Football: Vase candidates seek respect and a happy day at Wembley

OLIVIA BLAIR ON the non-league tussle to reach the twin towers
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The Independent Online
THE prospect of being 90 minutes (plus a replay and penalty shoot- out, if the quarter-finals are any benchmark) from Wembley is doubtless preoccupying fans in Wolverhampton, half of Sheffield, north London (N5) and, to a lesser degree, in Newcastle (where they have less salubrious matters on their minds).

But it has become nothing short of an obsession down in the West Country, and especially in the Potteries town of Kidsgrove and in tiny Tow Law in County Durham, a town put on the map by Chris Waddle, who famously combined skinning sausages with skinning defenders while playing for the Northern League club before swapping their black and white stripes for a more famous variety.

After all, Arsenal (12 visits), Newcastle (11), Wolves (8) and Sheffield United (6) all know what the inside of Wembley looks like, whereas Taunton Town, Tiverton Town, Kidsgrove Athletic and Tow Law Town, who contest the second legs of their FA Carlsberg Vase semi-finals this afternoon, have just two visits to the Twin Towers between them: Tiverton contested the Vase final in 1993, Taunton the following year.

The Tow Law secretary Bernard Fairbairn, whose association with the club goes back 37 years, admits: "We're trying to keep our feet on the ground, but of course we're excited. Tow Law's population is only around 2,000, but we're expecting a crowd of 1,000-plus for this game."

Apparently, they are "confident, but not over-confident" of winning their second leg against Taunton after returning from the West Country with a 4-4 draw. Ominously for Taunton, three of Tow Law's defenders were on the mark. "We'll be looking for our forwards to do something this time," admits Fairbairn.

Taunton, however, boast 31-goal striker Mark Cutler (who scored a brace in the first leg), the best record of any side in the competition (a 78.26 per cent success rate) and, according to press reports, they fancy themselves a bit away from home, too.

But Taunton's biggest spur is probably the 2-0 advantage Tiverton hold from their first leg against Kidsgrove. Taunton and Tiverton are currently battling it out at the top of the Screwfix Direct Western League - Taunton have led for the best part of the season but Tiverton, with two games in hand, have caught up - and are also on course to meet in the semi-finals of their League Cup.

The prospect of these arch rivals meeting in the Vase final is a mouth- watering one, at least for West Country football fans. As the Taunton chairman Tom Harris admits: "It would be a real fillip for the West Country were both teams to reach Wembley. There were 14,500 there when we lost to Diss Town, and they're from East Anglia. Heaven knows how many would turn up for a local derby."

But Tiverton have still to overcome Kidsgrove who, like Manchester United, appear to have peaked too early this season: favourites to win North-West Counties League Division One, they have slipped up in recent weeks. However, the FA Vase is no different to any other cup competition in that league form counts for nothing, and the Tiverton manager, Martyn Rogers, who described the first leg as a "hard-fought, close encounter in which we took our chances and they didn't take theirs" expects a similar tussle in the second leg.

"Even though we lost in 1993 it was one of the best days in this club's history," says Rogers. "This time we want to go to Wembley and win."

Not to mention, of course, pick up the pounds 14,100 cheque Carlsberg will present to the winners, a huge carrot for non-League clubs of this size. The players, too, are on win bonuses, although not big ones. Because, according to Tony Williams, editor of non-League magazine Team Talk: "Most of the players at this level view their football as a glorified hobby. They are local lads who have good jobs and choose not to play professionally. They are essentially big fish in a little pool, and they like it like that."

That is not to say that it does not infuriate Williams that football at this level "doesn't get the respect it deserves. Many of these clubs get better crowds than Scottish Second and Third Divisions clubs (Taunton had 1,569 against Tow Law, while Tiverton had 1,885 against Kidsgrove) but still get little or no press coverage."

Yet the interest is undeniably there: evidence of that comes in the form of the hugely popular non-League equivalent to Rothmans, the Non-League Directory, which has featured in the sports best-seller lists since its launch 20 years ago.

Its biggest fan is the astrologer and television presenter Russell Grant, a passionate fan of Hillingdon Borough of the Spartan South Midlands League, who have never won the Vase in its 24-year history (it replaced the Amateur Cup in 1974).

Grant will inevitably be at Wembley on 9 May for the final, but he will not be consulting planetary aspects to predict the winner. The only stars that will have a bearing on the outcome of that game will be those on the pitch.

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