You are only as good as your next game


Four months ago Leyton Orient found themselves 2-0 up going into the dressing rooms at Wembley in the League One Play-Off Final.  They O’s were just 45 minutes away from their first visit to the Championship and sticking one over on the Rotherham United manager, Steve Evans.  Nobody wants to see that these days do they?  Ninety minutes later and the players lay distraught on the pitch, having lost the game 4-3 on penalties.  After a forty nine match league campaign, their fate had been settled by one missed spot-kick.  Harsh.

IMG_1120A few months later and the O’s were looking up the table rather than down it. Amazingly, after those exploits last season, manager Russell Slade was under pressure.  The fickle nature of football, combined with a new owner who had bought the club in the summer from Barry Hearn, means that a manager is only as good as his last match, irrespective of what has gone on before.  Slade’s achievements in finishing third last season were impressive, especially with clubs with much bigger resources, and of course, budgets in the division such as Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Preston North End and the anti-club, Milton Keynes Dons.

Whilst The Mighty Rooks would be starting their FA Cup campaign down on the south coast at Bognor Regis Town, I would be in London.  Westfield Shopping City, Stratford to be precise.  Sometimes even I have to compromise between football and family time, and this was a promised treat for the Littlest Fuller.  But then a cunning plan started to emerge.  Get to the Shopping mecca early doors, take family to nice restaurant for lunch and then walk across the Olympic Park for some football.  Genius.  So clever that they agreed to come with me.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Orient, as they always were when I was growing up.  My Dad often used to bring me to Brisbane Road when I was young as the Dad of one of my best school friends, Derek Possee,  used to play for them and so we didn’t used to pay to get in.  I remember seeing a couple of classic games against West Ham here, including the FA Cup 4th Round back in January 1980 when the Hammers edged a thriller 3-2 on their way to Wembley (proper FA Cup Final Wembley, not money-making Semi-Final Wembley), standing on a milk crate at the front of the West Stand.  I remember that stand well, with the tea bar at the back and the rust falling from the roof whenever the ball hit it.  I stood on it for the last time in December 1996 to see Peter Shilton make his 1,000 appearance against Brighton & Hove Albion.

IMG_1105Since then the ground has been totally transformed.  The old West Stand is now a unique-looking stand with steep obstruction free seating and then a huge wall behind it, with various local community facilities inside – a great and innovative use of the space.  In each corner there are the privately owned flats with their balconies that openly flaunt their ability to disregard the Taylor Report with spectators able to stand (STAND!) and drink beer (BEER!) in view of the pitch.  How many of them do you think cause problems each home game? Exactly!

Leyton Orient 0 Colchester United 2 – The Matchroom Stadium – Saturday 13th September 2014
Sometimes things just don’t go your way, and that will be the sentiment of the majority of Leyton Orient fans as they reflect on the defeat to Colchester United. It was a decent game of football, with the home side peppering the visitors goal (16 shots) but failing to really test Walker in the Colchester goal.  There was one incident in the second half where from the view we had in the North Stand, Watt appeared to handle the ball on the line, although most of the crowds view would have been of the keeper diving in front of him.  May be just the angle but looked like a penalty from where I was sitting.

There were a few familiar names in the starting line up for both sides.  Leyton Orient had Jobi McAnuff on the bench, a player who showed considerable promise at West Ham under Pardew but was shipped out far too early. Colchester lined up with Freddie “The new Tony Cottee” and George “son of John” Moncur.  Sears problem was, like Cottee, he was a small, in your face striker.  He, like Cottee, scored on his debut for the Hammers and was then seen as the saviour.  Unlike Cottee, he never really repeated that high and was released by the Hammers.

IMG_1122Colchester were forced to start the game with 10 men, as the referee wasn’t happy with the black ankle pads that George Moncur had on over his socks.  The U’s were wearing a black and yellow kit, with striped socks.  Quite what was wrong with that I don’t know.  Good to see he was so hot on those laws of the game but let so many very physical fouls by the away team go unpunished in the first half.  It’s all about priorities, after all.  It did seem that Colchester had been sent out to simply use brute force to stop any Orient attack and it was a surprise that it took twenty minutes for the first name to go into the book, that of Moncur. Like father, like son.

Colchester seemed happy to hoof the ball into the corners for Sears to chase.  They weren’t in the game at all, appearing to have come for the draw.  Just before half time Magnus Okuounghae rash challenge on David Mooney saw him see red and the most ludicrous “stand off” between two aging, plump fans in the East Stand, gesticulating to each other that frankly made them both look very silly.

However, come the second half and Colchester realised that if they played on the counter-attack, using the pace of Sears and Watt, playing it to feet then they may have some success.  Twice they broke, twice they scored.  The first, was less than 10 seconds after Leyton Orient had taken a corner, with Sears the creator.  Five minutes of injury time were announced but still the O’s couldn’t hit the target.  “We’re only playing against ten men” shouted the chap next to me.  True, but with Orient always keeping two men on the half-way line to counter the attacking threat, they lost that numerical advantage.

IMG_1124The defeat meant that Slade could be soon looking for another job.  Director Mauro Milanese was the man to pass the message on to Slade from ‘President’ Francesco Becchetti after the 2-0 loss to Colchester.  “The president has been honest enough via Mauro Milanese to tell me we have got one game to sort it out so hopefully we get a response on Tuesday,” said Slade, “That’s in terms of my future, obviously today’s result is not a great one for the football club, these things can happen but obviously the president will want better than that.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why football will one day eat itself.  Senseless decisions made by people who believe they can be the next Manchester City or Chelsea, spending peanuts along the way.  As a neutral it was a very enjoyable afternoon, watching a decent game of football. One game can change the course of a season and I hope for all that Slade has done for the O’s it comes on Tuesday night.

In praise of Non League Day


photo 3 (2)Non League Day.  The best day in the Non League calendar…bar the first round of the FA Cup…or the end of season play-off/relegation six pointer.  And the game after Christmas.  Heck.  Every day is the best day of the season in Non League football.  Non League fans do not need a special day to celebrate all that is great about the beautiful game in its purest form.

Non League Day is about encouraging fans who drive past their local Non League grounds without batting an eyelid every Saturday as they head off to their very expensive bit of plastic.  It is about them trying something new, like a bottle of Schoodlepip (latest beer being sold in the Dripping Pan) and maybe finding something that you like (unlike the Schoodlepip).  Every Non League club needs more fans, more money coming through the turnstiles and more volunteers to help keep the ship afloat.

Last week it was announced that the Premier League had spent over €1 billion in the Summer transfer window. ONE BILLION EURO.  That is simply obscene. Whilst clubs at the top level may think they aren’t a business, they are.  At some point they will need to get a return on investment.  TV deals, head-scratching commercial deals with random partners and selling the naming rights of every part of their stadiums bring in huge sums of money – so much these days that the fans have become almost irrelevant.  And when something doesn’t have a value anymore, you can charge as little or as much for it as you like.  And that is why ticket prices continue to rise, because many clubs actually no longer value the fans who buy the seats in the Fly Azabaijan Airways Family Stand.

photo 2 (2)Non League Day gives clubs an opportunity to boost the revenues for clubs that are in many cases living hand to mouth.  The big decision to make is whether to discount your admission prices or not.  Obviously clubs want to get as many through the gate as possible, but who is the target market?  Premier League and Championship fans?  Those who think nothing of paying up to £100 for a ticket.  So will £11 really make a dent in their wallets?  What does “value” mean to them?  Our approach was one to highlight what Non League football was all about – inclusion, community, decent food and beer.  Remember, this was trying to give people a reason to come back time and time again, so perhaps loss leading isn’t the best strategy here.  Of course, some clubs used the opportunity to promote other causes – Dulwich Hamlet’s offer of “pay what you want” would see all of the gate receipts, less their costs, going to charity.  That is a great gesture and ticks the community box completely.  Others, such as Bungay Town decided to offer a punnet of mushrooms to anyone coming to their game.  Was it a success?  Find out for yourself here (just a bit of Funghi).

We were fortunate that we were playing Wingate & Finchley, where one of their directors is Mike Bayly, co-founder and one of the driving forces behind Non League Day.  Plans were soon drawn up for our respective disability teams to play a curtain raiser and with the sun shining, the team on their longest winning streak of the season (one game, three days granted) and Sky Sports in town it promised to be a top afternoon.

Lewes 3 Wingate & Finchley 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 6th September 2014

The simple law of economics in football is if your team is winning, people will come and watch you, irrespective of the price.  Football fans want to see a winning team (unless they play like an Allardyce team of course). That is why it costs more to watch teams like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United than it does to watch Stoke City, West Brom or Burnley.  A second consecutive win for the Rooks, this time more convincing and less nail-biting than Wednesday night ultimately made Non League Day for Lewes, although they did need a slice of luck to get all three points.

photo 1 (2)Up until eight days ago it was fair to say that Lady Luck had given Lewes a wide berth this season.  Couple that with some dreadful refereeing and we went into the game last Saturday against Hampton & Richmond Borough with just two points and on a run of four consecutive defeats and with three red cards.  Whilst the game at The Beveree ended in defeat, we played for long periods against ten men and really should have taken a point.  Then on Wednesday Grays lost two players to red cards, both perhaps a big harsh having seen the replays but finally got our first win.  Yesterday it was a snap decision from the referee late in the first half that changed the game.  A ball was whipped across the six yard box and Nathan Crabb, steaming in at the far post, was impeded.  Penalty?  Yes.  Red Card offence?  Harsh as Crabb wasn’t guaranteed to get to the ball. But we weren’t complaining as Miss Luck was flirting with us.  Dixon stepped up and sent the keeper the wrong way.

Half-time saw us try and give away one of our much talked about Beach Huts for a game with a penalty kick competition.  Good laid plans and all that but as the teams re-emerged and we still had three people in the competition, having scored all of their spot kicks I had to use a bit of on-the-spot and out-of-the-box thinking to resolve the contest.  Paper, scissors, stone is an official FIFA approved method to determine a competition, right?

Lewes started the second half impressively, with Nicky Wheeler demonstrating all the tricks in his winger’s spell book.  It wasn’t long before the Rooks doubled the lead when Wheeler’s cross was headed home by Nathan Crabb at the near post.  Two became three in the last few minutes when another Wheeler cross was headed home by substitute Luke Blewden giving the score a slightly unfair reading but did the Wingate fans mind?  Absolutely not.  They greeted the final whistle with a conga around the pitch, under their Sid’s Army banner and wearing masks of Sid James.  Of course, Sid James.

The mood around the ground had transformed in just three days.  That’s the beauty of football.  Non League Day had been a winner for us and let’s hope that up and down the country some of those “on loan” fans see the beauty of the grass roots game and don’t leave it too long before they come back again.

 

Don’t bet on it! We can’t anymore


In late June ex-Whitehawk defender Michael Boateng was found guilty trying to fix Non-League matches and sentenced to 16 months in jail.  Boateng is the latest player to be caught up in the murky world of match and spot fixing allegations, where the defence is often to plead ignorance of the law.

Up until a few weeks ago anyone related to the playing side or management of Lewes FC could bet on any football around the world, apart from on the competitions we took part in. So obviously, no betting on Ryman League games and who would win the title.  It also included a ban on betting on ANY FA Cup games, as we take part in that competition.  So despite the fact we were eliminated last season by Sutton United back in October, we weren’t allowed to bet on any aspect of the Arsenal versus Hull City final in May.  We, in this case means any player, manager, coach, kit man, club secretary, general manager or director.

8113550145_fca2b7e62e_zOnly a small percentage of people actually knew the rules comprehensively and so a number of cases have arisen where ambiguity surrounding someone’s involvement in a club, or simple ignorance of the extent of the law were the main forms of defensive.  Despite their efforts to educate the footballing world in England, it was clear the legislation had to change.

The Tottenham winger Andros Townsend, Newcastle’s Dan Gosling – who is to join Bournemouth next season – and Cameron Jerome, who played on loan at Crystal Palace from Stoke last season, are among those to have been found to have breached current betting regulations, as reported in The Guardian, as well as ex-Tranmere Rovers manager, Ronnie Moore, who was sacked last season after an investigation.

So as of Friday 1st August this year, a worldwide ban on betting on football came into force for certain participants in English football.  The statement issued by the FA earlier in the summer is certainly very clear:-

“Included within the worldwide prohibition ratified by The FA shareholders’ 111th Annual General Meeting at Wembley Stadium on Wednesday are all those involved in the game at Premier League, Football League and Football Conference levels, as well as the top two divisions in each of the Northern, Southern and Isthmian leagues.

Participants covered by the ban will be prohibited from betting, either directly or indirectly, on any football match or competition that takes place anywhere in the world”

The changes to the rules will also effect a worldwide prohibition on betting on any other football-related matter. For example, the transfer of players, employment of managers or team selection. The passing of inside information to somebody that uses the information for betting or asking others to bet on your behalf remains prohibited.

Following consultation with the game’s stakeholders, the prohibition had previously received a unanimous recommendation by The FA Council on 9 April and The Football Regulatory Authority in March.

Currently, FA Rules state that no participant can bet on a match or competition in which they are involved that season, or which they can influence, or any other football-related matter concerning the league that they play in.

They also prohibit participants from using or passing inside information for betting. These current prohibitions will be retained after 1 August 2014 in respect of participants involved in the game below Step 4 of the National League System. These are the only participants who will not be subject to the worldwide ban.

One view of this new law is that it is a sledge hammer to crack a peanut – banning players at our level from betting on La Liga, Serie A or even the J-League where they have no knowledge at all, but the FA had to draw a line somewhere.  A blanket ban is the simplest and most effective way to ensure everyone knows the rules.  Quite how it can be monitored and policed is another story.  It takes seconds to set up an online betting account, with little verified information required.  There is no onus on the betting companies to authenticate whether the gambler is allowed to bet at all.

Interestingly, there is no comparable legislation in other sports.  First class cricket has been tainted in recent years by high profile court cases where players have been accused and found guilty of match and spot fixing, yet there are no comparable regulations in the game.

The world has officially gone mad.

That sinking feeling


14898284290_f8e8dcf3a9_zThere are some teams that whenever you play them, there is always something to talk about.  Games between Lewes and Hampton & Richmond Borough can never be classed as dull and today was no different.  Just six games into the season and the game between The Beavers and The Rooks was already being classed as a “six-pointer”.  Both sides found themselves in the bottom four coming into this game.  That certainly wasn’t in the plan for both sides at the start of the season.  But then again, if life was predictable, we wouldn’t need bookmakers.

We’ve seen sending offs galore between the two sides, last minute winners, relegation-saving goals and strikes that would have won goal of the season if it was in the Premier League.  Today, we would have swapped all of that drama for a dull 1-0 away win.  Irrespective of the result, it would be one of the better away trips of the season.

Hampton & Richmond Borough 2 Lewes 1 – The Beveree – Saturday 30th August 2014
In the past few weeks we’ve been left ruing some bizarre refereeing decisions that have had a direct impact on our poor start to the season.  Today, once again there was some poor officiating although none of the decisions could be said to have ultimately impacted the result.  The Rooks only came to life when Hampton & Richmond’s full-back Ben Osman was sent off for a second yellow with twenty minutes to go.

14898233309_615b6cc306_zBoth sides looked nervous in the opening period with few chances on goal that worried either keeper.  In fact the highlight of the first half was finding out they had garlic mayonnaise to put on the chips – such refinement is sadly lacking at Non-League grounds these days.  But all of that changed within seconds of the restart when Lewes’s winger, Nick Wheeler was adjudged to have handled the ball on the edge of the area.  Most of the crowd didn’t see the offence although the linesman was pretty quick in raising his flag.  Of course it was Charlie Moone who stepped up and slotted the spot kick into the corner.  Moone seems to have scored in every game he has every played against Lewes. In fact on the train on the way down I discussed the odds we could get on him as first goalscorer, that is if I was allowed to bet on football still.

One became two soon after when left-back Wells was allowed to head home unmarked.  The day was going from bad to worse.  But then, a ray of hope as Ollie Rowe pulled one back and then Osman was sent packing.  Could we fashion another dramatic result at the Beveree?

Ten minutes later, Nathan Crabb got to the byline and pulled the ball back to Terry Dodd.  Five yards out and Dodd managed not only to fail to hit the target but managed to clear the pretty high stand behind the goal.  I repeat, from five yards. Hampton were now hanging on, although using as many time-wasting tactics as possible.  Last season, the FA, under instruction from FIFA, instructed referees to only stop the game for an injury if it was clearly serious or a head injury.  Yet today the referee kept stopping play every time a Hampton player rolled around on the floor.  If we can be bothered to understand the rules then surely they can too.

15061901466_c05b6e76f6_zWith a few minutes to go Elliott Romain was wrestled to the floor by Hampton full-back Wells.  Then, right in front of the “assistant” referee, they had a tussle that quickly escalated to a 18 man brawl.  The officials completely lost control of the situation and it took a couple of players from each side (one being the Lewes keeper) to restore order.  Wells was yellow carded as too was Romain, yet the original offence was worthy of a booking alone.  In which case, what exactly did Romain do?  A picture tells a thousand words so make what you will of this…

Alas, for all the bluster it wasn’t enough.  A fifth consecutive defeat for Lewes was our reward for the long journey.  You make your own luck in football, so they say but someone needs to tell us the recipe!

Stirling Moss


About 6 miles off the Thanet coast is a strip of land known as the Goodwin Sands.  This 25 metre strip of sand, sitting atop a chalk escarpment becomes visible at various times each day depending on the tides.  Many a ship has met with disaster trying to navigate around the area whilst a number of schemes over the years have been hatched to try to build structures on the sands.

However, if there is one lesson that any engineer worth their salt will tell you is that building on sand, let along fast-moving sand is a very bad idea.  History has shown that time and time again, yet people still think they can tame nature.

photo 2So what has this got to do with Bank Holiday Monday football at the Dripping Pan?  Well, for starters our visitors today were Margate, one of the coastal towns that can claim the Goodwin Sands as part of their own. But more importantly, it is about the lessons that football has taught us about thinking we can follow certain paths.  Make no mistake, in the driving rain at the very aptly named Dripping Pan this afternoon, Margate showed that they are head and shoulders above Lewes, and probably most teams in the Ryman Premier League this season thanks to a massive cash injection into the club.

The club aren’t exactly hiding their wealth under a bushel.  Talking to their charismatic chairman, Bob Laslett before the game he was very bullish when asked about his ambition for the club.  “Back to back promotion….six of them”.  You get the feeling he wasn’t kidding either. Since he joined the club just after Christmas, Margate have started to build both on and off the pitch for a future higher up the league.  With most clubs in the Ryman Premier League running with a budget between £2k and £3k a week (I guess), Margate’s appears to be significantly more.  The recruitment last season of Terry Brown, the ex-AFC Wimbledon manager who guided them out of the Non-League was a bold statement of intent and one that is starting to bear fruit.

Non-League football fans can be divided into three groups – those whose club have a financial backer and are spending money; those who don’t have access to the same resources and are deep-down jealous of the success of these clubs; and those who have been burnt by a failed strategy before.  For every Fleetwood Town, Crawley Town and Stevenage there are the Darlington’s, Hornchurch’s and very recently, Celtic Nation’s.  Nobody wants to see football clubs in financial distress – people’s livelihoods are at stake as well as years of history, tradition and the blood, sweat and tears of the fans.

photo 3My one concern for Margate is simply around geography.  They have made one big push up the Non-Leagues before, finishing in eighth place in the Conference Premier in 2002, however within two seasons they had been demoted due to ongoing issues with the redevelopment of their Hartsdown Park ground.  Twelve months later they fell into the Ryman Premier League where they have been since.  Whilst Kent currently only supports one Football League side, there are over 1.73 million people living in the county.  In Thanet District alone there are 134,000 people, more than Ipswich and Norwich who both have football teams who average over 20,000.  Margate’s current average home attendance is around 600, nearly double that of last season’s 325.  The appetite is clearly there for success, but will it be enough to sustain the club as they move through the leagues?

There is also not guarantee that the approach will be successful.  There is a big shadow looming over their success just down the A2/M2/A249 in the form of Maidstone United who are also attempting to climb their way up the Non-Leagues back to the Football League where they last played over twenty years ago.  They too have cash to spend although their advantage is a modern stadium that is already producing revenue seven days a week and being located in the heart of the county with good transport links that can bring those floating Premier League and Football League in.  During the afternoon you got the feeling that Margate are nervously looking over their shoulder at the events at The Gallagher stadium.

The Ryman Premier League is a bugger to get out of.  Lowestoft Town can vouch for the difficulty in trying to invest in a championship winning squad year after year.  Last season they finally made it at the fourth Play-Off attempt although their reward is to be put in a league where they have “short” away trips to Chorley, Barrow and Fylde.  Whitehawk invested heavily to go the same way two seasons ago then ended up in a relegation battle last season.  In other leagues, Chester and Halifax Town gambled on heavy investment to return to the Football League but are now counting the cost of over expansion.  Nobody wants to see that happen to any club.

Arriving at a very wet Dripping Pan Margate could boast a 100% record with five wins out of five, only matched by their nemesis, Maidstone United.  Their line up spoke volumes of their intent.  Ryan Moss, Charlie Allen, Kane Wills, Luke Moore. Proven players in the Ryman League and above – quite a haul considering the journeys some of these players have to make to Margate. But if the gamble pays off?  Well, who knows where they will end up.

Lewes 1 Margate 5 – Monday 25th August 2014 – The Dripping Pan
One the way out of the ground a chap turned to his mate and said, “It would have been a different result if it wasn’t for the rain”.  I’m every the optimist but nobody could complain at the result or the comprehensiveness of the victory.  Margate were unrecognisable from the team that scrambled a draw against Lewes just four months ago.  Less than a year ago the Gate came to the Pan and were sent away with a 3-0 defeat. Not one of that starting XI played in this game.  Times are certainly a-changing on the Isle of Thanet.

photo 1It is fair to say that the weather had an impact in the first half.  All three goals were rain assisted to an extent with defenders from both sides losing their footing to create the chances, first for Moss as early as the five minutes, and then again seven minutes later when James Fergany slotted home after a game of ping-pong in the Margate area.  The main talking point of the half came just before the break when Ollie Rowe was sent off for the second time in a week.  As Jason Prior took the ball passed Rowe, the centre-back tried to haul him to the ground.  Prior managed to regain his balance, carried on and shot at Banks who saved well.  The referee then pulled back play for the original offence and sent Rowe off.

Did the referee wave play on?  There seemed to be a lack of a whistle.  If the referee allowed play to go on then Rowe surely hadn’t “denied a goal scoring opportunity” as he carried on and shot.  What happens if he scored?  Would Rowe would have still be sent off?  All questions that the referee couldn’t (or wouldn’t) answer when he walked off at half-time.

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the decision, Margate came out for the second period with their heads high and showed their class.  Three further goals from Allen, Pipps and then Moss to complete his hatrick made sure Margate took all three points home in style.

As Terry Brown walked off he shook hands with the fans.  Their immediate conversation was not about the victory but about Maidstone’s last-minute defeat to Tonbridge Angels.  Surely it is too early in a season for paranoia to be setting in?  Enjoy Non-League football for what it is…..

The Gladiators versus The Spartans


There can be few better feelings in life than watching a game of football with the sun beating down on your face, beer in hand surround by England’s green and pleasant land. Add in a view to die for and a pie with gravy and this could be Nirvana. I could have chosen one of twenty games in the Premier League or the Skybet divisions today that were within an hour’s drive of Northern HQ but instead I’m at Causeway Lane, Matlock, in the heart of Derbyshire’s Peak District. Even the sale of the naming rights to the ground (“The Autoworld Arena” conjures up images of Speedway to me) can’t spoil the beauty of the moment.

15007767741_867b992671_zNobody was telling me to sit down, taking my beer away or trying to sell me a credit card. Watching football at the highest level of the game in a England has been a joyless experience for a number of years. As each season passes and clubs find more ways to justify ticket price hikes whilst greedily scooping up more cash from TV deals, pre-season tours and bizarre commercial partnerships.  It’s no surprise that the governing body, the Football Association are just as guilty these days, happy to put aside their unelected mandate to run our game with a focus on all aspects and all levels for the latest sponsorship deal.  I still find it incredible that an organisation that talks about the importance of sport for children to maintain a healthy lifestyle by signing long-term commercial deals with the world’s most recognised fast food brand and a brand of beer.

I was here on a mission from God. Well, sort of.  The little Fuller’s had been enjoying a week of a Northern life at the in-laws and I was here to collect them and re-as simulate them back into normal life.  Whilst the Current Mrs Fuller was conducting a Southern language lesson I took my leave and headed 39 miles west to Matlock. How could anyone resist this game? The Gladiators versus The Spartans played in one of the finest arenas that England has to offer.

I was disappointed when I rang the club in the week and asked if I wore my toga I’d get in free? It appeared that the Matlock Town marketing machine had let the opportunity of a themed match day experience pass them by.  I’m sure Woburn Safari Park could’ve had done without a lion or two for the afternoon and as for an orgy? Well I’ve still got the numbers for a couple of trainee Bunny Girls I met at the Playboy Mansion a few years ago (Did I tell you I’ve been to the Playboy Mansion?).  But any sad face soon disappeared when I pulled into the car park on the cricket pitched, stopped at mid wicket and looked straight ahead at the three-sided Causeway Lane ground. Ruddy marvellous.

The Northern Premier League, just like its southern cousins, is a pig to get out of with only the winners guaranteed a spot in the Vanarama Conference North.  Last season, Blyth finished in 8th spot, not too far off the play-offs although quite how they would fair in tier 2 of Non-League football is another matter, with significant away trips to Oxford City(550 miles), Worcester City (500 miles), Gloucester City (550 miles) and a whopping 600 mile round trip to Lowestoft. This underlines the main issue with the current non-league structure – trying to fit clubs into a rigid structure that ignores geography.  The big elephant in the room, still, is FC United of Manchester with their travelling legions and inability to progress out of the NPL Play-offs. A visit by the bootleg Red Devils swells the coiffures of all the clubs in this league.

14824252268_da93451cac_zI handed over my £9 for entry, £2.50 for my pie and £2.70 for my pint and I was a happy man for the next two hours. My afternoon was completed by seeing two of the finest Non-League photographers known to man, Chris Hayes and Paul Paxford at the far end and made my way down there to get snap happy.

Matlock Town 1 Blyth Spartans 1 – Causeway Lane – Saturday 23rd August 2014
Opposite the ground is Hall Leys Park, where their Bank Holiday festivities were well underway.  As the two teams emerged the sound of Disney filled the air. Surely they had better walk out music than this? Then it dawned on me that it was the theme tune to Frozen which was being shown on a big screen in the park opposite. And so the songs punctuated the air for the rest of the afternoon as the two rivals cancelled each other out in an entertaining draw.

The Spartans started the game with the smell of blood in their nostrils. Roared on by a small group of away fans, the leader of whom loved nothing more than an occasional jig around the terrace outside the bar, spilling most of his beer each time. He had something to really shout about just before half-time when a Holland skipped passed his marker and fired the ball into the corner of the net.

14987846766_0633f5f872_zThe second half saw a re-energised (I.e bollocked) Matlock team emerge, realising the weaknesses in the Spartans right hand side.  The away keeper was forced into half a dozen good saves before he was finally beaten when Hawkins reacted fastest to a deflected cross and smartly headed home.  If the game was to produce a winner it was undoubtably going to come from the home side but then they sat back, almost inviting The Spartans to attack with numbers.

The final whistle saw a round of applause from the 260-odd souls in the ground.  “Better than the bloody rubbish we saw on Tuesday but we are still rubbish” said one fan as he waked past me “still liver and bacon for tea and Tess Daly on Strictly. Life isn’t all bad, son.” Wise words indeed and with that I headed back east to the Littlest Fuller’s. He was spot on, life in the Non-Leagues in the English Summer wasn’t bad at all.

Matlock Town face the same issue many Non-League clubs have each and every week. Within a 30 minute drive of the town this afternoon, Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Alfreton Town all played at home.  That’s the challenge – trying to encourage the locals of Matlock not to hop on the bus or train at 2pm but to stay at head down to Causeway Lane.

My good friend Mike Bayly is currently researching a book on the grounds you have to visit before you die. Matlock would be on my recommended top 10 list on a sunny day like today although I’d give it a swerve when the cold Peak District wind blows on a wet Tuesday in February.

Evil Angel*


Bad things are supposed to come in three’s correct?  Try telling that to the 70 or so Lewes fans, players, management team and directors who were at the Longmead Stadium last  Tuesday night.  Two goals conceded, two players sent off both for two bookable offences, two players limped off by half-time and unfortunately just two shots on goal.  It wasn’t one of the best away trips we had experienced in the past few years that is for sure.

It is fair to say that the start of the season hasn’t been the best we could have hoped for. The fixture list threw up a difficult start but mix in a raft of injuries and suspensions and we had almost got to the stage where I would be polishing up the Puma Kings at least seven months earlier than normal.  The Rooks went into the game with freshly-relegated Tonbridge Angels with all four first choice midfielders out injured, and finished it with two full backs playing at centre-half.  After picking up just two points from the opening three games this could be the opportunity the Rooks needed to start their season.  Tonbridge hadn’t started brightly themselves, still re-adjusting to the Ryman Premier League after a few seasons in the Conference South.

photo 2In terms of Ryman Premier games, this was one of the more local games for me.  By local I mean less than an hour’s drive away.  With the little Fuller’s away learning what life was like back in the Seventies by staying at their grandparents up north, The Current Mrs Fuller jumped at the chance of a romantic night out in the heart of the Garden of England.  Perhaps I oversold the “I will buy you dinner” part by failing to mention it was to be a hot-dog in the Longmead Stadium but I can get so forgetful at my age.  Still, it was time together, as I tried to break the frosty atmosphere on the journey to the game.

The Longmead Stadium is one of the better ones we will visit in the league this year.  Decent size covered stands behind each goal and a nice size main stand down one side.  They do have a very strange little stand for Directors only on the other side which I could have tried.  They have a decent-size club house but annoyingly no beer can be taken outside although the view from inside isn’t bad.  It had been quite a few years since we had played the Angels as we had passed each other as we were relegated from the Conference three years ago whilst they were going the other way.  The added interest was the number of ex-Angels in the Lewes team including their former captain, Gary Elphick.

Tonbridge Angels 2 Lewes 0 – The Longmead Stadium – Tuesday 19th August 2014
Definitely a game to forget although the aftermath of two players suspended and two who will be unavailable due to injury for at least three weeks is one that will be fresh on our minds for a while.  You cannot take anything away from Tonbridge – they took the chances presented to them without ever looking completely dominant.  Even with Lewes down to 10 men they seemed reluctant to push forward to make the game safe.

After a cautious opening twenty minutes Lewes were dealt a blow when full-back Alex Malins was forced off the pitch with suspected knee ligament damage.  A few minutes later Tonbridge centre-half Jerome Sobers headed home unmarked from a corner.  Sobers was Malin’s man to mark. Ten minutes later Malins was joined in the red cross tent by skipper Gary Elphick, much to the enjoyment of the home fans, with a hamstring injury.

photo 1Ten minutes into the second period and Sanderson, on loan from Ebbsfleet United, picked up a needless second yellow card.  Twenty minutes later and Ollie Rowe joined him after a harsh yellow for tangling with ex-Rook Billy Medlock.  Still Tonbridge took a cautious approach, preferring to sit back and hold onto their lead rather than looking to make the game safe.  But with ten minutes left they showed some genuine attacking intent when Okojie hit the booster button down the right, beat Logan, pulled the ball back for Teniola who made no mistake from close range. Game over.

The defeat left Lewes in esteemed company at the wrong end of the Ryman Premier League table, joining some other sides quite fancied to be at the other end of the league including AFC Hornchurch, Hampton & Richmond Borough and last season’s Play-Off semi-finalists, Bognor Regis Town.  Still, only 42 games to go.  I’m sure we will look back at the indifferent start to the season in a few months and laugh….hopefully.

*P.S – I learnt a few years ago about the power of titling blog posts in a particular away, so the term “Evil Angel” in no way relates to Tonbridge Angels, their team or their hospitality, rather than the fact a very large Adult film producer uses that title for some of their films and thus thousands of people search for it (allegedly).