Stockton and Thatcham Town will head to Wembley Stadium tomorrow with one thing on their mind – winning the Buildbase FA Vase – but it’s been a great season for either side, no matter who wins and loses.
The Kingfishers had previously only reached the quarter-final stage, where they lost to Hungerford Town in 1989, but boss Danny Robinson is keen to suceed at the National Stadium in order to build the Teesside club’s fanbase in the local community.
Speaking to the FA website ahead of their meeting with Stockton, the former Alresford Town and Winchester City co-manager said: “To get promoted was always the main aim for us.
“Then with the Vase it’s just see how far you get, to get to the Final will be the biggest game in the club’s history by a country mile.
“The squad’s brilliant, we trained this week at the Madejski stadium. Reading were brilliant to let us have that and all the lads are bouncing, they can’t wait.
“17 of them have got one of the most memorable days in their lives really, let alone football.
“Around the town you see scarves, flags and everything, it’s surreal.
“You walk to get a pint of milk in the shop and you’re getting asked questions and everyone’s talking about Wembley, it’s absolutely amazing!
“Thatcham’s only really a dot on the map and to generate almost 5,000 supporters going up is phenomenal.”
The Kingfishers produced a magical 40-game unbeaten run in order to win promotion, as well as reaching the Vase final, and Robinson admitted his side’s form was relative to the recent prolificy of striker Shane Cooper-Clark.
The former Bracknell Town striker has netted over sixty times this term, thus playing a pivotal role in the club’s historic season.
“He’s [Cooper-Clark] fully fit and he looked even better in training last night, I won’t ever tell him that to his face!” Robinson said to The FA.
“He’s a threat but he’s a wonderful kid as well, he’s down to earth, there’s no heirs or graces about him, what you see is what you get and he’s a pleasure to work with.
“We’ve actually had two cup finals over the last few weeks which we’ve lost.
“It’s human nature and the players are just focused on one of the biggest games of their lives so I can take that one on the chin, as long as we win on Sunday!”
Although, standing in the way of Thatcham, are a club who only began playing senior football nine years ago.
Founded in 1979 as Hartburn Juniors, the Club was founded as a means of providing youngsters a chance to regularly play football although, they became a senior club after becoming frustrated that their talented youngsters would move on to other non-league clubs.
And it’s been quite a meteoric rise for the Anchors, chairman Martin Hillerby admitted to The FA.
“It’s taken a while to get my head around it because we’ve literally come from nothing,” he said.
“When I started at the club everyone was getting changed in the back of a car in the car park. We were just a youth side; we had to carry out our goals and set up the pitches.
“We’re now playing in a major national final as an established senior side and I have no doubt that it’ll be quite emotional on the day.”
The Anchors were denied promotion on three different occasions during their inaugral seasons, with Hillerby admitting that it left him on rock bottom.
They won the Wearside League title twice – including a 104-point finish in 2014. Having applied for promotion to the Northern League that year, they were turned away due to their facilities.
For the third time Stockton Town won the League but, despite preparing work for a new home, the Club lost a legal battle to complete its construction and could not move up the non-league system.
“I had to sit down with the management and players and tell them that it’s happened again. I had to look these guys in the eye and tell them the bad news.
“I told them that if they wanted to walk away and play at a higher level they could with my blessing.
“Every last one of them stuck by us and said if we believed it could be done then they’ll stay around and give it another year.
“At that point I spoke to Stockton Sixth Form College to help us try and develop our facilities. They agreed to help
“We got funding from Sport England and the Football Foundation via Football Stadia Improvement Fund and within nine months we had a new stadium and we won the league for a fourth time. It’s a story of highs and lows but I cannot thank the college, the local authority and the governing bodies enough.”
Now though, over 80% of the current squad have progressed through the youth system – showing true testament to the player’s commitments to the Club and the potential that the Wearside team have in non-league.
“Our success is all done by what we raise ourselves, people’s good will and the fact that Stockton people want to play for Stockton Town.
“That’s the real incredible story behind this. We’ve made huge progress in the last three or four years.
“We’ve already made a statement this year but we don’t want to stop. We’re ambitious and we want to push on. A cup win would raise the profile of the club around the country.”
The road to Wembley
Stockton’s journey to Wembley began in September – with an eventual 4-3 win over Consett in extra-time.
The Anchors then reached the last 16 with wins over Wichkham, Bootle, City of Liverpool and West Auckland Town, before beating Stourpot Swifts 3-0 to ensure progression to the quarter-finals.
Windsor were beaten in the last eight before Stockton beat Northern League Division One winners Marske United 3-2 on aggregate to reach the National Stadium – in just their second appearance in the national competition.
Meanwhile, Thatcham entered the competition with a 2-1 win over Horsham YMCA. In the following round, the Kingfishers eased past Broadridge Heath with a 8-2 victory. Victorys over Sevenoaks Town, Biggleswade and Bromsgrove Sporting eventually saw the Teesside club reach the quater-final, where they beat Melksham Town 0-1.
Thatcham Town finally reached the final with a 4-3 aggregate win over 1874 Northwich, winning the second leg 2-3 after a 1-0 home first leg win.
You can follow live coverage as Stockton and Thatcham Town go head-to-head for the Buildbase FA Vase tomorrow. Simply follow us on Twitter here and keep an eye out for when we tweet a link to our live blog.