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.

Screw you guys, I’m going home

To be fair there was a dozen or so titles I could have used for this mini-blog about my visit to watch South Park.  Not since Rhubarb & Custard Rovers went bust back in 1978 has a football club spawned its own animated show.  Not even the Oil and Gas billions of Chelsea and Manchester City led to the resurrection of a new series of Hong Kong Phoey or Top Cat (rumours that Barcelona have signed a deal to remake that as “Top Catalunya” are yet to be confirmed).  According to the Buzzfeed website, the catchphrase in the title is the most recognised line in the animated sitcom that has been running for 18 series since the late 1990’s.  Oh how the fans of Ryman League South side South Park must laugh every time visiting supporters leave.  The club apparently still has a ban on signing players called “Kenny” for fear of their lives.

The football club’s trajectory has been at the expense of the TV show.  There could only be the place for one South Park in the media and it was the time of the football club to claim their rightful mantle.  Just ten years ago the club were playing in the Crawley & District League.  They didn’t play their first national cup game, the FA Vase tie against Shoreham, until 2006 and five years ago entered the FA Cup for the first time.  In 2014 they won promotion to the Ryman League and more than held their own in their debut season last year, mainly thanks to the goals of Chris Smith (34 goals) who had now joined tonight’s opponents, Burgess Hill Town.

FullSizeRenderOne of the keys to their success is having a 7 day a week facility that is used by the community.  Whilst the clubhouse sits a couple of hundred of yards from the ground, it is used for all hospitality for the club as well as a cricket pavilion and darts.  Dare I say there was a fast shoe shuffled there a few nights a week too.  For those who don’t know where South Park is then let me enlighten you.  Head around the M25 to junction 8, follow signs to Reigate, navigate the one-way system and then head down the narrowest, twisty country lanes for 1.4 miles and you have arrived at your destination.

Tonight’s game was a bit of a bonus as it gave me the chance to have a little look at one of our opponents next season, Burgess Hill Town who swept all before them last season and judging by their pre-season acquisitions will be quite a proposition this season.  Not that you can ever learn anything from friendlies, apparently.

South Park  1 Burgess Hill Town 4 – King George’s Field – Wednesday 29th July 2015
The one vital component in scouting a team is a team sheet.  It’s all very well in the professional era where all of the players have names on their shirts, but at a Non-League level it is neigh on impossible to find out who is who unless you know the club well.  Which I didn’t.  Still you can look at formations and style of play – that is until they change that two or three times in the game.  Still, I had a nice bottle of Hog’s Back Brewery TEA which more than made up for my almost blank sheet of paper at half time.

FullSizeRender (1)This really was a game of two halves.  It also broke my run of twelve consecutive games where both teams had failed to score, a run that had taken me across the world and back. South Park started the brighter and took an early lead and had the better of the midfield exchanges in the first period, then after the break it was a different story as Burgess Hill changed things around and scored four goals which their dominance deserved.

Time will tell how far the South Park journey will go.  For now they seemed very much at home in their little country pad, with an excellent community facility, looking to upset the bigger teams in the league.


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.

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
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.