Saturday 10th April 2021 – 3pm KO – The FA Vase – The Spectrum Stadium, Guildford
March 29th couldn’t have come quick enough for many of us, especially those involved in football. On that date non-elite teams could finally come back together and train, and whilst the vast majority did so more out of fun, there were a small number of teams who still had something to play for.
The FA Vase was to restart with the remaining Third Round ties, then progress with a round a week, with the final scheduled at Wembley at the end of May, hopefully with fans being present. One of the four ties that should have been played in late December was The Sweeney versus The Swans, or a Combined Counties match up between Guildford City and Walton & Hersham.
There is no ideal solution to how the tournament could be completed. None of the 39 teams (Stowmarket Town having withdrawn from the tournament) left in the competition would be complaining about being able to fulfil their dream of a Wembley final – except Hebburn Town who still have the small matter of the 2019/20 Final to play against Consett in a few weeks time, which could lead to them winning back to back Vase’s in a matter of three weeks.
If it was hard enough for a manager to prepare their team for such a big game after nearly six months of inaction, then how about if you have never seen your team train, let alone play in the flesh? That was the task that faced Guildford City boss Paul Barnes, who had taken over The Sweeney (surely one of the best club nicknames in Non-League football?) in January after leaving Staines Town. In the run up to the game he was interviewed by the Non-League Show, explaining how difficult it had been to essentially be a manager without having a team to manage until the last week or so.
With neither side having played a competitive game since the 5th December, normal activities such as opposition analysis and squads changing in the last five months meant that whilst there was a league between the two sides, they would come into the tie as equals, with £1,125 available for the winners, plus a special bonus of £100 put up by the FA because they are nice chaps.
Guildford City’s home ground, The Spectrum, is part of a complex that includes the leisure centre. Due to the layout of the site, the car park overlooks the ground which had led to a a couple of groups of fans standing outside but getting a perfect view of all the action. Such are the crazy rules of the route out of lockdown that they were able to stand shoulder to shoulder outside the ground, but inside the athletics stadium with wide expanses of open space, it was volunteers and club officials only. There appeared to be more fans outside looking in than were in the stadium.
The two managers delivered their final team talks in covered stands on opposite sides of the pitch before they met in the middle, observed a minute’s silence for the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh. The form that both sides had from their aborted league campaigns had gone out of the window and it was very much the case of a “pre-season” start, although the single figure temperatures and the lingering threat of rain suggested otherwise.
There was clearly a “home” and “away” section in the car park outside the ground who gave some appreciation of the fact that they could watch a game, within the farcical regulations. And it was the Sweeney fans who had the first opportunity to cheer when Andre Smith guided the ball home from 12 yards. They had even more reason to cheer on the 30 minutes mark when keeper Stuart Norman got down low and to his left to save a Walton penalty.
The visitors could count themselves unlucky to go into their huddle on the pitch at half-time still trailing after having a goal ruled out for offside and Norman pulling off a fantastic save, tipping the ball onto his own cross bar but they came out the stronger side and there was no surprise when McCormack made up for his earlier penalty miss by equalising at the far post from a well-worked move down the Guildford right.
Whilst both sides had chances, there was a feel that it was destined to be decided by penalties and that is exactly what happened. Guildford City missed their first one, Walton & Hersham didn’t. Next four were all scored and then Guildford missed again. Game over as Walton & Hersham scored four out of four.
It is a cruel way to end a season for Guildford City. The last four months have been a case of waiting – waiting to see if we could come out of lockdown, waiting to know if the season was going to end, waiting to hear if this game would go ahead. New manager Paul Barnes’s season was over after just 90 minutes in charge, whilst the visitors would head to Leighton Town next Saturday. Hats off to everyone involved for getting the game on and patiently waiting – the efforts that go on behind the scenes are often hidden from view but will be truly appreciated by everyone who saw the game.