I always breathe a sigh of relief when the season ends. Finally I get my Saturdays back – I can have a bit of a rest and the football admin takes a bit of a backseat (well the matchday stuff at least). And yet I always miss it almost straight away – and go on the hunt for random matches to prolong the season. This year I managed to wangle tickets for Non League Finals Day at Wembley: the FA Vase and FA Trophy finals.
The night before Wembley was Eurovision, which necessitated a few beers (from the seemingly limitless supply in my pantry) and a late night. I love Eurovision and it’s on my bucket list to go one year (next year?) so watch this space! But I wasn’t feeling my best the following morning.
Earlier in the week I had contacted AFC Fylde to enquire what route they were taking to Wembley (M6 or M6 Toll) and would they mind picking us up en route. However they didn’t reply. Come to think of it, they didn’t reply to my enquiry about tickets for Brett Ormerod’s testimonial (which they hosted in 2016), either. AFC Fylde, if you’re reading this, have you blocked me? Is this because I didn’t interview David Haythornthwaite for the Blackpool fanzine in 2006?
Consequently it was a public transport job to Wembley. Now I know for a fact (having been loads of times with Blackpool) that there are direct trains from Birmingham to Wembley on a matchday – but these trains don’t materialise on the timetable until the week of the match. I’d found advance single tickets for £27 but they were indirect. I waited and waited and eventually telephoned Chiltern Trains to ask how to buy tickets for the direct trains (which were now showing on a special timetable but weren’t appearing on the ticket purchase timetables). I was advised to buy a £31.40 off peak return as a walk-up fare on the day. I didn’t grumble at the extra cost for reduced faff.
It was only in the days leading up to the game that I realised had failed to factor in transport to Birmingham. Being a Sunday, public transport was non-existent before 9am. What to do? Pam kindly offered to drive us to Lichfield Trent Valley to catch a train into Birmingham.
When Pam picked me up at 0825, I was regretting not bringing any food or, more pertinently, water to quell my dehydration. With a tight connection in Birmingham, it was doubtful that I’d have time to pick anything up there. Indeed, after a brisk walk and short sprint across from New Street to Moor Street, by the time we settled down on the train to Wembley Stadium, I was parched. I’d also forgotten to buy tickets for this train, so I delayed the train manager with conversation while I ordered the tickets on the Trainline app on my phone:
‘Are there refreshments available on this train?’
‘No, I’m afraid not, madam.’
Wot no refreshments? I hadn’t had to suffer such conditions on a long-distance train since that wretched (if scenic) local service to Swansea. And the least said about the train in Poland on our overland trip to Riga the better.
Pam saved the day by whipping out a bag of fruit, which we shared on the journey. I tried to distract myself from my thirst with my Kindle, munching on the occasional strawberry as I researched a few novels to inspire the one I’ve just started writing (I’m very excited about this project!).
We arrived at Wembley Stadium at 1130 and followed the excellent signage to Entrance F. Our tickets were for the AFC Fylde end. Whilst I’ve no particular allegiance to AFC Fylde (other than hailing from the Fylde Coast, obvs), I’d not even heard of the two teams participating in the FA Vase final – Chertsey Town and Cray Valley – and I of course had to favour our Fylde Coast neighbours over Leyton Orient. As we approached the stadium we heard the familiar sound of horns blaring, which brought back happy memories of Wembley visits past with Blackpool. Today was only an echo of that, though, with far fewer supporters here in time for the 1215 kick off for the FA Vase Final. My nose alerted me to food kiosks even before they appeared at the top of the hill. Oh my I was hungry now! I chuckled at the merch stalls advertising commemorative scarves for ‘TROPHEY FINAL 19-05-19 FLYNDE’ (I must put the number for the spelling and grammar police in my phone). As we continued around the outside of the stadium we passed – I kid you not – a full band, including a man with a tuba. Surely he wasn’t going to be allowed in the ground with THAT?! But we supposed he must have cleared it with the stadium managers before he arrived. That said, we saw (or heard) no sign of him in the ground, so perhaps not.
One of my pre-match rituals these days is to visit the Ladies toilets and review them for @nonleaguetoilet on Twitter. Whilst Wembley is not technically a non-league ground, this was, after all, Non League Finals Day, so I decided it counted for review purposes. And how could I not review facilities with a half-eaten pork pie decorating the sink area (don’t worry, I wasn’t THAT hungry) – and flush buttons that required unreasonable force to activate (I almost fractured two of my fingers).
By the time we entered the stadium (via magic turnstiles operated by QR code) and had an unexpected frisk (who doesn’t like a good frisk?), food and water were a priority. And of course it’s ultra difficult to eat healthily in a football ground. Or cheaply at Wembley Stadium. This was my punishment for not being prepared for today’s outing. Dear reader, largely as a consequence of my travels recorded in these blog posts, I’ve been spending more than I’ve been earning lately. In a bid to reverse this trend, I’ve been meticulously recording on a spreadsheet every penny I spend, to (a) see where it all goes; and (b) give some serious consideration to cost-cutting measures I can instil. It’s been going really well…at least until today. I’ll give you the total outlay later (make sure you’re sitting down). But for now, breakfast was a bottle of water (poured into a plastic glass in the way that I’d forgotten happens at some football grounds) – and quite the messiest cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten. Well, I say eaten, but quite frankly I ended up licking most of it off my fingers, sucking a good amount off my hair and wiping the rest off my face with copious napkins. I recommend you never watch me eat; I’ve never got the hang of it. But blimey these burgers were practically liquid. Nice, though, if small and expensive (obvs).
We located our seats and settled down to watch the FA Vase Final. The Chertsey and Cray fans were seated in the opposite side of the stadium to where we were sitting (in the Fylde end). There weren’t many in our end for the Vase final and we felt a bit removed from the atmosphere (the numerous Chertsey fans were having a ball). We’d come to be grateful for that later… Meanwhile we got chatting with the man behind us, a fellow non-league volunteer from our Midlands neighbours AFC Wulfrunians.
As the game kicked off, I decided it was high time I did some research into who on earth these teams were. Dear reader, my research was quite fruitful. I first looked up Cray (we had decided we were supporting them as they had far fewer fans here today) – and was delighted to discover their full name is Cray Valley Paper Mills. They play in green and white, the colour of the mill’s vehicles. They play at The Badgers Sports Ground, which conjures up images of badgers having a sports day (a bit like The Wombles do at Wimbledon, of course). Chertsey Town are nicknamed the Curfews, which piqued our curiosity as we wondered if they used to be a prison team. However Wikipedia revealed that ‘Chertsey Town’s nickname, the ‘Curfews’ is derived from a locally famous bell that hangs in the nearby St. Peters Church. The bell has rung out the evening curfew, now only ceremonially, for over five hundred years.’
Once The Millers had settled down, they were the better side, but honours were even at half-time, as they’d failed to hold onto their lead. I was ready for a beer now, having clocked several real ale outlets on the concourse. There were four beers on sale at The Sportsman’s Arms kiosk: Ledbury Gold, St Austell CF185, Hobgoblin and EPA. At a whopping £5.30 a pint for each beer, I resolved to get the most I could for my money and opted for the strongest beer at 4.5% ABV.
The second half couldn’t separate the sides, who increasingly looked scared to attack and lose possession for fear of losing. The game was set for extra time. I headed back to the concourse (where AFC Fylde fans were now starting to trickle in) for more water and was thrilled to find Maltesers on sale (although less thrilled at the price at £4).
Extra time saw Chertsey come out 3-1 victors. I was sorry for The Millers, who had had the best of the play. I sought solace in a pint of Camden Ink Stout (£5.60 a pint and too heavy for my Eurovision-weary palate today). With over an hour to kill before the FA Trophy final, I used the time to meet up for the first time with a couple of my new North West Counties Football League colleagues, who were most amiable, as of course people from the North West tend to be. Pam and I then took some time to amble up and down the concourse to see what else they had on offer. We found Krispy Kremes, Mr Whippy and a super-sized pick’n’mix. Sadly the fish and chip kiosk was closed today. I suspect it would only have disappointed me anyway (you know I’m particular about these things and there’s not a cat in hell’s chance they’d have had Proper Northern Gravy). I ended up having another cheeseburger but mercifully this one was of a normal consistency and was consumed without trouble or mess.
As we headed back up from the now busying concourse into the stand for the FA Trophy final (AFC Fylde v Leyton Orient), we saw that the ground had filled up considerably in the stands that had only housed a handful of dispersed spectators during the first match. The Orient fans filled three tiers of one-quarter of the ground (an estimated 23,000) and Fylde were well-supported too, in a crowd of 42,962. There was a good number of neutrals (like ourselves) in the crowd too and, as the match tickets covered both finals, some spectators stayed to watch both matches. The stand we were sitting in was much busier now and the Fylde fans around us were in fine voice (actually, no, in fact one young lad was caterwauling painfully – you know that pitch that really hurts your ears? – so perhaps ‘fine voice’ isn’t appropriate here. Let’s instead say ‘they were singing throughout’).
I enjoyed their renditions of ‘Stand up if you love the Fylde’, which saw Fylde fans rising to their feet across the stadium, with the rippling effect of a Mexican wave. These Fylde fans sure were enjoying themselves. And yet I felt uncomfortable directly amongst them, wondering if this was because these weren’t my own football family and this wasn’t my team they were singing about. Certainly I felt removed from them, like I was on the outside, which might explain why I felt more comfortable when the particularly exuberant Fylde fans mercifully moved away and all gathered together in a different section of the ground. They were much more palatable up there, as we observed them from a short distance thoroughly enjoying their day out. A man sitting in front of us with two young children kept looking up enviously at the growing group of singing Fylde fans. We could tell he was dying to go up and join them. Instead he eventually stood up and started singing heartily on his own as the excitement overtook him.
I’m impressed by how AFC Fylde have grown over recent years, and was gobsmacked to see the excellent quality of their training facilities in this revealing vlog by fellow Seasider Lee Charles – this really puts Blackpool’s current training facilities to shame (not that they need much help in that regard!):
I did visit AFC Fylde’s ground at Mill Farm for Brett’s testimonial (I did get my ticket in the end!) and really enjoyed the facilities there, including a great bar and hospitality lounge, where I remember enjoying a cracking pint (or two) of Bowland Hen Harrier. That was a great day out. I have no recollection of how I got to the ground (it’s in the sticks a bit, in true non-league stylee, so I must have had a lift). Anyway it’s worth a visit if you ever find yourself over Kirkham & Wesham way.
Oh, the match? Fylde dominated and were worthy 1-0 winners, courtesy of a cracking free-kick from Danny Rowe (who ‘scores on every ground’, apparently). We stayed to watch the players climb the stairs to the Royal Box (which, as Pam pointed out, must be difficult after playing 90/120 minutes of football – especially if you’ve lost). We were disappointed that the Fylde mascot – a prominent figure during the afternoon and very much in the midst of the celebrations on the pitch – didn’t follow the Fylde team up to the Royal Box. We couldn’t figure out quite what type of bird he was supposed to represent. Perhaps a seagull? Does anyone know? I’d ask AFC Fylde directly but…
As we walked downhill back to Wembley Stadium station, passing a solitary Orient fan wearing a red and white jester’s hat, walking around in a daze, we were struck by the sheer volume of construction taking place, both directly surrounding the stadium and stretching way beyond towards the horizon. Expect a much-changed landscape on your next visit to Wembley, dear reader.
We managed to make the 1845 train to Birmingham and I settled back to record my adventures here for you. As always when I write, the journey was over in a flash. The transfer across Birmingham was once again perfect, with our train back to Lichfield on the platform waiting to depart just as we got there. We were back in Lichfield by 2115.
As we strolled back to the car, we mused that we’d thoroughly enjoyed our day out at Wembley (Pam’s first visit there) and would certainly return for Non League Finals Day in the future. It’s a lovely day out, the stadium isn’t rammed like it is for league play-offs (although, with hindsight, perhaps queues at the kiosks would have been a good thing!). I totted up my spending on food and drink at Wembley today (bearing in mind I was inside the stadium from 1145-1830, so a long day) – and was shocked but not surprised to see the final tally (for two cheeseburgers, a bag of Maltesers, two bottles of water and three beers) was £35.80. Lesson well and truly learned to be more organised when it comes to food and drink when returning to Wembley. That aside, however, it had been a grand day out – and it was lovely to be part of a celebration of non-league football at one of the greatest stadiums in the world. With ticket prices for this event reasonably-priced (see below – and bear in mind two cup finals are included in these prices), I’d recommended it as an addition to your footballing calendar.
Non League Finals Day (FA Trophy & FA Vase Finals)
Concession (OAP/Student): £10.00
Child (Under-16): £1.00
Group Bookings (9+ people):
Concession (OAP/Student): £5.00
Child (Under-16): £1.00