One match from Wembley

On Saturday I went to see Wealdstone’s FA Trophy semi-final second leg against Brackley Town on behalf of Simon Ricketts because he’s in hospital and unable to attend.

Having been encouraged by his progress a couple of weeks ago, he’d taken a turn for the worse since I last visited him and was back in intensive care when I went back on Thursday. It was upsetting to see him sedated, unconscious and hooked up to all sorts of machines. The nurse encouraged me to talk to him and so I said I’d go along to the match and give Wealdstone a cheer for him.

I’ve always had a soft spot for non-league football. When I first started working as a journalist, I spent a season or so covering the local non-league sides. Thinking I was clever, I once started a match report with the words: ‘Pointless Harefield United...’ after they’d lost about their eighth consecutive match at the start of the season and had yet to get off the mark. When the paper came out their manager rang up the sports desk asking to speak to me and I had to convince him I wasn’t trying to be smart. I think they won their next game, so perhaps he pinned the newspaper cutting up on the dressing room wall as motivation.

Wealdstone have a famous history and were 90 minutes from a return to Wembley despite having lost the first leg 1-0. They were the first team to do the non-league ‘Double’, winning the Alliance Premier League (later known as the Conference, now the National League) and FA Trophy in 1985. They’re the club that gave the world Stuart Pearce and Vinnie Jones and there’s a no-nonsense edge to some of the supporters too.

It’s been a long journey to get back to within touching distance of the top tier of non-league football for the Stones. As has happened to many clubs, they lost their ground when it was sold to a supermarket and that led to a long nomadic period of groundhopping. They spent a couple of seasons at Watford’s Vicarage Road, paying a ludicrous rent to play in an empty stadium, then moved to share grounds at Yeading, Edgware and Northwood before finally taking over Ruislip Manor’s ground about a decade ago.

There’s something charming about the hodgepodge of structures that provide cover for the supporters at their home, Grosvenor Vale. They’re all corrugated iron, scaffold poles and advertisements for local firms. The stands all have names that recognise the club’s history or people who have played their part. Couch Corner is named after Ray Couch, a statistician, apparently. There’s also Collins Corner, the Mick Wells Stand, the Bulla Stand and the 1966 Stand, to recognise the year the club won the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley. In one corner is a brick gun turret, which was used to provide machine gun cover for the neighbouring airfield during the Second World War, and another corner is apparently known as ‘dead fox corner’ because a dead fox was found there when a group of supporters arrived to do some renovation work one summer.

Brackley were too good for Wealdstone and deserved to go through, so I couldn’t relay the news to Simon that his team had made it to Wembley, but I enjoyed the game. I had a very strong cup of tea from Lynn’s Gourmet Burger bar – the sort of tea that would make even a hodcarrier wince a bit. The crowd was huge – surely more than the 2,008 announced over the tinny tannoy. It struck me how many young people were in the crowd too – no doubt encouraged by the fact it’s relatively affordable and they can stand near their friends, which is not easy at Premier League and Championship matches – and some of the shouts from the terraces were funny and unrepeatable. Non-league players – and goalkeepers, in particular – need to develop a thick skin because they can surely hear everything that’s shouted at them.