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.

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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.

The Sands of time


On the 2nd June 1978 history was made at the Football League’s Annual General Meeting held at the Café Royal in London.  Every year the clubs got to vote on whether the teams who had finished at the bottom of the then Division Four would be “re-elected” to the Football League for the following season, or replaced by a team from the Non-Leagues.  There was no formalised pyramid as there is today with any club who felt they had the resources able to make an application to join the league.  In the previous decade, clubs such as Chelmsford City, Romford, Gravesend & Northfleet and Altrincham had made applications to get into the league without success, with the advantage always with the league sides.  That was until 1977 when Workington were voted out of the league, having finished adrift at the bottom of the Fourth Division, replaced by Wimbledon FC.  However, it was events on Regent Street a year later that would be remembered in the annuls of footballing history.

The bottom four sides in the Fourth Division in that season in order were:-

Hartlepool United – 37 Pts
York City – 36 Pts
Southport – 31 Pts
Rochdale – 24 Pts

They would be joined in the vote by Bath City and Wigan Athletic, the two representatives from the Southern and Northern Leagues respectively.  Wigan hadn’t even won their league, finishing runners-up to Boston United although they were no strangers to playing their hand in trying to gain election, having made 34 previous applications.

In the first round of voting, York City, Rochdale and Hartlepool United topped the voting, meaning they were safe, whilst Bath City received just 21 votes and were discounted.  But Wigan Athletic and Southport both gained 26 votes meaning a second vote was needed.  Unfortunately, Southport lost by 29 votes to 20 and were ceremoniously kicked out of the league, the last club ever to suffer the re-election fate.  The fans blamed the trumpet-playing pub landlord and chairman, Walter Stanley Giller although Wigan Athletic had been very canny in their campaigning, bringing in former England Manager Sir Alf Ramsey to help influence some of the voters – every Football League club got to vote, not just the teams in Division Four and he was still a revered character in English football.

Almost forty years later, Southport were lining up against Lincoln City in the Conference Premier in the final game of the regular season.  In just a few months time the two clubs would be playing their football two divisions apart as the Imps would be returning to the Football League after a six-year hiatus whilst Southport would head in the other direction after seven years at the highest level of Non-League football.  Since that June day nearly 40 years ago they’d rarely come close to returning to the Football League – a 3rd place finish in 1994/95, eight points behind champions Macclesfield Town was the closest they came.

With the Isthmian League season done I could put the stresses and strains of my Lewes role behind me and go back to being a wandering football fan for a few weeks.  Come July time and I am itching to get back into action at The Dripping Pan but by the end of April I am looking forward to a break.  Don’t get me wrong – I’d have loved for us to be playing 250 miles south in the Isthmian League South Play-off Final but we weren’t (although next year will be different I am sure) and so I could get the footballing map out and find some new grounds to visit.  This time last season I saw a double-header in snowy Harrogate Town and Guiseley – this year I would be heading North-West to take one step closer to finishing off the 92 for the third time (after the weekend there would be just Morecambe left to do) and also take in some racing at Haydock Park and Rugby League at Salford Red Devils and their new A.J. Bell stadium.

Southport have undoubtedly suffered as Liverpool and Everton have benefited from the ever-generous Premier League revenue streams.  As I walked down Haigh Avenue I passed a group of youngsters heading in the opposite direction of the ground – 3 Liverpool and 2 Barcelona shirts, oblivious to the game about to start on their doorstep.  Before the season-high attendance, they had averaged just over 1,000, down by around 800 from their Football League days.

In the same season that Southport were facing up to life outside the Football League, Fleetwood Town were formed, starting their life in the Cheshire League.  Twenty years later they folded, reformed and took their place in the tenth tier of English football as Fleetwood Freeport.  They regained the Town name in 2002 and since then they have been on an upward trajectory unlike anything else that has been seen in Non-League football, thanks in main to Chairman Andy Pilley who has run the club since 2004.  Their story is one of the only successes of the single investor models.  Whilst the soap opera continues to play out at Billericay Town, the carcasses of similar stories litters the Non-Leagues.  Margate, Kings Lynn and Histon, to name but a few are examples of where such a strategy has gone horribly wrong but at Fleetwood, the success is all too clear to see with a club that is thriving off the pitch as well as on it.  The club was promoted five years ago into the Football League, with striker Jamie Vardy leaving at the end of the season for a Non-League record fee of £1m paid by Leicester City.  Almost a year to the day of my visit, the club opened an £8m training facilities, putting them on a par with clubs in the Championship.

Southport 1 Lincoln City 1 – Merseyrail Community Stadium – Saturday 29th April 2017
On paper this was a dead rubber with both sides fate already determined.  In reality it played out like one.  Lincoln City had made a number of changes to their side and consequently none of the urgency that had characterised their games in recent weeks was there.  Southport showed in the opening period why they had been in the bottom four for over three-quarters of the Conference Premier season, with the fans seemingly resigned to defeat before a ball had been kicked.

Lincoln City had sold their allocation of tickets, and some more, occupying two sides of the ground and a fair section of the main stand.  The home side formed a guard of honour for the Imps as they entered the field accompanied by a riot of red and white from the away fans.  The home fans looked on in envy – relegation would see few such days in the coming twelve months, especially as local upstarts AFC Fylde would be heading the other way.

Despite the weakened side, Lincoln City were looking to finish the season on a high, coming into the game on the back of a ten game unbeaten streak.  They looked to get the ball wide as often as they could, trying to find space behind the Southport full-backs, whilst the enigma that is Matt Rhead played the pantomime villain to a tee, winding up the home players and fans alike, constantly in the ear of the referee about the treatment he was receiving.  On the half-hour his presence in the area caused all sorts of chaos and Lee Angol had the simplest job of putting the Imps into the lead.

Back in 1973 when both sides were in the Football League, the crowd was entertained by an appearance from Red Rum at half-time, who had just won his first of three Grand Nationals.  Today, we had the excitement of a kids five-a-side tournament and the songs of Coldplay.  Don’t get me started about the demise of half-time entertainment…oh OK if you insist then have a read of this.

The rest of the game was played with the intensity of a pre-season friendly.  The home fans around me on the Scarisbrick Terrace were reading out the teams currently in the Conference North, mentally ticking off where they had been, getting very excited about a day trip to Blyth Spartans, although the claim by one that they were from Blythe in Staffordshire rather than Blyth in Northumberland was amusing to listen to.  Just as most of the home fans were getting ready to head home for an afternoon of Jeff Stelling, Southport scored through Neil Ashton.  I had made my excuses before the final whistle, heading down to Haydock Park to watch the action on and off the track.

Twenty two hours after leaving Haigh Avenue I was on my way into Fleetwood, about an hour north of Southport, past the town’s most famous feature, the Fisherman’s Friend factory.  I’d been tipped off that if I could get into the club lounge area then I may meet up with Syd Little, a long-time fan of the club and often seen helping out his wife who runs the kitchen.  Alas, with that avenue of pleasure closed off, I headed to the Highbury Chippy, which came highly recommended but like Chessington World of Adventures was a disappointment.  Apparently it is under new management but it appears they are yet to get to grips with exactly how long to cook food for.

Fleetwood Town 0 Port Vale 0 – Highbury Stadium – Sunday 30th April 2017
It is rare that you watch a game that is so bad you wish someone had invented a time machine to get those 2 hours of your life back to do something more interesting, like watching paint dry.  There’s no disrespect in that statement to Fleetwood Town as hosts – after all they had little to play for once Bolton Wanderers had taken an early lead.  However, at the other end of the pitch, if I was one of the thousand plus Port Vale fans who had turned up in hope they could get a win, I would have been furious that the team simply looked ill-prepared, tactically inept and completely devoid of motivation.  For the home side, they had to hope Bolton Wanderers slipped up for them to have any chance of automatic promotion.  Possible, but unlikely.  For Port Vale, the maths was much simpler.  Better the Gillingham result and they would be safe.

The strong cross wind made it difficult for both sides, but it was clear what the issue was from early in the game so why continue to try to plan long cross-balls?  Neither keeper really had anything to worry about in the first half bar dodging the litter blowing onto the pitch whilst the fans put on their best smiles for the completely over the top Police presence and their roving video camera man.

I cannot really tell you anything of interest in the second half.  With five minutes to go and the police readying themselves for a potential pitch invasion from the away fans I headed out.  As I got to the corner of Highbury Avenue a huge cheer went up.  I got to the car and checked the score, expecting to see one of the sides had scored but there was nothing.  I can only assume the cheer was for a corner, so bad the game was.  In the end Port Vale went down without a whimper and I hope for the fans sake that they find some comfort in an opportunity to be at the top end of the table next season, albeit at a lower level although I think there may need to be a big chance off the field before the good times start to roll again.

Football has moved on beyond comparison in the last forty years, mostly for the good.  The anarchic process of re-election, the perfect example of the old-boys club in action, has fortunately been scrapped but that’s no comfort to Southport (although it may be for Port Vale next season!).  For Lincoln City and Fleetwood Town the future looks bright.  Even if the latter do not find success through the Play-offs, they will get stronger on and off the pitch, looking forward to having a local(ish) derby with at least Wigan Athletic and possibly even former Premier League Champions, Blackburn Rovers.  Strong foundations built on and off the pitch, with a good local fan base can only lead to good times ahead for the Trawlermen and the Imps.

Postscript:
Just one week later Hartlepool United, the club with the most reprieves from re-election (14 times) were relegated from the Football League after rivals Newport County scored an 89th minute winner in their game against Notts County to leapfrog United and send them down in the final minute of the season, having spent just two weeks in the bottom two all season.

Impishly Good Friday


Today’s attendance is……9,011. Thank you for your attendance”

You’d be forgiven for thinking I was spending my Good Friday watch a game in English Football League One, or even in the lower reaches of the Championship. I wasn’t. I was watching a club that is in all but status a Football League club, but officially is classed as a Non-League side, or grassroots as our beloved Football Association often class all teams playing below the Football League. Only in Germany would you find crowds like this in the fifth tier of their game.

Prior to the visit of Torquay United, league leaders Lincoln City were three wins and a draw from a return to the Football League after a six-year hiatus. This season has almost been a perfect debut for the Cowley brothers. Four years ago to the day they were in charge at Concord Rangers when the mighty Rooks rolled into town and in the sunshine with all three points in a 3-2 win. Now they stand on the verge of taking the Imps back into the Football League in a season that has seen them make global headlines for their FA Cup exploits, yet ask them about the regrets and they will wince when they mention missing out on a trip to Wembley in the FA Trophy final after an extra-time defeat to York City in the semi-final second leg. They’ve set a high bar since arriving in Lincoln last summer and the team have responded.

What’s been impressive is how the whole city has got behind them. Attendance numbers at Sincil Bank started around the 3,000 mark as the fans were slow to return after so many false dawns in recent years. Even when they hit the top spot and started to progress in the FA Cup in mid-November, the crowds were only just topping 3,500, which in itself was higher than more than ten Football League sides. A week after the visit of Wrexham in front of 3,300 fans they faced League One Oldham Athletic in the Second Round of the FA Cup. Over 7,000 fans saw the 3-2 win and the vast majority returned two weeks later for the top of the table clash with Tranmere Rovers.

Since then the locals seem to have been hooked. Of course there has been a band wagon and people have jumped on it after the FA Cup wins against Ipswich Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley, but the difference here is the crowds have stuck with The Imps post-cup exit. Any Non-League club that’s successful will see the fair weather fans come out for the big games, claiming they’ve been fans for life but a few weeks later they are nowhere to be seen when a midweek league game takes place. Sutton United also hit the FA Cup headlines, for the right and most definitely wrong reasons this season. Eight days after 5,013 saw them take on Arsenal, 1,441 saw the home game with Boreham Wood. In fact their biggest attendance since the Arsenal game when Lincoln City arrived bring hundreds of fans to boost the attendance to over 2,200.

The club will argue there’s been a positive effect of the cup run – the average attendance at Gander Green Lane has gone up from around 1,400 at the start of the season to around 1,800 now. Gaining news fans in an area that is within the Crystal Palace catchment area is tough – Lincoln City’s big advantage is that traditionally their biggest rival for the locals football-watching attentions is Nottingham Forest, 30 minutes away on the train. Their continued demise on and off the pitch has certainly worked in the Imps’ favour.

The Football League and its member clubs continue to fail to recognise the Conference Premier as an equal. They’ve denied a third promotion place for decades, ruled that no clubs using a 3G can be promoted (despite the fact over a quarter of a Scottish Premier & Football League sides use them) and even decided to allow Premier (and subsequently Championship) B-teams to enter their Members Cup rather than opening it up to teams at the top of the Conference.

The Football League are scared of progress – why else wouldn’t they want sides such as Lincoln City or Tranmere Rovers, themselves getting average home attendances of 6,000 plus? An additional spot would generate greater competition and bring the potential of new teams joining the league. Forest Green Rovers, financially and ecologically sustainable, have been knocking on the door for years and a third spot would have seen them promoted some time ago. It’s hardly as if when new teams join the Football League they all struggle is it? Fleetwood Town, promoted less than five years ago could be a Championship side next season, joining Burton Albion. AFC Wimbledon seem to be doing well in mid-table in League One too.

On the other side of the coin you have the Football League sides struggling. The two teams currently occupying the relegation spots in League Two have both been beset by ownership issues which has in turn led to financial problems off the field and poor form on it. Just above them sit Morecambe (granted a former Conference side), another club that has an owner who appears to have disappeared off the face of the earth, taking the cheque book with him, leaving the players, management and suppliers high and dry.

I can’t see one compelling reason why at least there should not be three-up, three-down between the Football League and the Conference. In fact I’d go a bit further and restructure the leagues completely, having a 20 team Premier and Championship league, then three regionally based leagues of 20, meaning the top 8 of the Conference would join the league – less travel, less long midweek trips, more local games, more new grounds for fans to visit.

So back to Good Friday. It had indeed been a good Friday before we arrived at a heaving Sincil Bank as my horse had come in at 33/1 at Lingfield Park. Of course that meant the beers and pies would be on me but that’s a small price to pay for such luck. There’s fewer better sights approaching a football ground than the walk up Sincil Bank itself, with the modern Co-Operative Stand trying to nudge the Cathedral out of shot in the distance. I came here at the start of last season when Torquay United were the visitors on that occasion. No more than a couple of thousand had been here and what was noticeable back then were the lack of fans in Lincoln shirts, with kids running around sporting Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona and even a LA Galaxy shirts. Today I felt out-of-place without a Lincoln City shirt on. The transformation was amazing.

Northern Steve had procured the last seats in the house a few hours earlier. So last-minute that the seats didn’t actually exist – I believe we were supposed to bring our own emergency chairs. The seats were in the front row behind the goal, but were taken by wheelchair users and their carers. Fortunately the stewards re-housed us in the overflown section, next to the away fans. Everyone we met (and Steve knows a few in these parts) greeted us with a “UTI!”. At first I tried to explain that the coins in my pocket were chaffing, hence my strange gait rather than it being some Urinary Tract Infection but in these parts it means Up The Imps. Comfortably seated with any pain, let the game commence.

Lincoln City 2 Torquay United 1 – Sincil Bank – Friday 14th April 2017
The mark of a good team is knowing that they’ve never been beaten. When Torquay took the lead thanks to Ruairi Keating (nephew of Ronan no less) close range effort with just ten minutes to play you got a sense that The Gulls could upset the odds and put a dent in Lincoln’s promotion push. They’d kept the Imps at bay for most of the game with keeper Brendan Moore being tested only on occasion as Lincoln seemed to feel the long-ball game would have more success against a side fighting for their lives at the bottom.

The style of Lincoln play had surprised me.  I’d seen them fleetingly this season, and had seen the Cowley’s teams play not only at Concord Rangers but also at Braintree Town.  They are set up with two big, but mobile centre-backs, pacy full-backs and workmen-like midfielders and of course the away fans pantomime villain Rhead up front.  But they also had been successful playing the ball to feet this season.  Torquay were more than a match for most of the opening half, with Paul Farman in the Lincoln goal the busier of the two.

In the final minute of the first half Moore pulled off a great save down at his post which better keepers would have never got to.  But overall, the visitors could be pleased with a good half of football.  Other scores from around the division were kind to both teams, with Torquay’s need more pressing than the Imps you would say, having suffered so badly with events off the pitch in the last few years.  Seeing the Lincoln City re-birth in the past couple of seasons both on and off the pitch should give Gulls fans some hope, although in the darkest days you really don’t want to open the curtains and see who else is having a good time.

The goal was the tipping point to try something different. The ball stayed on the ground and they stretched Torquay, forcing them into conceding free-kick after free-kick on the edge of the box.  With three minutes to go Harry Anderson was the quickest to react to Marriott’s shot that had been well saved by Moore and the Imps were back in the game.  They could sense victory and threw everyone forward.  As the clock ticked over the 90th minute mark, another foul was awarded just outside the box.  With the Torquay wall being assembled, Rhead stood in front of the keeper, moving step by step with him, telling him where the ball was going to go in the football equivalent of sledging.  He stepped back and Sam Habergham’s free-kick was as good as you would see anywhere in World Football.  The Torquay players sank to their knees – they knew they were beaten.

Momentum is hard to create but once a team has it, they are hard to stop.  The fans went off into the rainy Lincolnshire afternoon knowing that just two more wins stood between them and a return to the Football League.  For Torquay it would be a nervous few weeks hoping others would slip up in their fight against relegation to Conference South, where their local derby next season could be with Truro City.

Walking football


Growing up I pleaded with my Dad to buy every house we saw for sale on our walk from the car parked near Plaistow tube station to The Boleyn Ground.  Wouldn’t it be brilliant to live next to a football ground?  I used to believe that the players spent every waking hour at the ground and probably would be a neighbour when we moved it.   I couldn’t understand his reluctance to give up our nice house in the country with a big garden for a terrace house on Green Street with a sofa in the front yard.

As the years have passed my interest in living so close waned as I saw exactly what fans did in the front gardens of the houses near grounds.  Of course the players didn’t live anywhere near the ground or even the fans, shudder the thought of having to mix with them.  But the idea of being able to nip out of the door at 2:55pm and be back in time for the distinct sounds of Sports Report is somewhat appealing.

Whenever I travel to games overseas I always try to stay close to the stadium, not having to worry about public transport post match.  I also love the idea of waking up, opening the curtains and seeing a stadium there in front of me, as I did in Bilbao back in November when I was almost in touching distance of the beautiful San Mames stadium.

Whilst it wasn’t quite in touching distance, the away trip to Greenwich Borough was one I had been looking forward to because I didn’t have to rely on any public transport or any need to drive or be driven (in the end I did use public transport and I did get a lift home) as their home ground in Middle Park Avenue was just 1.6 miles away, and with the Park Tavern at the half-way point, the meeting point for the extended Lewes Lunatic Fringe.  The Park Tavern is my local, despite being a mile away (we are bereft of pubs bizarrely in this area of London) and it was confirmed that we were the largest away support they had ever seen, although our only competition was the three Belgium fans who had got off the train at Mottingham just down the road thinking it was Nottingham and were looking for the City Ground apparently.

In a week where finances in Non-League football have come under the spotlight again with the crazy situation taking another turn for the ridiculous at Billericay Town, we headed down to Greenwich Borough.  It’s very hard to find out the real numbers behind virtually every club at our level and whilst we are completely transparent in publishing our budget, we still get questions from other clubs saying “but that’s not your real budget though is it?” And our answer is always the same, “yep” although of course the number we publish is the gross number, not the net one.  Greenwich Borough’s entry into the Isthmian League and the investment in Gary Alexander’s squad has led to many speculating that they are the best funded squad in the league, with former Football League players such as Peter Sweeney, Bradley Pritchard, Charlie MacDonald and Glenn Wilson.  Expectations are therefore high down at The DGS Marine Stadium (named after the Chairman’s shipping business) and they will be seething at the fact they let top spot slip through their fingers in the Autumn, although they’ve never fallen out of the Play-off spaces since.

Fifteen minutes before kick-off with our formation and tactics sorted, captain Lloyd Cotton put his foot down a divot on the warm-up pitch.  His presence at the back cannot be underestimated.  In the 19 games he has played centre-back this season, we had won 13 and drawn 3.  Fortunately we had Stacey Freeman on the bench to come into the side at the eleventh hour, albeit carrying an injury himself.  With the sun shining, the Rooks took to the field hoping that they would put in a South Park rather than a Godalming Town performance and move level on points with our hosts.

Greenwich Borough 1 Lewes 0 – DGS Marine Stadium – Saturday 26th March 2017
In the end this game was decided by two poor decisions, one made by Lewes’s Jack Dixon and one made by the referee. Third versus fifth and there was very to choose between the two sides at the start but by 5pm there was six points and four places – the difference between having a shot at promotion come end of April and a summer licking our wounds.

Football should always be enjoyed in the sunshine with a beer but in the first twenty minutes there was very little action on the pitch.  Both sides were cancelling themselves in midfield and with the Rooks battling both with the uphill slope and the strong wind in their face, they were happy to restrict the hosts to shots from distance.  Then in the space of a minute we went from attacking a corner to picking the ball out of the net.

It essentially went like this.  Sow corner to far post, Freeman jumps and is penalised.  Holloway takes free-kick, the bounce beats Harrington but Dixon is there to clear danger.  He under-hits his back pass to Winterton and Charlie MacDonald gets in front of Stacey Freeman and drills it past the Lewes keeper.  It was OK though as we would have the conditions in our favour in the second half.

The second period was dominated in my eyes by two events.  Firstly the wind blew over my 1/2 full pint of Badger’s Bitter and then Stephen Okoh was blatantly taken out in the area and the referee turned a blind eye.  There was no doubt that the first incident was an accident but the second was as clear a penalty as you could ever ask for.  On many other occasions we would have been celebrating a spot kick but that’s football for you.  Okoh then hit the bar with ten to play but that was the closest we came to scoring.  At the other end Winterton was rarely troubled as Greenwich Borough professionally saw the game out to grab all three points.

The disappointment wasn’t in the manner we lost – there was very little between the two sides – but in the fact every other team challenging with us for the Play-offs won.  We’d gone from fourth to seventh in the space of six days.  But with games coming thick and fast against 9th, 6th, 5th and 4th in the table to come in the next three weeks, nobody was giving up.

I could have walked home, smug that I had not added anything to my carbon footprint but Baz offered me a lift.  Just like living next to a ground seems like a great idea, turning down a lift to walk home was the sensible option.