Hammers on Song to hunt the Foxes


IMG_2313Parkes, Stewart, Walford, Gale, Martin, Devonshire, Ward, Dickens, Orr, McAvennie, Cottee. The best ever West Ham line up? Obviously there’s no Moore, no Brooking, no Di Canio and no Dicks. But those eleven players took West Ham United to third place in Football League Division One in 1985/86, or 6 BPL ( Before Premier League). Under the leadership of John Lyall, the Hammers ran Liverpool and Everton to the last Saturday of the season.

Amazingly, they only used 18 players in the whole season, of which five played two games or less – so a squad of 13 players, all British and featuring five home-grown players, exceeded all expectations. That was the last season that the club were in the top four at this stage of the season. Today, there was a possibility that they could go into Christmas in third place. West Ham in the Champions League spots. Watch out Barcelona, West Ham are coming for you.

We all say “it won’t last”. Last week I wrote about Regression Theory which tries to explain that over the long term teams always settle in their “natural” positions, whilst the next two games see them take on rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, matches they would probably not expect to win. But this isn’t a normal side. I’ve no idea who has got into the heads of some of the squad but they’ve turned fair to middling players into world beaters. There are few better midfielders in the Premier League at the moment than Stewart Downing, given free-reign to drift across the pitch. Winston Reid looks like a rock at the back. Arsenal don’t know what they are missing in Carl Jenkinson, whilst on the other side, Aaron Cresswell has stepped up from the Championship without a look back.

IMG_2310Whilst today was the Lewes Lunatic Fringe’s Christmas party away at Harrow Borough, I’d be heading to The Boleyn aground for the second time in two weeks thanks to Barclays and their weekly ticket give away. My tickets were in the name of Mr Barclays Premier League – not a title that sits easy with me but I was willing to play the part for the visit of bottom of the table Leicester City. Getting anything free from Messrs Sullivan and Gold (and not forgetting Dame Brady) is almost unheard of. In the week before the game the club had hit the headlines, for the wrong reasons again, after it was revealed that at £600 a head, they offer the most expensive mascot package in the Premier League (and likely, the whole world). Only seven hard-up takers for today’s game, according to the programme. Fancy a season ticket for next season’s last one at The Boleyn? Well you can add your name to the waiting list now for just a tenner. Or perhaps spending £50 on the limited edition purple FA Cup shirt, which because they are playing Everton away in the 3rd Round will mean they can’t wear it anyway.

Back in 1985/86 the success of the team was build around the pace of Cottee and McAvennie up front, a midfield play maker in Alan Dickens, a decent wide an in pint-sized Mark Ward and an outstanding keeper in Phil Parkes. Fast forward 29 years and it was Sahko, Carroll, Song, Downing and Adrian. All on fire at the moment, playing at the top of their game. That’s why West Ham were in the top 4. Hard to beat but always looking likely to score. Or as someone said to me post-match, it’s all because we are wearing Adidas again.

Last May, with the Football League Championship secured, Leicester City’s chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha said he expected to see The Foxes in the position West Ham held. A rumoured transfer kitty of over £150 million was to be made available. The future was bright, the future was the Premier League.

After a decent start in their return to the Premier League, Leicester haven’t been enjoying the last few months. Coming into this game they were without a win in three months in all competitions – in fact their last win was the high point in their season, the 5-3 victory over Man Utd. They didn’t need reminding about the fable of the bottom team at Christmas, although it appeared Radio 5Live needed to include it in every pre-match report just in case we had developed a goldfish-like memory.

West Ham United 2 Leicester City 0 – The Boleyn Ground – Saturday 20th December 2014
Once again, the Man of the Match award, announced on the 85th minute, was greeted with muted applause. Just as it was two weeks ago, goal-scorer Andy Carroll had been given the honour, despite two or three players shining brighter. Carroll’s firm since return from serious injury has been impressive. It seems the striker thrives when the focus of the side’s play doesn’t focus on him. Last season he was rushed back from another injury, pressure building with every game he was absent. Allardyce, Gold and Sullivan (junior of course as he seems to be the official spokesperson of the club via Twitter despite only being about 13) all told us things would be better when Carroll was fit.

IMG_2325The visitors certainly started the brighter, belying their lowly position. They’d done their homework, targeting the ineffective Tompkins, who looks as out of depth in the Premier League as he did on his debut back in 2008. Some may also question whether he should still be playing after pleading guilty to assaulting a policeman as well as being drunk and disorderly. But then we all know football doesn’t reflect the same moral code as real life.

Adrian was the busier keeper in the opening exchanges but it was West Ham who took the lead in the 24th minute after Leicester had been pressuring the West Ham goal. Downing set up Carroll, who blasted the ball over from 8 yards but less than sixty seconds later he got his goal. Carl Jenkinson hoofed the ball clear from almost on his own touch line, ex-Hammer Paul Konchesky gathered the ball on the half-way line and tried to play the ball back to the keeper but it was short, allowing Carroll to get in between the keeper and defender and chipped the ball home.

The difference between the two midfields was Alex Song. “We’ve only got one Song” the West Ham fans sung as the Barcelona loanee bossed the midfield. How he failed to end up at The Emirates, Anfield or The Etihad is a mystery but he seems to love playing at Upton Park, and the Upton Park faithful love him. Strength, balance, poise and vision. Add in a rejuvenated Downing and that’s one hell of a partnership.

IMG_2324The two combined ten minutes into the second period, with Downing showing great control before curling the ball home from the edge of the area. It was a fine goal to cap a fine performance from a player who is now finally living up to his potential he showed as a youngster at Middlesbrough.

Adrian then pulled off two world class saves to deny Leicester a deserved consolation goal. Whilst they would head back up the M1 wondering what the future held, West Ham would enjoy their Christmas dinner sitting above Spurs, Liverpool and Arsenal almost at the half way stage of the season. Whilst we can but dream of another season like 1985/86, deep-down we know natural selection, or Regression Theory, will eventually determine our fate. Carroll is no Frank McAvennie, Winston Reid is no Alvin Martin, Cheikhou Kouyate is no Neill Orr and of course Allardyce is no John Lyall. But that was then and this is now.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Part 3 – Regression Theory


In the third article trying to explain famous Economic theories by using football as the model I am looking at the work of Francis Galton on Regression Theory.

After three games in the Premier League this season two teams could boast 100% records.  Top of the table on goal difference was Chelsea but level on points with them after three wins out of three was Swansea City.  At the start of the season, Swansea were 5th favourites for the drop and faced Manchester United at Old Trafford on the opening day.  Even the most ardent Swans fan could have hardly predicted the start they would have made.

9563237683_4e0bf0f617_bBut realistically they were never going to stay at the top of the league, were they?  That is because there is a hierarchy in place, whether teams like it or not.  Swansea at some point in the season will lose three games in a row and essentially return to their natural level.  That effect is the basis of Francis Galton’s work on identifying Regression Theory.

The term “regression” was coined by Galton in the nineteenth century to describe a biological phenomenon. The phenomenon was that the heights of descendants of tall ancestors tend to regress down towards a normal average over a period of years.  But I don’t buy that.  What he was really predicting was the bouncebackability (he actually invented that word too) of teams who either punched above their weight or failed to meet expectations.

Swansea is an interesting case.  For years they have been a third or fourth tier side in English football.  Their main claim to fame was changing their name from Swansea Town to Swansea City to reflect the changing status of the town/city.  Back in the 1980’s they rose from the 4th tier of English football to top the old Division One in a short space of time, relying on pay big wages to aging stars for one last hurrah (and pay packet).  As quickly as they achieved fame, they quickly slid down the leagues and only avoided the ignominy of relegation from the Football League due to a police dog biting a player (long, urban myth-based story which in reality has nothing directly related to staying up but, hey, the press loved it).  That is a prime example of regression theory.  Short term boost caused by internal (buying good, if old players) and external (traditional good sides becoming crap – reverse regression theory) factors, followed by longer term return to normality.

There is, however, one factor that “resets” the regression base line in football, and that is money.  Shed loads of it that is currently floating around the Premier League. A small team reaching the Premier League today is like a Charlie Bucket finding the last Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.  They will never be poor again and consequently, Galton’s theory is a load of old bumf.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Regression Theory in a nutshell.

December 2014 – Cold, bright and clear


15826233910_5e3bb2333b_kAfter the euphoria of the last-gasp win in the Sussex Senior Cup it was time to return to Ryman Premier League action with a trip to the purveyors of fine free-flowing football, Billericay Town. Those of us who made the trip to Horsham on Tuesday night were rewarded with a smorgasbord of the elements as well as some late drama to pitch The Rooks into the last eight in the race to reach The Amex.  So what better way to follow that than to spend a cold, damp afternoon in mid December than in deepest, darkest Essex craning our necks in the air as the ball by-passes the midfield?

At least you know what to expect when you play The Blues.  Their manager, Craig Edwards has modeled his side on those of Beck, Basset and Taylor, leading them to the Ryman Premier League title two years ago before they fell from the Conference South just a year later.  Whilst The Blues are one of a large pack of “middling” teams in the third tier of English football, they do hold the honour of being the first club to win the FA Vase three times (ticks box of doing research on Wikipedia). Matches between the two sides have hardly been dull in recent years, and if I was a betting man (which of course thanks to The FA I’m not allowed to be) I’d have a sneaky £10 on a red card. Last season it was our captain fantastic, Jack Walder, who saw red. Walder was back from his long-term injury although he would be soon be missing again after picking up a red in his comeback game, playing for a Ringmer last week.

15391229254_3a4fe1075e_kThis was to be my last outing to watch the Rooks before Christmas, so there was bound to be plenty of festive cheer as we descended on New Lodge, Billericay’s ecletic ground on the edge of the Essex countryside. Despite the Rooks lowly position, you have to go back to the 19th October for the last defeat in the league.  In fact, that bizarre game at Oxford City two weeks ago aside, it had been a pretty impressive run with wins in the FA Trophy and Sussex Senior Cup to go with the unbeaten league run.

Deaks had done his homework and found a decent pub in the town centre with a few new ales to sample, including possibly the best toilets this side of the West End.  Two (2!) types of hand lotion in the toilets.  As Dave said, you expected a little chap to pop out from behind the door with a squirt of Kouros.  Not what you’d expect from the location.

A swift pit stop on the walk to the ground at Greggs ended in disappointment as they had run out of sausage rolls.  That’s like a bank running out of cash, a pub running out of beer or Michael McIntyre managing to actually say something funny. It’s just not British is it?

The winter sun was causing us a problem as we walked down to the ground, meaning the toss could be a match decider.  Of course, we lost that and Rikki Banks was soon regretting leaving his baseball cap in his car glove compartment.

Billericay Town 2 Lewes 2 – New Lodge – Saturday 13th December 2014
Six minutes into injury time the ball is launched into the Lewes area, surely for one final time.  The initial four added minutes that the referee had said he was adding on have come and gone. The ball falls to Lewes’s stalwart Chris Breach, he slips, allowing a Billericay player a sight of goal.  Lovegrove dives in, taking one for the team and it’s a penalty.  One final hope of all three points stands 6ft 4inches tall.  Rikki Banks dives the right way but Richard Halle’s spot kick has too much pace and the wild celebrations from the home side just shows the relief of grabbing a point.

Of course we could complain.  But on at least four occasions this season the Rooks had benefited from extra injury time to grab valuable points or progress in the cup competitions.  As they say, these decisions even themselves out over a season.  It hurt – don’t get me wrong, but that’s football.

15987708636_9d934316be_kDespite dominating the opening exchange, including hitting the woodwork before we’d even picked up our chips from the refreshment kiosk, Billericay faded in the first half as Lewes simply out-passed them. There was no surprise when The Blues took the lead, although it wasn’t the long ball that led to the goal, rather than a powerful run from Sappleton through the middle of the Lewes defence before slotting home with ease.

Despite the state of the pitch, the Rooks looked to play the ball behind the Billericay back line with new signing Fraser, Davis and returning skipper Walder dominating the middle of the park.  Confidence grew, chances came and finally so did the equaliser.  Davis to Fraser to Cole, running onto the ball in the area and the ball was in the back of the net.

Tails up we went for another.  Davis showed his dancing feet when the ball appeared to get stuck in the mud, shifting his weight from left to right, wrong-footing the defence and calmly slotting the ball into the net.  Lewes were rampant. Blewden beat the offside trap but the final obstacle, the pitch, beat him.

15825991210_fbe3729e06_kThe second half was a tighter affair with both sides struggling with the conditions. Billericay were reduced to ten men when Sappleton went in late on Fraser, the subsequent handbags essentially costing Lewes their victory with the time being added by one of the better referees we’ve seen at this level this season.

The final drama certainly gave us our money’s worth and no Lewes fans can really complain at the last gasp decision. We’d done our homework, stuck our game plan and came away with a moral victory if not with all three points.

Postscript: the title of today’s report relates a line from the song All Together Now, describing the events in The Somme from 100 years ago. 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them

Economic Theory explained by Football – Part 2 – Market Uncertainty


In the second of my deep-thinking articles, I try to explain famous Economic theories by using football as the model.  Today, the work of George Akerlof on Market Uncertainty.

The Market for Lemons was a controversial piece of research published by Nobel Prize-winning academic and famous Leyton Orient fan, George Akerlof.  Up until his work was published, most economists believed that markets would allow everyone willing to sell goods at a certain price to make deals with anyone who wanted to buy goods at that price.

IMG_1105Akerlof, frustrated by the fact that the O’s (back then they were just Orient) kept bringing in short-term players who were basically rubbish, explained how uncertainty caused by limited information caused markets to fail.  As a football club who hold a player’s contract have more information about him than a potential buying club, it can often be a bad move to buy the player.  In other words, if you do not do your research on a player, you are liable to buy a lemon.

Whilst Akerlof’s research was based on the second-hand car market in the US, he also kept a close eye on the transfer dealings of third tier English football clubs.  In the same way that sellers of better-than-average cars to sell will withdraw them from the market because it is impossible for them to get a fair price from a buyer who is unable to tell whether that car is a lemon or not, football clubs needed a way to ensure that they weren’t buying an old crock.

He suggested that football clubs could “borrow” a player for a short period of time to see if he is fit, able and not a mass murderer before they made a decision to buy him.  That way, a fair price could be determined between the buying and selling club.  Furthermore, he concluded that if a player is passed from club to club on loan then he is a lemon, just like a used car that has had dozens of owners.

Football clubs that are desperate to sign a player for a particular position, perhaps due to injury, are often held to ransom by selling clubs, knowing that they can try and extract a few more million for a player who is completely over-valued.  Rather than over paying for the player they are forced into the loan market where they may get some short-term gain but ultimately, loan deals are flawed in the same way that second hand cars are.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the theory of Market Certainty.

West Ham on Song to jump into the top three


15967541542_58a6b64140_kIt’s a good time to be a West Ham fan.  Yesterday our fellow London rivals Arsenal, Chelsea and Millwall all lost, whilst Spurs could only manage a goal less draw at home to Crystal Palace.  Coming into the game at The Boleyn Ground against Swansea City the team knew a win would take them to third…THIRD.  I cannot remember the last time The Hammers were in the top three, even after the opening day of the season.  Third.  Champions League Group automatic entry third.  Top three in one of the richest leagues in the world.

We all know it wont last.  It can’t last. Why?  Well we can blame the economist Francis Galton for making our dreams fade and die.  19th Century Galton was credited with first documenting the Theory of Regression.  Whilst Galton used the biological phenomenon of the height of ancestors to demonstrate his theory, it can be applied today in predicting bouncebackability (he actually invented that word too) of teams who either punch above their weight or failed to meet expectations.  Everyone will always gravitate to their natural position.

But that’s not to say there hasn’t been a seismic shift in events at Upton Park.  After Allardyce was given a seat at the bar of the last chance saloon in the summer, he used the close season well, and whether it was his hard work, that of “attacking” coach Teddy Sheringham or the scouting network, he has built one of the best looking West Ham side’s that I can ever remember.  By best looking I mean in terms of positive and attacking play rather than any looks, although the shift to the blue shorts is very pleasing on the eye.

Few expected the likes of Enner Valencia, Cheikhou Kouyaté and Diafra Sakho to settle in East London so quickly but they have.  Sakho in particular has been a revelation.  The Senegal international had been playing in the French Second Division until the summer, but someone spotted something in him.  Whoever that was deserves a knighthood.  Sakho has been a handful for Premier League defences so far this season, hitting seven goals in just nine games before the game against Swansea.  Thoughts turn to a young Frank McAvennie when he first came to England back in 1985 and terrorized English defences.

15348569513_2ba959a754_kThe lofty position hasn’t been down to fluke either.  I’ve never been an Allardyce fan, hating this traditional Anti-football which hasn’t ever proved to deliver anything apart from neckache to fans.  His purchase last season of Andy Carroll was seen as the final piece in his long-ball jigsaw, and when the injury-prone striker inevitably ended up on the operating table, there was no plan B.  Even in pre-season when I saw them against Stevenage there appeared to be zero attacking intent.  Four months later they are playing some of the best football in the Premier League and have beaten Champions League qualifiers Liverpool and Manchester City comprehensively at Upton Park, whilst away from home they have been impressive, sticking to an attacking 4-4-2 with the resurgent Stewart Downing finally being freed from his wing.

Despite a Sunday lunchtime slot for this game, the game was a sell-out, as had every other Premier League game bar the one versus Aston Villa this season.  With the rest of the Fuller family up North it was took good an opportunity to miss.  A £43 ticket is easier to swallow if the football on offer is attractive and positive.

In a pre-match interview with Radio 5Live, Co-Chairman David Gold admitted that he was very surprised that the club were so high up the table.  “Not that don’t believe that we are a good team, we probably didn’t expect to be in this position at this stage of the season”.  It would of course be amiss to forget that the visitors from Wales were also having an amazing season.  After starting off like a train they had followed the Galton theory and dropped back down the table, only to start to climb again in the last few weeks.  In fact, a win at Upton Park would see them leap-frog the Hammers and Arsenal into the top six.

15781622859_b9798b6d14_kThe sun was shining and it was felt good to be back in East London.  Due to overseas travel and my commitments at Lewes (plus the dire football on display in recent seasons) I had been a rare visitor to these parts, but just like a London bus, I would be following today’s game with visits to the next two Premier League games here.  But for now it was time to see for myself exactly how this new team were taking the table by storm.

West Ham United 3 Swansea City 1 – The Boleyn Ground – Sunday 7th December 2014
It took the introduction of that man Sakho to power West Ham to victory against The Swans, adding the cutting edge to the dominance in possession.  This was a great game of football, full of attacking intent from both sides, controversy and a couple of great goals.  Whilst the game between Southampton and Manchester United tomorrow night will see one of them reclaim third place, for 30 hours or so, The Hammers could look down on the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and United themselves with a sense of pride and achievement.

The return to form of Andy Carroll had been perfectly timed, with Sakho missing from the past few games but it was the re-introduction of Barcelona – Alex Song that gave West Ham the victory.  Quite how and why Arsenal let their former player slip through their fingers in the summer is beyond me.  Likewise, their attacking full back Carl Jenkinson seems to revel playing in a side that allows him to run behind the opposing full backs.

For all of their opening possession it was the visitors who took the lead.  Despite West Ham being “all over them like a cheap suit”, they couldn’t “put the ball in the Onion bag” (those two quotes courtesy of the person sitting behind me), Swansea attacked down the left-hand side, Montero got in behind Jenkinson and played the ball across the face of goal for the on-rushing Bony to easy tap home.  Swansea’s tactics then switched from mildly attacking to retention and time-wasting.  With seventy minutes to hold on, it was a foolhardy tactic and it was always going to be a case of when and not if West Ham scored.

15780798948_deac688edd_kFor all the great passing play from the home side, the equaliser came from a familiar route in the 40th minute.  Jenkinson crossed from the left and Carroll out-jumped his marker and headed home.

Swansea started the second half the better side and a powerful run through the middle by Bony followed by a shot that hit the bar had most of the West Ham fans groaning that this wouldn’t be our day.  But then Carroll rose again and headed Downing’s corner into the net via Rangel’s desperate dive to keep it out. But the main talking point came moments later.

Earlier in the season when Lewes took on Margate at The Dripping Pan we had our centre-back Ollie Rowe sent off for a “professional foul”, or to give it its correct term, stopping a clear goal-scoring opportunity.  Rowe had stumbled when chasing a Margate forward and as he fell he took the legs of the attacker.  But the attacker got to his feet, carried on and managed to get a shot in which the Lewes keeper, Rikki Banks, saved.  The referee pulled play back and sent Rowe off.  How could it be claimed that he denied a goal-scoring opportunity if he then went on and got his shot on?  What would have happened if he would have scored? As we were told at the time by the officials, the fact that there had been a clear foul, it is irrelevant what the end result was.  If he would have scored them it is a different matter, and the offender would have been cautioned.

Sakho outpaced the Swansea defence and took the ball passed the on-rushing Swansea keeper Fabianski.  The keeper tried to take Sakho out but the forward was too quick for him and he recovered his poise and from a tight angle tried to slot the ball home, only to see his shot come back off the post.  Referee Chris Foy brought play back for a free-kick and dismissed the keeper.  Swansea’s main argument was that Sakho had allegedly handled the ball rather than Fabianski’s foul.

The game was wrapped up when Sakho once again showed his pace and power, running onto a flick from Carroll to smash the ball home from the edge of the box.  3-1 and West Ham were going third.  Man of the Match was always going to be given to the two-goal Andy Carroll but it was clear to see that it was Alex Song who called the tune today and without his energy, drive and tempo it could have been a very different result.

Economic theories explained by football – Part 1 – Behavioural Economics


In the first of a new series, I try to explain famous Economic theories by using football as the model.  Today, the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in defining Behavioural Economics.

Up until the 1980’s, standard economic theory was dominated by the idea of the “Rational Economic Man”, a theory first expounded by Adam Smith in his 1776 work, The Wealth of Nations.  He said that football clubs will charge as high a price as possible for admission, not caring whether fans can actually afford to come or not.  If fan A is priced out of the market, then he will be replaced by Fan B, with his half and half scarf on.  Fans make decisions of whether to attend based on costs and the benefits – i.e how much will it cost them and will the team win?  So essentially the two parties are at polar opposites.

However, Tversky and Kahneman realised that Football fans were basically irrational beings who would follow their side through thick and thin, spending ridiculous sums of money for any pieces of plastic crap with a logo on.  Countless marriages have been ruined over the last hundred years because football fans love their teams more than their partners.  That’s the theory of irrational thinking or Behavioural Economics.

14718955248_a8a53f7990_zThe two Maccabi Haifa fans saw that football fans behaviours and actions are unpredictable when the circumstances are uncertain.  Last season the crowds at The Dripping Pan dropped off towards the end of the season as we were on a poor run.  Fans faced a decision as to whether they would come and see us lose on a Tuesday night or stay at home and watch Holby City.  With the outcome predictable, fans acted rationally, deciding to stay at home in the warm, earning browny points from their partner and kidding themselves they are having a better evening, whilst secretly checking the action on Twitter every few minutes.

But give us the slight chance of a win and fans will travel to the middle of nowhere on a Tuesday night to support the team.  How many fans would we have got at East Thurrock United a few weeks ago if we hadn’t won the two previous games?

Tversky and Kahneman found that fans will travel to Leiston, in the middle of nowhere and involving a 5 mile trip to the nearest station because they have some decent pubs serving Adnams and we have a good record there but will shun a Monday night trip to Wealdstone for obvious reasons (apart from the fact we are often stuffed there).

In summary, football fans when faced with making a decision where the outcomes are uncertain do not think about the facts rationally in terms of “how much will it cost me to watch the away game at VCD Athletic”.  They think about the chance to visit a new ground, a few beers and the opportunity to give a goal keeper some friendly stick.  This, in summary, means that fans are not 100% rational.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the theory of Behavioural Economics.

No sixth sense in the FA Trophy


15726618097_9f4d2dcc05_k (1)When the fixtures are released each summer we instinctively look for when we will be able to visit somewhere new.  A new ground, new pubs, new fans to banter with, new pubs, new cultural experiences and of course, new pubs. When you’ve been in the same division, like Lewes, for a number of years the excitement of visiting Margate on New Years Day or Leiston on the 6th January doesn’t really cut the mustard.  As much as we love wandering along the seafront with Tel wearing his “kiss me quick” hat, or watching Deaksy’s hair stand on end as we near The Vulcan opposite Sizewell B nuclear reactor, we want to try something new.

This season we have already visited the delights of Witham (twice), where the main attraction is the Olly Muirs walk of fame (being the town and football club’s most famous son), Tonbridge Angels and our old friends at Leatherhead.  We still have the delights of Crayford in the spring to come when we visit VCD Athletic for the first time as well as a very short hop over the downs to Peacehaven & Telscombe.

Of course the real excitement comes when the respective cup draws are made.  Our run in the FA Cup lasted all but as we crashed out away at Witham Town. The Ryman League Cup saw a home defeat to Peacehaven & Telscombe.  A home victory in the Sussex Senior Cup versus Brighton & Hove Albion has seen us drawn away at Horsham YMCA, a ground we’ve visited on many occasions.  But in the FA Trophy is where our current interest lays. Not that there are thousands of pounds at stake for each round we reach – oh no, it’s not all about the money at all.

After a 3-2 win at Heybridge Swifts on Tuesday night, Lewes would be travelling to Oxford City of the Conference North.  Finally, a proper away day.  No disrespect to Witham or Heybridge, but the local hostelries can’t really hold a candle to the dreaming spires of the land of Morse, Bannister and Lawrenson.  The Lewes Lunatic fringe would be out in full force for this one, with Linda having the job of making extra rounds of cheese and pickle for the long train journey.

Whilst we were all excited about the big day out, it was water off a duck’s back to our Vice-President, Terry Parris. “Did I tell you about the time Bobby Moore offered to put my disclosed finger back in place at Oxford City, Stu?” Now that’s a way to start a conversation.  For those who don’t know Terry then you obviously don’t know anything about Non-League football.  Terry has held virtually every position in the Lewes team and subsequently in the club itself,  He’s played more games than anyone else in the club’s 129 year history (over 650 times), managed the club, been the groundsman, commercial manager, secretary and even run the line.  He has the east terrace at the ground named after him and until last month was the club’s chairman.  He is full of stories that would put some of the banal, bland best-seller “expose’s” of today’s players to shame.

Back in the early 1980’s, a new chairman took over at Oxford City.  Jealous of the success of United on the other side of town, who were just starting their march up the divisions that would ultimately see them winning the League Cup at Wembley, the then chairman managed to persuade former England captain and one of the legends of the English game, Bobby Moore to manage the club.  City had just been relegated to the Isthmian Second Division and played Lewes for the first ever time in 1980/81.  Moore recruited a former team-mate from West Ham to be assistant, a young chirpy chap called Harry Redknapp.  In the game in February 1981 against Lewes, Terry managed to injury his finger and ever the gentlemen, Moore offered to put it back into place.  Terry declined and headed to hospital, although Moore still took the time after the 3-0 defeat to find out how he was later in the evening.

15911801292_1e0dfbe78a_zToday City haven’t really met the expectations set 35 years ago.  Playing in the second tier of Non-League football is the highest level they’ve played at. Whilst they came within touching distance of neighbours United a few seasons ago during their brief foray into the Non-Leagues, they are still miles away in and off the pitch today.  Whilst both clubs have moved to new stadiums, the money pumped into United by former owner Kassam has seen them take up residence in a 12,500 seater stadium in whilst City have moved to a very rural location close by the A40 – by rural we mean there are no pubs within a 15 minute walk.

Promotion to this level has been bitter-sweet for City. Every club wants to progress but being bumped into Conference North must be hard to stomach.  Whilst they have localish games at Worcester City (45miles) and Gloucester City (47 miles) away trips to Barrow (250 miles), Harrogate (190 miles) and Fylde (180 miles) put a huge burden on the club.  Incidentally, Maidenhead United and Wealdstone (40 and 42 miles away respectively) are their nearest Conference rivals, both playing in the Conference South.  With average attendances rarely breaking the 400 mark, there is a big price tag on progress and the club should be applauded for doing everything they have not only to hold their own in the league but to start to push for the play-off spot.

The odds certainly appeared to be stacked against Lewes.  However, a seven game unbeaten run had given everyone at the club confidence despite a mounting injury crisis that would have seen both Baz Collins and Big Deaksy in the squad for the game if they hadn’t both been cup-tied after playing for Lewes on FIFA14 (damn rules, as Club Sec Kev told them). Avoiding defeat here would mean we would have remained unbeaten for a whole calendar month – the last time that had happened was in June when we didn’t play anyone.

We would travel to parts we’d never traveled to before with hope in our hearts, a bellyful of ale and pockets full of Scotch eggs. There is nothing better than a proper football awayday.  There was talk of a coach, rosettes, a special squad-sung version of Sussex By The Sea to mark the occasion but that would be presumptuous (and we’ve heard Nathan Crabb sing!).

Saturday morning, London Paddington station.  As we wait for the 11:15 Great Western service to Great Malvern via Honeybourne, Charlbury and Pershore, we see other groups of fans.  We are all a band of brothers, off to do our bit for our own clubs.  It doesn’t matter what race, sex, creed or colour we are, we are all football fans, prepared to travel to the four corners of this country to support our team, even if they are a step seven club like Lewes. Alas our attempts to engage with Crystal Palace fans on their way to Swansea didn’t work – “who are you?”, “small town in Brighton” and “you’re going to get your head kicked in” suggested that perhaps we weren’t as welcome as we thought we would be.  Even the Met Police fan heading to their game at Maidenhead blanked us.

Deaksy had done his research and eight minutes after getting off the train, we were in pub number 1 – The Four Candles (not to be confused with the Fork Handles obviously).  37 minutes later we were in the Grapes and then 26 minutes after that, Far From The Maddening Crowd.  Military precision from Deaks.

Marsh Lane is some distance from the city centre – a £10 cab ride distance to be precise.  It seemed that few of the locals had been gripped by FA Trophy fever, and as the two sides took the pitch a quick scan of the ground saw less than 100 fans ready for the game.

Oxford City 6 Lewes 1 – Marsh Lane – Saturday 29th November 2014
15911798662_b10d63841c_kOK – let’s start with the positives.  The City Banger, a roll with three local sausages in for just £2.50 was outstanding.  We ate about a dozen between us.  The Lewes support was close on a third of the whole attendance and we scored a goal.  They were my three positives.  That’s not to say the rest of the afternoon was bad – we were clinically undone by a team who play in a way that is alien to our lowly Non-League position.  What was interesting was hearing some of the comments of the locals who didn’t particularly like the number of overseas players being brought into the club under Head Coach Enrique Guillen.  The starting XI contained five Spanish players, brought in by Guillen.  Talking to some of the fans it seemed that not everyone was happy with the direction the club were going in.  Could some external forces be pulling the strings here?

Oxford City have a style of play that either reduces teams to gibbering wrecks, or is like defending the Alamo.  A 1-8 home defeat to Fylde earlier this season was proceeded by a 7-2 away win the following week at Boston United.  5-0 away win at Bradford Park Avenue, then a 4-0 defeat to Guiseley seven days later.  Today they were on the back foot from the first minute and Lewes had two golden chances to take the lead in the first five minutes.  Ten minutes later and Oxford City were 3-0 up.  Fast, counter attacking play, moving the ball from wing to wing that undid our 3-5-2 formation.

15290184084_9c7d6db89d_bBut then Lewes came back into it, forcing the Oxford defence onto the back foot.  Nicky Wheeler’s excellent effort reduced the arrears and a few minutes later his lob looked to have made it 3-2.  Lewes certainly ended the half on top.  But less than five minutes after the restart we were 4-1 down – again another fast counter attack and the ball was in the back of the net.

That goal was the final nail in the coffin. We pushed forward more in hope than anything else and did force the keeper to make a couple of smart saves. However, two further goals by Isaac and Benjamin gave the final score an unfair look.  Oxford has certainly been the better side but not by a five goal margin.  But that’s football. It had been a decent day out and we can have no complaints at the result.  Now it is all about Wednesday night and the visit to the Pan of bottom of the table Bury Town.