We break with tradition this time around and glance back at three seasons instead of the usual one. There’s a good reason – we take a look at when Whitley Bay made the FA Vase their own, winning it three times in a row from 2009 to 2011.
Sunday, May 11, 2008 and high above Wembley Stadium, Paul Chow is looking down on the hallowed turf from his window seat.
On a flight from Newcastle to Lisbon via London Heathrow, the Whitley Bay striker catches a glimpse of the famous arch where Kirkham & Wesham – now AFC Fylde – are playing Lowestoft Town in the FA Vase final.
“I was looking down thinking, ‘That should have been us’,” the prolific Northern League goalscorer says. “You think you’ll never get that opportunity again. Then 36 months later, I’d been there three times and scored in all the finals. I was close to tears one minute thinking, ‘That should be me down there’, to having all that success after.”
Whitley Bay ruled the Vase in 2009, 2010 and 2011, becoming the first side to win a hat-trick of titles in an FA competition and becoming its most successful side in the process.
What people might not realise is the years of domination actually began with a defeat in the semi-final to Lowestoft Town. Losing across the two legs 4-3, it taught Seahorses’ boss Ian Chandler plenty of lessons and stoked a fire of desire within everyone at the north-east club.
“There were a lot of lessons learnt that year that we talked about in the three years when we won it,” Chandler says. “I always revert back to the year we lost in the semi-final and think, ‘If we did it differently’.
“But we also say we might not have got the three years in a row if we’d won it the first time. That made a difference, for sure.”
And how. A year later they beat Lowestoft over the two legs to set up a final date with Glossop North End.
On a baking hot day, Whitley Bay – who went through their stretches inside while Glossop warmed up on the pitch in the sun – ran out 2-0 winners.
It kick-started the winning streak with two names who would become familiar on the Wembley scoresheet – Chow and Lee Kerr. They registered in every final, with Chow grabbing four overall.
“Chowy was the ultimate poacher, the ultimate goalscorer,” Chandler says. “If a chance fell to him, he would inevitably score. Lee would create stuff out of nothing – his free-kicks, he’d be in the right place at the right time.
“So when you have those two, one way or another, one of them is going to score in a game and thankfully they usually did.”
Chandler knew a goalscorer when he saw one, having banged in the winner when Bay beat Tipton Town 1-0 at Villa Park in 2002.
Alongside him in the dug-out, he had two trusty lieutenants in Steve Cuggy and Gavin Fell.
“They had a big input,” Chandler says. “Steve was the middle man between me and the players, he’d be the Agony Aunt, and Gav would be the joker who would make everything relaxed and get the best out of everyone. I’d maybe put it all together, ‘This is the way we want to play here, can we do it?’.
“The team would score goals out of nothing. When the chips were down, we had ten men on occasions, they dug in. Nothing was planned from year to year, it just seemed to happen. It surprised me as much as anybody else. Yes, we had the core year to year but we would add a few and it just seemed to gel. They all wanted to repeat the success from the year before.”
Year two saw more history made as Chow wrote himself into the Wembley record books with the fastest goal at Wembley Stadium. Just 21 seconds were on the clock when he capitalised on a mix-up in the Wroxham defence to put Bay ahead.
“You can’t describe scoring at Wembley,” Chow says. “In the first two years I scored the goals at the end of the opposition fans. It seems like an eternity for the noise to reach you. It’s probably only a matter of seconds but it’s little things like that you remember.
“Especially after 21 seconds – you’re thinking, ‘There must be something wrong’. You look at the linesman but no, I’d run past the defender and there was no infringement. But you expect to be blown up because you just don’t expect to score within 30 seconds of a cup final.”
Although Eastern Counties League side Wroxham equalised through Paul Cook on 12 minutes, an Andy Eastaugh own goal four minutes later set Bay on their way to a 6-1 rout with goals from Kerr, Adam Johnston, Paul Robinson and Josh Gillies completing a scintillating display.
A half-time arrival to the game was former defender Mark Taylor. A year earlier he’d been celebrating on the pitch as part of the team that beat Glossop.
But since that first triumph he’d been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. Given three years to live, he’d had to stop playing. Flying in from a holiday in America, he rushed to Wembley in time to see the second-half goals fly in. When it came to lifting the trophy with Leon Ryan, captain for the day in absence of regular skipper Davey Coulson, there was only one man who would lead them up the famous steps.
“It was really quite emotional,” Taylor said at the time. “It showed me how much all the lads and the club actually care about us. The support I’ve been getting from everyone has been phenomenal.”
Ryan added: “It was a thoroughly entertaining game and topped off with Mark Taylor being up there lifting the cup with myself. It was a great honour. One of his family came up and thanked me but it should be the other way round – I was privileged to lift it with him.”
Management and players had t-shirts sporting Taylor’s name, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“He had symptoms of his illness in the 2009 final but he wouldn’t tell us,” Chandler, now Bishop Auckland manager, says. “In 2002, he was injured that day too so he was determined to play. I’m really pleased he did.
“This might sound awful, but the second year we were going somewhere away and Mark was with us on the bus. One of the lads brought a walking stick and a blow-up cushion for him!
“He just wanted to be treated like anyone else and that was typical football banter. He enjoyed that as much as anything.
“From the first final, he was the fittest boy we had, to the change within four or five months was such a big thing. That second year was good all round for the players to show their appreciation for him. But he’s still here and he still takes the mickey out of us when we see him.”
By the third final, traditions had been set. They’d stay in the same Village Hotel in Watford each year. Chandler would name the team the night before, pulling each unit – defenders, midfielders and forwards – aside to explain his decisions, a job he describes as “awful”.
They wouldn’t visit the stadium the day before, preferring to let Wembley emerge on the horizon to fire the players up and, in years two and three, a pit stop was made at The Green Man pub after to celebrate with the fans.
Chandler was clever with the way he managed his players and the strands of motivation he found. In 2011, they faced the Wessex League’s all-conquering Poole Town.
Tom Killick, a Vase winner with Wimborne in 1992, would emerge from Poole’s dressing room wondering quite how his side had lost the first leg 2-1. Late goals from Damon Robson and a brilliant Kerr free-kick turning the tie on its head in the final minutes.
Although involved in the equaliser, Chow had been quiet that afternoon. Poole fans brandished him a ‘Donkey’ on their online forum. Chandler made sure his striker knew about it and in the second leg he hit a hat-trick. His goal in the final against Coalville Town saw him become the first player to score in every round of the competition in a season.
It was a thrilling game against Coalville Town, whose own exciting brand of football made for a great spectacle.
But there was a reason why Whitley Bay were known as ‘The Entertainers’. Chow scored twice, including an 86th-minute winner, with that man Kerr grabbing the second in a 3-2 win, also helped by the heroics of keeper Terry Burke, who promptly retired on a high.
In the showers after, the Bay players joked Messi and Rooney would be talking about the famous Paul Chow when Barcelona took on Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley in three weeks’ time.
“I wore No.10 and Messi and Rooney were the two No.10s – it’s all numbered in the changing rooms at Wembley so knowing either Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney would be sitting in my seat a few weeks later was a nice feeling,” Chow says. “Lo and behold, they both scored. It’s nice little things like that you remember.”
Chow says the first of his Wembley haul was his favourite, not the 21-second record breaker many might think.
Last season Spurs’ Christian Eriksen took ten seconds off it when he fired past Manchester United in the blink of an eye.
“We were training that night, Newcastle were playing too, so as soon as we finished I got in my car and went on my phone to check how they were getting on,” says Chow, 38 years old and now at Northern League Hebburn Town. “I had loads of messages, tweets and facebook messages so I knew something must have happened. I soon realised Eriksen had stuck it away after 11 seconds.
“It could have been someone a lot worse than him, I suppose. I tweeted him to ask for a signed shirt as compensation but he didn’t reply, which annoyed us even more!”
Since Bay’s treble, Northern League sides have continued to dominate the competition with five more winners – Dunston UTS, Spennymoor Town, North Shields, Morpeth Town and South Shields – all triumphant since.
But no one has defended their crown like Whitley Bay.
“It will probably sink in in ten years’ time,” Chandler said in the press conference after Coalville. “Hopefully we will still be the most successful Vase team in ten years’ time, but it is just football to us. We love playing it, we love being involved in it and thankfully we’ve been lucky enough to win a few games.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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