Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 4 – Hope is the only strategy

At the start of the season all Non-League boards will sit down, set a budget and perhaps even be as bold to set some objectives for the season ahead.  Outwardly fans hear words such as “consolidation” “on-field progress” or even if they are brutally honest, “survival”.  Inwardly you may not be surprised to hear that board’s are much more bullish.  They look at clubs who punched above their weight in the previous season and say “why can’t we do that? We spend more money than them!”, so more money is put into the squad and the manager is. Given an objective to push for the playoffs. As I write this, over half of the teams in the Ryman Premier League are within 1 or 2 wins of the final, achievable play off spot with just half a dozen games to go.  There’s going to be some disappointed boards in a month’s time.

hope-284x400What then happens depends on the attitude and experience. Some boards will say let’s out-spend everyone else and push for promotion again, whilst others will cut the budget to something more realistic and take a risk that it will just be enough to avoid relegation.  The danger of the former strategy is that it’s like building a skyscraper on shifting sand.  Undoubtably the cash has to come from an external source and there comes a point when that “structure” becomes unstable and the fragile foundations are removed.  The Non-Leagues are littered with the bones of such follies yet there are still clubs and individuals who think they can change the age-old model.  Look away now if you are a fan of a club who is currently high on the euphoria of a speeding train up the divisions.  This model does not work and in 99% of cases will end at best in tears, at worst without a club to support every Saturday.

Like most football fans, my opinion of Robbie Savage as an “expert pundit’ isn’t particularly complimentary.  Starting each retort to callers on his phone-in show on BBC 5Live’s 606 with “Did you play the game?” doesn’t endear him to the vast majority of people but last weekend he said something that made a lot of sense and actually changed my view on something.  West Ham had just beaten Sunderland 1-0. It wasn’t a pretty win and a number of fans were unhappy with the style of play.  “In reality, where did you think you could finish this season?” He asked one caller, then going through each team who could and should have been in top seven.  Presently six of those teams mentioned occupied those slots – the only absence was Everton, who had been replaced by Southampton.  Savage then said “so realistically your best hoped would be to finish 8th” the caller couldn’t argue, ” so currently you are one place off winning YOUR league”.  Does style really matter if you win the league? That’s the view that boards at Non League have to think about.  If the objective is to reach the play offs and you fall one point short by playing “ugly”, is that a failure? What about 20 points shy? You’ve been as successful in hitting your objective – in other words second place is the first loser, tenth place is ninth loser – but you are both losers.

When a club puts together its budget at the start of the season they do so with some assumptions of what will happen.  They assume that key players won’t get injured in pre-season.  Even worse, that players on a contract don’t get injured in pre-season, or arrested, or go on holiday to Magaluf and never come back.  Fans of professional clubs will laugh at that but it happens every season in the Non-Leagues.  Ambitious plans created on the 1st July could be in tatters by the 31st July.

When serving as Mayor of New York. City, Rudy Giuliani came up with the phrase “hope is not a strategy”.  We all know that Rudi has never managed in the Non-Leagues because Hope is certainly the key part of every clubs strategy.  We hope that key players don’t get injured, we hope that our young up and coming manager is not poached by a bigger rival, we hope that our floodlights don’t fail during a game, we hope that our boiler doesn’t fail, we hope that we don’t have a bad winter that stops us playing home (and thus our main revenue generating activity). Hope is certainly the cornerstone of every Non-League club’s strategy.

Most Non-League grounds are held together with Duck tape and SuperGlue.  Rustic, charming, quaint are all words used to describe some grounds.  They aren’t by design, trust me.  They are through necessity.  Ground improvements are carried out in almost all instances on the pain of death.  Ask a Non-League fan whether we should spent £5k on new toilets or on a centre-forward? We can all venture into the abyss and close ours eyes and hold their nose, yet none of us (honestly) can score 15 goals a season.  So hope once again is the cornerstone of the strategy. Hope that nothing goes wrong.

IMG_3575Sometimes factors completely out of a club’s control.  Today Lewes made their first ever trip to Vickers Crayford Dartford, or VCD Athletic.  This is the highest level the team from the London/Kent borders have played at, and whilst they come into the game still in the relegation zone.  They have refused to change their passing style that saw them crowned as Ryman North champions last season and they should be applauded for that.  But they know full well bout factors completely outside their control.

After winning the Kent League back in 2009 they played in the Ryman League for the first time in the 2009/10 season.  They finished 8th yet come the end of the season the Ryman League demoted them back to the County Leagues. Why? Because they had failed to build a concrete path around their pitch.  Not that they had refused to do so, rather the goalposts had shifted.  The club had been given notice about requirements to achieve a particular ground grading by a date in June.  They had played for a whole season with a concrete path (obviously said path is so critical to the actual football being played) without any issues at all.  Then all of a sudden that date was brought forward by a month.  Bear in mind this was in the close season so no games were being played yet it was deemed so non-compliant that they were expelled from the league. How can you plan for such changes in policy or rules? Once again, hope is all you have.

And with that in mind and the relegation trap door still firmly open for nine clubs, we arrived in Crayford with that same sense of hope.  Wednesday’s win against Enfield Town had been a real bonus meaning that a win today and we would be on the magic 50 points mark.  A defeat and it may be a nervous Easter.

As away trips go, VCD is one of the best in the business.  Well, for me at least.  4 stops, or 11 minutes on the train from TBIR Towers, the prospect of a bit of a gamble at Crayford Dogs and then a visit to a new micro-pub, the Penny Farthing.  Will the football ruin a great day out like it does so often?

VCD Athletic 2 Lewes 0 – Oakwood – Saturday 28th March 2015
In a nutshell, yes.  Once again, we were left talking about the performance of an official for the majority of the game rather than the players.  One incident changed the game without a doubt.  Just fifteen minutes were on the clock when a VCD corner bounced around the area.  A goal-bound effort hit Jack Rowe-Hurst’s arm, rather than the other way round.  There were players behind him from both teams, plus the keeper.  Penalty?  Probably, although some referees will argue it was “ball to arm” and unavoidable.  But a red card?  Never.  Alas, as a club we have no right of appeal.  If the game was being videod we could supply footage to the FA and have the decision reviewed, but it wasn’t.

The use of technology has been welcomed in the game at the highest level – goal line cameras has already proved to be a great addition to the game.  However, this is provided to all clubs in the Premier League and not just those who could afford it (obviously they all could).  In the lower leagues it is each club who have to fund the use of video so consequently it is hit and miss whether the games are recorded.  Two weeks ago in the game against Hornchurch, one of their players was sent off.  They used video to prove it wasn’t a red and they won their appeal.  But why shouldn’t it be uniform across the league?  Surely, having 3 or 4 clubs using it gives an unfair advantage to the rest?  We use Football Exclusives, who have contracts with half-a-dozen clubs in the Ryman League.

IMG_3573The sending off was pivotal.  Rowe-Hurst has been one of our best players in the past few weeks.  A fast, winger who isn’t afraid to take on his man, scoring two in the last three games.  Take him out of the team and Lewes lacked pace or any wide option.  We then lost our other wide man, O’Connor and it was going to be an uphill struggle especially when Duckworth seemed to receive the ball in an offside position before he turned and slotted home to make it 2-0.

Lewes huffed and puffed in the second period, with the referee producing another red, this time for VCD’s centre-back Reeves for a “denying a goal-scoring opportunity” although there appeared to be covering defenders.  The resulting free-kick was tipped over the bar, which was as close as Lewes came to scoring.

This was a disappointing whimper of a defeat.  In front of one of our biggest away followings of the season (a second half headcount put it at 47 out of a crowd of 136) we simply didn’t show up.  The worry is that with Harrow Borough arriving at the Pan next Saturday in excellent form and closing in on us, the last few weeks could be very nervous indeed.

Hope is most certainly the only strategy at the moment.

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