Sunday, 24 March 2013

Tunbridge Wells 2 v 0 Shildon

Saturday 23rd March 2013
Culverden Stadium, Tunbridge Wells
FA Vase Semi-Final First Leg
Admission: £6.00
Programme: £1.50
Attendance: 1,754
Match Rating: 4

Tunbridge Wells Football Club will always have a special place in my heart, having been brought up in the area and attended secondary school in the town, as well as regularly attending games in my younger, pre-groundhopping years. So when the club – these days a completely amateur outfit – completed the quite remarkable achievement of reaching the FA Vase semi-final, there was no way I was going to miss out on the club’s biggest day in its history.

Whether that would be today remained hugely in the balance almost right up to kick-off. The pitch at Tunbridge Wells is always liable to waterlogging, and heavy rain early in the week meant that a Friday afternoon pitch inspection was necessary before the Shildon team headed down from County Durham. Further heavy rain on Friday night put paid to many games in the south-east, and I considered there little chance of this game surviving the weather. Indeed, the pitch at the Culverden Stadium actually failed an 8.30 pitch inspection on Saturday morning, however the club appealed for volunteers to fork the pitch, and at 11.30, the referee tentatively declared that the pitch would be fit for action as long as the weather did not take a turn for the worse. As I arrived at the ground at about 1.45, there was a long queue from the turnstiles through the car park, as it turned out that the game was still not officially on – something of a surprise as conditions had not deteriorated in the previous couple of hours - with the referee making a final pitch inspection and then consulting both managers before the game could go ahead. Happily, the match referee gave the green light and the crowds poured into the Culverden Stadium and meant that Shildon’s 600 mile round trip would not be wasted.

A couple of ground improvements had been made for today’s game, with a rather rudimentary, temporary scaffolding type stand erected behind one third of the length opposite the main stand, offering four steps of standing room. A catering van was brought in for hot refreshments, with gazebo area selling club merchandise and showing the Kent Senior Trophy, which Tunbridge Wells will contest in the final at Tonbridge next month. The 32 page programme surprisingly did not have its usual (for this season) attractive stadium painting cover, but inside followed a similar slant although focusing exclusively on the FA Vase throughout.

Today’s match would be a rather intriguing encounter with an amateur club from the south coast taking on a club from the Northern League, from which clubs traditionally seem to do very well in the FA Vase. Both teams are in mid-table in their respective leagues. Tunbridge Wells are in tenth place in the 17 team Kent League, although with at least four games in hand on all teams above them. Shildon are in a very similar position – in eleventh place in the 24 team Northern League, but with between three and eleven games in hand on all teams above them. To reach this stage of the FA Vase – the first time for both clubs – Tunbridge Wells beat Wantage Town 2-0 at home, Binfield 1-2 away after extra time, the FA Vase holders Dunston UTS 1-0 at home, Larkhall Athletic 3-4 away after extra time, and finally Hadleigh United 2-0 at home in the Quarter-Final. Shildon have been Liversedge 3-2 at home, South Shields 2-3 away, Consett 2-3 away, Parkgate 3-1 at home, Bitton 0-2 away, Brantham Athletic 1-4 away and finally Ascot United 1-4 away after a 1-1 draw at home.

On an overcast afternoon that was bitterly cold although mercifully dry, the pitch already looked very wet and muddy before the teams warmed up on it, and unsurprisingly increasingly became something of a mudbath as the game wore on. The first half was a very even affair and was surprisingly entertaining, although the poor conditions meant that players often had trouble keeping their fit and made some rather comical miskicks. Both sides had reasonable chances to open the scoring, Tunbridge Wells possibly having slightly the better of them, although the scoreline remained blank at half-time.

Shildon, backed by quite an impressive band of supporters, came out early for the second half for a motivational huddle on the pitch, and they certainly grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, as they controlled the early stages of the second half, and by midway through the second half, it looked only a matter of time that they would open the scoring, such was the pressure they were applying in the final third. However out of nothing – indeed on a counter-attack from a Shildon attack, Tunbridge Wells took the lead on 77 minutes. The ball was eventually played across the penalty area to an unmarked Andy Irvine, who took control of the ball before placing a shot past the keeper from the corner of the six yard box. Tunbridge Wells certainly needed to take a lead north for the second leg to have a good chance of reaching the final, and they were given the opportunity of taking a more comfortable lead six minutes from time, when the Shildon defender Flynn made a rather reckless, sliding tackle just inside the box and the referee had little hesitation in awarding a penalty. Jon Pilbeam sent the keeper the wrong way, confidently slotting the ball into the bottom right corner. The tide had turned and although Shildon had a couple of half chances to pull a goal back, but in truth, Tunbridge Wells showed their superior fitness levels to end the game the stronger side. So Tunbridge Wells take a two goal lead to the north-east, but the tie is far from over, and much will depend on what happens in the first half of the second leg. But for Tunbridge Wells, the dream of becoming the first Kent League team to reach the FA Vase final since 2000 goes on

Video highlights at

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