Romford FC lift FA Vase on historic day at Wembley

Great Wakering Rovers 0 – 3 Romford FC (Nalbant 52′, 94′, Deering 55′)
Isuzu FA Vase Final (Saturday 11th May 2024)

Just 20 miles separate Great Wakering Rovers’ Burroughs Park ground and Romford FC’s Rookery Hill home.

Just three places separated the two teams in the Essex Senior League Premier Division.

But the emotions in each camp shortly after 2:15pm on a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon at Wembley were poles apart.

Romford, whose once-promising season had threatened to plummet into bitter disappointment, ran out 3-0 winners to lift the FA Vase for the first time in the club’s history.

As the twangs of The Undertones echoed around English football’s most iconic stadium with the question “Are teenage dreams so hard to beat?”, the dreams of everyone associated with the ninth-tier club, hopes that mere months ago would have felt wholly unattainable, had been realised.  

For Great Wakering Rovers, however, even the rousing applause that accompanied their departure from the pitch at full-time would have done little to soften the heartache.

Considered by many before kick-off as the day’s underdogs, they had to settle, as one team always does, for the role of valiant runners-up.

WEMBLEY STADIUM: A fitting setting for the FA Vase final (Credit: George Nash)

But on this 90-minute showing at least, the winners of the unofficially dubbed All-Essex Showdown proved worthy of their crown.

There was to be no cruel third dagger to the hearts of The Boro, after defeat in both last Monday’s playoff final and the Errington Challenge Cup final two days later.

Rather, Romford seized the moment with prolific striker Hassan Nalbant bagging a 31st and 32nd goal of the season while Sam Deering, whose composed midfield performance saw him named player of the match, also found the net to give Dan Spinks’ side a historic victory.

“Today was the pinnacle of all the games. Today was the one we wanted to win,” said Spinks.

“The stadium, the atmosphere, it just brings the best out of everybody and I thought we were superb. I thought we deserved to win the game.”

Flames and fireworks greeted the two sides onto the pitch to mark the competition’s 50th final.

But the first exchanges belied the pre-game theatrics, producing a cagey opening that was perhaps unsurprising given the gravity of the occasion.

However, it was Romford, appearing at Wembley for the first time in 75 years, who settled quickest.

Wingers Charlie Morris and 17-year-old Finlay Dorrell looked the most threatening early on, with a teasing Morris cross inside two minutes causing Great Wakering and Palestine international goalkeeper Luis Shamshoum to fumble in his six-yard box.

But the best chance of the half fell to the lively Dorrell, who is sure to attract interest from higher up the footballing pyramid this summer.

Little over ten minutes had elapsed when a cross-shot from the right found its way to the teenager but his poked goal-bound effort was pushed away by a fine diving save from Shamshoum.

Morris and Romford captain Kris Newby then saw long-range efforts sail harmlessly over the bar as Spinks’ side, and especially Deering, began to turn the screw.

Marcus Bowers’ Great Wakering team, meanwhile, struggled to establish a foothold in the contest.

The impressively combative Jake Gordon rallied the raucous Rovers crowd with a couple of firm challenges, while skipper and deep-lying playmaker Ben Search tried to instil some rhythm into his side’s play.

But it was Romford, who had already beaten their opponents three times this season, who would go into the break the happier of the two teams.

FA VASE FINAL: The sun shining on the All-Essex Showdown (Credit: George Nash)

Their dominance continued after the restart, and soon paid off on 51 minutes when Morris pounced on a loose pass out from the back before sliding Nalbant through.

The Romford striker, who up until that point had cut an almost anonymous figure, found the net with a tidy left-foot finish.

Nalbant’s goal suddenly imbued the contest with the sparks the pre-match pyrotechnics had promised.

Moments later, Great Wakering Rovers had a penalty shout waived away when Harry Talbot was bundled over in the box.

From the resulting counter, Dorrell’s blocked shot eventually fell to the increasingly influential Deering who steered the rebound into the far corner to double Romford’s lead.

Cue a flurry of substitutions from both sides as Romford, marshalled by vastly experienced defender Scott Doe, looked to preserve their lead while Great Wakering hoped to salvage their cup dreams.

As legs began to tire, as intensity began to fall away, it was one such introduction, Romford’s Toheeb Elegushi, on for Dorrell, who provided an injection of energy out wide.

With the game entering stoppage time, Great Wakering Rovers then had a glorious chance to half the deficit when the ball fell to Callum Boylan in the Romford penalty area.

But Bowers’ danger man, with 25 goals to his name this term including nine in the Vase, failed to find that clinical edge he has showcased all season.

Elegushi then put his mark on the game a minute later when he found Nalbant who charged clear of an exhausted Great Wakering backline to seal the tie with an ice-cool finish with the outside of the boot.

It sent the Romford faithful into raptures. As referee Will Finnie blew for time seconds later, several Romford players fell to the floor, weighed down by equal parts joy, fatigue and relief.

Others flung their arms around one another, exemplifying the brotherly bond Spinks highlighted in his post-match press conference.

“These boys, they rally around each other,” said Spinks.

“You can’t get this far without having that team spirit and togetherness.

“I’m winning with my friends and that makes it even more enjoyable.”

Bowers was graceful in defeat, admitting that while his side were far from their best, they will eventually come to acknowledge their achievements.

He said: “It’s really tough to take. On the whole, I don’t think we were good enough today to warrant any sort of result. It hurts.

“But I’ve told the boys to be proud of their efforts, to be proud of what they’ve done. We won ten games to get here and beat some really good sides.  

“It’s a strange one because it’s the best day I’ve had in football by a county mile but it’s also a really low moment.

“But once we have time to reflect on it, I’m sure we’ll be able to look back with pride.”

Not since 1984 had an Essex-based club lifted the FA Vase.

The 40-year wait has finally come to an end and with it a new name etched onto one of the most coveted trophies in the non-league game.

“It’s absolutely huge for a club like us,” added Spinks.

“Two years ago, the club was on its knees but everyone has been mucking in, sometimes out of their own pocket. Today just makes it all worth it.

“Walking across that pitch at the end is the proudest moment of my life.”

Feature image credit: Bob Knightley

Unused subs: Jacob Wiggins, Jamie Hursit, Danny Hurford, Daniel Nakipov-Getmansky
Unused subs: Harvey Gluckstad (GK), Jack Nolde, Oliver Jenkins, Billy Johnson

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