County Durham non-league side Consett AFC progressed to the final of the FA Vase after a 1-0 win against South Gloucestershire outfit Bitton AFC on 5th September. The Northern League team will play at Wembley in the final against fellow north eastern side Hebburn Town. It would take extra time to separate the two teams after a relatively cagey and tense 90 minutes.
A clouded Belle View Stadium played host to the belated FA Vase Semi-Final, a tournament that quite easily could have been another casualty of the ongoing global health situation – the FA had previously decided to ‘null and void’ the non-league 19/20 season. However, Consett manager Terry Mitchell believes that the FA deserve credit for seeing the Vase competition through to completion.
With fans returning to non-league football for the first time earlier this month, the prospect of a Wembley final was sure to be occupying the minds of both sets of supporters as they entered the turnstiles after the new normal of a temperature check and sanitisation.
For Consett, this game would provide a chance to emulate the great Northern League Vase performances in recent years. 10 of the last 11 FA Vase finals have featured a team competing in the Northern Leagues. This season’s (or rather, the culmination of the 19/20 season’s) Vase competition saw two Northern League teams occupy different brackets of the semi-finals. An exciting chance of a Consett v Hebburn Town Wembley game stood prior to kick-off as a concrete display of the strength of North East lower-league football.
Consett were seen as favourites for the tie, even by the admission of Bitton’s own Chairman John Langdon. Writing on the club’s website Langdon said “Whilst Consett are firm favourites for the tie I am positive It won’t be one way traffic and the Bitton lads will give it their all for the prize of all football prizes a ‘Wembley Final.’”
Both managers were quietly, reservedly, confident before the match. Bitton manager Dan Langdon admitted his team were “excited and nervous, but well prepared and ready to embrace [the semi-final].” Meanwhile, Consett manager Terry Mitchell said that it was a “fantastic day for the club”, a statement echoed by chairman Frank Bell who billed the game as “the most important game in the club’s 121 year history.”
Consett nearly got off to the perfect start as an early free-kick flashed by the side netting after taking a deflection. Half of the Consett fans thought that there had been a goal, but alas, the score remained 0-0. Consett were to be the team slightly edging into control in a rather open first quarter of an hour.
Bitton came close to opening the scoring in the 18th minute through striker Harrison Kyte but lacked any real presence in the Consett half save for a couple of long balls to the front line. Consett were equal to any chances Bitton would create in the first half after this, fashioning a few good chances themselves down the right-hand side courtesy of Ali Alshabeeb and Jermaine Metz. Consett’s chances were blocked by Rob Brown between the sticks for Bitton or his brave defenders including captain Scott Brice, who was one of the standout performers of the first half.
Entering the changing rooms goalless was perhaps the fairest reflection of a game that neither team really took control of in the first 45 minutes. Consett’s chances never really stuck and Bitton’s long balls were seldom met by a striker.
The same nerves and caution were evident into the first periods of the second half. It would take until the 70-minute mark for any real chances of note. Consett goalkeeper Kyle Hayes’ diving stop to his right pushed a long shot wide. The resulting corner amounted to a goal line scramble with several Bitton players appealing that the ball had crossed the line. The linesman’s flag remained unmoved as did Hayes between the sticks, who clutched onto the stray ball. Hayes remained a confident and reassuring character in the Consett back line, never faltering when called upon.
The game looked and felt as though it would go the distance, with both teams tiring into the end of the 90 minutes regulation time. A scuffle on the touchline between two benches in the 89th minute quickly boiled over to a fight between Bitton’s bench and some Consett players. Bitton’s assistant manager was shown the red card by the referee and sent to the changing rooms for a push on one of Consett’s substitutes.
Nerves were clearly getting to both teams as the referee blew for full-time. It was 0-0. Extra time loomed.
Consett began to take charge of the game in the first half of extra time; two good opportunities were missed. Firstly, Matty Cornish’s header from the edge of the box in the 97th minute was saved comfortably and secondly, the Bitton goalkeeper was rounded, but the Consett forward failed to capitalise as the ball ran towards the byline and the shot was eventually saved acrobatically by Brown in the Bitton net.
The first half of extra time ended with Consett appealing for a penalty after Cornish was upended. Referee Garreth Rhodes instead pointed to the edge of the box awarding a freekick, much to the bemusement of Consett fans in the stand just behind the linesman. The freekick was eventually wasted beckoning the end of the first half of extra time.
The second half began in a more lively fashion for the Gloucestershire side as Bitton crafted some dangerous looking chances through Aysa Corrick. Corrick forced a save from Hayes’ feet in the 108th minute which would prove to be crucial as 6 minutes later Consett would find themselves on the break through Cornish on the left hand side.
He squeezed past two towards the byline and cut it back across the box towards the run of Calvin Smith who smashed it home sending the anxious Consett fans into ecstasy. A stream of beer could be seen flying from the pint glasses of those near the clubhouse. The tension built up over the global lockdown and the future of this competition, all released in one half-volley on an overcast County Durham afternoon. The hopes and dreams of chairman Frank Bell realised in one swing of Smith’s boot. Consett AFC were going to Wembley and the former steel producing town were elated.
As the referee blew his whistle for full-time the Consett bench poured onto the pitch with manager Terry Mitchell lifted to the air in an embrace with one of his assistants. This community driven club had achieved a story of hope and ecstasy in the midst of a world and region which had been through so much in recent months. The sheer contrast between the lows of the lockdown and the highs of this sporting victory could be seen in one small detail: the raw emotion pouring out of the supporters, and noticeably from Bell himself who congratulated all of his players and thanked the supporters with a hint of a tear in his eye. Football was well and truly back, emotions and all.
Consett will play Hebburn Town in the FA Vase Final at Wembley Stadium on 27th September.
Image: Joshua Nichol.