As a jubilant Heaton Stan team bus made its way back up the A1 from Barnoldswick, a raucous chorus of ‘Sweet Carlone’ struck up in celebration.
“Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing,” sings Neil Diamond in what has become the go-to sporting anthem for many an occasion.
When it comes to the FA Vase and where it will end, well the Stan can’t begin to knowing either.
These are relatively unchartered waters for the team from Grounsell Park with regards to this prestigious competition. Not for more than 40 years has there been a bigger Vase tie for the club. After the Stan set a new club record at Northern League level with Saturday’s 9-1 win over Brandon United, there is anticipation of another high watermark – this time surpassing the club’s previous best attendance of 515. It feels a distinct possibility. The sense of excitement around the place is palpable.
For Stan boss Dean Nicholson and his backroom team, the trick is to embrace the occasion without anyone losing a sense of perspective. For the club’s 16-game unbeaten run may be about to face its toughest test yet. Saturday’s opponents Eccleshill United currently sit second in the Northern Counties East League Premier Division, a rung higher in the football pyramid. Furthermore, Northern League opposition has already proved to be to the Eagles’ liking this season. Crook Town were beaten 2-0 at Millfield before Bishop Auckland were eliminated by the same scoreline at Plumpton Park. They will travel north from Bradford not short of confidence.
Another tense cup-tie beckons. The Stan have prevailed in two nerve-jangling Vase encounters already. Will it be a case of third time lucky?
It’s a Vase run that might not have got beyond the first hurdle. After a hard-fought league win at Esh Winning in early September, the squad had less than 48 hours recovery time before they were back on the road, following the Tyne west to face Newcastle University in Prudhoe. 90 minutes couldn’t separate the teams, and so it went to penalties.
“We knew it was going to be tough playing so quickly again after the Thursday match,” recalls No2 Andy McBride. “But we stuck in and the game went to penalties.
“Nobody ever wants to go to penalties but we came out on top and Ryan (Bailey) put away the pressure pen. The scenes in the dressing room afterwards were great, although I’ll admit a lot of the lads wanted an away trip to (AFC) Blackpool and not Barnoldswick!”
Ah, Barnoldswick. Nestled on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire, it would prove a day to savour for staff, players and supporters alike.
Trailing at the break to the North West Counties League Premier Division outfit, Stan would first restore parity before, with mere seconds left to play, Andy Burn conjured up a superb strike from distance to spark euphoric scenes. In the Silent Night Stadium, it truly was the stuff of dreams.
“To score in the 93rd minute and win the game like we did, it was just the cherry on top of the cake,” smiles Dean.
“It was just a brilliant day for the whole club. For us, the players and the supporters who came with us.
“We built up to the game properly and put a lot into the game plan. If anything, we showed them a little too much respect in the first half and we had to get out there and show we could play against a Step 5 side. And when Andy Burn’ winner went in, I don’t think I’ve felt anything like that in football before.
“My family were there and so to share it with them was really special. I don’t think my missus had seen me cry like that at football before!
“Not long after the game I wanted to think ahead to the next match but as Andy reminded me, you’ve got to take time to enjoy days like that when they happen.”
Saturday may be a new experience for many in the Stan squad but in Dean Holmes and Lee McAndrew, they have two players who know what it is like to be part of a Vase-winning squad. That must be an advantage?
“To have them around with their experience is great,” says Dean. “Until they keep mentioning it and dropping it into conversations! But they are great lads and they know how to win Vase games.
“And Vase games are different, they are special. We have a lot of good, young lads in the squad so it’s good to have that blend.”
Saturday promises to be a special occasion at Grounsell Park. And the Stan Army can play their part.
“It’s the first Vase game we’ve had at home and that will be big for the fans. We know we’ll have another great crowd and if we can get a result then what a day it will be for everyone who is connected to the club.
“We never set a target in the Vase this year. We just thought ‘let’s have a crack at it and see how far we can go’.
“I didn’t really know the past history of the club with the Vase. The league will always be the priority for us but any kind of Vase run is a bonus.
“Everyone is keeping their feet on the ground but, of course, we know it’s going to be an exciting day for the club. We have a fearless bunch of lads who want to show they can play against Step 5 sides and who will give anyone a game.
“We’ve won two ties and we want to keep going. I said to the lads at Barnoldswick, leave nothing on the pitch.
“If you lose to better players then fair enough. That can happen. But I said to them don’t come off the field thinking they lost a game they could have won because it makes for a long journey home.
“We hope it’s another great day on Saturday but we need the result for that to happen.”
As we talk over a pint, a song comes on the jukebox. It’s not ‘Sweet Caroline’ although ‘Glory Days’ by Bruce Springsteen is another tune the Stan Army will hope to be singing come Saturday night.
So if you do witness another rendition of Neil Diamond in the Grounsell Park clubhouse on Saturday night then you’ll know it has been another day to savour in a season that has already brought so much enjoyment.
“Good times never seemed so good…”
Author: Gary Oliver