By Alex Narey
Wembley Stadium, Sunday May 20, 6.09pm. It’s the dying embers of the FA Trophy final and with 93 minutes on the clock, Brackley Town boss Kevin Wilkin knows the game is almost up.
To his right, a sea of Bromley fans, almost 20,000 in number, are poised to toast the club’s famous win, but to his left, Saints midfielder Matt Lowe is sizing up a shot from the edge of the box – a last-ditch attempt to draw parity. Now it really is do or die time…
“You have kind of accepted at that stage that things are against you and that might be that,” Wilkin tells me as we reflect on that balmy afternoon in northwest London.
“You do start thinking at that stage that it probably isn’t going to be your day, but it wasn’t for the want of trying.”
Try Brackley certainly had, throughout an encounter where the National North side had more than matched their senior league opponents for endeavour.
Going 1-0 down midway through the first half to an Omar Bugiel strike, Wilkin’s men had enjoyed their moments but as the game drew to its conclusion it was Bromley who were searching for the killer punch; Brandon Hanlan – on as a late substitute – almost breaching their defences with a one-on-one chance in the 84th minute that would have sent Brackley through the ring ropes.
Then came Lowe’s speculative attempt from outside the area. A crowded penalty box stood before him as Bromley remained resilient, only for the ball to sneak its way through, hit the post and rebound into the path of a lunging Roger Johnson who diverted it into the net.
With momentum now behind them, Brackley beat their chests and looked the stronger side as the game clicked through the 30 minutes of extra-time. And when Bromley skipper Jack Holland side-footed the 11th penalty of a draining shootout against the upright, it was left to Andy Brown – a man who 30 minutes earlier had probably been thinking of the lessons he would be teaching the following day in his job as a deputy headmaster – to slot home the winner and send Wilkin and his team into raptures.
“We have a thing, a motto so to speak, that as long as we have all tried and given it our best, then that is the main thing. The players need to be able to look at one another and know they have given it their all,” says Wilkin.
“It felt like it was going to be one of those days. But we kept going and squeezed every last bit out of it, and the courage we showed in a difficult position, to keep probing and to keep trying, was superb. Eventually it happened, and the rest of it worked out our way. It was special to be a part of something so exciting.
“It felt like we were the stronger team at the end. As a manager, you look at how your side plays and sometimes you look at it through rose-tinted glasses. But nobody has told me that we were lucky or that we didn’t deserve it, and people have backed up how well we played. We had good rhythm but there was a moment when Brandon Hanlan went through and he could have made it 2-0, and you are thinking that will be that.”
For Wilkin, the victory was all the sweeter for the fact three years earlier defeat in the FA Trophy would prove his last rites during a difficult spell in charge at Wrexham. The Dragons and former Football League giants were much fancied to overcome the spirit of North Ferriby, and looked more than good for the win when Jay Harris had given them a 2-0 lead on the hour.
But the Villagers would inflict a similar defeat upon Wrexham as Brackley would do against Bromley: Liam King and Ryan Kendall hauled Ferriby level, both sides then traded goals in extra-time before the penalty shootout ended 5-4 to the Conference North outfit.
The following day, Wilkin was relieved of his duties with Wrexham.
It’s why he was quick to offer his support to Ravens chief Neil Smith after the game, both managers speaking eloquently of each other’s efforts.
“I massively felt for Neil,” adds Wilkin. “I had been there and lost that game in similar circumstances, and the way Neil, his staff and players conducted themselves, I would like to think that when I lost the final with Wrexham back in 2015, I was like that.
“He was excellent throughout and to lose a game in those circumstances, it was very impressive [how he reacted]. Neil is a good guy and to be as humble as he was after the game speaks volumes for him.”
Tomorrow, Brackley begin this season’s FA Trophy run knowing they will be a number on the board which others will want to take a shot at. A chance to take down the champions… who wouldn’t want to be that club?
But while a home tie against struggling Nuneaton Borough will bring its challenges, Wilkin remains confident his charges can get things moving for a positive challenge to get back to Wembley in May.
“We are at home and at this stage of the competition that’s what you want,” he says.
“With the greatest respect to Nuneaton they have had a tough year. It’s a great opportunity. We know as the holders that sides will be out to do a job on us.
“But we know from experience what we need to do to be successful in this competition.”