Will the Europa League be a distraction for West Ham’s most important season?


Like most football clubs, West Ham United fans can be divided into a number of groups. Those who wanted Allardyce to stay (a few), those who wanted him to go (a few thousand); those who think Upton Park is perfectly adequate for us, to those who can’t wait for the move to the Olympic Stadium (about 50/50 I’d say) and those who think Andy Carroll was worth every penny of the £15m (John, from Hornchurch) to those who think we paid over the odds by £14.9m (the rest of the world). But the news that the Hammers had been allocated a place in the Europa League has seriously divided the fans.

Let’s wind back to start with before we get too excited about potential trips to San Marino, Moldova and the Faroes. What happened on the pitch at Upton Park, and the other Premier League stadium is for the most part irrelevant in the Hammers getting their sun towels and beach balls out. Firstly, Fair Play is a mixture of what happens on the pitch but also the behaviour of the fans. West Ham’s travelling support, which continues to be superb have been accused in the media in the past of creating issues at White Hart Lane in the past two seasons surrounding the use of the “Y” word. This would count against them. The official criteria, as assessed by a “Fair Play Delegate” would penalise a club if their fans engaged in:-

– Persistent foul and abusive language
– Persistent abuse of the officials’ decisions
– Aggressive and threatening conduct towards opposing fans

Whilst West Ham finished top of the Fair Play table from the Premier League, they still had to rely on the rest of the Premier League sides to behave themselves so that the overall English score was one of the top 3 out of the 54 UEFA associations. So potentially, a mass brawl involving the two Manchester clubs, or Mourinho punching Wenger’s lights out in the press conference could have impacted West Ham’s position.

England will finish in second place once the official cut off point arrives on the 30th May, behind the Netherlands and just in front of Republic of Ireland which meant the Golden Ticket landed on the doormat of Upton Park today, much to the delight of the fans. What makes it even sweeter is that this is the last time Europa League places will be given to the Fair Play winners. As of next season, the three winning national associations will get a pot of cash towards “fair play or respect-themed projects”. Enough said.

The Hammers will join 103 other teams in the draw on the 22nd June. There are some very good teams who are also going to have to try and battle through 22 games to reach the final in May in Basel. Brøndby, Slovan Bratislava, Aberdeen, Hadjuk Split and Red Star Belgrade will all be cutting short their time on the sun loungers, whilst Champions League stalwarts Rosenborg, IFK Göteborg and AIK will be slap-bang in the middle of their season. The good news is West Ham are actually the highest ranked team in the draw and as such will be drawn against an unranked team, which could mean a trip into unchartered territories such as Gibraltar, Cyprus and Faroe Islands. The longest potential trip is to Almaty, where the Kazakhstan Cup winners Kairat play, a 6,960 mile round trip.

So whilst the fans will be rubbing their hands at the thought of a visit to somewhere new, what will the impact be on preparations for the most important season in the club’s history? It’s fair to say that it would be a financial disaster to start the next chapter in the club’s history in the Olympic Stadium in the Championship. That’s one of the reasons why the club have been very forthcoming in announcing season ticket pricing for that first season, a very commendable and unusually significant price reduction. Most clubs would be coming back for pre-season in the second week of July, with friendlies kicking off a week or so later. So with the first tie due to be played on the 2nd July, the players will need to be back in the next few weeks – hardly a break at all for the West Ham players.

If the timescales weren’t tight enough, there’s the added issue of the club not yet having a manager. Whilst the board will move quickly to find a successor, setting out clear criteria for the successful candidate such as “the candidate will be expected to understand the club, its fans and culture, and can encourage the ‘West Ham way’ of playing attacking football”. The new manager, if they have been appointed, will probably go into that first leg without having seen anything of his new side. By the time the Premier League season kicks off in mid-August, West Ham could have played six games in the Europa League. That throws the whole pre-season schedule up in the air.

How seriously will the club take the competition? Bar Hull City’s gamble last season, which nine months later seriously back-fired on them after they put out a weakened side for their tie against Lokeren in the Play-Off round, English clubs have faired quite well in the Europa League. The furthest that a team has progressed from a fair-play entry is the quarter-finals, achieved by Aston Villa in 1998, Rayo Vallecano in 2001 and Manchester City 2009. City also progressed beyond the Group Stages in 2005. Changes to the competition from next season mean we will never see the romantic notion of a plucky FA Cup runner up such as Portsmouth playing in the competition, with the place instead going to the next placed team in the league. Whilst the timing is poor, I’d expect West Ham to take the tournament more seriously as the rounds progress. On the 2nd July I wouldn’t expect many of the first team to be involved. Whilst it’s a risk, especially if they are drawn against a team who are half-way through their summer season such as one from Finland, Sweden or Norway, they cannot risk bringing players back too early and thus compromising the Premier League season.

It’s not the first time West Ham have agreed to enter European football early. Sixteen years ago the club accepted an invite to play in the now-defunct Intertoto Cup, which meant that the Hammers kicked off the season on the 17th July at Upton Park against the Finns Jokerit. Paul Kitson’s goal in front of a respectable 11,000 crowd kicked the season off. Come August and the start of the Premier League, the Hammers had already tested themselves against Heerenveen and FC Metz before anyone else had kicked a ball in earnest, giving them the momentum to get a flying start, sitting in third after five games, with four wins. Alas the squad side and momentum faded at Christmas, although the final position of ninth was still commendable.

Despite the poor second half of the season form (16 points from 19 games) and uncertainty around who will accept the manager’s role, the news that the club has been given a free airplane ticket certainly raised spirits and for some fans, the revelation of where they will be heading in early July is as important as who will be next manager. That’s the nature of football.

Post-season Blues….and Citizens and Spurs


A weeks after the end of the season used to be the reserve of testimonials for long-serving players and club officials. Football has moved on, and the likelihood of a player staying at one club for 5 years, let alone a decade is very rare. Look at the final top four in the Premier League – John Terry at Chelsea (11 years since debut) is the stand out exception to this; Man City could boast Micah Richards (10 years) although 179 appearances in ten years and spending the last season on loan to Fiorentina, whilst Arsenal of course have the £2m a year forgotten man (by most outside of the Emirates anyway) Abou Diaby who made his debut in 2006.

This week Crystal Palace honoured the service of their long-serving keeper Julián Speroni who had made over 350 appearances since joining the club in 2004 with a testimonial against former club Dundee. However, Palace appeared to be the exception rather than the rule of playing post-season games with any altruistic meaning.

Yet twenty four hours after Palace honoured their keeper, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were due to play games of their own. This time it wasn’t to honour a particular player, or reward any member of the club for long service. In fact it is hard to think of any reason apart from a commercial obligation why they would be heading to Canada and Malaysia respectively.

The clubs will argue it is all about building a fan base in new markets, but does that really stack up? With the Premier League season done and dusted less than 72 hours previous, why would Manchester City decide it was a good idea for their squad to fly 3,500 miles to Toronto? Assuming they left on Monday, that’s quite a strain on the players having just completed a full season, and one that was proceeded for many of the players by the World Cup in Brazil and also included a mid-season game in Abu Dhabi against Hamburg. Straight after the game in Toronto they then head to Texas (a mere 1,500 miles) where 24 hours later they take on Houston.

Tottenham Hotspur haven’t exactly been brimming with joy at the prospect of another Europa League campaign next season. Back in April Mauricio Pochettino admitted the Europa League is a hindrance to a Premier League club’s domestic aspirations, yet the club have already headed East for a game in Malaysia on Wednesday before flying onto Australia to take on Sydney on Saturday. They will be joined down under by Chelsea who also take on Sydney on Tuesday night after a stop in Thailand to play the”All Stars XI” on Saturday. It’s hard to have sympathy with the clubs when they complain about fixture congestion then take off on such trips.

What makes these trips even more strange in terms of their timing is a number of the players will be included in International squads for friendlies being played on the 6th and 7th June.  England, Republic of Ireland, Brazil, France, Argentina and Ghana are all due to play that weekend, putting further strain on the players.

These post season games seem to be a growing trend. Not that it detracts from their pre-season games – Manchester City will be heading to Australia to take part in the newly expanded International Champions Cup, taking on Roma and Barcelona in Melbourne, whilst Chelsea play in the North American edition against New York RedBulls, PSG and Barcelona. Spurs will be one of the other four current Premier League sides heading Stateside  as they take on the MLS All-Stars at the wonderfully named Dick’s Sporting Goods Store Stadium in he equally brilliantly named Commerce City in Colorado.

Football is a highly competitive global game on and off the pitch, but do these post-season games really help the players, who are the profit generators when viewed with commercial glasses on? Do you think Mourinho, Pellegrini and Pochettino have the same enthusiasm for these trips as adidas, Samsung, Nike, Etihad, Armour and AIA have? In some instances the club’s have to perform based on clauses in hugely profitable commercial partnerships, underlining the shift from the people’s game to a game dominated by money. That’s not a surprise. Tomorrow’s avid Chelsea or Man City fan is just as likely to live in Shanghai as he is in Streatham or Stretford, snapping up all the club have to offer in a digital format such as the ability to watch these games exclusively in the club’s online TV channel.

Tickets for the games in Thailand and Malaysia aren’t cheap. When Chelsea play in the Rajamangala National Stadium on Saturday in the Singha Celebration Match (Chelsea’s Global Beer Partner), tickets range from around £10 to close to £80, which is almost a third of the average monthly income in Thailand. Even Arsenal cannot boast that price to income ratio yet! Meanwhile over in Selangor where the average Malaysian earns approximately £900 per month, tickets for the AIA Cup (Spurs shirt sponsor) game will cost between £10 and £75 although there are no concessions at all.

I’m sure the fans who are following their teams across the world will enjoy the opportunity to visit some new cities, whilst the marketing officials and PR companies will do their best to get players to look happy at choreographed public appearances. The clubs will stand firmly behind the pretext of building their brand in new markets, but does this simply add more weight to the stealth plans of Game 39 once more?

Postscript – 28/5 – Man City’s game at the BBVA stadium in Houston was postponed after the team arrived in Texas due to issues with the pitch.  Well, that was worth it then.

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
17552282739_f5eecc8288_z
The subplot here of course was the Return of the King.  Steve King, arguably Lewes’s most successful manager was in charge of our opponents and no doubt an element of revenge was in his mind.  Which manager doesn’t want to beat their old clubs, especially in a high-profile game.  Pre-match King and Steve Brown were in a relaxed mood, no doubt discussing the merits of their respective owners rather than the gleaming silver trophy in front of them.

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So final table looks like:-

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

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

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 7 – If…


“If you can keep your cool when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming results on you,
If you can trust yourself when all fans moan at you,
But don’t slag them off for their moaning too;
If you can wait for an away win and not be tired by waiting,
Or talking your chances up but dealing in lies,
Or being hated, yet don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too smart, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream of an FA Cup run and not make that dream your master;
If you can imagine a 3rd Round home tie and not make gate receipts your aim;
If you can meet with floodlight failure and waterlogged disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by local journalists to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the players you rely on, on the floor broken,
Whilst the poor officials obviously don’t know the rules:

If you can make one gamble with half your weekly budget
And risk it on one big name ex-Premier League midfield boss
And see him break down on his debut, and have to think again
Or smile outwardly after their mistake causes another loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To stay behind the goal in the rain long after the others have gone,
And hold on when there is no warmth left in you
Because nobody else will shout at your winger to warn him: “Man on!”

If you can stand on the Jungle and keep your pint safe,
Or talk with Kingy—remembering the common touch,
If neither fanzines nor the Philcox chants can hurt you,
If all fans count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving half time break
With fifteen minutes worth of Non-League boardroom small talk,
Yours is the Dripping Pan and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be the chairman, my son”

With thanks to Kipling (Ruyard, not Mr) for the original words.

So T-minus 3 for the Rooks.  In fifteen days time we will know our fate. 270 minutes of football.  At this stage of the season every fan studies the results for hours, looking for any little chink of hope.  We couldn’t have asked for a better Bank Holiday with the win at Bognor Regis Town, but now we had to do it all again.  Whilst being a fan at the business end of the season can be a very nervous time, being a fan and a chairman is certainly something I wouldn’t recommend for the feint-hearted.

17110644981_6a09bf1e96_zOf course, we had done our homework, having our opponents Met Police watched, choosing their 5-0 home win against East Thurrock United last week as the basis for our preparations.  The scouting report wasn’t overly positive about their performance in that game, yet they still scored five times without reply.  I’d hate to think what it would read like if they played well!  Scouting reports are essential for preparation at this level.  Last year I tried to explain the art of scouting opponents but at this level literally anything can happen to a player or a team in a matter of hours, so often all of that hard work goes out the window.  I rang two managers I have contact details of in my phone (don’t ask why…) and got their opinion.  Both had played Met Police in recent weeks, both had recorded positive results against them and both told me two completely ways that they would set themselves up against them.

The math was simple as we looked optimistically into our pints in the Marney’s Village Inn.  Win here and it would take a freak set of results for us to be heading, quite literally, South next season.  A draw and we would be 75% safe but a defeat?  Well, that would potentially drag us down into the dark depths of the bottom of the table.  We don’t mention the R word at board meetings but it is there.  We can all feel it, hiding in the darkness, laughing at us when we talk about plans for next season.  To paraphrase Stephen King:-

“Monsters are real.  Ghosts are real.  Relegation is real.  They exist and they all live inside us.  And sometimes they win”

Metropolitan Police 2 Lewes 0 – Imber Court – Saturday 11th April 2015
16903909027_2be2d93db1_z“Just bloody score Wingate” was the most popular phrase uttered during the second half of the game. A group of grown men, all huddled together looking at their mobile phone screens.  I often tell me daughters off for anti-social behaviour such as this but this was different.  If we all looked hard enough at the same latest score page then surely Wingate would score and our precarious position might become a little easier.  Of course, the opposite happened.  VCD Athletic scored again to double their lead and with it climbed out of the bottom four for the first time since September.  The gap between us and the drop zone was now just 3 points.

By this point we had come to realise it wasn’t our day.  Try as we might, and we did mightily try in the second half, we simply couldn’t find the Met Police net.  Even the referee wasn’t playing ball, denying us a clear-cut penalty for hand ball on the hour mark.  So much for the reports we had received,  that suggested Hudson-Odoi looked disinterested and Reid was goal-shy.  In the space of three first half minutes they combined twice to give the home side what transpired to be an unassailable lead.

17111288455_4a23383d61_zWe came in hope rather than expectation, enjoying the sunshine for the second away trip in six days, and once again provided a large proportion of the total attendance.  In this case it was 37 fans out of a total of 85.  It is hard to believe that it is still possible for Met Police to be playing in the Conference South in just a few months time, with this win doing their late play-off charge no harm at all.  Yet, no more than a few dozen fans come to watch them.  You can’t fault the facilities at Imber Court, although the strict rule that guests had to be wearing a jacket and tie to enter the board room (in theory you could wander in wearing shorts and flip-flops as long as you had a tie and jacket on) does seem quite formal for the confines of the Ryman Premier League.  Fortunately, a board member, seeing my predicament, or mores to the point, Club Sec Kev taking the piss because he could go in and I couldn’t, came out with a plate of sandwiches for me.

Other results were OK – we are one of nine teams that could still be relegated, although three of the four sides in the drop zone can no longer catch us.  Next Saturday, when the Rooks host Leatherhead looking for those vital three points, I will be in the Stadion Gorče Petrov watching Makedoniha GJP take on Vrapciste.  Whilst my head will be filled with the delights of Skopje and Macedonia, my heart will be 1,500 miles away at The Dripping Pan.

The real Champions League?


Imagine a tournament where only the biggest names in European football would play, guaranteed admission despite their poor league season, assured of huge prize money irrespective of performance and free from the potential embarrassment of small up-starts humiliating them in front of a global audience of millions.

This is the dream of the biggest clubs of football, the utopia of an European Super League which has been discussed in closed meetings for many years.  Whilst UEFA will bang the drum about the Champions League, the fact it is based on merit means that sometimes the small, unfashionable teams can upset the apple cart.  Whilst Platini and co politely clap the efforts of clubs like Nordsjælland in Denmark or BATE Borisov in Belarus, their inclusion (on merit it should be said) at the expense of Manchester United or AC Milan does not fit with their agenda of raising the stakes in terms of sponsorship and global television rights dollars.  But try as they might, they cannot manipulate the tournament so only the “big clubs” qualify each year.

downloadThis season’s Champions League tournament was missing former champions including Manchester United, AC and Inter Milan.  Huge clubs in their own rights with massive global appeal but all suffered poor domestic seasons meaning that their place at the top table of European Football will have to wait for at least another year.

Football today is all about money though and these clubs are highly marketable in any and every global market.  So it was no surprise that a tournament was arranged, pitting together some of the most marketable clubs in Europe.  In fact it is amazing it took until 2013 for it to happen. In 2013 Canada and the US hosted this tournament, won by Real Madrid, which featured seven of Europe’s biggest clubs plus the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Last season’s edition featured both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, the two Milan teams, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiacos, playing games in thirteen venues across North America.  Whilst United beat Liverpool in the final, the main talking point was the unbelievable 109,318 fans who watched the game at University of Michigan’s “Big House”, the first time the stadium had hosted a “soccer” match.  More than 631,000 fans attended the tournament live with a global audience of over 80 million tuning in in over 150 countries. Hard to argue with the success of the tournament based on those numbers.

The clubs may dress these games up as pre-season run outs but the prize money on offer means they are incredibly lucrative for them.  Gone are the days of a trip to Scotland to play Buckie Thistle or Cove Rangers.  Today it is all about 5-star first class travel to the other side of the world to glad hand a few local businessmen and appease the global sponsors.  With North America now fast becoming the biggest overseas market for the “EPL” thanks to the success of some of its exports as well as the “Beckham” effect, it is no surprise that clubs are keen to play these games, even if they are against teams they line up against week in, week out.  Just a week after the Premier League season had finished in May 2013, for instance, 2nd place Manchester City played Chelsea not once, but twice in a matter of days in two venues across North America, watched by nearly 90,000 fans.

This isn’t the first time the USA has tried to woo English clubs over to North America.  In the 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  The tournament ran for four seasons, with such big clubs as West Ham United winning the tournament.  You can read more about that tournament’s history here.

Whilst 2014 was only the second edition of the International Champions Cup, few can argue that this will be the future of our European game if Platini gets his way.  However, the 2015 version appears to take the tournament to a new level.  This year the ICC will be contested across three continents, with parallel tournaments running in North America, Australia and China.  The line-up for ICC Australia has already been announced, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma confirmed for a three-match round robin tournament at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Whether the three tournaments will cumulate in a grand final somewhere in the world is yet to be seen.  Will any of those three actually be champions within their domestic leagues?  Very unlikely.

As of the start of April no other teams have announced they will take part in the tournament.  It is inconceivable to think that Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea would pass up a chance to play in China if offered the opportunity.  The world’s biggest population, and more importantly, the biggest economy is the market that all the top European clubs want to break.  These football-mad fans do not care that clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan are not champions in their domestic markets.  In some instances, the players become bigger than the actual clubs – Ronaldo and Messi for instance are almost national heroes in China.

Is it a surprise that this season’s edition of the tournament will be the biggest yet? Absolutely not. Until UEFA can engineer the Champions League so that the biggest clubs, and consequently the biggest marketing assets are guaranteed entry into the tournament every season irrespective of their final league position this tournament will continue to grow, and for the clubs involved an important source of additional revenue.