Mark Carruthers: 40 years on the inside story of Whickham's dramatic Wembley win ahead of potentially historic month for the North East
May could be a truly historic month for the North East non-league game.
On the first Monday of the month, Northern League rivals Consett and Hebburn Town will meet at Wembley in only the second ever all-North East FA Vase Final.
That game will see the FA finally bring an end to the 2019/20 Vase as the Steelmen and the Hornets finally get their day out under the arch.
This year’s final is set to take place three weeks later and there could be yet more North East representation with the likes of Hebburn, Seaham Red Star, Shildon and West Auckland Town still retaining an interest in this season’s competition.
The North East has long held a fascination with the Vase and this year marks the 40th anniversary of a historic win for one of our clubs.
Three years after the likes of Ian Crumplin and Paul Dixon helped Newcastle Blue Star become the region’s first Vase winners, Whickham fought their way past semi-final opponents Windsor and Eton to secure their own visit to the national stadium in the spring of 1981.
Lang Jacks manager Colin Richardson – one of the true North East non-league managerial greats - had become obsessed with winning the Vase after watching their Wearside League rivals claim that maiden success under the twin towers.
Richardson’s determination was matched by a number of players that had represented Blue Star before that historic win including the prolific Billy Cawthra and winger Ian Diamond, who sat on the bench at Wembley as Blue Star saw off Barton Rovers.
Only West Midlands-based Willenhall Town stood in the way of Richardson and his men returning the Vase to the North East and taking their place in the history books.
The wily old boss had a squad full of characters and imposed his own unique managerial style upon them as he prepared his players for their big day out at the home of football.
“We were winning games in the Whickham way,” explained striker Cawthra.
“There was a reason why we didn’t concede goals and it was down to Colin.
“Everyone bought into what he wanted, and he rotated quite well, there weren’t many complaints.
“He had that presence, even the lads on the line wouldn’t leave because we knew something special was coming.
“If he was dropping you, there was always a reason.
“He made sense, he knew what he was doing, and we all got behind that.
“We would have run through brick walls for him.
“He could be seen as a horrible man, he went over the line sometimes, but he knew how to get the best out of everyone.”
Whickham’s run to the final got underway with wins over Stockton Buffs, Guisborough Town, Salford, Thackley and Devizes Town – all without conceding a single goal.
A 1-1 draw in the away leg of their semi-final against Windsor and Eton was followed by another dogged and disciplined display as a goal from Paul Allon was the difference in a 1-0 home win.
Wembley was on the horizon, a special occasion for players and supporters alike – but Richardson was determined to keep things as normal as possible.
“Colin kept us calm because we had some strange lads in the squad, and we needed to keep focused,” admitted Cawthra.
“We trained at the hotel and prepared on a patch of grass there.
“On the night before the game, we had our meal, and we had a couple of pints before bed.
“It was a normal Friday night and that helped us massively.”
Despite pre-match calls of “keep it tight, no daft goals, no mistakes” from Richardson, Whickham’s Wembley dream threatened to disintegrate into a nightmare as they fell two goals down inside the opening 20 minutes.
Alan Scott reduced the arrears before a cruel twist of fate turned the final in the Lang Jacks’ favour.
A Cawthra challenge on Willenhall number one Stephen Newton led to the goalkeeper being replaced by an outfield player with his side still a goal in front.
Whickham slowly gained the upper-hand and an equaliser from Ronnie Williamson as the hour-mark approached took the tie into extra-time.
This was when Cawthra and Richardson’s moment arrived.
With the first period of extra-time set to come to an end, the ever-alert striker stole possession in a dangerous position and raced in on goal.
Cawthra takes over the tale.
“I closed down their defender (Brian) Fox and he tried to play out from the back.
“I nicked the ball from him and because their full-backs had pushed on, I was in on goal.
“The keeper came out and I touched it past him.
“The ball rolled beyond him and I still don’t know why I didn’t make sure it had gone in.
“Thankfully it did, and I ran across to the fans to celebrate.”
The second period of extra-time passed without a scare and Whickham’s name was etched onto the Vase, where it remains to this day.
“The biggest memory was getting in the bath after the game,” said Cawthra.
“We all jumped in and we were singing and dancing.
“Colin was elated, it was his dream.”
The likes of Whitley Bay, Dunston UTS and South Shields have all fulfilled their own Wembley dreams in the years that followed – and now we can look forward to seeing whether Consett or Hebburn Town will add the newest name to the ever-growing list of North East FA Vase winners.