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.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 9 – The magic of the Parafix Sussex Senior Challenge Cup


It’s been three weeks since we went to Suffolk on that hot and sunny glorious April afternoon and secured Ryman Premier League football for another season.  The fans celebrated, the players celebrated and we celebrated, albeit in on a slow train back to London.  Since then football should have taken a back-seat.  It should have been a time to re-acquaint ourselves with our families, bring the garden out of its winter slumber and even cook Sunday lunch.  But we had the small matter of a cup final on our minds.

At the start of each season all Non-League teams plan their objectives for the nine months ahead.  Promotion push, consolidation, maybe the play-offs, survival and so on.  But rarely will they say “some silverware” like you hear in the Premier League.  It is very rare these days for there to be a surprise pairing in a final of any major competition.  Last season’s League Cup Final between Bradford City and Swansea City was probably the first, and maybe last genuinely surprising final in respect of the two sides that got to the final.  Whilst the neutrals all wanted to see the third-tier side win (bar Leeds and Huddersfield fans), Swansea rarely got out of second gear to record a 5-0 win.

17551079518_1b42d2f3e8_zWe know that our greatest hope in the FA Cup is a spot in the First Round Proper.  We’ve achieved that three times in our 130 year history. It takes the luck of the draw and the luck on the day for clubs at our level to get that far.  Likewise, the FA Trophy has only been won twice in twenty years by a team outside the Conference Premier – the last of whom North Ferriby United did so this season thanks to some significant funding from the family that also owns Hull City.  Take the funding away (as it appears will now happen) and the club are considering their position in the Conference North.

So that leaves the Isthmian League Cup and the County Cups.  The former is seen by many as an unnecessary burden, played at the wrong time of the season.  Many clubs would like this seen scrapped altogether – in fact it is optional as to whether a club actually takes part at all.  This season we made the decision to use it for our more promising youngsters.

17738981701_7417e33195_zAnd then there is the County Cup, which represents our best chance of glory.  It is not unfair to say that we should be in the top five clubs in the County.  Brighton & Hove Albion, Crawley Town, Whitehawk and Eastbourne Borough all play at a higher level with Bognor Regis Town, Peacehaven & Telscombe and ourselves at the next level down (of course that will change with Burgess Hill Town replacing Peacehaven next season).  It would take some warm balls to avoid meeting one, let alone three of those four higher placed clubs and thus win the trophy, but recent finals where both Peacehaven and Whitehawk have won the Sussex Senior Cup show that the underdog can still claim the silverware.

Our run to the final had its ups and downs.  We were taken to extra-time by Brighton & Hove Albion and Eastbourne Borough, arguably our two greatest rivals, before we beat them by the odd goal in three.  Sandwiched in between those two ties was a last kick of the game victory against county league Horsham YMCA before a convincing win against another county league side, Loxwood in the semi-final.  Nine years is a long time in football, but that’s how long it has been since The Rooks were last in the final.

Four years ago when the American Express Community Stadium opened, it was announced that the premier tournament in the county would be hosted there.  For clubs like Lewes and Whitehawk an opportunity to play at a superb stadium like the Amex doesn’t come around very often.  In fact, checking the record books (Club Sec Kev’s Non-League brain) this would be the biggest stadium that The Rooks had ever played in.  We knew we were massive underdogs coming into the game.  If results in the last few weeks had been different, it could have been a Conference Premier team playing a Ryman League South side.  But, ninety minutes of football wouldn’t spoil the day out for most of the 1,500 or so Lewes fans.

Arrangements for such events are fraught with issues whether it be ticketing arrangements, hospitality or player availability.  With the final taking place three weeks after the end of the season we had to find a solution as to how we would play the players – our budget runs for 37 weeks, so an additional few weeks meant the re-jigging of finances.  How about players who had already booked holidays? (Fortunately, Chris Breach’s trip to Vegas didn’t overrun and he arrived back in time).  Our hands are tied on arrangements and facilities on the day.  The stadium belongs to Brighton & Hove Albion and is leased to the Sussex FA.  We have very little say in what happens apart from on the pitch.

17738650545_27fa067703_zAs Chairman I was expected to give a speech before the game in the hospitality area.  Around 600 people would be present, split roughly 1/3rd Lewes, 1/3rd Whitehawk and 1/3rd invited guests by the Sussex FA.  I was more concerned about having to wear a tie (normally the reserves of funerals and court appearances) than what to say.  A couple of Harvey’s did the trick though, and despite the heckling of the Whitehawk guests, it seem to go down very well.  A quick good luck speech to the players and it was show-time.

Lewes 0 Whitehawk 5 – The Amex Stadium – Saturday 16th May 2015
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The subplot here of course was the Return of the King.  Steve King, arguably Lewes’s most successful manager was in charge of our opponents and no doubt an element of revenge was in his mind.  Which manager doesn’t want to beat their old clubs, especially in a high-profile game.  Pre-match King and Steve Brown were in a relaxed mood, no doubt discussing the merits of their respective owners rather than the gleaming silver trophy in front of them.

The game went according to form.  By the end it had the feel of a testimonial game, with Lewes defending with every last ounce of energy whilst Whitehawk picked their attacks.  Part of me felt that at any moment King would strip off and come on himself.  Three weeks without a game certainly showed on the Lewes side, although you have to admire the style of play that Whitehawk adopted – crisp passing and always looking for the ball behind the centre-backs.

Both sets of fans made themselves heard, with Lewes outnumbering the Whitehawk fans 2:1.  Some strange stewarding decisions saw some unnecessary chaos at kick off, with one set tells fans “sit where you want” and others rigidly saying fans had to sit in allocated seating which led to some tense moments, likewise the decision to only open one refreshment window on the concourse led to unnecessary overcrowding and ridiculous queues – it’s hardly as if the stadium doesn’t know how to handle crowds.

Nobody from Lewes begrudged Whitehawk’s moment in the sunshine, celebrating with the cup.  Of course we all looked on and wished it was us, but the day had given us all a taste of what it would be like to play at the top table.  Was it fun?  Well, I’d hate to have to dress and act so formal at every game that’s for sure.  Football for me is about enjoying the whole day and not just 90 minutes.  Of course an event such as the cup final is one to enjoy, but give me a beer in one hand, my PA mic in the other standing on the Jungle any day of the week.

17115980744_3fc6a18f10_zSo the curtain comes down on a mixed bag of a season.  I would say that most fans will class this one as “must do better”.  I agree to an extent – after all I am a fan and I had hoped we would do better.  But did we set out at the start of the season to finish it here at the Amex?  Nope, so there’s a bonus, as too is the progress the club has made off the pitch.  Six years ago it was touch and go whether we would have a club to watch at all – that is the context we need to remember.  Whilst the players headed off after the game, planning their summer holidays, the hard work for those behind the scenes at the club are only just about to start.

 

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 8 – Win or not quite bust


It started out with a miss
How did it end up like this
It was only a miss, it was only a miss

At exactly 11am 258 days ago we boarded a train at Liverpool Street station, heading east to pastures new with hope in our hearts.  The new season was upon us and after a disappointing previous campaign we had rebuilt in the summer and quite fancied ourselves for a shout at the play offs.  Of course, putting my official hat on we were “confidently optimistic of an improvement on last season”, but as we know there are only four objectives any club really sets out to achieve every season.

“Consolidation” – means avoid relegation but at least keep the interest of the fans up until Easter then we can slash the budget
“Pushing on” – means we’ve increased the budget to what the management team wanted so they better reach the play offs
“Challenging” – we’ve mortgaged ourselves to the hilt and sacrificed our first born for promotion and don’t want to think about not going up
“Happy with our lot” – we really have no idea which of the three above apply

17267771231_2f0f73d226_zWe wanted to “push on”. We increased the budget, we brought in two or three players that had other clubs and observers suggest we were dark horses in a league that would be dominated by the two big spenders in Maidstone United and Margate.  When Luke Blewden opened scoring on a dust bowl of a pitch at the Village Glass Stadium in Witham back on the opening day with twenty minutes to play, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe were in full voice.  But football is a fickle mistress. Five minutes later Witham equalised to snatch a point.  Five games later and we had two points from a possible fifteen. Five more weeks on and we had been dumped out of the FA Cup back at the Village Glass Stadium. Five months later and we felt we needed to change the management team to give us some fresh impetus.

We looked for crumbs of comfort.  We had games in hand.  We seemed to be on the end of every poor refereeing decision dished out.  We had injuries to our key on the pitch leaders. Our much heralded, long overdue 20 goals-a-season striker suddenly developed an irrational fear of shooting.  Whilst we have the responsibility of governance of a football club owned by 1,000 plus people across the world, we are also first and foremost fans.  We see what everyone who stands on The Jungle sees or who travels up and down the rail networks as part of the Lewes Lunatic Fringe.  Sometimes it’s hard we represent the hopes, dreams and fears of that group.  We want to believe things will turn out “alright in the end”.

Sometimes you need to take a step back to see the reality.  Despite what we are led to believe in the movies, there are no happy endings in life, especially in football.  We can look back at a dozen or more incidents in the season with the “what if?” question.  What if we hadn’t given the ball away so cheaply in injury time against Harrow a few weeks ago leading to them scoring? What if we had a competent referee in the home game against AFC Hornchurch who would admit he made a mistake in the lead up to their opening goal? What if Elliot hadn’t been sent off away to Canvey Island when we were in control of a 1-0 lead? What if is a game that any football fan can play for ever.

17080473148_1f2636ab18_zNo one connected with the club expected our longest and last away journey of season to be so vital, even a few weeks ago.  Destiny is always in our hands for the most part of the season, and our recent run of poor results has coincided with two of the four “dead and buried” teams going on championship runs.  We imagined today’s visit to the picturesque Ram Meadow in Greene King country being a shorts and t-shirt day, looking forward to a decent drink and a mellow reflection on the season.  Instead we go dressed for wind, rain and 90 minutes of keeping one eye on results elsewhere.

As an owner of Lewes Community Football Club I’m invested in the future of the team, both on and off the pitch.  However, as Chairman I have to be 100% invested in what happens today. If results don’t go our way will it be catastrophic in the long term for the club? Probably not, but it will sure hurt and I have to bear some of the responsibility for that.  As I mentioned earlier, sometimes being a fan can make you see things differently.  If we get what we need today the euphoria will be short-lived.  Yes, we did the short-term job, but what about our original goals for the season? We certainly haven’t progressed for a number of reasons that collectively aren’t any one persons fault.  As a member of the elected board of directors we all have to shoulder the blame and responsibility.  Time for reflection will come in due course.

For those who have been Lewes followers for a few seasons will know the drill by now. Five years ago we were dead and buried in the Conference South with five games to go.  Somehow we managed to give ourselves a shot at survival on the final say, needing a win at Hampton and Richmond Borough.  Nearly 150 Lewes fans descended on the Beveree that day to see The Rooks grab a 2-1 win and survive.  Two years ago we needed at least a point as we trailed Cray Wanderers in injury time away to give ourselves hope of survival.  The scenes when Nathan Crabb equalised will long live in the memory of the hundred or so fans at Hayes Lane that night.  Few will remember the two games after that where we played for nothing more than a few more points for respectability.

But back to today.  As our train passed the Village Glass Stadium on its way to Bury St Edmunds, via Ipswich, we raised a plastic cup of Jaipur to those halcyon days of summer and for one brief five minute spell where we saw a season full of 3 point away days, flowing football and an end of season promotion party.

17266471962_aacd85df5d_zThis was to be our last league visit to Bury Town for the foreseeable future.  Relegation had already been assured some weeks ago but instead of rolling over and sacking off for the rest of the season, they’ve started putting in some decent performances.  In fact, in the current form tables Bury rank higher than Dulwich Hamlet and Margate.  We certainly weren’t arriving expecting any favours.  We knew that 3 points was our prize. We congregated in the Old Cannon brewery, just a five minute stroll from the ground.  The mood was quietly confident. If it wasn’t for the need for three points this would be the best away day ever.

The final pre-match thought as we entered the delightful Ram Meadow come from Lewes-born US firebrand Tom Paine, which adorns the home team dressing room at The Dripping Pan “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”

Bury Town 0 Lewes 2 – Ram Meadow – Saturday 25th April 2015
With 5 minutes plus stoppages to go we heard the news that Peacehaven & Telscombe had lost 4-2 meaning our safety was assured.  Lewes had dominated the game, scoring twice and retaining possession for the best part of 85 minutes.  Rikki Banks could have joined us on the sideline for a pint from our hosts Beer festival and still kept a clean sheet.  Two goals made by Nicky Wheeler, scored by Elliott Romain and Henry Muggeridge saw the Rooks home.  The travelling fans basked in the Suffolk sunshine and celebrated with the players at the final whistle.  Game over, job done.

16645740604_08d43770f4_kIt wasn’t the easiest ninety minutes though when you have to keep an eye on scores elsewhere.  To give you a flavour of the afternoon, here’s what happened:-

3:09 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 1 Hampton & Richmond Borough 0 – Lewes drop into the relegation zone on goals scored
3:11 – Canvey Island 0 Wingate & Finchley 1 – Lewes climb to 19th as Canvey fall into bottom 4
3:18 – Tonbridge Angels 1 Dulwich Hamlet 0 – As you are
3:22 – Tonbridge Angels 1 Dulwich Hamlet 1 – No changes
3:22 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 0 – Nervous looks around the terrace
3:23 – Bury Town 0 Lewes 1 – Elliott Romain’s goal sends us up to 16th, Canvey still in bottom 4
3:27 – Leatherhead 0 Harrow Borough 1 – Harrow leapfrog Lewes into 16th
3:33 – Canvey Island 0 Wingate & Finchley 2 – Fat lady starting to sing at Canvey Island
3:35 – Canvey Island 1 Wingate & Finchley 2 – Nope, it was a whale in the Thames Estuary, sending VCD into the bottom 4

So at half-time the bottom of table looked like:-

16th – Harrow Borough 53pts (-13)
17th – Lewes 53pts (-23)
18th – Tonbridge Angels 52pts (-4)
19th – Peacehaven & Telscombe 51pts (-24)
20th – Canvey Island 50pts (-18)
———————————————-
21st – VCD Athletic 50pts (-19)
22nd – Witham Town 42pts (-22)
23rd – AFC Hornchurch 39pts (-23)
24th – Bury Town 32pts (-50)

Surely the second period couldn’t throw up as many twists and turns, could it? Well, how about:-

4:03 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 1 – Charlie Moone…of course Charlie Moone.  No changes at the bottom though.
4:11 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 2 – Now this is interesting
4:12 – Bury Town 0 Lewes 2 – Muggeridge’s peach of a header gives us breathing space
17266415262_56d15160ba_z4:12 – Canvey Island 2 Wingate & Finchley 2 – What a 90 second period – Canvey on a roll, Peacehaven wobbling
4:17 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 3 – What on earth is going on down there?  Peacehaven fall back into bottom four
4:17 – Canvey Island 3 Wingate & Finchley 2 – The reverse comeback at Canvey Island..Only Peacehaven in the group of relegation candidates now losing
4:27 – Tonbridge Angels 1 Dulwich Hamlet 2 – Worrying glances at what’s going on at Peacehaven from the Angels
4:39 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 4 – All over bar the shouting as Peacehaven will have to score 3 times and hope that Bury or Wingate can muster two goals.
4:40 – Tonbridge Angels 2 Dulwich Hamlet 2 – Angels can party as it will take a miracle for them to go down
4:42 – VCD Athletic 1 Billericay Town 0 – VCD leave it late but that should put the final nail in the Peacehaven coffin
4:44 – VCD Athletic 2 Billericay Town 0 – And relax

So final table looks like:-

CDeKrBlWIAEyaV_16th – Harrow Borough 53pts (-13)
17th – Canvey Island 53pts (-16)
18th – VCD Athletic 53pts (-17)
19th – Lewes 53pts (-22)
20th – Tonbridge Angels 52pts (-4)
———————————————-
21st – Peacehaven & Telscombe 48pts (-27)
22nd – Witham Town 42pts (-22)
23rd – AFC Hornchurch 39pts (-23)
24th – Bury Town 32pts (-50)

There wasn’t the same elation as we saw at THAT game at Hampton & Richmond Borough all those years ago, but the trip back to Liverpool Street was a lot more pleasant than the trip up.  That was until when we looked forward three weeks to the Sussex Senior Cup final at The Amex against Whitehawk. Objective number 1 achieved. Hope had delivered.