Ashley Smith is loving playing with Windsor’s wonders!
The ex-Maidenhead United, Hampton &?Richmond and Chesham United midfielder is player-coach of the Royalists under boss Mick Woodham.
Smith’s day job is director of Cox Green Academy, who have a strong link to the Hellenic League club with four or five considered first team regulars.
Smith, 34, says the experience they’re gaining of men’s football is invaluable and a run to the final eight of the FA Vase is showing them what it takes to succeed.
“There’s other clubs higher up the Pyramid who have similar partnerships like ourselves, but the gulf to the first team is too great,” Smith said. “It’s achievable to play Step 5. By the end of this year, three or four of the lads will have played 80 senior games.
“Which, albeit Step 5 football, they’ve had great experiences this year in the FA Vase, playing in some big games in front of decent crowds with a bit of tension. It’s a really good partnership and great for the young lads to be playing in those games.
“Kieran Knight, who I played with at Maidenhead and Hampton, was, for me, our stand-out performer in the last game. Old school centre-forward, kept the ball for us, and let the young lads do their thing.
“After him I think the four best ones were the young lads – our keeper Hugo Sobte, Jack Denton and our two centre-backs, who are 18 and 19, Andy Ingram and Brad Pearce.
“From my perspective, that’s more rewarding now to see them flourish than me actually winning. As much as I played and was part of it, I enjoy seeing those boys step up to the plate and take the game by the scruff of the neck.”
Up next is an overnight stay in the north-east before they face Stockton in the quarter-finals. Smith’s familiarity of the big occasion – he played in Chesham’s side that beat Bristol Rovers in the FA Cup two years ago – will help, but he’s trumped by Non-League’s Peter Pan who is showing the youngsters the path to success.
Striker Barry Hayles, who started his career in the Conference with Stevenage and ended up in the Premier League with Fulham, is still going strong at 45, with 32 appearances and 10 goals to his name.
Smith says the experienced frontman is a shining example for the aspiring youngsters, who seem to be taking it all in their stride.
“For the young lads to see Barry getting excited about the competition when he’s had a very good career is great,” Smith said. “The chances don’t come around very often to have a day out at Wembley. The focus is a game at a time and they’re very grounded because, most of the time, they’re back at school and training after big wins. It gives them the hunger to play in big games week-in, week-out.”
1874 Northwich could not have felt further from running out at Wembley after the first hour of this season’s attempt to win the FA Vase. It’s not a fantasy now.
They trailed 4-2 at Vauxhall Motors, hosts that play two levels lower, during a first qualifying round tie in September before sneaking through 5-4 after extra-time.
“We had to do something,” reflected co-boss Wayne Goodison. “We weren’t thinking ‘we’re going out’, but it was heading that way if we didn’t act.”
A team he manages jointly with Paul Bowyer has progressed through six stages since, eliminating Chichester City in the last 16 thanks to Ryan Mitchell’s last-gasp winner.
Seven days later, the duo were in the crowd at Wolverhampton Sporting to see Leighton Town
clinch a date with their side in next weekend’s quarter-finals.
More than a dozen 1874 Northwich supporters had made the same trip, and stood watching nearby.
It is a sign of the excitement generated by the North West Counties League club’s run, their best in the competition after four previous attempts.
Goodison said: “They’re enjoying the ride, and who can blame them?
“There is talk of taking four buses to Leighton Buzzard, and if that turns out to be the case then it would be a phenomenal turnout for a journey of that distance for a side at this level.
“We’re happy to have all the help we can, and the players will spark off support like that.”
The fans, many of them co-owners of a club formed in 2012 by followers of Northwich Victoria fed up of how the former Football Conference outfit was being run, are daring to dream.
However a team that includes two players – goalkeeper Greg Hall and attacker Sam Hind – that played for Glossop North End in the 2015 showpiece, has remained calm.
Goodison said: “Their know-how helps massively, and it’s kept feet on the ground. The last eight is a fascinating stage but with a two-legged semi-final to follow we’ve still got plenty to do.”
Days before that Vase scare against Vauxhall Motors, 1874 had eliminated Mossley, a higher-ranked opponent, from the FA Cup following a first qualifying round replay.
Goodison added: “We’d have probably shrugged our shoulders and said ‘let’s concentrate on the
Bet they’re glad they didn’t now!
Marske United manager Carl Jarrett insists his side won’t pay any attention to their bookies’ favourites tag to win the FA Vase.
The Seasiders boss believes that the exits of previous favourites Morpeth Town and West Auckland Town should act as a warning sign to his side ahead of their quarter-final tie at Hellenic League club Bracknell Town.
“We will be professional because it is a massive game for us,” Jarrett said.
“People have been saying this and that about being favourites, but I won’t read anything into that.
“It’s a game of football over 90 minutes and it can go either way.
“The favourites tag means nothing at all.
“We will do our preparation in the best possible way and we will try and do our homework on Bracknell.
“Look at Morpeth Town and West Auckland, they were favourites and they were put out of the competition.
“We will focus on ourselves, get our focus on the game and hopefully we will get through into the semi-final”.
Marske’s FA Vase run, coupled with having a number of Ebac Northern League Division One games postponed due to poor weather, has left the Seasiders with a hectic schedule between now and the end of the season.
Jarrett’s side have as many as eight games in hand on their league rivals, leaving the Marske boss to look for further additions to his squad.
One of those targets joined the club this week and adds plenty of FA Vase pedigree to an already talented squad ahead of the trip to Larges Lane.
Midfielder Andrew Stephenson completed a move to Mount Pleasant following his release from Evo-Stik North leaders South Shields.
Stephenson was part of the Mariners side that won the Vase at Wembley last season – the second time he has won the competition having played a part in Spennymoor Town’s triumph against Tunbridge Wells in 2013.
And the signing shows how far the club have come according to Jarrett, who revealed he wanted “two or three more” to add to his squad.
“I was delighted and surprised to get Andrew in,” he continued.
“When we found out he was unhappy at South Shields we thought we wouldn’t stand a chance of getting him.
“I pushed to get him and we found out he would be keen to join us.
“The Vase was obviously a big plus in helping us get him and it offers him the chance to become a three-time winner.
“It shows how far we have come as a club because we have been able to sign players from the likes of South Shields and Spennymoor Town.
“A few years ago a club like ours couldn’t have dreamt of making a signing like this.”
Danny Robinson says his Thatcham Town side won’t get too carried away with their club record winning run – but he can’t stop them dreaming of Wembley.
The Kingfishers have won their last 20 games in all competitions – a run which has taken them into promotion contention in the Hellenic League as well as a last-eight Vase clash with Melksham Town.
Thatcham are being tipped by many to claim a place at Wembley for the final showpiece in May, but Robinson insists no-one at Waterside Park will be getting ahead of themselves.
“On the face of it, we are still a million miles from Wembley, there is a lot of hard work to do yet,” the 32-year-old former Alresford Town chief said.
“I’m lucky here really because the players know that. They are the most grounded group of players I have ever had the pleasure of working with and they won’t be getting carried with our winning run.
“Of course the dream is to play at Wembley, whose isn’t? But we can only take one game at a time, starting with our county cup tie with Woodley United on Monday.
“Only after then can we start thinking about Melksham.”
There can’t be many – or any – Step 5 sides who can call on a player capped more than 100 times by England, but not everybody has Luke Ballinger.
Melksham Town do, however, with the 29-year-old midfielder also assistant manager to boss Kieran Baggs.
Ballinger is the Three Lions’ record futsal appearance holder, with his 60 goals also putting him top of the goalscoring charts.
With experiences like that, as well as Non-League play-off finals higher up the Pyramid, his know-how will count for a lot when they take on in-form Thatcham Town on Saturday.
“For the club it’s going to be a great game – and myself,” Ballinger said. “I’ve never got this far in the Vase before so it’s nice to do it with the group of players we have.
“I’ve played in big games in terms of the fact I’ve played for my country, play-off finals for Gloucester, Frome and Paulton, in front of big crowds. This is another game of that ilk. Let’s just hope we can enjoy it rather than be distracted by it. Most of the youngsters at the club are mentally strong, so we should be OK.”
Ballinger plays for Salisbury in the National Futsal League and says when he hangs up his indoor football boots he wants to help the FA keep growing the game.
The first priority is Melksham’s Vase quest, however, as they try to extend the club’s best ever run in the competition.
They have a ground that is the envy of many in Non-League and Ballinger says the run is capturing the town’s imagination.
“Everything around the town is football crazy at the moment,” Ballinger said. “There’s a big urge for the club to do well and we’re getting attendances of 300-350, which is massive for the Western League.
A lot of them are season ticket holders through the youth system, but it’s getting people through the door and watching the town play, which can only be good going forward.”
It’s the biggest game in Stockton Town’s history, according to chairman Martin Hillerby – until next week, that is!
Such is Town’s remarkable recent rise the good days just keep on coming at the club who were playing at Step 7 two years ago.
Stockton won the Wearside League title four consecutive times when their Bishopton Road West ground, equipped with a new 3G pitch, finally met league requirements for promotion.
The following season, at Step 6 in the Northern League Division Two, Town won the league.
So, what’s the secret to their success? “Hard work,” says Hillerby. “It’s not something that’s happened in the last year or two. We’ve had to build our club up from the bottom. If you look at the first-team squad now, all bar one of them is a Stockton lad.
“We’ve built something deliberately that is sustainable on a model that has been developed over the last 11 or 12 years.
“The club can go as far as the people of Stockton want it to go in terms of the local businesses, players and volunteers getting on board.”
In only their second ever FA Vase appearance, Stockton are now gearing up for another historic day.
“Everywhere you go in the town, the supermarket, the barbers, people are talking about the club. We’re expecting a crowd of around 800.
“We lost our first eight league games plus an FA Cup tie this season. Then we’ve been on this incredible run in the league and the Vase. We’ve had lots of highs and lows at the club over the years.
“I’d say it’s the biggest game we’ve ever had but they seem to be coming along on a weekly basis!”
Paul McGrotty is hoping to make it third time lucky to reaching the FA Vase last four – but he’s not getting overly excited just yet!
Alongside his Bracknell Town co-boss Jeff Lamb, the pair have twice reached the quarter-final stages with Ascot United, in 2013 and 2015, before going down to defeats to Shildon and St Austell Town respectively.
Now, McGrotty and Lamb have steered Ascot’s Hellenic League rivals Bracknell to the last eight where the bookies’ favourites Marske United stand in their way.
The Seasiders are riding high in Ebac Northern League Division One – a division with a proud tradition of recent success in the FA Vase, producing eight of the last nine winning teams.
“Marske are the team we were looking to avoid to be honest,” admitted McGrotty to The NLP. “They are the favourites and rightly so, so we’re not taking anything for granted.
“They will be a typical Northern League team; big, strong and very physical and we need to find a way to match them in that department. When we reached the quarter-final with Ascot in 2013 we played Shildon who are, to this day, the best team we’ve faced. A lot of recent winners hail from the Northern League and that comes with reputation.”
Bracknell, however, boast a proud record on their new 4G pitch at Larges Lane – not that McGrotty believes that will sway the tie either way.
“Players of their calibre will enjoy playing on 4G so we’re not deluded enough to think that it gives us any kind of advantage,” he added.
It’s out of character, but Scott Reynolds had to give his Leighton Town side the hairdryer treatment last weekend to ensure their Wembley dream didn’t fade away.
Spartan South Midlands Leighton faced Wolverhampton SC in the last 16 of the FA Vase and went into half-time level at 3-3, despite having led 3-1.
The visitors went on to clinch victory in the second half through an Alex O’Brien penalty and 1874 Northwich will be the next opponents in the quarter-finals.
But it may never have been had Reynolds not temporarily lost his cool.
The Reds’ boss told The NLP: “It wasn’t ideal having had the game called off the week before. It was end to end for the first 30 minutes, but we were 3-1 up and should have been in a position to see the game through until half-time.
“We defended really poorly and allowed them to score two soft goals. I’m not a screamer or shouter, it’s not really my style, but on Saturday I did and we sorted ourselves out. This is great for the town. Leighton were a Southern League club until a couple of years ago, and getting promotion is our aim, but it’s been a successful season so far.
“Northwich are bringing four coaches of away fans, so it will be a good atmosphere to help our fans get behind the team.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday