At the Cole face


Every Non-League team dreams of a run in the FA Cup. The chance to take on a Football (or even Premier) League side, the presence of national media around the club and the chance to bask in the limelight for a period of time. There will be few football fans outside of Exeter, and probably Runcorn, who won’t have enjoyed seeing Warrington Town humble Football League Two Exeter City live in the BBC last night. The media lapped it up. “Plucky little Warrington”, “Goal scored by plasterer Craig Robinson”, “part-timers” we’re all common phrases being bandied about as the game progressed.

Nobody can begrudge the club their payday. The win over Exeter was their third consecutive 1-0 home victory in the competition, along the way beating teams in a higher division in each case including Conference North pre-season favourites North Ferriby United. The game was a 2,500 sell out and with the money from the BBC to televise the game, the club will have received over £50,000 getting to this stage of the competition. But is the money always a blessing for Non-League clubs?

The big challenge Warrington face is to try to get some of those local fans back in two weeks time when they host Radcliffe Borough in the Evostik Premier League North match, and those league games beyond that. So far this season only around 150 come to Cantilever Park to watch games. A big cash injection is never a bad thing at this level but the challenge is to try and use it to encourage more fans to come back. Warrington’s challenge is three-fold.

Firstly, they have to compete every Saturday with fans heading along the M62 to either Liverpool or Manchester to watch the Reds or the Blues.  One of the positive factors that televised football has brought the game is when some of the Premier League games are moved to a Sunday or Monday night, the local Non-League teams can try to take advantage of those fans who still want to go to a 3pm Saturday kick off.  This is one of the reasons why some clubs offer discounted entry for season ticket holders at bigger clubs, although in truth if you can afford the £700 plus ticket at Old Trafford or Anfield you are hardly likely to grumble at paying the tenner to get in at Cantilever Park.

Secondly, they are located in an overcrowded area of Non-League clubs of similar sizes.  Within a twenty-minute drive there are over a dozen teams playing at the same level or just above Warrington.  It is rare that Non-League leopards change their spots and so they will be fighting a losing battle trying to win these fans hearts and minds.

Finally they have the biggest challenge.  Warrington is a Rugby League town, home of the The Wolves, one of the most successful modern era clubs who play in the 15,000 Halliwell Jones Stadium in the town.  They tend to be very different sets of fans despite the fact that there is only an overlap of the two respective seasons for a couple of months each year.

Unfortunately, it is not always the case that Non-League clubs who benefit from a great FA Cup run can translate that into ongoing success in the league.  The last headline club who did Non-League football proud in the FA Cup was Hastings United back in 2012/13.  They reached the third round, finally losing to Middlesbrough at The Riverside in front of 12,500 fans.  However, the cup run was to be the club’s undoing in the league as the fixture pile up caused by playing the FA Cup games and subsequent bad weather meant that they had to play 13 league games in just 28 days.  With the transfer window for Non-League clubs closed, and league officials who had enjoyed riding on the coat-tails of the club’s success now cocking a deaf ear, Hastings buckled under the sheer weight of pressure and were relegated.  Two seasons on and they have still not returned.

15718020616_e8fc8b7832_kForty years ago the Non-League team to hit the FA Cup headlines was Leatherhead FC who made it all the way to the Fourth Round, where they lost 3-2 to Leicester City at Filbert Street in front of the Match of the Day cameras.  Along the way they beat Colchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion, and were leading The Foxes 2-0.  Back then, when football wasn’t a 24 hours 7 day a week “in your face” event, the heroics of that Isthmian League side was headline stuff.

Today, Leatherhead are back in the same division as they were in 1974.  They enjoyed some more of the limelight in 1978 when they reached Wembley in the FA Trophy final, losing to Altrincham but since then they have floated around the Isthmian leagues without being able to climb any higher.  As with most of the cases of the “giant killers”, the revenue earned from the cup run didn’t lead to success on the field.  Twenty five years after their cup exploits the club came close to folding, only saved by the actions of a group of fans who once again proved that Fan Ownership is the only real sustainable model for Non-League clubs.

Talking of Fan Ownership, who were Leatherhead’s visitors today? None other than the mighty Rooks, who were on their best run of form so far this season, coming off the back of two consecutive wins.  We haven’t had a lot to shout about this season down at The Dripping Pan but things are changing.  A new formation, some inspirational experienced players coming back into the team and fans who were behind the management 100% meant that we arrived in the rain at The Tanners with strutting confidence.

Leatherhead 0 Lewes 1 – Fetcham Grove – Saturday 8th November 2014
We came, we saw and we got very very wet.  In front of the biggest away support so far this season the Rooks put on the kind of battling display that had been missing for so long in 2014.  A change to 3-5-2 prior to the Met Police game worked wonders at the Dripping Pan but here it appeared to be ineffective in the first half against a confident Leatherhead team who passed the ball around well.  The Tanners looked to stretch the game, trying to nullify the threat of Sam one and Sam two as our flying wing backs.  The home side hit the inside of the post after twenty minutes which seemed to shake the Rooks into life and from that moment they never looked back.

15740983815_b6036a75b4_kSome comedy rolling around on the floor by the Leatherhead players did the job of conning the referee, who wasn’t helped by inept performances by his assistants who couldn’t have been anymore unhelpful in letting the game flow.  Petty, niggly free-kicks sucked the life out of the game in the first half.  Perhaps I was just in a bad mood as I had dropped my chips on the floor.

15556169660_be58abd60f_oAs the second half started, so did the rain.  When it passed from torrential to monsoon setting, most of the 40-strong Lewes fans headed for the covered terrace, leaving the hardcore LLF on behind the goal.  Our dedication was rewarded on the hour mark when Sam 1 (Crabb) beat his man on the right, crossed to the penalty spot where Sam 2 (Cole) met the ball on the volley and gave Louis Wells absolutely no chance.

Lewes started to take control of the game and always looked the more dangerous side, although some superb defending from Rowe, Elphick and Banks ensured that the Rooks goal went unbreached for another game.  The final whistle was greeted with fist pumps, back slaps and even a hug or two.  In the grand scheme of things it was only 3 points, but for Lewes it was another step towards redemption.

Forty years is literally a lifetime in football.  Whilst both sets of fans looked on enviously at East Thurrock United’s result at Hartlepool United in the FA Cup, we knew that our time will come once again.  For now, it was all about the magic of the Isthmian League.  Cup football is so over rated anyway….

I heard it on the Twitter Vine


Football has much bigger things to worry about than six second videos being shared across Social Media hasn’t it?  Well not if you read some of the more recent news stories and official comments made by the governing bodies that run the game in England.  Statements using words such as “crackdown”, “unlawful” and “infringing” have elevated the issue to headline status with organisations including the BBC, Bloomberg and The Financial Times covering the story in depth in the past few weeks.  But is it all just a storm in a tea cup?

It is important to take a step back and understand the context before we can really pass any judgement.  The facts on face value are simple.  Any distribution of copyrighted material, irrespective of the medium, is piracy. Back in the day it used to be confined to taping the Top 40 off Radio 1, finger ready at the pause button to avoid Mike Reid’s voice.  Technology has presented us with so many opportunities to take our media with us wherever we go in a digital form, but that has increased the problem of piracy to untold lengths.  Illegal distribution of latest film releases is still a major issues for film studios as well as cinemas who need to constantly police their theatres to ensure nobody is covertly recording movies.

Vine-LogoVine seems to be the latest problem child.  The app, designed specifically for the smartphone, allows users to make their own 6 second “movie”, condensing video and pictures, then sharing with the world at the touch of a button.  Formed in June 2012, the start-up was acquired by Twitter before it even officially launched for a reported $30 million having been seen as a natural rival to what Facebook were trying to do with Instagram.  Today, with over 40 million users, Vine is a platform for those with creative vision, challenging users to make those six seconds unique, compelling and above all worthy of sharing on Social Media.  According to an article published by US Library of Medicine earlier this year, our attention span has dropped to just eight seconds on average, meaning that Vine is becoming the perfect media for advertisers who want to grab the attention of Internet users.

The fact that the word “vine” has now entered the modern day lexicon along with Tweet, SnapChat and Like shows how we consume digital content.  So why is there a problem?

During an average 90 minute football match, the ball is only actually in-play and live for around 50 minutes.  Out of that period how many minutes are taken up by goal mouth action or incidents?  Five minutes at the maximum?  You only have to watch the final game every Saturday on Match of the Day to see how brutal an editor can be with a mediocre game, reducing 90 minutes down into 90 seconds.  So if you are able to compartmentalise the key moments, Vine becomes the perfect medium to share the action.  With our short attention span, do we really need to see the same incident for every angle or just be able to pause and rewind it ourselves?

The Premier League is the richest football league in the world. The excesses in our national game have been driven by outlandish commercial deals, spiralling ticket prices but above all, multi-billion pound TV deals.  Having invested so much money into these deals, broadcasters such as Sky have to get the return on their investment in terms of subscribers.  One way to get new viewers and keep the old ones coming back month after month? Invest in the technology.  Sky Plus, TiVo boxes and hard disk recorders are all now staple items in living rooms up and down the country allowing us to record, pause, rewind and access additional content as standard.  By being able to rewind the action to the point where the latest action starts, Vine users can then simply take a screenshot of the action then press publish.  Seconds later the goal can be seen on timelines of millions of people across the world on Twitter. This has been the catalyst to the high-profile issue that the Premier League want to clamp down on.  So in summary, the commercial rights that they put on the table have essentially fuelled a problem they now want the broadcasters and Social Media to stop.

So what exactly is the issue?  In its simplest form it is one of copyright infringement.  Everything that happens on a Premier League football pitch is copyrighted, owned by the clubs, the governing bodies, the advertisers, the broadcasters or the sponsors.  Even taking pictures within a stadium can get you ejected or even arrested – the use of any device that can capture or distribute digital content is explicitly banned according to the stadiums conditions of entry, although few will mind you taking the odd snap or two.  The reason is that every time you capture an image it will contain copyrighted material.  A shirt sponsor, a perimeter board even a player’s face themselves.  Companies pay millions to have exclusive rights to be associated with the players, the clubs and the stadiums and they take a dim view of anyone else having a free ride.

Good old technology again has made the professional production of instant highlights possible and so the Premier League has been able to offer additional rights packages to commercial partners.  Last season the Premier League sold the online digital rights for the distribution of goal action to News International to mobile devices. Their paid-app product touts “almost immediate” access to every goal in the Premier League.  Yet before they can push the net-rippler out, thousands of people have already shared the moment through a Vine on Social Media.  What is the value then in a subscriber using their service if they can get it quicker, and cheaper, elsewhere?   If existing subscribers simply walk away from the paid service, what value are News International getting from their significant investment and are they likely to renew it?

Match of the Day used to be our only way of seeing the day’s main action.  Today, before the famous theme tune starts just after 10.30pm on a Saturday, all of the day’s main talking points have been shown around the world thousands of times. What football fans want to see are those incidents that the TV broadcasters never show.  Take the example from the opening day’s Premier League game between West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur.  An eventful game with two sending offs, a missed penalty and a late winner for the visitors.  But the main event which was shared across the world via Vine was when a pitch invader ran on the turf and took a free-kick on goal that was being lined up whilst being pursued by stewards.  Yet that one incident will never be shown on Match of the Day, Sky Sports or BT Sports. Why?  Because it may encourage others to do the same? Maybe, but the main reason is that it could be deemed to undermine the value of our game to those commercial partners.

So what can the Premier League do to enforce the laws on copyright infringement on Vine?  Practically, very little.  The one aspect here is one of the fundamental principles of English law.  To be found guilty of an offence the perpetrator has to demonstrate the “mens rea” and the “actus rea”- the guilty mind and guilty act.  In theory, if someone didn’t mean to do something wrong, they can’t be found guilty of an offence.  It is not always as simple as that but does someone who takes a Vine of Aaron Ramsey’s 90th minute winner for Arsenal versus Crystal Palace doing so because he is intent on infringing the Premier League, among others, image rights or because he wanted to share the moment with millions of fellow Arsenal fans across the world?

Once infringing content has been identified, there is still the issue of removing it.  The beauty of Social Media is that it’s instantaneous.  I can quickly search using hashtag for the material I want and see immediately.  But if material needs to be removed there is a set process that has to be followed and that takes time.  The reason why hundreds of millions of people use Twitter is that it allows free speech.  If it was heavily policed then people would simply move elsewhere.  So whilst the Premier League can request that content is removed for legitimate copyright infringing reasons, it will have been seen by thousands of people already.

So is this just sabre-rattling by the football authorities, or will they genuinely crackdown on users sharing illegal content?  Brand and reputation monitoring solutions are becoming more effective every month but they would still need to justify the investment in a comprehensive solution would be effective in eliminating the problem.  We see technology advancing all the time, so who is to say what medium we will using and consuming in six months let alone six years.  Football has far too many other issues that need to be addressed before it can genuinely think about policing social media to stop these issues.

PS – I wrote this a few weeks ago.  On Saturday I noticed that a very well-known ex-Premier League footballer who is now a commentator on a national commercial radio station tweeted a “Vine” from the Liverpool v West Brom game whilst it was still in-play to his hundreds of thousands Twitter followers, breaching the rules.

With am or without you


Every Non-League club starts the season with a dream of progression in the FA Cup.  For the players it is the thought of walking out at a Premier League (or Championship) ground, or pitting their wits against professional players.  For managers it is the thought of adding a famous scalp to their CV.  For the fans it is the thought of supporting their team in places or against clubs they would never have thought of and for the club owners it is the thought of the pot of gold that grows with every win.  More often than not all of those dreams are brought crashing down to reality by the end of September, with 540 clubs already “concentrating on the league”.  For those that have progressed from the Extra Preliminary Round, played in late August, the chances of them making it through three rounds is less than ten percent (7.3% based on last season to be precise).

IMG_1305However, those odds didn’t frighten us as we headed up the A12 to Witham for the second time in just seven weeks.  Back in August we were undone by a stand-in referee who seemed to have forgotten his cards (and rule book) and a pitch that looked as if it had gone through the same type of treatment as an Elton John hair weave, coming away with a point from our opening game.  Since then it has been a story of injury, suspension and some down-right poor refereeing.  Yes, we can all find excuses to explain our poor league form but this is the FA Cup.  Success is simply based on progression.

As a club we never budget for cup runs.  That would be a foolhardy approach, although many clubs fact in a win or two and the associated prize money into the budget.  An away draw is never a good thing at this stage in the competition (in most instances).  Despite the clubs sharing the gate receipts, attendances tend to be much lower in the cup than in the league. It seems that the magic of the FA Cup fades in the Extra Preliminary Round these days.  It seems that someone at the FA seems to have it in for Lewes when it comes to home FA Cup draws.  Out of 25 initial games we have played in the competition in the past decade (not including replays) we have been drawn at home only 8 times and only once in the past four seasons (eight ties). The good news is that we have a higher than 50% win rate on our travels in the cup.  What could possibly go wrong today?  However, whilst we still believed in the magic of the FA Cup, has it disappeared elsewhere?

On Non-League day back in early September over 2,800 squeezed into Champion Hill to see Dulwich Hamlet take on Hampton & Richmond Borough, one of the biggest attendances in the Ryman Premier League for many-a-year.  Seven days later they hosted Worthing in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Cup yet only 489, including a fair few from the South Coast, watched the game.   In Manchester, England’s biggest fan-owned Non-League club, FC United of Manchester struggled to break the 1,000 mark for their tie against Prescott Cables, almost 50% down on their average Evostik Premier League crowd. Likewise on the same day at Nywood Lane, just over 400, with a significant following from Lewes, watched Bognor Regis Town’s local derby.  Last season the corresponding league game saw 603 watch the Boxing Day game.

Football doesn’t exactly get the pulses racing in these parts – in fact the sheer number of clubs playing at this level in the area probably hinders rather than helps them.  Just a short drive away from the Village Glass Stadium there is Heybridge Swifts, Maldon & Tiptree, Burnham Ramblers and Ryman League North new boys, Brightlingsea Regent.  However, surely the whole village of Witham (population 25,532) would be out supporting their side today?  Who knows, perhaps the town’s most famous residents, Olly Murs and Dotty Cotton would come along, rattle in hand to cheer on the The Town?  I don’t think so but the FA Cup can do strange things to teams and their fans.

IMG_1294After Wednesday night’s game against VCD Athletic, it was hard to see how Lewes could actually put a team out based on the number of injuries they had.  I think it was touch and go whether Garry Wilson considered giving me the nod although my knee operation on Monday would have put pay to my long-overdue FA Cup debut.  However, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe would be out in force, putting the indifferent league form to one side and dreaming of a home tie against East Preston in the next round.  The script was all but written.

Witham Town 4 Lewes 2 – The Village Glass Stadium – Saturday 27th September 2014
What did I write earlier?  Ah yes, “What could go wrong?” Well how about everything!  The FA Cup holds no magic on days like these.  Played off the park by a team who had 10 men for a third of the game, scoring one of our goals because an idiot of an official decided to give a penalty (to us) for an offence that nobody in the ground saw and seeing players bicker with each other.  It wasn’t a good day.  Take nothing away from Witham – they kept their shape, played to their strengths, were as hospitable as they come and their goal-keeper once again got stuck into the banter with us from the first whistle – Martyn Guest always a pleasure.

Thirty minutes after the final whistle, the Lewes team were still sat on the pitch, taking part in an “interactive” heart to heart.  Under normal circumstances this was a bad day, but defeat in a winnable game cost the club £4,500 in prize money as well as the possibility of a decent home tie in the next round.  Whether all of the players really understood what was at stake when the game kicked off is unclear.  However, Lewes started sharply and should have been ahead early doors when Terry Dodd flicked an effort over the bar.

Boysie, the club snapper,  turned up late.  We pretended that we were already 1-0 up, all sticking to our story.  Of course he didn’t believe us, and soon we were 1-0 down.  One became two when Brinkhurst clattered into a Witham forward in the area.  No question that it was a penalty, although the referee, who whilst he didn’t impact the final score was as poor as you will see at this level, booked Rikki Banks for kicking the ball back to the centre circle which hit a Witham player on the way.  He soon angered the home fans by giving a penalty to Lewes – I cannot even speculate what it was for as no one saw any offence.  Dixon stepped up and made it 2-1 at the break.

IMG_1296One bright spot for the travelling Lewes fans was the appearance of Jack Walder at the start of the second half.  Walder had been out since he dislocated his ankle at Thamesmead Town back in March and his return would surely lift the team?  Alas a few minutes later a mix up between Brinkhurst and Banks that will be a cert on one of those crap “guffs” DVDs voiced by Chris Moyles gave Witham a 3-1 lead.  Three one?  Make that four minutes after the home side were reduced to ten men.  Game over, start the bus.

We still had time to miss a couple of sitters before Blewden pulled a goal back to make the score line a little more respectable.  But this defeat hurt.  More so than any other game this season.  Not just for the financial consequences but because of the performance.  The magic of the FA Cup certainly wasn’t floating around the Lewes dressing room today.

So Witham Town join a growing list of teams who have embarrassed the Rooks in recent years in the FA Cup.  Still, there is always the Ryman League Cup to look forward to.

Best Song Ever


“And we danced all night to the best song ever.
We knew every line. Now I can’t remember
How it goes but I know that I won’t forget her
‘Cause we danced all night to the best song ever.”

No, I haven’t gone all One Direction on you, my opening lines are simple an aide memoire to a top night out and a heated discussion on what the Best Song Ever in the footballing world.  For those who haven’t yet read the story behind the weekend (yes, I know we are all busy) then let me set the scene.  After an afternoon of football in New York, Rotherham, we had made our way down the A6178 to Sheffield (not Sheffield Pennsylvania, Alabama or Missouri mind).  An evening on Kelham Island beckoned with a host of football’s finest from Twitter.  Our main objective of the evening?  Well apart from trying a bucket load of local ales, it was to decide whether The Greasy Chip Butty song is the best football song ever.

You Fill Up My Senses
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Well, for senses, read stomach.  Our special beer stomachs.  Kelham Island is a former industrial area that is now best known for its brilliant pubs.  First up was the Fat Cat, a tiny pub adjoining the Kelham Island Brewery which had the smallest bar I had ever seen, with 4 (FOUR!) bar staff multi-tasking to keep us in beer of the year, Pale Rider, Kelham Island Bitter and my personal favourite (read “I had at least three of them”) a Chocolate Digestive Ale.  Oh, and a pork pie…and some Jalapeno pretzel pieces.  Senses filled up.  Bubbles surely has to be up there?

Like a Gallon of Magnet
Note to Danny Last – it is MAGNET not MAGNERS.  Stop two, no more than a stumble away was the Kelham Island Tavern where we met Eddie the Shoe.  Those who travel in horse racing circles need no introduction to Eddie, who had kindly provided a tip earlier in the week that provided the financial assistance for my round of Deception.  Eddie is a big Fulham fan – at 7 foot something there is no other word for him.  An hour later we had just about consumed the gallon (8 pints for those who didn’t do O-Level Maths) and onwards we went.  You’ll Never Walk Alone?  Spine-tingling.

Like a Packet of Woodbines
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Tricky one this as neither of us smoke.  But as we headed up the hill to the Shakespeare we were puffing for air like a pair of very unfit, middle age men that we were.  A couple of Aecht Schlenker Rauciber Marzen’s later, with its distinct aroma of smoked sausages and bacon, and an aftertaste of banana (tastes better than it sounds). Talk was now getting serious.  Danny’s adamant that Sussex by the Sea is a contender.  We aren’t so sure as he can’t remember anything past the third line.

Like a Good Pinch of Snuff
The younger generation today would look at you very strangely if you said “I’m going out to enjoy some snuff” but back in the day we all enjoyed a bit of ground tobacco that you shoved up your nose, didn’t we?  Gave you strange hallucinations apparently, which was similar to our next stop at DaDa’s.  It was if we had walked into a set of Ashes to Ashes albeit with beer prices from the year 2525 (80′s based music joke there).  I had some very dark, very thick and very sickly Thornbridge Wild Raven.  A continental chap suggests that Barca, Barca, Barca sung by 100,000 fans in the Camp Nou has to be on our list, but we can’t take him seriously as he is wearing a scarf inside a room that is hotter than Greece. Continue reading

On the fourth day of TBIR Christmas – The worst game seen in 2013


After notching up 90 games in 2013 we have seen a fair few crackers, a lot of average matches and then there is the pot that you want to immediately erase from your brain.  I could take the category as the worst for my teams (West Ham or Lewes) but that would be unfair – the three “losers” here are those games that the neutral would have been itching to leave from well before the hour mark.  These are not necessarily representative of the clubs themselves, just the fayre they served up on the particular day.

3rd Place – East Thurrock United 1 Lewes 0 – 23rd February 2013
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I only actually saw the last half hour of this torrid affair in Essex but by all accounts I saw the best bits of the game.  I’d elected to watch Witham Town instead of Lewes, knowing full well the type of team and performance I would see.  At half-time in the Witham Town game I felt The Rooks needed my support so I drove down only to find a depressed group of fans behind the goal who had been frozen with boredom.  Neither side created a chance, it was freezing cold and by the time I arrived they had run out of any food.  Lewes had lost their previous two visits to Corringham 1-0 so it was no surprise that they obliged the Essex side once more.

2nd Place – Dartford 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – 29th October 2013
photo (61)Having grown up equidistant between the two towns, separated by the A2 I knew of the bitter rivalry between them.  There was no love lost from Gravesend when Dartford went pop twenty years ago, having to start again in the County Leagues, meaning opportunities to play each other have been few and far between in the last two decades.  But drawn against each other in the FA Cup, there was sure to be a great atmosphere when they played at Stonebridge Road.  Nearly 3,000 fans watched a decent 1-1 draw, over three times the average attendance, and I couldn’t be happier with a draw as it meant I could go to the replay at Princes Park.  Alas, it wasn’t anything like I was expecting.  Apart from two penalties, one scored, one saved, it was a game lacking in any passion that you would associate with a) the FA Cup and b) a local derby.  Talk on the forums was of a bumper 3-4,000 crowd but just under 2,000 attended, with the atmosphere quite muted.  The home fans talked of dull and negative tactics and that the club didn’t want to move forward (since this game they have drawn one and lost twelve!).  You have to admire what has happened at Dartford in the last ten years but for this night it was a visit to forget.

1st Place – Valeciennes 0 Lille 1 – 30th November 2013
11179517845_8758808416_bThere was no debate about the worst game of the year.  Perhaps it was because we eventually arrived at the Stade du Hainaut with high expectations of a cracking atmosphere and a decent game between two local rivals. Perhaps it was the fact that we were in the holiday mood or perhaps it was the four pints of Leffe pre-match.  But this was as flat as an ironed pancake.  Many of Lille’s fans had thrown a strop and decided not to travel, pissed off that this was a Combi game.  Add in the French rule about no alcohol allowed in the stadium at all and then the incessant rain and it was a heady mixture of dullness.  The stadium is just a few years old, but it adored with headache-inducing red everywhere and has a real soul less feel once inside.  Add in some officious stewards, a freezing wind and a home side who would have struggled to score if Lille would have left the pitch and it was hands down the worst game we saw in 2013.

Ebbsfleet suffer at the hands of a wayward Cook


Few people will have been happier with the result on Saturday from the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Tie between Ebbsfleet United and Dartford than I was  (For Ebbsfleet, read Gravesend).As soon as the draw was made this tie caught my eye, but of course being on a Saturday I was loyal to my own club Lewes and enjoyed a pint of Harvey’s (just like Her Majesty did this week) on the terraces as we beat Margate.  As the news filtered through that the North Kent derby had ended all-square my Tuesday night’s entertainment was sorted.

The game had been seen by nearly 2,900 fans, more than the combined average attendance for both clubs and had provided its fair share of drama as Ebbsfleet missed an early penalty after the Dartford keeper had hauled down Cook.  Red card?  A split opinion based on which set of fans you listen to.  Instead, Alan Julian stayed on the pitch and Ben May put the ball high over the bar.  Dartford then took the lead against the run of play, and the reverse happened in the second half when Anthony Cook equalised.  All’s fair in love, war and local derbies.  72 hours later the action moved five miles down the A2 to Princes Park, a world away from Ebbsfleet’s Stonebridge Road.  Not that there is anything wrong with either ground – they are simply at the end of the non-league ground spectrum.

photo (58)I grew up equidistant between the two towns and have an affinity for both towns.  I went to school in Gravesend, played football and rugby on the pitches around the town and spent my formative and most impressionable years in the pubs and clubs of Windmill Hill.  Come summertime and we headed to play cricket in and around Dartford, often ending our nights, bat in hand, box in pants at Zens, also know as the kidney donor factory. When I wasn’t a young tear-away at Upton Park or Priestfield then I would head up to Watling Street to watch Dartford.  As a teenager, the old Dartford ground was the best place in the world.  You could hide under the main stand, as long as you avoided the legendary Monkey Alan who lived in the catacombs of the ground, browse for hours in the programme shop or simply watch the tear-ups on the terraces which were relatively frequent.  On occasions even the players got involved, hoping over the barrier and joining in the fun.

Those halcyon days vanished for the Darts when they were made homeless from Watling Street in a tale of tears, tantrums and treachery.  They became nomads, rising through the leagues as they called Cray Wanderers, Erith & Belvedere, Thurrock and finally Stonebridge Road home.  Slowly but surely they worked their back up the leagues.  As success arrived on the pitch then the local council started to take the club more seriously, finally agreeing to the funding of a new ground barely a mile from Watling Street.  In November 2006 they were finally given the keys to Princes Park, the greenish, most ecological football stadium in Europe.  Dartford fans would be able to stand under a roof made of sustainable material which rainwater being recycled and being held up by an 18 feet wooden man.

photo (59)Back down the A2 time seems to have stood still at Stonebridge Road.  The name may have changed to a more “European” Ebbsfleet, but it’s still Gravesend and Northfleet to me.  The rickety old main stand where when the ball lands on it you get showered with “stuff”.  The toilets, where if you position yourself correctly you can still watch the game “hands free” and the slowest refreshment bar in the world, where Cynical Dave once bought a frozen chicken pie and was then questioned when he returned it if he wanted it heated.  Do the Ebbsfleet fans crave grass rather than moss growing on the roof of the stands? Do they want a wooden man rather than scaffolding holding up their roof?  Do they want a stadium surrounded by trees or one by industry?  Progress is great but sometimes the comforts of familiarity are all football fans crave.

I had the day off.  Not through any other reason than I needed to use up my annual leave so I was going to make a day of it.  Where better to start than an afternoon at Crayford Dogs.  The place was packed, with free admission tempting the full spectrum of North Kent’s population.  Nothing better than a bit of dog racing, even if it’s the same 6 dogs running in each race, simply changing the lane jackets.  Six winners put a spring in my step and some cash in my pocket.  Next stop the Magic of the FA Cup.

Dartford 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – Princes Park – Tuesday 29th October 2013
If you were writing a book on the 180 minutes (plus injury time) these two teams played out this week, it would have to be titled “Three Kicks”.   It would also be a pretty long, dull book. The reason why Dartford won this tie and Ebbsfleet lost in its simplest terms boiled down to the ability to take a penalty.  In the two games Ebbsfleet were awarded two and missed both, whilst Dartford scored the one they were awarded.  Ebbsfleet fans will argue, and quite justifiably, that the Dartford keeper should’ve been sent off in the first game (and thus subsequently banned for the replay if the result would have stayed the same) and they can feel aggrieved that in this game he was the difference between a place in the 1st Round of the FA Cup and a short disconsolate walk back down the A2.

photo (61)The Ebbsfleet fans were in fine voice as they walked to the ground. It is amazing how adaptable football chants are these days.  One terrace favourite still advocates the use of firearms to commit Grievous Bodily Harm and was sung with lust by the group as they marched along the suburban streets of Dartford.  No one liked them, they told everyone who was listening as they made room on the pavement for an old lady coming the other way and despite them telling everyone that “Dartford was shit” they spoke about the post match plan after the game to go to Breathe, Dartford’s “premier” night club.  Inside the ground the away fans took up a position at one end, singing a chorus about Dartford having a “shit ground and no fans”.  Just as a reminder, the Darts do average over 300 more fans than The Fleet.  In all seriousness, the Ebbsfleet fans created an atmosphere that is probably rarely seen from away fans in these parts and certainly got behind their team from the first minute.

I was joined by the edge of the pitch by a Dartford-supporting groundhopper.  He was a tad deaf, meaning he shouted at me despite our proximity.  He had given up watching Dartford, he told me, because all they did was play “long ball rubbish”.  “We only score from set pieces” he told me, bemoaning the lack of creativity in the team.  “Watch our number 7, Hayes.  He’s a bottler” he shouted, loud enough for the player himself to hear and immediately go to jelly.  Sure enough, every time there was a 50/50 ball, Hayes would jump out of the way.  “Watch the full back Burns.  Great at getting forward, but takes ages to track back”.  Sure enough, with Burns out of position, Ebbsfleet created the first good chance of the game which the Dartford keeper had to tip over.  Impressed with this perceptive view of the game I asked him for his final score prediction.  “Oh we will win, probably from a set-piece”.

The first half was goal less and with the Dartford fans positioned next to the Ebbsfleet ones there was a fair amount of “banter” between the two sets.  But then at half time the Dartford fans went and took up position at the other end and all of a sudden that extra special cup atmosphere disappeared.

Ten minutes into the second period and Lee Noble was brought down in the Ebbsfleet box by Osborn.  A clear penalty despite some limp protests.  However, Bradbrook stepped up and made no mistake.  Ebbsfleet responded and pressed forward, their fans raising the volume to a new level.  The away side soon had a chance to draw level when Rance was brought down in the box.  May shook his head, passing responsibility to Cook but his effort was saved by the Dartford keeper.  The ball fell loose and a powerful Ebbsfleet strike was blocked by the chest of Dartford’s captain Bradbrook.  “Handball” went the collective shout from players and fans alike, although the fact Bradbrook ended the night in hospital with suspected fractured ribs from the block is probably enough proof for most the referee got it right!

photo (60)Despite all of their efforts Ebbsfleet simply couldn’t find a way through the Dartford defence.  Six minutes of injury time were added and despite the most ludicrous booking for time-wasting I have seen in a long time from the Dartford keeper (he really should have been sent off for two yellows for the same offence in less than a minute) the game ended 1-0.  Dartford’s prize was an away trip to Salisbury City in the next round – hardly one to set the pulses racing but there is always the hope of a better tie in the next round.

Fans of both sides made their way out of the ground and into the night without any animosity.  There hasn’t been many opportunities to play each other in recent years, and many fans (and players) will not remember the days in the 1970′s and 80′s when things were a bit more volatile.  In fact most of the post-match chat was of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and even VCD Athletic.  Old rivalries never die but they certainly mellow over the years.

Remember the Spartans


BlythSpartansThe name Blyth Spartans may not mean much to the younger football fan, but the Northern Premier League side are one of the most successful Non-League clubs in the history of the FA Cup.  Whilst Lewes can look back on a few forays into the First Round proper, including the memorable trip back in November 2001 to play Stoke City, Blyth Spartans have reached the first round 32 times in their 114 year history which is an amazing achievement and going onto the 3rd round on four occasions, the most recent being in 2009 when they lost 1-0 to Blackburn Rovers.

But it is the amazing exploits of the 1977/78 FA Cup campaign that made them a household name up and down the country.  In that season they entered the competition in the 1st qualifying round in mid-September, dispatching Shildon in a local derby 3-0.  Another local tie in the next round saw them up against Crook Town who took Spartans to a replay.  The next two round draws saw them get further local ties against Consett and Bishop Auckland, both defeated to put them into the hat for the First Round Proper.

Once again lady luck was at the FA when the draw was made and part-timers Burscough were drawn out at home, with a single goal enough to take them into Round Two where they met Chesterfield.  Whilst they had ridden their luck to get to this stage, there was no fluke about the win versus the Division Two side at Croft Park.  With the draw for the Third Round made on the Monday following the Second Round, the squad met at the ground and huddled round the radio hoping to get a plum draw.  At first there was delight that they were drawn at home, but soon that turned to disappointment when the ball of Enfield was drawn.  Whilst the game would prove to be a real test for Blyth Spartans as Enfield were one of the best Non-League sides in the country, they knew they had missed out on a money-spinning game.

But a single goal from Alan Shoulder was enough to take them into Round Four where they would meet Stoke City.  Now the footballing nation was sitting up and taking notice of the part-timers from the North East.  Unfortunately bad weather meant the game against the Potters at the old Victoria Ground was cancelled twice.  To add more spice to the game, the draw for the Fifth Round saw the winner of this game paired against Newcastle United or Wrexham.  To Spartans the dream of an away tie against many of the players heroes at St James’ Park was a huge incentive to try and beat Stoke City.

Fans who couldn’t get down to the Midlands for the finally re-arranged midweek game missed out on seeing one of the biggest FA Cup shocks in the competition’s history. Stoke were a recent top-flight side, had won the League Cup just a few years earlier and had Howard Kendall, Terry Conroy, Alec Lindsay, Viv Busby and a young Garth Crooks up front.  Blyth took an early lead but two Stoke City goals seemed to have won the tie for the Potters.  But the Spartans came back at them with an equaliser and then in the final seconds a free kick was turned in by Terry Johnson to take the Non-League club into the fifth round – only the second Non-League club to ever reach this stage of the FA Cup.

Once again, the dream of a tie against Newcastle United turned into a nightmare as they were stuffed 4-1 by Wrexham.  But once again the Spartans didn’t know the meaning of the word defeat and led in the game as it entered the final minute.  With the BBC Match of the Day cameras recording the game for the Saturday night footballing nation, the impossible seemed as if it was about to be the reality.  Alas, with the final throw of the dice, Wrexham equalised from a corner.  However, Blyth would get their day out at St James’ Park after all as Newcastle United offered up their ground for the replay.  The winners would be hosting the mighty Arsenal.

So on Monday 27th February, some five and a half months since they kicked off their campaign against Shildon, Blyth Spartans kicked off against Wrexham in front of a sell-out 42,000 attendance.  Though Blyth didn’t play badly, Wrexham were 2-0 up in the 20th minute. No one gave up, though, not on the terraces, nor on the pitch; with eight minutes left Terry Johnson blasted in a volley. But despite some close calls, the equaliser would not come.  The dream was over.

The £7-a-week part-time players each received £350 worth of bedroom furniture from a local business. Two of them earned dream moves down the road to Newcastle: centre-back Steve Carney and more famously Alan Shoulder, who adapted to life away from the Northern League well, scoring regularly for The Toon and Carlislie United.

Since Blyth’s exploits, Telford United, Kidderminster Harriers, Crawley Town and last season, Luton Town have all reached the Fifth Round whilst still playing in the Non-Leagues.  But none of those have played as many games in one campaign.  The story of Blyth Spartans is one that gives hundreds of clubs up and down the country hope every single September when the road to Wembley opens.