In five months time Non-League fans will be up in arms about their teams having to play three (or even four) games a week in order to meet the ridiculous deadlines imposed by their respective masters. Some of these clubs will be paying the prize of successful cup runs whereas others are simply having to pay catch up because matches earlier in the season were cancelled far too quickly. Today was a classic case in point.
The weather forecast this week didn’t look good for Saturday, and sure enough the rain started falling late Friday night. Come Saturday morning and pitch inspections were taking place across the south-east. Lewes’s trip to Aveley to play Grays Athletic was one of the first to fall to the conditions of the pitch at 10.30am meaning I had to re-plan my day. And it wasn’t only my day ruined. The original plan was to be dropped in the throbbing metropolis of Aveley by CMF whilst she went shopping in Lakeside before she picked me up some hours, and some beers later.
Fortunately I had a back up plan, although it changed every few minutes as further games were cancelled. Yet what struck me, looking out of the windows of TBIR Towers, was the clear skies and calm forecast for the rest of the day. With four hours to kick off, how many of those pitches would be playable come 3pm? Interestingly, both Charlton Athletic and Crystal Palace took decisions to delay the kick offs in their games so that conditions had improved. Why didn’t other clubs take that decision? Would it have mattered if Grays v Lewes would have kicked off at 4 or 5pm ? Surely it would have been preferable to play it today rather than now having to fit in another game somewhere in midweek when players may struggle to get time off work to travel 80-odd miles each way to play the game. As it stands, the Rooks already have four midweek games scheduled between now and Christmas, with two more possible if respective cup games end positively.
Were the conditions that bad anyway? My final choice of game that survived the weather was the Southern Counties East League game between Phoenix Sports and Lordswood. The game had just kicked off when I arrived in Barnehurst and despite the monsoon a few hours earlier, conditions were heavy, but easily playable. We’ve all seen the TV pictures from years ago of pitches made up of mud and sand, with not a blade of grass in sight. The losers are always the fans, so why not let them have more of a say in the decision to postpone games?
So back to the game at hand. The Southern Counties East is the new name for the Kent Premier League. The latter name describes the league perfectly – it was (and still is) the top league in the Non-League pyramid in Kent. But at the end of last season the league were given a few new teams. Some, such as Phoenix Sports, were very pleased to be there, having finally made the top league after working their way up through the Kent Leagues. But Rye United and Crowborough Athletic had been moved, without their consent, from the Sussex League. You have to hand it to the FA. They really do not “get” Non-League football, making such unpopular decisions without a thought for the clubs and the fans. Fortunately, the two clubs appealed and an independent panel ruled the original decision was basically a pile of crap.
Phoenix Sports had won the Kent Invicta League last season, less than ten years since they were playing in roped off pitches in the Kent Saturday League. Now they are just one step from the Isthmian League, and next season can make their debut in the FA Cup. That’s progress.
Seven pounds was all it took (including a free programme) to give me football on a miserable afternoon and make me a happy person once again. It doesn’t take much. Just a game, an opportunity to make some photos and a beer. Not a lot after a long, hard week. So why on earth do clubs, leagues and referees deny us such pleasures?
Phoenix Sports 0 Lordswood 2 – Phoenix Sports Ground – Saturday 9th November 2013
It wasn’t the best afternoon for the three officials. Just as I arrived the visitors should have taken the lead. The Lordswood’s Tom Box headed the ball into the net but the ball then spun backwards into play. Lordswood’s Vice-Chairman Paul Caulfield caught the moment on camera which also shows the perfect position of the linesman, yet the goal wasn’t given.
Fortunately Box got his opportunity in the 27th minute to claim his goal when he converted a contentious spot kick, given by the linesman for what appeared to be a soft challenge. A number of the home players surrounded the young female referee, appearing to try to persuade her to the error of her ways, but she was having none of it. Both teams continued to attack during the remainder of the half although Lordswood always looked more likely to score again.
The second half saw the sky darken and rain start again, but the game was never in doubt. Phoenix’s frustration at being unable to break down Lordswood started to spill over into abusing the officials. Standing behind the dug out it was amazing to hear the constant stick the home official gave the linesman. Twice the referee was called over to “have a word” with the bench, giving Phoenix’s manager Steve O’Boyle a final warning. Five minutes later he was “sent off”, but simply refused to move from the dug out. The crazy thing was that nobody could do anything. The referee was powerless to physically move him, and she simply refused to restart the game. It seemed after a couple of minutes of impasse that the game would simply be abandoned but finally he saw sense and stormed off.
His mood wouldn’t have got any better when a few moments later Lordswood scored their second when Neil Perkins headed a second after the ball had appeared to go out for a home team throw-in. But the damage was done. The away side were good value for their win which took them up to third in the table. After years fighting for survival at the wrong end of the table, Lordswood are enjoying life. A decent run in the FA Vase last season coupled with a good start to this season means the club are definitely looking up rather than down.
Phoenix’s progress can be measured both in terms of on the pitch progress as well as off the field development. The club’s ground has changed beyond belief in the last few seasons, with a well-appointed club house that at half-time was packed with fans grabbing a beer and catching up on the scores from Sky Sports. The ground is just a few hundred yards from VCD Athletic, who are currently ripping up trees in the Ryman League North (P15, W14 D1) and no more than a 5 minute drive away from Welling United. So they need to fight to get fans through the turnstiles, but they have a great set-up that will ensure that success will come. Maybe not tomorrow, next week or even this season. But this is what non-league football is all about.