately – long homeward journeys, crushing disappointment or the promise of cheaper food and drink (beer was £5 a pint in the stadium) depriving the second game of a bigger crowd.
A rapid rise up the pyramid is Hereford's priority, with the Vase a mere staging post and Wembley defeat hopefully a fading memory a few years hence. Morpeth, in the determinedly parochial Northern League, no doubt prefer local dominance over stretched finances and national exposure; a set of priorities that at least keeps them solvent – more than can be said for some clubs at this level.
Back in the stadium, and thanks to the seating arrangements, there was no problem entering or exiting Wembley, though it might have been different had the first game gone to extra time and penalties. Irritatingly, there was no “pass out” system between finals, and four hours of captivity ensured the overpriced (and limited) food and drink stalls did a good trade, smuggled sandwiches notwithstanding.
One bonus was seeing the 45-year-old Chris Swailes, a veteran of four heart operations, become the oldest goalscorer in a Wembley final as he claimed Morpeth's equaliser. Thanks to the north-east's domination of the competition and circulation of squads, five of the Northumberland club's final XI had Wembley experience with neighbouring team, making Midland League champions Hereford's pre-match favourites tag look ill-informed at best.
At present, Hereford are a non-League club wrapped in a famous name; something that fooled the pre-match pundits. Morpeth rode their opponents’ early storm – Hereford started like a train, going a goal up inside two minutes and missing two more clear chances before Swailes replied – with cool heads and Wembley experience carrying the Northumbrians through.
The Trophy final was poor by comparison; the game an afterthought for the Lincolnshire section of Wembley after Grimsby's play-off win the week before. The sole highlight was the Halifax winner; a looping 20 yarder from Scott McManus, with the Mariners missing the few chances they created. Shaymen manager Jim Harvey's triumphal uppercut sliced the Wembley air at full time, but it was a last hurrah, as his contract wasn't renewed the following week. A narrow failure to keep Halifax up saw him replaced by Billy Heath – the man who led North Ferriby to Trophy success last year.
On this evidence, non-League finals day will be repeated next year, with the FA no doubt hoping for similar big hitters to take the field. And while my inner curmudgeon yearns for an end to the play-offs and a restoration of status to non-League's showpiece events, it is unlikely to happen. In the meantime, this new double-header has the makings of a decent institution. Paul Caulfield