And so the countdown starts


So after a break of just 5 days it was time to get back into the swing of a new season.  And what better way to kick off proceedings than a trip to The Boleyn Ground, London E13.  None of this pre-season friendly malarkey either – this would be a full-blooded European game, played in front of a capacity crowd.

19175381278_c21e29ebf9_h35,000 tickets had been snapped up in less than 4 days – that’s simply incredible.  If this was a second round league cup game against a smaller team then a crowd of 15,000 would be considered good, in four weeks they host Werder Bremen in a friendly and will be happy with a crowd of over 10,000, so why has the Boleyn sold out in almost record time for the visit of the second best team in Andorra, and sit in 411th spot in the UEFA rankings. The attendance would be over 100 times that of a normal club game for Lusitanos. That’s the magic of European football.

West Ham fans know that the club are lucky to be in the tournament, having qualified through a back door route that has now been permanently shut by UEFA.  But there is a generation of fans who have never experienced the thrill or excitement of a European Tour.  It’s been nine years since we played just two games in the UEFA Cup, losing 5-0 on aggregate to a strong Palermo side, before that it was over fifteen years ago to the halcyon days of the Intertoto Cup.  Fans too young to remember the games against Jokerit, Heerenveen and Metz now have their passports at the ready.  We’ve seen our London rivals Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal all enjoy season after season of European trips, to an extent that some fans now take it for granted.  We’ve also seen the contempt that some clubs have for playing in the competition, something that in cases like Hull City have backfired in the worst possible sense.

Then there is the new manager factor.  Bilic was a popular choice, being an old player and all that but it’s probably fair to say the (long overdue) appointment of club legend Julian Dicks to his backroom staff that has really got the Hammers excited.  The “never say die” and “win at all costs” mentality that has been sadly lacking for a number of seasons.  Bilic technically wasn’t in charge yet, that honour was with Development Squad coach Terry Westley but he would undoubtably be paraded in front of the sell-out crowd, sending the bubbles machines into a fury.

19362983675_89e4515eb1_zOf course there is the nostalgic element too.  This is the last season at the Boleyn and general sale tickets come the start of the season will be at a premium.  So fans have taken the opportunity to get a game in whilst they can.  And for once, I’m actually going to praise the club with their ticket pricing – there can certainly be no complaints of affordability for this game – less than the price of two pints of beer in the bar across the road from work in Canary Wharf.  On my world-famous Ticketobeer ratio, a price of £10 sits firmly in the green zone.

It may also be the lure of the visitors.  As far as my extensive research went, I cannot see any games played in the last twenty years between an Andorran team and an English side.  If there has been one somewhere it’s pretty fair to say the English team would have won.  Andorra are ranked 48th in European footballing terms, with out Armenia and Gibraltar below them.  Their record in the past five years of European club competition reads P 37 W 1 D 3 L 33. FC Santa Coloma hold the distinction of that solitary win (and – of the three draws) after beating the Armenian side Barants 1-0 a year ago.  New club sponsor Betway were being a little bit charitable by only offering 2/1 on there being more than 7.5 goals in the game, although 50/1 on a Lusitanas win was probably priced about right. As Saint and Greavsie used to say, “It’s a funny old game”.

18740470144_f19aa069cb_zWhilst there had been undoubtable honour in being granted a Europa League spot, the timing couldn’t have been worse.  New boss Bilic only had the first team squad for a few days of initial first team training in Ireland before it was time to pick his first squad. Despite being 50/1 to win the cup, West Ham fancied their chances of a decent run in the competition.  To get to the final though would be a mammoth 22 games played over 45 weeks.  To stand any chance you essentially need two squads of players, something a club of West Ham’s size could never do.

Stepping out of the tube station at Upton Park is an assault on the senses.  Claret and Blue everywhere, the shouts of programme and fanzine sellers, mixed with ticket touts and half ‘n’ scarf sellers (with our opponents name spelt wrong) competing for the title of the scourge of the modern game.  The Queens, one of the most famous West Ham pubs, Ken’s Cafe and London’s Best Buger (sic) all trying to entice you in.  Football is more relaxed these days.  Fans buy their beer from the numerous off licences down Green Street and sit on the walls of the houses and shops, enjoying the summer sunshine. Families make their way into the ground, clutching carrier bags from the shop where the special “farewell to the Boleyn” replica shirt is setting the tills ringing at £49.99 a piece.
A quick “Mad Dog” from the cafe in the wall on the South East corner of the ground (sausage in French bread with bacon and cheese – named after Martin Allen) and it was time to squeeze through the turnstiles designed for Kate Moss and take my seat, designed for Bridget the Midget, ready for the start of the final season at the ground I’d be coming to for 40 years.

West Ham United 3 Lusitanos FC 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 2nd July 2015
So this is a difficult one to call.  There’s no doubt, despite the whole “there’s no easy game in football” rubbish that West Ham will now be in the next round of the competition, but the manner of victory was hardly emphatic.  But, who really remembers the score or margin of victory when you are a few rounds in? Deep down the capacity crowd were hoping to see a hatful of goals.  Perhaps if they would have got the ball into the Lusitanos penalty area quicker for Sakho and Zarate instead of some possession play in midfield that often went nowhere it might have been a different story.  But we have to bear in mind that this was the first game of a very long season, one that’s started whilst many other clubs players haven’t even started their summer holidays yet, let alone pre-season.

19363026465_b81c0ba7f9_kFirstly the positives – despite one shot from the kick off after West Ham had taken the lead, the Andorrans didn’t trouble debutant Randoph in the Hammers goal.  They back four looked assured and it was great to see Reece Oxford, the youngest ever player to play for the first team, just 16 years and 198 days old, looking so assured on the ball. A number of other youngsters were also blooded by temporary boss Terry Westley including second half subs Elliott Lee and Josh Cullen.  A three-nil victory flattered the opposition, although they couldn’t be accused of suffering stage fright on their biggest night of their lives.
West Ham made hard work of the first half, trying to overplay at times with Zarate and Almafitano dancing around the defence but failing to deliver an end product.  Matt Jarvis was the stand-out player in the first period, beating his man time and time again, creating the chances for Sakho.  The Andorrans had come with a whole book full of time-wasting tactics, none better than the all too often triple pike, double somersault reaction to some soft challenges, although the referee was having none of it and they simply disgraced themselves with the histrionix on such a big stage.
Sakho picked up where he left last season, grabbing two first half goals whilst Tompkins added a third with a well-taken second half header.  It could and should have been more with Cullen hitting the bar late on, by which time most fans had left the ground to join the half-mile long queue for the tube.
18740427314_9da2111cb4_kSitting in the old East Stand upper tier certainly gave me a great view of the action but also put into context just how bad the facilities are.  Cramped seats, obstructed views, narrow concourses.  You can’t help think that the Boleyn is still a magnificent venue on three sides, perfectly adequate for the club. Yet on the east side of the ground there is room for a redeveloped East Stand.  The club has always insisted this isn’t a viable option yet opinion is still divided on the relocation.  Nobody wants to stand in the way of progress but likewise it seems such a shame to throw away the history of a ground that with a smallish investment could be ideal.  So many local businesses will suffer massively when West Ham move out – community is a big word these days in football and it does feel in some ways as if West Ham have won the lottery and will be moving out of their council terrace house and into a detached on a posh estate.  Of course they won’t forget their old friends – it’s just they don’t want to be reminded of them once they move.
Next up, Andorra away, for arguably the principalities biggest ever football match. Alas, with only 450 tickets on offer I’d be watching this one online.

 

The best bar in the whole goddam world


“Best pub in the world, Stu” said Danny, wafting a printed sheet of A4 under my nose bearing a photo of an average looking bar.
“Says who?”
“Lonely Planet”, underlining the fact in the article with his finger, “That means we have to go there.”

I couldn’t really argue with Danny’s logic. It was after the best pub in the whole world as chosen by one of the most respected names in world travel. I sighed with resignation that this would happen. All that stood in our way was finding the right day and buying a bunch of petrol station flowers.

It look a good 30 seconds of research to find a suitable date and then a 2 minute walk down to the Shell garage at the bottom of the road to purchase the PSF’s. The Current Mrs Fuller was ecstatic at the floral arrangement, but quickly wised up when she saw the price tag and where they’d come from. Her first reaction was to suggest I had done something wrong. Once convinced I was not guilty of any crime she asked the follow-up question “So where are you going?”. I told her the plan and she nodded in silent approval before laying down two conditions. “Strictly no Guinness and no watching stripping Catholic nuns unless they are Margot Robbie”. The CMF is a wise judge of character.

18620654773_69423d400a_kWe had a deal and so that’s why we were fighting for elbow room at the bar of Wetherspoons at Gatwick South at 7am on a sunny Saturday morning. Whilst our port of arrival (and departure) would be Dublin, our final destination would be at the seaside in County Wicklow.

18612406154_738c04141a_zBray is a hidden treasure in that virtually all visitors to Dublin never venture further afield than St James’s Gate in the west of the city and thus it stays off the well-worn Stag/Hen party route. Just forty minutes on the DART from the carnage that is Temple Bar, Bray offers fresh air, clean beaches and of course football. As well as being home to the Harbour Bar, said best pub in the world, Bray was also home to Irish gold medal boxing Olympian Katie Taylor, new kid on the singing block Hozier and the quite frankly barmy Sinead O’Connor. I doubt we would bump into any of them in the Harbour Bar, The Porterhouse Brewery or The Carlisle Grounds, home to Bray Wanderers.

This was to be my final game of a long season which had started on the 5th July last year when Brighton & Hove Albion had visited Lewes. Eighty games later, having travelled to the other side of the world (twice) to watch games and I would be signing off for the campaign watching The Seagulls again, only this time the Bray variety. A long close season of 5 days was to follow before I began the 2015/16 campaign with West Ham’s first ever Europa League tie, against the Andorrans Lusitanas on Thursday. And they say footballers have it hard, what about us poor fans?

19208848236_3f75dfabb3_kOf course the football was really only a secondary concern on this trip.   The opportunity to sample some of the best beers in the whole of Ireland as well as a bracing 4 mile Sunday morning cliff-top walk were the main items on the agenda. My good friend Mr Air Miles had provided the flights, whilst the weak Euro vs the Pound meant it was cheaper to stay in a decent hotel in Bray than fill my car with petrol.

We hopped off the bus right in the middle of the Gay Pride march.  Fortunately it was heading in the same direction so we used it as cover to avoid the what seems like hundreds of people giving out leaflets on O’Connell Street for open top bus tours – unless someone had found scientific proof that gay people are more likely to take said trips than others, in which case it was genius marketing.  Our first venue was J W Sweetmans, a small brewery on the south bank of the Liffey which had launched its new summer beer the night before.  “Seven beers lads?” the barmaid asked us?  A bit familiar we thought until she placed seven “tasters” of all of their beers on a tray for us. Not a bad start to the weekend.

Next stop was Ireland’s best pub, no less.  The Brew Dock, almost opposite Connolly Station.  Within three minutes we could see why.  Galway Bay beer, including the rare as an Andy Carroll appearance, 8percenter Of Foam and Fury.  We could have stayed in there all day but we had a plan to maximise our time.  Forty five minutes later we stepped off the DART at Bray and braced ourselves for a slice of culture before the big match.

We checked into our hotel, went up to our room, found it was a double, went back to reception, explained we were friends but not that good friends, stopped ourselves combusting with laughter when the receptionist told us we were in room “230” (say it with an Irish accent) and that the bar closed at 9pm (really?  In Ireland?) and then headed out again.  We had the world’s best bar to visit after all.

I’m not sure what the chap from the Lonely Planet was on when he voted the Harbour Bar the “Best bar in the world” back in 2010.  It’s not bad, in fact it’s got bundles of character but the downstairs bar looked a bit like the Pheonix Club after the fire, with strange old objects on all available surfaces. I have nothing against old typewriters personally but I’d rather have somewhere to put my beer. You can’t argue that it had some decent beers and a great location, but I’ve been in better.  In fact by the end of the evening I would say it wasn’t even the best bar in Bray.  But we had to try it, just like we tried an untitled place almost opposite the ground which was full of very drunk men and women sitting alone at tables with beers double parked.

19047293280_e38eef7ce9_kThe Seagulls, or to give them their full Irish name, Cumann Peile Fánaithe Bhré, haven’t had the most successful of histories.  Their golden years, under the stewardship of the legendary Pat Devlin came back in the late nineties when they won the First Division twice and the FAI Cup.  Devlin has since stepped back into the managerial hotseat on no less than five occasions, although his services weren’t called for when Polish manager Maciej Tarnogrodzki was given the boot last month.  With off the field issues with the ownership of the club, coupled with a relegation fight it hasn’t been the best few months to be a Bray fan.  But fear not, we were here now – that was sure to make things better!!

Bray Wanderers 1 Sligo Rovers 0 – The Carlisle Grounds – Saturday 27th June 2015
When you are fighting for your lives at the wrong end of the table you will take any goal, and that is exactly the thoughts the 500 or so home fans will have come away from this game with.  McNally’s scrambled early effort which seemed to rebound off half a dozen players before creeping over the line lifted The Seagulls up to ten place, leap-frogging the visitors.

On the pitch there wasn’t much to talk about during the ninety minutes.  Sligo probably edged the first half and can feel unlucky that every time they had a chance on goal a Bray player somehow got in the way of the ball.  During the second half neither keeper had much to do as time after time the ball broke loose in midfield.

19047431600_15b5ab286a_kIt had all started so promisingly.  A €3 Seagulls key ring solved our craft beer bottle issue for later in the night, the chips with curry sauce were only marginally spoilt by a short, sharp shower that diluted the sauce and Danny got his picture taken with a giant seagull.  Best day ever you could say.  We even bumped into a ground of Finnish ground hoppers, one of whom sported a huge West Ham tattoo and smoked big, fat cigars like they were going out of fashion and regaled us of tales of fisticuffs the last time they came to England to see a game –  at Corby Town versus Hinckley United.  Obviously.

The Carlisle Grounds is a modest affair that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Ryman Premier League.  One old terrace with some seats bolted on with a new temporary stand on the other side.  Both ends have been cleared awaiting some redevelopment, but with the club looking for someone to take them over it could be awhile yet before anything new appears behind the goals.

We headed out of the ground, excited for what lay ahead.  The Porterhouse was our destination of choice for the evening and it treated us well.  Too well some may say as we staggered back to our hotel at 11pm with a paper bag full of chow mein.  Sophistication is our middle name and the Chinese would be washed down with our beers we had left in the sink before heading out.

But there seemed to be a conspiracy afoot.  The bar in the hotel didn’t close at 9pm.  It was heaving, with a live band playing when we arrived. It appeared to be a private party but two young handsome Englishmen were more than welcome it seemed.  When they left, we were invited in as poor substitutes.  Danny was soon up on his feet, jigging around the room to the Irish Rover, then bringing the house down with his rendition of Danny Boy.

Sunday dawned first at 6am when our alarms went off.  Then at 7am and finally at 7.30am.  Were we really going to do the 6km hike up the hill and along the cliff walk in the rain?  We felt we should and as soon as we had ascended to a point where we needed oxygen (about 10 metres above sea level) the sun was shining and we were in our groove.  What better way to blow out the cobwebs of a superb night.  Bray had been a star.

Most people don’t come to Bray for the football. We did, sort of, and it was up there with our wedding days, probably.

If you want more details of a trip to Bray then head on over to our sister site, 24 Hours in the City.

So where are we going – First Qualifying Round – Andorra


FC Lusitans – Estadi Comunal d’Andorra la Vella – Andorra La Vella

I’m sure we’ve all read the Wikipedia page about FC Lusitan about their Portuguese heritage and all that useful relevant information for the hundreds/thousands of West Ham fans who may decide to make the trip to Europe’s highest capital.  Alas, with a population around the same size of Chesham or Seaham (basically around the equivalent of the 469th biggest place in the United Kingdom), it’s not a place that will keep many football fans engaged for long, despite the promises of the tourist office that remind us that:- “There are many places to see in this city from the old buildings to the majestic view of the Pyrenees mountains. A good idea would be to take your digital camera along to capture some beautiful pictures.”

Essentially, once you’ve seen the (stone) bridge, (stone) buildings, (stone) church and (stone) stone in the middle of the Plaça del Poble you will need a beer.  Fortunately the town has, quite literally one or two bars including La Birreria in Carrer de la Vall, L’Abadia Cerveceria and Barria Antic Pub in Cap Del Carrer.  The one thing Andorra has got is hotel rooms by the bucket-loads.  As one of the most popular ski resorts in Europe, there will be plenty of choice for the travelling Hammers as the winter-sports hotels will be rubbing their hands at the biggest summer pay day in their history.

It is expected that we will play at the 850-capacity Estadi Comunal d’Andorra la Valle which acts as the regional stadium used by Perimera Divisió FC and US Santa Coloma, Penya Encarnada d’Andorra as well as FC Lusitans.  It is possible that the game may be played two miles up the road at the bigger national stadium, Estadi Nacional d’Andorra where Wales played in front of a sell out 3,100 crowd.  The smaller stadium, as you would expect with such a harsh alpine climate, is a 3G whilst the single main stand wouldn’t look out of place in the lower reaches of our Non-Leagues.  That’s not meant to be disrespectful in any way – it is perfectly adequate for domestic purposes, whilst the national team have dispensation to host bigger nations in Barcelona, Girona or Toulouse all around 3 hours away by road.

Talking of roads, there isn’t any other way in or out of the principality other than by car, coach or bus.  Most fans fans will undoubtably land at Barcelona El Prat Airport which is around 130 miles away.  Don’t expect to be able to do the trip in anything less than 3 hours – it’s pretty twisty and turny all the way up the Pyrannes. Girona, used as a hub by Ryanair is around the same distance/time away but there are less transfer options.  Alternatively, Toulouse is a few miles closer on the other side of the mountains but time-wise it’s still around three hours drive.

Andorrabybus.com offer coach transfers from Barcelona Airport every two hours from 8am to 8pm returning daily from Andorra from 5am to 3pm at the same interval, costing €56 return. They also offer two departures per day to/from Girona and Toulouse respectively.

So what can we expect from our opponents? They blew a huge opportunity to grab the title they won in 2012 and 2013 by only taking five points from their last five games, allowing FC Santa Coloma to nip in and gain the championship as well as a place in the Champions League qualifying.their European pedigree isn’t exactly red hot, gaining one draw (at home to Faroe Islanders EB Streymur last season) and losing seven games including a 8-0 spanking in 2012 against Valletta of Malta.

Thirty nine year old Óscar Sonejee is the Lusitans rock at the back and has plenty of experience and is Andorra’s most capped player with 101 international appearances.  The Portuguese influences can be seen in the 15 or so Portuguese nationals that Lusitanos will likely be able to choose from.  

With just a few UEFA nations yet to watch a game in I couldn’t be happier drawing one of the two teams who were in the draw from Andorra.  Dates are still to be confirmed as fellow UE Sant Julià de Lòria have also been drawn at home in the first leg just up the road in the Camp d’Esports d’Aixovall against the Danes of Randers.

* Now confirmed as the 9th July

US and them


We are very keen on eulogising about the magic of the FA Cup in this country and quite rightly so.  It is the oldest football competition in the world, full of nostalgia and goosebump-inducing moments.  Every fan of every club will have a story, a moment in history that they will never forget.  Some of us have experienced the elation at seeing our team win the trophy, such as I did as a ten-year old when perhaps the last ever second tier side, West Ham United, won the trophy. Some have had the despair at losing in a final, perhaps none so cruel as on penalties (stand up again West Ham fans for the last final to be settled in this way back in 2006). Today, with football dominated by money at the top-level of the game, many fans of Premier League clubs may not care about the FA Cup anymore. The Football Association themselves showed their true colours by selling naming rights and moving the semi-finals to Wembley Stadium, scheduling kick-off times when fans can’t use public transport to get home.

Many fans don’t know that the tournament actually starts before the Premier League kicks off in August.  Why would hundreds of thousands of fans want to know that?  After all, they are only interested in when their team plays – which for the most part is the Third Round on the first weekend of January.  By then, on average, there will be one “plucky” Non-League side left in the competition.  This season 736 teams entered the cup, with the first game being played on Friday 15th August when Hebburn Town kicked off against West Allotment Celtic.  The 182 winners in the Extra Preliminary Round back in August all received £1,500, whilst when Arsenal scooped the trophy in May they walked away with a cumulative sum of £3,737,500 which is not quite a drop in the ocean to them but enough to keep Jack Wilshere in tabs for a few more weeks.

Our national treasure is slowly becoming blighted by the same disease that has tainted the top-level of football in this country – money. Whilst the winners of the tournament pick up a cheque for £1.8million for lifting the trophy, Emirates will sponsor the tournament from next season for £10m.  Does the world’s oldest football challenge cup really need a sponsor?  As with most of football, if it has public recognition, then it can be sold.  FA Cup semi-finals are now played at the convenience of the global TV audience rather than so fans of the teams involved can actually easily get to and home again.

As luck, or more precise, work would have it, I was back in New York this week.  Of course I did my research into what sporting events I could attend post work.  I seemed to have chosen a good week – The Mets and Yankees were both at home, but more importantly it was the Fourth Round of the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup, the American equivalent of our FA Cup.

Now in its 102nd year, it is an older competition that the Super Bowl and the NBA Championship Play-Offs.  Whilst early winners such as Bethlehem Steel and St Luis Simkins-Ford are no longer around, it was the first tournament that united “soccer” in the country.  Last seasons winners, Seattle Sounders pocketed just $250,000 for winning the trophy, but they had already kissed goodbye to this year’s challenge, losing 3-1 at home to bitter rivals Portland Timber, finishing the game with just seven men.  Even better was the sending off of Clint Dempsey who then proceeded to snatch the referees notebook and rip out the page featuring his misdemeanour.

I had the choice of two games.  Tuesday had the New York RedBulls hosting Atlanta Silverbacks and Wednesday saw moneybags Manch…sorry, New York City travel to Long Island to play the legendary New York Cosmos.  Alas, whilst I would have loved to have seen both, I promised to be a little bit social and go out for dinner with the team in New York so it came down to a coin toss (which is ironically how they decide who will play at home in the US Open cup).  The RedBulls won.  Part of me was a little disappointed but in terms of logistics it was the better choice.

18852242056_a32ecb4972_kWhilst New York Cosmos actually play in New York State rather than the RedBulls in New Jersey, it is a pain to get to.  Subway, then train into the heart of the ‘Burbs of Long Island then a school bus to Hofstra University where the James M. Shuart Stadium is.  Tickets were selling for over $50 on StubHub, which would get you a small place to park your bum on a metal bench, with no shelter from the forecasted storms heading in from the Atlantic.  You could also bet that Man…sorry, New York City wouldn’t be fielding “designated” players David Villa or Frank Lampard for the game.  Instead I paid the grand sum of $7.77 for 3 tickets for the RedBulls.  It was only fair that I treated Luge Pravda (of course) and TBIR rookie Tom Wells, who for those of you who want to be nosy, is the 13th different picture of “Tom Wells” on a Google Images search.  Generous to a tee.

RedBull Arena sits in Harrison, New Jersey, a twenty-minute train ride from Manhattan.  I’m not sure what else would bring people to or from Harrison as alighting from the train all you can see is derelict buildings and parking lots that were once derelict buildings.  Since the 25,000 capacity stadium opened in 2010 the area around the stadium has remained, to put it politely “undeveloped”.  Whereas new build stadiums in this country always seem to be quickly surrounded by bland, uniform retail parks, the Americans, who love an out-of-town mall, seem to be missing a trick here.  There’s not even a spot to have a beer.

18690660598_6a98567ab8_kThe tickets I’d procured were in the name of Joey Levensberg.  As we entered the stadium we got a very warm welcome – “Welcome back Mr Levensberg.  Enjoy the game” – either he was a known name in these parts or the staff were simply very happy to see someone, anyone come to the game.  I had a feeling that based on previous experience that the crowd would be on the sparse side.  Back in 2012 I made my first trip here to see the RedBulls take on “rivals” DC United.  The place was rocking and both sets of fans gave a great account of themselves.  A few months later I returned and saw Sporting KC visit.  The official crowd that day was 11,000.  I’d estimate there was around a tenth of that in the stadium.  Apparently, the crowd was so low because the Yankees were playing on the same night.

Last year I was lucky to get a ticket for the World Cup Warm Up game between USA and Turkey – once again, superb atmosphere.  For this one we could choose which section we could have to ourselves.  I appreciate that the cup doesn’t hold the same interest as the league – that is a reserve of Germany and Germany alone it appears these days and that the Atlanta Silverbacks, who had just finished the Spring Season of the 2nd Tier NASL rock bottom weren’t the biggest draw, but surely the club could have given tickets away to local schools or community groups to boost the attendance?

18255958174_51fc4905a0_kThe visitors were managed by the English duo of ex-Enfield, Aylesbury and Welling United player Gary Smith, ably supported by ex-Leicester City winger and one-cap England wonder Steve Guppy.  However, with miserable league form had only been brightened up by an extra-time win away to NPSL (Third Tier) side Chattanooga in the previous round.  The RedBulls weren’t taking any chances and whilst across the Hudson and the East River, MLS rivals  New York City would be resting “designated” players Villa and Lampard, and Steven Gerrard wouldn’t be included in the LA Galaxy’s squad for their game against PSA Elite, their English star would be starting.

Many people may be surprised to hear that alongside the English duo, plus global stars Villa and Kaka, the MLS also features Bradley Wright-Phillips.  Son of Ian and brother of Shaun, it is fair to say he has been a bit of a sensation since he pitched up at the RedBulls in 2013 after leaving Charlton Athletic.  33 goals in just 51 games tells its own story.  Wright-Phillips can arguably call himself the most valuable Englishman in the MLS at the moment.

We waited for kick off which was supposed to be 7.30pm, but as usual in US sports when the time arrived, nobody was where they should be.  Luge had gone to sniff out some IPA whilst a small group of the RedBulls hardcore fans at the far end struck up a version of Twist and Shout.  At 7.39pm we got underway.  A couple brazenly came and sat in our section, although quickly apologised.  Apparently the low crowd was partly due to the Mets being at home and a new episode of Orange is the new Black on TV.

New York RedBulls 3 Atlanta Silverbacks 0 – RedBull Arena – Tuesday 16th June 2015
With fifteen minutes on the clock, Ronald Zubar tapped in from close range to put the home side 2-0 up and effectively end the tie.  The RedBulls had come out of the traps flying and dominated the opening exchanges with another ex-Charlton Athletic player, Lloyd Sam stroking home on 7 minutes after great work from Wright-Phillips and then Zubar in the right place at the right time.  It could have been an embarrassing night for the Silverbacks but the home side took their foot off the gas until the closing stages.

Bizarre licensing laws meant that despite even our poshest English accents couldn’t get us a beer after the 67th minute and our last cheer of the evening was reserved for Sean Davis (not that Sean Davis) scoring his first ever professional goal with just under twenty minutes to play.  It was time to leave and head back to the big city.  The official crowd had been announced as 5,585 – even the most ardent Red Bull fans would have scoffed at that number.  But it is what it is.  The US soccer fans seem to have the same attitude to the cup as those football fans in England, Italy or Azerbaijan.

Two days later the draw was made for the next round and what would you know, the Cosmos, fresh from beating New York City on penalties who make the trip to New Jersey to play the RedBulls. Let’s hope there are a few more fans in the stadium for that one.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Tale 11- Pre-season opponents


Ever wondered the rationale behind who your team play in a pre-season friendly?  Well, putting the money aside from the likes of the International Champions Cup, Audi Cup or the Emirates Cup, you may be surprised to hear there is some method in the madness of arranging these pre-season games.  I only found this out when I started suggesting potential opponents to our manager and was surprised by some of the feedback.  So, based on the last month or so, here is the undefinitive guide to pre-season friendlies.

Non-League clubs arrange pre-season games based on three criteria:-

Lewes v Brighton 20151. To make as much money as possible – These will be games on a Saturday, ideally, at home against either a team from a much higher division or a local rival in another division (not necessarily higher).  These games are the cream on the top of the Non-League milk bottles, the ones that keep you going through the winter when cash is tight and home games fall foul to the conditions.  For most Non-League clubs the chance that an Arsenal, Chelsea, Man United or a West Ham (one of the big teams in other words) would ever consider playing a friendly against you, and if they did even contemplating bringing a first team squad get rarer every season.  Gone are the days when most of the team that plays in these games would have first team experience.  Go and watch an Arsenal XI these days and you will see players who will never even get a sniff of the bench for League Cup 3rd round games.  Anyone who has a first team future or a resale value will be with the squad on their pre-season tour of Dubai/Hong Kong/Beverly Hills.  You can try to seduce them by playing on their conscious for something like a testimonial for someone who has been at the club for 75 years or that you want to commemorate switching on your new floodlights then they may just do something.  Otherwise it is all about getting in quick – most of these big games are arranged 6-12 months before they ever take place.  It’s not just the fans that flock to these games, but sponsors and commercial opportunities.  Time it right and you may also get some major media interest such as the first game in charge for a new manager (the opposition rather than yours).

For Lewes we have two games that generate the interest to bring in the crowds – Brighton & Hove Albion and Eastbourne Borough.  No real surprises about the former – sitting right on our doorstep and many fans having an allegiance to both clubs, this will be the third year in a row we have hosted The Seagulls.  Last season was Sami Hyypia’s first game in charge so there was the curiosity value as well which helped towards a 2,300 sell-out and the attendance of Sky Sports News.  Eastbourne Borough is a rivalry that grew out of the relative successes of both sides as they rose up the leagues a decade ago, culminating in both teams reaching the Conference Premier in 2009.  Games these days aren’t as passionate as they were on Boxing Day back then but they still pull in a four-figure crowd.  Both will be visiting the Pan this season as part of our pre-season programme.

9330354256_82d3fe528b_b (1)2. To show your benevolent side – As point 1 but this time you are deemed the bigger side and you head off into the county leagues to play someone.  Most clubs at our level will look to play three or four of these in the pre-season, testing out various new formations.  Expect to see your second or third choice goal keeper used in these games (or in most Non-League team’s cases the Under21’s and Under18’s keeper).  The away fans like the opportunity to visit grounds/pubs we wouldn’t normally go to and quite often there is local interest from players where this may be their local club, or even fans.

IMG_36153. To test your squad/tactics – Sometimes you will see a pre-season game that will look strange on paper.  Why would we be playing a team who simply lump the ball long to an ogre of a centre-forward.  How can that possibly help?  What better way to test whether your new centre-back pairing can handle the aerial threat of certain teams in your division (no names but they come from Essex), or whether your new 2-3-5 formation will work by playing someone who you should score double figures against.  This is often known as the cannon-fodder strategy, similar to the way a boxer will use a sparring partner.  What fans have to remember here is that you may well lose the battle so that you can win the war.  In other words, you may end up getting beaten (or vice-versa beating a team you wouldn’t normally expect to) but you will have found out if one specific element of your preparation has worked or not.  It is also at these games that you can expect an appearance from that chap A Triallist.  That’s always good fun to see who in the crowd can recognise him.  The issue comes when you have two of them in the squad for a game – do you call the second one B Triallist or AA Triallist or A Test?

Once in a while there are also the very strange games that seem to serve no purpose at all.  A few years ago Lewes hosted Essex United FC, which was essentially a few members of the cast of TOWIE and some production crew.  Ralph Little probably played too – he seems to play for a different team every day, billed as “star of The Royal Family”.  Mark Wright (the “actor” rather than the Ex-Southampton and Liverpool centre-back) played in the game and the hope was to draw a crowd of screaming teenagers to fawn over him.  It didn’t work, and Lewes could only manage a 1-1 draw against a team of thespian in front of a few hundred people.  Hardly the sell out crowd that our manager at the time had promised.

There may also be the hastily-arranged “Behind Closed Doors” game that fans sometimes never hear about.  These tend to be arranged to try out a few new players who you don’t necessarily want to announce you have signed just yet, or you could have players coming back from long-term injury and you don’t yet want to offer them a deal “just in case”.

Of course, you have to remember that age-old rule of “never play a pre-season game against a team from your own division”.  I still do not understand this wives tale.  Why wouldn’t you play someone who you could potentially play in a few weeks?  This of course goes out of the window if you are playing in a pre-season tournament on the other side of the world (i.e for lots of cash) such as Man Utd playing Liverpool in the final of the ICC last season, or those bizarre games between Chelsea and Man City last year at Yankee Stadium in New York.

Review – The Red Lion


theredlion_250215When writing for me became more than a hobby I was given two sage pieces of advice.  Firstly, write about something you have a passion about and secondly, write about something you have personal experience of.  Of course there is also a third reason which is you are simply a natural storyteller.  The writers of our generation, whose work will not fade with time, are those who tick all three boxes.

So a play written around life behind the scenes of a football club could be said to be quite niche.  Base that club in the nitty, gritty world of Non-League football and potentially the audience is restricted to those hardy souls who stand alone on crumbling terraces clutching their carrier bags and sipping luke-warm tea whilst brickies, cabbies and self-employed plasterers hoof the ball and kick lumps out of each other.  But that’s where you’d be wrong.  Non-League football is a representation of the real heart of this beautiful land, as play-write Patrick Marber delivers his new production at The National Theatre, The Red Lion.

Marber knows a thing or two about this murky world.  Behind the glitz and glamour of Closer and Notes on a Scandal he has been moonlighting as a Director of a Non-League club for a number of years, volunteering his time to travel on a rollercoaster ride of emotion, pain and pleasure that the game at the grassroots brings.  There are no WAGS, no Porsches in the car park and no private jets.  Life down here is about rolling your sleeves up, mucking in and not expecting to receive a thank you for doing so. For three years he became invested in the running of a club in the seven tier of English football, so saw for himself, warts and all, what live was really like in the bowels of the beautiful game.  His observations, experiences and perceptions form the backdrop to this production.

The Red Lion embodies the emotions of a typical Non-League football club.  Completely set in the dressing room of a team in the gutter but looking at the stars, the story takes us on a journey of discovery for three characters.  Jimmy the club’s manager, superbly played by Daniel Mays (whose credits include the Bank Job, Made in Dagenham and Ashes to Ashes), former player, manager, groundsman, club legend now kit-man Yates, played by Peter Wight (Hot Fuzz, Babel and Atonement) and newly discovered wonderkid Jordan, played by relative newcomer Calvin Demba (Hollyoaks).

The story is a mixture of hope, amusing interactions and disappointment, taking the audience on a journey that plays out over three scenes, set apart by a few weeks in the lives of the three characters, each of whom experiences the highs and despairing lows of the game and life can bring.  The integrity of the audience is certainly put to the test by the plot, leaving you with the question “what would I do?” in a similar situation.  Whilst it is set in the world of football, this is a play about ethics, human kindness and despair when life gets in the way.

Each of the characters is driven to extreme actions all to satisfy their perception of what life owes them, ranging from Jimmy’s marital situation and need for cash to stay afloat, Yates’s steadfast view of doing the right thing to young Jordan’s stubbornness to be treated fairly and given a chance in spite of what card life has dealt him.  The culmination of the three egos, each with their own agendas makes for a very powerful and all too real final act.

From someone who has a bit of an involvement in this world I can say the attention to detail is amazing – whether it be the set design and props, the opinions and thoughts of the characters in relation to the world we operate in or the actual scenarios that play out.  We will all recognise some if not all of the make-up of the characters. Whether you are a football fan or not, this is a play to make us all think about our core values and beliefs as well as adding a level of clever humour to a subject that often takes itself far too seriously and self-important.

Marber once again proves with this production his versatile writing hand but also underlines the fact he is one of those writers of our generation that can deliver emotion by the bucket-load.  Mays, Young and Demba play the roles superbly and deliver deep, complex performances that go deeper than the script into the mannerisms, quirks and thoughts of the characters in the two-hour performance.

The Red Lion opens at The National Theatre on 11th June and is booking until 30th September.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 10 – Post/Pre-Season Planning


As soon as the final ball of the season has been kicked in the professional game, the players and managers disappear off into the sun (that is unless you play for Chelsea, Manchester City or Spurs and have to fly to the other side of the world to play a pointless friendly), leaving the running of the club in the hands of the groundsmen, ticket office staff and commercial department.  Changes in the commercial relationships mean that players and managers rarely talk to each other outside of a training ground.  “My agent will talk to your advisor” is now more common than “I will give you a bell” in a relationship between the two.  Deals are done, often as we are led to believe by managers who are normally on their way to the exit, by overbearing owners and new fangled Directors of Football.

If only that was the case in the Non-League game.  At step 3 of the Non-League pyramid few players are contracted to a club, which means that if someone else likes the look of your centre-forward, they can put in a “7 day approach” which basically means “I have a week to try and convince X that he only deserves an extra tenner a week to play for us even though we are 50 miles away”.  However, a player can choose to leave at any point without giving his club any reason.  Likewise, a club can dump a player without any notice too.  The dilemma for Non-League clubs is who they offer a contract to.  The contract, normally fixed for a year, guarantee a weekly wage but also mean that if a club comes along and wants that player, they will have to essentially pay a transfer fee.  Likewise, if a player is injured or the club wants shot of him, they will have to pay the remaining term of his contract.  You hear horror stories of players put on significant-sized contracts who then injure themselves in pre-season training, leaving the clubs massively out of pocket and also having to find a replacement.  These players may feel that “football owes them” but in truth they can end up crippling a club.

Some players will have already sorted their clubs before the end of the season.  A nod and a wink is often good enough, although more cash is obviously preferable.  Players want to feel that every year they appreciate in value.  The truth is that the cold-hard economics of Non-League football is that the club’s cost base rises more than any revenue opportunities.  It costs more to repair the pitch, more to maintain the floodlights, more to repair the fences, yet less people are coming through the gates.  Obviously, for clubs who have a Sugar-Daddy who is willing to pump in funds unconditionally, that isn’t a problem, although they also cause ripples across the whole Non-League pond.

Let’s say club X is taken over by Billy Bigwallet.  Billy wants promotion at all costs and employs an experienced manager to build a championship winning squad.  With few players on contracts in the league he will lure them to his club X with ridiculous weekly wages.  Some of these players will never get a game and one day will have a shock when they are off-loaded from their £1,000 a week wage only to find that the rest of the league can pay £150 a week.  Likewise, average players in the league will use club X’s wage structure as their negotiating tool with their existing club.  As history has proved time and time again, club X’s ambitious plan will more than likely end in a broken dream, the casualties being the fans.

So come the end of the season clubs have to start to think about their retained players and their wish list.  The board will tell the manager his budget, which will depend on the ambitions for the coming season (for a translation guide to Non League club ambitions read Tale 4).  The manager will then normally shake his head, say “it’s going to be tough to achieve that on this budget” before getting on the phone and starting to try to retain the players he wants.  Some will try and play hardball, but most will see the light.  Within a day or two you will have a core of a squad.  Of course, without giving them a contract they could agree today and come pre-season be already playing elsewhere.  As we have said before, there is little loyalty in football these days, especially on the Non-League pitches.

Then comes the job of filling the rest of your squad.  There is a great scene from the film Money Ball where Brad Pitt plays the legendary General Manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team.  He is sitting in a room filled with his scouts as they try and discuss how to replace three world-class players with the smallest budget in the league.  That’s what the squad planning session is like.  Well, sort of.

I’m not sure there was a board on the wall of the Portakabin that could hold the weight of a magnetic board, let along a post-it note but that’s how this whole process started.  Except I was 123 miles away, virtually being in the room thanks to Mr. Skype.  Between the four of us (Browny, Club Sec Kev, Bazza and myself) we spent the next 3 1/2 hours going through every team we played working out if there was anyone we could get in, wondering their budget for the next season and of course putting together a plan as to what to offer to who and when.  It’s all a game of cat and mouse.  You offer £150, they want £200.  They try and get £200 down the road, but they will only offer £140. So they come back and ask for £160.  You offer £150 and they accept. Then you move onto the next one.  Slowly but surely a squad takes shape, although you never know what pre-season will throw your way that you have to legislate for.

We don’t have the mountain of stats that Jonah Hill’s character in the film, Peter Brand, has.  We have to go by our collective memories of what our opposition played like and who was the stand out players.  Sometimes even that is hard – our bible is Football Web Pages yet if an opposing team upload the wrong team list, or get two players numbers the wrong way round we could end up buying a donkey when we wanted the dogs bollocks.  The whole process can eventually be completely meaningless.  We could end up retaining none of the players we want to and then have to re-assess our requirements for each and every role.

You can only gauge success when the season has ended in a year’s time really.  Did we get it right can be answered by our league position, our cup record and what the squad (and the budget!) looks like compared to when we started the season.  Sometimes you win, most of the time you don’t.  But that’s what makes the game so addictive – the endless search to get all the ingredients together at the right time for the right money.