Football is nothing

E5C6DC2D-F1C5-44C4-970B-D8A1426B8C24Being a football fan means having to take the rough with the smooth.  You often hear manager’s bemoan their luck when decisions don’t go their way, or when a break in a game goes against them.  “Over the course of the season, these things even themselves out” is a line straight out of the David Pleat Talking Bollocks guide – they don’t.  Football has a habit of building us up with hope then cruelly knocking us down.

After our last minute defeat to Tonbridge Angels on Tuesday, The Rooks fell to the bottom of the league.  It has now become irrelevant on how others are doing – it is all about us.  100% focus on preparation for each game, with a no-lose mentality.  As fans we have unconditional love for our team.  Some fans may show signs of weakness when times get tough – although if you listen to a Chelsea fan of a certain age they will swear blind that they stood back in the day on the crumbling Shed when the team battled against relegation to the third tier of English football.  Amazing how they were the best supported team back then, eh!

Each game brings a new challenge.  As a fan you look at the stats, trying to find some crumb of comfort from recent form or head to head results against our opponent.  For the visit of Kingstonian there wasn’t anything particularly warming about either.  It’s now been 240 days since we last won a home game, whether that is a league, cup or friendly.  Since our last win against Enfield Town we’ve seen a new government elected, One Direction split up and England win the Ashes – global events that have shaped our world, yet still The Rooks can’t find that win at home.

Everyone I bumped into at the ground when I arrived at 1.30pm told me “we’re going to win today”.  I had that same confidence.  The performances in the last two games against Hailsham Town and Tonbridge Angels had been encouraging to say the least.  A win today and all would be well with the world, enough to warm even the coldest heart on a freezing afternoon.

Lewes 1 Kingstonian 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 21st November 2015
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It all started so well.  Four minutes in and a smart move saw Henry Muggeridge slot the ball home.  The sense of relief both on the and off the pitch was palpable. Some teams in a similar position would have immediately retreated but Lewes kept the tempo up, trying to find a second.  Whilst the half ended more on a whimper than a bang, we went in ahead for the first time in sixteen games.  Darren Freeman’s half-time teamtalk revolved around not sitting back.  So what did we do?

We sat back and allowed Kingstonian to come into the game.  It could have been all over with twenty minutes to go when Richard Pacquette’s shot across the keeper bounced back off the bar.  Two-nil would have been game, set and match.

One of the soft underbellies of Lewes in recent years has been conceding late, crucial goals.  Tonbridge Angels (lost 1-0), Hampton & Richmond Borough (lost 2-1), Billericay Town (lost 3-2), Harrow Borough (drew 1-1) this season alone. So when Kingstonian threw on veteran striker Ricky Sappleton in place of a centre-back with five minutes to go, the sense of foreboding swept across the terrace.  It took him 90 seconds to score the equaliser and a further 3 minutes to grab the winner.  Words couldn’t descibe the feeling as we saw all 11 Kingstonian players, bench and fans celebrate the goal in the far corner.  To give the players credit they pressed for an equaliser.  Laing ran into the box but was scythed down.  Penalty!!!  Not if you are a referee who is 20 yards behind play it isn’t.  Free-kick a yard outside of the box.  Thanks for that.

Not all defeats are the same.  When you are truly beaten you need to hold your hands up and say “fair do’s”.  But when you lose in such a manner, time after time you are simply lost for words.  Whilst Bill Shankley said football was more important than life itself it isn’t.  It hurts when you lose, deeply when you in a situation like ours.  But what can you do?  You can’t change the past only the future.  So we go back to the drawing board and plan for 3 points next week at Staines Town.

We may be in the gutter but we are looking up at the stars

 It’s not been the best starts to a season down here at The Dripping Pan. A cracking pre-season, with our young squad passing the ball on the ground and scoring goals lured us all into a false sense of optimism that disappeared after 45 bruising minutes in our first league game at Leatherhead. Seventeen league games on and we are still in the bottom four, on our second manager of the season and were dumped out of both the FA Cup and the League Cup in the first rounds. You have to endure a lot of rain to see a small rainbow supporting Lewes.

But in the past few weeks we seen little slithers of light among the dark clouds hovering over East Sussex. Losing by one goal in seven last week, then gaining a point and a clean sheet on the road on Tuesday was encouraging from a performance if not a pure points point of view. New faces have been brought in who seem to want to play for the manager rather than for money and that spirit is starting to shine through. Whilst we don’t yet have to climb Everest to retain our place in the division, Kilimanjaro is still a challenge, but knowing that my 60 year old neighbour managed it with the right preparation gives me hope.

This week we held our first ‘meet the manager’ session along with our AGM. It’s fair to say that the club has taken a bit of a battering on social media and the fans forum this season on a number of topics. These of course escalate when we lose, with the world and their wife having their say – which is quite right. The fans forum should be a place to air concerns, criticism and comments. But disappointingly, when given the opportunity to direct questions specifically at the manager and more importantly the Board and executive management of the club, only a dozen or so turn up. For those who did attend I’m sure they got a greater insight into the time, effort and resources that go into making the club work towards financial stability. Nobody shy’s away from the fact that football on the pitch has been, in the words of my learned colleague Mr Ramsden, “relentlessly mediocre and conspicuously awful” in recent years and that’s what brings people through the gates. But likewise without the activities that take place off the pitch the club would be no more.

imageWe may be unusual from a Non-League budgeting point of view that we never include any potential cup revenues when we draw up the financial plan for the year. Every club starts the season with dreams of what could be with a bit of luck in the draw and a couple of decent performances. Our feeble exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Phoenix Sports back in September in from of less than 150 saw us earn about £5 from the cup this year whilst Staines Town, the last Ryman League representative left in the competition can look forward to travelling to East London next Saturday and taking on Leyton Orient, having already pocketed £25,000 in prize money and will get a 50% share of a very decent gate next week. So today’s tie against Hampton & Richmond Borough becomes significantly more meaningful with a bit of cash on offer. Should we win it will essentially provide an extra week’s wages for the squad.

Sounds easy right? Especially when we have already taken four points off The Beavers this season, or in other words, 57% of our total points. Back in mid-September we went to The Beeveree and came away with an impressive 4-0 win that gave us all hope that the tide had turned. Lewes then went on a ten game losing streak, only arrested, with no pun intended, at Met Police on Tuesday whilst our visitors today have ascended the table to arrive at The Pan in second place in the table.

The FA Trophy is an incredibly tough competition to progress in for clubs at our level. The financial gap between us and even teams in the league above is huge. Last season we know that Maidstone United were spending in the region of £9k per week, Margate potentially more or in other words up to five times the amount we spend on our playing budget. I would guess that both have increased that amount for this season yet Margate sit just above the relegation zone. Factor in that almost fifty percent of the Conference National have relatively recently played in the Football League and you can see how tough it is to progress.

imageThe other issue any club that has a good run in the competition faces is fixture congestion. Back in 2012 Wealdstone reached the semi-finals of the competition, the last time a team from the Ryman League reached that stage. Their reward was to have to play 3 or 4 games a week at the back end of the season because of the rules stipulated by the league. That ridiculous concentration of games ultimately saw them lose any hope of automatic promotion.

I think we all echo the words of manager Darren Freeman in “I’d rather be playing someone else” today, but perhaps this is just the test we need to see how far we have progressed I a short period of time before we return to base camp and preparation for our league table ascent. Cover your ears Ed but it’s not about the money, it’s about the performance.

Lewes 0 Hampton & Richmond Borough 0 -The Dripping Pan – Saturday 31st October 2015

Cup football in the middle of a run of league games can be a help or a hindrance for a team. In some ways this game was a free role of the dice for the rapidly reforming Rooks side – ninety minutes to gel as a team rather than focusing on the result. With injuries and player ineligibility the Rooks certainly started as the underdogs but left the field after ninety minutes feeling that a draw was a bit harsh on themselves.

Not only were key players missing from the Rooks line-up but the ridiculous FA rules meant that no-one could have a beer on the terraces. Yep, this is the same tournament that for seasons was sponsored by Carlsberg. Still, chips with curry sauce were back on the menu at the Chuck Wagon – in my mind we were already in the next round.

imageDespite the absences Lewes put in their best performance of the season, bar the last time they played Hampton & Richmond. Players knew their roles, played to their strengths, won 50/50 balls, timed the last ditch tackles and adopted a ‘attack is the best form of defence’ mindset. The only thing that was missing was the winning goal, although not for the want of trying.

Two consecutive scoreless draws do not make a season, but when you’ve had the run of form we’ve had recently gone through its a massive step in the right direction. We go again on Tuesday with our eye still on that big cheque.

Ten out of ten

Words have been hard to come by in recent weeks.  I’ve not let up in the number of games I have been watching, although for once my work trips haven’t coincided with any games (they’ve wised up to my little games perhaps?)I’ve just been short of motivation on what to write.  Being a fan of a team who go through a poor run isn’t much fun.  Being in a position of accountability of a team who go through a poor run is even less fun. Match days become longer and longer as you examine every little detail to see what you can do to end the run.

Today’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of mid-table Leatherhead marked the tenth consecutive defeat for Lewes in all competitions. The game, as the scoreline suggests, was pretty decent – five of the seven goals coming in the opening quarter of the game no less.  But I’m no longer able to walk away at full time as a neutral or even a fair-weather fan and have simply enjoyed the thrilling game.  I have to analyse where we as a club went wrong both in terms of preparation but also execution.  Whether we lost 4-3 or 7-0, we came away from the game with the same number of points – zero and our league position worsens.

FullSizeRender (8)You look for crumbs of comfort in this situation.  We’ve lost seven of those ten games by just one goal.  Seven different bounces of the ball, seven shots that the keeper could fumble, seven crosses we head to safety.  Seven different decisions could have given us seven points we don’t have today.  There’s no satisfaction in scouting a team, documenting their yellow belly but then falling foul to the sole threat they offer.  You can draw positional play diagrams to your hearts content, play videos of set-pieces all night or write detailed notes on tactics but if the players don’t take it on board then there is little you can do.  Leatherhead’s star man Karagiannis scored two superb, almost identical goals yesterday.  He’s a left-footed player who plays on the right. He hugs the touchline then runs inside the full back and shoots from distance. He’s done that twice in games I’ve seen.  Yesterday he did it twice in a few minutes and scored on both occasions.

Someone recently wrote on the club’s forum “Being a director isn’t about being popular.  It is about doing the right thing.” Yes, we are all fans but that doesn’t make us immune from not being accountable.  You need a thick skin at times – every decision is open to scrutiny.  Football fans at all levels see the game through different eyes and are satisfied by different things.  Growing up as a West Ham game I was always told it was better to play the “West Ham way” and lose 4-3 than to play direct and win 1-0.  I saw exciting players such as Alan Devonshire, Ray Stewart, Alan Dickens, Frank McAvennie and Paolo Di Canio. But some of the most memorable games were those where Julian Dicks, Martin Allen and David Cross were at their best.  They weren’t “flair” players – they played with their hearts and had a “win at all cost” mentality.  However, when you are deep in the relegation myre you will take a win at all costs.  We can all comfort ourselves that we lost whilst still playing some good football, but we still lost.

FullSizeRender (7)Earlier this year we took a tough decision to change our management team.  We were on a bad run and whilst we could have potentially scraped through without making a change, there was enough of a risk that we could be relegated for us to take the tough decision.  The majority of the fans backed the decision and we brought in someone who had managed at a higher level but limited knowledge of football in Sussex.  We battled and won games at all costs.  We retained our place in the division without any outside intervention yet some still questioned the style of play.  Our sole objective was to stay up yet some expected that “West Ham way”.

Lewes may be very different from other Non League Clubs in that we think about the future as much as the present.  The past is gone – we cannot change it BUT we can learn from it.  Coming within a whisker of not having a club at all is a sobering situation.  That near death experience will never be forgotten by those who went through it.  Thinking about the future means ensuring that we need to live within our means, not mortgaging today for something that will almost certainly not happen in the future.  Football is littered with the casualties of this blinkered view.  Leeds United, Coventry City, Blackpool, Portsmouth, Torquay United, Hereford United – the list goes on of clubs who have ignored the lessons of the past.  Some, such as Portsmouth and to an extent Coventry City now think in a very different way.

I would like to think that in five or ten years time we have a very different board at Lewes than we have today.  Change is good – a fresh perspective, new ideas not encumbered by the past. But none of the existing board will renegade on their responsibilities today.  Nobody tells you what the “right thing to do” actually is.  What is right to me may be wrong to one, two, ten, two hundred others.  Our frame of reference is and will continue to be until we are 100% self-sustaining “what impact will this decision have on the club tomorrow?”  The club has been criticised from some quarters that we concentrate too much on the off the field activities – the posters, the beach huts, the 80’s band as a shirt sponsor.  Without these things we would almost certainly be playing at a much lower level than we are today.  We are very good at creating media interest and consequently more revenue that can be invested on the pitch because we have that expertise within the club.

Fans come to football for a number of reasons.  Escapism, to meet up with friends, to be entertained, to play our their dreams.  You can fall out of love with football if you start seeing the game as a millstone around your neck, knowing that someone decisions made by 11 men on the pitch are your collective responsibility.

Yesterday could have ended up 5-5 or more.  Lewes created more chances in one game than they had done in the previous five or six.  Less than sixty seconds after we drew the score back to 2-2 the Leatherhead keeper made a save that he knew nothing about, keeping the ball out with his cheek.  At 4-2 our centre-back found himself with the ball at his feet with only the goal keeper to beat and poked the ball wide. Alex Laing hit the post.  That in itself brought some of that love back.  It made me realise the team did care, that the ten defeats to them meant something too.  For some fans it still wasn’t enough.  They wanted a win, a win at all or any cost.  I can understand that too.  But going back to something I said earlier, we didn’t lose because the club promotes its beach huts, its posters or its catering.  Likewise when we win (and we will do very soon) it has nothing directly to do with those things either.

When teams win every week, everything is right.  The team and the club can do no wrong.  But then when things do start to falter they are blown out of all proportion.  Chelsea’s start to the season has been average in comparison to other Premier League sides.  But they aren’t considered to be “another” Premier League side.  The media prefix their name with “reigning Premier League Champions” all the time.  The past is past.  There is no sense of entitlement in football.  West Ham’s win over Chelsea yesterday was down to the referee, goal line technology and Mourinhio’s half time spat.  Bilic’s tactics or the performance of players such as Payat become irrelevant.  Chelsea lost the game rather than West Ham winning it apparently.  According to the loyal fans, Chelsea’s predicament is down to the manager not getting the players he wanted to sign in the summer.  The fact that other teams have invested their smaller resources in a better way is irrelevant.

So back to football in East Sussex and our losing streak.  Defeats hurt, especially when you are hopelessly second best.  For the first time in quite a while I saw hope yesterday.  Hope that the players are caring as much as I do, hope that we can create chances and more importantly take them, hope that come what May (or April) that we will be looking down the table rather than up it.  Football should come with a health rather than a wealth warning at our level

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.