COMMENT: Wembley arch casts a dream-like shadow over US Portsmouth’s bid to reach FA Vase final
There it stands, metaphorically speaking, improbably nestled between the Spinnaker and the Lipstick on the Portsea Island skyline, a wonderful prize at the end of a barely believable journey.
An iconic arch has loomed large over the Victory Stadium, home of United Services Portsmouth Football Club - AKA ‘a bus stop near Gunwharf’ - ever since the final whistle signalled last weekend’s latest FA Vase shock win, this time over Flackwell Heath.
It will cast an ever bigger shadow just before 3pm this Saturday, as USP’s players prepare to face Binfield in the semi-final of the cup for teams at the ninth and 10th levels of the pyramid. Quite simply, it is the biggest game in their club’s history, and the biggest game of their lives. For players at their level of the beautiful game, it doesn’t get any bigger. It is bigger than the final.
That is not journalistic hyperbole, that is fact. For the ‘bus stop’ journey which started on the outskirts of Portchester last October, in PO16 9DP, could have one final destination, one more postcode, left to visit - HA9 OWS, Wembley north west London. Stadium of Legends. Football’s Holy Grail.
Victory over Binfield will see US Portsmouth, the third biggest non-league club in the city, book their place in the final of the 2020/21 FA Vase, therefore penning another extraordinary chapter in one of the most astonishing non-league football cup stories of modern times.
Victory over Binfield will ensure that, of the 612 clubs who entered the Vase, US - managed by footballing alchemist Glenn Turnbull - will be down to the last two on May 22.
US Portsmouth were 720 minutes from the final when they began their Vase run in the second qualifying round at AFC Portchester. There was no arch on the horizon at The Crest Finance Stadium. Drawn at home to one of the Portsmouth region’s top clubs, they promptly switched the tie in order to bank some extra gate receipts. The accumulation of money, not glory, was uppermost in their minds. Outside of their own dressing room - possibly even within it - not many gave them a chance of winning.
Almost seven months on, times have changed. The reverse now applies - Saturday is ALL about the glory, the chance to create memories that will last a lifetime, the chance for US Portsmouth’s players to earn themselves legendary status. Legendary in the Portsmouth area alone, most probably, but that is still a damn sight better than being totally forgotten about in the months, years, decades, to come.
None of the USP squad have ever got this close to Wembley, so tantalisingly now within reach they can almost picture themselves taking selfies in the dressing room and singing the national anthem before kick off. Arguably, they will never get this close again to football’s perennial Holy Grail. These past few weeks, hopefully this next fortnight, are their Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Defender Tom Cain might never get the chance to recite poetry live on BBC South again. I might never want to devote six pages of The News to one of their matches again.
To lose in the final would be a disappointment, of course it would. No-one wants to lose a showpiece occasion. Yet at least the losers will have realised their dream of stepping out at Wembley. To lose in the semi-final, to stumble at the final hurdle, even if beaten by the better team on the day, would be a heart-breaking way for the journey to finish.
There is no pressure in stepping out onto the lush Wembley turf - is it still hallowed, like it was during my childhood? - the pressure is in getting there in the first place. The real enjoyment of a Wembley final - for the players, the management, the supporters - isn’t actually the day itself; it’s the day you get there, the day the final whistle blows on a semi-final success, the split second you realise the dream has come true and the party that inevitably follows. They are the magical moments, believe me, and those are the moments that beckon US Portsmouth or Binfield. And that is why this Saturday’s tie is bigger, in a very important way, than the final itself.
They are the moments that a John W Henry or a Stan Kroenke or a Joel Glazer would never understand, could never understand. Indeed, would not want to understand; for football in the ninth and 10th tiers, in front of sparse crowds and at stadiums lacking megastores and £60 seats, would mean nothing to those whose pursuit of filthy lucre is all that matters.
But for those of us who still value the spirit of the underdog, who still value the spirit of sporting competition, watching US Portsmouth v Binfield will be a thousand times better than watching Real Madrid v Tottenham in a European Super League
The winners of Saturday’s semi-final will trouser a £5,500 cheque, veritable riches at that level of the sport. But the semi-final of the FA Vase will never - God willing - be about the money. At this level, far removed from the glamour, glitz and obscene wealth of Rupert Murdoch’s bloated cash cow, romance can still thrive. Dreams can still come true or, of course, they can be shattered within touching distance of becoming reality.
At around 4.50pm on Saturday, we will know whether fate’s fickle finger is pointing US up the A3 towards an unforgettable day out under the arch, or whether all focus will turn to an anti-climatic Wessex League Cup semi-final with Bemerton Heath Harlequins. Whatever happens, the emotions will be raw.
‘I’ll be either having a can of Heineken poured over my head or I’ll be sitting crying on the side of the pitch,’ said Turnbull. ‘Come to think of it, that’ll probably happen win or lose!’