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Heroes of North East football: The inside story of Whickham FC’s historic FA Vase win 40 years ago

Remembering the heroes who won the Lang Jacks’ first ever FA Vase on the 40th anniversary

The last North East side to win the FA Vase at the old Wembley stadium, we remember the heroes who helped overturn a 2-0 deficit in the final against Willenhall Town.

We take a look at their fairy tale story through the eyes of Billy Cawthra, the scorer of the winning goal, non-league expert Mark Carruthers and lifelong fan Steven Peareth.

Depending on COVID regulations, there is set to be a celebration of the event with former players and fans commemorating the win by watching the match footage at the club.

Walking up Wembley’s steps, meeting Sir Matt Busby and returning to a mass crowd in small Whickham, Cawthra reveals his side’s unique experience of winning the FA Vase.

With the community boost a club can receive from lifting the FA Vase, Mark Carruthers explained why the competition is so much more than just another tournament.

Non-league expert Mark Carruthers

He declared: “With the non-league clubs, because we should never ever forget that these are normal lads who go work 9-5 or whatever they work during the week, so to think of a teacher going to Wembley, it’s just remarkable.”

Carruthers continued with the reason behind why the Vase is special to the players as well as the fans.

He affirmed: “The reaction of some of those players, some of which have been in the pro game or released by academies probably thought their dream of playing at Wembley had gone so it always just feels a little bit more special for me because of that.”

Despite an expectation of nerves in the build-up to the final, Whickham had already played in a cup final at St. James’s Park the week before, Cawthra explains why his side didn’t get nervous.

He stated: “The week before was a bit hectic to say the least with games to still be played and everybody still wanting to get a few training sessions in, so we didn’t really get time to get nervous.”

The forward revealed the atmosphere of that famous side and the attitude they had going into the final.

He said: “We had that was sort of club where nobody was better than the other and we were amongst it together and it was a great atmosphere we had, so if someone was looking a bit down, you’d go over and you’d tell them it’s alright don’t worry we’ll get there so being a little bit older you did a little bit of chivvying on which is good.”

Cawthra admits that his side’s achievements should never be overlooked, explaining that the congestion of fixtures and lower league status is what makes it so great.

He proudly announced: “We were in the Wearside league, so you know, it was a fantastic feat because it was two below the Northern League, so we were playing games nearly every other night because we had the Wearside League, the Wearside Cup, the County Cup; we were playing a lot of games.”

The Whickham striker highlighted the atmosphere in the crowd as one of the main things he remembered.

He revealed: “They just opened the side where the winning side lifts the cup, so all that side was full of fans, if you’ve ever seen the game, you’ll hear the noise they made, I thought it was excellent.”

After going 2-0 down within the first 10 minutes, Willenhall Town seemed to already have one hand on the trophy.

Billy admitted: “Well it did knock us there’s no doubt about that because they were mistakes to be fair, which normally wouldn’t have happened.”

A 16th minute goal from fireman, Alan Scott, revitalised the North East side with their opponent’s goalkeeper forced to go to hospital after a head clash with Cawthra.

Ronnie Williamson then sent the game to extra-time shortly before the hour mark but Cawthra confessed he perhaps could have scored as extra-time loomed.

He said: “To be fair I missed a few really good chances which I look back at now and think, ‘what were you doing’ but sometimes that is because you’re playing where you’re playing and such a high-status game so you go a little bit quicker than you should.”

However, Cawthra made amends in the first half of extra-time by running from the halfway line before smashing the ball at goal with the defender on the line unable to block it.

Billy Cawthra (front left, black and white) scoring the third goal (Photo credit: Whickham FC)

Cawthra described the moment: “As I hit it their full-back flew across the line and helped it in which was going in on its own, but he helped it in, everyone just went mental which was great because the crowds were just going bananas so that was real good fun.”

That goal was enough for the victory with major celebrations from the travelling Whickham fans and the players now focused on collecting their trophy in front of Sir Matt Busby.

However, the Manchester United legend had some funny words for Cawthra after he noticed bruising on his face.

He described the moment: “Going back to when I said we had played a cup final the Monday beforehand someone had punched me in the face, so Matt Busby stopped and said, ‘you must be the centre-forward’.”

On the bus journey home, reports came in that Whickham had a massive turnout with Cawthra revealing his recollection of the celebration parade.

He said: “We were thinking there was going to be loads of people there, instead there was just one guy and his dog, but the dog did have a black and white scarf on, so we weren’t after that expecting anything and as we came in it was just unbelievable there was just loads of people you knew, lads you played with, it was just great.”

Steven Peareth remembers the day fondly and despite missing the first two goals, he reminisces about the atmosphere when Whickham completed their comeback.

He revealed: “Whickham scored, then they scored again, so we were jumping about all over, singing and dancing and then when the winner went in the place just erupted it was just brilliant, a brilliant atmosphere, a brilliant day.”