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.

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.

Everybody needs good neighbours

19183144984_09dad2cd1c_kHaving a professional club just five miles down the road often appears to be a bad thing for a Non-League club.  You have to make the best of the situation and respect the pecking order in terms of league position.  Sometimes, when home league fixtures clash, we have to compromise on either suffering lower gates or moving our game much to the annoyance of our fans.  But the cold, hard economic truth is that if we don’t, we lose out.  Our bigger, stronger neighbours don’t even register a raised heartbeat if we move to an earlier or later game to accommodate the few dozen fans who otherwise may not come to us. But that few dozen matter.  Financially, that’s another £500 in the bank.  Whilst that is less than a couple of hours pay for some Championship players these days, that is a quarter of our budget for the whole of our squad.

We are fortunate to have Brighton & Hove Albion almost on our doorstep.  Relations between them and us (in that order as it’s not a symbiotic relationship) are good, and for the second year in a row, they agreed to send a first team squad down the A27 in a luxury coach for our first home game of the season.  Interest for the game locally is obviously very high.  So high that we have to make the game all ticket and cap the attendance at 2,300.  Whilst the Pan probably could hold more, fans want to be able to buy food, get to the bar and have a decent view.  At that number all of that is possible.

19185004683_23c0e26130_kObviously we have to make a number of logistical changes for the game.  As tickets are only sold online and have to be printed out, we need an army of volunteers armed with scanners, rather than turnstile operators taking cash.  We need additional toilets, food kiosks and car parking for the TV crews (yep, plural this year) who will be attending.  Because we are playing a Championship side then the draconian FA rules on when and where alcohol can be served have to be adhered to.  Yep, we know it was just a friendly, and yes we know that they will probably never know if someone sneaks a pint out of the clubhouse, but rules are rules. *takes health and safety hat back off*

Off the pitch the club is in rude health at the moment.  The 3G is the talk of the town and has had a very positive impact on the first team’s training, with smiling facing, fitter, stronger players and a queue of players who are interested in signing for us.  Alas for the reduced budget.

The result is more irrelevant for us than for the Seagulls.  They will be expected to win.  The fans are growing more and more impatient with Chris Hughton after his negative tactics at the end of last season (which did keep them in the division mind).  Last season it ended 5-0 to Brighton and no Lewes fans would go home feeling ashamed by that.  But manager Steve Brown was having none of that, telling anyone who would listen that we would give them a fight.

19183085844_5c7a44553b_kSo with the sun shining, the drummers drumming, the pitch looks superb and the fans are in full voice as the two captains led the teams out. Neither season will be made or broken today, but to 2,300 fans of East Sussex football it promised to kick off a long, hard season.  Before the football could start the whole ground observed a minute’s silence in memory of Don Lock, a life-long Brighton fan who had been killed a few days earlier.

Lewes 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 18th July 2015
Some may think that the awarding of the Man of the Match to the young Lewes keeper Dan Hutchings told a different story to the one the score line did.  However, they would be wrong.  Whilst Hutchings was called upon to make a couple of good saves, he was one of five or six Lewes players who could have won the award, chosen by the Match Sponsors.  He would have been my choice, both for the excellent second half double save that denied Colunga a nailed-on goal (and would have won me the Golden Goal!) but also for the way he has slotted into the side in the last week.  It probably helped having a vastly experienced back four in front of him, made up of two A Trialists (OK – Steve Sutherland from Met Police and Jordan Wilson from Grays Athletic if you really want to know), Rooks legend Chris Breach and new signing March-Brown.

For the first few minutes Lewes probably gave the visitors too much respect, allowing them to retain possession of the ball.  But when they realised that Brighton’s best chance of a goal came from 17 year old James Tilley, confidence grew and they started playing the ball around.  It was always going to be a tough ask to win this one but Lewes had a very good shout for a penalty in the first period when Nathan Crabb was wrestled to the floor by the Seagulls keeper and Calderon as a corner was on its way over.

19183340834_64e028387b_kThe second half saw 20 changes made in total, which for me on the PA was a nightmare.  At one point I announced Brighton’s third choice keeper Sanchez had donned the number 26 shirt and was playing on the right wing, whilst Josh Courtney came on for the Rooks, looking very similar to Steve Brinkhurst (because it was Steve Brinkhurst).  Whilst Brighton fans will point to the very young eleven that finished the game, so can Lewes with Hutchings, Welch, Marshall, Conlon, Laing and Brown all still young enough to turn out for our Under21’s/Development squad.

19810651691_5e4511b218_zWhilst Brighton should have wrapped it up at the death when Ward pulled his shot wide, a draw was a fair result for both teams, although obviously one set of fans went off down Mountfield Road much happier than the other set.  Putting my Chairman’s hat back on, we couldn’t have been happier.  Excellent crowd, good bar and food takings, award-winning programmes all sold out, great TV coverage and I even got to nutmeg Gully, the Brighton mascot.  Not quite up there with the wedding day but close.  Roll on 8th August and the start of the new season.


We’ll win nothing with kids….probably

It’s been fourteen games and nearly three years since Lewes’s first team squad won a Pre-Season Friendly.  Of course we will always be told that at this stage of the season it is all about the performance and not the final score – but that’s three years, or to be precise 1,084 days of pre-season hurt.  Only a very small percentage of fans turn out for the pre-season games – whether it is because of holidays, because you can’t every really gauge anything from them or simply on a day like today it is simply the chance to sit in the sunshine.  Nobody would surely forsake the football for a trip to Ikea or B&Q megastore?

Once again we have a mix of opponents this season – Our headline game is the, now annual, visit of Brighton & Hove Albion next week with their full first team squad, whilst in a few weeks Alan Pardew will bring down his second string Palace side (which to a man will probably earn more in a week than we do in a year).  Our home programme is completed by Eastbourne Borough in the “we play each other every year and really should get a cup but we can’t be bothered sort of way”.  Away from home we visit Sussex League Hassocks, Ryman South League Worthing and today’s trip down the River Ouse and along a bit to the Sports Park at Peacehaven.

Last season the Magpies suffered the heartbreak of a last day relegation, having been two-nil up in their final game needing a win to be safe.  Four second half goals, coupled with virtually every result going against them saw them relegated after just one season in the Ryman Premier League.  Despite them being our nearest rivals, there’s no animosity between the two clubs and their loss will be felt by us this season in terms of two local derbies.  So an opportunity for an early season local trip was more than welcome.

FullSizeRender (1)There’d been talk on the Lewes Forum in recent days as to whether we would be even able to raise a team.  Some fans don’t seem to understand the fluid nature of pre-season and that you can announce a player as signed today and tomorrow he is off down the road for £3 more per week.  Consequently, until we have 100% (or as close as we can get it) commitment, we will not announce someone as “signed”.  I’m sure that frustrates some fans who are expecting news, but that’s the way we want to run things now.

The squad that traveled down the A26 then around the Newhaven one-way system before climbing up the A259 would certainly be a young one although there’s not alot that the centre-back pairing of Lovett and Breach haven’t seen in their time.  Peacehaven on a sunny July afternoon is a great place to watch football.  The beautiful Sussex Downs roll away in the distance, the seagulls were flying overhead and the Harvey’s was on draft.  Heck, even the chips at £1.50 a pop were bringing a smile to Cynical Dave’s face.

Peacehaven & Telscombe 0 Lewes 3 – The Sports Park – Saturday 11th July 2015
“You’ll never win anything with kids” is probably one of the most famous lines ever uttered by a football pundit.  Alan Hanson will forever be reminded of his words by Manchester United fans after their opening day defeat to Aston Villa back in August 1995.  Those kids were the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Lee Sharpe and of course David Beckham.  Some kids, eh!

FullSizeRender (2)Nobody will get carried away with the result from the first game of Pre-season but those who did see the game will have all seen something we haven’t seen for a long time as Lewes fans.  Players playing without fear.  No fear of making a mistake.  No fear of taking players on.  No fear of trying a killer pass.  One game does not make a season, but even if we saw half as much of the communication, enterprise and spirit as we did yesterday in our league campaign we would have made some significant progress.

The Rooks finished the game with seven players under the age of 21, and more importantly, playing good football.  That to me is more important than the result.  Short passing to feet rather than hoofing it long, especially from the back.  Players talking to each other, encouraging each other.

For the record James Fraser opened the scoring on twenty minutes, slamming the ball home from ten yards after Jay Lovett’s goal-bound shot struck a Peacehaven arm.  The second was a deft flick from Elliot Levy from a deep Redwood cross that the Peacehaven keeper should have grabbed and the third in the opening minutes of the second period was tapped in by Nathan Crabb after a horrible mix up between keeper and defender from a Lewes free-kick.  It could have been more – the very impressive Alex Laing’s late free-kick cannoned off the bar.

Of course it will be a different story next Saturday when Chris Hughton brings his full Brighton & Hove Albion first team squad to the Pan.  But once again, the result will be secondary – it will be about testing the mental strength of the squad, giving them experience of what they will come up against sometimes this season and above all learning from how the professionals do it.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – The Red Lion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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