Playing away in Dreamland


13804963363_e4a9f3df14_b“Well I’ve been working hard to reach me sales target
To earn a few quid for an away trip down to Margate
I’m gonna blow my commission tomorrow on all me football family
We catch the train at eight so don’t be late, were off to see the sea”

We are the luckiest fans alive today. Who else wouldn’t want to be spending a day at the sunny British seaside today. It is fair to say that prior to the release of the fixtures back in July, Margate away in either the earlier part of the season or towards the end would have been perfect.  In the last two season we had been down to the Isle of Thanet in October and January, so it was time that the fixture computer was kind to us. What better way to celebrate our promotion than a knees up on the golden sands and sewage outflow pipe of the Costa del Thanet.

Well, as our big sweaty transatlantic friend still warbles, two out of three ain’t bad. We were going to get our day in the sun in April at Margate, and ‘that’ sign was still warning us about staying away from the pipe carrying ‘stuff’ into the sea, but alas there was to be no promotion party. In fact our recent, and by recent I mean the last half of the season, has been a bit of a mystery. With a third of the season gone we were one place and two points outside the playoffs. However, the harsh weather, which first kicked in in October for us seemed to throw a spanner in the works and since then we have taken on average a point a game.

I still get the “sack the board” chants aimed in my general direction by those who still don’t quite get this community club aspect and realise that I can’t be sacked by the fans (voted out in October, indeed) but we will finish the season in a stronger position both on and off the field than last season and can look forward to next season when the regeneration project will commence on The Dripping Pan which will ultimately give us a new viable revenue stream.

photo 4 (5)Our hosts today will also be looking forward to next season. Next chairman Bob Laslett has already shown his intentions by bringing former AFC Wimbledon manager Terry Brown. Rumours of weekly budgets in excess of £5k will certainly make them the favourites come August, but I hope the club don’t go down the all too familiar road of Non-League boom and bust.

Whilst the ambition for the owners may be a rise up the leagues, it has to be sustainable. Redevelopment work continues at Hartsdown Park and that will give them a solid base, but if they do “build it” who will come? Only twice this season has the attendance at home broken the 500 barrier and both of those were due to the sizeable away support of Dulwich and Maidstone. Success on the pitch will bring people through the gate – in their one season in the Conference Premier where they played in Margate (as opposed to the two seasons in Dover) they did get over 1,100 on average, fuelled by away fans making a new ground visit. Today that number has decreased by 66%. With three other Ryman teams almost on their doorstep, plus Gillingham and Dover playing at higher levels close by, it is hard to see where these new supporter will come from.

“Along the promenade we spend some money
And Cynical finds a spot on the beach that’s simply sunny
Big Deaksy will enjoy himself digging up the sand,
collecting stones and winkle shells to take back home to Dan”

But today is all about a bloody good day out.  With our final away game on Easter Monday at Harrow Borough not really ticking all of the boxes for a “Jolly Boys Outing”, today was all about a few beers, some sunshine, dare say a couple of giggles and if we were lucky, a Non-League dog or two. Heck, even a long overdue three points would be as good as a Kiss Me Quick hat, a lick of a lolly and memories of the Radio 1 roadshows down here as teenagers….happy days.

It is fair to say that the walk from Margate station to the town centre has seen better days.  It is a crying shame to see so many places that I remember as a kid boarded up.  Dreamland, still home to bits of the UK’s oldest rollercoaster stands desolate, like a Scooby Doo spooky location.  There has been years of talk about turning it into an interactive museum of the rollercoaster but that day seems along way off.

photo 2 (28)Thanks to ClubSec Kev’s inside knowledge we bypassed the Pound shops and arrived at The Lifeboat pub, possibly the best secret in the town with its range of over 20 local ales. Lunch consisted of a few pints from the Westerham and Whitstable Breweries, sharing our memories of what we had been doing on the 15th April 1989, the day of the Hillsborough disaster which every club would be respecting today.

Margate 1 Lewes 1 – Hartsdown Park – Saturday 12th April 2014
One taxi ride later and we were at Hartsdown Park.  You can see signs of the foundations being laid for the redevelopment and I’d hope they retain the existing structure at the Hartsdown Road, although essentially it is only a two-sided stadium with nothing at the far end bar the railing around the pitch and portakabins on the right hand side.

The minute’s silence was impeccably observed and it was fair to say that reflective atmosphere was adopted by Lewes in the first half as they struggled to make any impact at all on the game.  They lacked fight, bite, bustle, hustle and thrust.  Margate, with their megabucks budget didn’t really dominate, although they forced over ten corners yet really made little chances in the opening period.  In fact their opening goal came direct from a Sunday League style mistake by Malins who perfected an air shot when trying to clear and 31-club (THIRTY ONE!) Jefferson Louis made no mistake from ten yards.

13804975605_0100422596_bLewes were forced to shuffle the pack once again with an injury to Andy Pearson meaning midfielder Logan had to drop to centre-back and Jack Dixon coming on. Sometimes such events turn games and this is exactly what happened in the second half.  Lewes started to believe that they could get something from the game and pushed forward, using Crabb and Wheeler out wide.  In the 65th minute the ball found its way to Wheeler on the edge of the box, he shimmied, twisted, turned and dropped his shoulder to confuse the defender, putting him on his arse and then slotting home.

13804968985_3accd6dc40_bMargate were rattled and Cynical Dave smelt victory and told the Margate keeper and centre-backs so.  A few minutes later a miss hit shot from Dixon/Malins/Crabb (we can’t remember who exactly) bounced up on the hard surface and into the net.  Referee gave the goal but the linesman deemed the retreating Nathan Crabb and Luke Blewden in an “active” offside position despite no appeals from the Margate team.  Even the keeper agreed it was a harsh decision.

A point apiece was probably a fair result for a game of two halves.  The Lewes Lunatic Fringe partied like it was 1999 on the way back to the station.  It had been a great away day and our reward was a family size bag of imitation Frazzles and a few bottles of Pedigree whilst we reminisced about the season.  Days out like this make the wind, rain, snow, sleet, floodlight failures, abject defending and poor refereeing decisions all worth it.

“Down to Margate, you can keep the Costa Brava, I’m telling ya mate I’d rather have a day down Margate with all me Lewes family”

Honigkuchenpferd and all that business


Grantham Town v Frickley Atheltic…this wasn’t in the original plan.  If I could have followed that dream then I would have been recovering from Energie Cottbus v Dynamo Dresden, nursing a hangover and preparing for Hallescher versus Hansa Rostock along with Danny Last, Kenny Legg and The Real Stoffers.  Unfortunately work has got in the way recently and so I was swapping a “lively” atmosphere in the old East Germany for Lincolnshire.  Whilst Stoffers was sending me pictures of a heaving Erdgas Sportpark, I would be rattling around in the South Kesteven Sports Stadium with 200-odd other fans.

13647168185_be468d3211_bI could have been watching thousands of pissed-up German fans singing, chanting and waving stuff around in unison.  I could have been watching the Dresden fans trying to take on the finest German riot police.  I could have been wolfing down bockwurst, brautwurst, bierwurst and the odd knackwurst.  I could have been indulging in Hefeweizen, Helles and a cheeky Dunkle.  But who really wants that when, and I quote the oracle that is Wikipedia about Grantham:-

“Grantham has the country’s only ‘living’ public house sign: a beehive of South African bees situated outside since 1830″

Grantham is also notable for having the first female police officers in the United Kingdom, notably Edith Smith in 1914, and producing the first running diesel engine in 1892, and the UK’s first tractor in 1896.  Take that the EFW turncoats! I can see you seething with jealously from here.

But I am focusing on the positives.  I’m in the English sunshine, with Northern Steve enjoying a game at a new ground.  Yes, it may be an athletics stadium, and the crowd may be a bit on the thin side but I am doing what I love most, well almost.  And if I really am bitter and twisted about not being in Germany I can have a wander down Sankt Augustin Way, named after Grantham’s twin town in Germany and feel marginally better. Continue reading

South Shields FC


imagesContinuing our look at ex-Football League sides that simply faded into obscurity, we head up to the North East, home of David Milliband, the birthplace of Ridley Scott,  the legendary night club Glitterball and the mosque where the great Mohammed Ali had his wedding blessed.  Today, it is best known for being at the end of the Metro line, where many a pissed-up person has woken after a night out in Newcastle and having missed their stop.  The faded dignity of a once prosperous seaside resort are all too clear to see as you drive through the streets today, but it wasn’t always that way.

There had been various incarnations of a team in South Shields since 1889.  First was South Shields Athletic, then one with the unusual name of South Shields Adelaide formed in 1899 by Jack Inskip who took the team into the Northern League.  In 1913 the club applied for election to the Football League but received no votes.

Ten years later after a successful local campaign where they garnered the support of Newcastle United and Sunderland they were elected into the extended new second tier of English football, making their debut in August 1920 with a 1-0 defeat at Craven Cottage to Fulham.  Despite the proximity of Newcastle, Sunderland and Gateshead, who they had replaced in Division Two , the club often got five-figure crowds at their Horsley Hill ground.  They finished eighth in their first season, following it up with a sixth place finish the following season, their highest league position in their history.  Despite finishing in the top half of the table in the next six seasons, they finished bottom in 1928 and were relegated to the Third Division (North).  By this time the crowds, and investment, had started to desert the club.

They only lasted two seasons in the third tier before the club called it a day.  They had finished in an respectable seventh place in 1930 but the crushing realism was that football had moved on significantly in the ten years they had been in the Football League and were “absorbed” the following season by rivals Gateshead.  The stadium was finally converted into a greyhound track before making way for a housing estate in the 1970′s in an all-too familiar tale.

A new club were formed in 1936, thanks to the backing of the local newspaper but they never hit the heights of the Football League days and history repeated itself in 1974 when they relocated to Gateshead and became Gateshead United.  Today, the third iteration of the club are back in the Northern League.  However, for a glorious decade ninety years ago they stood on the brink of being the third team of a football-mad region.

Non-League Players and Their Aspirations


If you were to speak to any non-league footballer, you would quickly learn that their ultimate ambition would be to play at a much higher level. Some would be content just to become a fulltime professional at a club in say League 2 or 3 but most would admit they would love to be playing for a Premier League club.

PicThere have been many examples of non-league players that have managed this and there is certain to be more in the future. Most of these players were either deemed not good enough by the bigger clubs in the country at a younger age or have come into the game a bit later than the average footballer.

So it is up to these players to keep plugging away in the lower leagues in the hope that one day a bigger club will come knocking on the door. Hard work on the training ground will improve a players overall ability, hopefully enough for somebody to feel that they have what it takes to play in a league higher up against players who also have the ability to be playing where they are.

It can be tough but football is very similar to many other industries where in many cases you have to start from the bottom and consistently prove that you are able to move up.

One such comparison with this rise up the leagues would be with a low stakes poker player that is grinding away trying to increase his bankroll sufficiently enough so that he too can have a crack a bit higher up the ladder. The idea is to try and consistently beat the stakes that you are on, regularly proving that you are a better player than most that you play with before deciding to move on up.

It is about gradually working yourself up, improving your skills, strategies and mindset to be able to compete successfully at the higher levels. Most of the top poker players today have had to grind through the stakes. Yes some are more naturally talented and so have had an easier rise but anyone can achieve this rise if they are willing to put the hard work in and have the desire to be among the best in the world.

A players life and career is about ambition and just how far they want to go, many footballers fail, as do poker players and it is the drive that separates the great from the mediocre.

Falling in love with you


Six years ago I was a happy Hammer. Happy because I didn’t know what the joy was in watching football without Big Brother(s) watching over me, telling me when to sit, stand, shout and be quiet.  My epiphany came when I started going to watch Non-League football on a regular basis.  One of the first games in my “new life “was at Grays Athletic at Their New Recreation Ground against Canvey Island (how life has changed for all partied involved!).

During the next few seasons I started going more regularly to Non-League games, discovering new places that were almost on my doorstep.  Once I chose a Forest Green Rovers versus Oxford United over West Ham v Fulham I knew I was on a slippery slope.

397502_10152258011760853_1378592530_nMy first game at the Dripping Pan was a Conference Premier game against today’s visitors Grays Athletic.  It was the club’s one and only season in the highest level of Non-League football.  If ever there was a club that were a fish out of water, then it was Lewes during the 2008/09 season.  Just six wins and six draws all season, including just seven points taken on their travels the team were relegated by Easter.  Speaking to those who experienced the whole season tell the tale of not only the club being out of their depth but also of the joyless environment of playing at this level.  The club had to implement segregation, stop people drinking on the terraces and even have a sponsors board to facilitate live interviews post match.  Anyone who has visited the Pan since knows that is not how we do things.

Last year I was asked to contribute to a book – the task being to write “How I fell in love with my club” in less than 3,000 words.  I didn’t choose West Ham, the club I had supported for the best part of thirty years of my life.  I chose Lewes.  Last week the book was finally published by Ockley Books and not only features a chapter on Lewes, but similar ones on Weymouth, Tooting and Mitcham and the 1990 Cameroon World Cup Squad.  What the book tells me is that I am not alone in upgrading my footballing pleasure.

Lewes v Essex 2014Today the club is very happy playing two levels below the Conference Premier.  Crowds are increasing, bar takings are up and the football is making people smile once again.  Our ambition is to play at a higher level but as a board we will always make sure every step is a sustainable and financially viable. Today we welcomed Grays Athletic, a club who had endured a similar annus decadus.  Whilst Lewes’s free fall had been almost terminal, we always had the parachute of our ground.  Grays haven’t had that luxury and have endured somewhat of a nomadic existence since the heady days of finishing third in the Conference Premier and back to back FA Trophy wins.  Their Recreation Ground was sold to developers in 2010 and since they have ground shared with East Thurrock, West Ham reserves and now Aveley.

It had only been ten days since we last faced Grays, losing 4-2 in an entertaining game at Mill Field.  Since then both sides had played two league games, winning them both as too had Lewes.  Two weeks ago both sides would have put the file “Play Off Chances” in the filing cabinet but with games in hand over those above both sides who knows what could happen, especially as the respective home form has been so strong. Continue reading