Walsall Wood 0 Guernsey 0 (aet)

Saturday 2nd March 2013
Stalemate after extra time in the spring-like sunshine at Oak Park, so Walsall Wood face a long trip to Guernsey next Saturday for the right to join Spennymoor Town, Tunbridge Wells and either Shildon or Ascot United in the 2012/13 FA Carlsberg Vase Semi Finals. In what was a tight game from start to finish, Walsall Wood’s Ahmet Bilgimer saw a shot cleared off the line just before half-time while Dave Rihoy hit the bar in extra time for Guernsey and Dominic Heaume missed a ‘sitter’ from the rebound. Both goalkeepers deserved praise for near faultless displays and several vital saves.

Walsall Wood 0 Guernsey 0 (after extra time)
FA Carlsberg Vase Quarter Final
At: Oak Park, Lichfield Road, Walsall Wood
Kick-off: 3-00 pm
Admission: £5; Programme: £2 (32 pages)
Weather: mild and sunny

I could find anywhere in the programme that described today’s game as ‘the biggest in Walsall Wood’s history’ but I guess it undoubtedly was. An appropriate comment I spotted, however, used the phrase ‘record-breaking march on Wembley’. Looking at the club’s complete FA Cup and FA Vase record, I couldn’t find anything to match an FA Vase Quarter Final against a progressive side looking to make progress up the non-league pyramid. The club’s website, however, advertised the game as ‘Wood’s biggest ever game’ and the locals turned out to support the big day.

Considering that Oak Park is only 15 miles from where I've lived for all but 11 years of my 'football life', it may come as a surprise when I say that my only previous visit to the ground came over 25 years ago in September 1987. A combination in the past of watching Stafford Rangers home and away over numerous seasons, the search for grounds not previously visited, a lengthy spell living in the south-east and a lack of home midweek games this season to fit in with my new policy of watching more local football may be the reasons.

I remember at the time that my previous visit on Saturday 12th September 1987 was seen as one of Walsall Wood’ biggest ever games when Stafford Rangers of the GM Vauxhall Conference side visited an FA Cup tie. Posters advertising the tie emphasised that is was ‘starring Gordon Hill’ who was playing for Stafford that season. The former Manchester United and England winger did play and a crowd of 454 saw Rangers win 3-0 with two goals by the late Malcolm Dunkley and another from Phil Derbyshire.

Enough nostalgia, back to the present….

Today’s tie pitted two sides who are very much in the hunt of top honours in their respective leagues. Walsall Wood (39 points from 17 games) were the last surviving step 6 side and stood in fifth position prior to this afternoon’s league games in the Athium Midland Combination Premier Division. They trailed leaders Bromsgrove Sporting by eight points with a massive ten games in hand. Guernsey (7th position with 45 points from 19 games) also had ten games in hand on the leaders, Epsom & Ewell, and a gap of 15 points to make up. Because the are pushing for promotion to step 4, all fixtures have to be completed by Saturday 4th May so Guernsey will have to play just about every Friday and Sunday.

On arrival at Oak Park around an hour before kick-off, the place was already buzzing with locals turning in great mnumbers to support their local side, groundhoppers who had travelled from far and wide as well as a significant presence of fans wearing the green and white colours of the visitors. I must be famous as one hopper from the High Wycombe area knew my name when I said I lived in Stafford! Thankfully, I avoided the lengthy queue at the gate and got a programme before they sold out. Line-ups were written on a large sheet of paper attached to the clubhouse wall.

Looking around the ground, the stand I remember from 1987 is still in situ on the west side of the pitch. Plenty of work is ongoing to improve the facilities at Oak Park, so it will be interesting to return next season to see the transformation.

Walsall Wood have certainly had a tough route to the Quarter Finals, especially after I saw them defeat Wigan Robin Park in the Third Round back in early January at Sutton Coldfield’s Coles Lane ground. That win earned a home tie against Hanworth Villa but ongoing pitch problems at Oak Park meant it was switched to Villa’s ground. Impressively, Walsall Wood won 3-2 and followed this up with an equally impressive win at Runcorn Town by the odd goal in three after extra time to earn this afternoon’s historic game. The run began in late summer 3-2 giantkilling win in the Second Qualifying Round at Alvechurch and continued with victories over Eccleshall and Shirebrook after a replay.

By kick-off, I recon there must have been over one thousands fans inside Oak Park creating a big-match atmosphere. Hardly a place was left in the old stand with most sat in it wearing the green of Guernsey.

Guernsey (in green and white) got the game underway attacking the far (north) end in the first half. It was Walsall Wood, however, who put the visitors defence under early pressure and Chris Tardiff did well to hold a well-struck shot from Andre Gonzalez at the second attempt. I did hear from someone at Continental Star on Wednesday that Guernsey could be slow starters and this was certainly the case this afternoon.

The ‘green lions’ gradually got into the game and a near-post header from Ross Allen flew across the face of goal.

Walsall Wood were unlucky not to take the lead just before half-time as both excellent defending and goalkeeper kept the scores level. In the 41st minute, Drew Aiton found Ahmet Bilgimer in space on the right inside the area who lifted a shot over Tardiff only to see Dave Rihoy race back to make a goalline clearance. Stood on the side near to the corner flag, I got a perfect view and the well-positioned assistant was spot on in saying ‘no goal’. Some fans around me joked about the need for goalline technology.

Moments before the half-time whistle, Tardiff produced a wonderful reaction save to keep out a close-range shot from Tom Evans.

After chatting with Chris Powell and a couple of other travellers, I decided to find a spot behind the far goal.

Defences remained on top after the interval, so much so that the first decent chance of the second half didn’t come until the 62nd minute. Ross Allen cut in from the left and hit a low shot which the diving Dean Faultless turned round the far post.

In the programme, one contributor mentioned that a number of Walsall Wood legends from 1950s and 1960s were hoping to attend the game. They were given a name check over the PA and received loud applause. I didn’t know that the late Alan Wakeman was a former Walsall Wood manager. He played in goal for Aston Villa just after the War and later worked in the same office as my Dad in Cannock.

Tardiff remained in good form and in the 77th minute turned round a decent shot from Aiton at the expense of a corner. At the other end, Rihoy put Nigel Hutton clear but Faultless raced off his line to block the resulting shot.

Walsall Wood almost won it with virtually the last kick of normal time. Evans crossed from the right into the area where Aiton volleyed straight at Tardiff.

I decided to remain in my spot behind the far goal and Guernsey got extra time under way attacking my end during the first period. Alas, ‘Roary’ decided to sit next to the away dugout rather than join some of the Guernsey fans stood behind the goal their team was attacking.

“C’mon Wood”, the home fans shouted.

I did wonder if tired legs would play a part in extra time and perhaps lead to a goal. Good defending by Lee Stretton prevented Rihoy from getting in a shot after Allen’s initial effort was blocked by Faultless. Walsall Wood then went close again. Lewis Taylor-Boyce beat a defender when cutting in from the left and found Bilgimer who again found Tardiff unbeatable at the near post. Just before half-time of extra time, Faultless kept out a close-range shot with his boot.

Into the second period of extra time and almost a goal for Guernsey in the 113th minute. Rihoy stayed onside down the right and hit a rising shot over Faultless which thumped the underside of the bar. The ball bounced down at the feet of Heaume who somehow scooped his shot over the empty net.

Walsall Wood had one last chance right at the end with seconds remaining. Jamie Hawkins’ corner fell to Aiton who saw his shot well held by Tardiff at the feet Bilgimer. Replay next Saturday evening at the Footes Lane Stadium.

While Guernsey made all three substitutions, Walsall Wood used the same eleven players throughout the entire game.

Walsall Wood are in the ‘hat’ for Monday’s Semi Final draw – incredible for a step 6 side who began the ‘Road to Wembley’ at Alvechurch in the Second Qualifying Round.

I’m pleased to have been at Wood’s biggest-ever game and been part of ‘history being written’. I’ve got good memories of the hundreds of Guernsey fans proudly wearing their green and white colours as well. Top day out!

Walsall Wood (red with white diagonal stripe / red / red): 1. Dale Faultless, 2. Craig Deakin, 3. Tom Evans, 4. Shawn Boothe, 5. Lee Stretton (capt), 6. Danny Forrest, 7. Ahmet Bilgimer, 8. Jamie Hawkins, 9. Lewis Taylor-Boyce, 10. Drew Aiton, 11. Andre Gonzalez. Subs: 12. Michael Murray (not used), 14. Danny Rock (not used), 15. Nathanial Jones (not used), 16. Danny Owen (not used), 17, Chris Lewis (not used). Manager: Mark Swann.

Guernsey (green with white sleeves / white / green): 1. Chris Tardiff, 2. Simon Geall, 3. Jamie Dodd, 4. Sam Cochrane (capt), 5. Alex Le Provost, 6. Scott Bradford, 7. Dave Rihoy, 8. Matt Loaring, 9. Dominic Heaume, 10. Ross Allen, 11. Glyn Dyer. Subs: 12. Jacques Isabelle (for Geall, 80), 13gk. Paul De Garis (not used), 14. Nigel Hutton (for Loaring, 18), 15. Naro Zimmerman (for Dodd, 99). Head Coach: Tony Vance.

Referee: Rob Madley (Wakefield).
Assistants: Tom Neild and Barry Lamb.
Fourth Official: Justin Hayes.

Attendance: 676

Duration (45): first-half: 46:18; second-half: 49:37
Extra time (15): first-period: 15:58; second-period: 17:03

Goals: none

Walsall Wood: Jamie Hawkins (YC, 40), Lee Stretton (YC, 90)
Guernsey: Naro Zimmerman (YC, 102)