Heys reflective following good tournament run
When people talk about unexpected cup runs in England, it often means a non-league team taking on a proverbial giant in the 3rd round of the FA Cup and bowing out graciously, but to limit an unexpected cup run to just this definition would be doing a disservice to other teams in other competitions. One such cup run took place under everyone's nose this year in the FA Vase, and it belonged to NWCFL Premier Division side Prestwich Heys.
Going into the 2021/22 season, Matt Barnes and his Heys players had already made club history, as it was to be the clubs first in the NWCFL Premier Division – the highest standing in the football league pyramid that they had ever achieved. The season began with lots of optimism, but 4 straight defeats right out of the gate, as well as a rearranged cup final defeat of 6-1 to Lancaster City did not fill the fans with a lot of confidence.
Results finally started to turn in Heys' favour in August's final game – a 4-1 thrashing of Winsford United to record their first ever NWCFL Premier Division win. What followed was a series of winning a game, then losing the next one, then winning again, and so on, until they recorded their first set of successive league victories against Ashton Athletic and Congleton Town, respectively – just in time for their FA Vase qualifier against Brigg Town of the NCEL Division One.
Brigg were the visitors on September 25th, and came into the match having scored 7 goals in 3 different fixtures of their previous 7. This game against Heys would stick to that theme, in a sense that one of the two teams involved would score 7 goals on the day.
Prestwich Heys took the lead before the 20 minute mark, with flying wing-back Joe Rothwell grabbing a deflected goal, and it was 2-1 just before half time thanks to in-form striker Jack Coop restoring their lead after a Brigg equaliser. The second half is when things really started to shift up in gears, as Coop would score a further 3 goals, being intercut by strikes from the debuting Louis Potts and substitute Lee Grimshaw. Two Dayle Hutson goals were not enough to stop Heys from recording their biggest ever FA Vase victory and storming into the first round proper.
A month went by before Heys' next FA Vase game came around, and it was desperately needed, as Barnes' men had embarked on a 4-game losing streak in the league. For the first round proper, Heys, once again the home outfit, took on Penrith of the Northern League Division One, which is a league seen as parallel to the NWCFL Premier Division. Penrith also had a new manager at the helm – former Preston and Hibernian winger Chris Humphrey.
The goals in this fixture weren't quite as plentiful, nor were they as Coop-centric as the previous round, but there were still 6 on display to enjoy. Three of these goals all came for Heys, and all came within the first 20 minutes, with defender Scot Cullen and Lee Grimshaw netting either side of a Niall Sultan thunderbolt from 25 yards. Penrith came to life in the second half, with a Max Brown brace making for a shaky finish, but an 88th minute penalty from Coop put the result beyond doubt and saw Heys into the 2nd round.
The month between the Penrith match and the next game, which would be a 3rd home match in the competition, was far more fruitful for Heys than the previous one. Before Winterton Rangers visited the Adie Moran Park in late November, they'd recorded league wins against AFC Liverpool, Burscough and Runcorn Town. More league wins and losses during that month looked great, but, having that said, Heys were going into this game having hosted West Didsbury and Chorlton – a team from a step below in the football pyramid - the previous Tuesday, and the visitors came out 3-4 winners after an 88th minute decider.
This was the game that would make club history. Prior to this match, Prestwich Heys had never made it to the 3rd round of the FA Vase, and here was the chance to do just that on home soil. The roadblock was Winterton Rangers, who had knocked out Macclesfield in the earlier rounds. Heys needed the first goal, and got it just before 20 minutes, when Jack Coop dispatched his second penalty in as many rounds. Jack Varley dragged Rangers level before the break, but the penalty spot would again prove pivotal, as Heys were awarded their second spot kick of the afternoon just after the restart. Coop made no mistake, and substitutes Bailey Dawes and Ric Seear combined to add a 3rd and round off the scoring.
For the 2nd time in the 2021/22 season Heys would be making club history and playing at a level they never had before – the 3rd round of the FA Vase.
This was where the journey ended. While it wasn't quite on Wembley's doorstep, it was still a huge piece of modern club history. Heys, again the home team, welcomed Harbrough Town of the United Counties League, Premier Division South, who, up to that point, had won 17 of 19 competitive games that season. They would go on to make it 18 from 20, and Heys would feature in another Vase game where one team scores 7 goals, only this time they were the victims. A red card to Oscar Campbell, and a consolation goal from Jack Coop (who else?) took a back seat to the fact that Harbrough, via a Sam Hollis hat-trick, and goals from Ireland, Ansu, Hoenes and Malone, saw themselves comfortably into the 4th round.
“From the start, we wanted a good run in the cup”, said assistant manager Sean Cookson, reflecting on the experience. He called it a “chance for the lads to take their minds away from the league and be able to play without pressure and enjoy their football. To reach the furthest the club has ever progressed in the competition is a fantastic feat for the players after the had work they've put in this season.”
“It really gave the lads a boost, especially with league results being so up and down”, said club captain Brad Sixsmith, echoing the sentiment of his assistant manager. He also commented on the impact it has had on the team's mentality. “The way we went out was disappointing, things didn't go our way,but we have to learn from that as a group and make sure it doesn't happen again. Hopefully we can do one better next year.”
The FA Cup this year has seen non-league sides like Kidderminster and Chesterfield take the headlines for their runs to the 3rd round, but it's not only the FA Cup that makes a difference for the clubs involved. In the FA Vase, this was a piece of history for Prestwich Heys – one that everyone involved has been glad to be a part of, and one that they will hope to better in the near future.