If you want the rainbow…


With the mighty Rooks making their longest league trip of the season to deepest Suffolk at Leiston, I volunteered to go and retrieve the youngest Fuller’s from my in-laws in Newark.  This annual ritual normally involves having to re-educate them on certain aspects of every day life, such as how to use electricity, eat with a knife and fork and not to douse every food item with gravy.  It also gave me the opportunity to enjoy a night out in Lincoln, with £1.99 pints a norm, with The Current Mrs Fuller and a football away day on the Saturday.

20764588296_5d7ec14ff0_kBut where to go?  Northern Steve had to work so I would be flying solo.  I ruled out a visit to North Ferriby United in protest to their owners, laughed at the amount Notts County wanted to watch a League Two game (and the fact that their ticketing website was down) and had been to the likes of Grimsby Town, Boston United and Alfreton before.  One new name caught my eye – Basford United down in the Evostik League Division One South.  Promoted to the league at the end of last season as Midland League Champions, the club are probably best known for featuring not one, but two Hendries, Stuart and Lee.  Yep, that Lee.  The 38-year-old former England international is still on the books at the Mill Ground along with his younger brother Stuart.

Just one line below on the list of fixtures was Carlton Town v Leek Town.  Carlton was at 4 O’Clock on the map of Nottingham, essentially on the right side for my trip back up the A46.  Google Maps said that with a fair wind, no Sunday drivers and a run of green traffic lights I could get between the two grounds in 16 minutes…or a half-time break.  Would be rude not to do a Souness (“One half and he’s off) and cover two games.  First stop – north Nottingham and the home of the Shipstones Beer, back in the suburbs after a twenty year holiday in Burton-on-Trent.

Basford United 1 Stocksbridge Park Steels 2 – The Mill Ground – Saturday 22nd August 2015
With the sun shining, there can be few better ways of spending a Saturday afternoon than watching Non-League football.  From the moment I arrived at The Mill Ground you could sense that this was a club who were starting to make their move up the Non-League pyramid.  Smiles all round as you enter, buy a beer, order a sausage cob (had to use my local dialect look-up app for that).  Whilst it was only game 3 of the season, the visitors arrived from Sheffield with a 100% record.  However, it was the home side who did all of the early running, having an early goal disallowed for offside and commanding the midfield, thanks to the impressive Jermaine Hollis.  They got their reward just before half time when Rob McCormick scored on his debut.

20764573206_079dc6bb40_hThe second half report comes courtesy of Basford United’s website as I headed off to Carlton.

“Basford again started well in the second half and had chances to extend their lead but as the game wore on, Stocksbridge began to find their feet and they equalised through sub Richard Patterson on 69 minutes.  Five minutes later United were awarded the perfect opportunity to go back in front but substitute Stuart Hendrie’s penalty was saved by substitute keeper David Reay.

Both sides then continued to push for a winner but it was the visitors who then snatched all three points in the first minute of stoppage time, as Hinchcliffe’s 30 yard thunderbolt crashed off the underside of the crossbar and into the Basford net.”

Carlton Town 1 Leek Town 3 – Stoke Lane – Saturday 22nd August 2015
If you plan to visit Carlton Town in the future and use Google Maps, don’t.  Because it will direct you to Stoke Lane but the wrong side of possibly the most ludicrous 10 metre section of road known to man.  Outside the entrance to the ground is a small stretch of road that is a bus only route, meaning if you are coming from any direction bar the A612 you will need to go on a 3 mile diversion just for a 3 second journey.  I’m sure some local counsellor is feeling very pleased with himself about putting that in place.

20797791321_ca638e0faf_zAnyway, due to the unforeseen diversion, my arrival at Stoke Lane meant I had missed the first few minutes of the second half.  Once again, I rely on the official match report to fill in the first 47 minutes:-

“Carlton came out of the blocks fighting as Leek struggled to get into the game. With Daniel Gordon setting the tone, as he ran into space and delivered a shot that was just wide of the post. Then the away side were struggling to get the ball away, but the best the Millers could offer came from Nangle, as he dragged his shot wide of the target.

Josh Rae was then the latest player to cause a threat, as his cross seemed to be destined to meet Daniel Fletcher, but Chris Martin was able to parry the shot just before the striker got there. Then a few moments later Fletcher had a second chance from a Tom McConway corner, but his header went out of play for a goal kick.  Then finally the hosts broke the deadlock, as an error of judgment from Martin ended up with the ball at Nangle’s feet, who turned Dan Shelley as he cut inside, to then launch a shot onto the left boot that Martin could only get a hand to, before the ball rippled the net.

However, the lead wasn’t to last long, as Tim Grice managed to find himself through one-on-one, after a pass from midfield. With the striker taking the ball round Curtis McDonald, before gathering his composure, and slotting it into the bottom corner.  Before the break, Carlton had another chance to take the lead, as again, Martin played the ball straight to Nangle, but this time his effort, on his right foot was just over the crossbar.”

20764526866_24f8edd4a3_kThe bright blue skies were slowly being eaten up by dark, grey thunderous clouds.  On the pitch Leek Town looked the stronger of the two sides, controlling the midfield and constantly looking at a ball over the top of the back four. Grice was the main threat and he didn’t hesitate when presented with a one-on-one chance, as Conor Green was unable to deal with his header, and the striker didn’t wait for McDonald to come out, instead just smashing the ball into the back of the net. Grice completed his hatrick with a fine solo effort when it appeared that the opportunity had gone with ten minutes left.

As the final whistle blew, the seventy or so fans made a hasty retreat before the rain fell.  It had been an interesting afternoon, getting another couple of perspectives on how other’s approach Non-League match experiences.  For both home side, the start to the season hadn’t been ideal.  However, nothing is decided in August.

 

 

In God’s Country


The new TV deal signed last season by the Premier League sides meant that this weekend’s football coverage started in unusual circumstances with a live Friday night game.  With games on Saturday, Sunday and Monday night, there has never been more games on TV than today (metaphorically not literally).  And for every game that is shown, cash flows onto the pockets of the clubs and ultimately the players pockets.  But whisper it quietly, Friday night also marked the start of the 2015/16 FA Cup.  In fact just 15 miles up the road from Villa Park, Coleshill Town were hosting Ellesmere Rangers at Tamworth FC in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round.  Whilst you would need the best part of £50 to get a top range ticket at Aston Villa versus Manchester United, you could pay almost a tenth of that to see the first step on the Road to Wembley.

The first few rounds of the FA Cup often bring some of the best moments of the season.  Normally, the FA will drawn the first three rounds of the competition, meaning that Step 7 clubs like Lewes will know the four potential opponents we will play before a ball in the competition is kicked.  I know that my good friend, and half of the brains and brawn behind The Real FA Cup, Damon Threadgold believes one way to bring a bit more interest into the competition is to draw all of the rounds up until the Semi-Final at the start of the season, so that every club know who they could play if they win their next game (and the nine after that).  Slipping on my Chairman’s coat again you also have an eye on the draw for the potential to earn some cash.  Three wins in the competition at our level means £15k in prize money plus half of the gate receipts, or around another £500 a week on the playing budget.

20009867753_9c172e40a1_kWhilst we all dream of a trip to the Third Round, few teams ever get that far in reality.  On Sunday one of the final ties of the round featured AFC Emley of the Northern Counties East League Division One host Parkgate.  Whilst they may be eight victories away from the Third Round, the club has been there before.  Well, sort of.  Back in 1997/98, Emley AFC reached the 3rd round where they were drawn against West Ham United. Given zero chance of getting anything from The Boleyn Ground, they found themselves 1-0 after just four minutes.  But they weathered the storm on and off the pitch and equalised in 55th minute.  West Ham finally found a winner with eight minutes to go but the Yorkshiremen were given a standing ovation as they left the field at full-time.

The glory day for the club was forgotten within a decade as the club had been forced into a merger with Wakefield, then lost their identity altogether.  But Non-League fans are made of sterner stuff and in 2005 the new club, AFC Emley had been formed, bringing football back to the Yorkshire village.  In their first season in the West Yorkshire League they gained promotion to the level they are at now.

So why was I driving up into God’s Country to watch the start of the FA Cup?  That will be David Hartrick’s fault.  Being not only a jolly good chap but also the publisher of my next book (in all good bookshops by Christmas) we had boring stuff like fonts, typefaces and binding to talk about. Back in the day Hartch used to grace the turf at The Welfare Ground, not that he likes to talk about it.  On doing my research for the game I couldn’t help noticing the following words on the Emley website, which too me could have been stolen straight off my Lewes FC laptop (in fact it probably was it is that good).

“We are a small club with very little money but what we can do, we try to do well and do “the right way”. On the playing side our vision is to develop the best local talent who want to succeed for the club and community we serve. The emphasis is on development of players who want to succeed for OUR club. This vision is underpinned, on and off the pitch, by the values of communication, respect, responsibility and solidarity.”

With such a mission, who was I not to pay them a visit, picking up Non League Day’s finest, and fellow Ockley Books author, Mike Bayly who just happened to be hanging around Barnsley Interchange on a Sunday lunchtime.  He was on his own mission to find the top 100 grounds that we should all visit before we lose our marbles and whilst I am quite sure that The Welfare Ground wasn’t on his list before the game, perhaps it could be afterwards.

20636702625_1b299a43fb_kThe opponents, Parkgate, played in the league above Emley – the Toolstation Northern Counties Eastern League Premier Division (that one rolls off the tongue – and came into the game full of confidence after a fine 4-3 win away at Tadcaster last week.  Few would have backed the home side to get anything from the tie, but fortune sometimes favours the brave.

Sometimes beauty comes from the most unlikely places.  There couldn’t have been anything more beautiful than the afternoon we spend in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.  “Go down the country lane and just head for the Big Tower”, Dave told us.  You can’t appreciate the instructions unless you have been to Emley and seen the Emley Transmitting Tower for yourselves, a 330m erection that is the tallest freestanding structure in the United Kingdom.

AFC Emley 7 Parkgate 1 – The Welfare Ground – Sunday 16th August 2015
20444075419_cfeb6c092b_kFrom the moment we paid £6 (SIX!) to get into the ground and saw the first prize in the raffle was a “do-it-yourself” breakfast, an upmarket spin on a meat raffle – well, it contained at least two non-meat products, we knew we had arrived in one of the closest places to Non League heaven.  Decent food, served with a smile and just for a pound (pie, peas and gravy – tick), locals who loved to chat and one of the best team displays I’ve seen for a long long time.

Emley didn’t just win, they destroyed a team from a higher division.  It could have easily have been double figures.  Parkgate were missing a number of key players due to work commitments but even Huddersfield Town may have struggled to contain the attacking threat of Emley, who at times seemed to play with five up front.  Defending appeared to have gone out of fashion this far north.

It all started relatively calmly, with both teams playing the ball around, feeling each other out.  Then in the space for seven first half minutes Ash Flynn scored a hatrick, notable for the fact that Mike missed the first two (on the pie and peas run then toilet) and Hartch the third (bathroom).  Parkgate pulled one back from the penalty spot and had they gone on to convert one of their other chances before the break it could have been a different story.

20604498906_5ef88aa001_kBut Emley went for the kill as soon as the second half started.  Flynn scored a fourth, again missed by Hartch before the star of the show, right midfielder Jordan Conduri set up Kieron Ryan for the fifth after a superb exchange of passes, before scoring the sixth himself.  Number seven came in injury time when Alex Hallam drove home.  It was truly a rout and one that Parkgate will want to forget very quickly.  For Emley, the delights of Burscough await in the Preliminary Round.  Half as good a performance as this will see them progress even further.

Alas, we didn’t win the raffle but we did find the winner – he offered us the prize for a tenner, fifteen if we wanted to go to his Mum’s house and she would cook it for our tea.

67 seconds of joy


Football can be a cruel game sometimes.  Often you try to do the right thing, even though you know the end result may not work in your favour.  There are few football fans who don’t love to see players that have grown up with a club pull on the shirt and play their heart out.  Badge kissing in these circumstances is allowable.  But few players these days are one-club icons.  In the Non-Leagues where money is less (I stress “less” rather than “not”) of an issue, you will often get some club loyalty.  On Wednesday night when Met Police were visitors to the Dripping Pan, their manager Jim Cooper was celebrating his 12th year in charge of the club.  Whilst he may have masterminded his team’s victory over Lewes, how much of his preparation focused on the inexperience and youth of our team?

FullSizeRender (1)Faced with a reduced budget, managers have two choices – cut their cloth accordingly, or move on.  Lewes boss Steve Brown is certainly in the former camp – in fact he positively encouraged us to invest in the youngsters, and the future development of them.  “Some weeks they will get battered out there, but on the other side some weeks they will have the crowd purring”.  Whilst you can’t read much into pre-season games, there was certainly evidence of the latter in those games.  There was also evidence of the former in the first game of the season at Leatherhead.

We want to be a progressive club, so we have embraced Social Media as too have many other clubs at our level.  That includes having our games recorded and shared across the excellent Football Exclusives platform.  For those fans unable to get to a game, the ability to access highlights is fantastic.  It’s also very useful for opposing teams in terms of scouting, especially as they can pause and rewind the action to take notes.  Was there any surprise that Met Police played lots of high balls into the area in the first half on Wednesday night when they know we have a 17-year old making his full debut? No, but even at this level of the game you will try everything to get a slight competitive advantage.

So whilst you may feel that pride of seeing the players you have developed come through to make their first team debut, you also know that opponents will try to exploit that inexperience.  But on the other hand, every minute these young players is a minute’s more experience.

Of course I wouldn’t be writing these notes if we had got off to a flyer in our opening two games and were sitting top of the league.  Alas, we were propping up the 23 other teams (albeit on alphabetical order).  Our visitors Harrow Borough were up there with the teams of the season in the Ryman Premier League last year out.  Whilst they finished in the bottom eight, they were effectively dead and buried with a dozen games to go.  Then they found some guts, passion and a will to win.  Those final twelve games resulted in 25 points and safety assured with their win at the Dripping Pan in early April.

Just 24 hours after the visit of Harrow Borough to The Dripping Pan I would be heading north to take in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round game between AFC Emley and Parkgate.  There was no footballing reason for this one – no player to have a look at or team to scout.  It was a bit of a jolly.  But what did make me smile was the message on the Emley website that defined their mission:-

“We are a small club with very little money but what we can do, we try to do well and do “the right way”. On the playing side our vision is to develop the best local talent who want to succeed for the club and community we serve. The emphasis is on development of players who want to succeed for OUR club. This vision is underpinned, on and off the pitch, by the values of communication, respect, responsibility and solidarity.”

Who can not agree with that at our level, yet how many clubs and their owners are prepared to compromise those principles at the slightest whiff of some money? But back to today and the search for our opening points of the season.

Lewes 1 Harrow Borough 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 15th August 2015
For 67 glorious seconds we had a taste of victory.  That’s how long we held the lead for after opening the scoring in the 87th minute.  It was a tad harsh on the Rooks who built on their second half on Wednesday with an assured if unspectacular performance today.  Whilst the visitors will point to a goal disallowed midway through the second half, they rarely put young Stroomberg’s goal under threat.

Despite dominating first half possession it took Lewes until the final minute of the half to create a chance when the tireless Jimmy Muitt broke free of his marker on the half-way line, accelerated away, rounded the keeper but took the ball too wide.  He got his shot in which was cleared off the line, picked up the rebound which was cleared off the line again.

FullSizeRender (3)Lewes came close to taking the lead on the hour mark when Lovett’s snap shot was smartly saved by the Boro’ keeper, then the visitors thought they’d taken the lead when Page headed home at the far post from a well-worked free-kick but was deemed to have been offside.  The main talking point came in the 79th minute when Peacock’s clumsy challenge on Muitt saw the young Lewes striker leave the field on a stretcher.  Peacock, booked in the first half somehow escaped a second yellow despite taking out the Lewes forward in the air.

Muitt’s replacement Nathan Crabb won a penalty when his quick feet tied the Harrow defenders in knots and he was tripped.  No complaints and no mercy shown by Leon Redwood’s spot-kick.  The relief that spread across the ground lasted just over 60 seconds before Lewes were undone at the far post again and Taylor headed home unmarked.  The drama wasn’t over as in the final minute keeper Stroomberg pulled up with what looked like a hamstring problem.  Fortunately, the ball stayed up the other end long enough for the referee to blow the final whistle.

The point lifted the Rooks out of the bottom four, although the table really means nothing at this stage.  The crowd – a disappointing 372.  We can look for mitigating circumstances such as the Summer Holidays, a small travelling support or the travel chaos around the ground due to the bridge repairs and college car parks closed.  Football fans are impatient.  They want success right here, right now.  As a fan I understand that, as someone invested in developing something special here at Lewes I’d hate to see fans missing out when this squad start to click and injuries withstanding, that could be just around the corner.

The greatest sporting rivalry?


Sitting in a bar in lower Manhattan last year my good friend Luge Pravda and I discussed what the greatest sporting rivalry was in the world.  The conversation had started after a drunk Mexican guy who had been sitting next to us suggested that the Real Madrid v Barca game on the TV was for “p@ssies” and that the atmosphere was better “in my pants” (his, not mine I hasten to add).  I asked him what he thought was the biggest and he suggested the Yankees v Red Sox in baseball.  Whilst I am not a baseball aficionado, I have been to enough games to understand some of the nuances of the game as well as being able to observe close up the wonderful character that is the faux drunk American man and his random screams of excitement.  Back in the day (well, when the Yankee Stadium was only home to baseball rather than the bizarre home of a major football side playing games at an odd angle) I actually went to a Yankees v Red Sox game with Boston running out 9-0 winners.  I certainly couldn’t remember any shenanigans on a scale of West Ham v Millwall or Celtic v Rangers apart from the odd random shouts from fans of “Red Cocks Suck”, “No.  Wankees suck” and so on..

20407067285_5dd97fab6f_o

 

As luck would have it I would be back in New York for a grand total of 26 hours for work just when the latest chapter of baseball’s greatest rivalry would be played at Yankee Stadium.  Tickets for virtually every US sporting event aren’t hard to get these days.  Despite this ticking all the boxes of a potential sell-out, over 4,000 tickets (8% of the capacity) were on sale on StubHub alone.

20413212851_38daf4e2bf_kSo here is where I simply do not understand Baseball (and a number of other American sports) fans.  I arrived at the stadium at 7.15, ten minutes after the “start time” thanks to almost SouthEastern train-esque punctuality of the Metro North Line.  There were thousands upon thousands of people outside the stadium.  Whilst there were long queues to get into the stadium, there were also people still drinking in the bars and eating in the restaurants.  I’m sure some will not have had tickets, but there didn’t seem to be any rush to get into watch the game.

With no time for a beer outside, we headed up to the 4th tier where our seats were.  Queues for every concession stand were massive.  Was anyone actually watching the game?  We struggled in vain to find somewhere selling a beer that wasn’t Bud, Coors or Miller.  The “Craft Beer” concession stand was selling Stella and Heineken, meaning for the sake of actually getting to watch some of the action, we went with New Castle Ale (aka Newcastle Brown Ale).  Only two each mind, and no more after the 7th innings just in case you enjoy yourself too much.  You can of course gorge yourself silly on cholesterol-loaded, heart-attack inducing fried food, served in massive buckets right up until the end of the game.

20218979630_454ac17a48_kWe got to our seats with the score at 1-0 after three innings.  It wasn’t a thriller but crowd watching from our seats in the Gods was.  I would hazard a guess that the average time a fan actually sat in his seat was less than 10 minutes judging by the constant coming and going.  To keep them amused we had “kiss cam”, “hug cam”, “smile cam”, “strange not sure what it was supposed to be cam” and “YMCA cam”.  One young lady in the front of the tier behind got a bit too excited at the “Y” action that she almost lost her top in Barbara Windsor style.

The location was perfect for a night of sport though, with the sun setting behind us and the planes leaving Laguardia passing overhead more than making up for the stalemate being played out in front of us.  Luge had been here a few weeks previous (see here) to watch New York City play and the pitch markings were still visible.  With the Yankees being as close to a national treasure as you can get, it is still amazing that “soccer” is allowed to be played here.

In the fifth innings we had some excitement as the Red Sox scored two runs.  Pockets of fans stood up and cheered without reprisal.  Had that have been Messi scoring in the Bernabau or Rooney at Anfield I would dare to suggest their celebrations would have been cut very short.  But the Yankees came back in the next innings, scoring three of their own.  We had a game on, especially when the Red Sox scored again at the top of the 7th (see I do know some of the jargon) to make it 4-3.  However, with the big hand approaching 30 it was time for me to leave for my trip back up to the suburbs.  We’d seen the best of the play, had a couple of English beers, a good chat and nearly seen a girl embarrass herself.  What more could you want for $33?

Of course it turned out to be one of those memorable victories, with the Yankees scoring 9 (NINE!) runs in the time it took us to walk from our seats to the train station, giving them a 13-3 victory and the bragging rights for, let me see, 24 hours until the teams met again (Red Sox gained some revenge with a 2-1 win).

I’m not sure this would rank in my top 20 (50?) rivalries that I had seen in the sporting flesh.  Whilst the opposing fans may dislike each other, it was very rare in US sport for it to ever boil over into violence.  Rivalry is perhaps too strong a word for it.  Mild irritation possibly.  It’s still a great way to spend an evening though.

Postscript:

That comment about US sport rarely boiling over into violence?  Well 10 days later, it did.

Getting our backsides Tanned on the opening day


3pm on the opening day of the season and everything is good.  The sun is shining, the beer tastes good, even the dubious looking food tastes fantastic.  You see the group of fans that for the next nine months will be your second family, sharing pain and pleasure, hope and despair, joy and agony.  In some cases that feeling will disappear within minutes as a defensive slip will lead to that all too familiar sinking feeling and the look of “it’s going to be a long long season” passes from fan to fan on the terraces.

For those involved off the field then the opening day comes with a sense of relief.  Work started on preparations the day after the season ended, often with a number of challenges, none more so than trying to ensure you have a squad ready and raring to go when the season starts.  Fans often vent their frustration on forums that there appears to be no activity with the team.  On the contrary, things are so fluid and change all the time that if we updated every movement of a player in or out the fans would soon get bored.  A player agreeing to sign today could be playing for another team tomorrow.  And bear in mind it is not just about the willingness of a club to offer players deals, the player’s circumstances may change and thus club X albeit one offering less money may be more practical for them.  As my learned colleague Mr Bazza Collins said this week “It’s not a question of finding players to play on Saturday but rather who to leave out”.

Non League doesn’t have the same transfer restrictions as the professional game.  Come 1st September and we can still sign players, right up until the morning of a game in fact.  The whole Enfield Town debacle at the end of last season will make club secretaries more cautious when they register a player now, although with Club Sec Kev at the helm for Lewes we know that he double and triple checks anything as it is, treating player registrations the same way as he treats the freshly ironed ten pound notes in his wallet every time it’s his round, his diligence again would prove valuable come 2pm today when the team sheet needed to be submitted.

Then of course we have the kit issues – you go online, choose what you want and it just arrives in the post right?  Alas, if it was only that simple.  A lot of it comes to the UK via lorry, who have to use the Channel Tunnel.  So delays such as the ones we have seen have caused issues for many clubs, the most ironic being Folkestone Invicta who can probably see the delivery lorry in question with a good pair of binoculars.

19784718544_28aae8ff56_kThe Rooks traveled to Leatherhead with some confidence.  The doom and gloom that sat over the club for most of last season appeared to be lifting and manager Steve Brown and new assistant Jay Lovett have built a squad on a smaller budget that looked impressive in pre-season, holding a virtual full-strength Brighton & Hove Albion side to a goal-less draw and running an impressive Crystal Palace development team close last weekend.  Youth is the order of the day at The Pan this year, with some impressive young players ready to make their mark on the Ryman Premier League.  Of course we still need the old, wise heads and between our three centre-halves we have plenty of that, with a combined age touching 100 years.

At least as that whistle blows at 3pm we can all sign in unison “We are top of the league”…for how long, well that’s anyone’s guess.

Leatherhead 3 Lewes 0 – Fetcham Grove – Saturday 8th August 2015
About 4 minutes 53 seconds to be precise.  That’s how long it took Kiernan Hughes-Mason to take advantage of a lapse in concentration in the Lewes defence and lob the ball over Dan Hutchins. The first goal of the new season seems to exaggerate the pain and pleasure for both teams and to be honest it felt awful.  Five minutes later Leatherhead hit the bar, then doubled the lead when a wickedly deflected free-kick saw Hutchins scrambling across his line only to get fingertips on it. Fifteen minutes into the new season and how we all wished we could hit the rewind button.

20219020708_32d0d8473a_kCould it get any worse?  Well how about your keeper being knocked unconscious making a save?  Yep, let’s throw that one in before half-time too with 17-year old Nathan Stroomberg coming on for his debut.  Our line up ending the half featured five players under the age of 23, with our bench consisting of two 18 year olds and a 20 year old.  We would have also had 17 year old Jack Rowe-Hurst on the bench but a minor error on his registration forms from Brighton was spotted by Club Sec Kev on arrival at the ground so he was withdrawn as a precaution.

20219009168_3cfbc17679_bThe second half saw Lewes have more of the play but fail to create any real chances until the dying minutes of the game.  The third Leatherhead goal came against the run of play in injury time but was meaningless, the only real impact was seeing The Rooks drop to the bottom of the league on goal difference on day one.  Well, I suppose the only way is up from here.

Football can be a cruel mistress.  The traveling fans left with an air of doom and gloom, those months of anticipation and hope wiped away in 90 minutes.  But we will go again, 45 more times before April is out and a lot can happen.  Alan Hansen may be right all along, we may win nothing with kids but we will certainly give it everything we’ve got.

Just who made the decision to play that side?


I could be accused of being mellow-dramatic but I believe that last night could have been the last time for a generation that West Ham played in a major European Competition.  Few fans who watched the game will feel that the decision to field the team they did was justified in terms of the “long game” of ensuring Premier League survival.  If that was ever an issue, then why have the owners sanctioned such pre-season signings as Lanzini, Payat and Ogbonna or even recruited Slaven Bilic?  In his post match interview the Croat said he was “bitterly disappointed” to have lost but showed complete contempt for the competition, the opponents and the West Ham fans who traveled to the far reaches of Romania for the game against FC Astra by fielding a team that would have been considered “inexperienced” in Capital One Cup terms.  When perennial fence-sitter Michael Owen says “I think West Ham may have made a mistake here” prior to kick-off you know that you have a problem.

Last week the Hammers were cruising at 2-0 up at The Boleyn Ground.  Collins is then sent off and the team fall apart.  Players get sent off week in, week out and don’t lose, or even concede a goal.  The footballing guru David Pleat always tells us it’s harder to play against ten men than eleven.  That’s the theory of Numerical Disadvantage.  But why did it all go wrong?  If you were lucky enough to see the game you will notice that both goals came as a result of West Ham standing off the player with the ball, allowing them far too much time to in the first instance shoot and for the second goal, play the ball into the area.  It’s all very well in having flair players such as Zarate, Payat and Jarvis in the side (you could add Lanzini in that but he didn’t play last week) but if none of them are prepared to close down the man on the ball you are asking for trouble whether you have 10,11 or 12 players on the pitch.  A few years ago that would have been Mark Noble’s role.  Today?

Bilic had already made his mind up before last week’s game that the match versus Arsenal was far more important than the Europa League tie against the Romanians.  Yet that should have given him even more incentive to take the competition seriously and reach the Group Stage.  Let’s face reality.  Arsenal, like they have for 18 out of the last 19 seasons, will finish in the top 4 at the end of the season.  Why?  Because they are a good team, with a good manager who despite seeming reticent to use it, has funds at his disposal.  Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd are in almost the same boat.  It would take a brave man to suggest the title, or even the top four will not feature one of those four (or all in the case of the Champions League qualifiers).  Liverpool and Spurs may say otherwise but it is for the top four to lose rather than the other two to win.  West Ham’s record away to these top teams in the past few seasons has been poor – four defeats, ten goals conceded last season for instance.  It would take a very brave man to bet on anything apart from a defeat on Sunday.  In all reality there are games that the management will target as “must wins”, others that are “should wins” and some that are “could wins”.  Arsenal away is unlikely to be in those.  So why rest players for the second leg? And what is the ambition this year?  Finish in the top six or seven just to qualify for the Europa League and go through the same thought logic next season?

The most annoying aspect here is that Bilic used twenty first team players in a pointless friendly last Sunday against Werder Bremen.  Why? A meaningless game played in front of a crowd of 10/15,000 at the expense of putting out a decent team who would make a fight of the game in Romania and whilst the chance of reaching the final is slim, every game they play in in Europe they earn cash.  Whilst not in the same league as the Premier League TV money, it is still cash.

“Bring back Allardyce” someone suggested to me today.  But let’s not forget that he did something similar in a televised cup game away at Nottingham Forest two seasons ago where they were beaten 5-0.  Whilst managers will outwardly say they they listen to the fans, they only really answer to one master.  And if that voice is saying that Premier League points are the most important thing in the world then there can be no room for any risk in a tournament such as the Europa League.

Just like the campaigns of 1999 and 2006, it was fun whilst it lasted.  But with an outlook that the Premier League is so important, we are hardly likely to take any cup competition seriously and thus denying any further route back into Europe.  Hull City fans only know too well from painful experience last season that treating the Europa League with disrespect ultimately meant nothing as they were relegated nine months later.  Was that down to playing competitive matches in July?  Of course not.

Update – so we go and beat Arsenal against all the odds. What do I know about football anyway. Come on you Hammers!

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail


Two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of tactics and what appeared to be a naivety in the way West Ham approached their first leg Europa League tie against the Maltese team Birkirkara.  With an injury time, fortuitous goal being the only thing that separated the two teams as they headed for Malta, there was an assumption that The Hammers would raise their game on the night and comfortably progress.  After all, no English team had ever lost to a Maltese side in European competition, and the odds on a West Ham defeat were still as long as South Eastern Trains running my train on time for a week.  But West Ham once again showed their lack of discipline, and what appeared to be once again a lack of preparation.  Tomkins became the second West Ham player in this season’s competition to be sent off for an “off the ball” incident, with Noble incredibly lucky not to follow him for some pathetic, childish behaviour, mocking Birkirkara’s Fabrizio Miccoli for his weight (all captured on camera)…Miccoli’s response was to score the only goal of the game.

Fortunately, the only credit (bar the support from the fans) The Hammers could take from the game was their ability to take penalties meaning they progressed into the Third Qualifying Round by the skin of their teeth.  Drawn to play Romanian side FC Astra Giurgui you would expect Bilic to have learnt his lesson, prepared correctly and told the team to keep their discipline..right.

FullSizeRender (2)Once again the fans took advantage of the £10 tickets.  There is a lesson here for all clubs.  Whilst it has been nearly a decade since the fans tasted European football, it is clearly the right thing to do to bring in potential new fans or those simply priced out of the Premier League games.  Two interesting side points to this.  Despite marketing the fact (to death already) that this is the Club’s last season at The Boleyn, the first two home games have not yet sold out despite being on general sale.  Perhaps it is the fact that the cheapest ticket is £42 (and £25 for an Under16), or that potentially the games may move from their 3pm on a Saturday slot due to progress in the Europa League.  The second will be the crowd for the friendly game on Sunday versus Werder Bremen.  The last pre-season friendly has traditionally been played at The Boleyn, always versus a foreign side and nearly always for some strange-named cup.  This Sunday it is the Betway Cup (Last season West Ham beat Sampdoria in the Marathonbet Cup) with ticket prices £20 for Adults (£15 for STH) – it will be interesting to see how many will come to that game.

IMG_5164Bilic shuffled his team around for this game against FC Astra with new signings Angelo Ogbonna and Dimitri Payet coming in for their home debuts, whilst James Collins replaced the suspended James Tomkins.  In midfield youngster Reece Oxford was given another chance after performing so well in the first round against the Andorrans.  The Romanians had filled their section of the stadium, their number boosted by locals from London.  They are on an upward trajectory thanks to the investment in the club by owner Ioan Niculae, who bought the club in 2010 and moved them from Ploiești to Giurgiu in 2012.  Whilst this was potentially the biggest game in their history, they weren’t coming to London just to make up the numbers.

West Ham United 2 FC Astra Giurgui 2 – The Boleyn Ground – Thursday 30th July 2015
It was as if West Ham had learnt nothing from the four games already played in this competition in the end and the boos that echoed around the stadium at full-time suggested that the fans felt the same.  Yes you could put it down to a “bad day in the office” but that would be the third bad day in a row with no idea how to make it better.  The icing on the cake was Bilic’s dismissal from the technical area near the end.  Quite why he got himself is a mystery in a game which wasn’t dirty nor did the officials get much wrong.  Worrying early signs of a temperament issue?

Two-nil up and in control of the game and we f@#k it up…royally.  It could have been worse I suppose.  We could have lost.  But the complete lack of discipline, tactical awareness and reliance on a striker that gives us all hope we could still play in the Premier League lays bare the fact the Hammers simply got this all wrong, again.

FullSizeRenderThe first half domination was plain to see as corner after corner was delivered into the box.  It wasn’t a question of if but when they would score.  Valencia finally broke the deadlock with a smart header before departing on a stretcher after a nasty fall.  With Carroll on permanent sick leave and Sakho still suspended from his lack of discipline in Andorra, the only real option was Maiga.  That is worrying for the season ahead.  Still, if we need an attacking midfielder we are fine – we can field a full XI of those at the moment as the club seem reluctant to sell any of them.

The second half started well with Zarate dancing through the defence before slotting home a fine second goal for The Hammers.  Then it all went wrong.  Yellow’s for Noble (no surprise), Payat and Collins as the West Ham domination failed to materialise into any further changes.  Then Collins picked up a second yellow and off he went.  Three red cards in five games.  Whilst there is irony in the fact of how we got into the competition, it more importantly shows the lack of discipline and awareness of how playing European opponents differs from Premier League teams.

Within minutes the Romanians were back in the game when Boldrin’s stunning strike from distance cannoned off Adrian’s bar and over the line.  Many of the West Ham fans could not help applauding – it was a superb strike.  The visitors grew in confidence, forcing corner after corner before Ogbonna headed into his own net ten minutes later to level the tie.

Despite having over 66% of possession, 15 shots on target and 15 corners West Ham travel to deepest, darkest Romania in a week’s time knowing they have to out score their opponents.  A draw will see The Hammers exit the competition and potentially the last chance to play in Europe for a very long time.  That regret may take a while to sink in.

So how do they prepare for next week?  For starters, watch this game time and time again.  Look at how the Romanians exposed the defensive weaknesses after the loss of O’Brien in the first half and Collins in the second.  Fortunately Sakho will be available but unless he gets the service from the midfield it will be tough.  Payat showed some promise but he is a player used to playing with more intelligent footballers around him.  And please, no more red cards!