WHITLEY Bay FC became the first team ever to reach three consecutive FA Vase Finals at Wembley thanks to a thoroughly deserved second leg victory over Poole Town on Saturday.
While the Wessex League champions could rightly feel aggrieved that they did not win the first leg, they readily acknowledged that they had been outplayed in the sunshine at Hillheads.
The hero of the day for Whitley was Paul Chow, who scored all three goals, taking his total for the season to 28, twelve of which have come in the Vase.
Remarkably, he has scored in every round of this year’s competition and having scored at both previous Wembley finals few would bet against him repeating the feat again next month when Leicestershire side Coalville Town will be Whitley’s opponents on Sunday May 8.
With almost 3,000 fans packed into Hillheads, the early signs were not good for Whitley, with Poole dominating proceedings as they had done for most of the first leg.
A long throw from the left caused problems in the Bay goalmouth and Chow, helping out at the back, hooked the ball away from near the goal line.
Playing towards the allotment end and with the wind at their backs, the Dorset side were camped in the Whitley half and when Kevin Gill crossed from the right, the ball was headed behind for a Poole corner.
With barely eight minutes played, another long throw from Dan Cann into the goalmouth saw both Chow and Gary Ormston attempt to make a clearance.
Ormston got a miscued touch on the ball and Poole striker Dave Sturgess stabbed it over the line from close range for an untidy but deserved goal.
This was just the start Poole must have been hoping for, as it levelled the aggregate score, cancelling out Lee Kerr’s stoppage time winner in the first leg.
Equally, it was the worst possible start for Whitley, and it quietened the large crowd.
However, Whitley responded quickly and just a minute later, Chow broke clear on goal but Poole keeper Nick Hutchings blocked his shot.
Shortly afterwards, Robinson fired wide after a bouncing ball into the goalmouth was not dealt with by the visitors.
A quick clearance upfield aimed at lone striker and last week’s danger man Carl Preston, was met by the alert Kyle Hayes as Preston closed in on him.
A tactical move which had a dramatic influence on the game saw Kerr and Robinson exchange roles, with Kerr playing deeper in midfield, allowing Robinson more space in an unfamiliar striker’s role.
At the same time, Fawcett and Ormston swapped wings.
Poole struggled to cope with the changes, and Fawcett was able to make more of an impact on the right, away from Poole skipper Carl Poore.
Bursting through down the wing, Fawcett’s cross reached Kerr whose shot was blocked by Hutchings, with Chow meeting the rebound only for Dibba to deny him.
Another cross from Fawcett flew across goal and away from danger. Whitley’s pressure was raising expectation in the crowd and on the half hour came the goal that turned the game back in their favour.
A well placed ball over the Poole defence from Damon Robson put Chow clear on goal and he advanced before lobbing the ball over Hutchings from 15 yards.
The goal shook the visitors and moments later, Cann was booked for a heavy challenge on Robson, not his first of the afternoon.
Whitley stepped up the pace and Fawcett played Chow into a good position but his shot was saved.
Kerr’s free kick from out on the right caused confusion in the Poole defence and both Robinson and Chow came within inches of poking the ball into the net as it flew beyond the visiting defenders.
Fawcett’s long throw bobbled around the goalmouth with Brian Smith seeing a shot blocked and shortly before the interval, Kerr’s ball skills almost brought about another goal.
The half time whistle came with Whitley on top and the potent force of Preston nullified largely by the close attention of Gareth Williams.
David Coulson meanwhile, alongside Brian Smith, looked formidable and commanding in defence.
The Dorset side suffered an unfortunate blow barely two minutes after the restart when captain Carl Poore fell awkwardly and appeared in great pain before being helped off the pitch, unable to continue.
His absence weakened a defence in which the tall men Dibba and Walker were proving less influential than in the first leg, thanks to Whitley’s policy of keeping the ball more on the ground than the previous week.
Eight minutes into the second half, Robinson’s excellent ball to the right wing set Fawcett away but his dangerous looking cross was cleared.
A 20 yard shot from Robinson whistled just over the bar as Whitley kept on the attack.
A minute later Whitley fans were celebrating when Chow dispossessed substitute Aaron Skelton, played a one-two with Robinson to find himself through on goal, then steadied himself before driving the ball past the helpless Hutchings.
Not only were Whitley ahead on the day but now two goals clear on aggregate and a return to Wembley seemed within touching distance.
Whitley were oozing confidence now and Hutchings was almost caught out by Robinson’s acute angled ball to the back post, which the keeper palmed over the bar.
Robson’s corner was headed onto the bar by Fawcett, and almost crossed the line but as it bounced down, Chow responded first in a crowded goalmouth, forcing the ball across the line with his knee.
Chow, unwisely likened to a donkey by some of the locals at Poole a week earlier, had not only completed a hat trick but had ended any lingering hopes that the visitors may have harboured of a recovery.
They made their final substitution taking off experienced midfielder Richardson and belatedly replacing him with an extra striker.
The change made little difference as Kyle Hayes barely had a save to make in the last half hour.
With previous semi finals all very closely fought and tense occasions right up to the final whistle, it seemed hard to grasp that Whitley were now cruising to Wembley for their fourth FA Vase Final, but the fans were loving every minute of it.
Several more chances came and went, Chow looking certain to add his fourth of the game when put clear by Robinson only for his lob to clear the bar.
Frustration got the better of Poole’s giant defender Michael Walker and he became the second player to be cautioned in a game well controlled by referee Michael Naylor.
Paul Chow was given a tremendous ovation by the crowd when he was substituted 13 minutes from time and two more of Whitley’s particularly influential players, Fawcett and Robinson, were also replaced in the closing stages.
Lee Kerr nearly got what would have been a well deserved goal when he chased down a ball close to the by line, cut it back before curling a great shot from a tight angle that Hutchings did well to push onto the far post.
As the seconds ticked away, groups of excited young Bay fans edged ever closer to the touchline before the final whistle signalled a massed pitch invasion as supporters young and not so young celebrated with the players Whitley’s return to Wembley for the third season in a row and their 25th game unbeaten in the Vase – both record breaking achievements.
In addition, this was Whitley’s 16th consecutive victory, equalling the club record set 57 years ago.
These are indeed wonderful times for everyone associated with Whitley Bay Football Club as the team deservedly receives national acclaim for its remarkable achievements, but along with every one of the players, who rose magnificently to the occasion on Saturday, pride of place must surely go to the management team led by Ian Chandler.
WHITLEY BAY: Hayes, McFarlane, Fawcett (Pounder 80mins), Smith, Coulson, Williams, Ormston, Robson, Kerr, Chow (Timmons 77mins), Robinson (Gibson 84mins)
Substitutes not used: Burke, Rowe
Referee: M Naylor (Sheffield)