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.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 6 – No health warning for away fans


Bank Holiday Monday and the Rooks are off down the A27 for a local derby  against our friends from Bognor Regis Town.  Our record on the road hasn’t been that great this season, with just three wins away from The Dripping Pan.  That doesn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of our loyal away fans.  Even an away trip on a Tuesday in early January to Leiston, the most remote place on the Ryman Premier League map, still saw a hardcore of our fans make the trip, more in hope rather than confidence based on our form this season.  Based on our last two seasons visits to our closest rivals, the Rooks will be cheered on by around 75 fans today, around about the same number that followed Lewes to VCD Athletic last week.  Whilst that may not sound like a bit absolute number, compare it to our average home crowd.

IMG_3423We currently average 486 fans at The Dripping Pan.  Let’s be generous and say 36 of those are away fans (and I am being very generous for 70% of the clubs in our league) meaning our regular, average home support is 450 fans.  So a support on the road of 75 is 17%.  How many sides, whether Premier League, Football League or Non-League could boast 17% of their home attendance follow their side on the road?  Granted, there are a few clubs, but having seen away followings from Football League clubs in some instances not reaching three figures I’d say that Non-League fans are just as passionate as their bigger brothers.  But the difference between the two sets of fans is realism.

There seems to be a growing trend of professional clubs, in some kind of misguided knee-jerk reactionary way, to offer fans a refund should their side fail to perform on the pitch away from home.  The beauty of football, especially in the Non-Leagues is that sometimes anything can happen.  Should we come away from Bognor Regis Town with a sore backside after a spanking, we will dust ourselves down, ready for the game next weekend away at Metropolitan Police.  Sure, the Fans Forum will go into overdrive for a few days but most of our fans keep a sense of perspective.  But the one thing they will never start demanding is a refund.

Gary Andrews, one of the best football writers in the land, recently wrote a piece in When Saturday Comes about this growing trend a few months ago.  We’ve all been to away games where it seems it has only been the fans who have turned up, but that’s what we sign up for as football fans – crushing disappointment and more than not, a great day out spoilt by 90 minutes of turgid football.

So why do clubs feel the need to offer such gestures? In some ways, the offer to refund the fans, such as the gesture made by the Sunderland players after they lost 8-0 to Southampton, rumoured to be in the region of £60k, highlights the huge golf between the wages the players earn and the world the fan lives in.  Assuming 20 people contributed, how many people could afford to simply donate £3k as a penance for doing their job poorly once?  Likewise, what would have happened if that result would have occurred at The Stadium of Light in front of 40,000? Would the fans have been compensated then? I doubt it.

Daniel Taylor, the Guardian football writer, wrote in the aftermath of Millwall’s defeat to Bradford, which resulted in the travelling Lions fans being offered a refund, that buying a football ticket never comes with a guarantee of performance.  Last season West Ham were humiliated away from home not once, but twice in a matter of days in front of the TV cameras and a global audience at Nottingham Forest and Manchester City (not forgetting a similar performance live on TV at West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup back in February). Perhaps it was because of the low expectations of the fans under Allardyce, Sullivan and Gold but there were no calls for refunds, nor were any forthcoming for the 5-0 and 6-0 drubbings.

In the same vein, perhaps teams who travel to the likes of Stamford Bridge, The Etihad or Old Trafford should refund their fans if they win against the odds? You won’t find many Bradford City fans complaining that they humiliated Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, yet if they had lost 7 or 8 nil perhaps they would have been clamouring for their money back?

We’ve seen our share of poor away day displays in the last few years but even the wrath of Big Deaksy’s Saturday night tweets haven’t yet called for refunds for the Lewes Lunatic Fringe.  A 5-0 half time score line a few years ago on a chilly Monday night at Wealdstone had Cynical Dave shouting more about the lack of dry roasted peanuts than the abject performance on the pitch, whilst the three goals in the first ten minutes scored by Oxford City in November’s FA Trophy game saw the fans moaning about the lack of chips rather than the defending.  Non-League fans travel more in hope than expectation, and that is why a call for refunds will fall on deaf ears.  I did try to placate a few of the fans who made the trip to Witham Town in the FA Cup back in September with an offer of a beer in lieu of the shocking 4-2 defeat although with only Fosters and John Smiths on offer in their club bar, few took up the option.  As the famous strap line goes for financial products, past results are no guarantee of future performance.

IMG_3642After the last gasp defeat on Saturday against Harrow Borough, our league status was still precarious as we headed westwards to Bognor.  A defeat and we would be sucked right into the relegation mire.  A win, and whisper this quietly, we could rise to 15th in the league which would be our highest league position since the opening day of the season.

Bognor Regis 1 Lewes 2 – Nywood Lane – Monday 6th April 2015
The pre-match mood in Wetherspoons, Bognor Regis’s premium tourist attraction, was upbeat.  Despite our poor away form, there was something in the air that we simply put down to Romain Fever.  Elliott had been missing for the past six games after his mad five minutes at Canvey Island saw him pick up potentially the goal of the season award for a stunning strike, his 15th yellow card and then his second red.  Young George Brook had seen the signs in his morning cereal – Lewes to win 2-0 with Elliott and Wheeler to score the goals.

IMG_3643With the shirt-sleeves in order for the first time since August last year, Lewes produced possibly their best away display of the season, despite arriving with a depleted squad.  Injuries during the game to Chris Breach and Aarron Hopkinson meant that The Rooks finished the game with three 17 year olds on the pitch, valiantly defending a single goal lead.  After a first half full of huff and puff without much in the way of goal mouth action, the second burst into life just three minutes after the restart.

A deep cross saw the Bognor Regis keeper Winterton overstretch and drop the ball at the feet of Blewden who reacted quickly, hooking the ball back for Romain to head home.  One became two three minutes later when Romain turned his marker from a quickly taken throw-in and slotted home at the far post.  The Lewes fans behind the goal were pinching themselves.  Away goals have been at a premium this season and this was only the third time we had scored more than once away from home.  A glance at the in-play league table saw us hit the heady heights of 15th. Our work was done.  All we had to do was defend for 39 minutes like our lives depended on it.

It was inevitable that ex-Rook Terry Dodd would pay us back for letting him go in the Autumn as he pulled a goal back with thirty minutes to go.  Lewes rode the pressure and could have scored a third themselves when Hopkinson’s shot flashed across the edge of the box.  Then with five minutes to go, disaster.  Dodd was adjudged to have been fouled by Elphick in the box.  Lewes Assistant Manager Dave Jupp suggested to Rikki Banks that Prior would hit the ball to his left.  He dived left and saved magnificently.

The drama wasn’t over.  In injury time, Elphick was penalised again, this time on the line of the penalty box.  Prior had to content with a solid wall of red and black but still managed to curl it around them but the ball cannoned off the post.  Full time.

IMG_3650There would be no calls for refunds tonight.  “Well done Mr Chairman” was the first text I saw when I looked at my phone (Thanks Mum).  It had been a difficult 24 hours as a couple of others at the club would atest to.  But tactics, passion and above all believe had won the day.

 

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 4 – Hope is the only strategy


At the start of the season all Non-League boards will sit down, set a budget and perhaps even be as bold to set some objectives for the season ahead.  Outwardly fans hear words such as “consolidation” “on-field progress” or even if they are brutally honest, “survival”.  Inwardly you may not be surprised to hear that board’s are much more bullish.  They look at clubs who punched above their weight in the previous season and say “why can’t we do that? We spend more money than them!”, so more money is put into the squad and the manager is. Given an objective to push for the playoffs. As I write this, over half of the teams in the Ryman Premier League are within 1 or 2 wins of the final, achievable play off spot with just half a dozen games to go.  There’s going to be some disappointed boards in a month’s time.

hope-284x400What then happens depends on the attitude and experience. Some boards will say let’s out-spend everyone else and push for promotion again, whilst others will cut the budget to something more realistic and take a risk that it will just be enough to avoid relegation.  The danger of the former strategy is that it’s like building a skyscraper on shifting sand.  Undoubtably the cash has to come from an external source and there comes a point when that “structure” becomes unstable and the fragile foundations are removed.  The Non-Leagues are littered with the bones of such follies yet there are still clubs and individuals who think they can change the age-old model.  Look away now if you are a fan of a club who is currently high on the euphoria of a speeding train up the divisions.  This model does not work and in 99% of cases will end at best in tears, at worst without a club to support every Saturday.

Like most football fans, my opinion of Robbie Savage as an “expert pundit’ isn’t particularly complimentary.  Starting each retort to callers on his phone-in show on BBC 5Live’s 606 with “Did you play the game?” doesn’t endear him to the vast majority of people but last weekend he said something that made a lot of sense and actually changed my view on something.  West Ham had just beaten Sunderland 1-0. It wasn’t a pretty win and a number of fans were unhappy with the style of play.  “In reality, where did you think you could finish this season?” He asked one caller, then going through each team who could and should have been in top seven.  Presently six of those teams mentioned occupied those slots – the only absence was Everton, who had been replaced by Southampton.  Savage then said “so realistically your best hoped would be to finish 8th” the caller couldn’t argue, ” so currently you are one place off winning YOUR league”.  Does style really matter if you win the league? That’s the view that boards at Non League have to think about.  If the objective is to reach the play offs and you fall one point short by playing “ugly”, is that a failure? What about 20 points shy? You’ve been as successful in hitting your objective – in other words second place is the first loser, tenth place is ninth loser – but you are both losers.

When a club puts together its budget at the start of the season they do so with some assumptions of what will happen.  They assume that key players won’t get injured in pre-season.  Even worse, that players on a contract don’t get injured in pre-season, or arrested, or go on holiday to Magaluf and never come back.  Fans of professional clubs will laugh at that but it happens every season in the Non-Leagues.  Ambitious plans created on the 1st July could be in tatters by the 31st July.

When serving as Mayor of New York. City, Rudy Giuliani came up with the phrase “hope is not a strategy”.  We all know that Rudi has never managed in the Non-Leagues because Hope is certainly the key part of every clubs strategy.  We hope that key players don’t get injured, we hope that our young up and coming manager is not poached by a bigger rival, we hope that our floodlights don’t fail during a game, we hope that our boiler doesn’t fail, we hope that we don’t have a bad winter that stops us playing home (and thus our main revenue generating activity). Hope is certainly the cornerstone of every Non-League club’s strategy.

Most Non-League grounds are held together with Duck tape and SuperGlue.  Rustic, charming, quaint are all words used to describe some grounds.  They aren’t by design, trust me.  They are through necessity.  Ground improvements are carried out in almost all instances on the pain of death.  Ask a Non-League fan whether we should spent £5k on new toilets or on a centre-forward? We can all venture into the abyss and close ours eyes and hold their nose, yet none of us (honestly) can score 15 goals a season.  So hope once again is the cornerstone of the strategy. Hope that nothing goes wrong.

IMG_3575Sometimes factors completely out of a club’s control.  Today Lewes made their first ever trip to Vickers Crayford Dartford, or VCD Athletic.  This is the highest level the team from the London/Kent borders have played at, and whilst they come into the game still in the relegation zone.  They have refused to change their passing style that saw them crowned as Ryman North champions last season and they should be applauded for that.  But they know full well bout factors completely outside their control.

After winning the Kent League back in 2009 they played in the Ryman League for the first time in the 2009/10 season.  They finished 8th yet come the end of the season the Ryman League demoted them back to the County Leagues. Why? Because they had failed to build a concrete path around their pitch.  Not that they had refused to do so, rather the goalposts had shifted.  The club had been given notice about requirements to achieve a particular ground grading by a date in June.  They had played for a whole season with a concrete path (obviously said path is so critical to the actual football being played) without any issues at all.  Then all of a sudden that date was brought forward by a month.  Bear in mind this was in the close season so no games were being played yet it was deemed so non-compliant that they were expelled from the league. How can you plan for such changes in policy or rules? Once again, hope is all you have.

And with that in mind and the relegation trap door still firmly open for nine clubs, we arrived in Crayford with that same sense of hope.  Wednesday’s win against Enfield Town had been a real bonus meaning that a win today and we would be on the magic 50 points mark.  A defeat and it may be a nervous Easter.

As away trips go, VCD is one of the best in the business.  Well, for me at least.  4 stops, or 11 minutes on the train from TBIR Towers, the prospect of a bit of a gamble at Crayford Dogs and then a visit to a new micro-pub, the Penny Farthing.  Will the football ruin a great day out like it does so often?

VCD Athletic 2 Lewes 0 – Oakwood – Saturday 28th March 2015
In a nutshell, yes.  Once again, we were left talking about the performance of an official for the majority of the game rather than the players.  One incident changed the game without a doubt.  Just fifteen minutes were on the clock when a VCD corner bounced around the area.  A goal-bound effort hit Jack Rowe-Hurst’s arm, rather than the other way round.  There were players behind him from both teams, plus the keeper.  Penalty?  Probably, although some referees will argue it was “ball to arm” and unavoidable.  But a red card?  Never.  Alas, as a club we have no right of appeal.  If the game was being videod we could supply footage to the FA and have the decision reviewed, but it wasn’t.

The use of technology has been welcomed in the game at the highest level – goal line cameras has already proved to be a great addition to the game.  However, this is provided to all clubs in the Premier League and not just those who could afford it (obviously they all could).  In the lower leagues it is each club who have to fund the use of video so consequently it is hit and miss whether the games are recorded.  Two weeks ago in the game against Hornchurch, one of their players was sent off.  They used video to prove it wasn’t a red and they won their appeal.  But why shouldn’t it be uniform across the league?  Surely, having 3 or 4 clubs using it gives an unfair advantage to the rest?  We use Football Exclusives, who have contracts with half-a-dozen clubs in the Ryman League.

IMG_3573The sending off was pivotal.  Rowe-Hurst has been one of our best players in the past few weeks.  A fast, winger who isn’t afraid to take on his man, scoring two in the last three games.  Take him out of the team and Lewes lacked pace or any wide option.  We then lost our other wide man, O’Connor and it was going to be an uphill struggle especially when Duckworth seemed to receive the ball in an offside position before he turned and slotted home to make it 2-0.

Lewes huffed and puffed in the second period, with the referee producing another red, this time for VCD’s centre-back Reeves for a “denying a goal-scoring opportunity” although there appeared to be covering defenders.  The resulting free-kick was tipped over the bar, which was as close as Lewes came to scoring.

This was a disappointing whimper of a defeat.  In front of one of our biggest away followings of the season (a second half headcount put it at 47 out of a crowd of 136) we simply didn’t show up.  The worry is that with Harrow Borough arriving at the Pan next Saturday in excellent form and closing in on us, the last few weeks could be very nervous indeed.

Hope is most certainly the only strategy at the moment.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 3 – Wearing many hats


ff806c39-66d7-49e8-bf3e-bdcd3da80933-mediumIt took less than 5 minutes before my phone rang with a journalist wanting to try and get the “inside track” after we announced that we had parted company with our previous management team last month.  4 minutes 47 seconds to be precise, which was a good 60 seconds longer than I had said it would be to Club Sec Kev.

Despite being Chairman of Lewes Football Club I still would retain my other duties which meant writing the copy for the website, co-ordinating the publishing of the news across all of our social media channels at once (it is amazing how many Publish/Post/Tweet and Send buttons you can press simultaneously on multiple devices) and answering questions by email, text, phone and post such as “Can you tell me your website address”, “Can I bring my motorbike into the ground?” and one of my all time favourites “Will I be arrested if I streak across the pitch?  Does it make a difference if it was for charity?”

I was in high demand whilst we were managerless but as soon as Steve Brown had been appointed, I was dropped like a stone.  Even when BBC 5Live’s Non League show came a-calling, they wanted Steve as well as me, as if to play on the whole “interim” situation.  We showed them though, with Steve unable to take part in the interview at the last minute, meaning I had a national platform to avoid any difficult questions and turn the conversation onto chips with cheese and gravy.

So a typical home game now means a full week of preparation.  As co-editor of the award winning match day programme (have a butcher’s for yourself here) with Barry Collins we have to start planning at least seven days before the game.  Content doesn’t write itself.  In fact, as with most Non League programme editors, we end up writing virtually the whole programme ourselves, despite all of the promised made by people to write for us.

Another job on match day is to grab the radio microphone and be our cheery PA announcer.  Once again, preparation is key – knowing what to say and more importantly, what not to say is all prepared for me by our general manager, Adrian and by the time the teams take to the field, today led by one of Lewes’s oldest and most loyal fans, Ethel, I hope I have spelt phonetically those names that could be problematic.  Pre-match duties over there’s time to grab a beer and try and watch some of the game.

Lewes 0 Leiston 2 – Saturday 21st March 2015 – The Dripping Pan
CAocQglW4AAIyqfIt is always a bad sign when we lose the toss and have to kick towards the Rook Inn in the first half.  It does have one main advantage though.  It allows me to grab some double-cooked chips with French onion gravy and mature cheddar, although problems arise when the away team opens the scoring when you are mid-mouthful and wasn’t really concentrating.  Lesson number 1 – ABC – Always Be Concentrating.  I had no idea who had scored.  No TV replays, no Rookmeister’s insightful tweets, no John Murray in my ear.  Instinct takes over and you judge which player was getting the applause of his team mates.

“Opening goal this afternoon scored in the ….” checks clock “19th minute by, I think, number 8 Gareth Heath”.  I look for a reaction from the players to see if any of them looked confused at the announcement.  They didn’t.  I think I had got away with that one.

Lesson number 2 – ABC (again)  Always Be Checking.  I’d already announced the Golden Goal.  It went in after 18 minutes 58 seconds and thus the 19th minute.  I unfolded my Golden Goal ticket.  20 minutes.  Two seconds out.  Nobody would have batted an eyelid if I announced 20 minutes.

Goal number two for Leiston was as problematic as the first.  Free-kick on edge of box, pinballs in the area and the number 11 celebrates like mad, running off to celebrate with the five away fans.  The rest of the team all rush to congratulate the number 4.  Who would you give the goal to?  I said 4, Club Sec Kev posted on Football Web Pages it was number 11, Boysie thought it was number 5 and Twitter suggested it was an own goal.

The second half saw Lewes lay siege to the Leiston goal. Well, by siege I mean we pushed forward and tried to get the ball into the danger area and test the keeper.  For all the good approach play, Danny Gay will have much busier afternoons than he had at The Dripping Pan.  Then Tom Davis got himself sent off by blasting a spare ball that had strayed onto the playing surface into the opposition dug out. Despite being only a few yards away, and the bench being full, he missed everyone – a fact that summed up the whole Lewes afternoon.  Davis departed and so should have the Rooks hope.

But we were 2-0 down (“the most dangerous score line in football” according to football expert David Pleat) and down to ten men (“the most dangerous formation in football” according to football expert David Pleat).  What a combination.  How could we fail?  Well, we did.  Two-nil was the final score and our hopes for a “we are staying up” celebration party would have to be put on ice for another week, or so.

Post match I complete my duties by wishing our visitors all the best for the rest of the season before heading into the debrief with our management team.  The ground is long-empty by the time we leave.  It’s been a long week and we have nothing to show for all of our collective effort bar a litter-strewn terrace.  But we will be back to do it all again when Enfield Town come to visit on Wednesday.

Tales of a Non-League Chairman – part 2 – The away game


This week I’m on the road with The Rooks, making the relatively short journey to the fantastic Gallagher Stadium, home of Maidstone United. Turn right out of TBIR Towers, left onto the A20 and 25 mins later I’m pulling up outside The Flower Pot, one of the best little real ale pubs in Kent for a quick pre-match strategy session with the Lewes Lunatic Fringe before I head into the boardroom at The Gallagher Stadium.

16607855597_8626c47328_zYou may be disappointed to know that I’m not “suited and booted”. As I approached the gate I was looked up and down and expected to be ushered towards the turnstiles due to my dress code. The world has moved on in most places, and the sight of directors in jackets and ties is relatively rare these days, something that has mirrored real life and especially at The Dripping Pan. I’ve worn a tie once in just over a year for work purposes and on that occasion it lasted about an hour. Most companies now have a more relaxed dress code, with ties today becoming a more fashionable item to wear around the wrist than the neck, thanks to the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. I fail to see why wearing a tie makes me more acceptable as a club official, a sentiment shared by everyone else on the Lewes board. One club in our league insist on the stuffy dress code to enter their boardroom. One or two give you a funny look when you wander in in jeans but don’t say anything but most give you a warm, hospitable welcome irrespective of what you are wearing.  Not that we are a scruffy bunch, mind. So once you have passed the dress code test, what actually happens in the inner sanctum at other clubs?

Some clubs put on hot food pre-match, others offer a decent fayre post match (nods to East Thurrock United, Billericay Town and Leiston in that area). Pre-match talk will be centred on recent form, perhaps a brief fact-finding interrogation about budgets (as ours are published on our website we don’t have to resist for long) or the good-old British conversation staple of the weather. Half-time is a time for inflection, a cup of tea and shaking you head at the latest scores. Nobody wants to be too cocky at this stage, irrespective of the score “just in case”.  Full-time is about putting on your noncommittal, neutral game face irrespective of the result. A win and you need to hide the smug grin. A defeat and you need to hide your disappointment, blaming it on the ref. I’ve yet to be offered a cigar and only once been given a brandy.

You don’t get a guidebook on how to be a chairman.  I’m lucky that I have chairman mentors in two generations of Parris’s and Peter Hiscox who have coached me in what to say and when.  There is a whole lexicon of boardroom speak.  When asked if I’d like a beer before the game, you should say “No thank you.  I want to stay sharp just in case I need to come on!” (then laugh out loud).  You need to remember to shake everyone’s hand when you arrive, and when you leave, not forgetting to wish them well for the rest of the season.  If you are visiting a club where you have had problems in the past then you should talk about the weather, how bad the England cricket team is and whether Man Utd are a spent force (unless of course you are in the boardroom at Old Trafford).

Few would have thought a few weeks ago that The Rooks would be travelling to The Gallagher Stadium with a better current form record than The Stones. In the last four Ryman Premier League games, the Rooks can boast two wins and a draw, whilst Maidstone United, like the other teams at the top of the league are on a bit of a wobble. Draws against Leiston and Harrow Borough, a defeat against Hampton & Richmond Borough with just a single win against Billericay Town. Is there a better time to visit the league leaders?

16627583818_ab7da6e214_zDespite their current form, the league title appears to be theirs to lose. Who can really deny them their success after over twenty years of struggle. Eight points clear of Margate and due to play their nearest rivals in an already sold-out game at The Gallagher in two weeks time, many will feel a win in that game will be one hand on the trophy.

Where there’s time, there’s hope, and with 90 minutes ahead of us that’s the best we can wish for. The Stones have only lost once at home this season, a 3-0 reverse to Enfield Town who ironically recorded the same result last week at Margate. That has been the only home game so far this season where they’ve failed to score in and they have the best home record in the Ryman Premier League. They average 2.17 goals per game at home, conceding less than 1. The Rooks on the other hand have struggled away from home this season, taking just 11 points on the road, the second worse record in the Ryman Premier League. Our 11 away goals is the lowest total out of all 24 clubs. It’s not hard to draw a depressing conclusion from these stats, but football is a beautifully unpredictable game.

Maidstone United 2 Lewes 1 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 14th March 2015
16629030429_90a5890105_zIn the end, Lewes left the pitch pointless.  Up until the 75th minute this result was never in doubt, despite the home side rarely getting into third gear.  Two May goals, both tapped home from a few yards were early Christmas presents for the home side but then a late rally, thanks to a superb free-kick from James Fraser made the last fifteen minutes interesting for the away fans and very nervous for the 1,950 home fans.

The afternoon started very well – a visit to the Flower Pot was, as expected, superb.  They only had 10 guest beers on tap.  As we left we expressed our regret at this being our last visit for a few years due to Maidstone’s pending promotion. “Don’t worry lads – we’ve got a beer festival with even more guest beers on in late July”.  As chairman, I have now arranged a friendly here for that date.

The welcome in the boardroom was warm.  The lovely ladies who were looking after us, once I had managed to convince them I was chairman, quipped I must be the money man as I didn’t look like a former player. We were wined (well tea’d) and dined (biscuited) and then it was kick off time.  You cannot fail to be impressed by the Gallagher and the passionate fans inside.  This isn’t a Ryman Premier set up – in fact it is hard to imagine it in the Conference South.  There are League One and Two clubs that would die for the facilities (obviously, less the pitch) and passion the Maidstone fans show.

Despite injuries,suspensions and absences, Lewes battled well in the first twenty-five minutes, adapting to the pitch well and playing a passing game.  Heck, we should have even taken the lead when Matt Crabb’s shot almost saw the Lewes faithful drop their pints of Whitstable Bay Oyster Stouts (another tick in the box).  Then a dangerous free-kick flew into the Lewes box, keeper Rikki Banks came flying out and was a second too late getting in front of a Maidstone player who headed on and May had the easiest job of tapping into an empty net.  It was disappointing that the Maidstone player didn’t get down on all fours and head it home, just like you used to in the playground before you got a kicking for being so cheeky.

16627584528_c146b3d66f_zLewes went two down in the 52nd minute when May once again tapped home from three yards out after a great cross from Collin had eluded the Lewes defence.  Time to tighten things up?  Not really. Faint heart won no fair maiden so they went onto the offensive.  With fifteen minutes to go James Fraser stuck a beautiful free kick into the top corner and all of a sudden Maidstone started to wobble.  Worgan was the busier of the two keepers and made a couple of good stops.  However, the home side hung on for all three points.  There was no shame in losing this one, and the Rooks showed some real fight.

We headed back to the boardroom, shook hands with our victors, craning our heads to look at the results flowing through on Sky Sports.  “How about Dulwich Hamlet, eh?” was the standard line as everyone came into the room.  Homemade pea and mint soup, a bottle of Spitfire and a trip down memory lane to the dark days at Watling Street were the order of the day before it was time to depart.

Obviously we wish Maidstone every success in the future.  Their fans have been through the mill, sticking by them and now reaping the reward.  But we will miss this away day – it never fails to deliver on every level (apart from the result of course).

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – part 1 – The home game


It’s fair to say that when I was asked to become Chairman of the team I support I was chuffed to bits. Images of cigar-smoking, brandy-swilling, blonde-holding flashed through my mind but alas being Chairman means I’m still programme co-editor, match day announcer, website editor and communications co-ordinator. But it’s still a bloody great honour and I agreed to do it because I deeply care and believe in what we stand for and do as a club. We’ve got a vision and we are going to deliver on it, and to be leading that is bloody exciting.

So 10 days into the role and we find ourselves without a management team, looking down at the relegation zone and facing our biggest cup game in 10 years. So Stuart, what are you going to do now? The words of Lance-Corporal Jack Jones came into my head. Don’t panic. Fortunately, having the likes of Bazza Collins and Club Sec Kev around meant we quickly had a plan. Even Kev’s wife Laura giving birthday to baby Henry didn’t knock him off his stride. Within 7 minutes of the announcement of Garry Wilson, Danny Bloor and Dean Lightwood leaving the club I received my first phone call. A journalist (no names) asked if “mutual consent” was agreed by both parties. 4 minutes later I received the first job application by email. And so the madness began.

IMG_3423Despite Lewes “just” being a step 7 Non-League club we received over 20 applications. Some well-known people, and not just in terms of the Sussex footballing scene, applied including four candidates who had Premier League experience. Never judge a book by its cover is as true in this situation as anywhere else. Good footballers rarely make good managers. We also had applications from people with absolutely no background in Non-League football or management in general, who put over compelling arguments why they should be considered. Perhaps in different circumstances where we weren’t fighting for our Ryman Premier League survival we may have talked further to these people but we needed a wise head who could guide us out of the tricky situation. Our caretaker team of Martin Hinshelwood and Steve Eke did us proud in the interim period, taking four points from a possible six and more importantly, guided us to our first cup final in ten years.

In a very short space of time I’ve come to realise that being chairman isn’t just about swanning into the ground at 2.55pm having parked the Jag in my reserved space and shaking hands with a few fans. Firstly, I’m in the ground around 2pm on a match day taking care of all those duties that I did before being chairman that, like at most Non-League clubs, most fans think the pixies do. There’s no Jag either, nor is there a reserved parking spot unless you call the one marked “Reserved for Hair & Beauty clients” in Sussex Downs College car park, which for some strange reason nobody ever parks in but me. Being a Chairman means that people expect you to do things that other people won’t do.

In just a month I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard from my colleagues the phrase “As Chairman, you should do that Stu”. Not that I’m complaining – after all if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d do the same. Being manager less for a few weeks also means I have to field the calls from journalists. Some will write what you say, others will try and second guess the meaning of what you have said and print that instead. Just one “added” word can cause offence, embarrassment or anger to anyone and everyone. Fortunately, in my real word job I’ve had a bit of training in dealing with journalists so am pretty good at keeping things “on record”. During the period where the managerial search went on there was very little speculation in the press bar a few names that the journalist in question had observed watching our games.

I found it amusing to see headlines in the local press using my adopted new name “Chairman Fuller”. In the space of a few days my Christian name had been lost, replaced by a title more akin to a Communist Party leader. I also received random texts from people telling me where I was and what I was doing. “I see you were on the early train down to Lewes today. Interviewing a new manager?” and “I saw you shaking Kingy’s hand at Lancing – please don’t tell me he is coming back a third time?”

We’ve all heard the stories about secret trysts in service stations to do deals (legitimate ones not featuring shoeboxes full of cash I hasten to add!) away from prying eyes but I never thought that’s what really happened. That was until I’d agreed to meet one prospective candidate for the manager’s role and he asked if we could meet in a pub, some miles away from Lewes in a very rural location. Even as I pulled into the car park I doubled checked the mirror to make sure I hadn’t been followed. The Current Mrs Fuller even questioned me as to whether I was meeting another woman (or women as she said – I like her style at suggesting I still had the energy).

IMG_3432But the story has a happy ending. We got our man and today we welcome ex-Charlton Athletic legend Steve Brown into the dug out for the game versus Kingstonian. Could he start with a win? Our record in previous seasons against the K’s isn’t good, having taken just 2 points in the seven games we’ve played against them in the last four seasons. There has also been a red card in every game we’ve played against them in recent times. Expect a dull 0-0 draw then!

Lewes 1 Kingstonian 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 7th March 2015
Nil-nil it nearly was but it certainly wasn’t dull. Lewes can mark this one down to the Footballing Gods, smiling down at them as Kingstonian were well and truly robbed. The Rooks finished the game with nine men whilst Kingstonian could only rue a hat-full of missed second half chances including a missed Gomez penalty.

To be fair to both sides, the extraordinary sight of the sunshine probably distracted them from trying to play football in the first half, with neither side really creating any chances in the first period. The half was livened up in a three minute spell just before the break that saw two red cards. First up was Kingstonian’s Alex Addai who simply lost the plot, planting his head into the face of Tom Davis for a tackle made by Matt Crabb. Addai then displayed all of the characteristics of a 5 year old being told he couldn’t go to Thorpe Park. Jumping up and down, trying (and failing at first) to remove his shirt and then sitting on the naughty step.

He was joined there a few minutes later when Sam Cole appeared to leave his foot in when challenging for the ball and he saw a straight red.  10-a-side it was to be after the break.

Lewes started the half well, with the K’s now infamous keeper Rob Tolfrey being called into action to keep out a James Fraser shot from 40 yards and then a point-blank range Elphick header.  Seconds later Lewes keeper Rikki Banks charged out from his line and took out Pico Gomez. Clear penalty.  Gomez stepped up and smashed the kick against the post.  Perhaps this was to be our day.

With five minutes to go Lewes launched a free-kick into the box.  Tolfrey came for it, dropped it and Rowe slotted home.  Cue manic scenes as the players joined in with fans celebrating including one chap who had obviously given his wife a break and brought their baby to the game.  He was almost offering his child to the players to celebrate with.  In my experience that may get you a telling off a home, especially if you also douse the child in beer.

From the rather long lens of James Boyes

From the rather long lens of James Boyes

There was still time for the referee to make a complete fool of himself by only booking the K’s centre-half for scything down Sam Crabb, a tackle far worse than Sam Cole’s first half red.  Brotherly concern and love took over as Matt Crabb pointed this out to the ref and was given a red card.

So three points, a winning start for our new management team and a pretty decent roast pork loin ciabatta with apple lavender slaw and smoked chilli for a pre-match snack.  We will have better days, we will have worse days.  But for today, the lot of the chairman is a happy one.