67 seconds of joy

Football can be a cruel game sometimes.  Often you try to do the right thing, even though you know the end result may not work in your favour.  There are few football fans who don’t love to see players that have grown up with a club pull on the shirt and play their heart out.  Badge kissing in these circumstances is allowable.  But few players these days are one-club icons.  In the Non-Leagues where money is less (I stress “less” rather than “not”) of an issue, you will often get some club loyalty.  On Wednesday night when Met Police were visitors to the Dripping Pan, their manager Jim Cooper was celebrating his 12th year in charge of the club.  Whilst he may have masterminded his team’s victory over Lewes, how much of his preparation focused on the inexperience and youth of our team?

FullSizeRender (1)Faced with a reduced budget, managers have two choices – cut their cloth accordingly, or move on.  Lewes boss Steve Brown is certainly in the former camp – in fact he positively encouraged us to invest in the youngsters, and the future development of them.  “Some weeks they will get battered out there, but on the other side some weeks they will have the crowd purring”.  Whilst you can’t read much into pre-season games, there was certainly evidence of the latter in those games.  There was also evidence of the former in the first game of the season at Leatherhead.

We want to be a progressive club, so we have embraced Social Media as too have many other clubs at our level.  That includes having our games recorded and shared across the excellent Football Exclusives platform.  For those fans unable to get to a game, the ability to access highlights is fantastic.  It’s also very useful for opposing teams in terms of scouting, especially as they can pause and rewind the action to take notes.  Was there any surprise that Met Police played lots of high balls into the area in the first half on Wednesday night when they know we have a 17-year old making his full debut? No, but even at this level of the game you will try everything to get a slight competitive advantage.

So whilst you may feel that pride of seeing the players you have developed come through to make their first team debut, you also know that opponents will try to exploit that inexperience.  But on the other hand, every minute these young players is a minute’s more experience.

Of course I wouldn’t be writing these notes if we had got off to a flyer in our opening two games and were sitting top of the league.  Alas, we were propping up the 23 other teams (albeit on alphabetical order).  Our visitors Harrow Borough were up there with the teams of the season in the Ryman Premier League last year out.  Whilst they finished in the bottom eight, they were effectively dead and buried with a dozen games to go.  Then they found some guts, passion and a will to win.  Those final twelve games resulted in 25 points and safety assured with their win at the Dripping Pan in early April.

Just 24 hours after the visit of Harrow Borough to The Dripping Pan I would be heading north to take in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round game between AFC Emley and Parkgate.  There was no footballing reason for this one – no player to have a look at or team to scout.  It was a bit of a jolly.  But what did make me smile was the message on the Emley website that defined their mission:-

“We are a small club with very little money but what we can do, we try to do well and do “the right way”. On the playing side our vision is to develop the best local talent who want to succeed for the club and community we serve. The emphasis is on development of players who want to succeed for OUR club. This vision is underpinned, on and off the pitch, by the values of communication, respect, responsibility and solidarity.”

Who can not agree with that at our level, yet how many clubs and their owners are prepared to compromise those principles at the slightest whiff of some money? But back to today and the search for our opening points of the season.

Lewes 1 Harrow Borough 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 15th August 2015
For 67 glorious seconds we had a taste of victory.  That’s how long we held the lead for after opening the scoring in the 87th minute.  It was a tad harsh on the Rooks who built on their second half on Wednesday with an assured if unspectacular performance today.  Whilst the visitors will point to a goal disallowed midway through the second half, they rarely put young Stroomberg’s goal under threat.

Despite dominating first half possession it took Lewes until the final minute of the half to create a chance when the tireless Jimmy Muitt broke free of his marker on the half-way line, accelerated away, rounded the keeper but took the ball too wide.  He got his shot in which was cleared off the line, picked up the rebound which was cleared off the line again.

FullSizeRender (3)Lewes came close to taking the lead on the hour mark when Lovett’s snap shot was smartly saved by the Boro’ keeper, then the visitors thought they’d taken the lead when Page headed home at the far post from a well-worked free-kick but was deemed to have been offside.  The main talking point came in the 79th minute when Peacock’s clumsy challenge on Muitt saw the young Lewes striker leave the field on a stretcher.  Peacock, booked in the first half somehow escaped a second yellow despite taking out the Lewes forward in the air.

Muitt’s replacement Nathan Crabb won a penalty when his quick feet tied the Harrow defenders in knots and he was tripped.  No complaints and no mercy shown by Leon Redwood’s spot-kick.  The relief that spread across the ground lasted just over 60 seconds before Lewes were undone at the far post again and Taylor headed home unmarked.  The drama wasn’t over as in the final minute keeper Stroomberg pulled up with what looked like a hamstring problem.  Fortunately, the ball stayed up the other end long enough for the referee to blow the final whistle.

The point lifted the Rooks out of the bottom four, although the table really means nothing at this stage.  The crowd – a disappointing 372.  We can look for mitigating circumstances such as the Summer Holidays, a small travelling support or the travel chaos around the ground due to the bridge repairs and college car parks closed.  Football fans are impatient.  They want success right here, right now.  As a fan I understand that, as someone invested in developing something special here at Lewes I’d hate to see fans missing out when this squad start to click and injuries withstanding, that could be just around the corner.

Getting our backsides Tanned on the opening day

3pm on the opening day of the season and everything is good.  The sun is shining, the beer tastes good, even the dubious looking food tastes fantastic.  You see the group of fans that for the next nine months will be your second family, sharing pain and pleasure, hope and despair, joy and agony.  In some cases that feeling will disappear within minutes as a defensive slip will lead to that all too familiar sinking feeling and the look of “it’s going to be a long long season” passes from fan to fan on the terraces.

For those involved off the field then the opening day comes with a sense of relief.  Work started on preparations the day after the season ended, often with a number of challenges, none more so than trying to ensure you have a squad ready and raring to go when the season starts.  Fans often vent their frustration on forums that there appears to be no activity with the team.  On the contrary, things are so fluid and change all the time that if we updated every movement of a player in or out the fans would soon get bored.  A player agreeing to sign today could be playing for another team tomorrow.  And bear in mind it is not just about the willingness of a club to offer players deals, the player’s circumstances may change and thus club X albeit one offering less money may be more practical for them.  As my learned colleague Mr Bazza Collins said this week “It’s not a question of finding players to play on Saturday but rather who to leave out”.

Non League doesn’t have the same transfer restrictions as the professional game.  Come 1st September and we can still sign players, right up until the morning of a game in fact.  The whole Enfield Town debacle at the end of last season will make club secretaries more cautious when they register a player now, although with Club Sec Kev at the helm for Lewes we know that he double and triple checks anything as it is, treating player registrations the same way as he treats the freshly ironed ten pound notes in his wallet every time it’s his round, his diligence again would prove valuable come 2pm today when the team sheet needed to be submitted.

Then of course we have the kit issues – you go online, choose what you want and it just arrives in the post right?  Alas, if it was only that simple.  A lot of it comes to the UK via lorry, who have to use the Channel Tunnel.  So delays such as the ones we have seen have caused issues for many clubs, the most ironic being Folkestone Invicta who can probably see the delivery lorry in question with a good pair of binoculars.

19784718544_28aae8ff56_kThe Rooks traveled to Leatherhead with some confidence.  The doom and gloom that sat over the club for most of last season appeared to be lifting and manager Steve Brown and new assistant Jay Lovett have built a squad on a smaller budget that looked impressive in pre-season, holding a virtual full-strength Brighton & Hove Albion side to a goal-less draw and running an impressive Crystal Palace development team close last weekend.  Youth is the order of the day at The Pan this year, with some impressive young players ready to make their mark on the Ryman Premier League.  Of course we still need the old, wise heads and between our three centre-halves we have plenty of that, with a combined age touching 100 years.

At least as that whistle blows at 3pm we can all sign in unison “We are top of the league”…for how long, well that’s anyone’s guess.

Leatherhead 3 Lewes 0 – Fetcham Grove – Saturday 8th August 2015
About 4 minutes 53 seconds to be precise.  That’s how long it took Kiernan Hughes-Mason to take advantage of a lapse in concentration in the Lewes defence and lob the ball over Dan Hutchins. The first goal of the new season seems to exaggerate the pain and pleasure for both teams and to be honest it felt awful.  Five minutes later Leatherhead hit the bar, then doubled the lead when a wickedly deflected free-kick saw Hutchins scrambling across his line only to get fingertips on it. Fifteen minutes into the new season and how we all wished we could hit the rewind button.

20219020708_32d0d8473a_kCould it get any worse?  Well how about your keeper being knocked unconscious making a save?  Yep, let’s throw that one in before half-time too with 17-year old Nathan Stroomberg coming on for his debut.  Our line up ending the half featured five players under the age of 23, with our bench consisting of two 18 year olds and a 20 year old.  We would have also had 17 year old Jack Rowe-Hurst on the bench but a minor error on his registration forms from Brighton was spotted by Club Sec Kev on arrival at the ground so he was withdrawn as a precaution.

20219009168_3cfbc17679_bThe second half saw Lewes have more of the play but fail to create any real chances until the dying minutes of the game.  The third Leatherhead goal came against the run of play in injury time but was meaningless, the only real impact was seeing The Rooks drop to the bottom of the league on goal difference on day one.  Well, I suppose the only way is up from here.

Football can be a cruel mistress.  The traveling fans left with an air of doom and gloom, those months of anticipation and hope wiped away in 90 minutes.  But we will go again, 45 more times before April is out and a lot can happen.  Alan Hansen may be right all along, we may win nothing with kids but we will certainly give it everything we’ve got.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 9 – The magic of the Parafix Sussex Senior Challenge Cup

It’s been three weeks since we went to Suffolk on that hot and sunny glorious April afternoon and secured Ryman Premier League football for another season.  The fans celebrated, the players celebrated and we celebrated, albeit in on a slow train back to London.  Since then football should have taken a back-seat.  It should have been a time to re-acquaint ourselves with our families, bring the garden out of its winter slumber and even cook Sunday lunch.  But we had the small matter of a cup final on our minds.

At the start of each season all Non-League teams plan their objectives for the nine months ahead.  Promotion push, consolidation, maybe the play-offs, survival and so on.  But rarely will they say “some silverware” like you hear in the Premier League.  It is very rare these days for there to be a surprise pairing in a final of any major competition.  Last season’s League Cup Final between Bradford City and Swansea City was probably the first, and maybe last genuinely surprising final in respect of the two sides that got to the final.  Whilst the neutrals all wanted to see the third-tier side win (bar Leeds and Huddersfield fans), Swansea rarely got out of second gear to record a 5-0 win.

17551079518_1b42d2f3e8_zWe know that our greatest hope in the FA Cup is a spot in the First Round Proper.  We’ve achieved that three times in our 130 year history. It takes the luck of the draw and the luck on the day for clubs at our level to get that far.  Likewise, the FA Trophy has only been won twice in twenty years by a team outside the Conference Premier – the last of whom North Ferriby United did so this season thanks to some significant funding from the family that also owns Hull City.  Take the funding away (as it appears will now happen) and the club are considering their position in the Conference North.

So that leaves the Isthmian League Cup and the County Cups.  The former is seen by many as an unnecessary burden, played at the wrong time of the season.  Many clubs would like this seen scrapped altogether – in fact it is optional as to whether a club actually takes part at all.  This season we made the decision to use it for our more promising youngsters.

17738981701_7417e33195_zAnd then there is the County Cup, which represents our best chance of glory.  It is not unfair to say that we should be in the top five clubs in the County.  Brighton & Hove Albion, Crawley Town, Whitehawk and Eastbourne Borough all play at a higher level with Bognor Regis Town, Peacehaven & Telscombe and ourselves at the next level down (of course that will change with Burgess Hill Town replacing Peacehaven next season).  It would take some warm balls to avoid meeting one, let alone three of those four higher placed clubs and thus win the trophy, but recent finals where both Peacehaven and Whitehawk have won the Sussex Senior Cup show that the underdog can still claim the silverware.

Our run to the final had its ups and downs.  We were taken to extra-time by Brighton & Hove Albion and Eastbourne Borough, arguably our two greatest rivals, before we beat them by the odd goal in three.  Sandwiched in between those two ties was a last kick of the game victory against county league Horsham YMCA before a convincing win against another county league side, Loxwood in the semi-final.  Nine years is a long time in football, but that’s how long it has been since The Rooks were last in the final.

Four years ago when the American Express Community Stadium opened, it was announced that the premier tournament in the county would be hosted there.  For clubs like Lewes and Whitehawk an opportunity to play at a superb stadium like the Amex doesn’t come around very often.  In fact, checking the record books (Club Sec Kev’s Non-League brain) this would be the biggest stadium that The Rooks had ever played in.  We knew we were massive underdogs coming into the game.  If results in the last few weeks had been different, it could have been a Conference Premier team playing a Ryman League South side.  But, ninety minutes of football wouldn’t spoil the day out for most of the 1,500 or so Lewes fans.

Arrangements for such events are fraught with issues whether it be ticketing arrangements, hospitality or player availability.  With the final taking place three weeks after the end of the season we had to find a solution as to how we would play the players – our budget runs for 37 weeks, so an additional few weeks meant the re-jigging of finances.  How about players who had already booked holidays? (Fortunately, Chris Breach’s trip to Vegas didn’t overrun and he arrived back in time).  Our hands are tied on arrangements and facilities on the day.  The stadium belongs to Brighton & Hove Albion and is leased to the Sussex FA.  We have very little say in what happens apart from on the pitch.

17738650545_27fa067703_zAs Chairman I was expected to give a speech before the game in the hospitality area.  Around 600 people would be present, split roughly 1/3rd Lewes, 1/3rd Whitehawk and 1/3rd invited guests by the Sussex FA.  I was more concerned about having to wear a tie (normally the reserves of funerals and court appearances) than what to say.  A couple of Harvey’s did the trick though, and despite the heckling of the Whitehawk guests, it seem to go down very well.  A quick good luck speech to the players and it was show-time.

Lewes 0 Whitehawk 5 – The Amex Stadium – Saturday 16th May 2015
The subplot here of course was the Return of the King.  Steve King, arguably Lewes’s most successful manager was in charge of our opponents and no doubt an element of revenge was in his mind.  Which manager doesn’t want to beat their old clubs, especially in a high-profile game.  Pre-match King and Steve Brown were in a relaxed mood, no doubt discussing the merits of their respective owners rather than the gleaming silver trophy in front of them.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So final table looks like:-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.