Mark Carruthers: Wembley Way was deserted but Hebburn and Consett warmed the heart with 90 minutes of passion, commitment and skill
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Despite the overhaul it received when the national stadium turned from old to new, it has remained a familiar feature of any cup final day.
The sun blazing down – it always seemed sunny – on supporters making their way towards the twin towers – or arch – with dreams still intact and expectations rising with every step.
Flags baring the colours of both clubs fluttering either side of the road and terraces chants and the questionable smell of burgers filling the air in equal measures.
Walking up Wembley Way ahead of Monday’s all-Northern League FA Vase Final between Consett and Hebburn Town evoked a very different set of emotions.
There was emptiness, a feeling of what should have been and a feeling that no matter what was about to occur on the hallowed turf, it just would not be quite the same.
Thoughts turned towards witnessing thousands of North East football supporters – not just those from the two clubs – making their way down Wembley Way, mingling, rejoicing in a great occasion for the region after a year of struggle.
However, the game being held behind-closed-doors meant that the only thing hitting Wembley Way was the distinct patter of rain and the lack of flags for sale meant the light breeze only troubled the trees surrounding the home of football.
It felt like a cold experience in both a meteorological and metaphorical sense and no amount of political bluster or manufactured responses from the government will ever convince me the decisions taken were the right ones to make.
There is a danger of over-romanticising events on the pitch to compensate for the lack of atmosphere inside Wembley – but there can be no doubt that Hebburn and Consett warmed the heart with 90 minutes full of passion, commitment and no shortage of skill.
The Hornets, as you will know, claimed the bragging rights as they wore down their Northern League rivals with the sort of display that has taken them to their first Vase, with another one within touching distance in this season’s competition.
Their experienced spine of Mark Foden, Louis Storey, Danny Carson, Michael Richardson and Graeme Armstrong all played key roles to help their side to a historic win.
Richardson was rightly named as man of the match by former Bolton Wanderers and Southampton striker Kevin Davies as his influence on the game remained as constant as the threat he possessed to the Consett back three.
Armstrong, an unfortunate miss aside, led the line with authority and strength as he tussled with Ross Wilkinson and Arjun Purewal throughout a gritty display.
Storey and Carson’s well-balanced combination of power and pace saw off a number of dangerous moments as their side wrestled for supremacy with a lively Consett attack.
Foden, although limited to routine saves, looked composed and authoritative when called upon.
They were supported ably by the solid efforts of Robbie Spence, Amar Purewal, Michael McKeown and full-back duo Darren Lough and Dan Groves as they helped give Olly Martin a platform to make his mark as the clock ticked towards full-time.
Their victory was certainly hard-earned and focus now turns towards their attempts to secure a return to Wembley in this season’s Vase Final over the coming fortnight.
In lauding the achievements of the winners, you can often neglect to appreciate the effort and commitment shown by the side that came out on the wrong end of a final.
Consett deserve far more than that and their vibrant, attractive style of play ensured that we were given the intoxicating contest many predicted.
Full-backs Jermaine Metz and Darren Holden were dynamic, Dale Pearson looked dangerous, and Ali Alshabeeb was a constant menace on either wing and rightly took the plaudits from the BT Sport commentary team.
Terry Mitchell admitted that he would not stray from the attacking style of play he encourages in the build-up to the game, and he stayed true to his word as his side edged the opening 45 minutes.
They had opportunities to get back in front after the restart but were punished for not taking the chances to strike what could have been a decisive blow.
Despite conceding a late goal and having to watch on as Hebburn lifted the Vase, everyone connected with the Steelmen should reflect on their maiden Wembley visit with great pride.
There are many similarities between the two clubs.
Both are fiercely ambitious, both want to make their way up the non-league system and are led by experienced, passionate chairmen.
Both managers encourage their sides to play an attractive style of football and keep a calm and composed demeanour on the touchline.
The only difference between them on Monday afternoon was the Olly Martin goal that ensured the Vase made its way to South Tyneside rather than County Durham.
The challenges that lie ahead at Hebburn and Consett are already being assessed in great detail – but key individuals at both clubs should take the time to reflect on a momentous occasion.
The players, management, officials, and volunteers have all done themselves, their clubs, the supporters, the region and their towns proud in front of a worldwide audience.
After the year we have all endured, they have given us all a reason to smile – and we should all be grateful for that.