Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 7 – If…


“If you can keep your cool when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming results on you,
If you can trust yourself when all fans moan at you,
But don’t slag them off for their moaning too;
If you can wait for an away win and not be tired by waiting,
Or talking your chances up but dealing in lies,
Or being hated, yet don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too smart, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream of an FA Cup run and not make that dream your master;
If you can imagine a 3rd Round home tie and not make gate receipts your aim;
If you can meet with floodlight failure and waterlogged disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by local journalists to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the players you rely on, on the floor broken,
Whilst the poor officials obviously don’t know the rules:

If you can make one gamble with half your weekly budget
And risk it on one big name ex-Premier League midfield boss
And see him break down on his debut, and have to think again
Or smile outwardly after their mistake causes another loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To stay behind the goal in the rain long after the others have gone,
And hold on when there is no warmth left in you
Because nobody else will shout at your winger to warn him: “Man on!”

If you can stand on the Jungle and keep your pint safe,
Or talk with Kingy—remembering the common touch,
If neither fanzines nor the Philcox chants can hurt you,
If all fans count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving half time break
With fifteen minutes worth of Non-League boardroom small talk,
Yours is the Dripping Pan and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be the chairman, my son”

With thanks to Kipling (Ruyard, not Mr) for the original words.

So T-minus 3 for the Rooks.  In fifteen days time we will know our fate. 270 minutes of football.  At this stage of the season every fan studies the results for hours, looking for any little chink of hope.  We couldn’t have asked for a better Bank Holiday with the win at Bognor Regis Town, but now we had to do it all again.  Whilst being a fan at the business end of the season can be a very nervous time, being a fan and a chairman is certainly something I wouldn’t recommend for the feint-hearted.

17110644981_6a09bf1e96_zOf course, we had done our homework, having our opponents Met Police watched, choosing their 5-0 home win against East Thurrock United last week as the basis for our preparations.  The scouting report wasn’t overly positive about their performance in that game, yet they still scored five times without reply.  I’d hate to think what it would read like if they played well!  Scouting reports are essential for preparation at this level.  Last year I tried to explain the art of scouting opponents but at this level literally anything can happen to a player or a team in a matter of hours, so often all of that hard work goes out the window.  I rang two managers I have contact details of in my phone (don’t ask why…) and got their opinion.  Both had played Met Police in recent weeks, both had recorded positive results against them and both told me two completely ways that they would set themselves up against them.

The math was simple as we looked optimistically into our pints in the Marney’s Village Inn.  Win here and it would take a freak set of results for us to be heading, quite literally, South next season.  A draw and we would be 75% safe but a defeat?  Well, that would potentially drag us down into the dark depths of the bottom of the table.  We don’t mention the R word at board meetings but it is there.  We can all feel it, hiding in the darkness, laughing at us when we talk about plans for next season.  To paraphrase Stephen King:-

“Monsters are real.  Ghosts are real.  Relegation is real.  They exist and they all live inside us.  And sometimes they win”

Metropolitan Police 2 Lewes 0 – Imber Court – Saturday 11th April 2015
16903909027_2be2d93db1_z“Just bloody score Wingate” was the most popular phrase uttered during the second half of the game. A group of grown men, all huddled together looking at their mobile phone screens.  I often tell me daughters off for anti-social behaviour such as this but this was different.  If we all looked hard enough at the same latest score page then surely Wingate would score and our precarious position might become a little easier.  Of course, the opposite happened.  VCD Athletic scored again to double their lead and with it climbed out of the bottom four for the first time since September.  The gap between us and the drop zone was now just 3 points.

By this point we had come to realise it wasn’t our day.  Try as we might, and we did mightily try in the second half, we simply couldn’t find the Met Police net.  Even the referee wasn’t playing ball, denying us a clear-cut penalty for hand ball on the hour mark.  So much for the reports we had received,  that suggested Hudson-Odoi looked disinterested and Reid was goal-shy.  In the space of three first half minutes they combined twice to give the home side what transpired to be an unassailable lead.

17111288455_4a23383d61_zWe came in hope rather than expectation, enjoying the sunshine for the second away trip in six days, and once again provided a large proportion of the total attendance.  In this case it was 37 fans out of a total of 85.  It is hard to believe that it is still possible for Met Police to be playing in the Conference South in just a few months time, with this win doing their late play-off charge no harm at all.  Yet, no more than a few dozen fans come to watch them.  You can’t fault the facilities at Imber Court, although the strict rule that guests had to be wearing a jacket and tie to enter the board room (in theory you could wander in wearing shorts and flip-flops as long as you had a tie and jacket on) does seem quite formal for the confines of the Ryman Premier League.  Fortunately, a board member, seeing my predicament, or mores to the point, Club Sec Kev taking the piss because he could go in and I couldn’t, came out with a plate of sandwiches for me.

Other results were OK – we are one of nine teams that could still be relegated, although three of the four sides in the drop zone can no longer catch us.  Next Saturday, when the Rooks host Leatherhead looking for those vital three points, I will be in the Stadion Gorče Petrov watching Makedoniha GJP take on Vrapciste.  Whilst my head will be filled with the delights of Skopje and Macedonia, my heart will be 1,500 miles away at The Dripping Pan.

The real Champions League?


Imagine a tournament where only the biggest names in European football would play, guaranteed admission despite their poor league season, assured of huge prize money irrespective of performance and free from the potential embarrassment of small up-starts humiliating them in front of a global audience of millions.

This is the dream of the biggest clubs of football, the utopia of an European Super League which has been discussed in closed meetings for many years.  Whilst UEFA will bang the drum about the Champions League, the fact it is based on merit means that sometimes the small, unfashionable teams can upset the apple cart.  Whilst Platini and co politely clap the efforts of clubs like Nordsjælland in Denmark or BATE Borisov in Belarus, their inclusion (on merit it should be said) at the expense of Manchester United or AC Milan does not fit with their agenda of raising the stakes in terms of sponsorship and global television rights dollars.  But try as they might, they cannot manipulate the tournament so only the “big clubs” qualify each year.

downloadThis season’s Champions League tournament was missing former champions including Manchester United, AC and Inter Milan.  Huge clubs in their own rights with massive global appeal but all suffered poor domestic seasons meaning that their place at the top table of European Football will have to wait for at least another year.

Football today is all about money though and these clubs are highly marketable in any and every global market.  So it was no surprise that a tournament was arranged, pitting together some of the most marketable clubs in Europe.  In fact it is amazing it took until 2013 for it to happen. In 2013 Canada and the US hosted this tournament, won by Real Madrid, which featured seven of Europe’s biggest clubs plus the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Last season’s edition featured both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, the two Milan teams, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiacos, playing games in thirteen venues across North America.  Whilst United beat Liverpool in the final, the main talking point was the unbelievable 109,318 fans who watched the game at University of Michigan’s “Big House”, the first time the stadium had hosted a “soccer” match.  More than 631,000 fans attended the tournament live with a global audience of over 80 million tuning in in over 150 countries. Hard to argue with the success of the tournament based on those numbers.

The clubs may dress these games up as pre-season run outs but the prize money on offer means they are incredibly lucrative for them.  Gone are the days of a trip to Scotland to play Buckie Thistle or Cove Rangers.  Today it is all about 5-star first class travel to the other side of the world to glad hand a few local businessmen and appease the global sponsors.  With North America now fast becoming the biggest overseas market for the “EPL” thanks to the success of some of its exports as well as the “Beckham” effect, it is no surprise that clubs are keen to play these games, even if they are against teams they line up against week in, week out.  Just a week after the Premier League season had finished in May 2013, for instance, 2nd place Manchester City played Chelsea not once, but twice in a matter of days in two venues across North America, watched by nearly 90,000 fans.

This isn’t the first time the USA has tried to woo English clubs over to North America.  In the 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  The tournament ran for four seasons, with such big clubs as West Ham United winning the tournament.  You can read more about that tournament’s history here.

Whilst 2014 was only the second edition of the International Champions Cup, few can argue that this will be the future of our European game if Platini gets his way.  However, the 2015 version appears to take the tournament to a new level.  This year the ICC will be contested across three continents, with parallel tournaments running in North America, Australia and China.  The line-up for ICC Australia has already been announced, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma confirmed for a three-match round robin tournament at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Whether the three tournaments will cumulate in a grand final somewhere in the world is yet to be seen.  Will any of those three actually be champions within their domestic leagues?  Very unlikely.

As of the start of April no other teams have announced they will take part in the tournament.  It is inconceivable to think that Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea would pass up a chance to play in China if offered the opportunity.  The world’s biggest population, and more importantly, the biggest economy is the market that all the top European clubs want to break.  These football-mad fans do not care that clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan are not champions in their domestic markets.  In some instances, the players become bigger than the actual clubs – Ronaldo and Messi for instance are almost national heroes in China.

Is it a surprise that this season’s edition of the tournament will be the biggest yet? Absolutely not. Until UEFA can engineer the Champions League so that the biggest clubs, and consequently the biggest marketing assets are guaranteed entry into the tournament every season irrespective of their final league position this tournament will continue to grow, and for the clubs involved an important source of additional revenue.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 6 – No health warning for away fans


Bank Holiday Monday and the Rooks are off down the A27 for a local derby  against our friends from Bognor Regis Town.  Our record on the road hasn’t been that great this season, with just three wins away from The Dripping Pan.  That doesn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of our loyal away fans.  Even an away trip on a Tuesday in early January to Leiston, the most remote place on the Ryman Premier League map, still saw a hardcore of our fans make the trip, more in hope rather than confidence based on our form this season.  Based on our last two seasons visits to our closest rivals, the Rooks will be cheered on by around 75 fans today, around about the same number that followed Lewes to VCD Athletic last week.  Whilst that may not sound like a bit absolute number, compare it to our average home crowd.

IMG_3423We currently average 486 fans at The Dripping Pan.  Let’s be generous and say 36 of those are away fans (and I am being very generous for 70% of the clubs in our league) meaning our regular, average home support is 450 fans.  So a support on the road of 75 is 17%.  How many sides, whether Premier League, Football League or Non-League could boast 17% of their home attendance follow their side on the road?  Granted, there are a few clubs, but having seen away followings from Football League clubs in some instances not reaching three figures I’d say that Non-League fans are just as passionate as their bigger brothers.  But the difference between the two sets of fans is realism.

There seems to be a growing trend of professional clubs, in some kind of misguided knee-jerk reactionary way, to offer fans a refund should their side fail to perform on the pitch away from home.  The beauty of football, especially in the Non-Leagues is that sometimes anything can happen.  Should we come away from Bognor Regis Town with a sore backside after a spanking, we will dust ourselves down, ready for the game next weekend away at Metropolitan Police.  Sure, the Fans Forum will go into overdrive for a few days but most of our fans keep a sense of perspective.  But the one thing they will never start demanding is a refund.

Gary Andrews, one of the best football writers in the land, recently wrote a piece in When Saturday Comes about this growing trend a few months ago.  We’ve all been to away games where it seems it has only been the fans who have turned up, but that’s what we sign up for as football fans – crushing disappointment and more than not, a great day out spoilt by 90 minutes of turgid football.

So why do clubs feel the need to offer such gestures? In some ways, the offer to refund the fans, such as the gesture made by the Sunderland players after they lost 8-0 to Southampton, rumoured to be in the region of £60k, highlights the huge golf between the wages the players earn and the world the fan lives in.  Assuming 20 people contributed, how many people could afford to simply donate £3k as a penance for doing their job poorly once?  Likewise, what would have happened if that result would have occurred at The Stadium of Light in front of 40,000? Would the fans have been compensated then? I doubt it.

Daniel Taylor, the Guardian football writer, wrote in the aftermath of Millwall’s defeat to Bradford, which resulted in the travelling Lions fans being offered a refund, that buying a football ticket never comes with a guarantee of performance.  Last season West Ham were humiliated away from home not once, but twice in a matter of days in front of the TV cameras and a global audience at Nottingham Forest and Manchester City (not forgetting a similar performance live on TV at West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup back in February). Perhaps it was because of the low expectations of the fans under Allardyce, Sullivan and Gold but there were no calls for refunds, nor were any forthcoming for the 5-0 and 6-0 drubbings.

In the same vein, perhaps teams who travel to the likes of Stamford Bridge, The Etihad or Old Trafford should refund their fans if they win against the odds? You won’t find many Bradford City fans complaining that they humiliated Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, yet if they had lost 7 or 8 nil perhaps they would have been clamouring for their money back?

We’ve seen our share of poor away day displays in the last few years but even the wrath of Big Deaksy’s Saturday night tweets haven’t yet called for refunds for the Lewes Lunatic Fringe.  A 5-0 half time score line a few years ago on a chilly Monday night at Wealdstone had Cynical Dave shouting more about the lack of dry roasted peanuts than the abject performance on the pitch, whilst the three goals in the first ten minutes scored by Oxford City in November’s FA Trophy game saw the fans moaning about the lack of chips rather than the defending.  Non-League fans travel more in hope than expectation, and that is why a call for refunds will fall on deaf ears.  I did try to placate a few of the fans who made the trip to Witham Town in the FA Cup back in September with an offer of a beer in lieu of the shocking 4-2 defeat although with only Fosters and John Smiths on offer in their club bar, few took up the option.  As the famous strap line goes for financial products, past results are no guarantee of future performance.

IMG_3642After the last gasp defeat on Saturday against Harrow Borough, our league status was still precarious as we headed westwards to Bognor.  A defeat and we would be sucked right into the relegation mire.  A win, and whisper this quietly, we could rise to 15th in the league which would be our highest league position since the opening day of the season.

Bognor Regis 1 Lewes 2 – Nywood Lane – Monday 6th April 2015
The pre-match mood in Wetherspoons, Bognor Regis’s premium tourist attraction, was upbeat.  Despite our poor away form, there was something in the air that we simply put down to Romain Fever.  Elliott had been missing for the past six games after his mad five minutes at Canvey Island saw him pick up potentially the goal of the season award for a stunning strike, his 15th yellow card and then his second red.  Young George Brook had seen the signs in his morning cereal – Lewes to win 2-0 with Elliott and Wheeler to score the goals.

IMG_3643With the shirt-sleeves in order for the first time since August last year, Lewes produced possibly their best away display of the season, despite arriving with a depleted squad.  Injuries during the game to Chris Breach and Aarron Hopkinson meant that The Rooks finished the game with three 17 year olds on the pitch, valiantly defending a single goal lead.  After a first half full of huff and puff without much in the way of goal mouth action, the second burst into life just three minutes after the restart.

A deep cross saw the Bognor Regis keeper Winterton overstretch and drop the ball at the feet of Blewden who reacted quickly, hooking the ball back for Romain to head home.  One became two three minutes later when Romain turned his marker from a quickly taken throw-in and slotted home at the far post.  The Lewes fans behind the goal were pinching themselves.  Away goals have been at a premium this season and this was only the third time we had scored more than once away from home.  A glance at the in-play league table saw us hit the heady heights of 15th. Our work was done.  All we had to do was defend for 39 minutes like our lives depended on it.

It was inevitable that ex-Rook Terry Dodd would pay us back for letting him go in the Autumn as he pulled a goal back with thirty minutes to go.  Lewes rode the pressure and could have scored a third themselves when Hopkinson’s shot flashed across the edge of the box.  Then with five minutes to go, disaster.  Dodd was adjudged to have been fouled by Elphick in the box.  Lewes Assistant Manager Dave Jupp suggested to Rikki Banks that Prior would hit the ball to his left.  He dived left and saved magnificently.

The drama wasn’t over.  In injury time, Elphick was penalised again, this time on the line of the penalty box.  Prior had to content with a solid wall of red and black but still managed to curl it around them but the ball cannoned off the post.  Full time.

IMG_3650There would be no calls for refunds tonight.  “Well done Mr Chairman” was the first text I saw when I looked at my phone (Thanks Mum).  It had been a difficult 24 hours as a couple of others at the club would atest to.  But tactics, passion and above all believe had won the day.

 

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 5 – Big Brother isn’t watching you


“They hold odd, popular, unrivaled bonfire day rituals in the Sussex town. And the flame has now spread to the club at the Dripping Pan, no longer the site of monastic industry. Or even cricket. Every football match here now is an event – a happening, a shining, film-like. Indeed, a cinematic blockbuster poster is made in the run-up to every home game, weaving the visiting team into the plot, the script, the acknowledgements, the respect due. English eccentricity is alive and well down here: beach huts have been installed to overlook the pitch, ridiculing corporate boxes.” Stuart Roy Clarke – March 2015

Lewes aren’t alone in sitting on the doorstep of a much bigger club.  However, we are relatively unique in the fact that we pre-existed in our current home for over 125 years before Brighton & Hove Albion moved 5 miles down the road into the impressive American Express Community Stadium at Falmer.  Northern Premier League One side Droylsden FC may also fit into this bracket, having played at the Butchers Arms ground since 1892 and around 110 years before Manchester City were parachuted into their stadium, built for the 2006 Commonwealth Games around 2.5 miles down the Ashton New Road.

IMG_3601Before I start, let me first say that nobody begrudges the Seagulls their stadium or the success they have experienced since moving from the basic surrounds of the Withdean.  As a club we have a great working relationship with The Albion and long may it continue. My weekly drive down to the Dripping Pan includes that magical moment when you round the bend on the A27 at Stanmer and the stadium looms into view.  Apart from a dozen or so Premier League clubs, who wouldn’t want to call the stadium at Falmer their home?  I could wax lyrical about the small touches that mean from a Fan Experience view it rates up there with the best.  Heck, 24 hours previous to our game today I was actually sitting in the North Stand myself with a chicken and ham pie watching the Seagulls take on Norwich City. My tale today relates of the pains in trying to appease everyone whilst pleasing no one.

It doesn’t take much logic to realise that if we were scheduled to play at the same time on the same day as Brighton & Hove Albion our crowds suffer.  We have a number of fans who support both their local Non-League club and the big boys down the road.  East Sussex is relatively tribal in terms of football following and the fact that The Seagulls can boast an average attendance in excess of 25,000, some fifty times bigger than Lewes’s means we have to look out for when their fixtures are and not vice-versa.  Fortunately, there have only been three occasions this season where we have had a direct clash.  There would have been a fourth, on the sacred football watching day (to some) of Boxing Day.  The impact?  Hard to exactly quantify but let’s look at the facts:-

Clash 1 – Saturday 20th September 2015
Brighton & Hove Albion welcomed Blackpool to the Amex, whilst Maidstone United were visitors at The Dripping Pan.  Arguably this would be Lewes’s biggest away crowd of the season as The Stones travel in big numbers and it being one of their more local games (just a 38 mile trip) on a nice day we welcomed around 150 fans in a crowd of 621.  Lewes’ previous Saturday game against Wingate & Finchley (away fans 30) had been 683 on Non-League Day, so all things being equal I would have expected a crowd in normal circumstances of around 700.  However, the gate at the Amex was 24,579, down by over 1,200 on their first three games of the season, although you do need to factor in a relatively small traveling support from Lancashire.  The winners here?  Brighton & Hove Albion.

Clash 2 – Saturday 25th October 2015
Without a league win for almost two months and facing a Metropolitan Police side who brought 1 fan (that we could see) there wasn’t much surprise to see the attendance for this one to be as low as 426.  However, just down the road Brighton welcomed Rotherham United and the 24,370 was the lowest attendance they had had for a Saturday game so far in the season.  New manager honeymoon period wearing off, or simply another low turn out from the away fans?  The winners here?  Lewes by a hair’s breadth.  But what if I now throw in that the Lewes game kicked off at 12.30pm?  That surely was the compelling event that saw the respectable Lewes attendance?

Clash 3 – Saturday 7th February 2015
Lewes, injury and suspension hit, in the middle of another sag in form, welcomed Hendon on a cold February day.  Whilst the visitors were steaming up the league, they have not been able to boast significant traveling support for a number of seasons.  Even so, a crowd of just 364 saw a barn-storming game of sending offs and outfield players going in goal.  Down the road, The Seagulls hosted Nottingham Forest with over 26,000 watching the game.  Hard to argue with those stands and the obvious winner was Brighton.

IMG_3613Of course in all of these instances, the amount of revenue we saw on match day may not be proportional.  For instance, we had very high bar takings for the game versus Maidstone United simply because the proportion of adults in the crowd of 621 was more than in the game against Met Police because visiting fans do not tend to bring many Under16’s, who spend less on alcohol (we hope).  Our issue of whether to move a game or not if there is a clash is a difficult one.  In some ways we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.  If we would have moved the games against Maidstone United or Hendon, would we have got more fans?  That will depend on when the game was played.  A Friday night match experiment has been talked out and that may have worked for Maidstone, with relative short distances to travel, whilst an early kick off such as the game against Met Police does seem to have a more positive outcome.  Over the past few seasons where we have gone head to head there is a noticeable reduction in our gate, so we would be mad not to at least try to move a game.  It isn’t an easy decision to make – not only do we have to weigh up the mood of our fans but also have to approach the Ryman League and our opponents.  Most will be more accommodating for a change to an earlier Saturday kick off, few like the idea of a Friday night or Sunday game though for obvious traveling reasons.

CBwSqC5WMAEUBZEOne of the hottest topics on the forum this season was around the shifting of our Christmas game against Bognor Regis Town.  Originally schemed for Boxing Day, the game would have clashed with Brighton’s game with Reading.  Despite the lack of public transport on the day, we felt that our gate would suffer with fans who come out in force for their Christmas jolly having to decide one or the other.  Interestingly enough, we weren’t the only Ryman Premier League club who had the same thoughts, with eight of the twelve scheduled games eventually being moved from Boxing Day.  Our reasons for moving?  Sure, the fact that Brighton were at home was at the forefront of our thinking as well as the opinions of our fans although like most clubs, there is only a very small minority who ever make themselves heard (whether it is a pro or against a fixture change), but so was the fact the 27th was actually a Saturday, and by moving it back to then, we were still retaining the traditional 3pm Saturday kick-off.  Bognor, and their fans, were more than happy with the move as it meant that they could use public transport.  Consequently the 1,007 crowd is still the best at the Dripping Pan this season, and interestingly 14% up on the corresponding fixture played on Boxing Day in 2012.

16963714471_e3e49beaec_bFortunately, the Championship decided to schedule their Easter games on Good Friday meaning that we had no difficult decisions to make with regard to our six-pointer against Harrow Borough.  The visitors were dead and buried a month ago but then the players appear to have seen the flight and arrived in Lewes on the back of a seven game unbeaten run that has yielded fifteen points, ten of which have been against other relegation-threatened teams and consequently lifted them out of the bottom four for the first time since Christmas.  This sounds a little like deja-vous but a win would see the Rooks as good as safe, whilst defeat would really see the nerves creep in with just three weeks to go until the end of the season.  The good news – 70% of our points had come from our home games this season.  The bad news, we had taken less than a point on average from the games we played against the teams in the bottom ten.  Let’s just focus on the good news, shall we?

Lewes 0 Harrow Borough 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 4th April 2015
At 4:43pm Lewes were in 15th position.  Essentially the league at the moment is divided into 5 clear section.  The top 3 (with 3 teams competing for top spot, obviously), the Play-off contenders (the next 9 clubs), No-man’s land (Basically Leatherhead and Billericay Town who can’t go up or down), Bury Town (relegated already) and a ten team battleground to avoid the three other relegation spaces. 15th represented being “top of the league” in that last section.  At 4:47pm we had dropped two places, but more importantly conceded defeat to Harrow Borough, one of our rivals.

IMG_361592 minutes were on the clock when Lewis Driver tapped home unmarked at the far post to give Harrow the win.  Was it fair?  Was it unjust?  Can we blame the referee for not giving a free kick or adding on too much time?  Absolutely not.  Football is an unpredictable game – that’s its beauty.  Harrow weathered the Lewes storm (well, a mild gust to be honest as we rarely tested the Harrow keeper) and scored after not one, but two Lewes players slipped in possession.  The referee?  Didn’t put a foot wrong in my opinion all afternoon – nice to see one who seemed to enjoy letting the players take centre stage rather than his decisions.

Obviously at the final whistle, Harrow celebrated like Prince told us to 33 years ago, whilst the Lewes players looked like they had been listening to too much Radiohead.  It was fair to say that the dressing room wasn’t a lively and bubbly place to be post match.  However, other results didn’t cause us too much damage and there is the opportunity on Monday to get that vital win when the Rooks travel to Bognor Regis Town.

The crowd?  643 since your asking with a dozen or so Norwich City fans taking the opportunity to take in a second game in twenty-four hours, probably double what we could have expected if Brighton had decided to play at 3pm on a Saturday rather than Friday.  Everyone’s a winner.

Is that all you have at home?


12389631394_b0baf187aa_zDespite all the grumblings of being a Non-League fan, we have it quite good in England.  Down here in the seventh tier of English football we often see crowds break the four figure barrier, even on occasions pulling in bigger crowds than teams in the Football League.  In the Evostik League North, FC United of Manchester average nearly 1,900, whilst five other clubs have recorded crowds of over 1,000.  In the Ryman Premier League Maidstone United continue to set the standard, averaging over 1,700 whilst both Margate and Dulwich Hamlet can lay claim to gates in excess of 2,000 so far this season.  Down at The Dripping Pan we’ve averaged just over 500 so far this season, a figure that would have been much higher if our lucrative game in January against Dulwich Hamlet would have gone ahead.  Whilst every club at our level wants bigger crowds and has to constantly fight to grab the attention of the fan who parks their car outside the ground before heading off on public transport to the Premier/Football League side down the road, we aren’t doing that bad when we look at the situation in other European leagues.

Bar Germany, nowhere else in Europe has such an extensive league pyramid.  In fact, scratch below the surface of the major leagues in other countries and you will see games played in front of one man and his dog.  Whilst the best support leagues in Europe rarely change from season to season (Germany, England, Spain, Italy and France), the worst supported leagues may raise an eyebrow or two. So here is your definitive guide to the five worst supported top football leagues in Europe*

5th Place – Montenegro (average attendance – 473)
The “Black Mountains” of the Balkans, Montenegro only got their place at the UEFA table in 2006. Prior to that they were lumped in with Yugoslavia (until 1991) and then Serbia.  Water Polo is deemed to be the most popular sport, although a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics for Womens Handball has given rise to anpther distraction from watching the domestic T-Com Prva CFL.  The best supported team is FK Sutjeska Nikšić of course, who regularly attract crowds of nearly 1,000 although the biggest club is FK Budućnost Podgorica who have fallen on harder times and have to make do with just crowds of around 700 floating around the 12,000 capacity national stadium, the Pod Goricom.

4th Place – Faroe Islands (average attendance – 472)
With a population of around 50,000, the fact that 1% regularly watch the domestic EffoDeildin is actually pretty impressive – significantly more than virtually every other nation in the world.  Considering the only other leisure activities involve puffin watching, lace knitting or sheep baiting, then football is actually a very passionate affair on the islands.  B36 Tórshavn are the best supported and most successful side, regularly trying their hand to progress in the Champions League qualifying rounds.  They play at the national stadium, the Gundadalur, a short work from the bright lights of central Tórshavn in front of an average 774, with derbies against HB often attracting crowds of over 2,000.

3rd Place – Wales (average attendance – 324)
6013190150_0da9e359be_zDespite the promise of three European spots for the twelve teams who complete in the Corbett Sport Welsh Premier League (plus a fourth spot for the winners of the Welsh Cup), the clubs fail to attract the attention of the Cardiff City/Swansea City/Wrexham/Newport County supporting locals.  Add in the distractions of major European Rugby Union most weekends and you can see why the domestic game struggles to grab the attention of the locals.  In the past few seasons, Neath FC tried to raise the bar by bringing in players like former Football League sharp-shooter Lee Trundle, but soon found themselves in financial ruin and out of the league.  Today, most games are played out in front of less than 500 fans with Bangor City the best supported, gaining some new fans after their run in the Champions League qualifying competition this year and their picturesque Nantporth ground on the banks of the Menai Straits.  Port Talbot Town, sitting in between Cardiff and Swansea are bottom of the attendance list, although their Victoria Road ground allows you to watch games from the comfort of your car.

2nd Place – Latvia (average attendance – 276)
It’s all about Ice Hockey in Latvia when those long winter nights descend on cities like Riga.  Football takes a back seat, despite a decent national team showing over the past few years.  Domestic crowds in the catchily-named SMSCredit.lv Virsliga are on a par with the majority of teams in the Ryman Premier League with only FK Liepāja breaking the 1,000 mark.  Stadiums are more akin to county league standards although the beer is cheaper.  The big Riga derby played between former champions Skonto and Metta is normally played out in front of a 90% empty national stadium.

1st Place – Estonia (average attendance – 255)
this-is-first-division-football-tallinn-styleAs an outsider, you may wonder what Estonians have to do if it isn’t pitching up to watch a game of football each week.  Well, having visited the beautiful city of Tallinn I can suggest that the local “attractions” keep the locals amused come 3pm on a Saturday.  Add in some cheap beer, even cheaper local spirits and their love of Ice Hockey and Basketball and you can understand why an average Meistriliiga game is only watched by 255.  The best supported team, Flora Tallinn who play in the 10,000 all seater Le Coq Arena often break the 1,000 mark but the rest of the league get crowds that wouldn’t look out of place in the Ryman League South.

* We do not have any figures for potentially smaller leagues such as Andorra or Malta.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 4 – Hope is the only strategy


At the start of the season all Non-League boards will sit down, set a budget and perhaps even be as bold to set some objectives for the season ahead.  Outwardly fans hear words such as “consolidation” “on-field progress” or even if they are brutally honest, “survival”.  Inwardly you may not be surprised to hear that board’s are much more bullish.  They look at clubs who punched above their weight in the previous season and say “why can’t we do that? We spend more money than them!”, so more money is put into the squad and the manager is. Given an objective to push for the playoffs. As I write this, over half of the teams in the Ryman Premier League are within 1 or 2 wins of the final, achievable play off spot with just half a dozen games to go.  There’s going to be some disappointed boards in a month’s time.

hope-284x400What then happens depends on the attitude and experience. Some boards will say let’s out-spend everyone else and push for promotion again, whilst others will cut the budget to something more realistic and take a risk that it will just be enough to avoid relegation.  The danger of the former strategy is that it’s like building a skyscraper on shifting sand.  Undoubtably the cash has to come from an external source and there comes a point when that “structure” becomes unstable and the fragile foundations are removed.  The Non-Leagues are littered with the bones of such follies yet there are still clubs and individuals who think they can change the age-old model.  Look away now if you are a fan of a club who is currently high on the euphoria of a speeding train up the divisions.  This model does not work and in 99% of cases will end at best in tears, at worst without a club to support every Saturday.

Like most football fans, my opinion of Robbie Savage as an “expert pundit’ isn’t particularly complimentary.  Starting each retort to callers on his phone-in show on BBC 5Live’s 606 with “Did you play the game?” doesn’t endear him to the vast majority of people but last weekend he said something that made a lot of sense and actually changed my view on something.  West Ham had just beaten Sunderland 1-0. It wasn’t a pretty win and a number of fans were unhappy with the style of play.  “In reality, where did you think you could finish this season?” He asked one caller, then going through each team who could and should have been in top seven.  Presently six of those teams mentioned occupied those slots – the only absence was Everton, who had been replaced by Southampton.  Savage then said “so realistically your best hoped would be to finish 8th” the caller couldn’t argue, ” so currently you are one place off winning YOUR league”.  Does style really matter if you win the league? That’s the view that boards at Non League have to think about.  If the objective is to reach the play offs and you fall one point short by playing “ugly”, is that a failure? What about 20 points shy? You’ve been as successful in hitting your objective – in other words second place is the first loser, tenth place is ninth loser – but you are both losers.

When a club puts together its budget at the start of the season they do so with some assumptions of what will happen.  They assume that key players won’t get injured in pre-season.  Even worse, that players on a contract don’t get injured in pre-season, or arrested, or go on holiday to Magaluf and never come back.  Fans of professional clubs will laugh at that but it happens every season in the Non-Leagues.  Ambitious plans created on the 1st July could be in tatters by the 31st July.

When serving as Mayor of New York. City, Rudy Giuliani came up with the phrase “hope is not a strategy”.  We all know that Rudi has never managed in the Non-Leagues because Hope is certainly the key part of every clubs strategy.  We hope that key players don’t get injured, we hope that our young up and coming manager is not poached by a bigger rival, we hope that our floodlights don’t fail during a game, we hope that our boiler doesn’t fail, we hope that we don’t have a bad winter that stops us playing home (and thus our main revenue generating activity). Hope is certainly the cornerstone of every Non-League club’s strategy.

Most Non-League grounds are held together with Duck tape and SuperGlue.  Rustic, charming, quaint are all words used to describe some grounds.  They aren’t by design, trust me.  They are through necessity.  Ground improvements are carried out in almost all instances on the pain of death.  Ask a Non-League fan whether we should spent £5k on new toilets or on a centre-forward? We can all venture into the abyss and close ours eyes and hold their nose, yet none of us (honestly) can score 15 goals a season.  So hope once again is the cornerstone of the strategy. Hope that nothing goes wrong.

IMG_3575Sometimes factors completely out of a club’s control.  Today Lewes made their first ever trip to Vickers Crayford Dartford, or VCD Athletic.  This is the highest level the team from the London/Kent borders have played at, and whilst they come into the game still in the relegation zone.  They have refused to change their passing style that saw them crowned as Ryman North champions last season and they should be applauded for that.  But they know full well bout factors completely outside their control.

After winning the Kent League back in 2009 they played in the Ryman League for the first time in the 2009/10 season.  They finished 8th yet come the end of the season the Ryman League demoted them back to the County Leagues. Why? Because they had failed to build a concrete path around their pitch.  Not that they had refused to do so, rather the goalposts had shifted.  The club had been given notice about requirements to achieve a particular ground grading by a date in June.  They had played for a whole season with a concrete path (obviously said path is so critical to the actual football being played) without any issues at all.  Then all of a sudden that date was brought forward by a month.  Bear in mind this was in the close season so no games were being played yet it was deemed so non-compliant that they were expelled from the league. How can you plan for such changes in policy or rules? Once again, hope is all you have.

And with that in mind and the relegation trap door still firmly open for nine clubs, we arrived in Crayford with that same sense of hope.  Wednesday’s win against Enfield Town had been a real bonus meaning that a win today and we would be on the magic 50 points mark.  A defeat and it may be a nervous Easter.

As away trips go, VCD is one of the best in the business.  Well, for me at least.  4 stops, or 11 minutes on the train from TBIR Towers, the prospect of a bit of a gamble at Crayford Dogs and then a visit to a new micro-pub, the Penny Farthing.  Will the football ruin a great day out like it does so often?

VCD Athletic 2 Lewes 0 – Oakwood – Saturday 28th March 2015
In a nutshell, yes.  Once again, we were left talking about the performance of an official for the majority of the game rather than the players.  One incident changed the game without a doubt.  Just fifteen minutes were on the clock when a VCD corner bounced around the area.  A goal-bound effort hit Jack Rowe-Hurst’s arm, rather than the other way round.  There were players behind him from both teams, plus the keeper.  Penalty?  Probably, although some referees will argue it was “ball to arm” and unavoidable.  But a red card?  Never.  Alas, as a club we have no right of appeal.  If the game was being videod we could supply footage to the FA and have the decision reviewed, but it wasn’t.

The use of technology has been welcomed in the game at the highest level – goal line cameras has already proved to be a great addition to the game.  However, this is provided to all clubs in the Premier League and not just those who could afford it (obviously they all could).  In the lower leagues it is each club who have to fund the use of video so consequently it is hit and miss whether the games are recorded.  Two weeks ago in the game against Hornchurch, one of their players was sent off.  They used video to prove it wasn’t a red and they won their appeal.  But why shouldn’t it be uniform across the league?  Surely, having 3 or 4 clubs using it gives an unfair advantage to the rest?  We use Football Exclusives, who have contracts with half-a-dozen clubs in the Ryman League.

IMG_3573The sending off was pivotal.  Rowe-Hurst has been one of our best players in the past few weeks.  A fast, winger who isn’t afraid to take on his man, scoring two in the last three games.  Take him out of the team and Lewes lacked pace or any wide option.  We then lost our other wide man, O’Connor and it was going to be an uphill struggle especially when Duckworth seemed to receive the ball in an offside position before he turned and slotted home to make it 2-0.

Lewes huffed and puffed in the second period, with the referee producing another red, this time for VCD’s centre-back Reeves for a “denying a goal-scoring opportunity” although there appeared to be covering defenders.  The resulting free-kick was tipped over the bar, which was as close as Lewes came to scoring.

This was a disappointing whimper of a defeat.  In front of one of our biggest away followings of the season (a second half headcount put it at 47 out of a crowd of 136) we simply didn’t show up.  The worry is that with Harrow Borough arriving at the Pan next Saturday in excellent form and closing in on us, the last few weeks could be very nervous indeed.

Hope is most certainly the only strategy at the moment.

For sale – one England goal keeper’s kit – as new


16767042859_ae286e4fe1_kWhilst the biggest cheer in the second half came at Wembley in the 70th minute when Harry Kane scored with his second touch in international football just eighty seconds after coming on to replace Wayne Rooney, the most significant moment came a few minutes before. With 68 minutes on the clock Joe Hart got his hands on the ball for the first time since the break, and the third time in the whole game.  Even in the most one-sided of FA Cup games where Non-League minnows are pitted against a Premier League side the keeper will see more of the action.  Welcome to modern International football.

Hart actually got 3 touches of the ball in the first half, although 2 of those were in relation to back passes. At the other end, England scored four and could have easily got double that.  Nobody will really care though as 4-0 sits in that “comprehensive, yet respectful” result bracket that still allows managers to roll out quotes such as “There’s no easy games in international football”, “they were tough opponents” and “it was a professional performance”. It the grand scheme of things it mattered very little.  Since Platini got his way in increasing the size of the European Championships to 24 teams, or putting it in a statistical way, 49% of the nation’s affiliated to UEFA, England only really needed to avoid defeat in their toughest group game away in Switzerland.  That game was the first in the campaign and the Three Lions won with ease.  Since then San Marino, Estonia, Slovenia and now Lithuania have been brushed aside with efficiency rather than with panache. By the time they return from the game in San Marino in September I’d wager (if I was allowed by the ridiculous FA betting rules) that the 21 points will have already guaranteed a place on the Dover-Calais ferry for the finals in June 2016.

Hodgson will have learnt more from the friendly games again Scotland, Norway and the forthcoming games away in Turin and Dublin than these games.  The calls for Kane tonight started as soon as Rooney had smartly headed England ahead in the 7th minute, but Hodgson ignored the growing calls from the crowd for the nation’s latest great hope until the 70th minute. Kane waited 80 seconds before he headed home.  The Spurs fan next to me jumped for joy. “That’s my boy! Wizard Harry!” As he sat down a more dour chap reminded him that both Dennis Wise, David Nugent and Francis Jeffers also marked their debuts with a goal.  Harsh words indeed.

It was good to see the team keep possession of the ball so well and for long periods of time.  Passing at times was crisp and pacy – today’s coaches earn their Pro-licence money by trying to integrate often self-centred players with egos the size of small planets, who are used to playing for every million-pound point in the Premier League into a different style than at international level.  You can’t fault some of the approach play which saw the Lithuanian defence carved open time and time again. Each of the four goals showed touches of training ground moves rather than individual brilliance and that would please any coach.

16765523988_e22825595b_hThe news that Hodgson may be given a new contract should be welcomed.  He has affected a quiet revolution in the approach of the squad, failing to pander to the media.  His experience at managing at the top-level in different countries has given the squad a more humble approach.  There may have been a temptation to listen to those journalists who yearn for one last hurrah for the “golden generation”. Terry, Gerrard and Lampard have all been touted as coming out of retirement to play this season. That would be a massive backward step.  England looked assured with Jones, Henderson and Delph.  Clyne played with maturity at full back and Welbeck seems to raise his game on the International stage.  It is more than possible we will go through qualifying with a 100% record which will then translate in some quarters of the media to an arrogance that we have a God-given right to win the European Championships.  Whilst the Premier League may be lauded as the best league in the world by many, the truth (as borne out in some ways by the failure of any English team to reach the last 8 of either European club competition this season) is that it isn’t.  We have to accept that we are a solid, sometimes explosive team, that on its day will perform well.  We are no Germany, Netherlands, Spain or even France where decades of investment into coaching has put them on a different level to the English game.

Things are changing though, and with patience and most importantly an attitude from the top clubs to develop AND play home grown talent, we will start to close the gap.  Southampton and now to an extent Liverpool should be applauded for the investment they have made in their Academies as well as giving the youngsters a chance.  One day, Man City and Chelsea will realise that buying their way to the Premier League is actually damaging the national game.

16333126293_f4deb7f4b8_kThis was my first trip to see England at Wembley in almost three years.   It was good to see a few things had changed.  The tie up with EE meant that a mobile signal was actually possible during the game.  The whole concept of integrating the crowd into the event via social media worked well.  “Upload your Wembley selfie using the hashtag #WembleySelfie” saw thousands of fans posing, whilst the post match chaos at Wembley Park was managed well and within 15 minutes of the final whistle we was on a southbound tube.

Alas there are still some things that never change.  Sitting next to the bank of “corporates” behind the dugout (the ones that face the cameras and are always empty post half-time) it was disheartening to see people stumbling back to their seats twenty minutes into the second period, with no interest in the game at all. Half and half scarves seemed to be popular, selling at £10 – a 100% mark up from a respective Premier League version.  Oh, and the band.  They were still there, occasionally breaking into an out of tune version of Self-Preservation Society or God Save The Queen before giving up as no one joined in.  And talking of joining in, adverts run by Mars around the pitch encouraging fans to start a Mexican Wave? Please! Stick to making chocolate.

It was a great night for Harry Kane, a good one for Hodgson and most of the 84,000 (!!!) fans but my man of the match had to be Joe Hart.  How we kept his concentration is beyond me – a true professional performance.  At least the Kitman doesn’t have to wash his kit for the Italian game on Tuesday!