About 6 miles off the Thanet coast is a strip of land known as the Goodwin Sands. This 25 metre strip of sand, sitting atop a chalk escarpment becomes visible at various times each day depending on the tides. Many a ship has met with disaster trying to navigate around the area whilst a number of schemes over the years have been hatched to try to build structures on the sands.
However, if there is one lesson that any engineer worth their salt will tell you is that building on sand, let along fast-moving sand is a very bad idea. History has shown that time and time again, yet people still think they can tame nature.
So what has this got to do with Bank Holiday Monday football at the Dripping Pan? Well, for starters our visitors today were Margate, one of the coastal towns that can claim the Goodwin Sands as part of their own. But more importantly, it is about the lessons that football has taught us about thinking we can follow certain paths. Make no mistake, in the driving rain at the very aptly named Dripping Pan this afternoon, Margate showed that they are head and shoulders above Lewes, and probably most teams in the Ryman Premier League this season thanks to a massive cash injection into the club.
The club aren’t exactly hiding their wealth under a bushel. Talking to their charismatic chairman, Bob Laslett before the game he was very bullish when asked about his ambition for the club. “Back to back promotion….six of them”. You get the feeling he wasn’t kidding either. Since he joined the club just after Christmas, Margate have started to build both on and off the pitch for a future higher up the league. With most clubs in the Ryman Premier League running with a budget between £2k and £3k a week (I guess), Margate’s appears to be significantly more. The recruitment last season of Terry Brown, the ex-AFC Wimbledon manager who guided them out of the Non-League was a bold statement of intent and one that is starting to bear fruit.
Non-League football fans can be divided into three groups – those whose club have a financial backer and are spending money; those who don’t have access to the same resources and are deep-down jealous of the success of these clubs; and those who have been burnt by a failed strategy before. For every Fleetwood Town, Crawley Town and Stevenage there are the Darlington’s, Hornchurch’s and very recently, Celtic Nation’s. Nobody wants to see football clubs in financial distress – people’s livelihoods are at stake as well as years of history, tradition and the blood, sweat and tears of the fans.
My one concern for Margate is simply around geography. They have made one big push up the Non-Leagues before, finishing in eighth place in the Conference Premier in 2002, however within two seasons they had been demoted due to ongoing issues with the redevelopment of their Hartsdown Park ground. Twelve months later they fell into the Ryman Premier League where they have been since. Whilst Kent currently only supports one Football League side, there are over 1.73 million people living in the county. In Thanet District alone there are 134,000 people, more than Ipswich and Norwich who both have football teams who average over 20,000. Margate’s current average home attendance is around 600, nearly double that of last season’s 325. The appetite is clearly there for success, but will it be enough to sustain the club as they move through the leagues?
There is also not guarantee that the approach will be successful. There is a big shadow looming over their success just down the A2/M2/A249 in the form of Maidstone United who are also attempting to climb their way up the Non-Leagues back to the Football League where they last played over twenty years ago. They too have cash to spend although their advantage is a modern stadium that is already producing revenue seven days a week and being located in the heart of the county with good transport links that can bring those floating Premier League and Football League in. During the afternoon you got the feeling that Margate are nervously looking over their shoulder at the events at The Gallagher stadium.
The Ryman Premier League is a bugger to get out of. Lowestoft Town can vouch for the difficulty in trying to invest in a championship winning squad year after year. Last season they finally made it at the fourth Play-Off attempt although their reward is to be put in a league where they have “short” away trips to Chorley, Barrow and Fylde. Whitehawk invested heavily to go the same way two seasons ago then ended up in a relegation battle last season. In other leagues, Chester and Halifax Town gambled on heavy investment to return to the Football League but are now counting the cost of over expansion. Nobody wants to see that happen to any club.
Arriving at a very wet Dripping Pan Margate could boast a 100% record with five wins out of five, only matched by their nemesis, Maidstone United. Their line up spoke volumes of their intent. Ryan Moss, Charlie Allen, Kane Wills, Luke Moore. Proven players in the Ryman League and above – quite a haul considering the journeys some of these players have to make to Margate. But if the gamble pays off? Well, who knows where they will end up.
Lewes 1 Margate 5 – Monday 25th August 2014 – The Dripping Pan
One the way out of the ground a chap turned to his mate and said, “It would have been a different result if it wasn’t for the rain”. I’m every the optimist but nobody could complain at the result or the comprehensiveness of the victory. Margate were unrecognisable from the team that scrambled a draw against Lewes just four months ago. Less than a year ago the Gate came to the Pan and were sent away with a 3-0 defeat. Not one of that starting XI played in this game. Times are certainly a-changing on the Isle of Thanet.
It is fair to say that the weather had an impact in the first half. All three goals were rain assisted to an extent with defenders from both sides losing their footing to create the chances, first for Moss as early as the five minutes, and then again seven minutes later when James Fergany slotted home after a game of ping-pong in the Margate area. The main talking point of the half came just before the break when Ollie Rowe was sent off for the second time in a week. As Jason Prior took the ball passed Rowe, the centre-back tried to haul him to the ground. Prior managed to regain his balance, carried on and shot at Banks who saved well. The referee then pulled back play for the original offence and sent Rowe off.
Did the referee wave play on? There seemed to be a lack of a whistle. If the referee allowed play to go on then Rowe surely hadn’t “denied a goal scoring opportunity” as he carried on and shot. What happens if he scored? Would Rowe would have still be sent off? All questions that the referee couldn’t (or wouldn’t) answer when he walked off at half-time.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the decision, Margate came out for the second period with their heads high and showed their class. Three further goals from Allen, Pipps and then Moss to complete his hatrick made sure Margate took all three points home in style.
As Terry Brown walked off he shook hands with the fans. Their immediate conversation was not about the victory but about Maidstone’s last-minute defeat to Tonbridge Angels. Surely it is too early in a season for paranoia to be setting in? Enjoy Non-League football for what it is…..