From a crowd of three to 90 minutes from Wembley – putting US Portsmouth’s FA Vase journey into remarkable context

To fully appreciate the scale of US Portsmouth’s incredible FA Vase achievement, a little context can go a very long way.

Thursday, 6th May 2021, 8:09 am
US Portsmouth celebrate their FA Vase fifth round victory at Tavistock last weekend. Picture: Martyn White.

There is ample evidence to suggest their 2020/21 odyssey earns them the right to dine at the top table when it comes to discussing the best runs in the tournament’s 47-year history.

This Saturday, Glenn Turnbull’s history-makers will walk out at a near-deserted Victory Stadium knowing victory over Binfield – a seventh higher division scalp in eight rounds – will take them, incredibly, unbelievably, to a Wembley final.

As the lowest ranked club left in the competition, they will start underdogs against Binfield. Of the 612 clubs who entered, they are the only one from step 6 of the non-league pyramid who were in the last eight, let alone the last four. In itself, that is remarkable; in the previous six seasons, only four step 6 clubs had reached the quarter-finals.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

A near empty Victory Stadium during US Portsmouth's FA Vase victory over Christchurch. But empty seats are nothing new to a club who once attracted a crowd of three for a Wessex League game. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

USP though, aren’t the first club from step 6 to reach the semis. In recent times, Bromsgrove Sporting (2016/17) and AFC St Austell (2014/15) have shown what is possible. The dream doesn’t have to die against Binfield.

Turnbull’s men wouldn’t even be the first step 6 side to actually lift the trophy - Truro City were the first to do it in 2006/07 and Kirkham & Wesham triumphed 12 months later.

Yet arguably USP’s achievement, should they beat Binfield, let alone go on and win the Vase, is an even better, far more romantic, tale.

Let us take a closer look at the two step 6 clubs to lift the Vase; they might have played at the same level as USP, but there the similarity comes to a crushing halt.

AFC Flyde celebrate after winning the FA Trophy final in 2019 - 11 years after their predecessors, Kirkham & Wesham, lifted the FA Vase. Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images.

Truro’s Wembley winning team contained Kevin Wills, who played over 30 professional games for Plymouth Argyle. Joe Broad and goal machine Stewart Yetton were others who had played in the EFL for Argyle. Another, Marcus Martin, had played for Exeter City in the Conference, and was in the Grecians side that drew 0-0 at Old Trafford in an FA Cup tie in front of over 67,000 fans.

Not one of USP’s squad has ever played as high as the top two tiers of non-league football. I can’t imagine one has played in front of a 6,700 crowd.

Truro were bankrolled by property developer Kevin Heaney; former professionals would not have signed for the club at that level of the pyramid if they were paying peanuts.

There is no sugar daddy at The Victory Stadium, no wealthy local businessman. Never has been, never will be. The players don’t get paid a penny. And under Navy rules and regulations, that’s not going to change anytime soon either.

Truro City celebrate winning the FA Vase final in 2007 - but their team contained a handful of former professionals with big game experience. Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images.

After beating Christchurch in the Vase fourth round last month, boss Glenn Turnbull took the players’ kit home with him to wash. I’m confident Dave Leonard, Truro’s manager in 2007, never had to do that.

Heaney oversaw a truly meteoric rise. From playing in the Western League Division 1 in 2006/07, by August 2011 - after four successive promotions - Truro were in the Conference South alongside Havant & Waterlooville, Woking, Dartford and Sutton.

Imagine US Portsmouth at National League South level? Thought not.

Kirkham & Wesham’s story is remarkably similar to Truro’s.

US Portsmouth secretary Bob Brady can recall some paltry crowds at the ground of the club who are currently the talk of Portsmouth area non-league football. Picture: Malcolm Wells

Millionaire David Haythornthwaite, a local businessman, took over the Lancashire club in 2007 when they were in the North West Counties League. Ambitiously, he stated his intentions to achieve EFL status by 2022. Many laughed, but he was 90 minutes away from achieving it.

Following their Vase win - in the one and only season they entered the competition - Haythornthwaite changed Kirkham & Wesham’s name to AFC Fylde. Like Truro, they quickly stormed up the pyramid. But unlike Truro, they reached the top flight of non-league football and in 2018/19, standing on the brink of the chairman’s EFL dream, were beaten play-off finalists at Wembley.

Eleven years on from their Vase success, they also lifted the FA Trophy. Again, can you imagine USP winning the Trophy in 2032?

In terms of size, the club dubbed ‘a bus stop in Gunwharf’ by AFC Portchester fans are far, far smaller than Bromsgrove Sporting and St Austell were when they reached the Vase semi-finals.

Bromsgrove attracted a crowd of over 3,300 for their home semi-final, St Austell almost 2,000.

Sadly, USP’s home tie with Binfield, like their ties against Christchurch, Tavistock and Flackwell Heath, has to be behind closed doors. But even if fans had been allowed in, with no restrictions, secretary Bob Brady would not have expected a four-figure attendance.

‘The ground’s capacity is 2,000,’ he said. ‘500 in the grandstand and 1,500 standing.

‘There was a lot of interest in the Flackwell game - I think we would have got 400/500.

‘It would have broken our attendance record easily. I remember we had 300-something when we played Sholing in the Vase a few years ago, and in 1999/2000 we had a similar crowd when we played Moneyfields.

‘The grandstand used to be pretty full most games but when Portsmouth got promoted to the Premier League (in 2003) the numbers dissipated. Then we were down to a core of 30-40.’

So the biggest game of the players’ lives, the biggest game in the club’s history, will be watched by just a sprinkling of club officials and media this weekend. I appreciate I am very lucky to be one of them.

But empty seats are nothing new at the Victory Stadium. After all, we are talking about US Portsmouth, the club with the following average home Wessex League crowds - 22 (2017/18), 25 (2018/19), 55 (2019/20) and 47 (2020/21).

According to a non-league facts website, USP ‘attracted’ a crowd of eight to a league game in 2017/18, and just seven watched a match in 2016/17. Think that’s low? In 2015/16, one Wessex fixture saw a recorded crowd of just three - three! - at The Victory Stadium.

Did Bromsgrove Sporting or St Austell - or Truro City or Kirkham & Wesham - ever play a home game in front of such a paltry attendance?

You’ll see bigger queues at a bus stop near Gunwharf than you would for a half-time Bovril at the Victory Stadium.

‘We’ve had crowds of three or four,’ Brady confirmed. ‘One game we played Whitchurch, it was in midweek in winter and it was raining.

‘We always produce a programme, and do the other things we’re expected to do, and it can be heart-wrenching when only two or three people turn up.

‘But you still have to go out and put on a show, and that’s what we did against Whitchurch - I think we won 5-0 that night.

‘We had weeks of getting 15-20 people. We’ve always tried to cover the referees’ fees through the gate receipts, and if we can’t do that then it comes out of the kitty.’

Northern League clubs have dominated the Vase in recent years, winning it eight times in nine seasons between 2008/09 and 2016/17, and Hebburn defeated league rivals Consett in last Monday’s delayed 2019/20 final.

Down in the south, the Wessex League possess a decent enough Vase history.

USP are only the seventh Wessex club since the league was formed in 1986 to progress to the last four. They are in some illustrious company as the previous six all progressed into the Southern League.

Three of them - Wimborne Town (1992), Winchester City (2004) and Sholing (2014) - won the silverware while AFC Totton lost to Truro City. Two others - Bashley (twice) and Poole Town - reached the semi-finals. On six of those seven occasions, those teams also won the Wessex League Premier title the same season - and Totton were only pipped by Gosport Borough on goal difference. USP, lest we forget, are from the second tier of the Wessex.

The likes of Poole, Winchester and Wimborne are the dominant team in their town/city location. Poole, to the best of my knowledge, have never been called a ‘bus stop near Harry Redknapp’s house’. In contrast, USP are the third ranked non-league club on Portsea Island behind Moneyfields and Baffins Milton Rovers.

As I said, context is everything.

By reaching the semi-finals, USP have achieved something Gosport Borough or Havant Town never managed. Borough twice reached the Vase quarter-finals, in 1976/77 and 2003/04, while Havant - then managed by Derek Pope, the current Hawks chairman - were beaten quarter-finalists in 1985/86.

They will achieve something Moneyfields never managed, or Baffins, AFC Portchester, Fareham Town, Horndean or Petersfield.

The scale of USP’s 2020/21 Vase run, though, goes far, far beyond a 15-mile radius of Portsmouth. And if they can claim one more higher division scalp, the club who once had a home crowd of three will be running out at a 90,000 capacity stadium ...