Comment – Why a Wembley dressing room visit and a dingy sofa are highlights of a 29-year FA Vase love affair

The day is almost three decades old now, yet if I close my eyes I can still see images that will never fade.

Friday, 16th April 2021, 4:32 pm
US Portsmouth celebrate their shock FA Vase victory at AFC Portchester earlier this season. Another win against higher division Christchurch this weekend will take them into the last 16 and provide them with their fourth Wessex Premier scalp in five Vase rounds

April 25 1992 - the day a Wessex League club lifted the FA Vase for the first time.

It was a day ex-Gosport Borough boss Alex Pike will never forget, for the 2014 FA Trophy final against Cambridge United wasn’t his first final at the national stadium; he had been in charge when Wimborne Town defeated Guiseley 5-3 in a wonderful Vase final under the old Twin Towers.

I’ll never forget April 25 1992 either, for I was lucky enough to be in the press box, covering the showpiece occasion as a rookie sports journalist for the Western Gazette newspaper.

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Alex Pike was Wimborne Town's manager when they became the first Wessex League club to win the FA Vase in 1992. Picture: Keith Woodland

Not only that, but I was invited into the winners’ dressing room after the final whistle, where I interviewed Pike who was sitting, smiling and giggling, in the communal bath. He had been teetotal for many years, so a few sips of celebratory champagne had (unsurprisingly) quickly gone to his head …

Victory over higher division Guiseley - the Vase holders and red hot favourites to retain the silverware - was a glorious end to a truly remarkable Vase run.

Nowadays, the Vase is for step 5 and step 6 clubs on the non-league ladder - locally, the Wessex Premier and Wessex 1.

Back in 1991/92, Wimborne were in the second tier of clubs eligible for the Vase. On their way to Wembley they defeated Hastings who ended the season as Southern League Southern Division champions (Havant Town were third).

Guiseley were another higher division club, then in Division 1 of the Northern Premier League (then the third tier of non-league football).

One of the reasons I have never forgotten that day at Wembley was the sheer, undiluted joy it brought to everyone connected with the club. For one day only, Pike and his squad could sit where Bobby Moore sat holding the World Cup, they could set foot on the hallowed turf (Wembley was always the only stadium with hallowed turf when I was growing up …), they could climb up the stairs to the Royal Box.

For one day only, Wessex League amateurs could enjoy a few hours that would have seemed impossible a few months earlier; a day that would see them achieve legendary status in their community. A day that would create memories and a bonding that would survive forever.

I mention all that because this weekend I’m back on FA Vase reporting duty.

During my working life, the competition has been good to me. Apart from the Wimborne win, I worked on the Exeter Express & Echo sports desk when Tiverton won back-to-back Vases in 1998 and 1999, and I was the sports editor at the Echo in S********** when Winchester City (2004) and Sholing (2014) lifted the silverware. And don’t forget AFC Totton were beaten finalists in 2007, but at least they played in front of a crowd of over 35,000 in one of the first games to be held at the new Wembley.

So it’s about time a Portsmouth area club had a taste of Vase glory, isn’t it?

Of course, this weekend’s US Portsmouth v Christchurch tie will be different to others I’ve attended in one crucial aspect - I’ll be one of the few people sat in the Victory Stadium grandstand.

It is a crying shame spectators won’t be allowed in to watch what promises to be a cracking fourth round tie. We can now pack into pub beer gardens, stand in a long queue for Primark, but admitting several hundred spectators into an open-air football stadium is sadly beyond the government’s will ...

Returning to 1992, I was one of several thousand people shoehorned into Wimborne’s Cuthbury for the semi-final second leg with Bamber Bridge. There was no press box - just a press sofa, a dirty one that looked as if it had been salvaged from the local tip. It wasn’t comfortable, but I didn’t care. It was just a wonderful day watching the heart and soul of Pele’s beautiful game.

There were spectators perched on top of the two dugouts, others climbed precariously into trees to get the best view of history being created. Health and safety went out the window. A local barber, Trevor Ames, swapped scissors for football boots and scored the two goals that took Wimborne into dreamland. The trees were shaking when Ames drilled in his second from a free-kick.

There will be no fans anywhere inside the Victory Stadium on Saturday, let alone stood on top of US boss Glenn Turnbull’s dugout. I doubt if there are any trees giving a good view either.

But the rewards on offer are the same as they were for Alex Pike and his squad almost three decades ago. The chance to create memories that will last a lifetime, the opportunity to have legendary status bestowed upon them.

These are the games that will live on, long after routine league wins over Totton & Eling and Downton have faded.

US Portsmouth have already won through four Vase rounds, and beaten three higher division clubs in doing so. They are one of just six step 6 clubs left in the last 32.

Wembley is still a long way off - US will, most likely, have to beat four more higher division clubs just to reach the final on May 22.

Christchurch are a very good side. Don’t forget, they beat Gloucester City - who were topping the National League North when that season was abandoned in February - in an FA Cup tie last September, on penalties.

In the next round, they took another step 2 club, Hawks’ South rivals Dulwich Hamlet, to penalties as well before losing.

Against that, Christchurch only set up their Vase trip to Portsmouth by beating Falmouth (again, via the lottery of a spot-kick shoot-out). And the Cornish club play at the same level as USP, so no-one - thankfully - can predict cup football with any certainty. Life would be dull if we could.

Seven higher division scalps in one season is asking a hell of a lot, but hope has to spring eternal. And you only have to look at next month’s FA Trophy final for inspiration - Hornchurch, from the third tier of non-league football, have beaten six higher division clubs to book their Wembley place.

So it can be done. Dreams can come true.

I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes, surrounded by the steam of a Wembley bath interviewing a hazy-eyed manager who was able to cradle the FA Vase like a baby because of the goals of a full-time hairdresser ...