Thursday evening isn't just the realm of the Europa League. So whilst many were at home watching Manchester United plotting their back-door Champions League entry, the good people of Burbage and Northfield were making the journey South to Sphinx Drive, Coventry, where their teams were about to go head-to-head for the Midland League Challenge Vase.
Having visited Sphinx Drive before (but never yet to see the landlords play there), I won't go into a ground description. I don't beleive that a lot has changed since my last visit in November 2015, when I saw Coventry United beat Southam United.
Instead, let's take a little look at the history of the Challenge Vase, a competition that seems to have been around since the 1980/81 season when it was won by the aforementioned Southam United on penalties after a 4-4 draw with Kingsbury United.
Since that time the most successful Challenge Vase team has been Enville Athletic who have won the trophy twice and finished runners-up once. Three other sides, Earlswood Town, Handsaker and Marston Green, have all also won the trophy twice. Some notable names who have played in the Challenge Vase Final and gone on to much higher leagues are Stratford Town (winners in 1981/82) and Rugby Town (runners up in 2000/01). Stratford currently play in the Southern Premier and Rugby have just been relegated from Step 4 back into Step 5.
This year's final was to be competed by NKF Burbage and Northfield Town both of Midland League Division Three although, in NKF's case, not for much longer having won the Division by nine points. Northfield finished in fourth spot but only after a Midland League ruling put Moors Academy above them on a points per game basis. This came after Barton United resigned with one game to play, against Moors. The recalculation gave Moors a points per game of 2.16 and Northfield, 2.076.
Burbage after transferring from The Leicestershire Senior League have gone through the entire season unbeaten and were, this evening, going for the treble. League title, Leicestershire Intermediate Cup and Challenge Vase.
One last thing about Burbage. Until I started researching before the game I had always thought that NKF moniker sounded rather Eastern European and that, maybe, they originated from a works team. I found out that NKF in fact stands for National Kidney Federation and that the club aims to raise awareness of the NKF. A much, much better reason for the prefix than my made-up works team idea.
Northfield started much the stronger of the two sides, playing with just Daniel Lawrence up front but getting plenty of support up to him very quickly. In particular David Glaze looked dangerous, getting in two early efforts at goal, one over the top and the other straight at NKF 'keeper Alex Hill.
Having said that, after 19 minutes it was actually Burbage who came closest to, and really should have, opened the scoring when Jack Whitehurst headed over from an unmarked position in the six yard box.
Three minutes later Glaze had yet another attempt from the edge of the box, this time firing just over the bar. Burbage then went straight up the other end and were only prevented from taking the lead by a fine save from Shaun Hayes.
Northfield were still looking the better team even though Burbage had created the two best scoring opportunities.
With half-time fast approaching it was looking like a goal-less first half until, on 43 minutes, a through ball found Burbage strike Tom Smith running into the Northfield box. He rounded the Hayes, who did well not to concede a penalty and get a certain red card, before finishing confidently. 1-0.
We still had time for a little more action in the first half when a Northfield player went down holding his head after a challenge with Burbage centre-half Jordan Pickering. The Northfield players immediately indicated that an elbow had been used. The referee consulted with the fourth official before handing out a yellow to Pickering, much to the ire of the Northfield players and bench. (Thanks to @TomTomCOYY for immediately posting a Ronnie Pickering GIF at this point. Made me smile and gave me a blog title)
HT NKF Burbage 1 Northfield Town 0. A little bit harsh on Northfield who looked the better side for much of the half, although Burbage started to come back into it in the latter stages. The yellow card incident towards the end had clearly left a bad taste with the Northfield players and there were words exchanged as the players left the field.
After the initial burst, the half settled down a little with Burbage now having the edge on possession.
After 50 minutes a free-kick from the Burbage right was met by a glancing header but the ball went narrowly wide of Hayes' right-hand post but, in the main, there followed a fifteen minute period of fairly evenly balanced play.
On 67 minutes Northfield, trying to play their way out of defence, gave the ball away cheaply and were made to pay. Alx Coultas played a lovely ball across the Northfield box and Oliver Bradshaw was there to stroke the ball home. 2-0.
The goal seemed to shake Northfield and almost straight from kick-off they almost conceded again. This time, after giving away a free-kick on their left, they completely switched off to the quickly taken kick. The ball was drilled across the box for Whitehurst who, somehow, managed to miss his second sitter of the game. It really wasn't his day in front of goal.
The Northfield bench and their captain were quick to respond, getting out a message to the players that there was still 20 minutes left and they were still in the game.
On 82 minutes they very nearly got a foothold back in the game, forcing Hill to make a very good save to prevent them from scoring. Then, on the 86th minute we had another couple of minutes of extraordinary action. Following the award of a corner to Northfield there was a bit of jostling in the box and a Burbage player was left on the ground. It was at the far end from where I was standing, so I had no clear view of the incident. The referee, however, had no real hesitation in showing a red card to Northfield's Wayne Boyce. There wasn't too much in the way of complaints, so I am guessing that it was a deserved dismissal.
Even while the dismissed player was still walking around the edge of the pitch to the changing rooms his team got themselves a goal back from the corner. The ball was cleared to the edge of the box where Will Parker was on hand to fire it back past Hill. 2-1
This was the fillip that Town needed and, even a player light, they proceeded to take the game to their opponents, coming very close to an equaliser in the last minute when a header appeared to glance the post on it's way out for a goal kick.
In the end it was one step too far for Northfield and the referee blew to end the game.
FT NKF Burbage 2 Northfield Town 1. Congratulations to NKF Burbage. Treble winners and a whole season without defeat. A great feat at any level.
Northfield's defeat, their second successive Challenge Vase Final loss after losing 1-0 to Redditch Borough last season, puts them in a group with Thimblemill Rec and West Midlands Police Reserves who have also been beaten finalists twice. Interestingly, Northfield's reserve team have won the trophy, beating Sedgeley Rovers 3-2 (aet) in the 1983/84 season.
Best of luck to both sides for next season. I will endeavour to visit both home grounds during the regular season if possible. Thanks also to Coventry Sphinx for hosting the Final. Maybe I will also get to see Sphinx play at their home ground soon?
NKF Burbage - @nkfburbage
Northfield Town - @northfieldtown
Coventry Sphinx - @coventrysphinx
Midland Football League - @midlandleague