Down in deepest Devon, Wembley’s iconic arch appears tantalisingly close for US Portsmouth’s FA Vase history-makers
Within minutes of US Portsmouth’s team coach pulling out of Tavistock’s Langsford Park, and via a quick visit to a Spa shop to stock up on celebratory beers, the rugged beauty of Dartmoor came into view; bathed in glorious early evening spring sunshine, the bucolic setting contrasted sharply with the cityscape the coach passengers are more familiar with.
But as the team bus made its way back home through country lanes and rolling meadows, something else - less tangible, for certain, but potentially even more beautiful to the USP players and management - appeared on the horizon … an iconic arch.
As they headed back up the A35, no doubt singing their songs and drinking their beers, football’s Holy Grail - Wembley - suddenly looked a lot, lot closer than it had on the four-hour trip down to the west country.
This is serious now. The 2020/21 FA Vase final is no longer a mirage, an unlikely end point to an unforgettable cup run, something to laugh and joke about without ever expecting it to become glorious, extraordinary reality.
THIS is the reality - US Portsmouth, from Division 1 of the Wessex League, the 10th tier of English football, the club who are just a ‘bus stop near Gunwharf’ according to some AFC Portchester fans, stand just two games from a major cup final at the national stadium.
Next Saturday they welcome Buckinghamshire club Flackwell Heath to the Victory Stadium for the quarter-final. For the third week running, it will be the biggest game in the club’s history. Win that, and it’s four weeks.
Professionals - highly-paid stars, Premier League players - have completed entire careers without ever getting this close to Wembley. The USP squad - who each paid £100 to sign on for the club last pre-season - are just 180 minutes from Portsea Island sporting immortality.
It goes without saying this is the closest any of them have ever got to The Stadium of Legends; the chance to sit in the dressing rooms, to take their selfies, to set foot on the same turf as those competing in Euro 2020.
Arguably, they will never get this close again. This is their one chance. As I say, this is serious now.
USP boss Glenn Turnbull revealed a conversation with skipper Tom Jeffes as the alcohol flowed on the coach journey back
‘Jeffers came up to the front - it’s the normal team coach, management at the front, card schools at the back - and we were talking. He said about the players at the back: ‘I don’t think they believe it, they’re laughing and joking about Wembley but I don’t actually think they believe it.
‘I said ‘I’m not sure I do!’ But Jeffers is right, we’re just two games from Wembley.
‘We’re 180 minutes away from the biggest day of all our lives.
‘Anyone can have a stadium tour, or buy a ticket for £45 to watch a game, but we can have all those things you see on the telly - the coach trip to the ground, going up the night before.
‘All those things are there for the players to grab now. They have just got to grab the opportunity.
‘I know the players laugh and joke but I’m sure they are fully aware of the importance and magnitude of the occasion, and what they’ve done so far.’
Tavistock were the fifth higher division side USP have dumped out in six Vase rounds so far. They have also beaten two higher tier clubs en route to the semi-finals of the Wessex League Cup.
Among their victims are Millbrook, who won 10 and drawn one of their 11 South West Peninsula League games before non-league football was curtailed in February.
Then they beat Christchurch, the team with the best record over the last two seasons in the Wessex Premier Division.
Now they have stunned Tavistock, who boasted the second best record over two seasons at Western League Premier level.
‘People were telling us they (Tavistock) are the best team down in their area. Forget Plymouth Parkway, they’re the best team,’Turnbull revealed after his side’s 3-1 fifth round win in west Devon.
It left me thinking ‘were they that bad or were we that good?’ Long may it continue.
‘We’re used to teams saying they didn’t play well, they didn’t turn up. Sooner or later, people are going to say it’s because we didn’t allow them to play well.
‘Can I believe we’re in the quarter-finals? No. Did I expect it? No. Do we deserve to be there - absolutely
‘We’ll be underdogs again next week. I see Flackwell Heath are second favourites - that’s probably because they’re playing the lowest-ranked side.
‘But I like being the underdog, I like that role.
‘The beauty of it now is that the next game is on Saturday. We can focus on that rather than people thinking about what we’ve done and what we could potentially do.’
A key to USP’s successes in recent years - they have the best record over two seasons in their own Wessex 1 tier - has been a superb team spirit. ‘Like the old Wimbledon ‘Crazy Gang’,’ Turnbull has admitted.
That was in evident at Tavistock - and not always on the pitch either.
‘The people who deserve a lot of credit are Frankie Paige, Jay Ripiner, Damien Kelsall and Cameron Quirke - the four subs who didn’t get on,’ explained the manager.
‘They were all involved, they were all dancing and singing at the end, but they didn’t get on to play.
‘John Cass came down, even though he wasn’t in the squad. Liam Kyle wasn’t in the squad but he came as well, and on his birthday.’
Josh Hazell was also there, sat in the stand and urging on his friends, after finding out last Thursday night that a booking picked up against Christchurch the previous weekend ruled him out of facing Tavistock.
‘I said to Josh that if he didn’t want to come I’d understand, but I told him ‘I would love you to be a part of it’ and he wanted to come,’ Turnbull remarked.
‘That just shows the camaraderie there is.
‘That is what we wanted when we took over.
‘There was already a good group of lads, but we just wanted to build on it. When we recruited the new signings had to be the right character and the right player.
‘All that and they had to want to play for nothing.
‘I still don’t think people believe me when I say the players don’t get paid.
‘The guy from the Non-League Paper (after the Tavistock game) asked me what their win bonus was. I said ‘they get to play next week - that’s their win bonus!’
‘When we signed players we said ‘this is what we can offer you - professional facilities, professional coaching, the best tracksuits, the best balls that we can afford.
‘The guys had to buy their own tracksuits the first season.
‘The sad thing is, it’s not sustainable. What bargaining tools would I have next year, or the year after?’
Of course, Turnbull won’t be at USP next season - he takes over as Moneyfields manager when a history-making 2020/21 campaign is over.
Some of the players will follow him to Dover Road, others will remain. So while this is the current squad’s best opportunity to reach Wembley, it is also their last chance.’
‘If we go out, if we get beat, next week, the semi, the final, so long as we’ve given it all … that’s all you can ask for,’ Turnbull stated.
‘So long as you get beaten by the better side. That’s what happened at Tavistock - they can’t have any complaints, the better side won.
‘To go out in a game now and not turn up, that would be criminal.
‘That’s the message we’ll be trying to get out to the players. Try and forget about the occasion, just focus on your football.
‘That’s what I said on Saturday before the game. I said ‘just relax, we’re here now - let’s not get too wound up. Just go out and play.’