by Neil Chapman
This you should know. Over the last couple of weeks or so, I’ve posted on the remarkable success of Tunbridge Wells FC and their cup run. Their road to Wembley. I live in the town, I love the game, why not? After writing the pieces I then tweeted links to them. Yes, I’m on Twitter. people tell me you have to be, but I’m not convinced but if it helps, why not? You have to remember that the whole point of this website, this blog, is to point people at my book on Amazon. Thing is, the tweets got a lot of interest, and the site got a lot of ‘hits’, and I got a message from the sports editor of the local newspaper, ‘Tunbridge Wells Courier’. They were planning an eight page pull-out supplement to appear in Cup Final weekend edition. Would I write a piece for it, say approx 1000 words? Yes I would. Here it is……
So what happened? How did we get here then, eh? For years we’ve been giving the back page of the ‘Courier’ a quick glance to see how they got on last week – and let’s be honest we weren’t expecting too much, were we? – and now, suddenly, we are on our way to Wembley! Did I miss something? It seems we all have.
This was a club that hadn’t won anything for years, a club that had found its comfort zone in the Kent league, a club that seemed to lose key players at the end of every season, but reckoned that the new signings would be even better. A club that for years promised the following season would be the one. Well, suddenly they are that club. The club that became a team. Unbeaten since last October, winners of the Kent Senior Cup, and the in final of the FA Vase. At Wembley. Let me write that again. In the final of the FA Vase at Wembley. I know, I know. Get used to it!
Am I a fan? Well, probably like you, I am now. Lots of us are… …now. As I write the team’s supporters have gone from a hardcore of 200 supporters to over 10,000 that have bought tickets for Wembley. 10,000! Unbelievable just a few short weeks ago.
It took me 35 years of living in this town to make my way to the Culverden stadium – disgraceful really – and last year I saw them get dumped out of the 4th round by St. Ives; a match they could have won. So fast-forward to earlier this year, 4th round again, and I’m not expecting too much, especially as they were playing the team that won it in 2012, Dunston FC. But this time The Wells soak up a lot of pressure, defend well, (must have been the new signings!) and score in the second-half. 1-0. Thank you.
Then they go off to Bath (without me) and beat Larkhall FC. They had a man sent off, came from behind twice, and then nicked the winner in the last minute of extra time. I’m starting to think that this is a team that doesn’t know when it’s beaten.
Now it’s the sixth round and starting to get serious. Only eight teams left. Hadleigh FC from Ipswich are the visitors. Interest in the town is growing and a record crowd saw The Wells dispatch them 2-0. They made it look easy too. Next!
Don’t tell the players but now they are only two games away from Wembley. First leg of the semi-final, and if I’m really honest, after 20 minutes I’m thinking they might as well be ten games away. Their opponents, Shildon FC looked quicker, stronger, well organised and better on the ball. And confident. They expected to win. And why not? They had a couple of players who frightened the life out of the new record crowd of 1754, every time they got the ball. But The Wells defend as if their lives depend on it. You can’t write this team off. Outplayed for an hour then two lightening breakaways lead to two goals. Try and remember that, Shildon, next week in the second leg, this team does not lie down.
Oh dear. What have I said? An hour into the second leg and Shildon are 3-0 up, and the Wells are flat on their backs. Could be, should be, five or six to Shildon, they’re bossing the game and it’s
looking like another one of those ‘gallant’ defeats. Another one in the procession of Northern League teams stamping their pit boots over a side from the effete South on their way to Wembley. Thing is, no–one told that to the lads from the most effete town in the South, Tunbridge Wells. They wouldn’t have understood their accents anyway.
Away from home, in front of a baying hostile crowd, against a very good side who have outplayed you for large parts of both games and your lead wiped out very early on. You’re going out of the Cup. Your dream is over. You? You, at Wembley? Playing on the hallowed turf? Get real. You’re three nil down. Seems it was just a dream after all. Whey-aye mon, the ‘Road to Wembley’ isn’t lined with red – brick pavers.
How, how exactly do you cope with that, mentally? The TV pundits will tell you this is when you have to really ‘want it’. Want it more than the other side. But it’s been pretty obvious that for 80 minutes or so that Shildon would quite like it too.
But we know what happened. Skill is one thing, teamwork, fitness, tactics, desire, are others. But didn’t Shildon have that? Yes. But the Wells had belief. Real belief and guts. When it mattered. With only minutes remaining somehow they find a goal. Now it’s extra time and they snatch a winner. Lucky? Err, I don’t think so. Remember Larkhall? Sorry Shildon but I did warn you. This team does not lie down.
And now it’s Wembley and for the first time in the long and distinguished history of Tunbridge Wells, thousands of its citizens are off to a major national final. Martin Larkin’s red and white army snaking its way around the M25, their cardigans and Boden tops cast off (just for the day of course) for bright new shiny red TWFC tee shirts.
It’s a day the players, the club, and probably Wembley will remember for the rest of their lives.
So will we.
Thanks boys and good luck!!