It was a mixed draw for the eight Northern League sides left in the FA Vase, with the pick of the games at Spennymoor and Whitley Bay. When the third round ties are played on December 3rd, 1,351 days will have elapsed since Ian Chandler’s three-time defending champions were last defeated in the competition. Despite Bay’s recent inconsistencies, they should have enough quality up front to see off Northern Counties East League leaders Bridlington Town, who struggled past Northern League Division Two side Gillford Park in the previous round.
Newcastle Benfield’s reward for beating another NCEL team, Barton Old Boys, is a home game with Lincolnshire’s Deeping Rangers, a free scoring side who came fourth in last season’s United Counties League Premier and have scored forty goals in the sixteen league games played so far. Both sides have had disappointing stars, last season’s Northern League runners-up Benfield currently ninth in the table while Deeping, one place lower, have suffered a six goal defeat at St Ives and lost 5-1 at home to Kings Lynn. In the two all-Northern League match ups, Billingham Synthonia host Consett while Ashington travel to Spennymoor. With players like Jonny Godsmark, Matty Grieve and Phil Bell, who re-signed from Whitley Bay last week and promptly struck five goals past Bishop Auckland, the Colliers pose a danger to any of the sides left in the Vase, but a relative lack of strength in depth leaves Gary Middleton’s squad vulnerable to injuries and their record against the Northern League’s top sides – including 6-2 and 5-0 losses to Spennymoor last season – has largely been poor. Expect Spennymoor, who ominously moved third in the league table with a come from behind win at leaders West Auckland Town last night, to squeeze through in what’s their first home draw in eleven Vase games. In the other tie, Synthonia and Consett are both midtable in Division One and averaging two goals a game this season, though the presence of Marc Walton and Michael Mackay in Consett’s attack added to Billingham’s patchy home form and the recent departure of James Magowan to Norton makes the Steelmen slight favourites to progress.
Dunston UTS, now three points and one place above Spennymoor, have a tricky tie against a Parkgate side who have already seen off Scarborough Athletic and Bedlington Terriers in this season’s competition, but will fancy their chances at home after putting twelve goals past Blackwell in the second round. Even with an away draw, West Auckland Town should be far too strong for Northern Counties East League first division side Askern Villa, although a shock can never be discounted given Villa’s 5-2 win at North West Counties Premier side Padiham.
With the competition now down to its last sixty-four teams, how far can the Northern League sides go? In this instance, the north-east’s geographical isolation very definitely works in its favour. Six of the quarter finalists from the two previous seasons – Poole, last season’s runners up Coalville, Whitehawk, Barwell, Leiston and Needham Market – have since been promoted to step four leagues and now contest the FA Trophy. 2009 finalists Wroxham are top of the Ridgeons Premier but were knocked out by Mildenhall in Round One, Torpoint Athletic, the only South West Peninsula League side to ever reach the last eight, Rye United and last season’s semi finalists Kings Lynn all lost at the weekend. Of the remaining sides, four – Whitley Bay (twice), Dunston, Norton and Stockton and Shildon – came from the Northern League, leaving only Gresley, third in the Midland Alliance and weekend conquerors of Kings Lynn. Chris Daniel of the blog 50 seats and floodlights rates Gresley as one of the major threats to a fourth successive Northern League triumph along with Long Buckby (who put Ashington out at last season’s fourth round stage), Southend Manor and Falmouth Town. I’d add Peterborough Northern Star, top of the United Counties ahead of Kings Lynn, Long Buckby and Deeping Rangers and drawn at home to Armthorpe Welfare in the third round, to the list. Managed by former Peterborough United defender Chris Plummer, Northern Star were on a nineteen game winning streak until a 3-1 defeat by Cogenhoe on November 12th. Either way, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see at least one Northern League side making it to north London on the 13th of May. Four in a row for Whitley Bay? West Auckland’s first trip to Wembley since the 1961 FA Amateur Cup Final? Or could this, at last, be Spennymoor’s year on the national stage?