20 May 2018 – A LIFE OF PIE

Stockton Town 0 Thatcham Town 1 – Buildbase FA Vase final

In the end, it wasn’t a fairy tale ending for Stockton’s season.

But they could leave the national stadium with their heads held high. It has been a remarkable Vase campaign for the Anchors men, they just came up a little bit short. But not by much.

In the opening minutes they started well – knocking the ball around to settle nerves. Both full-backs, Joe Carter and James Ward, pushed forward to launch early Stockton attacks. At the other end, Thatcham’s Ekow Elliott was posing the biggest threat to the Stockton defence with direct runs at pace.

In the 21st minute the Anchors have a great chance to take the lead when a three-man move involving Jamie Owens, Fred Woodhouse and Chris Stockton, leaving the No.15 with a shooting chance only to see him closed down before he could get an effort away. Within a minute they were behind.

Thatcham’s No.20 Jordan Brown made a darting run into the box and went down after contact with Ward. Referee John Brooks awarded a penalty and Shane Cooper-Clark despatched the spot kick, despite Stockton keeper Michael Arthur getting an arm to it, but he could only deflect it into the net.

It was a turning point in the half. Thatcham began to take control of the game while Stockton starting making poor decisions and sending passes astray. They started to look flat and lacking pace. Thatcham, on the other hand, were getting first to loose balls and were looking sharper and quicker.

In both halves, their front players: Cooper-Clark, Gavin James and Elliott looked more dangerous than their Stockton counterparts, and in man of the match Baboucarr Jarra, they had the lynchpinof a very solid back line.

Stockton improved in the second half. Chris Stockton had another chance in the 47th minute that was blocked by the Thatcham defence and a couple of minutes after that Owens had another shot, but pulled it wide of the right hand post. Just after the hour mark substitute Matthew Garbutt send over a cross across the Thatcham box, just out of the reach of Owens.

But it was Thatcham who came closest to scoring in the half: In the 65th minute James hits the bar with a shot, with the ball bouncing on to the line and then spinning out. Their second chance came in the dying seconds of the game when Stockton had piled 10 players up for a corner, including Arthur. Thatcham broke from the corner, leaving Garbutt as the only man back – up against three attackers. Thatcham’s Ross Cook tried a long-range effort with the goal gaping, but the Stockton man just managed to slide in time to clear it, only yards from the line.

Stockton centre back Tom Coulthard had their best two chances: in the 80th minute seeing a shot deflected for a corner and then in the last minute of normal time, rising to meet a corner with a free header, but he couldn’t get it on target.

In the last 15 minutes Stockton had their best spell of the game – throwing men forward and winning a series of corners, without really testing Thatcham keeper Chris Rackley.

And then, all of a sudden it was all over.

At the final whistle, the two managers embraced in congratulations and commiserations.

After receiving their runners-up medals, the players stayed on the pitch to watch and applaud the Thatcham squad as they got their winners medals and lifted the cup. Afterwards the players, manager and coaching staff talked to the media rather than sloping off.

Manager Michael Dunwell said: “The team’s deflated but we’ve got to go again next season. We couldn’t have given it any more in the second half. With a little bit more luck we might have nicked a goal. We thought an equaliser was coming. We needed a bit of quality and luck but we didn’t have that today.

“We’ll dust ourselves down and enjoy the night because we deserve to – having had a great season. Unfortunately we failed at the final hurdle. We’re disappointed but also proud of what we have achieved. What we have done has been amazing, remembering where we were at the start of the season: nine defeats and bottom of the division, but finishing sixth and reaching the Vase final.

“I’d like to thank all the fans. We’ll never forget walking out to that reception. That will live with us for the rest of our lives. They were superb, we can’t thank them enough. Some started travelling at 4-5am to get here, will go straight back after the game and be back at work on Monday.

“We will give it another go next season and want to push on through the leagues.”

Club captain Adam Nicholson said: “We have come a long way in a short space of time. Naturally we are disappointed but once the pain of defeat wears off, we will realise what we have done this season.

“We want to thank every single fan. They gave unbelievable support to the lads and we’re just sorry we couldn’t bring the Vase back home for them, but we did everything we could. It’s been an amazing achievement – from two years ago being in the Wearside League to running out at the national stadium. The fairy tale has come to an end. It was a bit surreal watching the cup final on Saturday thinking: ‘Tomorrow we’ll be there’.

“Once the dust has settled, we’ll re-group in the summer and look to progress in the league next season.”

PS – Before kick-off, the Stockton fans serenaded the stadium with the “Stockton High Street is wider than yours” song. Who’d have thought they’d be singing that at Wembley when they joined the league?