After an unforgettable season winning promotion from the Hellenic League Premier, Thatcham Town capped it at Wembley with a 1-0 Buildbase FA Vase final success over Stockton Town.
On a momentous occasion for both Thatcham and their Ebac Northern League Division One opponents, as both clubs made their Wembley bows, the Kingfishers soared strongest. Thatcham striker Shane Cooper-Clark had the telling touch, albeit with a slice of fortune, on 24 minutes.
Winger Jordan Brown strode into the Stockton box and was adjudged to have been fouled by James Ward. Cooper-Clark, who had racked up over 60 goals this season, stepped up and it looked like he might have been denied by Michael Arthur, but the Stockton stopper’s strong hand could only parry it into the net.
The former Bracknell Town man described his deliberation before the big moment:
“Usually I go to the keeper’s right, but I was sort of umming and ahhing where to go. To be fair, in these bigger games they say the goalies always dive, don’t they?
“I tried to go more central but it was a bit of a split decision. I just…went to hit it, to be honest, and hoping for the best really!”
Along with the likes of Gavin James and Ekow Elliott, Cooper-Clark was part of a forward line that presented Stockton with more than a few problems, in the second half especially. He says there was always confidence in the side’s capability when they got forward:
“We had a gameplan, we stuck to it, we were well-drilled, organised at the back, and we always know that we’ve got pace, we’ve got skill and the ability to go and get goals. We stuck to the gameplan and yeah, it worked, so that’s how it came.”
Free-scoring all season, with over a century in the league, Danny Robinson’s team had to survive some scares at the back. Defender Baboucarr Jarra was on hand to make some vital contributions to preserve the clean sheet, and he was awarded Man of the Match for his efforts:
Despite being cast in the role of last-ditch hero on the big occasion, the commanding centre-back was mildly surprised to hear his name announced.
“I think I’ve had better, to be fair! I think I’ve had games where I’ve won a lot more headers than I did today, but in general, I think my working hard was highlighted a bit more today.
“So yeah, I think I’ve had better games, but it’s crazy saying that after you’ve won Man of the Match and won at Wembley!”
Placing the day above any other experience in his career, the former Flackwell Heath and Chalfont St Peter defender wants his own progression from here to be matched by that of the Berkshire club:
“Push on in my own career and for the team as well. We’re in a higher league, that’s the progress already, and then it’s just about doing the best we can in that league to get out of it and go higher again.
“Literally that’s it – just aim higher every single time.”
On the flipside of Jarra and Thatcham’s defensive triumph was a Stockton side kept at bay more than once. Jamie Owens was leading the line for Michael Dunwell’s charges and the number ten cut a figure of frustration as he assessed the game afterwards:
“For the first ten minutes, we were the better team. Then, for some reason, all season, Stockton Town need to go a goal down before they get started.
“It’s happened again, unfortunately, in the Vase final. We didn’t even create enough chances, to be honest, so I’m disappointed as a striker on my own.
“I never got a sniff, and then we started going long ball, and it’s just more hope than chances really. There’s not much in between (the two teams).
“They’ve done a job; they played the ball wide, they got the wingers involved and they’ve got the two lads up front who I think bounced off each other. They were both good and they worked together well.
“We rely a lot on our wingers, but we were still in the changing rooms today, and it’s cost us.”
Owens, a key figure along the Anchors’ run in the competition, feels time ran out on his side as they ramped up the pressure with skipper and defender Adam Nicholson causing problems after being thrown up front, and Thatcham having to dig in all the more.
“They’ve done a job, but I thought they were gone. Another five minutes and we’d have won the game.
“If we got a goal we’d have definitely won that game. We got one or two off the line and we’d just no luck.
“Congrats to them. It’s not gonna change anything; it’s still a massive achievement getting here and we’re gonna enjoy tonight regardless.”
Also key in Stockton getting to the final was Nathan Mulligan, the former Middlesbrough youngster and Darlington midfielder. Another of the local contingent that makes up the squad, Mulligan saw nothing separating Stockton from their opponents on the balance of the game.
“There was no difference whatsoever. I just believe the penalty killed us; it was a bad time to concede.
“We started really well the first 10-15 minutes and then after the penalty we were shell-shocked a bit. We’ve never been behind in a big game like that; I know we went behind against Marske (semi-final second leg) but they still had to score more to get through.
“It was a completely different feeling today to go behind. I thought the goal was coming second half – we just ran out of time.”
Although dejected, the 31-year-old says the achievement of reaching Wembley in his first season linking up with his local club is beyond anything else he has been part of in the game.
“It is the best experience I’ve had in my career. I just wish I could have had the icing on the cake by walking up them stairs as a winner.”