Football: Taunton primed to turn the tables

FOR WEST COUNTRY football folk who pay attention to events outside the Nationwide League, Taunton Town versus Tiverton Town is just about the biggest game in the season's calendar.

It is a fixture that in recent years has had a big influence on the outcome of the Screwfix Direct Western League title race, which has been won by Tiverton four times in the past five years and by Taunton in 1996.

Both sides could probably hold their own in the Conference but, for geographical and financial reasons, they have been content with regional football at a lower level - until now, that is. Tiverton have applied for promotion to the Dr Martens League this summer.

If the Devon side do go up, it will bring to an end their active rivalry with Taunton. The club from the Somerset county town left the Southern League due to a lack of funds in 1983, and they do not feel ready to return.

Tomorrow, though, when the two sides meet at Taunton's Wordsworth Drive ground, much more than league points and regional pride will be at stake. The prize for the winners of two all-ticket semi-final legs is a place in the final of the FA Carlsberg Vase at Wembley in May, against either Bedlington Terriers or Thame United.

If Tiverton prevail after the second leg at their Ladysmead home tomorrow week, it will be their third trip to Wembley. They lost the 1993 Vase final to Bridlington Town, but were victorious against Tow Law Town in the same event last year.

After leading until they conceded a penalty in the ninth minute of second- half injury time, Taunton were beaten in extra time of the 1994 Vase final by Diss Town, so their hunger for success this year may be greater. They have played second fiddle to Tiverton in recent seasons, but now they feel they have the edge at last over their great rivals.

After Tiverton's 2-1 defeat at Bridport on Tuesday, Taunton have a 12- point lead at the top of the Western League over the champions and the Vase holders, and they have played one fewer game. "This year we feel we are at least equal with them, if not better," the Somerset side's manager, Russell Musker, said. "We can certainly compete."

The ambition for Musker and his men is not just to reach Wembley but to make up for last season, when Taunton were beaten by Tow Law in the Vase semi-finals.

"I've never been so disappointed in all my footballing career," the former Bristol City and Torquay United midfielder said.

"We lost to a side that nine times out of 10 we would have beaten. Everybody at the club was gutted."

This year, though, it could be Taunton's turn to smile.

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