Waking up the neighbours


In a couple of years there could well be a brand new football stadium at the end of the road here in TBIRville in South London. In fact, we have a few building projects on the map that will make a huge difference to the area. First up will be our very own Premier Inn at the top of the hill. Whilst the Sizzle Grill can boast a 4.5 rating on TripAdvisor, the other main attractions of the area hardly demand a hotel.

“A library, Co-operative Food Store, a butchers and a Dance studio” says Wikipedia, which isn’t really known for playing down the truth. Heck, we only have 1 pub, in a mile radius. This is suburbia not the Shetlands!

Perhaps the hotel is needed for when Paramount Park opens in 2020. Europe’s largest Theme Park, indoor venue and entertainment attraction no less, to be built in Swanscombe just 7 miles away. I’m not sure why we need such excitement – after all we’ve already got a petting zoo round the corner.

But who wants inverted 4G rollercoaster when you can have football. Paramount Park? Pah! It’s all about Flamingo Park and the news that the world’s third oldest football team will finally stop being wanderers and have a home of their own. Welcome to the neighbourhood, Cray Wanderers.

IMG_2345The club, formed in 1860, may not be known to many who don’t frequent the Non League circles. The last few years haven’t been the kindest to the club. After sacking manager of 14 years, Ian Jenkins, in September 2013 the club have been on a downward spiral, first being relegated from the Ryman Premier League and not in the relegation zone of the North Division. The one ray of sunshine has been the news that the club have bought the option on the land to build the new stadium. There’s no houses close by (thus no potential NIMBY influence), surrounded by a crematorium and a driving range and access would be direct onto the A20 dual carriageway. It would replace the existing Flamingo Park structure, home now to car boot sales, desperate over 40’s singles nights and the occasional travelling fairground that keeps the teenage birth rate up in the area. Who wouldn’t want to give planning permission for that?

All being well The Wanderers could be on my Christmas card list in three years, although by then the 2,200 capacity stadium may be hosting county league football. Something needs to stop the rot. A pre-Christmas visit of high-flying Harlow Town and their goal machine Alex Read was surely just the tonic. In terms of preparation, losing your manager (Mike Paye) 24 hours before kick off probably isn’t the greatest preparation either.

With landlords Bromley playing on Saturday, Cray were bumped off the main bill to the support card of Sunday. What a perfect opportunity for all the harassed fathers and husbands to drop their treasures off in the High Street then escape for a couple of hours to watch some good, honest football? Or was it just me who had that idea?

IMG_2334The first thing you notice if you haven’t been to Bromley FC this season is that the ground is now called The Fortress.  Alas, despite the coaching genius of Hugo Langton, the name has nothing to do with the impregnable Bromley defence, it is related to a sponsorship deal.   Once you pass through the turnstiles you will also notice that the old “lower” bar has now been replaced.  Instead of the jigsawed portakabin structure there is now Ravens, a wooden-bedecked bar and grill.  Very smart too – would have been even better if there any staff actually serving before the game though.

Cray Wanderers 2 Harlow Town 2 – Hayes Lane – Sunday 21st December 2014
Twenty minutes into this game you felt like waving the white flag on behalf of the home side.  Two nil down to high-flying Harlow, to anyone watching the game it was a case of how many the visitors would score.  But football is a fickle mistress and within a minute Cray were back in the game.  A spirited second half performance against ten men almost saw them grab all three points, rather than the one they finally earned.

With no other games in London today, the crowd was boosted by a fair few anorak wearers, desperate to find a team sheet and get a touch of the ball.  There were some loud tuts in the bar at the fact there was no real ale on, with the closest thing being some bottles of MasterBrew.  A ground of German ground hoppers didn’t care as they tucked into the Oranjeboom (“It’s a lager not a tune” I reminded one), fresh from a trip to see Spurs yesterday.

IMG_2332Despite the culture shock of having to play on a ploughed field compared to their lush 3G pitch, Harlow started with the kind of momentum their league position suggests and had come close twice before Junior Appiah opened the scoring in the 4th minute in somewhat comical style.  A Cray goal kick hits a defender’s back on the half-way line, the wind then carries the ball back over the heads of the back four, Alex Read mis-hits the ball into the path of Appiah and he slots the ball home.

Appiah and Read were causing all sorts of problems for the Cray defence, with some calamitous defending keeping the score down.  That man Read then pounced on a loose ball in the box, doubling the score with just twenty minutes on the clock.  It was all going so well for the visitors.  And then it all changed.  Cray’s first corner of the game saw centre-half, Dmitri Larin, steal in and head home.  Hope springs eternal.

IMG_2343Despite mounting pressure in the second half, Harlow simply couldn’t find the target.  Their job of holding onto the lead was made harder when Billy Jones was sent off for what was deemed a “reckless foul”, a harsh decision in most people’s book although the resulting 20 player melee was amusing to say the least.

With the temperature plunging, Cray started to warm up.  Poor defending left the Cray sub Shaun Welford unmarked and he headed home.  Two goals conceded from two unmarked positions. Only one team seemed to be in the hunt for the winner and Cray came within inches of grabbing all three points in the final seconds when only an acrobatic clearance denied them.

Full time – a great way to spend the final hours of the weekend before Christmas.  Harlow wont be happy with a point after their early domination, but Cray showed the type of fight that’s needed to drag themselves out of the relegation zone.  Who knows, with a point here, and news of a new ground on the horizon there could be a happy ending for one of the world’s oldest Wanderers.

The Nowhere Men


“You can never have enough heads”, so Worzel Gummidge once said and nothing could be closer to the truth than the roles I currently have at Lewes.  Director, co-website editor, co-programme editor and post-match interviewer. But I wouldn’t change them for the world.  We all have numerous roles at the board level, all unpaid and all done because we love the club. But this season I have taken on a new role.

imagesIn his recent book, the Nowhere Men, author Michael Calvin explores the role that scouts play in modern football.  These incredibly poorly paid, dedicated people see hundreds of games a season, often being paid no more than expenses, to try to find the next “Wayne Rooney”.  The book, one of the finest I have read in the past year, details Calvin’s interactions with the unseen, unheard of, secret layer of football. The Scouting network.  Whether it is trying to spot the next Rooney (Wayne rather than his cousin John) before anyone else, or trying to spot a weaknesses in the way a centre-back reads the game, a scout’s success or failure can often be a margin call, a gamble or even a gut feeling.

Tonight I have joined the Nowhere Men at Carshalton Athletic versus Dulwich Hamlet.  Whilst most football fans will be sitting comfortably at home, beer in hand, watching Olympiakos versus Manchester United, I am at The War Memorial Ground , struggling to see what I am writing in the darkness of the main stand, as I compile a scouting report on our forthcoming opponents.  With the information fresh in my head I will burn the midnight candle to get my observations onto a formal report before sending off to our management team.

It has come to something when I now get a formal nod of respect from others who tread this lonely path.  I made by scouting debut some years ago, but it wasn’t until this season that it become a regular gig.  I now look after “Scouting operations” in Kent, London and Essex.  Sounds flash, eh?  Well it is a self-awarded title but one I am proud of.  Essentially whenever I have a spare evening (or a Saturday as has been the case all too often this winter) and one of our opponents are within an hour’s drive I will be there, huddled in my big coat trying to work out if the right back really is right-footed at all and whether the centre-midfielder is really a holding player or simply unfit.  With every game you watch, you learn more about the game, more about how players minds work and more about the vulnerabilities and weaknesses each team has. And how desperate we all are at this level to pretend we are really making a difference. Continue reading

Mine’s a tale that cannot be told


When do we ever learn? On the weekend before Christmas last season virtually every game south of the Watford Gap was postponed due to torrential rain.  Throughout the Non-Leagues  the cries rang out for more 3G pitches to prevent such occurences happening again.  Twelve months later and once again I faced a blank weekend.  Despite the heroic efforts of Joe and Jack at the Dripping Pan, we had to admit defeat against the forces of nature, and for the second time in four days, we had a postponement on our hands.  The Saturday before Christmas, when clubs would be hoping for a bumper attendance of disillusioned men, Christmas shopping refugees who would spend their hard-earned cash with us rather than the retail Gods.

photo 1 (2)Every year we expect bad weather, but it seems that as the years progress, the season of postponements is getting longer and longer.  So far this season we have had three cancellations due to the weather.  We have already played (or supposed to have played) two games a week for the past six weeks, and face a similar story in the next six.  So what does the League say about that?  Well, nothing, as usual.  Their insistence on an early deadline to the end of the season (26th April) means virtually all clubs will be playing two or three games a week at a time in March and April.

Few who don;t follow the Non-League game will understand the pressure this puts on clubs.  Clubs at our level do not have income streams from commercial deals or TV revenues.  Our revenue comes from gate money and the subsequent spend in the bar, on food or at the club shop.  Alas, fans disposable income isn’t postponed when the match is – so if a fan was going to spend £30 today at a game, they wont save the cash for when the game is replayed, they will spend it on something else.  So if the game is re-arranged for when there is two or three games a week, they may not have the cash to attend, or if they do, spend less when they attend.

You can see the pattern in Lewes’s games this season.  We have played four midweek league games this season (excluding the Bank Holiday game in August) with an average attendance of 380.  Compare that to our Saturday home average league attendance of 633.  Our average yield (average spend per attendee) is £5.38 – so that means a difference in revenue between a home game and a midweek game is £1,360.  Sounds nothing, right?  Well, let’s say a club loses 4 Saturday games a season, that’s over £5k, and to a Non-League club £5k can be the difference between living and dying.

It’s at these times when the 3G argument is wheeled out.  “Why don’t more clubs install 3G pitches?” Is the cry we hear, citing the example of Maidstone United.  Alas, it’s not as simple as people think.  Take out of the equation the ridiculous FA rulings on which leagues can and can’t use the artificial surfaces, there are a number of considerations you have to bear in mind.

Firstly, the cost.  The pitches are not cheap.  Half a million or so to install, fifty thousand a year to maintain.  They have a live expectancy of ten-fifteen years, so they need to be depreciated like any other asset.  Of course, there are additional revenue opportunities from being able to use it and grants from the Football Foundation et al, but the initial investment is prohibitive to virtually every club.

Secondly, just because the pitches are artificial doesn’t make them immune to the bad weather.  I’ve seen two games at Maidstone United where the rain has been so bad that the completion of the game has been in serious doubt.  You can’t keep stopping a game to sweep the rain away.  Also, the artificial surfaces can be easily damaged by excessive sweeping.

Thirdly, games can still be postponed due to bad weather if the away team or the local authorities or police deem the surrounding area is dangerous or roads are impassable.  You need two teams to play a game so if one cannot arrive or fans cannot safely watch the game, it will be cancelled.

photo 2 (2)Finally, there is still some magic in watching a game played on a heavy pitch and will the rain or snow falling.  And that is exactly what I expected when I pulled into the car park at Leslie Fields, Burnham-on-Crouch yesterday.  My options A to F had all fallen by the wayside, but in the deepest, darkest corner of Essex, one of the newest Ryman League teams had manage to keep their game versus Waltham Abbey on.  Of course, the majority of the male fraternity of Essex would be here – after all it was the only game within a twenty-mile radius.  Quite how this had survived the monsoon-like conditions was beyond me.  As I waited at the Dartford Tunnel tolls there was a brief wobble when Twitter told me that there was a 2pm pitch inspection but the hoards of oldish men with their carrier bags getting out of their cars at the ground told me that it was on, and the pre-Christmas meeting place for Groundhoppers United.

Burnham Ramblers 0 Waltham Abbey 2 – Leslie Fields – Saturday 21st December 2013
It didn’t seem that all those other Non-League fans had the same desire to watch a game this afternoon.  Only 75 watched this very entertaining game, seven souls down on average.  Perhaps they felt there was no way this game would go ahead, or perhaps Lakeside proved to be a better draw.  Burnham-On-Crouch is not a bad place to spend a Saturday afternoon, with 22 pubs (at the last count) for a population of just 7,500 although there was little time for any pre-match hospitality today.

This was a great advert for Non-League football and the only disappointment was the small crowd.  Burnham’s groundstaff had worked miracles to get the pitch playable and it held out, just, with the continuing downpour during the afternoon.  Both keeper’s played a blinder both in terms of reading the conditions and the unpredictable nature of the ball.  If truth be told both sides should have scored a couple of goals apiece by half-time as it became impossible to play with any finesse – attack became the only option.

photo 3 (1)After a goal less first half it was the away side who took the lead with fifteen minutes remaining when Christian Wheeler somehow forced the ball over the line after a scrambled corner.  Did the ball go over the line?  The Assistant Referee signalled it did, although the reaction of the home players suggested they didn’t agree.  Fifteen minutes later as the match entered its final minute the game was put beyond doubt when Ayrton Coley finished off an excellent move which saw Waltham Abbey break from a corner and have a 4 to 1 overlap.  Did they deserve it?  On the whole they probably did.

If ever there was an afternoon when football was the winner, then this was it.  I had escaped the Christmas shopping chaos and seen some football to boot.  Heck, sod football, I was the winner.  Take that rain and all the talk of a 3G revolution.

Jacks of all trade


Today is the start of our FA Cup campaign.  From the moment the draw was made back in July, we have been looking forward to starting our long journey to HA9.  For all Non-League sides, the Road to Wembley will ultimately end in disappointment, but there are financial degrees of disappointment.  Last season our campaign started on a high in the scorching sunshine at Redhill but ended two weeks later with a feeble capitulation at Hendon.  Whilst the Wembley Arch was tantalisingly close for us to see, it would be another 12 months before we could dream the dream again.

9741081789_d3e184a2a0_bEvery year one or two Non-League clubs go further than their wildest dreams.  Our colleagues from East Thurrock United and Met Police have reached the 1st round in recent years, and last season Hastings United traveled to Middlesbrough in the third round with the hopes of all grassroots teams with them.  Every year we hope it will be our team.  That is the beauty of these rounds of the FA Cup.  No egos, no attitudes, no moving games for TV, no guts, no glory.  Every team has a story to tell about past glories, unique tales and legendary fans.

At 3pm today we will at Piddinghoe Avenue, home of Peacehaven and Telscombe FC, just a few miles down the road and over the South Downs from Lewes.  This is what the FA Cup is all about.  The conditions, the slope of the pitch and the motivation of the players – that’s what makes the FA Cup qualifying rounds so special.  Hundreds will be crammed into the small ground, probably getting soaking wet, watching every kick as eleven of the players will end the tie battered, bruised but one step further to being household names for a weekend.

My conversations with colleagues this week have been full of hope and promise.  Few knew where Peacehaven was, even fewer that they had a football team.  Of course I educated them on how the town was formed back in 1916 and named through a competition in the Daily Express, which was one by a Mrs Ethel Radford from Leicestershire and the fact the town sits on the Greenwich Meridian.  “The place where Tiffany’s ashes were scattered in Eastenders? And where Jimmy rides off the cliff at the end of Quadrophenia?” they asked.  “Absolutely.” Everyone deep down knows about Peacehaven. Continue reading

A strange case of Mimi Labonq


786There isn’t a lot to say about a trip to East Thurrock United that hasn’t been said before.  Predominantly by me, naturally, on my three previous visits to this little slice of rural England-cum-Oil refineries.  I’ve mentioned before it can claim Denise Van Outen and Dougie Poynter as its famous daughter and son, but have I ever mentioned it was also the home village of Sue Hodge, better know as Mimi Labonq from the classic 80#s comedy show ‘Allo ‘Allo.  Sue was a regular at Rookery Hill, cheering the lads on as they rose through the divisions I’d expect, signing autographs like the one to the right for anyone who wanted it (an autograph that is and perhaps some witty Anglophile banter). Oh, and every time we have come here, we have lost.  One bloody nil.  So excuse me if even a chance of seeing the 1985 Mimi in all of her finest didn’t excite me.

But tonight Matthew, it was all about the action on the pitch and not off it.  A strong Parliament of 40 Rooks had descended on deepest, darkest Essex for the midweek encounter with the Rocks to see if this great start to the season could continue.  My mate Ben told me that the last time Spurs had won away on the opening day of the season they qualified for the Champions League.  The last time the Rooks had gone 3 games unbeaten at the start of a season they won the league.  Like all football fans, we clutch at straws even after three games in a season. Continue reading

Folkestone unconquered


Another Pre-season Saturday, another scorching hot summer’s day. It would be rude not to take in a game on such a fine day.  And that is why I find myself watching the Garden of England rush by my window, travelling at speeds that would normally make South Eastern trains have a nosebleed.  There’s been many a column inch written in recent times about new train lines in this country since the HS2 train line route was announced last year that will cut through the English countryside to deliver travel time savings to us all, at a ridiculous expense. Whilst we can marvel at currently being able to travel from London to Manchester in just 2 hours, the cost of travel still far outweighs the advantages (and it is still cheaper and quicker to fly).

9428056129_f417c8d947_bBut few actually know where or what HS1 is? It has actually been around for well over a year and runs from London St Pancras, via Stratford International, Ebbsfleet International, Ashford International and Folkestone (no International status has been bestowed on the station yet due to a work permit issue). Travel times are, quite frankly ridiculous. 19 minutes from Ebbsfleet to Ashford – less than half of the time it would take to drive there, but the cost is significant. £25 for a single ticket, to be precise, making it more expensive than the very expensive Arlanda Express in Stockholm.  And that is where I am currently sitting, in air conditioned luxury.

I had packed my bag to head to Folkestone for the day to experience some Kentish hospitality and of course game number six in my pre-season preparations.Travelling by train to football seems so foreign to me but on a day when the sun was shining and the Shepherd Neame was calling, it seemed the most logical choice. If you are going to travel, then travel in style.

You can’t go far around the edge of the Kent coast before you bump into a football club, meaning that local derbies are ten a penny in these parts. Stretching from Whitstable Town in the north, through Herne Bay, passed Margate and Ramsgate, waving hello to Deal Town before you reach Dover Athletic, Folkestone Invicta and finally Hythe Town.

Whilst passions never run too high in these parts, some games do generate significant local interest. In fact the Folkestone v Hythe local derbies have generated some of the biggest crowds in the Isthmian League in the past two seasons and is testament to the fanbase in these parts. But arguably the biggest game is the Folkestone v Dover tie. Due to Dover’s recent climb up the leagues, the two clubs rarely meet at a competitive level, and so it is left to the occasional pre-season clash to settle old scores. Continue reading

On cloud ninety


After a week of moving from city to city across Europe for work it was good to return home. And by home I of course mean The Dripping Pan. I am known for my amazing ability to find myself in a city for work when there is a game on. You could almost write a book of instances where this happened. In fact I actually have – The Football Tourist – coming to all bookstores on the 1st September, published by those lovely people at Ockley Books.

9365409639_23b5e2f470_bBut enough of gratuitous plugs for my writing ability (The Football Tourist – “A bloody good read” – Mrs B Fuller). This week had been a write off in terms of great organisation. On Tuesday I was lapping up the sunshine in the Augustiner Keller, after a hard day’s graft in the Munich office just as IF Hammarby were christening their new stadium in Stockholm with a game against PSG. And then just twenty-four hours later I was in the Capital of Cool, whilst Bayern were taking on Barcelona in Munich. The football gods were not smiling.

But I couldn’t really complain. An evening drinking some of the finest Bavarian beer, served by buxom dirndl-clad waitresses had been replaced by watching the Scandinavian blondes jumping in the water around the archipelago (always wanted to shoe-horn that word in) in the land of the almost-midnight sun. And then I return to good old Blighty just in time for Lewes’s Friday night extravaganza against Burgess Hill Town.

photo (39)Non League fans can never be accused of being the most optimistic of people, and The Rooks fans have certainly endured their fair share of false dawns in the past few years. But this season, the “o” word has been whispered on the concrete steps of the Jungle. Two draws against local opposition were followed up with an impressive 3-1 win against Brighton & Hove Albion on Wednesday. Granted, it was their development XI. The concept of a Development XI is another new-fangled footballing buzzword. Back in the day a club would have a First XI and a Reserve team, possibly a youth squad. The Development squad sort of sits in between the reserves and the youth team with a fair smattering of players on trial from elsewhere. Basically it is a ruse to put out a team that if you then get beaten by a Non League side you can say , “Ah, yes, but it was our development side”.  Another development of crap modern football whilst the actual first team have jetted half-way around the world to play a game against a team from down the road (Arsenal v Man City in Helsinki next weekend anyone?). Continue reading