Book Review – From Hashtag United to Wembley by Phil Hearn

Ask people, even those not interested in football, and they will have heard of the FA Cup – the oldest national football competition in the world, which began in 1871. Ask the same group about the FA Trophy and you will no doubt be met with a great number of blank faces. And in explaining to anyone about this competition, like to road to Wembley itself, it can be a tricky task.

When football was in its early days, it was played on an amateur basis, but as professionalism crept into the game there was a desire for an competition just for amateur clubs and so the FA Amateur Cup was born in 1893 and continued until the 1973-74 season when the FA abolished the amateur status. What had also been happening in the game was the rise of clubs paying players who whilst not full-time, could not be considered amateur, since they received regular payment and so were classified as semi-professional. In recognition of this the FA Trophy was created and first played for in 1969-70.

Despite the fact that like the FA Cup the FA Trophy final is played at Wembley Stadium and is the pinnacle for semi-professional players in terms of a national competition, very few books exist about it. Therefore it was a real pleasure to come across Phil Hearn’s From Hashtag United to Wembley.

Hearn’s inspiration came from the book Journey to Wembley The Story of the 1976 – 77 FA Cup Competition and Liverpool’s Bid for the Treble – A Football Odyssey from Tividale to Wembley by Brian James. As a youngster I too remember reading this book and was spellbound by the authors journey to unknown clubs from the Preliminary Round to (the then Twin Towers of) Wembley.

The greatest compliment I can give Hearn’s book is that I enjoyed it as much as James’ book all those years ago. Hearn’s journey as the book title suggests begins with a visit to Hashtag United for their First Round Qualifying (and never call it the First Qualifying Round!) tie with Chipstead in the FA Trophy and ends under the Wembley arch as Wrexham take on Bromley.

What can readers expect along the way? Well, it is part travelogue which has a feel of Bill Bryson about it, with some Victor Meldrew moments as Hearn shares his observations on life and travails, a good sprinkling of football facts, all delivered with humour which at times had me laughing out loud.

It is a real homage to the non-league game, which for the uninitiated is a world of dedicated volunteers, quirky grounds, welcoming clubhouses and where you can still have a drink whilst watching the game. Hearn conveys the pleasures of football at this level, which at the top end contains many ex-league clubs such as Wrexham but also extends to clubs where a crowd of 100 is a bonus.

But the book is not just all about football, and Hearn’s descriptions and observations of the various towns and cities he visits are equally as enjoyable as are his stream of consciousness moments as he travels to and from games, as the country continued to emerge from Covid restrictions.

This is a book that will put a smile on your face and introduce you to a world of football that deserves more exposure. Delve into this book and then get out to your local non-league club.

(Publisher: Independently published. September 2022. Paperback: 333 pages)


Buy the book here: Hashtag United to Wembley

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If non-League football, travel, people-watching and looking at the lighter side of life fascinates you, you can join Phil on his FA Trophy trail. For the 2021-22 season, Phil started at Hashtag United v Chipstead in the FA Trophy 1st Round Qualifying. From there, he followed the winners of each tie all the way to Wembley. He became a sort of groundhopper, but with his path in the lap of the Gods.

The book follows Phil’s travels by train, meeting all sorts of people and visiting the parks, landmarks and pubs of towns and cities before seeing each FA Trophy cup game. He meets supporters with reliable and unreliable facts about their clubs and optimists and pessimists (mainly optimists). He encounters non-League supporters, who love their clubs just as much as Manchester United and Liverpool fans.

The travels take you to Aylesbury to meet Ronnie Barker and David Bowie (or Bowies, in fact), an ex-drug dealer in Stockport and gangsters on trains. He learns how youngsters tell their Mums about breaking up with a girlfriend, how you only need a vocabulary of four words and has to think about his bucket list when meeting a Bishop’s Stortford supporter. You’re bound to discover some fascinating trivia you didn’t know on the way!

Pre-match and post-match beers keep some days moving, and an evening curry often brings a good end to match days. However, the supporters, officials, and players of clubs like Chipstead, Needham Market, Cheshunt and others made the journey a great adventure for Phil. You’ll have to excuse some puns as you follow the trail from Hashtag United to Wembley. So, join Phil as he witnesses eleven FA Trophy ties in ten different towns and cities.

(Publisher: Independently published. September 2022. Paperback: 333 pages)

Book Review: Lower Mead 1921 – 1991: The history of Wealdstone FC’s iconic former home by Roger Slater

Roger Slater is a long-time fan, former secretary and board member of Wealdstone FC. As a writer he has been involved with a number of books for the club including, The History of Wealdstone FC, Off The Bench – A Quarter of a Century of Non-League Management and Behind the Season, as well as providing material for the Wealdstone match day programme, and various websites. He was also co-author of, And sometimes the dog was busy! with Fergus Moore.

His excellent catalogue has been added to with his latest contribution to The Stones story, this time focusing on Lower Mead, the home of Wealdstone from 1921 to 1991. Its release in 2021 acknowledges what would have been 100 years for the club at the ground.

This A4 sized, glossy production, tells the story of the ground and its changes from hosting its first game in September 1922 against Berkhamsted Town to its last competitive fixture in April 1991, in a Southern League Premier Division fixture when Cambridge City were the visitors.

The focus of the book is on the development of the ground from the inaugural season in 1922/23, through to its sorry demise in 1990/91, with an interesting range of photographs, plans and newspaper clippings, adding to the informative text.

What is evident is that the ground was seen as something central to the community, as it developed down the years, adding a main hall, billiard room, committee rooms etc. as well becoming a focus for a range of events. And it was therefore interesting to read of the range of events that Lower Mead hosted including the local fete, dog shows, a pop concert, a weekly market and other sports such as lacrosse and rugby league.

With the club turning professional in the early 70s, it came under increasing financial pressure and combined with some financial mismanagement from the owners and subsequent legal problem, despite success on the field with the 1984/85 ‘double’ triumph of league title and FA Trophy win, within six years The Stones had to leave their iconic and spiritual home of Lower Mead.

This is a book aimed squarely at the Wealdstone faithful, but will also be of interest to those interested in football grounds and their history. It is though a sobering story of the maladministration that can occur. As football fans we should never take our home grounds for granted.

(Published by CAMS. March 2021. Paperback 56 pages)



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Book Review: The Long, Long Road to Wembley by Dave Roberts

Following his previous football titles, The Bromley Boys, 32 Programmes and Home and Away, Dave Roberts brings us his latest offering, The Long, Long Road to Wembley. Once again at the heart of his book, is his beloved club, Bromley FC.

This time the inspiration for another excellent tale of the Lillywhites, is a framed picture of the Bromley skipper carried shoulder-high by his teammates, celebrating the 1948/49 FA Amateur Cup win at Wembley against Romford, which the young Roberts remembers adorning the tea-bar at Bromley in his early years supporting the Club. The image inspires in Roberts the desire to see his side repeat that journey and so begins the story as the sub-title of the book details, One man’s fifty-year journey towards his ultimate football dream.

The book is divided into two parts, the first (covering nine chapters) finds the author excitedly anticipating the 1968/69 FA Amateur Cup draw and takes readers through to 1979 and a visit to Wembley, at the Arena, rather than the twin-towers of the stadium, for a five-a-side competition involving a number of Isthmian league teams. During that time the FA Amateur Cup was ended in the 1973/74 season as the FA abolished the amateur status, with the FA Trophy beginning in 1969/70 and becoming the senior competition for non-league clubs. Whatever the title though of the tournament, Bromley never go near a return during that period to walking up Wembley Way.

One of the great strengths of Roberts writing is that it isn’t just tales of events on the pitch, and it brought a smile to the face to read of the author’s growing pains in the first part of the book. Readers are treated to Roberts in his Bryan Ferry phase, resplendent in white suit and smoking French cigarettes, Disque Bleu, from a black holder ivory, through to his punk transformation, black bin liner et al. with a tale of a near fatal experience with a three-wheeler, thrown in for good measure.

Part two covers the period from the end of the 1970s up to the 2017/18 season, as Roberts moves around the UK and even has spells abroad in New Zealand and United States, limiting his visits to Bromley’s home ground, Hayes Lane. Of the remaining eight chapters (and Epilogue), five are dedicated to the 2017/18 season, as Bromley, now a National League side, make another assault on reaching a Wembley Final.

Once again, the author in this book has captured what it is like to be a non-league fan, capturing the bond that exists at that level between its players, volunteers and die-hard fans. It also reminds us that as fans we should never give up on our dreams, and that despite all the ups and downs, our teams are in our blood.

(Unbound, August 2019. Paperback 212pp)



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