Epilogue — Ascot United vs. Newport Pagnell Town — FA Vase Final — 21/05/23
It is that best, most engrossing match of the year, the highlight on my footballing calendar, the first-half of Non-League Finals Day, the FA Vase Final.
Now, last year, I talked about how many sides that make it to this final could easy be playing in what would be not only their only visit, but their only chance to visit the so-called hallowed halls of Wembley Stadium. For most of these players, this would be their sole trip.
Newport Pagnell Town made it successive visits to the final, the first side to do so for over a decade, and made it an affair to truly remember as two of the largest non-league, grassroots sides clashed at the national stadium. Newport Pagnell’s opponents in this year’s final were Ascot United, a side who had dominated their domestic duties, amounting a century of points on their path to promotion and looked to cap it all off with an extra piece of silverware.
The defending champions against a team that would have few disputing their position as number one contenders.
As always, each time had their characters: their strikers with gargantuan hauls of goals, their passion players with a second-job on the side, their journeymen, their tenured veterans with only this club on their heart, the list goes on.
So with a coupla 30+ goal strikers, a severed finger, and a ‘keeper whose sweeping rivals Manny Neuer, could Newport Pagnell Town become the sixth team to lift the vase more than once, or would Ascot United pip them to the post?
In terms of support, there was once again half of Newport Pagnell out to cheer on their hometown boys, while the Ascot mascot (very satisfying to say) had managed to melt the lower quarter of his trouser leg. An omen of what was to come…?
Right off the bat, both sides had come through penalty shoot-out victories in both the semi-finals and the quarter-finals, so I don’t think many would have blamed either side for playing cautiously and not letting anything slip, but in contrast, the game was played in great spirit, as both sides stuck to the game-plans that had brought them success through the season.
The first forty-five was certainly one for the ‘keepers, with the aforementioned Martin Conway sweeping his teaching job under the rug for a day to once again show up on the Wembley turf, while his opposite, Rhys Forster, whom had returned on loan to Ascot after injury to Jamie Ashdown, grasped nearly everything that flew into his box. He was probably just happy to be away from Slough for a bit.
It was interesting to see if the experience of having played at Wembley would give Newport Pagnell an edge, but Ascot didn’t let them. Those in yellow looked more into the game and were allowed to play, remaining calm for the first sections of the game, but soon after, it seemed as if NPT were simply lulling them in, as Mo Ahmed’s charges up the pitch went unchecked, Lewis Wilson’s cuts inside went unstopped, and Jake Watkinson and Albie Hall were being afforded chances that the rest of the season that had come before had proven was a bad idea for the defending side.
Despite a couple of woodwork rattling efforts, the deadlock would not be broken.
Two substitutions would be devastatingly required when a clash of heads led to the departure of NPT captain Russell Short and Ascot’s Rob Gerrard. A terrible moment on a fantastic occasion for both clubs, but sometimes hope can be bred from the most harrowing of seeds.
Russell Short off for Shane Bush.
Rob Gerrard off for… Kai Walters.
Half-time score — 0–0.
Out for half number two and things were already tetchier. The strikers were getting closed down tighter and locking them out prompted their respective frustrations to grow. Brendan Matthew (Ascot’s 47-goal attacker) thought the referee against him as chances continued to fizzle out before reaching his feet. Two teams with excellent pedigree were displaying their mettle and showing they belonged on this stage, but something had to change.
Enter Marcus Mealing.
Ascot’s very own Lee Trundle bobbed and weaved and ducked and dipped, turning on a shiny old sixpence to force a corner and then rock the crossbar with a header from that very setpiece. This was after a period of prolonged possession and dangerous dwelling from NPT.
Within ten minutes, his presence had forced something more.
From a miserable exit to a miraculous arrival, substitute Kai Walters hadn’t done much when he lost his marker and made a near a near-post dash to glance in Sean McCormack’s cross. With ten further minutes to play, Walters’ goal stood between this Newport Pagnell Town Wembley era becoming a dynasty.
The Swans started to get scrappy. Lifting crosses into the box, pressing and prodding, riving up at the opposition, forcing whatever they could, but it all seemed too late, they seemed out of gas, out of puff, and in the final moments, it was easier to reflect on the job that Ascot United had done to subdue and drown out their comparatively experienced Wembley opponents. To hold them off and continue to carve out chances until one, just one, would be enough when it was finally taken.
Full-time score — Ascot United 1–0 Newport Pagnell Town.
When it came to this FA Vase Final, it was Ascot United who were at the races.
The reason this is my favourite match of the year is because of what it means. If this game wasn’t at Wembley and wasn’t on TV, sure it’d still be happening somewhere and that’d be great, but for it to be an event, and be treated like it should be, is huge. Seeing a Manchester side in a cup final is par for the course, but to see a club like this, a team like this, people like this, real people supported by other real people, grabbing for a chance at footballing immortality on as big a stage as possible, with a town, and a home behind you. That’s what it means, isn’t it? Among other things, but that’s a doozy.
And as I sit here watching Halifax and Gateshead wrestle for the FA Trophy in Wembley’s second final of the day, I realise once again how much I miss it. Taking in the great day of two finals, and of two sets of fans, and two teams who it means the world to just to follow their team wherever they go, be it the grandest stage of them all, or whichever town a rainy Tuesday night takes ‘em.
These players, this staff, this town, these people won this trophy. Because that’s who it’s for. That’s what this is for — the Vase, yes, but the game as well.
Keep it streets ahead,