Tomorrow sees the first leg of the Buildbase FA Vase Semi-Final that will decide which team represents the Ebac Northern League in May’s final.
Marske United and Stockton Town are just 180 minutes away from Wembley.
Both clubs have gone further in the competition than they’ve ever been before, and it was only two short seasons ago that Stockton were plying their trade in the Wearside League.
The two-leg semi-final is already generating national media coverage and whoever wins is likely to be the favourite to lift the trophy in two months’ time.
The players know each other well and the two managers are close friends, chatting on the phone most days of the week.
It’s the biggest brace of games Marske manager Carl Jarrett has faced. He said: “When we won the league four years ago we didn’t have one game that we had to win, it was done over months. I’m really looking forward to it, but I do get butterflies. I know a lot of people involved at the Stockton club and it’s going to be a tough couple of matches.”
And he isn’t too concerned about the home advantage that Stockton has by playing on their artificial turf. “We do a lot of our training and preparation on 4G pitches and we haven’t been beaten for three years on artificial turf. I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage for them.
“All that matters is that we prepare the team correctly and go out and do the best we can and if Stockton come out winners, we’ll shake hands and wish them all the best for the final.”
The team will be different from the starting eleven for their game against Team Northumbria on Monday, but there will be constant changes to their line-ups for the rest of the season as they still have eighteen league matches to play.
Strikers tend to grab the headlines, but he pointed out that they’ve been strong defensively. “We’ve done really well to keep clean sheets in six of the last seven games.
For Stockton Town Michael Dunwell, it’s the biggest game of his managerial career: “Every Vase game from the Second Qualifying Round onwards has been the biggest game. We’re just looking forward to it and we want the game here – there’s been a lot of talk about it, especially now that both legs have been switched to our ground.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why the two clubs agreed to the switch – they just want the game on rather than it dragging on.
“I’m not sure if playing both games at ours is an advantage, the only slight advantage is that perhaps there will be more Stockton fans at the games. Marske are a good footballing side so it will be two good games on a good surface rather than a battle.
“Beforehand it’s a combination of looking forward to it and being a little bit nervous – so far I’ve been more nervous playing Northern League teams in the Vase than clubs from outside the area. The players know each other and I’m good friends with Carl. We chat most days, but we’ve got to put friendship to one side.
“Whatever the result, we’ll have pint afterwards and whoever wins, we’ll wish each other all the best for the final.”
Stockton has a full squad available for tomorrow`s first leg. “Training and preparation have gone to plan. One of our coaches has prepared a dossier – even though it’s Marske and we know all about their game. It helps the players focus on their job.”
Another page in the story of 1874 Northwich’s remarkable season is set to be written in the market town of Thatcham Town tomorrow.
The Hallmark Security League Premier Division club and their customary large travelling support will head south to the Berkshire town, where the Uhlsport Hellenic League Premier Division outfit await their arrival for the first leg of their semi-final.
While 1874 will make the journey in confident mood, that optimism will no doubt be tempered with the knowledge that their opponents on the next two Saturdays are a formidable force to be overcome if a Wembley appearance is to be achieved.
A glance at their league position reveals that they are currently in second place, two points off the league leaders Highworth Town having played thirty-one games. But a goal difference of plus 75, 98 goals scored with only 23 conceded, suggests that they are a team not to be taken lightly.
As those statistics suggest, they are flying at the moment with their last defeat in any competition coming back in October and in Shane Cooper-Clark they have one of the most prolific goalscorers in non-League football this season.
His 45 goals in forty-four appearances have put him at the top of the Hellenic Premier Division scorers tables, and a measure of his importance to the team is probably best illustrated by the fact that Thatcham’s next highest scorer Josh Helmore is on 12 goals for the season.
Another of Thatcham’s important players has had a unique insight into 1874 Northwich in the lead up to the game.
Warrington-born Lewis Brownhill is the brother of Joel Brownhill who plays for Ashton Athletic, and with Joel having made three appearances for Athletic against 1874 this season, most recently last week at Brocstedes Park, his observations will no doubt have been sought.
It promises to be a fascinating encounter in front of an all-ticket sell-out crowd at Thatcham’s Crookham Hill ground, and 1874 Northwich joint-manager Paul Bowyer summed the feelings in the Greens camp.
“Everyone at the club’s been looking forward to the semi-final since we beat Leighton in the last round. Credit to the lads, as they’ve remained focused and prepared in the right manner for the league games that we have managed to play since the quarter-final.
“The level of excitement has been building all week and we’ll make sure we do everything right in the lead up to Saturday.
“The lads are used to travelling long distances now, so they won’t be fazed, and we’ll give them every opportunity to know as much about Thatcham as we can.
“We know what we’re up against – they’re on a long unbeaten stretch dating back to October and are strong all over the park. But we’ve assembled a decent squad who have stayed together all season and are a tight-knit unit.
“They’ve been brilliant all season, and with a bit of quality and luck over the two legs you just never know.
“Our supporters are travelling down in great numbers again and we hope they’ll have a memorable day out and enjoy the occasion.
“We’ve been inundated with good luck messages and we’re hopeful of bringing Thatcham back up here for the second leg with it all to play for”.
(Ray Simpson & Ian Templeman)