So far this season we’ve heard stories from fans that have supported their clubs since birth, others who’ve adopted a local team after settling away from home, and patriots who’ve proudly followed their nation abroad only to watch on helplessly as they get soundly pumped. We’ve covered matches from the Champions League final and major international tournaments, to relegation deciders and lower league playoffs. This week though, we’ve got a couple of firsts. Losing My Favourite Game is, after all, about recounting the most memorable defeat you’ve witnessed. In Tom Neal’s case, it just happened to be a defeat for a team he had no affiliation with just weeks before the game took place.
Tom runs Non-League Snapshots, a groundhopping video and photo blog that aims to tell the stories of lower league clubs around the country and the world. Tom was raised in Redcar and now lives in London working in sports broadcasting after he realised he was absolutely never going to make it as a professional footballer. In his role as a groundhopper, Tom has travelled across the country taking in the sights, sounds and unique smells of grassroots football, but perhaps never dreamed that his pastime would take him all the way to Wembley stadium.
Stockton Town 0-1 Thatcham Town
2018 FA Vase Final
20th May 2018
When I come home from work every evening, I drop my bag by the door and walk into the living room to greet my family. My son and daughter are usually running about, tearing the house apart, while my wife is just happy to finally get a minute to switch her brain off, and my dog greedily begs for dinner even though she’s just eaten. Greedy dog. Anyway, this daily journey brings me past one of my most prized possessions: it’s Stockton Town’s commemorative FA Vase Final shirt, signed by the team and framed on the wall. To me, it’s more than just a piece of football memorabilia. It sums up everything I love about non-league football.
Stockton, for those of you that don’t know, is a town in the North East of England, not too far from Middlesbrough. It has the widest high street in the UK, a fact that no one from the town will let you forget. I grew up in nearby Redcar (we have the oldest lifeboat in the world, which I’m sure you’ll agree is MUCH more impressive) and visited Stockton regularly; as a kid wanting to by Star Wars figures from Popcorn on Silver Street, to a teenager wanting to buy Star Wars figures from Popcorn on Silver Street, to an adult going to local gigs, experiencing the Stockton International Riverside Festival, and buying Star Wars figures from Popcorn on Silver Street. Also, I found a £20 note on the floor by the McDonalds once. In short, it’s a town that has a special meaning to me.
Flash forward to 2018. I’d been living in London for a few years and Non-League Snapshots had written a few articles, had a few photos published to newspapers and magazines, and made a few videos around various non-league clubs. So when two Teesside teams met in the semi-finals of the FA Vase that season, I made a decision. Whoever wins – the aforementioned Stockton or Marske United, a team from the village I lived in for seven years – I’d approach them about making a video for them to commemorate the day.
Stockton’s 2017/18 season was a rollercoaster to say the least. A woeful start to the season saw them go on a nine game losing streak that had them languishing in the bottom half of the table. Come September, though, they’d hit a bit of form. Seeing off Consett and Wickham in the early rounds of the FA Vase, they then dispatched two Merseyside teams in Bootle and City of Liverpool. West Auckland, two time winners of the first “World Cup” and joint-favourites to win the competition, were beaten in extra time, followed by comfortable wins against Stourport Swifts and Windsor which led to the semi-final. Beating Marske 2-0 in a blizzard in the first leg was a tremendous achievement, and nearly 2000 people filled Stockton’s Bishopton Road West to see them through to the final. Cue jubilant celebrations.
Before you know it, it’s the weekend of the Final. It’s Saturday, and sat across from me in a hotel conference room is Stockton Town’s chairman Martin Hillerby. It’s a scorching day and the sun is belting in through the floor-to-ceiling windows to the side of us. He’s agreed to let me film an interview with him for the video, and I apologise for making him melt in the sun while we did so. “Don’t worry about it”, he says, “nothing a few pints won’t sort out afterwards”. What speaks volumes about the club is that, despite the fact that I’ve only known them a few hours, they insist on me joining them in Central London for some beers by the river (after I get them lost on the Underground having said I’m an expert on London travel).
Bright and early the next morning I arrive at Wembley. I’ve been lucky enough to see a few cup finals at our national stadium, but what a fantastic advert for non-league football to see thousands of fans marching up Wembley Way, complete with team shirts, flags and scarves. Inside the stadium (after I spend about 45 minutes in the wrong queue to get in) the excitement builds. Fans pile in and belt out their famous “it’s wider than yours, Stockton High Street, it’s wider than yours” chant as the teams warm up. Setting my priorities straight, I make a beeline straight to the press box and eat the food like I’m stockpiling for World War 3, then waddle down the stairs to see Andy - who had kindly agreed to be interviewed for the video the day before - proudly announce the Stockton teams on the Wembley pitch. Great moment. I take my position alongside the pitchside photographers, only now realising that I should have brought some kind of stool to sit on. Then a leg snaps off my tripod, thus becoming a bi-pod.
As the game begins, my current situation seems to mirror Stockton’s; it’s a wonderful day - one that I’ll never forget - the atmosphere is incredible, the sun is shining and I take a moment to soak it in. But the moment passes and it all starts to go a bit wrong. My legs get numb (thanks to the aforementioned lack of a stool), the camera starts to overheat in the baking sunshine and Stockton concede a penalty. Their opponents are Thatcham Town, winners of the Hellenic League Premier Division that season. Their success in cup and league was due in no small part to the goalscoring contributions of one man: Shane Cooper-Clark (no relation to the poet John Cooper-Clarke). His astronomical goal tally for the season before the game stood at 61, eclipsing Messi’s 45, Salah’s 44 and Cristiano Ronaldo’s 43. In the 23rd minute after a mistimed challenge by James Ward, Cooper-Clark stands up to slot home his 62nd from the penalty spot.
It would be a lie to say it’s against the run of play, but Stockton spend the next hour giving it everything. Heroic defending from Thatcham denies a handful of golden opportunities for the Anchors, but sadly it’s just not to be. The penalty is (somehow) the only goal of the game, and a jubilant Thatcham Town walk up to collect their trophy, while Stockton pick themselves up and applaud the 5000 fans who travelled down from the North East for the occasion. It’s a deserved victory, there can be no doubt of that, but Stockton fans will come away wondering if on another day things could have been different.
Nonetheless, there’s no negativity from the fans, players or officials. The real victory, everyone agrees, was making it to Wembley in the first place. Only 10 days ago Stockton beat Dunston UTS away in front of a crowd of 131, and here they are in a cup final in one of the World’s most famous stadia. I spoke to the guys at the club the day before about how they would feel if the lost the game, which gives a clear picture of the club’s achievement: “Losing won’t be the end of the game for this football club” Chairman Martin Hillerby said, “as has been proved by the first nine games of the season - we lost the first nine games of the season…we finished sixth and we’re in the FA Vase Final, I think that says everything anybody wants to know about how this club will react to a knockback.”
Andy Clinton, in his no-nonsense Teesside fashion, sums it up perfectly, “we are on the map now…if someone says “Stockton Town, who are them?” The FA Vase Finalists 2018! We can’t go any further in this season than what we have, we’ve done what we wanted to”
For me personally, just like everyone else, it’s mixed emotions. We’re still yet to see a Teesside club win at Wembley, and the feeling of being so close and yet so far is hard to swallow in the immediate aftermath. But there’s one feeling that I feel more than anything else: pride. Pride in my region who have represented themselves so well on a national scale, pride in the club that I’m now happy to call my friends, and pride in what I’ve managed to experience myself. But also pride in non-league football in general: to see thousands of fans travel hundreds of miles to see their local teams, to see how a club can have such a positive effect on a community – especially in Teesside who have so sorely needed a feel-good story of late – and to see such quality and entertainment on offer so far down the pyramid.
Anyway, there’s always next year, right?
A massive thanks to Tom for sharing his experiences of following Stockton Town to Wembley. If you’d like to sample more of his Non-League Snapshots, you can follow the project on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.