Hove, Aldrington, Portslade, Fishersgate, Southwick, Shoreham-by-Sea, Lancing. The train rumbles westward along the coast from Brighton for an unexpected treat, an FA Vase Third Round match between Lancing, of the Sussex County League Division Two and Witham Town, of the Essex Senior League. The FA Vase, as many of you will be aware, was first competed for in 1975, following the FA’s abolition of the formal distinction between professional amateur players. While the FA Trophy (the competition that professional non-league clubs have been playing for since the late 1960s), however, has been suffering in recent years as the Football Conference sweeps all before it at the top end of the non-league game, the Vase, by comparison, feels healthy. These are clubs whose hopes of reaching the Football League are, broadly speaking, remote, to say the least.
What, then, of Lancing? With a population of around 19,000, it’s a contender for the honour of being Britain’s largest village, and is probably best known as the home of Lancing College, amongst whose alumni we can count Evelyn Waugh, Tom Sharpe and Tim Rice. It’s also now the home of the Sussex County Football Association, and their decision to use Culver Road, the home of Lancing FC, as their base has reaped considerable dividends for the club. The old stand has been replaced by a new, smart replacement with an outstanding bar, complete with flat-screen televisions and with the walls decorated by framed, signed shirts from the length and breadth of the country. This is a ground that is certainly ready to host a higher level of league football than it is currently regularly hosting.
Witham Town, meanwhile, have enjoyed nominally better days than they are now. They were members of the Isthmian League between 1987 and 2009 before dropping back into the Essex Senior League, from whence they came. They are currently in fourth place in the table and have lost just once in the league all season. No team from the ESL has won the FA Vase since Stansted FC beat Stamford in 1984, but Witham are amongst the highest-ranked teams in the competition in terms of league positions and are a full division above Lancing. The home side will have their work very much cut out if they are to earn a place in the next round of the competition.
Work hard, though, they do. The crowd is about a couple of hundred, and they are treated to a full-blooded match between the two sides. Lancing take the lead with a goal from Shaz Sadough, but Witham draw level before half-time and are well worth it. They have the majority of the play in the first half, but this afternoon isn’t really a day for focussing too closely on what is happening on the pitch. We take, as one can at this level of the game, a full a circuit of the pitch, stopping to appreciate the view from several different angles. Possibly the most notable feature that Culver Road has is an extendable tunnel on wheels from the changing rooms, of the sort that we see at some of the biggest football grounds in the world. It seems curiously out of proportion to the size of the ground here, but stands as a demonstration of the care and attention that Sussex County FA have put into making this such a tidy little venue.
We can kind of see the pitch from our vantage point at the bar, so it is difficult to muster the energy to get back outside for the second half. This is one of the marvellous things about non-league football, the ability to move around, to stay in the bar and catch up with friends and watch the match out of the corner of the eye. There aren’t many grounds left that this can easily be done, although many grounds below the Blue Square Premier will allow supporters to take a drink onto the terraces. Today’s match being in an FA competition, though, this is not allowed today and the girls serving behind the bar are quick to remind everybody that they serve that this is the case. From the urgency of their requests, one gets the feeling that most matches at Culver Road are accompanied with quite a lot of pitch-side drinking, which is, we shouldn’t even really need to add, in no way a bad thing.
In the second half, meanwhile, a tight game starts to loosen up somewhat. It felt rather as if both teams took off at one hundred miles per hour, and tiredness may be starting to sneak in as the second half wears on. The most noticeable manifestation of this comes in a noticeable deterioration in the accuracy of the tackling, which leads to a flurry of yellow cards. This being the FA Vase, there will be extra-time today if the scores are level at the end of ninety minutes (these are players for whom midweek replays would be a major inconvenience, and indeed many FA Vase replays take place on Saturdays) and this comes to pass, with the one golden chance of the second half, a clear chance fot Lewis Goldbold that ends in the grateful arms of the Lancing goalkeeper Matt Evans.
So, then, to extra-time and of course our luck runs out when we are at the bar and out of sight of the pitch as Lancing take the lead again, a couple of minutes into the first period. Suddenly, the surprise result is on and the gaps begin to open even more widely as Witham push on in search of an equaliser. In the second period, however, things go a little insane. The match looks over when Lancing increase their lead to 3-1, but within a minute Witham have pulled it back to 3-2 and it is only with more or less the last kick of the match that a splendidly composed lob – the goal of the day, unless the one that we managed to miss was something like Carlos Alberto’s goal for Brazil in the 1970 World Cup final – that the match is actually put beyond the reach of Witham.
It’s Lancing, then, who advance to the Fourth Round of this year’s FA Vase, and they will either travel to Belper in Derbyshire to play Holbrook Sports or to Merseyside to play St Helens Town. They’re now just five games (including a two-legged semi-final) from a trip to Wembley. Both clubs, however, have excellent chances of their winning their respective divisions (Lancing are in fifth place in the SCL Division Two but have five games in hand on the teams above them and would go comfortably top of the table if they won these matches) and they both have a lot to look forward over the rest of the season. Lancing, though, still have a long way to go in the FA Vase, but the subtle aroma of Wembley is still in the air.
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