The Boatmen’s sparkling FA Vase triumph – secured by ‘Marvellous Marvin’ McLean - was a victory for the whole of the south.
After five years of Northern League dominance, Dave Diaper’s ‘band of brothers’ successfully broke the stranglehold to bring lower non-League’s most prestigious trophy back to Portsmouth Road.
In doing so the newly crowned Sydenhams Wessex League champions broke the hearts of a quality West Auckland side who had come to Wembley for a second time in three years looking to exorcise the ghost of 2012 when they were beaten 2-0 by league rivals Dunston UTS.
But they had no answer to the spirit, enthusiasm and sheer determination of this close-knit Sholing group who believed their name was on the silverware from day one.
With manager Dave Diaper, his trusty assistant Mick Brown and a handful of long-serving players due to bow out this summer, the Boatmen have had an unbeatable aura about them all through this year’s competition, as if the football gods were willing them to reach the end of an era on a glorious high.
They haven’t always been the better side throughout this magical March to the Arch and their defeated fifth-round opponents Larkhall, in particular, must be plagued with a feeling of ‘what if.’ Diaper’s son Marc who, along with Tyronne Bowers and Lee Bright, is hanging up his boots, cited the 1-0 extra-time win over Larkhall on February 22 as “probably the game that made us think we were destined to get to Wembley.”
On that occasion master marksman Lee Wort scored the winner, but the foundation of victory was an extraordinary goalkeeping performance by homegrown No1 Matt Brown.
It was a similar story on Saturday as the Southampton-born 24-year-old, who had a three-year stint as a teenager with Saints, again scooped the man-of-the-match honours in a slender win. His stubborn show of defiance started as early as the fifth minute when he blocked with his feet to deny West’s experienced top scorer John Campbell after Dennis Knight had slipped a pass through the heart of Boatmen’s defence.
Campbell, an FA Trophy winner with Darlington in 2011, was one of several West Auckland players boasting previous Wembley experience. Three of Saturday’s starting XI – skipper Andrew Green, right-back Neil Pattinson and striker Mattie Moffat – all played in the ill-fated final against Dunston.
Sholing, in contrast, had several players who hadn’t even experienced a Wembley final as a spectator, let alone trodden on the hallowed turf.
And, in what must be a rarity even in non-League circles these days, a whopping ten of their starting line-up were born in the club’s home city of Southampton – the sole exception being gritty midfielder Lewis Fennemore, who hails from Portsmouth.
Thanks to the vision of manager Dave Diaper, Sholing’s nurturing of home-grown talent has truly paid off this term.
With 55 league and cup goals to his credit in 2013/14, lethal marksman Wort is netting with as much regularity now as he did in his free-scoring teens.
And, like Wort, Wembley heroes Brown and McLean are also products of the Boatmen’s thriving youth and reserve teams.
Manager Diaper had a pre-match hunch that Sholing’s pace might unhinge West Auckland and there were moments in the first half when they could have capitalised.
With ten minutes gone Wort had too much in his engine for defender Daryll Hall, but was eventually snuffed out by Jordan Nixon as he tried to beat the ’keeper at this near post.
Then, just after the half-hour, Mike Carter slipped the ball into the path of McLean as he scampered into the left side of the area but, having outmuscled Pattinson, he skewed his shot well wide.
West Auckland responded with a sustained spell of pressure and even Diaper had to admit that he felt “the game was sliding away a bit towards half-time.”
But he made the necessary adjustments, dropping muscular skipper Byron Mason back into his customary midfield role, and there was a more solid look about the Boatmen in the second half even though they lost one half of their defensive twin towers, Pete Castle, to a pulled hamstring on 53 minutes.
Young sub Dan Miller – yet another home-grown talent – slipped in seamlessly, which was just as well considering the onslaught that awaited Sholing once McLean had broken the deadlock.
The magical moment came in the 71st minute when the nippy winger was expertly found down the left by the other twin tower, Lee Bright. Having left Pattinson in his wake, McLean nodded the ball on and unleashed a shot which deflected off defender Lewis Galpin and looped over the helpless Nixon into the far corner.
It was backs to the wall stuff for the rest of the game, a task made even tougher by a greasy Wembley surface battered by heavy showers.
There were players slip-sliding all over the place but with Brown pulling off a string of heroic saves – most notably a fabulous tip-over from Knight’s rapier-like free kick – and the hapless Galpin heading against the upright in the second minute of time added on, it really did seem as if “Sholing – FA Vase winners 2014” had been written in the stars.
Diaper, who sank to his knees at the final whistle, said: “It’s family here and it’s fitting that in my last game we’ve won the Vase.
“I couldn’t have wished for a better ending.
“I had an inkling Marvin would get the winner because he seemed more focused than anyone else.” Victory banks Sholing another £25,000 to add to the £18,600 share of the FA prize fund they earned en route to Wembley – not bad for a club whose previous Vase best was reaching the fourth round!
The only slight disappointment was an attendance of 5,431 which, no doubt, will again spark debate over whether it is economically viable to stage the final at the 90,000-capacity national stadium.
But try to telling that to Sholing’s elated players and officials and their 3,000-strong red-and-white army for whom this magical day out at Wembley will never be forgotten.