Tunbridge Wells FC versus Hadleigh United FC
FA Vase Quarter Final
Saturday 2nd March 2013
Final Score: 2-0
The historic, yet sleepy town of Tunbridge Wells can hardly be described as football country. Whilst there are well supported teams locally (Tonbridge Angels, Maidstone Utd), with no disrespect to the two clubs, they are still only non-league clubs and rank fairly low in the scheme of football. Kent can only currently boast one league team (Gillingham).
However, this isn’t to say that there is a buzz around certain matches even at lower levels than the teams mentioned. Football in the Garden of England is as popular as anywhere else and when a game described as “the most important in the club’s history” is set to be played on your doorstep, the locals will come… and come in their droves.
Whilst I’ve previously covered the FA Vase and its importance to grass-roots football, it’s only in the latter rounds that the interest really starts rising. A place at Wembley for the proverbial butcher, baker and candlestick maker becomes a very real possibility.
Local interest had gathered around Tunbridge Wells and surrounding areas for their quarter final Vase tie after they had disposed of current holders Dunston UTS in the previous round. The club had never been to the Quarter Finals before and this was a landmark occasion. It was expected that the club could top its biggest ever attendance (967) what with local, larger clubs Tonbridge Angels and Maidstone both playing away, potentially swelling the numbers through the gate.
Their opposition was Hadleigh United – a team who ply their trade in the fantastically-named Thurlow Nunn Eastern Counties League and are based just outside of Ipswich. At this stage of the competition, there are no more regional ties. For instance, Guernsey FC faced Midlands club Walsall Wood in what was a round trip of over 550 miles – some considerable distance and outlay in money for Step 5 clubs.
I arrived at Tunbridge’s ground with plenty of time to spare. Truth be told, we had tried to get into the local pub but was completely packed to the rafters… an omen that the ground was going to be heaving. Even an hour before kickoff, Culverden was swelling with more supporters than what an average league game gets. The queue at the turnstiles was ever growing and club officials scurried around to erect a makeshift entrance complete with pasting table, raffle tickets and money tin.
Culverden, home of Tunbridge Wells FC, is a curious little ground. Located just north of the town, it’s surrounded by attractive woodland and rolling countryside. The turnstile end is where the majority of the support congregated. Its steep terracing running the width of the pitch gives good views for spectators. Down the right-hand side resides the covered stands, half of which contains seating for 100 or so spectators. The changing rooms are located on the halfway line and the far end is off limits (usually… I, along with a few younger fans snuck behind there) as the ground steeply falls away right behind the goal. Overall, it has a dilapidated, typical Step 5 charm about it. With the terraces packed, it gave the place an added dimension.
Everyone was in party spirits. Stewards wearing coloured afros. The red and blue of Tunbridge evident wherever you looked. The catering girls all wore glitter hats and big smiles. There was even a stall where Tunbridge-emblazoned balloons were being offered out. Culverden was ready to rumble, FA Vase style.
The two teams emerged with a horde of photographers capturing the moment. I had decided not to request pitchside access on this occasion as I wanted to continuously wander and capture the essence of the day from all angles. Sometimes when sitting the other side of the fence, I get lazy and only focus on the run of play… missing the point of these occasions all together. Not today.
Tunbridge, cheered on by the majority started much the brighter. Hadleigh’s goal was under siege for the opening exchanges and it was clear that the home side wanted to take advantage of their “12 man” (the crowd). The Wells’ Tom Davey, Jon Pilbeam, Andy McMath and Lewis Mingle all threatened to score early on. Hadleigh had the odd chance, but poor finishing saw the scoreline remain goalless.
Then on 36 minutes, Tunbridge’s pressure paid off when Andy Irvine drove a shot home from just a few yards out to send the masses into euphoria.
The second half continued where the first had left – Tunbridge very much on the offensive. However, their pressure hadn’t resulted in a second goal and whilst the tie remained one-nil, you felt that Hadleigh only had to sneak a chance to send the game to extra time.
Any hope for the visitors was snuffed out when Jack Harris pinpointed a cross towards the penalty spot where Andy Irvine was found, once again, in the right place at the right time, and poked home just in front of his marker. The noise was incredible. This was the safety net that the ever increasingly anxious Wells supporters had craved. The rest of the game carried on with Tunbridge not resting on their laurels and looking for a third. It never came, but it didn’t matter. A full time result of 2-0 was more than enough to see Tunbridge Wells through to the Semi-Finals of the FA Vase, where they will face the winners of Ascot United and Shildon.
After the final whistle, the pitch was covered in jubilant Tunbridge fans. They greeted their part-time heroes with well wishes, hugs and a spraying of champagne. These scenes showed just how much the win meant to the club.
So, did they break the record attendance for Culverden? Of course… they smashed it. 1,180 people turned out to watch what was a cracking, whole-hearted game of football played in a very friendly and welcoming place. Perfect!