“It’s camaraderie… It’s seeing them in the bar afterwards”: How Finals Day captures the joy of being a non-league supporter
We went to non-league's big day out at Wembley to taste the agony and ecstasy
Yesterday Wembley was hosting Chelsea’s FA Cup Final win over Manchester United. Today, however, there won’t be any multi-million pound players or celebrity managers involved. It’s Non-League Finals Day, a double-header of cup finals featuring teams with far more modest resources.
First up is the FA Vase, a knock-out competition for around 600 teams no higher than eight tiers below the Premier League. Both finalists are in the ninth tier. After finishing sixth in the Northern League Division One, Stockton Town face Thatcham Town, champions of the Hellenic League Premier Division..
Four hours later comes the final of the FA Trophy, a cup competition for teams in the fifth to eighth tiers of the pyramid. Having just lost a promotion final, Brackley Town of the National League North (sixth tier) will battle National League (fifth) opposition in the shape of Bromley.
Within an hour until the FA Vase kicks-off, Wembley Way is swarming with Thatcham and Stockton fans. “Promotion. Wembley. What more can you ask for?” summarises one Thatcham fan. It’s a world away what he picks as the club’s low point - the process of “moving the ground by the canal” to the aptly named Waterside Park. He’s part of a family which includes a youngster who is attending his first match. Simultaneously shy and excited, a grin spreads from cheek-to-cheek.
“I’m Stockton through-and-through me!” Supporter Shaun Coleman exudes passion for everything to do with his club, from their progression to a 3G pitch to the dedication of their backroom staff and directors. The club has a long tradition of boys’ and youth teams, but they only introduced a men’s team at the start of the 2009-10 season. Shaun’s son, Shaun ‘The Cat’ Coleman, played in goal in their first ever home match and The Cat’s younger brother Sonni starts from the bench this afternoon, the day before his 21st birthday.
Coleman senior describes that community spirit as being “absolutely imperative” for the club’s success. Some of the players remain from that first game, while others have left and gravitated back again. “It’s a close-knit club and everyone’s friends there. Only two lads live outside Stockton, and they only live just outside.”
Another Stockton fan offers his thoughts on what makes non-league so enjoyable, compared to the much-hyped Premier League fan experience. “It’s not having to shell out £30 or £40 for a ticket. It’s camaraderie. It’s standing on the sidelines and being able to talk to the players as they’re warming up. It’s seeing them in the bar afterwards.”
He’s with a former Middlesbrough season ticket holder who fell under the Stockton spell. “I got far more satisfaction out of this season watching Town because you have that empathy with them. There’s not that distance between people. The lads are there because they want to play football.”
The majority of the players involved today work regular jobs. It’s not unusual for some of Stockton’s players to come straight to a match after a night shift.
Thatcham’s squad includes three roofers, while defender Michael Miller works for BT which, as the programme notes, is “handy when the broadband goes down in the clubhouse.” Another player with an atypical occupation is Brackley captain Gaz Dean, who works as lead engineer for Jaguar Land Rover.
A reminder of the fact that these players are subject to the whims and necessities of their day jobs is given by the fact that this will be the last game Lewis Brownhill plays for Thatcham; he’s been posted to Lincolnshire for his job with the RAF.
But this is a time to leave the day-to-day behind. A bunch of beered up Brackley lads stroll by chanting, “When the saints go marching in!” While you’ve got to admire their enthusiasm, you’ve also got to hope that they have no pressing commitments come Monday morning.
Bromley last played at Wembley in 1949. 74-year-old Keith was in attendance back then and is now returning with his son, his son-in-law and his three-year-old grandson. A passion for the club runs in the genes. “Dad used to take me when I was about four, on the crossbar of his bike,” he remembers. “He was fanatical about watching Bromley. And eventually I got big enough to have my own bike.” Keith is hoping for a famous win just like in 1949, when Tommy Hopper scored in a 1-0 win over Romford in the FA Amateur Cup Final in front of 90,000 people; talking to him its almost like he’s spent all those days since dreaming of a repeat.
Some non-league supporters have a clear disdain for top flight football, but others can appreciate both. 21-year-old Bromley fan Luke, for example, follows Inter Milan as his second team. “I enjoy watching world class players every week as much as the next man, but there’s something special about knowing that players from the same background as you are putting your town on the map.”
“It’s not having to shell out £30 or £40 for a ticket. It’s camaraderie. It’s standing on the sidelines and being able to talk to the players as they’re warming up. It’s seeing them in the bar afterwards.”
You could easily fit today’s 31,000 attendance into, say, Stamford Bridge, but Wembley carries a special prestige. For most of the players, this will be the first and last time they compete in one of the most storied venues in world football. For one day only, they get the superstar treatment.
It’s something special for the fans, too. Their normal experience is playing in front of an average home crowd of 1400 (Bromley) right down to around 170 (Thatcham). It’s an experience that unites everyone: die-hards are joined by exiles, curious locals and even fans of bigger local teams. With around 5500 Brackley supporters in attendance, from a place with a population of 13,000, it’s only a slight exaggeration to hope that the last person who left town remembered to turn out the lights.
The national anthem rings out and flames shoot into the sky. It’s marks the beginning of an emotional rollercoaster, one where it’s hard not to be invested in every outcome: I want Stockton to win to reward Shaun Coleman’s enthusiasm; I want Thatcham to win so that young lad’s first game - at Wembley, no less - ends in glory; I want Bromley to win so Keith’s journey - from a 1949 victory as a small boy to a 2018 return as a grandfather - is complete; I want Brackley to win, if only not to ruin the beer boys’ epic sesh. It’s in marked contrast with the many people invested in the outcome of Premier League games: where winning is no doubt seen by many owners and commercial departments as a means to sell more shirts and official club tractors.
Sadly, though, in each match there can only be one winner.
We’re halfway through the first half of the FA Vase Final when Thatcham’s Jordan Brown is let loose in the penalty box, where he’s felled by James Ward’s lurching lunge. Penalty! Shane Cooper-Clark strikes, Michael Arthur gets a hand to it… Saved? Not quite. The ball cannons off his glove and into the other side of the goal. 1-0!
As the 80th minute passes, Stockton are getting closer. Boss and former Championship Manager wonderkid Michael Dunwell looks pensively to the sky as if he’s searching for divine intervention. His team’s supporters are in full voice. Corner? ROAR! Five minutes of added time? ROAR! By contrast, some of the Thatcham faithful appear to be chewing their fingers to the bone with nerves.
Michael Arthur heads up to attack a final corner like some kind of Wembley Jimmy Glass, but Thatcham break almost immediately, a miraculous covering run forcing a corner rather than a second goal. At this late stage, however, it’s effectively as good. Game over, man, game over.
“There’s not that distance between people. The lads are there because they want to play football.”
The Stockton players look bereft, lifted only by the applause of the fans. But there’s jubilation from the Thatcham contingent. Jordan Brown celebrates with a topless victory dance while ‘keeper Chris Rackley hurtles across the pitch with a freshly procured Thatcham flag.
“A clean sheet, I’m very happy,” jokes Thatcham manager Danny Robinson afterwards. “It really is once in a lifetime stuff. We always said that Wembley only remembers winners and now Wembley’s going to remember Thatcham Town.”
Not that his captain Tom Melledew was overawed. “Leading up to it was more nerve-wracking,” he admits. “When we got there and stepped on the pitch, everyone felt like they should be there.”
The winning penalty took Shane Cooper-Clark’s goal tally to a remarkable 63 for the season, putting even Salah in the shade - although it momentarily looked as it he’d been thwarted. “When he got a hand to it I thought I’d messed everything up, and to see it drop in, what a relief that was!” exclaims the striker. “I think I’ll be mentioning it to people for the rest of my life.”
Next up, though the FA Trophy Final and, as kick-off approaches, large swathes of Wembley have been turned into an unofficial enclave of Bromley with 16,000 of their fans in attendance. They quickly find a novel way to keep themselves entertained. A cheer rises, and then a four-foot inflatable penis wobbles through the air.
Having already hinted of his menace early on, Bromley’s Adam Mekki embarks upon a dribble which owes as much to sheer determination as it does skill. He feeds Lebanon international Omar Bugiel into space, who fires under Brackley ‘keeper Danny Lewis. 1-0!
Brackley are freshly fired up in the second half and put together a quick range of opportunities, but with five minutes remaining, time is running out. There’s urgency but their energy and innovation is finally fading.
Bromley are looking desperate and piercing whistles for full-time reverberate around the stadium. By now it’s one way traffic. With seconds on the clock, an optimistic shot deflects off the post, and rebounds in off Brackley captain Gaz Dean or Bromley’s Roger Johnson. 1-1! Dean sprints off in celebration with the rest of his team on his tail. Johnson appears to be repeatedly uttering “fuck” to himself.
Football, bloody hell.
Extra time begins, but the first half peters out with a succession of niggly injuries. Having lost their inflatable penis, the Bromley fans improvise a replacement with an inflated condom that sails through the sky like one of Pink Floyd’s pigs.
Brackley are in control after the restart with James Armson and Matt Lowe both looking dangerous. But penalties edge ominously closer, and they’re likely to make zeroes from heroes.
Brackley are up against it after a kick each when David Gregory saves well from Shane Byrne. After four rounds of penalties, goalscorer Omar Bugiel can win it for Bromley. He steps up… and it flies over!
Brackley live to see another day, but it will be pointless if Glenn Walker can’t convert his team’s last kick. But he does! 4-4 and it’s sudden death.
Bromley captain Jack Holland steps up and dinks his penalty towards Danny Lewis’s left… but it’s a fraction too wide and pings back off the post.
Andy Brown, a deputy headmaster by day, can win it in sudden death. And he converts!
Brackley win a game which required not one but two sensational comebacks. There’s chaos in the Brackley end, soundtracked by Madness’s ‘One Step Beyond’ - perfect for the joyous winners but utterly at odds with the devastated faces of the Bromley players.
The Brackley squad lead an Icelandic thunderclap, and soon 5000 people are singing “When the saints go marching in!” just as the beer lads did six hours ago. Everyone is making the most of a moment that will become an eternal memory that fans will talk of in decades to come.
As manager of Wrexham, Brackley boss Kevin Wilkin had lost this same final three years earlier on penalties and left the club the following day.
“That was a tough period in my life,” he reflects. “I’m just pleased this club have backed me the way they have, and given me a chance and an opportunity to share a day like this.”
Danny Lewis is the first player to emerge from the victorious squad. “We call him the jigsaw: normally he goes to pieces in the box,” he laughs in regards to Gaz Dean’s late-as-can-be equaliser. “I think he’ll dine out on that one for a few years.”
“I’ve had some successes throughout my career in terms of promotions but nothing can come close to this,” adds a still beaming Dean.
As for that goal?
“I spoke to Roger Johnson after, who said it’s my goal so it’s good enough for me. And it came off my foot! I don’t think you can take that goal off me.”
After a long and emotionally draining day, Dean, the hero of the moment, sums up the experience. “To score in front of 31,000 people in a stadium like this, at that time of the game and how important the goal was, no-one can ever take that experience and the celebrations away from me. It will live with me forever.”
The following day, I send Bromley fan Luke a message of consolation. “Obviously massively disappointing but that’s football at the end of the day,” begins his response. “Still just appreciate that it was a historic day for the club.”
Shaun Coleman, Stockton’s beacon of positivity, is incredibly proud that Sonni played at Wembley. He says it was surreal to watch the game back on TV and hear the commentator introduce his son. Shaun was with the players’ families when they were joined by the team after the game. While he would’ve been ecstatic with a win, he’s audibly moved by the players’ reactions. Sure, their heads were down at first, but they soon realised the enormity of what they achieved: knocking out numerous tough rivals en route to the biggest day in non-league football.
The magic of Non-League Finals Day is that it’s a chance for a community to unite and to collectively experience history being written. As one fan on Brackley’s Facebook page posts the following morning, “What a great game. I’ve only lived in Brackley 18 months, but I was in tears when the equaliser went in.”
Two sets of fans will go home disappointed tonight, and two elated: but, united in their love of the non-league game, they’re all winners.
(Images: Getty/Ben Hopkins)