Football will eat itself


It seems that finally footballing authorities are starting to take notice of the growing voices of the genuine fans on the subject of ticket prices.  Last weekend the mass walkout at Anfield with Liverpool leading 2-0 not only grabbed the headlines but could be argued to have such a distracting effect on the team that they conceded two late goals.  On Tuesday night Borussia Dortmund fans showed their displeasure at being charged £55 for a ticket for their trip to Stuttgart by raining tennis balls down onto the pitch during the game.  With so much money gushing into the English game there can be little reason why ticket prices continue to increase in many cases at rates well above the level of inflation.

Every club wants to play in front of capacity crowds and whilst some will offer discounted admission for some games, such as cup ties, where season ticket holders do not get automatic admission, come Premier League time and the prices increase.  Some clubs are desperate to increase capacities, trying to meet finite supply with almost unlimited demand.  The economists among us will know when that happens price equilibriums can be manipulated by the supplier, a situation that is leading to the anger in instances such as at Anfield where Liverpool fans could be charged up to £77 for a ticket in their new stand next season.

19175381278_c21e29ebf9_hThe English game has never been so popular.  In a statement issued by the Football Supporters Federation after the Anfield incident, Chairman Malcolm Clarke suggests that rising prices will lead to  “Stadiums filled with tourists waving “half and half scarves and taking selfies”.  I’d actually say in many instances that is one of the reasons why ticket prices continue to rise – the number of overseas visitors attending Premier League games has never been higher, filling the vacuum left by English fans unable or unwilling to pay the increasing amounts for a ticket.  Again, simple Economics 101 suggests that “half and half” scarf sellers would pack up shop tomorrow and do something else if there was no demand for their product.

Clarke claims the money from the new £5.1bn television rights deal, due to kick in from next season which will see every Premier League club receive a MINIMUM of £99 million in revenues for the three years after that, could let every supporter into every home game and still bring in the same revenue as this season.  Yet it is unlikely that wholesale price reductions will be seen in England next season.

Last year’s BBC report on the Price of Football painted a relatively healthy picture of clubs offering low price tickets but the results on some levels were flawed because they asked the clubs to submit information rather than researching the situation and looking at the average cost of tickets. Headline figures of the “cheapest ticket” for instance often related to one game where the club discounts all tickets for a particular purpose rather than the cheapest average ticket cost across the whole season.  At West Ham United for instance, the cheapest ticket is listed £25, which it is for the pre-Christmas game versus Stoke City. The game before, versus West Bromwich Albion the same seat would cost you £45 (for a ‘Category A’ game this would rise to £70). The Hammers also take the prize of having the highest away fans ticket price at an eye-watering £85, yet also offer many games at low price where more often than not the ground ends up being full, such as the Europa League games in the summer or the FA Cup ties against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool.

You can argue about the “value” of a ticket as well.  Leicester City fans would certainly say they are getting value for money this season but what about at Chelsea where it hasn’t been the happiest of seasons to be sitting in an £82 season for some games.  Any price increases will be easier to swallow based on the success of the season, although even a Foxes fan may baulk at a 100% price increase next season should the club owners decide to.

Whilst many Premier League fans have been priced out of the game and now get their football kicks further down the pyramid in the Non-League game where £20 can buy you admission, a programme, beer and a burger rather than just a Thai Green Salad Emirates Burger at some stadiums, their places have been filled with the overseas visitors.  Visit Britain published a report in 2014 that revealed over 800,000 tourists to Britain in 2014 attended a football match whilst here, spending around £684 million in the process.  It is not just tourist that enjoy football matches; out of the 800,000 total, more than 40,000 international business visitors went to a football match during their stay in 2014, with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea the three most popular destinations.

The findings show that football is the number one sporting draw for international tourists to Britain. Of those visitors who gave their primary journey purpose to the UK as ‘watching sport’, 73% said they had attended a football match. Around 40% of those going to a football match said that watching sport was the main reason for visiting the UK.  However, the stumbling block is often access to genuine tickets, with most clubs operating a Members-only policy for the very limited amount of tickets that are put on sale for Premier League games.  Some clubs will try and drive visitors to hospitality or travel packages instead potentially at the expense of those hardcore fans who can no longer afford the basic ticket prices.  What is clear though is that any attempts by fans to protest with their feet and not attend games will simply see their void being filled by these “tourists waving half and half scarves and taking selfies”

The protest by the Liverpool fans last weekend certainly created some waves but it may take a concerted effort of protests from other fans, potentially those willing to make the sacrifice of walking out of matches to make the clubs sit up and listen.  The Premier League currently has a valuable asset in terms of full stadiums, but if empty seats start appearing in games being broadcast around the world ultimately rights holders will value the product less and so the knock on effect could be a lower value deal in three years’ time, consequently meaning less money for the clubs involved.  Remember, greed and gluttony are both deadly sins.

LIfe in the gutter


Hope is a viable strategy for many football clubs – in fact for many it is the only strategy. It’s a motto, held together by duck tape, that underpins the grass-roots of our beautiful game. That’s not to stop the dreamers dreaming. As Oscar (Wilde not the Chelsea midfielder) famously said, “we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars”. Today we were most certainly looking up at the stars.

Our day started at 8am discussing the future of the football club surrounded by history and tradition. Our home for the first part of the day was The Royal Oak, just a stone’s throw from Lewes Station,  where back on Wednesday 23rd September 1885 our football club was formed. In an article published in the Sussex Agricultural Express a few days later, it was reported under the headline “Formation of a Football Club” that a meeting the previous Wednesday at The Royal Oak Public House, chaired by Mr J Plummer Chapman had seen the created of Lewes Football Club and that “The Dripping Pan would be available for football matches during the winter months. Over 130 years later and we are still going, with the Pan now being one of the oldest 20 football grounds in the world used continuously by the same club.

FullSizeRender (1)One hundred and thirty years later, our objective was to create a strategy for the next five years for the club. In some ways we had to thank our lucky stars we had made it this far, having come so close to letting unbridled (and some might say unfounded) ambition take the club away from us. Just like any organisation in the commercial world, we need to have a clear vision, a set of objectives and a framework for growth. We may be tiny when compared to Premier League clubs but our ambitions boil down to the same thing – progress. The difference is that we have to grow within our means and in a sustainable manner, with every programme we sell mattering whilst they can just sit back and watch some of that £1bn a year TV money roll in, not even caring today that they have priced out a generation of fans.

Creating a strategic plan that everyone buys into don’t just happen overnight. An initial strategy was created back in 2010 when the football club passed into community ownership under the leadership of the original Rooks125 group. Most of those initial objectives have been met during the last 5 1/2 years with Charlie and Ed the two remaining members on the board from the original six. The new plan would see us through to 2020 as well as providing a framework for growth past that date, where it is hoped we will have more willing individuals invested in the club.

I took on the initial task of drafting the first draft of the new plan. It’s quite daunting to start writing such a document, having to balance the core, day-to-day tasks with trying to find the inspiration, aspiration and perspiration for growth. You look for clues from other clubs but have to be mindful that you don’t want to simply copy something someone else does – one size certainly doesn’t fit all. I’m used to having to write strategies for others in my other life, being a paid outsider looking in on the business models created by others, making recommendations for improvements and hammering home the point that they, not me, have to own the actions. A strategy without owners prepared to make changes and buying into the vision is simply a word document with pretty pictures.

Some fans may question why we need a strategy – we are after all a football club – our only objective games should be to win games. If only that was the truth. Others simply lament for the free spending, couldn’t give a toss about what happens tomorrow, days gone by. The work that goes on behind the scenes will never be enough for them. But for the majority of our 1,200 owners they want to know that the club is in good hands, not just today but years into the future. That’s what today was all about. Assessing whether the ways we did things today were the right ways, and right things as well as looking for other ways to grow the club.  No idea was a bad one (even some of Ed’s ones).  The football club has many moving parts such as our community work, our ownership model, our commercial proposition, our 3G and our Academy as well as our footballing sides.  Each is somewhere intertwined with another, so creating a plan for one, would have a knock-on on another.

1_NeedhamMarket2015-282x400As a group we have differing visions of where we could and should be and what our motivations were for sitting around the table in the first place. We have different backgrounds, different skill sets, different strengths and different temperaments – as the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your fellow board members in a democratically elected organisation. Or something like that anyway. But we all are gathered in the same place at silly o’clock on a match day to discuss the same thing. What can we do to make the future of this football club better.

Strategising over, and safe in the knowledge that we think we were heading in the right direction it was time for some football.  To turn again to Wilde, Lewes came into this game well and truly in the gutter but recent form had seen us not only looking but in the words of S Club 7, reaching for the stars. Unbeaten in 2016 versus a side who had just one win since mid-November and had slid down the table to sit just above the relegation zone. It made a welcome change that we weren’t looking to the stars for signs of poor weather for what seemed like the first time in weeks. A Rooks win and we’d not quite be breathing down Needham Market’s neck but we’d be sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend in preparation.

Lewes 0 Needham Market 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 6th February 2016
After our enthusiasm at looking into the future, the present was a little more like the weather.  Dreary.  A point and a clean sheet would have been a good result a few months ago.  Today it is a small step up a big mountain.  The frustration was we did enough to win the game, and should have been celebrating another win tonight, especially as the linesman’s flag to deny Jonte Smith’s late effort was proved to be wrong on the edited highlights (in fact it was the only second half highlight).

FullSizeRender (3)The conditions were tricky, but it was the same for both sides.  The visitors started the brighter, with centre-forward Michael Brothers proving a real handful for the Lewes defence, and it was his strength and determination that should have seen Needham go in one-nil up at the break but his cross shot failed to hit the target.  A second half change to an all-energy front four by Darren Freeman tantilised the biggest crowd of the day in the Ryman Leagues but never quite troubled the visitor’s keeper, with Smith’s disallowed goal proving to be the major talking point.

Other results at the foot of the table meant we actually gained points on teams above the relegation zone in the most part, and didn’t fall any further behind.  With a game against Dulwich Hamlet to come on Wednesday the unthinkable could still happen.  Even our strategic plan can’t call that one.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Disruptive Influencers


Back in 1997 DC United won the second ever MLS Cup, beating Colorado Rapids on home turf. Avid fan and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen was so compelled by DC United retaining their title that he sat down and and mused as to whether this could be the start of something beautiful for his side and US Soccer in general. Looking across the pond at the dominance of Manchester United plus the emergence of the Galacticos in Madrid he wondered if a new force could emerge to take world football by storm. His theory on disruption theory has been called “one of the sexiest theories ever written” by The Lady magazine, high praise indeed and has since been adapted for wider economic models, but it should always be remembered that it’s humble beginnings were in the beautiful game. So what’s all the fuss about?

Christensen’s theory is based around the principle that innovators with cheap solutions to a vexing market problem can unseat larger, more established rivals. So in the case of DC United’s squad, assembled at a fraction of the cost of United’s or Real’s, could their domestic dominance and momentum carry them across the pond and further in the global game. His theory was hailed as the answer to everything from making health care more efficient to reducing poverty by some of the world’s greatest thinkers, and Elton Welsby, and was the talk of the dressing and boardrooms from Rio to Rome.

Christensen wrote that disruptive innovations, such as Social Media websites, Rainbow looms and snoods tend to be produced by outsiders from their industry. The business environment of market leaders does not allow them to pursue disruption when they first arise, because they are not profitable enough at first and because their development can take scarce resources away from sustaining innovations (which are needed to compete against current competition). So when FC United won their first MLS Cup back in 1996, nobody outside of North America took them seriously – it was after all a small domestic league of ageing imports and unproven domestic talent. But back to back wins, and two more final appearances in the next two seasons allowed them to pursue that disruption and potentially start eat the global giants breakfast.

Alas, DC United’s dominance didn’t last as long as Facebook although it did outlive the crazes of plastic bracelets made by our kids and neck scarves worn by hardy professional footballers. Christensen’s theory was debunked by some who pointed to Apple’s continued dominance in the device market, or Amazon’s in terms of online shopping. We’ve seen pretenders to the footballing global dominance throne very occasionally come forward but money talks in today’s game. There is no coincidence that the clubs with the deepest pockets in England, France, Holland, Spain, Germany and Italy walk away with the honours year after year. Despite salary caps, centralised contracts and no meritocracy structure, the US domestic game is no different today. The LA Galaxy have won three of the last four titles whilst the New York Red Bulls, with the backing of the global energy drink company, lead the way this season.

Christensen’s five minutes of fame may still resonate with some economic thinkers but in terms of the world of football it’s the same old story – money talks.

Conditional decisions


Up and down the country teams who haven’t had the best of starts to the season will be encouraged by the fact they come into the first game of the new year unbeaten in 2016. Yep, we’ve all said it, more out of hope that our team’s fortunes will miraculously change simply because the calendar has rather than through any other event. Of course, for those fans who follow a team in the top four leagues the prospect of the transfer window now being open brings the hope that you may sign someone who will turn your season around, or get an opportunity to offload someone who has been the root cause of your problems.

Down here in the seventh tier of English football we don’t have the same type of transfer window. Ours is more of a fly screen which can be opened at will. Few players at our level are on anything more than a nod and a wink contract, with the mystical 7 Day Approach process often the only thing standing between that key player shooting you up the table or seeing you fall through the relegation trap door. I don’t really deal with that side of footballing affairs. Give me a notebook, a pen and a little video camera and send me off to watch a game and I will give you a full tactical analysis of a team, their strengths and weaknesses, set-piece routines and quality of pies on a nicely presented PDF within 24 hours. But ask me which form needs to be signed by our new Spanish winger (no word of a lie by the way) and where to send it then I’m lost. Thank goodness for Club Sec Kev and his magic cardigans is all I will say.

Suffice to say that if someone puts in a “Seven Dayer” you have a week to convince the player to stay with you. My idea would be to play on the ‘caring, sharing’ perception of our fantastic community club. A bunch of flowers delivered to Mrs Centre Forward, some sweets for Holding Midfield junior or a case of Becks for Goalkeeper’s flat mate. It’s all very well the club’s chairman trying to lay on the charm but when it comes from their nearest and dearest it tends to resonate more.

Alas, it normally comes down to cash. You will have managers who are simply better negotiators and persuaders than others but nothing peaks the interest of a footballer than money, especially at this level of the game. By money I also mean opportunity costs – the reduced time (and cost) of getting to training, the fact we never fail to pay players on time, that we have a very cool shirt manufacturer and sponsor.

But back to today. It’s the start of a New Year and a win could put us top of the first 2016 table. Well, when you’ve had such a desperate 2015 you will cling to any hope.

FullSizeRender (25)The first victory of the day was over the elements. Heavy rain overnight may have dampened the pitch but not the spirit of everyone at the club. Alas, in true Lewes style the elements rallied and scored a late equaliser. At 1pm when the referee arrived, the pitch was playable. At 1.45pm after over half an hour of heavy rain it wasn’t. By the time I arrived at 2pm and congratulated myself at being able to park outside the ground for the first time this season fans were heading in the opposite direction.

At 9am the pitch was playable. At 11am it was almost good enough for a garden party. At 1pm when the officials arrived it could have hosted world championship bowls. Then it started to rain….and rain…and rain. At 1.45pm the referee decided that the conditions were bad enough to warrant an inspection, and consequently, postponed it. “You should have communicated the game was in doubt” said one fan. But the game was never in doubt until the referee said it was. Five minutes later it was called off. You can’t make decisions on contingent liabilities. The heavy rain was forecast from 9am. It didn’t materialise until 1pm. Of course, we could have communicated that the 3pm kick off was subject to final approval of the officials but then that’s the same for any game. The pitch could be too hard, the snow could obliterate the lines on the pitch, the wind could cause structural damage, the ice could make spectating areas dangerous. Only the referee can determine how the weather conditions impact on the game. I totally get the frustration of anyone who travelled to the game but we could only work with absolute facts and not what ifs.

FullSizeRender (25)So instead of watching The Rooks I headed down the road, along with a fair few other Rooks fans plus a smattering of Whitehawk fans also without a game, to watch over the young ex-Rooks (Peacehaven & Telscombe) play older ex-Rooks (Hastings United). Not quite the afternoon I had in mind but having travelled so far, I couldn’t go home empty-handed.

Peacehaven & Telscombe 0 Hastings United 4 – The Sports Park – Saturday 2nd January 2016
Just before Christmas, Peacehaven announced that they were going to cut their playing budget. The announcement went on to explain that the decision, whilst a very difficult one to make knowing the potential ramifications for the team, was in the best interests of the club. Most of the senior, and potentially bigger weekly earners had departed, leaving manager Simon Colbran with a very young squad. However, despite their age and experience, and Colbran’s absence due to illness, Peacehaven put up a strong fight against a Hastings side who would still consider a play-off spot as a realistic ambition this year.

FullSizeRender (26)With the postponement of both Lewes’s and Whitehawk’s games, Peacehaven saw a significant increase in spectators – we simply cannot deal with a Saturday afternoon without our football – which hopefully translates into some additional cash into the budget for them.  The 250-odd fans will have seen a decent, open game, played in testing conditions.  Peacehaven certainly had their chances to equalise Billy Medlock’s early goal for Hastings in the first half, hitting the bar and missing a couple of great opportunities.  Players slipped and slid around the muddy pitch, with the referee letting the game flow as much as possible.  Hastings scored a second when former Rook Sam Cole finished off an excellent move that ripped apart the home defence to give them a comfortable lead at half-time.

The second half saw Hastings dominate, with conditions worsening.  The Peacehaven keeper struggled to stay on his feet on many occasions but he could do little with the two late goals.  First, a Sam Adams free-kick seemed to stick in the air due to the wind, and despite trying to re-judge where the ball would finally come back to earth, it slipped from his grasp and Richardson-Brown tapped home.  The scoring was complete when Cumming-Bart shot from the edge of the area after some neat build up play.

Whilst Hastings walked away with three points, Peacehaven can also pride themselves on being winners.  Not only did they manage to get the game on (or perhaps have a referee who wanted to officiate a game despite the conditions) but they also competed for long periods with a team short on experience and age.

Village people


My footballing year started on New Year’s Day with a dilemma as to where to head to.  AFC Goole or North Ferriby United.  A toss of a coin some 362 days ago determined our destination for the first game on 2015, The Victoria Pleasure Grounds in Goole, where we watched a 1-1 draw against Lincoln United.  Almost a year on and as we headed across The Humber Bridge we had the same options.  That was until Northern Steve checked the Interweb and discovered that The Amateurs (Lincoln United for those unfamiliar with step 8 team nicknames) game at Goole had fallen foul to the weather.  North Ferriby United v Bradford Park Avenue it was to be then.

It’s been quite a year for The Villagers.  Their penalty shoot out win over Wrexham at Wembley Stadium in the FA Trophy gained them national headlines, then just a few weeks later owners Eman and Steve Forster, Daughter and Son-in-Law of Hull City’s multi-millionaire owner Assem Allam announced they would be selling up, throwing the club into chaos.  Their investment into the facilities and squad gave the club a clear advantage, allowing them to compete with clubs with much bigger resources.  Their average attendance is just over the 300 mark and shows just how much the club has to fight to compete with the likes of Stockport County or FC United of Manchester who average crowds nearly 10 x the size.

FullSizeRender (23)During the summer the owners had a change of heart, deciding to stay put and that appears to have spurred the team on to push for promotion to Conference National.  Prior to this game they sat in 3rd place, just two points off the top of the table and on a decent run of form, although nobody wants to remind them about the defence of the trophy they proudly have on display at the ground, losing 2-1 in the FA Trophy First Round to Stocksbridge Park Steels from the Evostik League South.

The first thing that strikes you driving into North Ferriby is that it is tiny.  A one pub, two church village sitting on the banks of the Humber Estuary with a population of 3,893 to be precise and once the home to William Wilberforce.  Wilberforce, a man who fought against all the odds to see his dream of a slave-free British empire come to pass, would certainly approve of the dogged approach The Villagers are taking to make their mark on Non-League football.  The approach to the ground is still very county league – down an unlit lane alongside the allotments.

After a brief visit to the club shop to pick up some Official North Ferriby fizzy rings,  the smell from the snack bar enticed us. “Sorry luv’, we’ve not got any cheese for the cheesy chips.  I can do you them with gravy but they won’t be called cheesy chips?” Who were we to moan? Pre-match got even better when we were invited into the boardroom to “meet” the FA Trophy himself, possibly the biggest football trophy I’ve ever got my hands on and approximately 7 times larger than the UEFA Intertoto Cup which is still on display in the boardroom at Upton Park.

The crisp Humberside air was frequently punctuated by the rattle of a train passing above the far-side stand.  Ironically, the last ground I went to where the game could be watched from a passing train carriage was Goole’s Victoria Pleasure Grounds.  I’m sure there is a whole book out there somewhere, combining two of the least social past times.

FullSizeRender (22)There was a decent crowd in for the visit of Bradford Park Avenue, although it appeared the visitors hadn’t brought any fans with them, until I realised Bradford normally played in green and white, the same colours as North Ferriby United.  Bradford FC, as they are often referred to, are one of 35 clubs to have played in all four of the top tiers of English football, although they are along way from being able to compete at that level again.  The original club which competed in the Football League were replaced by Cambridge United in 1970 after failing to gain re-election and folded a few years later.  The new club has climbed up from the very bottom of the county league structure, and should be applauded for how far they have come, joining the Conference North in 2012.

Formalities over, it was time to enjoy the final game of 2015, cup of tea in one hand, non-cheesy gravy soaked chip in the other.

FullSizeRender (19)

North Ferriby United 1 Bradford Park Avenue 0 – Grange Lane – Monday 28th December 2015
This was one of those games that for an hour seemed as if it was destined to be goal less.  Despite the efforts of both teams, and the antics of both keepers, the goals seemed to be living charmed lives.  It is always interesting watching other Non-League clubs and trying to assess how we would fare against them.  North Ferriby’s centre-forward, the giant Tom Denton, may have looked like a stereotypical target man but the home side’s approach play was more subtle than that.  Denton threw himself at everything and if I was allowed to bet on football I would have had a tenner on him being he opening scorer.  Northern Steve, who can bet on football, suggested that it would be a waste of a tenner and backed Stoke City v Everton to have less than 1.5 goals.

FullSizeRender (24)The second half saw both teams have chances in the opening exchanges.  That man Denton should have done better when he was unmarked in the box but he put too much force into his downward header and it bounced over the bar.  However, he was on target in he 64th minute, finishing off a superb run and cross from Middleton.  Alas, the full back got himself sent off ten minutes later with a needless tackle from behind on the touchline that saw the referee brandish a second yellow.

Despite having the one man advantage Bradford PA couldn’t breakdown the stubborn North Ferriby defence in the last 15 minutes and the final whistle brought relief more than anything from the 500 plus crowd, as well as three vital points in their push for the top spot.

FullSizeRender (21)Despite the hype around the off-the-field set up at North Ferriby United you couldn’t visit a nicer club.  Everyone we met seemed to be proud to work for the club and the danger here could actually be promotion to a higher level.  Having seen what the step up actually means in terms on infrastructure for a club at this level I’m not sure they are ready for it yet.  Having to handle the logistics for the visit of Stockport County and FC United of Manchester twice in a season is very different to having to arrange segregation and policing for every home game. But that’s the pay off for progress I guess.

Merstham Tanned in Battle of M25 Junction 8 and 9


Since 1965 Christmas football has been the preserve of Boxing Day. One of the most eagerly anticipated days of the season, where crowds are bumper, especially in Non-League football.  This is despite the complete lack of public transport.  Take Brighton & Hove Albion’s trip to Brentford for a 1pm kick off.  The Seagulls fans had to set off around 8am, get three trains and a rail replacement bus to arrive by 12.30pm for the 60 mile journey.   Then, of course there is the weather.  Fortunately, the South had been spared, for now, the torrential rain that had caused widespread flooding in certain areas.

Every December there is a call from various Premier League managers that they play too many games and that there should be a winter break. This nearly always comes from manager’s who have just lost (again) and need to blame something other than the fact their team was actually crap.  The BBC News reported that “Even Premier League players had to train on Christmas Day”. So , someone who is paid up to £500k a month (and the rest!) has to work on Christmas Day? How is that a story? Policemen, nurses, firemen and soldiers also had to work. Did they get a mention? No of course not.

With an impending trip to the North and the need for a bit of intel on our opponents next week, I navigated around the shopping traffic, or as the BBC said “Millions braved the Boxing Day sales” (no hype there then) to take in the South M25 derby.  To sum up the game in five phrases – Muddy, End to End, Howling misses, No burgers, Late chested winner.

Merstham 1 Leatherhead 2 – Moatside – 26th December 2015

Economic Theory explained by Football – The Concept of Marginal Gains


Just down the road, 2 1/2 hours before Lewes kick off in their game against Farnborough, The Football League Championship’s two clubs go head to head.  Brighton & Hove Albion are the last remaining unbeaten team in the top 10 divisions of English football, a remarkable turnaround from last season where they avoided relegation in the last few weeks of a season characterised by dull, scoreless football.  Back in the Summer, Chris Hughton brought his first team squad down the A27 and could count themselves lucky to go back with a 0-0 draw.  Confidence was high from the Lewes camp, whilst the draw against a team five divisions lower hardly increased the membership of the Hughton Appreciation Society.

Six months on and the situation could hardly be more different.  Hughton is being hailed a messiah by the North Stand faithful whilst Lewes are still looking for their first home win and are looking up the skirts of every other team in the Ryman Premier League.  We could spend hours debating why, but it is more important to touch on what the future holds in my opinion.

In the last few days I’ve read a couple of interesting pieces about the finances of The Seagulls.  The superb Swiss Ramble analysed the numbers in detail on his website last week, There can be no denying the investment by owner Tony Bloom in the club, both on and off the pitch, and for the sake of their loyal fans I hope they do reach the promised land of the Premier League, not only because they deserve a crack at it, but to also give Bloom some financial return on his huge investment.  Footballing history has given us plenty of examples as to where the single investor model turns sour at some point, and whilst Brighton fans may say “It’ll never happen to us with our Tony around”, I’m sure that is what Bolton Wanderers fans said when Big Phil was splashing the cash for Big Sam at the Reebok.

FullSizeRender (16)But what about Lewes?  We don’t have the ownership model that means we are indebted to one person.  However, we are bottom of the league.  In such situations managers tend to grab at any straw going.  How often will you see them bring in a raft of new players to try to solve an issue, normally expelling a fair few out the back door.  It is very rare that the financial situation in such cases ends up with the club making a profit on the dealings or paying less wages.  We all deep down know that, unfortunately, Chelsea will not get relegated this year.  Whoever comes in in the short-term will be given some patience and will make small changes that turn defeats into draws, and draws into wins.  Before you know it they will be knocking on the door of the top seven.  Why?  Because in most instances, teams do not become bad teams overnight or even over a pre-season.  If you can keep the same core of players then with small adjustments they will become better gradually.

This is the theory of marginal gains.  The concept is that if you improve in every variable underpinning or influencing your performance by just 100% then cumulatively you get a significant performance improvement.  The Performance Director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford is often quoted as the biggest proponent of the theory, but it was actually Sir Clive Woodward to first openly admitted to using the concept in the preparation for the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, that England would ultimately win.  “Winning the World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but by doing 100 things 1% better” he said post tournament.

So what does that actually mean for a grass-roots club like Lewes?  It means working with the management team to make sure when the team step onto the pitch they are 100% prepared.  Kit may seem a small issue, but for one player having a pair of shorts that aren’t too tight could be that 1%.  Energy drinks – another 1%.  Ensuring the showers are hot – 1% and so on.  That’s obviously not going to be the reason why Chelsea improve but their 1% gains may come from preparation patterns, pre-match meals, warm up routines as well as personnel changes.

Lewes manager Darren Freeman has been used to winning both as a player and a manager.  He has a formula as to the type of player that he wants to see pull on the red and black shirt each week.  Coming into the club where it was already in the bottom four and three months into the season, his marginal gains are a lot tougher to deliver. But that doesn’t stop him trying.  There’s not going to be one single event that can turn the current situation into a rosier one – unless half a dozen teams all play ineligible players for 5 or 6 games in which they win and get 15 point deductions.  So the club has to look at improving marginally, and more importantly, within budget, in a multitude of areas.  Obviously, players will come and go such as this week where a new winger and a new centre-forward have come in, replacing an existing proven scorer.  Unusually, the net effect of the transfer dealings is financially positive.  Two for the price of one – a marginal gain in terms of squad numbers.

Fans obviously play a part as well.  Any Brighton & Hove Albion supporters heading back to Lewes that could be enticed in, irrespective of the price they pay should lead to a marginal financial gain.  The cost of admitting one extra fan is essentially zero.  There is a stewarding cost, but you can only set that prior to the game based on what you think the crowd would be.  If an additional 1,000 fans turned up today it would cost the club nothing extra but we would gain from whatever they pay through the turnstile and then food/drink/merchandise and so on.  That revenue would then boost the budget which would then be re-invested in different aspects of the club and thus delivering that marginal gain.

PastedGraphic-2-page-001It’s fair to say that the biggest marginal gain from today’s game though would be three points.  In fact, anything less than three points would be a significant blow to the club.  Farnborough’s off the field problems are well documented, falling from being just one game away from the Conference Premier four years ago to facing expulsion from the league.  We’ve been there and know how the fans pain feels, knowing that their fate is often out of their hands.  But for today it would be all about the Lewes win.  Still without a home win this season, Lewes could at least look to Farnborough’s away record of drawn one, lost ten as a positive omen.

The marginal gains philosophy and approach is  hardly rocket science. It’s a simple idea, but with many simple ideas, takes some energy, commitment and discipline to see the positive results.  Alas those three words are often lost on fans who want immediate results.  As a club we have to balance both.

Lewes 1 Farnborough 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 19th December 2015
It has only taken 269 days but finally we have a home win to celebrate.  25th March was the last time we really got to dance a silly jog of delight on the Philcox at the full-time whistle but yesterday we got that winning feeling again.  In terms of marginal gains the result was huge. We got 3 points, 3 more than the six teams above us.  In the grand scheme of things it makes little difference to the table or the threat of relegation, but we came out of the day the winner at the bottom end.

FullSizeRender (15)Farnborough were poor.  They lined up with a 5-3-2, failed to get one shot on goal, picked up five bookings and the only threat they posed was when Estonian striker Vastsuk threw himself to the ground in the penalty area and picked up a caution – interesting that we normally only see antics like that from players with league experience, and Vastsuk is no different, on loan from Reading.  Good to see the professional game teaching players the importance of ethics.

Lewes were good.  They started strongly and could have had a couple of goals (and at least one penalty) before Phil Appiah’s 25 yard blockbuster on the stroke of half-time put The Rooks in the lead.  By then the curse of the new striker had struck as George Landais limped off on his debut.  His replacement Trevor McCreadie was denied a penalty in the second half by yet another poor performance by the officials, being tripped in exactly the same spot as last week in the area.  OK, it wasn’t a vintage performance, probably not as convincing as last week’s draw against Leiston BUT you could see the 1%’s.  Winger Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe beat his man more frequently, the two centre-backs blocked more shots on the edge of the area, James Fraser looked a little more match fit.  Marginal gains.

So we danced all night to the best feeling ever.  Three points can make or break your weekend.  Hopefully the couple of dozen Brighton fans who decided to stick around after their painful first defeat of the season will have enjoyed a pint of Harvey’s, a slice of Christmas Pie and a goal worthy to win any game.