With the outcome of this year’s FA Trophy still in the balance, Mark Stillman continues his look back on the five decades of the competition. In Part 4 of the series, we take a trip to the 2000s when one man dominated the headlines with a unique individual feat…
Who won the first competitive silverware at the new Wembley? Who won four FA Trophies in the 2000s, including three in a row as a manager and at three different venues?
The answer to all three is Mark Stimson – a name to grace any isolation Non-League quiz. His love affair with the FA Trophy began as a player in the decade’s second final, and first to be played away from Wembley as the famous stadium was under redevelopment.
Villa Park was the chosen replacement. The 2001 final saw the midfielder provide an assist for Ben Chenery’s timely first goal for Canvey Island in their 1-0 victory over Forest Green Rovers – and Stimson recalls the celebrations afterwards where he took a swipe at the perception of their team.
“I was looking at a picture from that game the other day,” he told The NLP. “I’m in a white t-shirt saying: ‘the pub team from Essex have only done it’.
“I wore it to the parade. I always thought it was a harsh label because we had a lot of good players, a lot of ex-pros who could still pass the ball about.
“I had good memories of Villa Park. I only played twice for Tottenham and one was at Villa Park. It was nice to go back about 12 years later.”
In 2005, he was back in Birmingham again, this time as manager of inaugural Conference South winners Grays Athletic, who had scored 31 goals in seven ties, to go with their 118 in the league.
A training camp trip to Spain ten days before the final didn’t go to plan following an episode which forced Stimson to omit his leading marksman.
“There was a little incident where a couple of players had a debate, and as a result I didn’t play Leroy Griffiths in the final,” he added. “He was devastated. I got a bit of stick about it, the press didn’t think we took the trip seriously, but we trained really hard.”
Standing in their way of a double were Hucknall Town. The Nottinghamshire outfit had finished 10th in Conference North under player-manager Dean Barrick, who endured a personal nightmare half an hour into the final where he suffered a double leg fracture.
“It dampened the game a bit. Understandably, people were more concerned about him,” said Stimson.
“We had a great run but in the final we didn’t play that well.”
Despite the below-par performance, it was enough to clinch a double as Martin Carthy, who had recently returned on loan from Oxford City, converted the winner in a penalty shoot-out after a 1-1 draw.
The 2006 final with Woking was to be played at Upton Park, a day after the Hammers lost an epic FA Cup final to Liverpool.
“Our chairman Mick Woodward was a massive West Ham fan,” said Stimson. After the quarter-final, I said to him ‘if we get to the final, you can lead the team out’.
“I’d been brought up in the East End and almost all my family support West Ham…but I support Tottenham!”
Grays had just missed out on successive promotions, losing to Chris Wilder’s Halifax in the play-off semi-finals, the second leg falling four days before Sunday’s FA Trophy final.
“I’d already pre-booked a tour of Upton Park after the second leg,” said Stimson. “Within 20 minutes the group were back focused again.
“The final was a fantastic game of football. I still watch it back every so often, some of the stuff we played was special.
“You had to drag that group off the training pitch. They were so keen and hungry for success.”
Grays won 2-0, but Stimson resigned a day later claiming the club didn’t share his visions for progressing further.
Little did he know that under a year later, he’d be up against his former employers as manager of Stevenage Borough in the semi-finals, where a tantalising venue awaited the winners.
The new Wembley was finally open for business, and the 2007 FA Trophy Final was to be the first competitive final played there.
Stimson admitted he carried nerves throughout their two-legged 3-1 semi-final win over Grays, while his players appeared shaken during the first half of the final against Kidderminster as a James Constable double put Harriers firmly in control in front of 53,262 spectators – the largest attendance for an FA Trophy final to date. However, Stevenage weren’t finished.
“First half we were absolutely awful,” admitted Stimson. “The only good thing about that half was that it stopped!
“There were rumours of Steve Morison going to other clubs. I chatted at half-time and told him to do what he does best, otherwise he wouldn’t even get into my team. He was so determined and focused during our comeback and clinched it with our winning goal.
“It’s hard to not forget the other players. Craig Dobson came on for half an hour and got man-of-the-match.
“And Mitchell Cole of course, who I still miss dearly. I’ll never forget him scoring our first and running over to his mum in the crowd.”
It’s one of many unforgettable moments from the 2000s as the trophy produced some unpredictable outcomes.
Not from the start, though. The last final at the old Wembley saw 90s Trophy legend Geoff Chapple claim his fifth success from five finals – and second as manager of Kingstonian – as Amara Simba’s winner settled a 3-2 thriller over Kettering Town.
The decade contained seven first-time winners of the competition, and 2003 and 2004 saw the underdogs flourish.
Village side Burscough fought their way to Villa Park in 2003, defeating 2002 winners, and eventual Conference Premier champions Yeovil in the quarter-finals. For the first time in the competition’s history, the last four didn’t contain a Conference Premier side.
Former Aston Villa defender Shaun Teale returned ‘home’ as they shocked Southern League champions Tamworth 2-1 in the final.
A year later, Hednesford Town ended a miserable season on a high. The Pitmen’s poor league form meant they missed out on the new Conference North but they had fewer problems in the Trophy. Defender Chris Brindley inadvertently gave Isthmian Premier champions Canvey Island a 2-1 lead in the final but the Pitmen recovered to secure a dramtic 3-2 win.
Promotion-chasing Torquay United were favourites to overcome mid-table Ebbsfleet United in 2008 but lost to Chris McPhee’s goal on the cusp of half-time, before the decade concluded with Stevenage’s second success – Morison again netting, this time against York City.
By then Stimson was manager of Gillingham, once again enjoying success in a final as they overcame Shrewsbury Town in the League Two play-offs to claim promotion.
He concluded: “Will anyone else win the Trophy three times in a row? I don’t think they will in my lifetime. To do the third in one of the best stadiums in the world as well – I couldn’t have asked for any more.”
The final instalment of this series focuses on the 2010s, where some enjoyed a maiden visit to the refurbished Wembley, and others almost made it a second home.