Hallmark Security League Premier Division club 1874 Northwich’s hopes of a trip to Wembley are over, after they fell to a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Uhlsport Hellenic League Premier Division side Thatcham Town at a packed Wincham Park in the second leg of the Buildbase FA Vase Semi-Final.
The roller coaster of a journey to reach this stage of the competition will be long remembered by everyone involved at the club, but as it turned out, at the semi- final hurdle 1874 were ultimately outfoxed by wily and well-drilled opponents who took full advantage of the chances that came their way.
On an afternoon of great expectation, the stage was set for a second leg of epic proportions, with Thatcham holding a narrow 1-0 lead from the first leg.
Two clubs with a golden opportunity to make history, led by managers committed to an attacking philosophy, who have guided their sides with distinction during this season’s campaign and who were looking to finish the season on a high with a Wembley final appearance, were all factors to give cause for optimism that a memorable occasion was in the offing.
But for 1874, a tough task became even tougher when Thatcham’s Gavin James scored twice in the opening 22 minutes, although the Greens battled back to reduce the arrears with a Scott McGowan penalty, and finished the first half on the front foot.
However, any hopes of a second revival were pretty much snuffed out when Thatcham’s leading scorer Shane Cooper-Clark delivered a killer blow with a third goal less than two minutes into the second half.
A Matt Woolley header midway through the second half offered a glimmer of hope to 1874, but a well-organised Thatcham side showed admirable guile in seeing the remaining minutes out safely to seal their 4-2 aggregate win.
1874 Northwich joint-manager Paul Bowyer reflected ruefully afterwards on the way the afternoon’s events unfolded.
“I think that over the two legs Thatcham thoroughly deserved to go through, there’s no argument from us”, he told the league`s Ian Templeman. “They are a good side, they set about stopping us playing and knew what we were about. They came and watched us, they knew what we wanted to do and it was like a game of chess.
“On the pitch and off the pitch I think they managed the game better than we did. We’ve no complaints, but we are just devastated to get to a semi-final and go out.
“The goals we have conceded over the two legs have been our downfall, three set plays and a penalty, and you can’t defend like that. In open play they didn’t really create a massive amount against us, so it’s frustrating the manner of the goals we let in.
“At half-time we said that the half time break had come at the wrong time for us, because we were on top. We felt that once we got the penalty, they were a little bit jittery and a little bit panicky just for a few minutes.
“If half-time hadn’t come then I think we could have gone on from there, but it gave them a chance to regroup.
“We felt defensively in both legs they were there to be got at, but in the end it’s them that have gone through, and I think on the day we just fell a little bit short.
“It’s really disappointing but at the same time, great credit goes to the lads for getting this far, and despite the result it’s been a great experience for the club”.
There’s no denying that, despite the disappointment of the result, it was a notable day in the club’s short history, with the town of Northwich responding in numbers to the rallying calls issued by the club during the week to come down and back the team.
On an afternoon when nerves were already on edge, the tension was cranked up further when the decision was taken to delay the kick off 15 minutes, to allow time for those gathered in numbers outside the ground to their places in the stands and on the terraces.
But when the action got underway, it was the band of Thatcham supporters who were first to make themselves heard, when Town took the lead in the third minute although there was an element of good fortune about the goal.
A foul on Thatcham’s Gavin James on the edge of the box offered the first opportunity of the game, and although Shane Cooper-Clark’s free kick straight into the midriff of an 1874 defender was unlikely to have been pre-planned, the ball landed invitingly at the feet of James who stroked the ball into the corner of the net from 8 yards.
It was a devastating early blow, and it got worse for 1874 on 22 minutes when James struck again with a second goal for Thatcham.
Again, it was hardly a goal that could be described as a moment of footballing beauty, with a goalmouth scramble ensuing after the 1874 defence struggled to clear a corner kick, but once again James was in the right place to poke the ball home from close range, before running off to celebrate with the Thatcham supporters behind the goal.
A clearly rattled 1874 nearly conceded a third goal to James two minutes later, when he intercepted a pass back from Ryan Mitchell and bore in on goal, but Greg Hall’s outstretched leg deflected the shot to safety to keep 1874 with a lifeline.
With Thatcham showing composure on the ball and looking dangerous on the counter attack, it looked ominous for 1874, but the Greens were handed a chance to get back into the game three minutes before half time.
Ryan Jackson took a neat touch to take him past a defender before firing in a shot that was beaten out by Thatcham keeper Chris Rackley.
As Jackson attempted to retrieve the ball, he went down under a challenge that the referee appeared to initially rule as good, only to change his mind on the advice of his assistant before pointing to the penalty spot.
Once the Thatcham protests subsided, Scott McGowan made a fine job of burying the penalty into the corner of the net, and the change in fortune galvanised 1874 into a frantic end to the first half, which saw them win four corners in succession.
It appeared the scene was set for an exciting second half, but any hopes of 1874 picking up on the momentum after the break were dashed with a third Thatcham goal within 2 minutes of the restart.
Once again, Gavin James was involved, this time reacting quickly to latch on a long ball forward out of defence, and as he drew 1874 defenders towards him, he slipped the ball neatly into Shane Cooper-Clarke, who beat Greg Hall with a low shot from the edge of the box.
In an attempt to freshen up the attack, 1874 withdrew Sam Hind – twice a Vase finalist in the past with Glossop North End – and brought on Taylor Kennerley, and the pacey wide man began to trouble the Thatcham defence down the right flank.
On the hour, Kennerley tested Rackley in the Thatcham goal after outpacing the visiting defence, and at the midway point of the second half, Kennerley was involved in creating 1874’s second goal.
After again being denied by the keeper, who tipped away a long-range effort for a corner kick, Kennerley took the corner himself, and Matt Woolley timed his run perfectly from deep to power a header into the corner of the net.
It was, however, too little too late and although 1874 did their best to push forward in search of another goal, Thatcham took every opportunity to frustrate and slow the game down, a tactic that included what was probably the longest length of time taken to make a substitution at Wincham Park for many a long day.
It all contributed to 6 added minutes of stoppage time at the end of the half, but it made no difference to the final result which booked Thatcham a place in the final at Wembley on the 20th May against Stockton Town.
Thatcham will play Stockton Town Wembley after winning a dramatic tie against Ebac Northern League First Division rivals Marske United.
Marske were 2-1 winners of a thrilling game featuring no shortage of goalmouth incident, but Stockton won last week’s first leg 2-0, so won the tie 3-2 on aggregate.
Reaching Wembley marks the pinnacle of a club that has risen rapidly since making their first steps in senior football in 2009/10 when they entered the Teesside League.
It is only three years ago they were in the Wearside League, but they are now in the top half of the First Division of the Northern League and looking forward to the Vase final.
Saturday’s game could have gone either way, however, particularly in the closing stages when there were chances at both ends, strong penalty appeals and each team had equalising goals ruled in a thrilling encounter.
Stockton took a two-goal lead into the second leg and should have added to it inside the first 60 seconds.
Striker Fred Woodhouse was one-on-one after a Markse defensive mistake but hit his shot at the keeper Robert Dean with only 22 seconds on the clock.
A goal then would have made for a dramatic start, but there was no let-up in the goalmouth action during frantic opening stages.
The action switched to the other end where Stockton goalkeeper Michael Arthur made his first save, blocking Glen Butterworth’s drive from inside the penalty area with his feet after the Marske man drove into the 18-yard area, the home defence opening up invitingly.
Marske maintained their momentum and took the lead 1-0 on 8 minutes.
It came after a free-kick inside their own half, conceded by Woodhouse, the ball dropped inside Stockton’s penalty area and left-back Liam O’Sullivan was first to react and he slotted home.
The goal made it 2-1 on aggregate to Stockton, but it did not change the dynamic of the encounter, the two teams both continuing to give full commitment in pursuit of the next goal.
Dale Mulligan’s desire certainly could not be questioned, his crunching tackle after a heavy touch delighting the packed crowd at Bishopton Road West.
There was incident at both ends, though clear scoring chances were few.
Stockton right-winger Kevin Hayes got into penalty area, but his low shot saved by Dean, then Marske’s Rowbotham got a toe in to stop Jamie Owens as he lined up a shot.
Right-back Rowbotham lurched forward to fire a shot into Arthur’s midriff, typical of Marske’s first-half chances which, like the first leg, did not seriously test the goalkeeper.
With only a goal between the teams there was little in the contest, until five minutes before the break when Nathan Mulligan held his nerve to put Stockton 3-1 ahead in the tie with a penalty.
It was a spot-kick awarded by the linesman, referee Thomas Bramley hesitant to point to the spot despite Adam Wheatley tripping Hayes.
Mulligan blasted home, the home crowd greeting the goal with a huge roar, knowing their team was now very close to reaching Wembley.
However, Marske were not done yet, and after a scrappy start to the second half they retook the lead with James Fairley scoring a stunning individual goal on 56 minutes.
The move began with midfield metronome Craig Gott inside his own half, he played the ball forward to Chay Liddle who in turn passed it out wide to Fairley.
The winger had plenty to do, a yellow wall of defenders blocking his path to goal, but a path opened up ahead of him as he dribbled at the back-peddling defenders before keeping his composure to score, making it 2-1 to Marske on the day and 3-2 to Stockton on aggregate.
Marske were marginally showing more signs of scoring the next goal, and Fairley made another mazy run soon after scoring, again going deep into enemy territory.
His progress ended in the penalty area, no spot-kick awarded, the winger perhaps fortunate to avoid a booking for simulation.
As Marske searched for another goal they began to throw men forward, and Stockton No. 1 Michael Arthur pulled off a marvellous save to keep his side ahead in the tie.
It was one-handed, Arthur leaping to his right to claw the ball out of the air to stop a header by Curtis Round.
It was a moment symptomatic of the day, as within seconds Jamie Owens chipped the keeper at the other end of the pitch but the ball dropped wide.
Burly Owens led the line on his own for Stockton in the second half, holding the ball up, but he was replaced for the closing stages as Stockton looked to close the game out.
There was a remarkable moment with 15 minutes to go when Stockton ‘scored’ accidentally. Nathan Mulligan volleyed the ball to the Marske goalkeeper from halfway after play had been stopped to allow a player to be treated, but it looped over keeper Deane.
However, the referee utilised a new law implemented this season to quickly rule out the goal, play restarting with a goal kick.
Mulligan was at the centre of the action in the final ten minutes, throwing himself at the ball and blocking shots as Stockton defended as best they could under mounting pressure.
Marske sent defender Leon Carling up front, needing one goal to take the tie into extra-time, and they thought they’d got it when Rowbotham smashed home a half-volley. Marske’s celebrations were premature, however, as the referee ruled it out for a foul on the edge of the Stockton penalty area.
It was just one of a series of dramatic moments at the conclusion of the contest. Stockton appeared to be denied a stonewall penalty when Hayes was tripped, though he should have scored, then Stockton’s Sonni Coleman missed an open goal for an acute angle when Marske were pushing men forward.
Stockton held on during the nail-biting injury time, however, doing enough to secure their place at Wembley.
(Ian Templeman & Ray Simpson)