Owen Amos reports on how the FA Vase provides an opportunity for smaller clubs to have their moment in the Wembley sun

To understand to whom the FA Vase matters, look at the list of winners. Since 1974-75, the Vase’s first season, 20 of the winners have been suffixed “Town”: from Brigg and Bridlington, to Whitby and Wimborne. By contrast, just two winners – Truro and Winchester – have been Cities.

The Vase is for teams, and places, you’ve never heard of. Places such as Nantwich (Cheshire, population 13,000, winners 2006), Deal (Kent, population 29,000, winners 2000), or Diss (Norfolk, population 7,000, winners 1994). In short, the Vase gives big days to small clubs. It began when the FA Amateur Cup ended. The major names in non-League, like Dagenham and Enfield, entered the FA Trophy (founded for semi-professional clubs in 1969), while smaller clubs – those with more fixtures than fans – entered the Vase. It was a tournament for those who thought Dagenham and Enfield were big boys.

Immediately, though, the Vase got people’s attention: the final was to be played at Wembley. The first final, between Hoddesdon Town and Epsom & Ewell, was watched by just 9,000 fans. But if it was at Luton, Leicester, or even Liverpool, it wouldn’t have worked. With no real prize money, the Vase may have died, squeezed out of already-saturated fixture lists. But Wembley gave it glamour.

Just ask David Hodges, a university student and Glossop North End’s leading scorer on their road to his year’s final. In the Wembley programme (£4), he said: “At our level, it doesn’t get much better than reaching the final of the Vase. A lot of professional players don’t get the chance to play here during their careers, so for us to do it is very exciting.” As, no doubt, is being interviewed for a £4 matchday programme.

These days, the Vase is for clubs at steps five and six: the leagues below the Conference, Conference North and South, and Unibond, Ryman, and British Gas Leagues. This season, more than 500 clubs entered – up from 220 in 1974-75 – and the first qualifying round was in September. Glossop – who, incidentally, played in the Football League First Division in 1899-1900 – won nine ties to reach Wembley. Their fixture list included Sporting Khalsa, Calverton Miners Welfare, Biddulph Victoria and Winterton Rangers, all of whom sound like opponents for Melchester Rovers. But these are real clubs and the Vase is their European run.

Initially, the draw is local, and gradually expands. By the fifth round – like the FA Cup, two before the semis – it’s national. With teams traditionally strong in the north-east and suth-west, some huge journeys are involved . Last season, Whitley Bay (this year’s other finalists) played 2007’s winners Truro – at 462 miles each way, a longer trip than any Football League club has ever faced.

With visitors from exotic outposts, and Wembley near, the fifth round – usually – is when crowds increase exponentially. For Whitley Bay’s 5-2 sixth round win over Biggleswade, the crowd was 1,286. That’s just 130 fewer than Chester City got on the same day, and about 1,000 more than Whitley’s usual attendance. When Glossop reached the sixth round, they were the lead story on the local paper’s front page.

Suddenly, towns remember they have a football team. Wideboys pitch up outside grounds selling T-shirts and scarves – and people buy them. It’s small-town glory; five minutes of fame. In this season’s fifth round, Marske United visited St Ives – 190 miles away – twice. The first time, the game was postponed 20 minutes before kick-off because the pitch was waterlogged. No matter: the few hundred fans from both clubs hit the clubhouse and spent 90 minutes socialising. It’s not something you see in the FA Cup fifth round.

This year’s final, which Whitley Bay won 2-0, attracted 12,000 fans. People who, in March, didn’t know their team existed, suddenly streamed down Wembley Way with flags and facepaint. It would be nice, of course, if they returned in August. The vast majority won’t, but at least they’ve been reminded they could. There’s life down there, and the FA Vase illuminates it.

From WSC 269 July 2009

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