Lewes’s first five games of this season saw us lose them all and hitting the bottom of the league. That certainly wasn’t in the plan nor did our performances in some of those games warrant zero return. Results since have certainly been better although we are under no illusion this will be a tough season in a very competitive league.

However, spare a thought for the fans of Stoke Gabriel Football Club who ply their trade in the South West Peninsula League Premier Division East, step 6 of the English National League structure. The club hail from the beautiful village of the same name in Devon on the banks of the River Dart, playing their home games at the modest Speedwell KIA Stadium.

The club have played ten games as of the 19th October and lost the lot. I am sure there are other clubs that have yet to get a point (Ossett United in the Northern Premier League North West for instance or Mangotsfield United in the Southern League, South Division) but it is the nature of the defeats that have see them hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Having been in 16th place when the 2019-20 season was curtailed by COVID-19, the club has seen personnel changes during the summer with players, coaches and committee members moving on, meaning that the squad is built around the club’s Under18s side.

“You can’t win anything with kids” – the famous line uttered by Alan Hansen on the opening day of the 1995/96 season after Manchester United’s Class of 92 had been beaten by Aston Villa. Never has such a true sentence been uttered in the case of Stoke Gabriel.

They kicked off the season with an away game at Torridgeside. They lost 14-0. In their first home game of the season against Crediton United they did better, keeping the score down to 13-0. Since then they have lost all eight games. There was a glimmer of hope last week that new signings would have a positive impact as they restricted Ivybridge Town to just three second half goals but on Saturday they finished with ten men due to injuries against Plymouth Marjon who scored ten unanswered second half goals to make the final score 14-0.

Whilst they recorded their biggest defeat of the season so far against third from bottom Bovey Tracey, they did get off the mark themselves in the 18-1 defeat and followed it up with another goal in the 9-1 defeat at Elburton Villa. Their star players so far? Seventeen year old goalkeeper Josh Organ, naturally.

Whilst the young squad is finding life at the senior level tough, they are more than good enough playing at their own age level, winning three of their four league games so far.

The village has an approximately 1,000-year-old yew tree in the churchyard of The Church of St Mary and St Gabriel, a church which has stood since Norman times. Legend has it that if you walk backwards seven times round the yew’s main stem you will be granted a wish – I think now may be the time for the fans to start walking around that tree!

Stop press….on Saturday they scored another goal! Unfortunately, opponents Ilfracombe Town scored 17 (seventeen). Match of the match was that teenage keeper Josh Organ again.

Gone but not forgotten – Ashington FC

It’s been awhile since we’ve focused on the clubs that used to be members of the Football League but going into the new decade with one club short already in the Football League, it is a topical subject for what happens when a team is forced out of the league for whatever reason.

The town of Ashington in Northumberland has a famous footballing pedigree.  The Milburn (Jackie played briefly for the club) and Charlton brothers were born in the town as well as Steve Harmison (and his brother Ben), who whilst became a cricketing legend (and earned him an MBE) went on to manage Ashington AFC for a couple of seasons.

The club was formed in 1883 under the name of Ashington Rising Star, wearing a distinctive all black kit with a white star on the breast.  They entered the FA Cup for the first time in 1887 entering the Ashington AFC was formed in 1883 making it one of the oldest Clubs in Northumberland. Despite it’s minor status it entered the FA Cup as early as 1887. After joining the Northern Alliance in 1892, the club soon switched to the East Northumberland League where it remained until 1902 when it returned to the Northern Alliance. The Colliers played in this league until 1914, winning the League Title in 1913/14, as well as the Northumberland Challenge Bowl in 1913. They switched to the North-Eastern League in 1914/15, finishing the season in ninth place. The outbreak of World War One brought an end to football as we knew it for five seasons.

After one more season in the North-Eastern League following the Great War, Ashington became founder members of the new Third Division (North) in 1921 as the Football League expanded. The club’s first game in the Football League was at home to Grimsby Town.  A crowd of approximately 10,000 crammed into Portland Park, their ground at the time which was owned by the Duke of Portland.  Thanks to a share issue the club were able to double the capacity of Portland Park, with grand ambitions for progress up the Football Leagues.

In their first season in Football League 3 North they finished in tenth place, above clubs such as Tranmere Rovers and Lincoln City who have gone on to greater things (although both have spent time outside of the Football League).  The following season they finished in the bottom two but remained after being re-elected by their fellow clubs.  However, fortunes returned and they recorded their best ever finish in 8th place the following season.

At the end of their 8th season in the Football League they finished bottom of the league for the first time and for the first time since that first season faced re-election.  Unfortunately, on this occasion they were voted out with York City voted in in their place.  Whilst many other clubs in the division had strengthened, Ashington’s local community and supporter base was hit heavily by the General Strike of 1926 which had a long term impact on the industry.  Their last Football League game was at Portland Park against Halifax Town where only 706 were in attendance.  They did attempt to regain their place in the Football League, applying for election again in 1950 when they failed to dislodge York City, gaining no votes at all.

The club started the following season in the North Eastern Football League where they remained until the outbreak of the Second World War, still taking part in the FA Cup rounds proper including hosting a game against Aston Villa in front of what was the biggest ever attendance, 13,199, at Portland Park.  After hostilities ended the club decided to transfer their membership to the Midland League in 1958, along with a host of other clubs based in the North-East as the previous league folded.  They finished runners-up to Peterborough United in their first season, then third in the next season before the Midland League folded and they returned to the North-East, moving between leagues until they found their spot in the Northern League.

Ashington’s League form was hardly superb, by their own admission, and since 1968 they have only enjoyed two promotions, one in 2001 and again back to the Northern League Division 1 in 2004 where they have been playing ever since.  Their finest moment during the last fifty years came in the old FA Amateur Cup when they reached the semi-finals in 1974, eventually losing after a replay to Bishop’s Stortford at Brentford’s Griffin Park., back in , but the Colliers did reach the FA Amateur Cup Semi-Final in 1974 (the last ever one before it was replaced by the FA Trophy), before losing to eventual winners Bishops Stortford in a replay at Brentford.

In 2008 the club left Portland Park as it was sold to ASDA to move to Woodhorn Lane. The final match was played at the the old ground in February 2008 against Seaham Red Star, attracting a crowd of 1,954. The club moved across town to the Hirst Welfare complex until the end of the season. The first game at Woodhorn Lane took place on 30 August 2008 against Ossett Albion, with 341 spectators watching a 2–1 win for Ashington in an FA Cup preliminary round game.

The club today play at the eleventh level of English football, with a long climb ahead of them if they are to get back into the Football League.  With so much local competition from clubs with significantly bigger budgets it would seem we will have to wait a few more years before we see the name Ashington back in the professional game.


Crabble Rock

Day ten of our look back at the last decade and here’s the first blog post I wrote in 2010 – exactly ten years ago to the day.  How times have changed….or have they?  Thanks for being with me on the last ten years.  Happy New Year one and all.

We are going on a journey today, a journey back into the Fuller family tree.  A long time ago the current line of Fuller’s were Wells’s.  And a fine stock we were, which included such notable characters as Charles Wells, the man who reportedly “Broke the bank at Monte Carlo” and more impressively Herbert George Wells – aka H G Wells who wrote such classics as The War of the Worlds and the Time Machine.  As with many things in live, what comes around goes around and HG was actually born no more than a stones throw from TBIR towers today.

The Current Mrs Fuller Senior, aka My Mum, has traced our family tree back for decades and found out by such similar co-incidences that her family have on a number of occasions gravitated back to Dover.  It was here that my Great, Great, Great Grandad lived and worked, it was here that my Great, Great Uncle was killed by a doodle bug bomb in World War 2 that fell down his chimney, and it was here that my fantastic Grandad George spent his last few years and his ashes are buried in the church in the town centre.  But in amongst these fine upstanding gentlemen was a miller and he was employed by the Crabble Mill, which used to sit almost on the penalty spot of Dover Athletic’s current ground, unsurprisingly called The Crabble Ground.

So Dover and I have a bit of a history but in terms of my favourite sport, I had never been to a game down here or even had the pleasure of playing football in or around the town.  But this was going to change.  As part of my drive to visit all Blue Square South grounds during the season Dover Athletic was a prime candidate being one of only two teams in the league playing in my home county (sort of) of Kent.  I had been to Welling United hundreds of times, being as it was just a short bus ride away, but Dover was a good hour and fifteen away in the car which did limit the fun of the day if I had to drive after making myself very welcome in the club house.

So what’s been going on down at the Crabble?  Well, Dover had been rockin’ and a rollin’ actually.  They came into the season fresh from waltzing to the Isthmian title last year as the bookies/Blue Square’s favourites for the Championship.  With the experienced Andy Hessenthaler in the hot seat (watch out for an exclusive interview with the once-terror of the Gravesend Sunday Leagues coming soon), an ambitious chairman who has invested in the youth set up, and a set of loyal and passionate fans, Dover set an early pace in the league.  They were unbeaten in their first eight games and sat atop the league with Newport County close behind.

Autumn brought a change in fortunes though.  Their form dipped and they lost to challengers Woking and Newport as well as surprise defeats at Worcester City and Weston-Super-Mare.  Added to that was an amazing 5-3 defeat to Eastleigh in the final qualifying round of the FA Cup.  Things all of a sudden looked dark on the horizon, confidence was low and doubts were creeping in.  Boxing Day saw them throw away a 2-0 lead away to Lewes to lose 6-2, and 2 days later a 1-0 home defeat almost pushed them out of the play offs for the first time this season.

Dover had been at the dark before dawn before.  In 1983 the club folded under serious financial pressure.  The town looked like it would be deprived of a team, with many of the players driving down the A20 to local rivals Folkestone Invicta.  However, they reformed as Dover Athletic and just ten years later they were finally admitted into the Conference (they were denied a few season earlier due to ground-related issues).  During their time in the Conference in the 1990’s they were managed by Peter Taylor and Neville Southall, but neither could help the club move forward.   In 2003 they finished bottom of the Conference, and had to enter Administration due to more financial pressures.  They were relegated back to the Southern League and a few seasons later changed leagues to play in the Rymans/Isthmian League.  A further relegation unfortunately followed and Hessenthaler stepped into the management hot seat in 2007.  Less than two years later with two consecutive promotions behind them Dover have once again risen, ironically passing for rivals Margate and Folkestone Invicta on the way who are now in the Isthmian Premier and South respectively.

I’d been trying to get to a game down here for a few weeks but the weather and then a bizarre set of road problems which saw every main route into the town closed, blocked or inpassable due to a power failure hampering my last effort (the subsequent crowd for that game was over 50% down on average).  That left one stand out game.  Dover v Lewes.  On paper a complete home banker….but this was the reverse of the game from Boxing Day when 2nd from top played 2nd from bottom.  And with twelve minutes gone it was 2-0 to Dover…Game over surely and 3 vital points for Dover in their push to catch Newport.  Oh no, the new Lewes are a different kettle of fish, and by half time they had taken the lead 3-2 and then unbelievably went on to score three more in the second half to record an outstanding 6-2.  Danny, who was in Spain and also missed the 3-1 cup win versus Hampton & Richmond suggested a Fiesta in the village they were staying in to celebrate Saint Ibbo.

New Year’s Day is not known to set the pulse racing in the UK.  Apart from the start of another DFS sale not a lot else is open.  Our original plan of a day of culture at Dover Castle followed by the football was scuppered by English Heritage refusing to open the castle despite us showing our annual membership – I ask you!  It wasn’t just the castle – Dover was shut.  Quite literally.  The town recently voted the 32nd “Crappest” in the UK is really showing signs of wear and tear.  Shops boarded up, a plethora of fast food outlets (Deaks counted 24 on the walk between the ground and Dover Priory station) and poor signage sent CMF and Littlest Fuller 20 minutes up the road to Ashford after dropping us at the Crabble.

Dover Athletic 2 Lewes 0 – The Crabble Ground – Friday 1st January 2010
Freezing it was as we walked up the slope to the ground.  The club provided “Executive transportation” in the form of a golf cart with tinsel on for those fans who couldn’t walk but demand was low so the stewards were using it to do handbrake turns.  We wandered into the clubhouse which is large to say the least and met up with Deaks and Dave.  We worked out that you could play the whole World Championship of Darts in this room simultaneously – it was huge and quite barren.  However, it was warm and if you stood on tip toes you could watch the game outside.  But that would be cheating so we headed outside and waited for the toss so we could chose our end.

The ground is set on the side of a valley, and from three sides you get a great view of the rest of the valley.  The stands have lots of pillars meaning that views aren’t the best and you had to feel sorry for the “Executive” guests who are perched on top of the “main” stand higher than everyone else but exposed to the biting cold 2010 wind.

The game, in all truth, was poor.  In the first half Lewes tried to get the ball wide at all opportunities but often the passes were over hit to Wheeler or under hit to the left hand side.  Dover had a big shout for a penalty on 10 minutes when Birchall appeared to be pulled back and if he would have shown some Premier League class and fallen dramatically to the floor I am sure it would have been given.  Lewes fans had travelled in their dozens and made quite a noise under the roofed terrace.  Rikki Barnes (according to the announcer) was the busier of the two keepers in the first half but still didn’t need to do much in the first half apart from handling a 30 yarder from Fish well.

Back in the bar it was tempting to stay for the darts with the temperature falling below zero.  Lolly was even regretting not going with CMF to the shops it got that cold.  With twenty minutes to go Lewes at last produced their first chance of the game when Keehan’s shot is well saved by Dover keeper Hook.  At this point I had wandered into the corner to take some pictures.  Four young Dover fans decided to abuse me at the highest level – “Oh mate…Lewes are shit…how did you score 6 against us last week.”  I stood up, thought about it and then explained what the net was, what a goal was and repeated it six times.  They thought about it in their tiny heads before one of them said, “Yeah but you wont score six today”..brilliant wit.

The shot from Keehan was the highpoint of the day for Lewes.  Two minutes later Dover took the lead.  A corner from the left wasn’t cleared and Banks did seem to be impeded but Schultz was on hand to bundle the ball into the net.  This goal seemed to take all fight out of Lewes and they tried to wind down the clock.  With a minute to go we decided to go but we couldn’t leave.  The “extended” tunnel blocks the exit from one end of the ground (surely against all ground regulations?) and we had to wait for the game to finish.  But not before Dover scored a second with a harsh penalty awarded for a handball that few (including the Dover fans behind the goal) actually saw.  Adam Birchall stepped up and scored to finish off the game, and give Dover some much needed confidence.  And with that the referee brought to an end our suffering.  Lolly was cold beyond belief and I had a 210 mile drive to look forward to as we headed up to wintery weather up north.  Hopefully next time we visit a few more things will be open.

Taking road trips to the extremes

Day nine of the review of the decade and today we are looking at the lengths some fans have to go to to see their side, updated for the 2019/20 season.

Last season only the brave band of the die-hard Lewes fans headed to the extremes of Brightlingsea Regent and Bishop’s Stortford, our two longest away trips in the Isthmian Premier League.  Two seasons ago away trips in the depth of the midweek winter to the Kentish coast in the fog and freezing conditions  and you can understand why only a restored Ford Capri’s worth of away fans made the trip.

Whilst this year we’ve not had the midweek road trips from hell, the permanent M23 roadworks and Southern Railway’s constant attempts to avoid running anything like an acceptable train service has meant most away trips north have had their problems.  The longest road-trip the Rooks have ever had to make was back in our brief sojourn in the Conference Premier a decade ago 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 256-mile round trip to the Essex Riviera this season pales into insignificance when you look at some of the other potential trips fans face in following their teams in Europe.

In the 2019/20 Europa League Group Stage Manchester United had to travel to Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, just a short 7,410-mile midweek round trip.  It’s possible that next 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 second division 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 at some point.  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 each way.

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 including one against Chelsea back in 1997 played during a blizzard.  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.  Unlikely I know, but still there’s a possibility.

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.  In the Singapore Premier League, the current champions are DPMM who play their home games in the Kingdom of Brunei, is a 800 mile as the crow flies trip.

Thanks to UEFA for some of the above info.

Economic Theory explained by football – Disruptive influencers

Day eight of our look back without anger at the last ten years of blog posts.  One of the most enjoyable projects I worked on was the Economic Theory explained by Football (you can read them all here) – I’ve picked one from the series that demonstrates the changing fortunes in football.

Back in 1997 DC United won the second ever MLS Cup, beating Colorado Rapids on home turf in Washington DC. Avid fan (probably) and Harvard Business School professor (definitely) Clayton Christensen was so compelled by DC United retaining their title that he sat down and and mused as to whether this could be the start of something beautiful for his side and US Soccer in general. Looking across the pond at the dominance of Manchester United plus the emergence of the Galacticos in Madrid he wondered if a new force from North America could emerge to take world football by storm. His theory on disruption theory has been called “one of the sexiest theories ever written” by The Lady magazine, high praise indeed and has since been adapted for wider economic models, but it should always be remembered that it’s humble beginnings were in the beautiful game (probably). So what’s all the fuss about?

Christensen’s theory is based around the principle that innovators with cheap solutions to a vexing market problem can unseat larger, more established rivals in the short term. So in the case of DC United’s squad, assembled at a fraction of the cost of United’s or Real’s, could their domestic dominance and momentum carry them across the pond and further in the global game? His theory was hailed as the answer to everything from making health care more efficient to reducing poverty by some of the world’s greatest thinkers, and Elton Welsby, and was the talk of the dressing and boardrooms from Rio to Rome.

Christensen wrote that disruptive innovations, such as Social Media networks, Rainbow Looms and Snoods tend to be produced by outsiders from their industry (a fact since backed up by organisations such as AirBnB, Uber and Tesla).  The business environment of market leaders does not allow them to pursue disruption when they first arise, because they are not profitable enough at first and because their development can take scarce resources away from sustaining innovations (which are needed to compete against current competition). So when FC United won their first MLS Cup back in 1996, nobody outside of North America took them seriously – it was after all a small domestic league of ageing imports and unproven domestic talent. But back to back wins, and two more final appearances in the next two seasons allowed them to pursue that disruption and potentially start eat the global giants breakfast.

Alas, DC United’s dominance didn’t last as long as that new fangled The Facebook although it did outlive the crazes of plastic bracelets made by our kids and neck scarves worn by hardy professional footballers. Christensen’s theory was debunked by some who pointed to Apple’s continued dominance in the device market, or Amazon’s in terms of online shopping and logistics. We’ve seen pretenders to the footballing global dominance throne very occasionally come forward but money talks in today’s game. There is no coincidence that the clubs with the deepest pockets in England, France, Holland, Spain, Germany and Italy walk away with the honours year after year. Despite salary caps, centralised contracts and no meritocracy structure, the US domestic game is no different today. In the US, DC United’s star briefly flickered again when Wayne Rooney arrived for a season and a bit, but no one team (or should I say, Franchise), has been able to dominate because of the false competitive environment in place in the MLS.

Christensen’s five minutes of fame may still resonate with some economic thinkers but in terms of the world of football it’s the same old story – money talks.