Spanish eyes aren’t smiling today


During the summer months my licence to roam to watch football carries a few endorsements.  I have to factor in “family time” around any games I want to get to, and my wanderlust desire is relatively muted – after all who really wants to drive 5 hours to Bangor City on a Thursday night just to watch some football (that’s what I told myself after I lost a coin toss a few weeks ago).  Last weekend, with the sun shining brightly I suggested a trip to the Outlet Shopping Centre at Hatfield whilst I went to watch Stevenage v West Ham United, and next weekend there is the small matter of tickets to see the “is she/isn’t she up the duff” Pandas at Edinburgh Zoo whilst I go to watch Hearts v Annan Athletic.  This weekend it was all about a trip to Hastings.

Despite being the birthplace of Erasure’s Andy Bell, everybody’s favourite comedian Jo Brand and Neil Ruddock (now listed on Wikipedia simply as “bankrupt”) it did give the world the genius talents of Alan Turing, Spike Milligan and Suggs.  Oh, and Anna McNeill Whistler, better known as Whistler’s Mum for all you Mr Bean fans out there.  It also has a pier, arcades, fish and chip shops and some amusements that look more dangerous than they really are, especially as a parent AND that they appear to be the same ones, with the same operators from when I came here as a child back in the 1980′s. Oh, and a football team who coincidently happened to be playing Lewes on the very day I suggested a Fuller Family day out. Funny that.

Alas, the mother of all storms on Friday night had driven the littlest Fullers under their beds, still not emerging by breakfast time on Saturday and the BBC weather forecast clearly said rain from 12pm to 5pm.  Perfect football weather.  So the family fun day was off (boo), but I was still able to go (yah!).  It was still only a friendly, and we had lost our previous two, including one last week to Sussex County League side Hassocks.  We all know it is all about the performance not the result at this stage of the season…unless you win of course, when it is vice-versa.

cropped-14692633105_6708776470_k.jpgHastings United’s The Pilot Field is a cracking old ground.  Once upon a time it hosted Speedway and Greyhound racing (not at the same time of course as that would be silly) and you can still see remnants of the track today. You can also see the overgrown old grandstand on the upper pitch, once the home of Rock-a-Nore FC on the walk down Elphinstone Road.  Today, with its cavernous grandstand and tall covered terrace it is showing its age.  Three years ago Hastings United reached the Third Round of the FA Cup, losing to Middlesborough, although there appears to be little in the way of a legacy of that brilliant cup run (and the significant prize money) apart from a half and half scarf above the bar.

Whilst the two clubs are both in East Sussex, there is little in the way of animosity between them.  Both seem to enjoy the challenge of beating Eastbourne Borough, sitting almost equidistant between the two towns.  Of course I say this with the fact that Hastings have had the better of the most recent games against the Rooks despite our different league fortunes.

14692344702_d3d2264174_kOf course when we finally arrived in Hastings, after a tortuous 3 hour detour to avoid the bane of modern motoring, the over turned caravan, the sun was shining.  The BBC weather app was still telling me that right now I should be cooling off in a heavy shower, rather than standing on the veranda (such a colonial word), enjoying a cold pint of MasterBrew as the teams emerged.  Modern technology can tell us who scored the opening goal in the game between Tammeka v Paide in the Estonian Meistriliiga within seconds of the ball hitting the net (Nigerian-born Jasper Uwaegbulam as you asked) yet ask it to report what is going on above us in the sky and it is rarely right.

Hastings United 2 Lewes 1 – The Pilot Field – Saturday 19th July 2014
Most games will throw up one main talking point, with both sets of fans arguing the toss for hours.  Whilst this game was only a pre-season friendly, it was a game of football and thus was played under the rules that the FA set out.  So I do not buy the “it’s only a pre-season game” when controversial issues are discussed.  In normal circumstances, and by that I mean in any other game refereed according to the laws of the game, Hastings would have gone in at half-time down to ten, possibly nine men.  That’s taking nothing away from the result – Hastings’took advantage of two pieces of calamity defending to win the game – but without their first choice keeper for over an hour, the result may have been different.

The first incident happened when new signing Elliott Romain chased what appeared to be a lost ball over the top but got in front of the defender and knocked it past the on-rushing Hastings keeper, who simply brought the Lewes forward down.  Clear penalty, clear professional foul yet the referee didn’t even produce a card.  Jack Dixon stepped up, and put the ball in his favoured corner.  1-0.

A few minutes later and veteran Sean Ray appeared to strike Romain in the face with his arm.  The Lewes forward didn’t make a big deal of it, although the referee decided to take the Lewes player to one side to have a chat.  A few minutes later the referee sided up to Ray and said something…no guesses what it was.

14505964729_feeb73921c_hHastings equalised just before the break when a corner was dropped under pressure by Rikki Banks and the ball was finally bundled home by Sawyer.  Even-stevens although the Lewes bench were clearly unhappy with the lack of action about the two incidents.  In normal instances we would have all gone down the opposite end for the second half, but our viewing position was more than adequate in the sunshine and close to the bar.  What else could you want in Non-League football?

If they weren’t bad enough then the Hastings keeper decided to try his luck again, this time flattening Romain outside the box when he was clear on goal.  This time the referee pulled out a yellow card.  What’s the point in that?  If he gave nothing for either incident in first half, why caution the player in the second?  He was never going to send him off in the game so it simply because a gesture that had no meaning.

With fifteen minutes to go Hastings once again capitalised on indecision and inability to clear the ball in the area and substitute Bankole had a simple job of turning the ball in.  The result gave the home side some local pride, although it counts for very little once the season gets underway.  Overall, a very pleasant afternoon on the Sussex coast.  It may not have been hotter than the Mediterranean but we did feel the pain in Spain…..*

*The referee, David Spain, isn’t that well liked in Lewes due to a number of refereeing performances in seasons gone by…let’s just leave it there.

Don’t believe the Hyypia


It’s always nice to build up to a climax in your season, knowing that those cold Tuesday night away trips to the corners of Suffolk when the last train leaves before you have entered injury time have not been in vain.  The thought of a cup final or a final play-off push gets everyone behind the club, pushing attendances up and general adding to the club’s bank account.  But for many Non-League clubs, that cup final often happens before the season has started in earnest.  The visit of a Premier or Football League club can have a massive boost to the season ahead as well as re-engaging with some fans who may have drifted out of love with the game or the club.

14394319070_170dcc6795_zThis is especially true for clubs who sit in the long shadows of bigger teams, having to stand by and watch glumly as hundreds of fans park up outside their grounds, only to walk on by, tucking their real team colours in their jackets as they head for their slice of Premier or Football League action.  We see this frequently down at Lewes.  The fight that Brighton & Hove Albion fans endured to a) come back to the city and then b) have a home of their own has been well documented in hundreds of places.  Three years ago they were finally given the keys to the superb Amex Community Stadium and since then, things on the pitch haven’t been too bad with two consecutive play-off spots.  All should be rosy in the Tony Bloom garden? Well, not quite.  In the last two seasons the club has dispensed with the services of their head coaches, Messrs Poyet and Junyet after the play-offs for differing reasons, so to try to make it third time lucky they have employed former Liverpool defender, Sami Hyypiä.  No sooner had he brought the players back for pre-season than he was off down the A27 to visit the Dripping Pan.

So this is our cup final.  There is no shame in admitting it (unlike Spurs fans who lost their cup final three times last season to West Ham).  Bar four or five of the Premier League teams, a game against Brighton & Hove Albion is probably as big as we could hope for, especially one where the Seagulls would bring down the whole first team squad.  Two years ago they came, weathered a Lewes early battering and left with a 3-0 victory in front of just over 2,000 fans.

We are fortunate that we do not have many fixture clashes with Brighton & Hove Albion.  When there has been conflicts in the past, we have tried to change our kick-off times so that we can try to accommodate those fans who support both clubs.  Unfortunately, it is not always possible – we have to have the agreement of the League and our opponents.  Whilst we may see the merits of a 7:45pm Friday night game, or a 12pm Sunday kick off, they normally don’t, so we have to play at the same time, knowing our car park will be full of Seagulls fans heading for the station for the 5 minute train journey to Falmer.

New Picture (84)We decided to make the game all ticket.  There were a number of reasons for this.  Our capacity is limited, although due to changes in the whole health & safety, ground grading and licencing laws, we have never got to a point where we can say we are “full”.  Secondly, we did not want to have to try to deal with hundreds of fans trying to pay at the turnstile five minutes before kick off.  And finally, we wanted to not have to worry about having thousands of pounds floating around the ground. Two thousand two hundred tickets went on sale two weeks ago and yesterday the last one was sold.  The game was officially a sell out.

You’d think everybody would be happy, right?  Alas no.  Putting aside the fact he is a Scotsman, our manager Garry Wilson wasn’t best pleased.  He broke the news about securing this valuable friendly along the lines of “the good news is that I’ve got us a friendly against Brighton here….the bad news is that I am on holiday.”  After a few minutes he broke our excited babble with “you are still thinking of the good news aren’t you?”.  Cheer up Garry, I am sure Danny Bloor will do an excellent job…but what happens IF we win??

Oh, and have I mentioned the beer?  Well, once again, ridiculous football laws in this country mean that alcohol couldn’t be consumed in sight of the pitch.  FFS – it is a friendly.  All the rule does is create absolute chaos and a very packed club house, leading to a more dangerous situation than if those having a beer could take it outside. Football authorities + logic = foreign language.

So after a few days of temperatures officially hotter than Greece (Gravesend 28 degrees at 12pm on Friday, 27 degrees Mykonos), the start of the 2014/15 season started with….rain.  Lots of it.  “It’s good for the garden” my Mum told me on the phone…but not particularly good for the 1,000 or so fans who would be without a cover this afternoon.  Fortunately, an hour before kick off the sun was shining on the carpet-like Dripping Pan surface, Sky Sports News were capturing the mood of the afternoon and the ground was filing up nicely.

14580955765_80e6a4bcc5_bOur excitement so far had been around our new signings.  We had somehow sneaked into the Tonbridge Angels Big Brother house this summer and came away with the signatures of a few of their players.  Attack would be the best form of attack this season with three (THREE!) new strikers joining the club. Messers Wilson and Bloor had obviously been reading Kevin Keegan’s coaching manual during the summer, finally binning Otto Rehhagel’s 2004 Greek tactic book.  Alas, being Non-League football, it wasn’t only Garry Wilson who was absent overseas – our new hot-shot centre-forward Terry Dodd was also enjoying his Club 18-30 holiday.

Having co-edited the world-famous, award-winning programme for this game (a sell out long before kick off I am pleased to say), it was time to not only grab the mic for this game but also to slip into twitter mode as a substitute for Orlando-bound Rookmeister.  And where better to situate myself than between the two dugouts.  If there was going to be 20-odd substitutes then I needed to know what was going on.

Lewes 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 5 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 5th July 2014
Rule number 1 of pre-season.  It is all about the performance and not the result….assuming that you lose or draw to a team lower than you.  Did we seriously think we could beat the Seagulls?  In our hearts, yes.  But our brains are in our heads and logic says that a team playing six levels above should win and potentially win with ease.  And that is exactly what happened.  Over 2,400 saw Brighton & Hove Albion win with ease, with football and the club’s bank balance the winners today.

14579184744_2eed47d812_hThe media hype was all about Hyypiä with Sky Sports bringing their cameras down.  When you haven’t the rights to the World Cup, Wimbledon or the Tour de France then live coverage of headline sports is a bit difficult.  Their loss was our gain. For the first thirty minutes the main talking point was how many times the new Brighton manager would jump up from his seat in the dug out and hit his head on the roof (five times in the first half).

Lewes certainly held their own during the opening period and could count themselves unlucky to go 1-0 down just after the half hour mark when Calderon turned in the ball at the far post after corner had eluded the 18 players in the penalty area.  If that was unlucky, then LuaLua’s strike a few minutes later from distance to double the score certainly wasn’t.

The half-time whistle was the signal for a complete 11 man substitution by the Seagulls, which as the announcer made it a relatively straight forward second half for me.  Less than a minute after the restart Craig Mackail-Smith scored a third (his father-in-law Barry Fry was in the crowd btw) and that killed off the game.  Whilst Lewes toiled, the absence of graft players such as Walder and Nathan Crabb meant that it was always going to be a mountain to climb to get back into this game.

14601068993_767f533128_kTwo further goals from Goodwin put a one-sided gloss on the final score but there were no sad faces from the Lewes fans or management.  Today was raising the profile of the club, and some kind words to the TV cameras from the new Brighton manager helped the cause no end.  Our season starts in earnest when we finally get to see our opening fixture…or if we beat Hassocks on the 16th July.

Football is back…we’ve missed you.  Don’t leave us again.

Bury the bad news


The end of a football season is a day of mixed emotions.  For some fans there will be the euphoria of promotion, the nervousness of not wanting to be totally embarrassed playing at a higher level next season, whilst for others there is the dread of relegation, the gnarling feeling that your team is too good to go down and that immediate promotion is so much of a certainty they may as well not relegate you at all.  For the vast majority of us though it is simply a time to breathe a big sigh of relief that another campaign of broken dreams and false hope has ended.  “Next season, it will be all so different” we tell ourselves, knowing deep down that apart from the odd result here and there, it wont be any different at all.  In fact it will be exactly the same, with only the players names being different.

In the Non-League world we have the added concern about whether the club we support will still be going come August.  In the past nine months a number of teams have simply given up mid-season, realising there is no future for them.  Spare a thought for the Eastwood Town or  Rye United fans who would have started the season will hope in their hearts only to see the club they loved vanish before the first signs of Spring.  You can’t be a glory hunter in the grass roots game that’s for sure.

13938821455_382e6265ca_bToday was my last visit to the Dripping Pan for the season (for footballing reasons anyway). With a work trip taking across the Atlantic next weekend, the visit of Bury Town would be my sign-off for the season.  The lot of being a Director of the club however, does mean I will still be involved in the club every day of the Summer break.  And what a Summer it promises to be.  We have some big plans this year, plans that will hopefully see us start the long climb back up the Non-League pyramid. For us at Lewes it has been all about stability in the past few years, picking up the pieces of the broken Non-League dreams of our fathers and patiently gluing them back together to make sure they don’t shatter again.  Get the off the field stuff right and on the field it will click into place.

Our season has been no different to 75% of the rest of the Ryman Premier League clubs.  We have had high points – a fourteen game unbeaten start to the season gave us all hope that this season could be the one, followed by six weeks without a game due to the weather that ultimately decided our fate.  A mad March saw us having to play nine games, including matches against the six of the top seven in the division with a heavy injury list.  Things got so bad that it was nearly time for me to polish up the Puma Kings.  But our Premier League survival was ensured mathematically a week or so ago meaning that we would be living to fight another day next season.

Planning for the end of season period starts around Christmas time.  We need to ensure we have budgeted for all the essential work that needs to take place around the ground, including the pitch. Many fans forget that we have zero income from the end of April to July when we start selling Season Tickets, yet costs are still incurred. The land grab of trying to find a “big” club to come down and play in a pre-season friendly often starts a year in advance, and this year, without mentioning any names, we think we have pulled the golden rabbit out of the hat – I would say more but fear for my life from the wrath of Garry Wilson.  A game against a big name side can generate a huge amount of cash for a Non-League club – a crowd of even 1,500 paying an average of £10 (inc food and programme) would be enough to bring in two or three more decent players for a season.  Yet it is the hardest job in the world to get any of the big clubs interested – they probably received dozens, if not hundreds of requests to play against Non-League teams every season, each one as deserving on paper as the next.

13915682416_12fa913d62_bThere’s no better place to watch a game when the sun is shining than at The Dripping Pan, and with Brighton not having a game today the hope was a decent attendance.  Sure, there was nothing to play for but pride and a mid-table league position, but at least there are no dodgy dealings going on akin to a Biscotto, the Italian term used for convenient drawn games at end of season which hinders neither side.  Our attendances this season had fallen in the past two months with so many midweek home games but still we would finish the season with an average just over 500 – a figure higher than more than 60% of the teams playing in the Conference North/South.

Everyone was looking forward to the game.  After the win in midweek this was a banker walk in the park.  And then our mood changed.  At the side of the pitch was Patrick Marber.  The doom-monger.  The curse of the Lewes win.  If we had any sense we would have left there and then and headed down the road to Whitehawk for the afternoon.  His track record of not seeing us win this season played on all of our minds.  Despite his place in the Lewes Hall of Fame somewhere in the past few years he had brought a curse across the Pan whenever he visited.  Dave suggested we all pissed on him to remove the spell and had to be forceably stopped dropping his trousers on the Jungle as the game kicked off.

Lewes 1 Bury Town 4 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 19th April 2014
After 30 minutes there wasn’t anyone in the ground who thought this wasn’t going to be our day.  Winning one-nil thanks to Joel Ledgister’s sixteenth minute headed goal, and Rikki Banks having saved a harshly-awarded penalty when the Bury forward ducked his head into Malins clearance, it was the best day ever.  The sun was shining, the Harveys was a perfect temperature and even Patrick Marber was admitting the curse had been lifted.  And then it went wrong.

13939255594_f7b5e073b6_bJust before half-time Bury Town’s Wales stumbled into the area, picked up a deflection or two and manage to stab the ball passed Banks to equalise.  It hadn’t been the best of halves, enlightened only by the goal, penalty save and the heated debate between Marber and Lord Plumpton about the fact both held the same Golden Goal ticket.

If the first half was low on excitement then the second was utterly forgettable, at least for the Rooks.  Ten minutes in and Allen smashed the ball into the roof of the net to put the visitors into the lead.  Five minutes later and the referee was once again called into action to make a big decision, this time deeming Jack Dixon had stamped on Bennett, although the influence of the two Bury centre-backs who ran 70 yards to give their opinion seemed to sway his opinion that is was a straight red and not just a yellow.

13938869523_2de803e060_bThe goal meant Lewes had to throw on the not fully fit Nathan Crabb up front and pull Blewden into midfield.  Bury simply stepped up a gear and scored two more without the Rooks ever threatening the visitors goal.  Chants went from “sack the board” to “say away Marber”.  But like water of a duck’s back he vowed to be back next week for the visit of Leiston.

It was a disappointing end to my Dripping Pan season but I would be back (well, I have to as we have bi-weekly Board Meetings) next season, which would undoubtably be the best season ever.

Playing away in Dreamland


13804963363_e4a9f3df14_b“Well I’ve been working hard to reach me sales target
To earn a few quid for an away trip down to Margate
I’m gonna blow my commission tomorrow on all me football family
We catch the train at eight so don’t be late, were off to see the sea”

We are the luckiest fans alive today. Who else wouldn’t want to be spending a day at the sunny British seaside today. It is fair to say that prior to the release of the fixtures back in July, Margate away in either the earlier part of the season or towards the end would have been perfect.  In the last two season we had been down to the Isle of Thanet in October and January, so it was time that the fixture computer was kind to us. What better way to celebrate our promotion than a knees up on the golden sands and sewage outflow pipe of the Costa del Thanet.

Well, as our big sweaty transatlantic friend still warbles, two out of three ain’t bad. We were going to get our day in the sun in April at Margate, and ‘that’ sign was still warning us about staying away from the pipe carrying ‘stuff’ into the sea, but alas there was to be no promotion party. In fact our recent, and by recent I mean the last half of the season, has been a bit of a mystery. With a third of the season gone we were one place and two points outside the playoffs. However, the harsh weather, which first kicked in in October for us seemed to throw a spanner in the works and since then we have taken on average a point a game.

I still get the “sack the board” chants aimed in my general direction by those who still don’t quite get this community club aspect and realise that I can’t be sacked by the fans (voted out in October, indeed) but we will finish the season in a stronger position both on and off the field than last season and can look forward to next season when the regeneration project will commence on The Dripping Pan which will ultimately give us a new viable revenue stream. Continue reading

Falling in love with you


Six years ago I was a happy Hammer. Happy because I didn’t know what the joy was in watching football without Big Brother(s) watching over me, telling me when to sit, stand, shout and be quiet.  My epiphany came when I started going to watch Non-League football on a regular basis.  One of the first games in my “new life “was at Grays Athletic at Their New Recreation Ground against Canvey Island (how life has changed for all partied involved!).

During the next few seasons I started going more regularly to Non-League games, discovering new places that were almost on my doorstep.  Once I chose a Forest Green Rovers versus Oxford United over West Ham v Fulham I knew I was on a slippery slope.

397502_10152258011760853_1378592530_nMy first game at the Dripping Pan was a Conference Premier game against today’s visitors Grays Athletic.  It was the club’s one and only season in the highest level of Non-League football.  If ever there was a club that were a fish out of water, then it was Lewes during the 2008/09 season.  Just six wins and six draws all season, including just seven points taken on their travels the team were relegated by Easter.  Speaking to those who experienced the whole season tell the tale of not only the club being out of their depth but also of the joyless environment of playing at this level.  The club had to implement segregation, stop people drinking on the terraces and even have a sponsors board to facilitate live interviews post match.  Anyone who has visited the Pan since knows that is not how we do things.

Last year I was asked to contribute to a book – the task being to write “How I fell in love with my club” in less than 3,000 words.  I didn’t choose West Ham, the club I had supported for the best part of thirty years of my life.  I chose Lewes.  Last week the book was finally published by Ockley Books and not only features a chapter on Lewes, but similar ones on Weymouth, Tooting and Mitcham and the 1990 Cameroon World Cup Squad.  What the book tells me is that I am not alone in upgrading my footballing pleasure.

Lewes v Essex 2014Today the club is very happy playing two levels below the Conference Premier.  Crowds are increasing, bar takings are up and the football is making people smile once again.  Our ambition is to play at a higher level but as a board we will always make sure every step is a sustainable and financially viable. Today we welcomed Grays Athletic, a club who had endured a similar annus decadus.  Whilst Lewes’s free fall had been almost terminal, we always had the parachute of our ground.  Grays haven’t had that luxury and have endured somewhat of a nomadic existence since the heady days of finishing third in the Conference Premier and back to back FA Trophy wins.  Their Recreation Ground was sold to developers in 2010 and since they have ground shared with East Thurrock, West Ham reserves and now Aveley.

It had only been ten days since we last faced Grays, losing 4-2 in an entertaining game at Mill Field.  Since then both sides had played two league games, winning them both as too had Lewes.  Two weeks ago both sides would have put the file “Play Off Chances” in the filing cabinet but with games in hand over those above both sides who knows what could happen, especially as the respective home form has been so strong. Continue reading