Takeley, I’m yours

It’s a Tuesday night in early December. It’s freeing – no surprise there – and I’m the only person to align at Stansted Mountfichet station.  A loan taxi gets his hopes up as I walk towards him but he’s not going to be lucky this time.  My mind is focused on food and football, in that order.

Fortunately, I’ve arrived in take-away city by the look of it.  Quite why a village of 5,500 needs so many eateries is a mystery to many, especially when they appear to be quite literally in direct competition – the Mayflower and Lams Chinese takeaway guard the entrance to Station Road, trying to lure the passing trade (me) in with offers such as “unlimited prawn crackers” and “free chopsticks with every meal”.  Ruthless marketing, I tell you.

My relationship with Stansted Mountfichet is one of pure convenience.  Many a traveller will have been seduced by the thought of a visit to the House on the Hill Toy Museum, reputed to be the largest of its kind in the world, whilst others over the years will have arrived, suitcase being pulled a few metres behind like a disobedient dog, searching for the airport terminal.

The latter, wayward tourists would be too far out of their way.  Stansted Airport lays three miles to the east, 5 minutes on the train.  Originally a US Airforce base on the edge of the village of Stansted Mountfichet, it was taken over by the government and for a short period acted as a Prisoner of War camp before being developed as a commercial airport in 1966, today handling nearly 25 million passengers, one of which in just twelve hours would be me.

Despite Christmas approaching, work travel had not started to wind down for the festive period which meant that after flying out of Stansted on Monday morning, arriving back on Tuesday, I was about to go through the whole process again.  Rather than driving the hour or so back home I’d decided to stay at the airport so the 4am start became a much more reasonable 5am one.  CMF was hugely impressed that I chose to stay in a Travel Tavern than go home to her.

As luck would have it (genuinely), there a game to go to see almost on the doorstep of the airport.  Not just any old game either – a local derby pitting one of the front-runners for the Essex Senior League title with a team currently on an alarming and rapid slide down the table.  In these parts Stansted FC versus Takeley is talked about in hushed tones, normally reserved for the likes of Ossett Town versus Ossett Albion or even the Dunstable Derby.

To say that Stansted FC were having a bit of a ‘wobble’ was an understatement.  It had been nearly two months since the side had experienced the joy of a win and came into the local derby on a run of eight consecutive defeats that had seen them fall to just three points off the Essex Senior League.  Takeley, on the other hand were firmly looking at the opportunity of promotion to the Isthmian League North.  With two teams likely to move up to step 4 of the Non-League game from the Essex Senior League at the end of the season they had been there or there abouts all season, off the back on an impressive home record that had seen them take 31 points from a possible 33. Not bad I suppose.

The home side had had little to shout about for a number of years.  They still talk about that team in and around the ground.  That team being the one in season 1983/84 that not only won the Eastern Floodlight Cup, The East Anglian Cup and the Essex Senior League Cup.  Oh, and a small matter of the FA Vase, beating Stamford 3-2 at Wembley Stadium.  Fast forward to 2010 and the team finally won the Essex Senior League but inadequacies with their Hargrave Park ground saw Witham Town promoted into the Isthmian League.

The internet is great for finding out facts such as Stansted’s record win came in that golden season when they beat Coggeshall Town 15-0, their assistant manager when they had their big day out at Wembley was Glenn Hoddle’s Uncle Dave or that an anagram of the name Takeley is Teak Eye but on this occasion it failed to mention that the 0.5 mile walk from the station to Hargrave Park should only be attempted with oxygen.  Granted it is not in the league of Stocksbridge but it was a bit of a shock to the system having just taken advantage of the freebies offered by the Chinese takeaway(s).  Note to village council – open a pub about halfway up the hill for unfit, random Non-League football fans who arrive by public transported.

I actually knew a resident of the village, who had promised to accompany me to the game.  Kevin is an accountant by trade and supports Everton, so he needed some escapism from the reality of pessimism.  What better way to lift the spirits than watching a Non-League game on a day and freezing night along with a few dozen other hardy souls.

You can understand why Hargrave Park didn’t quite make the ground grading for step 4.  It has a very shallow, albeit full of charm, main stand with a small cabin that reminded me of Santa’s workshop from various films that was the committee room.  Around the pitch the perimeter was a series of metal barriers, the ones used to keep screaming kids away from their pop star idols, or grandmas trying to get to Cliff Richard, which if I had my health and safety hat on would worry me considerably.

The teams were warming up when we arrived which involved, in Takeley’s case, smashing the balls as hard as they could from the penalty spot at a teenager in goal which either hit in or flew over the bar and into the gardens of the houses behind.  The referee suddenly appeared at our side, through a magic door on the side of the main stand, shook me by the hand (perhaps confused by my Lewes FC jacket) and said “Right, let’s get this circus pumping” before heading onto the pitch.

As for the game itself?  The differing fortunes of the two sides was clear to see as the first half wore on, with Takely opening the scoring through the impressive Mullings.  Whilst Stansted tried to break down the visitors, especially down the left-flank, the final ball was often misplaced or simply not there at all.  There wasn’t much between the two sides for long periods but a slice of luck with some cream on the side saw Takeley double their lead when a wickedly deflected shot from Todd saw the Stansted keeper flat on his arse as the ball trickled despairingly out of reach.  Mullings scored a cracker of a third late in the game when he flicked the ball up and volleyed home from the edge of the box.  Whilst the score line may have flattered the visitors, there’s no denying they were the better side.

With only one train an hour back to the airport I ducked out a few minutes before the end, gaining momentum from the strong wind as I headed down the south face of K2, avoiding the Chinese takeaway wars and onto the platform.  Mission accomplished.

Life is all about taking the opportunities as they are presented to you and I think I can quite-rightly claim 9/10 for making the most of an otherwise boring night in a hotel at the airport with nobody for company apart from a bunch of sales reps and overseas visitors who believed the hype that Stansted was actually in London.


Men of steel

It has been awhile since I have filed a match report on these hallowed digital pages.  A combination of not having much more to say about the mighty Rooks that the world and his various wives have not read elsewhere, a duty of care in my positions on various boards of directors meaning I can no longer say anything bad/mean/defamatory/blatantly untrue about anyone in the game south of the M6 and only writing about my overseas visits in the next chapter of The Football Tourist (@OckleyBooks), due for publication in 2018.

It is even rarer these days that I miss a Rooks game other than when I am posted somewhere around the world for work.  But sometimes even the most ardent fan has to put family before football and today was one of those days.  Two months ago when I agreed to take Lolly, my eldest daughter, up to Leeds (Leeds, Leeds) to look at the University campus I had no idea we would still be playing in the FA Trophy.  Our national cup competitions are normally done and dusted by mid-October, falling less than heroically to a side from a lower division.

But Lewes 2017 are made of stronger stuff and wins over East Grinstead Town, Dunstable Town and Bishop’s Stortford (the last two playing a division higher than us no less) had seen us progress through to the Final Qualifying Round – a stage of the competition we last played at in 2014 when we conceded five first half goals away at Oxford City to crash out.  We gathered round the laptop a few weeks ago, pressing F5 on the FA’s Twitter feed waiting to hear who we would be playing.

“Anyone at home” said Ross

“Anyone from our level” said Darren

“Anyone near Leeds” was my response

“Home to Truro City” said Baz, who had been emailed the details 10 minutes earlier and assumed we were looking at the new Sports Illustrated calendar online, rather than waiting for the draw

Technically, Leeds is actually closer to Lewes than Truro by a few miles which just goes to show how crazy the geographical split of the Non-League system is.  But that wouldn’t help me in the slightest, meaning that I would miss one of our biggest home games in years.

I’d done the dutiful thing and gone to watch Truro City on Tuesday night as they made another 700 mile round trip for a National League South game, albeit it one that could have taken them top of the table and meant that we could not have possibly drawn a higher ranked team in this round of the competition.  Scouting report filed with our management team and back of quinoa packet drawing complete of how I would exploit their deep-sitting 5-3-2 formation, I could concentrate on where I would get my football fix on Saturday afternoon, post University visit, and as Lolly suggested, write something for my blog so that she could show her Maths teacher.  Apparently my last piece, “PSYCHOLOGY THEORY EXPLAINED BY FOOTBALL – 1. EXISTENTIALISM“, was a bit pretentious for his liking.

My source of inspiration was my publisher, and good friend, David Hartrick who quickly drew up a short-list of games which were a) on my way home to London, b) that I’d never been to before, c) had a bit of a story behind and d) served chips with gravy.  Point d) was definitely the deal breaker but the lad did good when he emailed the results of his extensive research (that’s what his invoice suggested anyway) and said we would be heading to the town of Stocksbridge, home to around 10,000 people, experimental rock group Rolo Tomassi and a football club with a pedigree of England Internationals.

Stocksbridge Park Steels Football Club came into existence in 1986 as a result of the merger of Stocksbridge Works, the team from the local steel plant, and Oxley Park Sports.  Their place in Non-League folklore has been cemented by five footballing facts, which to those from these parts will be as dull as dishwater but to us Southerners, are the stuff of legends.

Fact number 1 – In August 2002 the club beat Oldham Town in the FA Cup Preliminary Round 17-1.  Striker Paul Jackson claimed 3 match balls, almost bankrupting the club after his record goal scoring haul of 10 goals in that game, a record that still stands today.

Fact number 2 – With 22 different sides below the senior team, the club are recognised as the biggest community club in South Yorkshire.

Fact number 3 – In 2002, former England international Chris Waddle joined the club and played one game for them at the age of 42 years old.  Also at the same age, relegation specialist and king of the Yorkshire clubs, Neil Redfearn joined the club.

Fact number 4 – The ground only has 3 sides, with the fourth being a fence, albeit a nice wooden one.  It sits on top of a hill, with oxygen needed for those making the journey up the hill from the town centre.

Fact number 5 – A certain Jamie Vardy started his career off at Bracken Moor, after being released by Sheffield Wednesday at the age of sixteen.  Vardy spent seven seasons at the club, three in the senior squad on a reputed £30 a week before joining Halifax Town.  He scored 54 goals (all listed in the match programme) including a remarkable three-minute hatrick in the FA Trophy game against Mossley back in October 2008.  Two weeks previous he had scored a six-minute treble against Grantham Town.  The club is understandably proud of the association with the England international, naming their main stand in his honour.

Today, the club play in the 8th tier of English football, like Lewes and are challenging for one of the two promotion places into the Premier League (Evostik rather than the sticker Bostik version), like Lewes and part of my interest in this game would be to understand how different life up here was compared to down south.  Whilst I would be watching most of the action with one eye on events 242 miles due south, it would be good to catch up with Dave and listen to his enthralling stories that would undoubtedly involve snooker, Marvel comics and another one of his hatricks in five-a-side (for those who don’t know, Dave has a block booking at the Goals centre in Huddersfield on a Thursday night at 10pm where he is the only player and consequently, the top scorer in the league).

We parked up outside the turnstiles just as the snow started, giving the ground a magical look and feel.  I’d literally taken two steps in the ground before being ushered into the boardroom and had a cup of tea thrust in my hand.  The power of Social Media had meant my impending arrival had been announced and I spent ten minutes discussing the various merits of our clubs and leagues with Stocksbridge Park Steels Commercial Manager Roger Gissing.

With around a hundred hardy souls taking their place in the stand, sheltering from the biting wind and flurries of snow, Roger explained the club’s (and the league’s) issues.  They faced a huge struggle to attract fans, averaging around 110 this season or about 1% of the town’s population.  Sitting just 10 miles from Sheffield and 30 miles each from Manchester and Leeds, football fans in these parts head off to the glitz and glamour of the Premier League and Championship most Saturday’s rather than supporting their local team.  They have a thriving juniors section and community programme but come 3pm on a Saturday many of those kids are nowhere to be seen. Despite offering the cheapest admission in the league, at just £7 and the club once again doing well, it seemed that the X-factor in getting people to watch the game was still missing.

I have no idea why as even before the game had kicked off I was struck with how fantastic the club was.  Everyone to a (wo)man was friendly, the set up of the club with its quirky stands and fantastic warm bar, offering a bird’s-eye view of the action.  Fifteen pounds got Lolly and I admission, a programme, a pint and a coke and a large sausage roll. Add on top the potential to see a cracking game of football and you have a fantastic value afternoon.

The club also face issues with how the geographical split of the league has been made and something that is a real concern with a further restructure due at the end of the season.  Their shortest journey is to Sheffield FC, 21 miles away yet the two Ossett clubs, who play in the North Division, are around the same distance away.  Rather make those short journeys, they have away trips to Peterborough Sports, Alvechurch, Market Drayton Town and Corby Town, all 200 mile plus round trips.

However, they were once again challenging towards the top of the table and a win over Loughborough Dynamo (named after the great Dynamo Moscow should you want to know) then they could climb up to 2nd place and into the automatic promotion places behind runaway leaders Basford United.

Stocksbridge Park Steels 4 Loughborough Dynamo 3 – Bracken Moor – Saturday 25th November 2017
In terms of value for money, you cannot complain about a seven-goal thriller, with a last-minute winner.  Except we didn’t realise it was a) a seven-goal thriller or b) there was a last-minute winner.  In fact, we missed four of the seven goals through a variety of reasons.

As the teams emerged down the steep steps and into the mini-blizzard, we finished up our cup of tea in the boardroom, zipped up the coats and made our way outside.  As I did the gentlemanly thing and held the door open for a lady coming in, the home side scored.  Fifteen seconds had elapsed since I put down my cup but in that time the home side and won a free-kick 30 yards out.  Jack Poulton sent his ball into the box and it fooled everyone and ended up in the back of the net.

The game was a relatively cagey affair, with both sides trying to make the best of the conditions.  Just as the referee was about to blow for half-time the home side grabbed a second as Matt Reay’s shot eluded everyone and trickled into the corner.

We took refuge from the cold in the bar, which positioned in the corner of the ground and on the first floor, offered outstanding views of the action.  Unsurprisingly, the window seats were at a premium – why wouldn’t they with Bracken Moor Smooth on draft and Jeff Stelling updating everyone in the corner (not literally Jeff).  The second half was about six minutes old when we headed downstairs, stopping for a toilet break.  I heard a muffled cheer whilst I was in there but thought nothing more of it.

The tide seemed to be turning and the visitors grabbed a couple of goals through Riley to level the scores (at this point we assumed it was 2-2).  The final fifteen minutes were as action-filled as you could ever hope to see.  Bodies were being thrown on the line at both ends to keep efforts out and there was a real cup tie feel about the game with both sides wanting a winner.  However, it was the home side who prevailed, scoring in the first minute of four in injury time when Litchfield bundled in from close range after the mother of all scrambles.

Full time and Stocksbridge’s fans celebrated the win with reserved confidence, a win that took them back to third place in the table.  As we waited for the players to make their way off the pitch a fan shouted at the ref: –

“7/10 for that today ref”

The ref looked at the fan and responded “If you knew my wife then you’d know that would be a good assessment of my performance at any time especially in the cold”

We ducked into the boardroom, thanked our hosts for their hospitality and started our long journey south, still in complete ignorance of the two goals, one for each side we missed on our comfort break in the second half.

I’d urge any fan of football, whether they lived in South Yorkshire or not, to make a trip to visit this wonderful club.  Like hundreds of others up and down the land, they survive thanks to the efforts of their volunteers rather than the numbers that come through the turnstile.  If ten percent of the regular fans who go to Bramall Lane and Hillsborough came to watch just one game a season at Bracken Moor it would more than double their average attendance.  And that, could be the difference between having a community club for years to come or not.

Psychology Theory explained by Football – 1. Existentialism

Denmark is currently viewed by many as the capital of cool, regularly topping the “happy nation” charts and being the origin of the term “hygge” or living comfortably.  It is also the home of the theory of Existentialism, created by Dane Søren Kierkegaard, who whilst he died two decades before the creation of Kjøbenhavns Boldklub, Continental Europe’s oldest club, was a massive fan of the game.

The Dane created the theory which said in the most basic terms “Be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair”, a maxim that is used throughout football today.  Kierkegaard’s book, ‘The Sickness Undo Death” could have been written by a Spurs fan who really understand what the word “despair” really means.  He described several levels of despair, the lowest and most common is the realisation that despite how bad things appear at The Emirates, when the two teams meet head to head, Arsenal will undoubtedly end up on top.  Kierkegaard summised that the Spurs fan isn’t really despairing that his side have lost to their biggest rivals but that he chose to be a Spurs fan in the first place.

Every football fan suffers despair now and again – some clubs more than others.  Whilst many fans will feel that disappointment is part and parcel of being a fan, many fans emotional engagement in their team has been heightened by the pressures of the modern game with Social Media and 24 x 7 live TV coverage giving everyone a voice and an opinion.  That constant focus leads to cycles of peaks and troughs in terms of pleasure in supporting a team.  The media tells fans how they should feel at every point, which impacts those levels of despairs even further.  Kierkegood’s view of the world couldn’t be further from the reality of the ‘hygge’ world that the Danes are more famous for today.

Kiekegaard offered a solution in his theory for fans such as the Spurs supporters. He concluded that a fan can find peace and inner harmony by finding the courage to be his own true self rather than wanting to be someone who he really isn’t.  In other words, football fans should stop following the herd and find another club where the game can be enjoyed rather than fear as to the reaction of others if they lose.  The number of fans who have abandoned a Premier League or Championship team in favour of a Non-League club is growing season by season – this is down to the theory of Existentialism or the fact that despair evaporates when fans stop denying who they really are and attempt to uncover and accept their true motives for following football.

Kiekegaard may not be viewed in the same way as Rimet, Rous or Ramsey in the corridors of football but his theory certainly explains some of the actions of fans today who are leaving the sanitised world of the Premier League for the green and pleasant lands of the Non-League game.

Jamie Vardy from Non-League to Premier League – why the feat is getting harder

It is the rags-to-riches story every footballer dreams of – starting out in the lower echelons of the English game and catching the eye of an unexpected Premier League scout to be plucked from obscurity and thrust into the big time.

For one man, the dream became a reality in 2012, with Jamie Vardy joining then Championship outfit Leicester City from Conference Premier outfit Fleetwood Town.

The sprightly striker’s story has been somewhat immortalised since, with Premier League title success and England international inclusion following suit.

Leicester were at 5000/1 odds to win the Premier League in 2015-16, with those using their Draftkings Promo Code 2018 struggling to find a fairytale story similar to the Foxes or their main attacking weapon.

Vardy is well worth his stint at the elite level of the sport, with the 30-year-old proving that he has what it takes to succeed.

However, for all those looking to follow in the Leicester man’s footsteps, the task seems almost impossible.

While players will naturally look to move up the divisions by impressing and getting the subsequent transfer to a bigger club, going from non-league or lower league football straight to the Premier League is unlikely.

Vardy’s example is even more extraordinary given that he was not a fresh-faced youngster when he made the move to Leicester, rather a striker that had honed his game in the lower reaches of the English game.

Managers of clubs at the top level are under such significant pressure to deliver in short time frames that the natural reaction is to spend on established players.

With Premier League clubs consistently getting richer thanks to increased prize money and eye-watering tv rights deals, it is almost a no-brainer to splash millions on a household name rather than take a chance on a virtual unknown, even for a squad position.

Looking down the divisions, international-calibre players of some countries become attainable for even League One teams, meaning the journey to the game’s summit becomes much tougher for those looking up from the bottom.

There is a train of thought that if a player is good enough he will make it to the appropriate level, but there are undoubtedly potential stars that fall through the cracks.

As such, Vardy in his current form should be applauded for his ascent to the Premier League, with it unclear when another player from non-league will prove he is good enough to rub shoulders with the domestic game’s best.

Taking road trips to the extremes

Last season only the brave band of the die-hard such as PJ, Gary, Deaksy and Cynical Dave headed to the Herne Bay and Ramsgate, Lewes’s two longest away trips (bar Guernsey of course!).  January’s not the best time to head to the Kentish coast but add in some fog and freezing conditions as well as a 7:45pm kick off time in the case of Herne Bay and you can understand why only a Ford Focus’ worth of away fans made the trip.

Whilst this year we at least had the privilege of heading to Herne Bay in August to kick off our campaign, our longest road trip to Ramsgate is once again in the cold and bleak winter.  The longest road-trip the Rooks have ever had to make was back in our brief sojourn in the Conference Premier when we had to take on Barrow AFC, a 700-mile round trip undertaken by just a dozen or so fans in March 2009.  But even our 212-mile round trip to the furthest point of South-East England this season pales into insignificance when you look at some of the other potential trips in Europe.

In the 2015/16 Champions League Group Stage Benfica had to travel to Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, just a short 7,717-mile midweek round trip.  It’s possible that this season the Kazakhstanis may be paired with fellow Portuguese side Marítimo, who based on Madeira some 4,500 miles away in a tie that would set a record for the furthest apart sides paired together in a European competition.

In the next few years that could possibly be broken again, if not absolutely smashed.  Russian side Luch-Energiya Vladivostok are banging on the door of the top flight whilst ongoing petitions from Greenland to be accepted into the UEFA on a similar basis to fellow constituent of the Kingdom of Denmark, Faroe Islands could see top club sides such as B-67 from Nuuk playing in the Champions and Europa League.  The distance from London to Vladivostok is 5,100 miles whilst to Nuuk is 2,100 miles.  From the two potential European outposts it is actually easier to fly across the International Date Line but is still nearly 3,000 miles.

The most extreme clubs who have played in European competition Norway’s Tromsø to the North who have played 27 UEFA home games at their Alfheim Stadium.  The city of Tromso’s coordinates are 69° 40′ 58″ N, which is inside the Arctic Circle

The most Southerly-based club to play in Europe has been Spain’s Las Palmas who have played five UEFA home games at their Estadio de Gran Canaria. Las Palmas lies in the Canary Islands, coordinates 28° 9′ 0″ N, which lie off the coast of Morocco and are further south than Cairo.

Russia’s Sibir Novosibirsk, located in Siberia and once a key stopping point on the Trans-Siberian Express, played two UEFA home games at their Spartak Stadium Novosibirsk. The coordinates are 82° 56′ 0″ E, making it about as far east as Nepal and thus the most furthest east.

The most westerly UEFA games were played by the Portuguese side Santa Clara who played two UEFA home games at the São Miguel Stadium in Ponta Delgada.  The main city in the Azores, its coordinates are 25° 44′ 50″ W, meaning it lies about as far west as Cape Verde.

Confine the search to only the clubs who have competed in UEFA competitions and the longest possible would be a 5,030-mile trip for a match between Sibir Novosibirsk and Tenerife.

The rules as to who can and can’t play in each domestic league mean that there’s the possibility of some ridiculous travel.  Whilst Guernsey are currently the highest placed English side (yes, I know Canvey Island is technically off-shore) to play off the British Island, technically a side from the Falkland Islands could rise through the English pyramid and take their place in a UEFA competition.

We aren’t alone. Sides from overseas territories are entitled to play in the Portuguese and French domestic cups.  Santa Clara’s base in the Azores is a long way west, but the situation in France is even more startling, given that sides from Mayotte, Reunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana could all theoretically qualify for European competition as French Cup winners.  Should current French Guyanese champions Matoury ever have to take on Luch-Energiya Vladivostok in a European game, it would involve a round trip of the best part of 24,000 miles.

I couldn’t see even Gary and PJ packing up the cheese and pickle sandwiches and a flask of tea for a journey like that!

Thanks to UEFA for some of the above info.

Friendly Fire…or how to navigate through the pre-season dance

No, no, no.  One after the other the emails from professional clubs arrive as responses to our requests for pre-season friendlies.  At least the clubs in question have had the decency to reply – 50% of the requests we send out go unanswered, consigned to the trash folders or passed around the clubs until they fall into someone’s spam filters.  We did consider the idea of requesting friendlies in writing, rather than email, but there’s even less certainty that the request will end up on the desk of the right person, or even if they are in the office during the close season.

Every season we start the planning earlier and earlier, based on feedback we get from the pro clubs that their schedules have already been locked down when we ask.  And initially they all say “it’s too early for us to be arranging our pre-season games” before letting us down gently a few weeks later.

At our level it is all about who you know – there’s very little chance of success trying to appeal to the benevolent side of a pro club, they don’t care.  They are doing you a favour and if something more attractive comes along you will be dropped like a stone.  Likewise, with the average life expectancy of a Football League manager now around 14 months, the summer is a fertile time for change and anything agreed is quickly disagreed when the new man comes in as we found out last season when an unnamed current League One club pulled out of a friendly at The Pan with a few weeks notice due to a change in manager and no chance for us to fill it with a similar fixture. Cobblers is what we said to that this time last year.

We quickly filled our local away games and extended the hand of friendship to our old friends from Dulwich Hamlet and Burgess Hill Town who would bring a fair few thirsty fans but every year we try to have one friendly that will get our fans tapping their feet in expectation.

Our “headline” act this year is a decent one and one that has come about through the patient building of a wider relationship.  We’ve enjoyed a good relationship to date with Chelsea and whilst we would have loved to have seen Conte’s men come down to the Pan, their DS side is still an attractive draw.  Who knows, there could be a famous name or two in the pack come the 22nd July.  

If you don’t ask you don’t get so we asked.  Multiple times.  And then they said yes.  It’s likely to be an attractive enough game for the fans of both sides that we will beat our budget for gate receipts from our pre-season games from this one game alone which puts us on a strong footing financially for the start of the season.

At least there is some logic in our Pre-Season plans which is more than can be said for my once beloved West Ham.  Their “European Tour” as they are calling it consists of three games against two opposition, one of which is a fellow Premier League side (someone obviously hasn’t been reading the Pre-Season Friendly rule book).   Despite the platitudes that come out of the club, surely someone up on high must have questioned the logic behind the games.  A pre-season training camp in Germany (not sure what’s wrong with Butlins at Camber Sands like in the old days) followed by two games against Werder Bremen in 24 hours but in locations over a hundred miles apart.  It’s not even that they are playing in well-known stadiums or in cities that have some link with either club – Schneverdingen has a population of around 20,000 and one of the biggest places of interest is a bog called Pietzmoor.  Twenty four later they decamp in Löhne (literal translation “wages” – how apt) in Nord-Rhein Westphalia.

But then they ramp up their preparations by heading to Iceland where they will take on Manchester City.  Iceland.  What’s the point of that?  No disrespect to Iceland but is there any relevance to the game being played there?

“It is fantastic that we will make history by becoming the first Premier League clubs to face each other in Iceland, and we are really looking forward to visiting Scandinavia, where there is a very big West Ham following.

“Iceland captured the imagination of everyone with their fantastic performance at the European Championships last year and, although the country is small in population, they have a huge love for football.”

The words of Slaven Bilic apparently.  Not sure what definition of Scandinavia he has read but according to Encyclopedia Britannica, Iceland is a Nordic Island Country and not part of Scandinavia.  But even so, what a flimsy reason to suggest why the game is being played there.  I certainly struggled to find any evidence of the West Ham Fan Club, Reykjavik branch (Chelsea and Spurs yes).  On West Ham’s official website there is a directory of hundreds of fan clubs not not one from Iceland.  Perhaps the club has confused the popularity of the discount frozen goods store in Green Street?

Good luck to the Hammers fans heading off to follow the side.  I’m sure the players will acknowledge your loyal support as always even if the club continue to wear their blinkers.

Will Chinese investment in the Premier League harm the lower leagues?

The English Premier League is undoubtedly the wealthiest football division in the world game and signs in the current market indicate that the teams that compete in it are only going to get richer. Eye-watering television deals have become commonplace as the global appeal of Manchester United, Chelsea and the rest of the English heavyweights grows across the world. One country that’s affinity with the beautiful game is clearly growing is China, with the Asian nation having grand plans to become a powerhouse of the global game.  The investment of Chinese Super League teams to tempt household names to swap the historic for the new has been evident over the last 12 months, with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Oscar and countless other international players signing for clubs in the Far East.

Chinese president Xi Jinping is a football enthusiast and has grand plans of reignited the ability of the country’s national team, as soccer schools sprout up and Government investment in the game takes commitment to a new level.  However, China’s fascination with football is starting to have real knock-on effects in the English game – especially as the moneymen focus on bankroll management.  The Asian nation has a reported 350 million Premier League fans, with massive audiences turning on their television sets to watch West Brom, Burnley and Everton on a weekly basis.

As such, English teams have been quick to tap into this market, with Manchester United, the traditional heavyweight and fans favourite in that part of the world.  However, other Premier League teams are sitting up and taking note in an attempt to win a share of this massive fanbase and reap the obvious financial rewards that come with attracting new supporters.

Tottenham Hotspur are set to set off on a post-season trip to Hong Kong after the domestic action finishes this term, while Arsenal and Manchester City have also played friendly fixtures in China in recent years.  But, how does the booming appeal of the English game impact upon the Football League?  Quite simply, the gulf between the Premier League and the lower divisions of the national game is as big now as it has ever been – and is only set to widen.  The amount of money that teams in the English top flight make on an annual basis is blowing out year-on-year, with the increased global appeal leading to more revenue and hence additional available expenditure.  As Reading and Huddersfield Town get set to contest the Championship Play Off final, both sides will know the unbelievable opportunity that the eventual winner will be handed.  By just competing in the Premier League the amount of money one of these modest clubs will be handed is beyond comprehension – the Play Off final at Wembley has been called the £300 million match as a result.  Wealthy Chinese backers are also starting to make in-roads into the English game and beginning to invest into some of the clubs.  A Chinese consortium led by media mogul Li Ruigang bought 13 per cent of Manchester City’s parent company, City Football Group, last year and as such the Etihad Stadium side have even more newfound wealth.

Aston Villa has been purchased by eccentric businessman Dr Tony Xia, who has already poured more money into the Midlands club in 12 months than any other Championship side has seen in some time.  As the money-men start to have more-and-more of an influence on the game, expect more Chinese investors to spend their vast wealths in England.  This will only lead to the rich clubs becoming even richer and the rest of the sport being left behind.  Although the likes of Lincoln City caused an upset or two in this season’s FA Cup, the uneven playing field between the Premier League clubs and those in the lower leagues is starting to become ridiculous.  As such, instead of the prestige of being promoted to English football’s top tier and the chance to play against some of the most-historic teams in the game, lower division clubs now will dream of making it to the big financial table and be spurred on by the windfall of making the Premier League.

Just how the burgeoning wealth of the Premier League impacts at grassroots level remains to be seen, but it is certainly getting more difficult for a talented young player on the books of a Football League club to make a move to the top tier.  The fairytale story of Jamie Vardy moving from non-league  to become a Premier League winner may well be the last of its kind, as top-flight clubs have massive sums of money to spend on established stars from overseas (not forgetting Brighton & Hove Albion’s Solly March having his roots at Lewes!).   Chinese investment in the English game is set to increase and will play a role in dictating the health of the sport on and off the pitch for years to come.  Those clubs in the Football League will hope that the ever-expanding budgets of Premier League teams do not kill the romanticism and history that the game in England has forged over the last 100 years.