Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game head down Wembley way to be seduced by a small village team from Yorkshire.

Words by Daniel Magner. Pictures by Tom Sparks.

IT’S CUP FINAL DAY, and we are off to Wembley. Today’s game is our first ever cup final (sorry Tom, the Emirates cup does not count!), so the excitement level is already up a few notches, compared to any other game. Unfortunately the weather did not get the memo regarding the required blue skies and sunshine, compulsory on such an occasion. So as we approach Wembley Park station on the tube, the rain is lashing down, and the national stadium in shrouded in fog and mist and looks like something from Close Encounters.

The train driver announces “Wembley, Wembley, get off here for, errr not sure what’s going on”, and because of the weather and the size of the occasion, the usual view from Wembley Park Station along Wembley Way/Olympic Way is not its usual sea of people, making their way the short walk to the ground. Most people seem to be sheltering from the rain, waiting for it to break and then make a mad dash for the next piece of cover.

Today we are slightly more than just “Two Men”, but we are two men, and a half, my eight year old son is joining us for the first time, to attend his 2nd only game, as well as my long suffering girlfriend. My Son’s opinion of football is slightly mixed, perhaps my over enthusiasm when he was young to get him interested, has had the opposite effect, but I thought the big occasion of a cup final and a visit inside Wembley, might be entertaining enough to keep him interested.

When I booked the tickets, a month or so ago 70’ish pounds for the four of us, taking advantage of the early bird special, and a steal for three adults and a child for a day out in London, I had to make the tough choice of which end to sit in.

I must admit I was not familiar with either team, but to be honest I had at least heard of Wrexham FC (WX). After a bit of Googling and talking to a few people on Twitter, it seemed a simple choice to go for North Ferriby United AFC (NFU), a semi pro “village team” from Yorkshire, that has a population of around 4,000, are a division lower than professional WX, they are very much the underdogs.

We stop on our walk to the stadium to get my Son an NFU scarf, and me a program. The weather seems to be failing completely in dampening anyone’s spirits, and the fans that are here, from Yorkshire and Wales are making up for the lack of numbers, by making plenty of noise. Groups in red and black, WX and green and white, NFU, make their way shouting “Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire”. From the short walk to the ground it is clear that this is more than team Vs team, it’s Yorkshire Vs Wales.

The two sounds of the day are the mini vuvuzela type horns for sale outside the ground, and can be heard blaring away, also on the air in the distance is the sound of a pipe and drum band, still too far away to make out what they are playing, but eerily coming out of the mist, like on some ancient battle ground.

That special feeling you get walking from the cover of the stand, out to your seats, is only magnified at Wembley. It’s somewhere I have been lucky to visit a few times, and I don’t think there is a bad seat in the house. Admittedly not quite the same history as the old twin towers, that I imagine will come with time, but a far superior stadium for watching football!

The ground is about a quarter full, and the WX fans at the opposite end outnumber NFU. The teams walk out to an almighty roar, the FA Trophy bright silver sits on a plinth in front of the two teams as they prepare for the national anthems. The enthusiasm of the  woman sat behind me gets the better of her, and is totally oblivious that while whirling her scarf in the air, she smacks me in the face 3 or 4 times.

The Welsh national anthem is sung with all the gusto and passion you would expect from such a proud nation, and cannot fail to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. The English is perhaps victim of the NFU fans enthusiasms to get the game going, and is sung a little too fast, and out of time with the music.

The first half of the game did its absolute best in trying to ruin the trip down from Yorkshire, for the NFU players and fans, and they were 1 – 0 after 11 mins, a low cross from the right, found the WX player unmarked and under no pressure, and he had the easiest job to tap it in, and it was the least that they deserved. The WX fans all cried out in unison, as their team took the early lead.

I’m not sure if they were nervous or the occasion had got the better of them, but the first 30 mins of the game was a real wake up call. WX looked the far better side, they looked a lot more accomplished, and in their red and black stripes looked like 11 Dennis the Menaces, and if NFU were not careful it could all be over before it had even begun. The scarf face whacker behind me, was sent into a chorus of mumbled “Oh God, oh God” every time WX went on the attack, and she was saying it a lot in the first 30 mins. A group of fans near the front did their best to keep spirits up, and cracked into a Poznan after only three minutes. Last time NFU had been to Wembley in 1997, they had lost 3–0, and a repeat of that looked to be on the cards.

The final quarter of an hour of the first half, there was a definite improvement from NFU, as the nerves were slowly melting away they were getting their foot on the ball, and began to put a few passes together. They got a couple of chances in short succession and  threatened the goal for the first time. NFU are doing well in the wide areas in particular, but with little final product. St Juste on the left wing for NFU, is really starting to give his marker a torrid time, who can’t cope with his pace and trickery.

NFU go in at half time still 1–0 down, perhaps with a little bit more confidence, after what was a far from ideal start to the game.

On the half time whistle the fans quickly make their way inside, and I’m left alone as everyone goes inside for a drink and I stay and make notes on what has happened. To the back drop of the half time entertainment, which is children pitched against each other in a penalty shootout, in the full size goals, a familiar face comes out of the crowd. Paul one of the directors from Wingate & Finchley FC, who had been so welcoming on our first game of our adventure, came over and said hello. He was in good spirits, as W&F had enjoyed a bumper crowd of 400 the previous day, as part of a “pay what you want” doubleheader with Haringey Borough FC.

The sun is out for the start of the second half, and the man behind me with a Yorkshire flag around his waist says it’s an “omen”, and he was not wrong, but things here are going to get a little worse before they get a hell of a lot better.

A lot of fans are very slow getting back to their seats, as the stand out NFU player St Juste the antithesis of the new found confidence within the team has come out in the second half, skins his marker again, skips into the box, only for the WX keeper to save one on one.

All the new found confidence that they were overflowing with in the first 15 of the second half, takes a huge blow, when somewhat against the run of play, of the second half at least, WX take a further lead. A WX player finds himself, all alone on the right, and shoots from outside the box, and scores, 2-0. The man behind me says “too easy” and he was right.

A member of a group of NFU fans all in white hats, who have been standing during the whole game, glares and shouts at the fellow fans sitting down, “get off your arses and sing” and they oblige in fine voice, “If your Ferriby, stand up, if your Ferriby, stand up”, the fans at least won’t go down quietly. With all the goodwill in the world, and however much they sing, as things stand the game looks like it’s only going one way, and their second visit to Wembley in recent years will end in disappointment.

With a quarter of the game left, and I’m sure the WX fans thinking everything is done and dusted, NFU are thrown a life line, a life line that sparks a turn around, unlike anything I had ever seen with my own eyes at a football match.

NFU were awarded a penalty, after the NFU player got to the keeper before the ball, he took a touch only for the WX keeper to upend him in the box, and everyone in the NFU end shouted “PENALTY”, up stood the captain King, to crash the ball in from the spot.

For the next 10 mins NFU were pushed back, and WX searched for the all important 3rd goal to finally kill of the resurgent Villagers, but on 86 mins the man of the match, the absolute star player of the day, left his marker for dead, AGAIN, and combined with the second half sub Kendall, to draw the game, and round off a truly remarkable 15 mins. His pace, left the WX player in his dust and like a carbon copy of the first WX goal, a low cross into the box found Kendall unmarked, 2 -2.

What then took place around me, was a complete out pouring of joy and relief, it brought a genuine tear to my eye, and a huge smile to my son’s face. The NFU all point and sing “you’re not singing any more” at the WX fans, who I’m sure were absolutely dumbstruck, and it almost got a lot worse. WX heads had dropped, and the tide had turned, and NFU looked like they might just get a winner! On the 90 minute mark a fine curling shot from outside the box, was tipped over by the WX keeper. The mother of the family behind us says to her son, “want a diazepam, Sam?”

The whistle goes, and extra time beckons. Not one person thought that was a possibility 15 minutes ago.

The first half of extra time is all NFU, WX are in bits and are all but done. NFU continue to use the big pitch, and wingers perfectly, and with five minutes left of the half the turnaround is complete, once again that man St Juste is off down with wing, to combine with the super sub Kendall, to go ahead for the first time today, a cross into the box, a header from Kendall 3–2.

It’s quite a distance to the goal at the other end of the pitch, and there is a delay in what has happened registering with the fans, and it’s not until the NFU players wheel away to celebrate, that it sinks in they have gone 3–2 ahead, cue pandemonium.

Only 15 mins of extra time to play, only 15 mins to hold on to the lead they now deserve so much, and the chance to lift the cup. WX have other ideas, and as the rain comes down in monsoon type levels, its attack, attack, attack, wave after wave. NFU are throwing their bodies on the line, and behind me someone says “I know now how Micheal Caine felt in Zulu!”

Despite the rain the managers have not moved an inch, stood fast on the edge of the pitch, a million and one things going through their minds. WX are attacking their fans end again, and they give it one last go, one last attempt to boost their team, and as if there has not been enough drama already, not enough highs and lows, the NFU defence can’t resist any longer, and with 3 minutes left to play they drag it back to 3-3, dreaded penalties are now imminent.

The mood around us is really mixed, some people are saying that they would have bitten your hand off, after an hour to be in this position now, but also a small part of most people felt they might just have thrown their chance to win away. The teams gather on the half way line to pick the takers, and the ref flips a coin, they will take place at the WX end.

NFU go First:

1 – 0,

1 – 1,

You can cut the atmosphere with a knife,

2 – 1,

2 – 2,

The sun is now beaming;

3 – 2 to NFU but only just, the ball hits the cross bar and bounces down, we all hold our breath…..The referee gives it!!

3 – 2 WX miss, keeper saves low to his left.

3 – 2 NFU miss, good diving save to the left.

3 – 2 WX miss again

3 – 2 NFU miss again

3 – 3 WX score, SUDDEN DEATH.

4 – 3 NFU banged down the middle

4 – 4 WX straight down the middle

5 – 4

5 – 4 WX miss, it’s all over, NFU have done it they will lift the trophy!!!

What happens next is something I have never done at, or during football, I burst into floods of tears, the raw emotion of the day has completely overcome me. I have no connection to this team, to either team, but for the two and a half hours I have been sitting in here, I don’t think I have ever felt so touched by a football game. My son is beaming, tears are rolling down my face, and as the players charge from one end of the pitch to celebrate with the NFU fans, I feel totally elated.

“Kendall, Kendall, Kendall”

One player jumps the barrier to celebrate with people in the crowd, one player puts on a green and white jesters hat, and dances across the pitch, not long now until they climb the famous steps and lift the cup, and good God do they deserve it.

The WX end is almost empty as first the referee, then the WX players go up to get their medals. The cup appears on the balcony above us, and it’s not long until the players in green and white appear, a low rumble of “ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” and then a huge cheer as the captain lifts the trophy. The sound track to all of this is Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best”.

I’m not the only one crying as grown men around me, rub a tear away. An old man with dyed green hair passes me on the stairs, as fans make their way to the front, so see the NFU players parade the trophy in front of them. We make our way out of the ground into what is now blue skies and a brisk wind shooing the clouds away.

Today has been pure magic, from beginning to end! I cannot tell you how much fun we had. Such a fantastic advert for non league football, for community clubs, for affordable football everyone can enjoy. Today was brought to my attention by @nonleaguedayuk, a movement whose sole aim is to promote and celebrate lower league, non league grass roots football, and what a fantastic day it was. For the price of ONE top four premiership team ticket, a “family” of four, had an affordable and enjoyable day out, none of them will ever forget.

In 1953 the FA cup was the showcase for a certain wing wizard whose performance was so spell binding that it will for ever be known as the “Matthews Final”. Sixty two years later, I would like to bestow the same honour on Jason St Juste. A player who opted to miss, St Kitts and Nevis’s 2018 World Cup qualifier against the Turks and Caicos Islands so he could feature at Wembley.

Matthews did not score in 1953, just like St Juste, but their performances were so pivotal in the outcome, and mesmerising for the fans, that they are the ones people came away talking about.

From now on the 2015 FA Trophy Final, shall be known as the “St Juste Final”.

This article was originally published in Two Men In Search Of The Beautiful Game, a brilliant site that is precisely what it says on the tin. Football nuts Daniel and Tom – a Gooner and Spurs supporter as it happens – put aside their club allegiances to travel the length and breadth of the country in search of grounds and experiences untouched by the Premier League billions.

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