Waking up the neighbours


In a couple of years there could well be a brand new football stadium at the end of the road here in TBIRville in South London. In fact, we have a few building projects on the map that will make a huge difference to the area. First up will be our very own Premier Inn at the top of the hill. Whilst the Sizzle Grill can boast a 4.5 rating on TripAdvisor, the other main attractions of the area hardly demand a hotel.

“A library, Co-operative Food Store, a butchers and a Dance studio” says Wikipedia, which isn’t really known for playing down the truth. Heck, we only have 1 pub, in a mile radius. This is suburbia not the Shetlands!

Perhaps the hotel is needed for when Paramount Park opens in 2020. Europe’s largest Theme Park, indoor venue and entertainment attraction no less, to be built in Swanscombe just 7 miles away. I’m not sure why we need such excitement – after all we’ve already got a petting zoo round the corner.

But who wants inverted 4G rollercoaster when you can have football. Paramount Park? Pah! It’s all about Flamingo Park and the news that the world’s third oldest football team will finally stop being wanderers and have a home of their own. Welcome to the neighbourhood, Cray Wanderers.

IMG_2345The club, formed in 1860, may not be known to many who don’t frequent the Non League circles. The last few years haven’t been the kindest to the club. After sacking manager of 14 years, Ian Jenkins, in September 2013 the club have been on a downward spiral, first being relegated from the Ryman Premier League and not in the relegation zone of the North Division. The one ray of sunshine has been the news that the club have bought the option on the land to build the new stadium. There’s no houses close by (thus no potential NIMBY influence), surrounded by a crematorium and a driving range and access would be direct onto the A20 dual carriageway. It would replace the existing Flamingo Park structure, home now to car boot sales, desperate over 40’s singles nights and the occasional travelling fairground that keeps the teenage birth rate up in the area. Who wouldn’t want to give planning permission for that?

All being well The Wanderers could be on my Christmas card list in three years, although by then the 2,200 capacity stadium may be hosting county league football. Something needs to stop the rot. A pre-Christmas visit of high-flying Harlow Town and their goal machine Alex Read was surely just the tonic. In terms of preparation, losing your manager (Mike Paye) 24 hours before kick off probably isn’t the greatest preparation either.

With landlords Bromley playing on Saturday, Cray were bumped off the main bill to the support card of Sunday. What a perfect opportunity for all the harassed fathers and husbands to drop their treasures off in the High Street then escape for a couple of hours to watch some good, honest football? Or was it just me who had that idea?

IMG_2334The first thing you notice if you haven’t been to Bromley FC this season is that the ground is now called The Fortress.  Alas, despite the coaching genius of Hugo Langton, the name has nothing to do with the impregnable Bromley defence, it is related to a sponsorship deal.   Once you pass through the turnstiles you will also notice that the old “lower” bar has now been replaced.  Instead of the jigsawed portakabin structure there is now Ravens, a wooden-bedecked bar and grill.  Very smart too – would have been even better if there any staff actually serving before the game though.

Cray Wanderers 2 Harlow Town 2 – Hayes Lane – Sunday 21st December 2014
Twenty minutes into this game you felt like waving the white flag on behalf of the home side.  Two nil down to high-flying Harlow, to anyone watching the game it was a case of how many the visitors would score.  But football is a fickle mistress and within a minute Cray were back in the game.  A spirited second half performance against ten men almost saw them grab all three points, rather than the one they finally earned.

With no other games in London today, the crowd was boosted by a fair few anorak wearers, desperate to find a team sheet and get a touch of the ball.  There were some loud tuts in the bar at the fact there was no real ale on, with the closest thing being some bottles of MasterBrew.  A ground of German ground hoppers didn’t care as they tucked into the Oranjeboom (“It’s a lager not a tune” I reminded one), fresh from a trip to see Spurs yesterday.

IMG_2332Despite the culture shock of having to play on a ploughed field compared to their lush 3G pitch, Harlow started with the kind of momentum their league position suggests and had come close twice before Junior Appiah opened the scoring in the 4th minute in somewhat comical style.  A Cray goal kick hits a defender’s back on the half-way line, the wind then carries the ball back over the heads of the back four, Alex Read mis-hits the ball into the path of Appiah and he slots the ball home.

Appiah and Read were causing all sorts of problems for the Cray defence, with some calamitous defending keeping the score down.  That man Read then pounced on a loose ball in the box, doubling the score with just twenty minutes on the clock.  It was all going so well for the visitors.  And then it all changed.  Cray’s first corner of the game saw centre-half, Dmitri Larin, steal in and head home.  Hope springs eternal.

IMG_2343Despite mounting pressure in the second half, Harlow simply couldn’t find the target.  Their job of holding onto the lead was made harder when Billy Jones was sent off for what was deemed a “reckless foul”, a harsh decision in most people’s book although the resulting 20 player melee was amusing to say the least.

With the temperature plunging, Cray started to warm up.  Poor defending left the Cray sub Shaun Welford unmarked and he headed home.  Two goals conceded from two unmarked positions. Only one team seemed to be in the hunt for the winner and Cray came within inches of grabbing all three points in the final seconds when only an acrobatic clearance denied them.

Full time – a great way to spend the final hours of the weekend before Christmas.  Harlow wont be happy with a point after their early domination, but Cray showed the type of fight that’s needed to drag themselves out of the relegation zone.  Who knows, with a point here, and news of a new ground on the horizon there could be a happy ending for one of the world’s oldest Wanderers.

December 2014 – Cold, bright and clear


15826233910_5e3bb2333b_kAfter the euphoria of the last-gasp win in the Sussex Senior Cup it was time to return to Ryman Premier League action with a trip to the purveyors of fine free-flowing football, Billericay Town. Those of us who made the trip to Horsham on Tuesday night were rewarded with a smorgasbord of the elements as well as some late drama to pitch The Rooks into the last eight in the race to reach The Amex.  So what better way to follow that than to spend a cold, damp afternoon in mid December than in deepest, darkest Essex craning our necks in the air as the ball by-passes the midfield?

At least you know what to expect when you play The Blues.  Their manager, Craig Edwards has modeled his side on those of Beck, Basset and Taylor, leading them to the Ryman Premier League title two years ago before they fell from the Conference South just a year later.  Whilst The Blues are one of a large pack of “middling” teams in the third tier of English football, they do hold the honour of being the first club to win the FA Vase three times (ticks box of doing research on Wikipedia). Matches between the two sides have hardly been dull in recent years, and if I was a betting man (which of course thanks to The FA I’m not allowed to be) I’d have a sneaky £10 on a red card. Last season it was our captain fantastic, Jack Walder, who saw red. Walder was back from his long-term injury although he would be soon be missing again after picking up a red in his comeback game, playing for a Ringmer last week.

15391229254_3a4fe1075e_kThis was to be my last outing to watch the Rooks before Christmas, so there was bound to be plenty of festive cheer as we descended on New Lodge, Billericay’s ecletic ground on the edge of the Essex countryside. Despite the Rooks lowly position, you have to go back to the 19th October for the last defeat in the league.  In fact, that bizarre game at Oxford City two weeks ago aside, it had been a pretty impressive run with wins in the FA Trophy and Sussex Senior Cup to go with the unbeaten league run.

Deaks had done his homework and found a decent pub in the town centre with a few new ales to sample, including possibly the best toilets this side of the West End.  Two (2!) types of hand lotion in the toilets.  As Dave said, you expected a little chap to pop out from behind the door with a squirt of Kouros.  Not what you’d expect from the location.

A swift pit stop on the walk to the ground at Greggs ended in disappointment as they had run out of sausage rolls.  That’s like a bank running out of cash, a pub running out of beer or Michael McIntyre managing to actually say something funny. It’s just not British is it?

The winter sun was causing us a problem as we walked down to the ground, meaning the toss could be a match decider.  Of course, we lost that and Rikki Banks was soon regretting leaving his baseball cap in his car glove compartment.

Billericay Town 2 Lewes 2 – New Lodge – Saturday 13th December 2014
Six minutes into injury time the ball is launched into the Lewes area, surely for one final time.  The initial four added minutes that the referee had said he was adding on have come and gone. The ball falls to Lewes’s stalwart Chris Breach, he slips, allowing a Billericay player a sight of goal.  Lovegrove dives in, taking one for the team and it’s a penalty.  One final hope of all three points stands 6ft 4inches tall.  Rikki Banks dives the right way but Richard Halle’s spot kick has too much pace and the wild celebrations from the home side just shows the relief of grabbing a point.

Of course we could complain.  But on at least four occasions this season the Rooks had benefited from extra injury time to grab valuable points or progress in the cup competitions.  As they say, these decisions even themselves out over a season.  It hurt – don’t get me wrong, but that’s football.

15987708636_9d934316be_kDespite dominating the opening exchange, including hitting the woodwork before we’d even picked up our chips from the refreshment kiosk, Billericay faded in the first half as Lewes simply out-passed them. There was no surprise when The Blues took the lead, although it wasn’t the long ball that led to the goal, rather than a powerful run from Sappleton through the middle of the Lewes defence before slotting home with ease.

Despite the state of the pitch, the Rooks looked to play the ball behind the Billericay back line with new signing Fraser, Davis and returning skipper Walder dominating the middle of the park.  Confidence grew, chances came and finally so did the equaliser.  Davis to Fraser to Cole, running onto the ball in the area and the ball was in the back of the net.

Tails up we went for another.  Davis showed his dancing feet when the ball appeared to get stuck in the mud, shifting his weight from left to right, wrong-footing the defence and calmly slotting the ball into the net.  Lewes were rampant. Blewden beat the offside trap but the final obstacle, the pitch, beat him.

15825991210_fbe3729e06_kThe second half was a tighter affair with both sides struggling with the conditions. Billericay were reduced to ten men when Sappleton went in late on Fraser, the subsequent handbags essentially costing Lewes their victory with the time being added by one of the better referees we’ve seen at this level this season.

The final drama certainly gave us our money’s worth and no Lewes fans can really complain at the last gasp decision. We’d done our homework, stuck our game plan and came away with a moral victory if not with all three points.

Postscript: the title of today’s report relates a line from the song All Together Now, describing the events in The Somme from 100 years ago. 

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them

A lesson in Public Announcing


As Saturday’s go, this was always going to be a challenge in terms of logistics. A few weeks ago I’d agreed to speak at a conference in Brussels to a large firm of IP attorneys on the subject of “Brand infringements in the digital age”. I can see you nodding off at the very thought of listening to that for 90 minutes, although it’s very entertaining stuff, even if I do say so myself. Nothing out of the ordinary about the event – I spend a lot of my time talking at similar events most weeks, but this was due to be on a Saturday. A Saturday when Lewes were at home, no less.

As luck would have it, the venue shifted to one just 2.5 miles from the airport and my speaking slot was moved forward to 10am. For once, travel logistics worked in my favour and I was able to fly from Heathrow to Brussels and back in less than 6 hours, meaning I could still make the game.

24 hours before I was due to travel I got a phone call informing me I had won tickets to watch England v Samoa at Twickenham…7pm kick off. Technically, it could be done – Leaving Lewes by 5pm I could potentially make Twickenham by 7pm but it would be tight. I couldn’t turn it down – it was “competition month” at work where we all entered one competition per day, the winner being the person who had come up trumps (and could prove it) the most times. This one would put me in the lead.

So my Saturday agenda now read:-

4.30am departure from TBIR Towers – Heathrow – Brussels Airport – Diegem – Brussels Airport – Heathrow – Lewes – Twickenham – arrive at TBIR Towers 11pm

What’s not to like about that? Well, apart from the 800 odd miles travelled of course and the fact I could have more than a beer or two during each “segment”.

The work part went smoothly, the BA lounge at Brussels airport was well stocked with Belgium beers and so I arrived back in the UK at 1pm “refreshed”. Despite the constant drizzle, the M25 and M23 behaved themselves meaning I reached The Dripping Pan in time to slip on my warm coat, pick up my clipboard and read out the teams as they took the field at 2:55pm.

image1The life of a PA announcer is pretty dull actually. Having agreed to take on the role in the summer, I wanted to do it my way. No sitting up in the stand, no cheesy announcements, no muffled voices. It had to be big and bold, whilst still standing on the terraces with a pint of Harveys. Of course this leads to problems, especially when we concede a goal at the other end.

“Keeper, who scored for you?” Is a common phrase of mine as my eyesight often fails to reach the halfway line let alone the far end of the pitch on a dark night. At least in that instance I’ve remembered I’ve got to announce the scorer. For the first few weeks doing the job I stood there waiting to hear who had scored the opening goal, and thus won the golden goal, only to realise the rest of the crowd were waiting for me to announce it.

Life on the PA system isn’t as simple as I first thought. Apparently you need to pay attention all of the time to what’s going on on the pitch. Chatting to your mates, or even going for a Jimmy Riddle can lead to embarrassing periods of silence when something has happened on the field. Taking a bite of a burger, or a sip of beer are not easy. At half-time people want half-time scores, raffles winners, next game details whilst I was a soup if tea and a slice of cake.

What is the etiquette for announcing own goal scorers? One chap told me to announce it as a goal to the last attacking player to touch the ball, someone else said simply say “own goal”. What about if you genuinely do not know who scored and there are no helpful tweeters in the ground – do you just announce who you think it was? How long should you wait to try to identify the right player based on the number of team mates giving him love? Is it “time added on” or “injury time” at the end of each half? Is it Fer-ga-ny or Ferg-any? They don’t put pronunciation guides on team sheets these days. The temptation to adopt Alan Partridge-style exclamations has so far been suppressed but it is only a matter of time before one or two slip out.

The rules keep on coming – Don’t announce the man of the match or official attendance too early. Last week versus Brighton, Sam Crabb got the award when we were 1-0 down but then two Tom Davis specials saw us win and would’ve had won him the award. Then you need to thank the away fans for attending, even if they’ve smashed up half the ground and invaded the pitch, and wish then luck for rest of season and a safe journey home.

Not that today there would be many away fans visiting The Pan. Our visitors, Witham Town, are new to this division but get modest crowds at home, and a small following away. Lewes is one of their furthest away trips (well, second longest behind Bognor Regis Town) so expectations were on the small side. Not that the club’s ambitions match the away following – they’ve adapted to life in the higher division well, enjoying a decent run in the cups including beating Lewes in the FA Cup 4-2 last month. Lewes’s recent current form of 4 wins and a draw from the last 5 games pointed to a home win. But football’s a fickle mistress sometimes and come 5 o’clock when I would be tearing back up the A23 to Twickenham, the only 3 points I may be nursing is that from a speed camera.

Lewes 2 Witham Town 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 22nd November 2014
It’s fair to say that for 83 minutes this was a bit of a shocker for The Rooks. Nothing seemed to work and the visitors had scored two, probably could have had a couple more, whilst the Witham goal, well marshalled by our 2nd favourite keeper in the division, Martyn Guest who gives as good as HR gets in the banter stakes, was rarely troubled. But then seven minutes (plus injury time) of passion saw Lewes grab a share of the points.

IMG_2075The first half didn’t throw up any PA issues, although Deaks accused me of adding a sarcastic inflection in my voice when announcing there would only be two added minutes. The second half I had to re-unite a purse with their owner without actually saying what I had or whose it was. I’m still yet to deal with missing parents, cars with lights left on or any baby birth announcements but I’m sure the time will come.

Those final seven minutes saw the Rooks change their 3-5-2 formation for a 4-3-3, which immediately brought pace into the Lewes side, with Blewden, Romain and Nathan Crabb chasing every ball. Wheeler, now freed from his defensive duties, took on the full-back, moved inside, shot and Guest, unsighted as the ball moved in the air, dropped the ball and Blewden tapped in.

Four minutes of injury time were displayed. Witham were taking their time but for the umpteenth time this season a final set piece saw chaos in the box and Nathan Crabb headed home through a crowd of players. Very late goals have become a habit this season but who was complaining. I turned the microphone on and let the crowd noise fill the ground before announcing the goal.

Sometimes you get things you don’t necessarily deserve. Those events shape your character, making you stronger, constantly reinforcing the need to be fluid in preparations and execution. Whether that may be playing in the Ryman Premier League or trying to work out with player has just scored 110 yards away.

At the Cole face


Every Non-League team dreams of a run in the FA Cup. The chance to take on a Football (or even Premier) League side, the presence of national media around the club and the chance to bask in the limelight for a period of time. There will be few football fans outside of Exeter, and probably Runcorn, who won’t have enjoyed seeing Warrington Town humble Football League Two Exeter City live in the BBC last night. The media lapped it up. “Plucky little Warrington”, “Goal scored by plasterer Craig Robinson”, “part-timers” we’re all common phrases being bandied about as the game progressed.

Nobody can begrudge the club their payday. The win over Exeter was their third consecutive 1-0 home victory in the competition, along the way beating teams in a higher division in each case including Conference North pre-season favourites North Ferriby United. The game was a 2,500 sell out and with the money from the BBC to televise the game, the club will have received over £50,000 getting to this stage of the competition. But is the money always a blessing for Non-League clubs?

The big challenge Warrington face is to try to get some of those local fans back in two weeks time when they host Radcliffe Borough in the Evostik Premier League North match, and those league games beyond that. So far this season only around 150 come to Cantilever Park to watch games. A big cash injection is never a bad thing at this level but the challenge is to try and use it to encourage more fans to come back. Warrington’s challenge is three-fold.

Firstly, they have to compete every Saturday with fans heading along the M62 to either Liverpool or Manchester to watch the Reds or the Blues.  One of the positive factors that televised football has brought the game is when some of the Premier League games are moved to a Sunday or Monday night, the local Non-League teams can try to take advantage of those fans who still want to go to a 3pm Saturday kick off.  This is one of the reasons why some clubs offer discounted entry for season ticket holders at bigger clubs, although in truth if you can afford the £700 plus ticket at Old Trafford or Anfield you are hardly likely to grumble at paying the tenner to get in at Cantilever Park.

Secondly, they are located in an overcrowded area of Non-League clubs of similar sizes.  Within a twenty-minute drive there are over a dozen teams playing at the same level or just above Warrington.  It is rare that Non-League leopards change their spots and so they will be fighting a losing battle trying to win these fans hearts and minds.

Finally they have the biggest challenge.  Warrington is a Rugby League town, home of the The Wolves, one of the most successful modern era clubs who play in the 15,000 Halliwell Jones Stadium in the town.  They tend to be very different sets of fans despite the fact that there is only an overlap of the two respective seasons for a couple of months each year.

Unfortunately, it is not always the case that Non-League clubs who benefit from a great FA Cup run can translate that into ongoing success in the league.  The last headline club who did Non-League football proud in the FA Cup was Hastings United back in 2012/13.  They reached the third round, finally losing to Middlesbrough at The Riverside in front of 12,500 fans.  However, the cup run was to be the club’s undoing in the league as the fixture pile up caused by playing the FA Cup games and subsequent bad weather meant that they had to play 13 league games in just 28 days.  With the transfer window for Non-League clubs closed, and league officials who had enjoyed riding on the coat-tails of the club’s success now cocking a deaf ear, Hastings buckled under the sheer weight of pressure and were relegated.  Two seasons on and they have still not returned.

15718020616_e8fc8b7832_kForty years ago the Non-League team to hit the FA Cup headlines was Leatherhead FC who made it all the way to the Fourth Round, where they lost 3-2 to Leicester City at Filbert Street in front of the Match of the Day cameras.  Along the way they beat Colchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion, and were leading The Foxes 2-0.  Back then, when football wasn’t a 24 hours 7 day a week “in your face” event, the heroics of that Isthmian League side was headline stuff.

Today, Leatherhead are back in the same division as they were in 1974.  They enjoyed some more of the limelight in 1978 when they reached Wembley in the FA Trophy final, losing to Altrincham but since then they have floated around the Isthmian leagues without being able to climb any higher.  As with most of the cases of the “giant killers”, the revenue earned from the cup run didn’t lead to success on the field.  Twenty five years after their cup exploits the club came close to folding, only saved by the actions of a group of fans who once again proved that Fan Ownership is the only real sustainable model for Non-League clubs.

Talking of Fan Ownership, who were Leatherhead’s visitors today? None other than the mighty Rooks, who were on their best run of form so far this season, coming off the back of two consecutive wins.  We haven’t had a lot to shout about this season down at The Dripping Pan but things are changing.  A new formation, some inspirational experienced players coming back into the team and fans who were behind the management 100% meant that we arrived in the rain at The Tanners with strutting confidence.

Leatherhead 0 Lewes 1 – Fetcham Grove – Saturday 8th November 2014
We came, we saw and we got very very wet.  In front of the biggest away support so far this season the Rooks put on the kind of battling display that had been missing for so long in 2014.  A change to 3-5-2 prior to the Met Police game worked wonders at the Dripping Pan but here it appeared to be ineffective in the first half against a confident Leatherhead team who passed the ball around well.  The Tanners looked to stretch the game, trying to nullify the threat of Sam one and Sam two as our flying wing backs.  The home side hit the inside of the post after twenty minutes which seemed to shake the Rooks into life and from that moment they never looked back.

15740983815_b6036a75b4_kSome comedy rolling around on the floor by the Leatherhead players did the job of conning the referee, who wasn’t helped by inept performances by his assistants who couldn’t have been anymore unhelpful in letting the game flow.  Petty, niggly free-kicks sucked the life out of the game in the first half.  Perhaps I was just in a bad mood as I had dropped my chips on the floor.

15556169660_be58abd60f_oAs the second half started, so did the rain.  When it passed from torrential to monsoon setting, most of the 40-strong Lewes fans headed for the covered terrace, leaving the hardcore LLF on behind the goal.  Our dedication was rewarded on the hour mark when Sam 1 (Crabb) beat his man on the right, crossed to the penalty spot where Sam 2 (Cole) met the ball on the volley and gave Louis Wells absolutely no chance.

Lewes started to take control of the game and always looked the more dangerous side, although some superb defending from Rowe, Elphick and Banks ensured that the Rooks goal went unbreached for another game.  The final whistle was greeted with fist pumps, back slaps and even a hug or two.  In the grand scheme of things it was only 3 points, but for Lewes it was another step towards redemption.

Forty years is literally a lifetime in football.  Whilst both sets of fans looked on enviously at East Thurrock United’s result at Hartlepool United in the FA Cup, we knew that our time will come once again.  For now, it was all about the magic of the Isthmian League.  Cup football is so over rated anyway….

With am or without you


Every Non-League club starts the season with a dream of progression in the FA Cup.  For the players it is the thought of walking out at a Premier League (or Championship) ground, or pitting their wits against professional players.  For managers it is the thought of adding a famous scalp to their CV.  For the fans it is the thought of supporting their team in places or against clubs they would never have thought of and for the club owners it is the thought of the pot of gold that grows with every win.  More often than not all of those dreams are brought crashing down to reality by the end of September, with 540 clubs already “concentrating on the league”.  For those that have progressed from the Extra Preliminary Round, played in late August, the chances of them making it through three rounds is less than ten percent (7.3% based on last season to be precise).

IMG_1305However, those odds didn’t frighten us as we headed up the A12 to Witham for the second time in just seven weeks.  Back in August we were undone by a stand-in referee who seemed to have forgotten his cards (and rule book) and a pitch that looked as if it had gone through the same type of treatment as an Elton John hair weave, coming away with a point from our opening game.  Since then it has been a story of injury, suspension and some down-right poor refereeing.  Yes, we can all find excuses to explain our poor league form but this is the FA Cup.  Success is simply based on progression.

As a club we never budget for cup runs.  That would be a foolhardy approach, although many clubs fact in a win or two and the associated prize money into the budget.  An away draw is never a good thing at this stage in the competition (in most instances).  Despite the clubs sharing the gate receipts, attendances tend to be much lower in the cup than in the league. It seems that the magic of the FA Cup fades in the Extra Preliminary Round these days.  It seems that someone at the FA seems to have it in for Lewes when it comes to home FA Cup draws.  Out of 25 initial games we have played in the competition in the past decade (not including replays) we have been drawn at home only 8 times and only once in the past four seasons (eight ties). The good news is that we have a higher than 50% win rate on our travels in the cup.  What could possibly go wrong today?  However, whilst we still believed in the magic of the FA Cup, has it disappeared elsewhere?

On Non-League day back in early September over 2,800 squeezed into Champion Hill to see Dulwich Hamlet take on Hampton & Richmond Borough, one of the biggest attendances in the Ryman Premier League for many-a-year.  Seven days later they hosted Worthing in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Cup yet only 489, including a fair few from the South Coast, watched the game.   In Manchester, England’s biggest fan-owned Non-League club, FC United of Manchester struggled to break the 1,000 mark for their tie against Prescott Cables, almost 50% down on their average Evostik Premier League crowd. Likewise on the same day at Nywood Lane, just over 400, with a significant following from Lewes, watched Bognor Regis Town’s local derby.  Last season the corresponding league game saw 603 watch the Boxing Day game.

Football doesn’t exactly get the pulses racing in these parts – in fact the sheer number of clubs playing at this level in the area probably hinders rather than helps them.  Just a short drive away from the Village Glass Stadium there is Heybridge Swifts, Maldon & Tiptree, Burnham Ramblers and Ryman League North new boys, Brightlingsea Regent.  However, surely the whole village of Witham (population 25,532) would be out supporting their side today?  Who knows, perhaps the town’s most famous residents, Olly Murs and Dotty Cotton would come along, rattle in hand to cheer on the The Town?  I don’t think so but the FA Cup can do strange things to teams and their fans.

IMG_1294After Wednesday night’s game against VCD Athletic, it was hard to see how Lewes could actually put a team out based on the number of injuries they had.  I think it was touch and go whether Garry Wilson considered giving me the nod although my knee operation on Monday would have put pay to my long-overdue FA Cup debut.  However, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe would be out in force, putting the indifferent league form to one side and dreaming of a home tie against East Preston in the next round.  The script was all but written.

Witham Town 4 Lewes 2 – The Village Glass Stadium – Saturday 27th September 2014
What did I write earlier?  Ah yes, “What could go wrong?” Well how about everything!  The FA Cup holds no magic on days like these.  Played off the park by a team who had 10 men for a third of the game, scoring one of our goals because an idiot of an official decided to give a penalty (to us) for an offence that nobody in the ground saw and seeing players bicker with each other.  It wasn’t a good day.  Take nothing away from Witham – they kept their shape, played to their strengths, were as hospitable as they come and their goal-keeper once again got stuck into the banter with us from the first whistle – Martyn Guest always a pleasure.

Thirty minutes after the final whistle, the Lewes team were still sat on the pitch, taking part in an “interactive” heart to heart.  Under normal circumstances this was a bad day, but defeat in a winnable game cost the club £4,500 in prize money as well as the possibility of a decent home tie in the next round.  Whether all of the players really understood what was at stake when the game kicked off is unclear.  However, Lewes started sharply and should have been ahead early doors when Terry Dodd flicked an effort over the bar.

Boysie, the club snapper,  turned up late.  We pretended that we were already 1-0 up, all sticking to our story.  Of course he didn’t believe us, and soon we were 1-0 down.  One became two when Brinkhurst clattered into a Witham forward in the area.  No question that it was a penalty, although the referee, who whilst he didn’t impact the final score was as poor as you will see at this level, booked Rikki Banks for kicking the ball back to the centre circle which hit a Witham player on the way.  He soon angered the home fans by giving a penalty to Lewes – I cannot even speculate what it was for as no one saw any offence.  Dixon stepped up and made it 2-1 at the break.

IMG_1296One bright spot for the travelling Lewes fans was the appearance of Jack Walder at the start of the second half.  Walder had been out since he dislocated his ankle at Thamesmead Town back in March and his return would surely lift the team?  Alas a few minutes later a mix up between Brinkhurst and Banks that will be a cert on one of those crap “guffs” DVDs voiced by Chris Moyles gave Witham a 3-1 lead.  Three one?  Make that four minutes after the home side were reduced to ten men.  Game over, start the bus.

We still had time to miss a couple of sitters before Blewden pulled a goal back to make the score line a little more respectable.  But this defeat hurt.  More so than any other game this season.  Not just for the financial consequences but because of the performance.  The magic of the FA Cup certainly wasn’t floating around the Lewes dressing room today.

So Witham Town join a growing list of teams who have embarrassed the Rooks in recent years in the FA Cup.  Still, there is always the Ryman League Cup to look forward to.

A rolling Stone gathers all the moss


There are three ways to win the league in my view.  It doesn’t matter what the league is, essentially the characteristics are all the same but to be successful you have to either a) Have someone (individual or group of people/company) who are willing to spend significantly more than anyone else; b) Invest heavily in the best infrastructure you can that will then work your assets (players) more effectively or c) find a way of playing that other teams simply cannot handle.

There have been lots of examples of A’s in our time, few of whom ever last the course.  Titles may be won but after a while the money dries up (or disappears), the investors realise that there is no Return on Investment or simply get bored.  Remember Gretna?  Probably not.  But they went from the Junior Leagues in Scotland all the way to the Premier League (and Europe) off the back of one man’s money.  When he died, so did the dream and ultimately the club.  The Non-Leagues are full of stories of blind ambition, foolhardy investments and ultimate failures.

In the case of B’s sometimes the success takes longer but when it arrives it gathers pace.  Good players do not always want to play for the money (shock, horror).  They will join teams with ambition but also those with the best facilities.  Swansea City are a good example here.  Part fan-owned, they have risen through the leagues not off the back of massive investment, but with the help of improvements in their infrastructure.

Finally, the C’s.  Much harder to find these days when every move on the pitch is watched by hundreds of eyes (in the case of Non-League) and smartphones.  Wimbledon and Cambridge United are two clubs that rose up the leagues and became massively successful by playing in a particular style that other teams were too unprepared to handle.

IMG_1194Today, Lewes host Ryman Premier League leaders Maidstone United.  They are most-definitely in the B category.  Having fallen as far as they could after a brief spell in the Football League, they are now on the rise again thanks to the facilities they have built.  The Gallagher Stadium is their kingpin.  A 7 day a week, 52 weeks of the year money-making machine.  The cash is invested in improving facilities, developing the academy side of the club and of course on player wages.  Sustainable growth that was only halted last year by the narrow-minded, selfish views of the Conference clubs in voting against 3G pitches.  Less than a year later and the sentiment has changed and they are all of a sudden welcome again (noting to do with the Football League and FA clarifying their positions of course). With promotion now a possibility is it any wonder that the Stones have won 10 out of their 11 league games this season?  Oh, and recorded a 10-0 win in the FA Cup.  When we hosted Margate (definitely in the A category by the way) a few weeks ago their post match celebrations weren’t for the 5-1 over us it seemed but for the fact the Stones had lost away to Tonbridge Angels.  Four games into the season and such paranoia?

Last season Lewes took 4 points off the Stones, keeping two clean sheets in the process.  It is fair to say that in the game at their place in August, with the traditional summer rain putting the completion of the game in doubt despite the artificial surface, we parked the bus.  Not taking anything away from the Lewes back four, which included two centre-backs who had a combined age of nearly 75, but we put men behind the ball and played on the counter attack.  It worked.  In the reverse fixture Maidstone were well and truly beaten, their game plan cruelly exposed by some scouting information (ahem).

IMG_1193Whilst Maidstone’s form was stellar, Lewes’s has been too shabby either.  Unbeaten in five games with four consecutive clean sheets is certainly rare for us Lewes fans, and with some of our long-term influential absentees returning soon from injury and suspension, things are looking up.  With the thunderstorms clearing and the promise of Stoke City v QPR on the TV as pre-match entertainment a bumper crowd was expected.  This was our first clash with Brighton & Hove Albion this season as they were taking on Blackpool.  We try our hardest to avoid such clashes, knowing the impact it has on our friends down the A27 but sometimes they just wont listen and move their fixture.  We track our attendances closely and whilst we would lose around 50 fans to the Amex, Maidstone’s travelling support would more than make up for the short-fall.

Lewes 0 Maidstone United 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 20th September 2014
“I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life. ” A quote that sums up the afternoon but not from Garry Wilson or Danny Bloor but from Mohammed Ali. There was no shame in being defeated to The Stones this afternoon, on a beautiful sunny afternoon although Lewes will be disappointed that the possession they enjoyed for most of the first half  didn’t lead to anything.  A decent, season-best, crowd of 621 saw a finely matched first half, although it was the 150 or so travelling fans who celebrated at the final whistle, finally breaking the seal over the Lewes goal that had lasted for over 7 hours.

The first half saw possession switch between the two teams, with Rikki Banks being the busier of the two keepers although the main talking points, alas, were around the performance of the officials – a referee who couldn’t see incidents happening in front of his eyes and a linesman who seemed to think he could make decisions whilst being 30-40 yards away from the action. 0-0 at half-time was a fair score but we knew that unless we scored early in the second half, Maidstone would rise like a wounded animal.

IMG_1195And so it was.  A poor headed clearance from a Stones corner saw the ball fall to Alex Flisher who smashed the ball across the area into the bottom corner.  Lewes responded quickly and the main talking point was a bizarre decision when Nicky Wheeler’s beautiful chip hit the inside of the post and seem to be over the line before Worgan grabbed it.  The linesman, mirroring the performance of his colleague in the first half, raised his flag which at first we assumed was to signal a goal.  Yet it appeared he was flagging for offside.  Let’s rewind.  Wheeler is 15 yards out, with defenders and the keeper in front of him when the ball falls at his feet, he beats the defender before chipping the ball to the far post.  No other Lewes player is near the ball as it sails over the keeper or when it hits the post.  So exactly who was offside?

Maidstone’s second comes from another strange decision, when Wheeler was fouled yet the referee saw the offence the other way.  Ten seconds later Phillips had buried the ball in the Rooks net.  Game over.  The Stones go rolling on.

The defeat sent Lewes back into the bottom four.  Has the panic button been pushed? Not at all, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and get ready for the visit of VCD Athletic on Wednesday.

 

In praise of Non League Day


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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