Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, this weekend sees the beginning of arguably the worlds biggest and most prestigious amateur/semi-professional football competition, the FA Vase.
It is a continuation of what was the FA Amateur Cup which was first contested in 1893 all the way until 1974 when the advent of semi-professionalism in the lower levels of non-league (i.e. the payment of players on a part-time basis) encouraged the FA to scrap the ‘amateur’ moniker. The competition has some very glamorous names in its list of winners including the likes of Middlesbrough, Barnet, Wycombe Wanderers and Wimbledon, all of which have gone on to achieve great success in the Football League.
Today, it is a competition that encompasses all clubs at Levels 9 and 10 and a smattering of Level 11 clubs in the English Football Pyramid, a total of 612 clubs at these levels have entered for the 2020-21 edition all with one dream, to be one of the last two standing that get to play at the country’s grandest stage, Wembley and with that, live TV coverage on BT. A massive chance to showcase your club to the nation and indeed the world.
However in the last 10-15 years, the tournament has seen an unprecedented level of domination from one region and indeed one league in particular, the self-proclaimed second oldest league in the world, the EBAC Northern League.
Each Northern League club that has won the FA Vase has a unique and incredible story and these are told in a brilliant book written by North East non-league journalist Mark Carruthers called ‘Northern Goal’. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for great first hand accounts of some of the North East’s Vase winners ranging from Newcastle Blue Star in 1978 to South Shields in 2017 with accounts from the likes of Jason Ainsley, Billy Irwin and Julio Arca. It’s available on Amazon for £11.99 with all profits going to the IfYouCareShare foundation.
Here though, i’ll look into reasons as to why I think the North East has enjoyed a lot of unprecedented success in recent years as well as a look through the relevant finals.
A PAST TRADITION OF GLORY
To look into it, you have to go back to the FA Amateur Cup. The Northern League was a prominent fixture on the winners podium with its clubs winning 23 of the 71 editions, just shy of its South Eastern counterpart, the Isthmian League, the two leagues enjoying a good rivalry in the competition. Its most famous winners were Bishop Auckland, the record holders with a magnificent 10 wins with fellow Northern League rivals Crook Town in a share of second place with 5 wins alongside the Isthmian League’s most successful side in the competition, Clapton. the last Northern League winners were North Shields in 1969.
Bishop Auckland’s success is well documented and is fondly thought of from Manchester United fans. Bishops had just completed an unprecedented threepeat in 1957 when the Munich air disaster occurred. To help United complete their remaining fixtures, Bishops loaned them three players including former Great Britain olympic captain Bob Hardisty. They helped United to a respectable 9th place finish in the league and reach the FA Cup final where they lost to Aston Villa.
The appreciation for Bishops contribution has lasted ever since with United sending a team to Bishops’s old Kingsway ground for a fundraising friendly in 1996 and the current floodlights at their new Heritage Park stadium being donated by United.
As I stated though, the Northern League accounted for more than just Bishop Auckland winning it, with Crook Town (5 times), Stockton FC (3 times), Middlesbrough (twice) and also single time winners North Shields, West Hartlepool (now Hartlepool United) and Willington all finding a place on the honours list.
DOMINATION IN THE FA VASE, A REASON OF GEOGRAPHY
As one could imagine, it took a while for semi-professionalism to hit the Northern League, they were reportedly offered multiple times to join their former amateur rivals the Isthmian League to become a direct feeder to the Alliance League (now the National League) which was created in 1979. But instead it chose to stick to its amateur roots until the early 1990’s when its position meant it had to become part of the pyramid. And when that came, the chance to be a conference feeder was long gone and instead, the league was to be a feeder to the Northern Premier League.
One redeeming feature of the success in the FA Vase is the lack of promotion from Northern League Clubs (and North East clubs in general) into non-league’s upper echelons ever since the formation of the Alliance League. Many reasons have been stated for this but a prominent one has been about money, or more specifically the increased costs that come with competing in the NPL and above. Back when the NPL created its Division 1 in 1987, any Northern League club that wished to be promoted would have faced a huge increase in travel commitments.
In the Northern, the furthest trips at the time would have been to the likes of Penrith and Gretna whereas the next division up saw potential trips to outposts like Staffordshire (Eastwood Hanley & Leek Town), Nottinghamshire (Sutton Town & Eastwood Town) and Derbyshire (Alfreton Town) with the nearest away day being down in Harrogate. So looking at that, its little wonder Northern League sides were weary of going up. infact this list of clubs the North East promoted into the NPL up until the introduction of enforced promotion in 2018 makes for sparse reading.
This resulted for many years in the lack of North East clubs within the upper echelons of the pyramid. This I also believe is a big reason for the success of Northern League clubs in the FA Vase. Let’s take the North West as an example. If a player cannot make it at a Premier League side through their academy, then they have plenty of options, for instance, Championship football at the likes of Preston or Blackburn, League One at the likes of Accrington Fleetwood, Crewe, Rochdale and Wigan, League Two at the likes of Morecambe, Tranmere, Salford, Bolton or Oldham, and even beyond there, a plethora of non-league sides at Steps 1-4, its safe to say the North West is very well represented in the top 8 tiers.
In contrast, for the 2012-13 season, after the demise of Darlington, the North East and North Yorkshire had just EIGHT clubs in English Football’s top EIGHT tiers (Newcastle United, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool United, York City, Harrogate Town, Whitby Town and Blyth Spartans). For a lot of the region’s best talent, if one couldn’t get a spot at any of those 8 sides, there was pretty much no place to go apart from the Northern League.
The seeds of the Northern League’s domination of the Vase began I feel in 1996-97 with Whitby Town’s 3-0 win over North Ferriby United. They would also that season be the last Northern League club to take promotion to the NPL for nearly 10 years. From there, the next 2 years saw Northern League sides reach the final, Tow Law Town (1998) and Bedlington Terriers (1999), both lost out to Western League side Tiverton.
Bedlington would go into deep runs for the following two years reaching the Semi-Finals in 2001 before Whitley Bay won their first Vase in 2002 beating Tiptree in the final. For the next 6 years, many Northern League sides would make deep runs in the competition with 2004 being the only occasion where not one Northern League side managed to reach the last 16, the only time that has happened in the 24 years since Whitby won the competition. These includes the likes of Billingham Synthonia and Jarrow Roofing (both semi-finalists) plus Norton & Stockton Ancients and Crook Town (both quarter-finalists).
WHITLEY BAY’S THREEPEAT INSPIRING OTHERS
Then came the 2008-09 season, and the beginning of legendary achievements by Whitley Bay, themselves a Northern League club who took the plunge and accepted promotion into the NPL in 1988 before returning to the Northern League 12 years later. They had suffered a heart-breaking semi-final defeat to Lowestoft Town the year before.
Little did fans know it back then but their 2nd round win over Abbey Hey in November 2008 was the beginning of an over three year unbeaten run in the competition, a run that would last 3 years and 3 months until a 5th round loss to West Auckland Town in February 2012. Their three finals are all memorable, most notably their 6-1 demolition of Wroxham in 2010, arguably the most dominant Vase final win in the history of the competition. That game saw Paul Chow score what was at the time the quickest goal ever scored at the new Wembley Stadium finding the net after just 21 seconds. It lasted until 2018 when Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen took 11 seconds to score against Manchester United in a league game.
Yes Whitley Bay’s run of glory ended with that aforementioned 5th round loss in 2012 but in terms of the Northern League’s domination of the tournament, things were only beginning. West Auckland Town would go on to become part of the competition’s first ever all Northern League final as they faced Dunston. A pair of Andrew Bulford goals saw Dunston lIft the cup. It was then Spennymoor Town’s turn the next year as Gavin Cogdon and Keith Graydon goals saw off Tunbridge Wells. West Auckland Town then had a chance to make up for the 2012 disappointment by reaching the 2014 final but they would lose 1-0 to Wessex League champions Sholing.
North Shields helped return the Vase to the north east in 2015 after a pulsating extra time win over Glossop North End but up till this point, the region’s success in the competition was largely under the radar from a national standpoint. That would all change in 2016.
MORPETH AND SOUTH SHIELDS, CEMENTING THE LEGACY
To combat low attendances at the FA Vase and Trophy finals, the FA introduced a new format called ‘Non-League finals day’ for 2016 where both the Vase and Trophy finals would take place on the same day. Coupled with that was live coverage of the event on BT Sport which finally brought non-league’s showpiece games into the national and international spotlight.
The Northern League were represented once again, but this time by Morpeth Town, a club who just 5 years previously languished at the bottom of the Northern League’s 2nd Division and only escaped relegation out of the league due to a lack of promotion applicants from below, since then under manager Nick Gray, they went on a wonderful run of success which led to their appearance in the Vase final.
Their opponents though were Hereford, a phoenix club formed the previous summer from the remnants of former EFL side Hereford United. They had rebounded magnificently winning the Midland League with 108 points losing just 4 games. And with their status, they got the majority of the publicity also selling an astonishing 22,000 tickets which was a signal as to the size of the club. As such, Hereford were installed as heavy favourites.
However, this game would be the first time, the Northern League’s domination of the tournament was finally laid bare for the nation to see as Morpeth recovered from a goal down to dismantle Hereford by a 4-1 scoreline which could well have been even more. It was a demolition that shocked the watching pundits but not the Northern League regulars who knew full well the standard of the football they were watching every week in their league.
Then came the 2017 edition where South Shields gave the Northern League its 8th triumph in just 9 years with a 4-0 win over Cleethorpes Town. To many people, the Whitley Bay Vase Threepeat side of 2009-2011 is the best Northern League side to have won the FA Vase, and I am in full agreement with that fact. But without doubt, (and I say this in a totally unbiased way) South Shields were the strongest team to represent the Northern League in a Vase final, and with it, they were arguably the ultimate peak of Northern League success in the competition.
Why? Well the squad was choc full of talent that had won the competition in previous years. Gavin Cogdon, Andrew Stephenson and Wayne Phillips had won in 2013 with Spennymoor and goalkeeper Liam Connell won with Dunston in 2012. Not only that, there was Robert Briggs who was a losing finalist with West Auckland in 2014. Also there was Carl Finnigan who featured in Falkirk’s Scottish Cup final defeat to Rangers in 2009 and also Gateshead legends Jon Shaw and Craig Baxter (the latter featured in Gateshead’s conference final defeat to Cambridge in 2014). And all that doesn’t include former Sunderland and Middlesbrough favourite Julio Arca. It was a phenomenal team Shields had assembled.
WHAT OF NOW?
Since South Shields’s 2017 win, the re-organisation of the English Football Pyramid brought about the introduction of enforced promotion from step 5 to step 4. With clubs no longer being able to refuse promotion out of the Northern League and being threatened with relegation to Step 6 if they did (a fate that befell Andover Town in 2018).
So presumably, this could end up spelling the end of the Northern League’s domination of the Vase, with more North East clubs going on to populate the upper parts of non-league and with it, the regions best non-league players having a higher level at which to play. Which is why when Stockton Town reached the final in 2018, a few people (including myself) had a thought that they could be the last finalists for a while from the region. They ended up losing 1-0 to Thatcham Town. Then the 2019 edition seemed to confirm my thoughts as it became the first Vase final to not feature a Northern League side in 11 years. In that, Chertsey Town needed extra time to dispatch Cray Valley PM. Chertsey themselves knocked out the last remaining Northern League side, beating West Auckland in the Quarter-Finals.
However, 2020 sees the Northern League return to the showpiece with a bang. Both Consett and Hebburn Town will contest the second all Northern League Final after both won their delayed semi-finals. It’s a clear sign that the league is not yet ready to let go of its addiction to success in the FA Vase. They were due to play the final at the end of this month but the recent upsurge in cases of Covid-19 forced the FA to postpone to as yet an unspecified date.
Overall, yes the region’s best non-league talent may be leaving the Northern League as the NPL will continue to be populated more by the best the Northern League has to offer, but not yet will they be wanting to let go their grip on the FA Vase. And with promotion last season curtailed thanks to the null and void of the league seasons, Northern league sides will be going in as the teams to beat once again.