For most, this weekend marks just another usual Saturday, with Premier League games, the final day of the Championship or any other professional football for that matter.
But in a small town called Royal Tunbridge Wells, this Saturday means a whole lot more.
On May 4, the town’s football club, Tunbridge Wells FC travel to Wembley to contest the FA Vase Final against Spennymore Town of the Northern League.
The FA Vase is a competition for teams playing below step four (clubs playing in the ninth tier) of the English National League System. The Wells have done incredibly well to reach the final beating strong opposition along the way.
Currently in the Kent Hurlimann Football League, The Wells can already boast one cup win this season, beating Lordswood 2-1 in the Kent Senior Trophy, the winning goal coming from Jon Pilbeam, who I spoke to recently on his thoughts about the upcoming Vase final and the season in general.
First of all congratulations on reaching Wembley, the final takes place May 4, can you tell me how and what you were feeling when the final whistle went in the second-leg of the semi-final against Shildon Town?
“It was a mixture of emotions, mainly relief mixed with joy. Many had tears of happiness, one of our players; Richard Sinden was on the floor. It’s difficult to explain.
“At the time it didn’t feel real! We went and celebrated with the fans, as they had travelled all the way from the south to the north-east - a long haul journey. The relief was evident, we thought we had thrown it away. It was difficult for me personally as I had come off due to an injury so I knew I couldn’t have any effect on the game.”
You scored a penalty in the first leg of the semi-final, what was running through your mind when you stepped up to take it?
“I was focussed on where I was going to put it; I was a tad lucky as well because it was at the opposing end to where our fans were. Macca (Andy McMath) was suspended so I knew that if we got a penalty I was the one that was going to be taking it. The keeper made his decision early so that helped also.”
In the month of April, The Wells had a serious backlog of fixtures due to the terrible winter weather. How many games do the club have to play?
“In April alone we have had to fit 13 games in, at times we have been playing three of four a week. Meaning we have been playing Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, at times.
"Luckily we have a rather large squad so rotation has been key. Not forgetting we also had to play a cup final in the middle of all of this as well.”
What would you say has been the main reason for Tunbridge Wells FC’s run to the Wembley final?
“The main one, team spirit, without question, nobody at the club gets paid so we are all here because we want to be here. We had some leave during the season, but they were quick to return as they didn’t enjoy it at other clubs and missed the unity the Wells have.”
“I feel the quality and strength in depth we have has been a vital ingredient of our run also, and our morale is currently at an all time high. It helps that everyone in the team are good friends, this adds to the positive atmosphere around the club.”
Culverden Stadium; the home of The Wells, has set unprecedented records for attendances recently. How much have the fans presence helped in the latter rounds of the cup?
“They have been massive for us; it’s given us that extra push when we have needed it. You get a lot of friends and family down there also, and you don’t want to let anybody down.
“When we played Dunston UTS, current holders of the Vase, we all thought it was ‘unreal’ as 600 fans had turned out to see us play, but it just got better and better, by the semi-final first leg we hit a new attendance record of 1754 fans.They were our 12th man, especially in the semi as the pitch wasn’t good and the fans got us through.”
Who was your idol when you was growing up and what sort of influence did he have on you as a player?
“From a playing point of view, Gianfranco Zola; he was my main idol. I can’t say he influence the way I play today though, I didn’t model myself on him. I just used to love watching him when he was Chelsea player. Since my days playing at youth level, I have moved position anyway.
“I used to be a striker but am now a winger so I have had to adapt to the different situations you are presented as a winger. A personal point of view, definitely my dad, he was the one that paid for me to attended soccer schools courses, helped me to break into academy teams, he even coached my local youth side. I owe him a big thank you for helping me get to the level I am today.”
Tunbridge Wells, as a town, has always been more about rugby or cricket. Do you think that with your run to the Vase final and Wembley it will help to encourage better support and more local clubs prospering?
“I hope so, it will push us forward financially, meaning we can improve our stadium and our facilities. We hope that we will see a rise in attendances (for league games the Wells average about 150, based on this season’s statistics), which we all see as vitally important and that all of this hard work will see us get promoted and playing at a high level.”
And, finally is there anything you would like to say to the fans that will be travelling to Wembley?
“Enjoy it, that is the main thing; this is most likely going to be a once in a lifetime trip. Make plenty of noise and we hope to enjoy your support for the foreseeable future. I would also like to say a big thank you to you all for your continued support.”
As of April 29, Tunbridge Wells FC has sold a mammoth 9,443. This totally eclipses the entire attendance that was present for last season’s final between Dunston UTS and West Auckland Town. The whole of Tunbridge Wells will be hoping that come May 5, that they will be FA Vase winners.
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