By Matt Badcock
Luke Graham doesn’t feel like an old head at Brackley Town – he doesn’t have to shout at younger players to up their game!
The experienced 31-year-old says the Saints’ dressing room is packed with leaders and characters.
It’s showing with the National League North club the highest-ranked club in the country with an unbeaten home record as they push for promotion, while reaching the FA Trophy semi-finals.
On Tuesday night, Kevin Wilkin’s side booked a two-legged date with Wealdstone thanks to Shane Byrne’s winning goal in a 2-1 replay win against league rivals Stockport County.
And former Kettering Town, York City, Luton and Hereford defender Graham says it’s a testament to the squad.
“Being one of the oldest at the football club, I’m coming up to 32, you think you’re going to be one of the ones that constantly has to demand more out of others,” Graham told The NLP.
“And at other football clubs it’s been like that. But here, if I was quiet for a game, you’ve got seven or eight characters that aren’t.
“From an older player’s point of view, that’s where the gaffer has got it spot on. He’s got a lot of lads with good experience in their mid to late 20s, sprinkled with a few younger players and a few older. Every time we go out on that football pitch, we’ve got seven or eight leaders – if one doesn’t take the mantle, someone else does.
“The gaffer is big on that. Every week someone different brings something different to the party. We have to maintain our consistency levels, but if it isn’t Jimmy Armson getting a goal, it might be a defender popping up from the back or a midfielder like Shane scoring like he did against Stockport on Tuesday night, a Glenn Walker cross or a bit of magic.”
Graham played at Wembley when York reached the play-off final in 2010, where they lost to Oxford United, and would love to get back there again with his current team-mates.
He says there’s no chance they will underestimate Wealdstone – who knocked out Brackley’s FA Cup conquerors Billericay in the last round – but says their run so far shows they can come through against good opposition.
National League sides Barrow and Sutton have been ticked off as well as trick encounters against Salford City, Braintree and Stockport County.
And Graham says they have to believe they can go all the way.
“In the Trophy suddenly you’re in the quarter-finals and you get into the semi-finals,” he said. “The reality kicks in you won’t get a better chance to get to Wembley.
“Our gaffer has been saying that all along in this competition – if our gaffer played you at a game of chess he’d be gutted if he lost, he’s that type of bloke. He demands a lot out of you.
“There’s a lot of lads in the changing room like that. That’s why last year we were disappointed to lose 1-0 at York and go out in the quarters last season.
“We’re a very demanding group and the reality is we’ve got two games to play to our potential and give ourselves a great chance of getting to the final.
“If I’m honest, with the teams we’ve beaten so far – why couldn’t Brackley win the FA Trophy?
“We’re a good enough bunch to do it and we’ve got the togetherness. But we won’t take any game for granted, there’s no question about that.”
Steve Watson has challenged his Gateshead side to ensure that they are “remembered for years to come” with FA Trophy glory.
The Heed are still awaiting their semi-final opponents as Spennymoor Town and Bromley face a replay on Tuesday night.
The winners of that tie will entertain Gateshead on Saturday before heading to the International Stadium seven days later.
Former Newcastle United and Everton star Watson admitted that his side must embrace everything that comes with a Trophy semi-final and make sure they aren’t forgotten about by progressing to Wembley.
“It will only be special if we get to Wembley” said the Heed boss. “As I said after the Wrexham game, nobody remembers the semi-finalists in any competition.
“That is what I am trying to get across to the lads, we need to make sure this side is remembered for years to come. We need to embrace it.
“People say do you try and play down the Trophy but I don’t because it is a big deal for this club.
“Players that have great careers sometimes don’t get a chance to play at a Wembley final. People say I had a successful career but when I look back there are no medals to show. It would be fantastic for these players, for myself, for the fans, but there is a lot of work ahead of us
Gateshead entertain Solihull Moors in the National League as their two potential semi-final opponents meet at Brewery Field on Tuesday night.
Watson conceded that although both Spennymoor and Bromley will offer different challenges, his side will need to match their hunger and desire with Wembley potentially just 180 minutes away.
“I am happy to be in the semi-final and we know that both of our potential opponents will bring very different aspects to the game.
“There is a local element with Spennymoor, with the crowd and the buzz around the North-East.
“With Bromley you face the highest-ranked team left in the Trophy and they offer different challenges. But whoever it is, we will be two games away from Wembley so they will be giving their all.”
No matter who Gateshead face in the last four they can look back at a remarkable run in the FA Trophy.
Watson’s side have been taken to a replay in three of their four ties in this season’s competition.
Tuesday night’s 3-2 quarter-final replay against Leyton Orient saw the Heed throw away a two-goal lead before Richard Peniket’s late goal put them through to the semi-final.
Now Watson wants his side to start making life easier for themselves and revealed he is working hard with his coaches to make that happen.
“We are in the position we are in the league for a reason and it’s because we can’t dominate games for 90 minutes.
“We need to make it easy for ourselves and learn to manage those spells more effectively.
“But I have to say I will never be happy until we are winning every game and I will keep working with players and coaches to help this side keep progress-ing.”
Jonathan North says it’s time to add to Wealdstone’ s Wembley memories and get the Stones back to the home of English football.
The National League South club have a proud history and in 1985 became the first team to win the Non-League Double of the Alliance Premier title and the FA Trophy.
On Saturday, Bobby Wilkinson’s side travel to National League North outfit Brackley Town for the semi-final first leg.
Keeper North has been at this stage before, back in 2012, when the Stones fell over two legs to Newport County.
“That year in almost every game we played we were complete underdogs,” North said. “We beat Cambridge, Dartford – who were in the Conference at the time – Barrow. Then Newport were Conference Premier. Probably the occasion got to some of us.
“We were 3-1 down after the first leg and going into the second leg against a good side like that was always going to be difficult. I made a mistake in the first game so there’s some personal redemption as well.
“You learn a lot from that. With the first leg away you’ve got to stay in the game and bringing them back to Wealdstone, with our fans, is going to be massive for us. The last time we were there was my first or second season, I was only young, and you think, ‘Oh, every year we’ve got a chance of going to Wembley’. It’s only when another year goes by, and another year, that you realise it’s not that easy.
“So as players and a club you’ve got to grasp these opportunities and when you look back feel content you gave it your best in these games.
“People still talk about 84-85, Wealdstone’s Non-League double and the last time at Wembley – we need to make new memories for people and make it this year we get back there.”
It would certainly make headlines, something North was doing the last time they got this far after spending time at The NLP on work experience.
Having completed a Masters in Broadcast Journalism, North worked for Watford FC before moving onto his current communications role at UK Sport.
“I was at Watford for two years straight from Uni, which was nice staying in the football industry as well as playing,” North said.
“Saturday was seen as my day off but when you’re getting stick from a few hundred people behind your goal it doesn’t always feel like it! Now I’m a five-day week which works with football well.”
And he says it’s big occasions like the ones coming up over the next two weekends that make the hours of dedication worthwhile.
“Throughout the season, and when you’re part-time, there’s a lot of grim Tuesday and Thursday nights – leaving early, getting home late, it’s raining, the games from the end of October to January on muddy pitches,” he said. “I was lucky enough six years ago to be part of a run to the semis, so I guess it’s motivation to go one further.”
*These articles originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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