Wednesday, June 19, 2024

FA Vase Final gets supporters “Hooked” on Non-League

ANYONE watching the 2023/24 Isuzu FA Vase Final will now be “hooked” on non-league football according to Romford Chairman, Steve Gardener, who looks back fondly on the day his club and Great Wakering Rovers celebrated a milestone day for the Essex game.

Rovers set-up a guard of honour for Romford, who won 3-0, as they went up to collect the prestigious trophy at Wembley Stadium connected by EE on Saturday 11th May. Gardener was overwhelmed with the occasion and how much it meant to the players, officials and spectators. He reacted: “It was a great advert, I think, for non-league football and, if anyone was there either as a neutral or at their first game, then I’m pretty sure they’d be hooked on it.”

“It was friendly, it was good, it had everything. There were goals, disappointment, happiness – everything was there in abundance. Although it’s disappointing for Great Wakering and their supporters, it was brilliant to do it with another club that we know and I just think that the attitude of Marcus Bowers [Great Wakering’s Manager], the players, Dave Patience, the Chairman was absolute class on the day.”

“What can you say to a team that’s just lost the final? All I said to one of the players was this is a massive achievement and, hopefully, in time, you can look back and what you’ve achieved. On the day you want a win and for them to spontaneously give us a guard of honour, I think that there’s probably a lot of clubs higher up the pyramid that could probably take some pointers from that because that must be so disappointing.”

“But to stand there and applaud the players and give them a guard of honour as they went up, I thought Great Wakering were a class act and I hope, like Romford, that out of the 6,000 supporters that were there supporting the two teams, I hope a few of them continue to support us next season as we do battle again. But it’s been a great season for Essex football throughout the county.”

An enormous amount of preparation takes place for such a huge occasion and, when all the plans and organisation fell into place on the day Gardener, who has attended Non-League Finals Day many times previously as a neutral spectator, wanted to enjoy every moment: “The coach came and picked the players and management and the kit men up on Friday,” he continued.

“They went up to Wembley and had an orientation tour for about an hour and they had a look around the changing rooms and the backroom places, the physio rooms, the warm-up room and then that took them on to their hotel. We had a private dining room, and the guys had a meal together. I believe they had an early night – those of them that could sleep did!”

“They got up in the morning, got the coach back to Wembley and that was a bit surreal because I got an E-Mail from The FA saying that there will be an escort. Isuzu, the Vase sponsor, sent one of their pickup trucks and that escorted the coach back into Wembley! By the time I got to the ground, all the players were in the changing room, the kit was all laid out and they were all prepared and ready. It was incredible.”

“We walked down Wembley Way and I’ll be honest, because we were there early, I didn’t expect to see many people. I sort of bumped into Michelle and Lee from the Essex Senior League. There were some people doing some interviews with supporters and he went over and said: that’s the guy you want over there, he’s with Romford Football Club.”

“I did an interview with them and then I bumped into a few other people that I knew and people were just coming up to Wembley Way and shaking my hand. There was a great carnival spirit. I said hello to some Great Wakering supporters and we had photos taken and what have you.”

Once inside the stadium, Steve admits the potential for some ‘royal treatment’ proved too difficult to resist: “It was just a really good atmosphere. You almost want to do the day four or five times so you can do it in different ways. I would have liked to have stayed on Wembley Way until midday, but I also wanted to get in the Royal Box to experience that as well.”

“Once you go into the bowels of Wembley and you go up escalators and lifts and what have you, everyone was so kind and so welcoming. All the staff there and the hospitality team. When you go into the Royal Box, I think the best way Mike Woods our Football Secretary has described it, is it’s a bit like a restaurant in a cruise liner, the way that it’s all set out. I naively thought the Royal Box was probably 40 or 50 seats and then there’d be the equivalent of a non-league boardroom.”

“The hospitality area for the Royal Box possibly holds 300, possibly even more. There were reserved tables for us, and breakfast was available. I couldn’t eat or drink anything and then I just said to someone, “I’ve got an access all areas pass… can I go down to the changing room?” Again, nothing’s too much trouble: come with me and we’ll take you all the way down there.”

Steve then met Manager Dan Spinks and the Romford players, and he was impressed with their approach throughout the day: “I was taken with how relaxed all the players were – certainly more relaxed than I was – but they were laughing and joking as if it was just another game which, I suppose, is the approach that you really want players to take. From there we went back up to the Royal Box and it was quarter to twelve, ten to twelve and time to take our seats then.”

Then the match got underway and, with the final goalless at the interval, it was identified that changes needed to be made: “The first half was typical of a few performances that Romford have put in this season, whereby we’ve looked like we’re the better team. We’ve created the better chances but haven’t actually scored, and the danger always is there’ll be a counter-attack and the team will go up the other end and score. We did enough to get it into 0-0 [at half time].”

“There were a couple of performances, and the style that we were playing, that Dan wasn’t happy with. He spoke to the players about it. The players have spoken about it quite publicly and Dan said: you know, we can do more and we should do more. We’re on a big stage here. They came out and the second half performance was as close to faultless as you would want.”

Steve had watched enough matches to know that they can turn in just a few moments, and he felt enormous relief once full time finally arrived: “Anyone who follows their team for a long time will know that there’s been games where they’ve been 2-0 up, 3-0 up, 4-1 up and have managed to let it slip. People have been saying: at what point did you think you’d got it won? I sort of said when the referee blew the final whistle.”

“That’s when the full realisation came home to me that that was it. The players obviously got the chance to wind down in a changing room and they got fed and they had drink and what have you down there. Then, where we are, you get a full-scale meal. They actually had a carvery on there, which was absolutely fantastic.”

Still determined to make the most of every part of the experience, the Romford players, staff, officials and supporters’ celebrations extended well beyond the historic stadium itself: “We all made our way back to the ground and we had an after-party at the clubhouse, which was great. Lots of supporters came back and the players came back. It was a nice evening to be outside and put some music on. People were just chatting and just generally having a good time.”

“Some people say that’s one to get off your bucket list… but it’s never been on my bucket list! Every year I walk up to a non-league final, I walk up Wembley Way and it’s like I wonder what it must be like. You don’t actually think you’ll get to do it one day, because we’ve never even really been close.”

“I’m immensely proud. People are saying to us, and have been messaging us, I’ve waited 52 years for this. One of my friends was there with his dad who was at the 1949 final, and a guy called Barry Morgan who lives in Norfolk now, so can’t get to many of our games. He travelled down and he was at the 1949 final, and there were people there that were probably attending their first Romford game and everyone just got swept up in the emotion of it all.”

“I’ve just had a conversation with someone else about the Essex Senior League and I said to them, to put it into perspective, out of 600 teams in the FA Vase, the best two teams to get through to the final were from the Essex county and from the Essex Senior League, and neither of those teams managed to get promoted this season, so it shows how strong it was.”

So… where’s the trophy going to go? “I’m going to take it to the local school and, hopefully, they might want some photos with it,” he revealed. “There’s a charity we work with, I’d like to take it down to there because it might generate some interest through their doors. Hopefully, everyone that wants a photo with the trophy, we can do something so all our supporters can see it, and have a hold of it, because every one of them there is part of the club and they’re part of this journey.”

Watch behind-the-scenes footage from both finalists at www.essexfa.com and on the Essex County FA YouTube channel. You can also get involved with #EssexFootball by interacting with the @EssexCountyFA Twitter/X account and by searching for ‘EssexFootball’ on Facebook.

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