AT 1,000 feet above sea level, overlooking Weardale in rural County Durham, Tow Law always has been pretty close to the stars. Between 1888 and 1934 Thomas Espin used a telescope in the vicarage garden there to discover and catalogue some 2,575 celestial bodies. He was not, however, responsible for finding the most celebrated star unearthed at Tow Law. It was on the sloping pitch at Ironworks Road, the highest football ground in England, that the sparkling talent of the hunched-shouldered Chris Waddle was detected.
"He had the same laid-back way," Bernard Fairbairn recalled. "His style never changed." Fairbairn has been an official of Tow Law Town for 38 years. As secretary, he conducted the negotiations which took the waddling Waddle from the Northern League to Newcastle. "We got three instalments of pounds 500," he recalled. Such was the price of a Tow Law starlet back in 1980. These days there is a whole team of stars at Ironworks Road. On Saturday they will be found beneath the twin towers at Wembley.
The FA Vase was made for clubs like Tow Law Town, mid-table members of the Arnott Insurance Northern League. When they won through to the final last month, beating Taunton Town 5-4 on aggregate, they did so with more than half of the County Durham outpost's 2,000 population hugging the touchline at Ironworks Road. The celebrations lasted long in to the night in what is more of a one-street village than a town - a collection of terraced houses and shops strung out along the A68. Glasses were even raised, and not in anger, to Graham Kelly. Peter Quigley, the Tow Law manager, made a point of thanking the Football Association's chief executive "for giving true players, who turn out on freezing cold nights just for expenses, the opportunity to play at Wembley".
Trevor Laidlaw is particularly grateful for the chance he will get when the Lawyers line up against Tiverton Town, pride of the Screwfix Direct Western League. At 28 he works as a car window fitter on Tyneside, having failed to make the professional grade at Doncaster. As a 12-year-old he starred in the Northumberland team that won the National Association of Boys' Clubs trophy. So did another forward who will be wearing black and white stripes in a Wembley cup final this month.
"He is the best player in the world now," Laidler said of Alan Shearer, whom at one time he even kept out of the county side. "Our careers could not have been more different. But now I'm going to play in a cup final at Wembley, just like him. It's a dream come true. Some top professionals never get to play there."
Laidler's present strike partner appreciates that more than most. Jarrod Suddick's father was a professional for 16 years. Alan Suddick played for Newcastle at 17 and won three England under-23 caps. He won the Second Division championship with Newcastle in 1965 and the Anglo Italian Cup with Blackpool in 1971. But he never made it to Wembley. Jarrod was offloaded by Sunderland. He scored the goal that got Tow Law to the Vase final. "Perhaps going to Wembley will make up for a few of the disappointments he's had," Suddick senior said.
The Tow Law team do include one player of European, let alone Football League, experience. Paul Hague, their veteran centre-half, once of Leyton Orient and Gillingham Town, played for Cork City against Cwmbran and Galatasaray in the European Cup four seasons ago. But Quigley's side otherwise comprises the "true" grass-roots part-timers who will be savouring the day of their football lives on Saturday. They will do so with the backing of twice the town's population.
"We're expecting to have 4,000 supporters travelling," Fairbairn said. "Everyone in the town and surrounding area seems to be coming." Such has been the outbreak of Wembley fever not one but two Vase final songs have been released in honour of Quigley's Lawyers. The official ditty, "All Our Dreams Are Coming True", was recorded in the lounge of the Black Horse a fortnight ago. "Tell me, tell me I'm not dreaming," the chorus goes. "Don't say this isn't true. Tow Law are going to Wembley. Our dreams are coming true."
It certainly has for Sam Gordon, who at the age of 10 will be the youngest member of Tow Law's Wembley party. He was contemplating his first match on the sidelines for four years until those good people at the FA dropped their rule banning mascots at cup finals. It may be an omen, but even if the playing Lawyers fail to score a Wembley victory when Saturday comes they will join good company. Les Ferdinand only has one medal from his career in domestic club football: as a loser with Southall in the 1986 Vase final.
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