Another class match poster


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All that glitters certainly isn’t gold


It is a clear free-kick on the edge of the Inter Milan box.  25 yards out, dead centre and ten world-class players queueing up to create some magic.  86,000 fans wait expectantly.  The stadium all of a sudden lights up with tens of thousands of mobile phones, trained on the pitch, the owners of them choosing to view the incident through a small screen rather than with their own eyes.  Welcome to Modern Football.

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It was an opportunity that I couldn’t miss.  A major industry event in Barcelona coinciding with Barcelona’s Champions League tie against Inter Milan.  I wasn’t the only one who had the same idea and almost everyone I bumped into during the day around the conference centre mentioned they were heading to the Camp Nou for the game.

For many of them, especially our cousins from across the Atlantic, would be attending their first ever game.  For me it was Charlton Athletic versus Burnley at a decaying Valley back in 1974, so a visit to Europe’s biggest stadium isn’t a bad way to lose your cherry.

For the club, European games are a gold-mine for the club.  With season tickets not valid for these games, it is all pay and with so much demand for seats, the club set the price high….eye-watering, vertigo-inducing high.  By the time I bought my ticket I paid €109 for a place in the top tier, almost closer to the stars than the gutter.

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As you climb up towards the Gods you see that the Camp Nou is far from a world-class stadium behind the veneer.  The stairwells are cramped and show their age – some parts of the stadium haven’t been touched since 1982.  Whilst there are plans in place for an upgrade and expansion of the stadium in the near future, today it is light-years away from the image of the club on the pitch.  At half-time fans have to queue on stairways to get a drink or something to eat, with the narrow concourses dangerously overcrowded.

The seating areas are basic to say the least.  Seats exposed to the hot Catalan sunshine have faded over time, offer little leg-room and are exposed to the elements.  It’s hardly any different to the San Siro, the Stade de France or Stadio Olimpico.  But few who visit care, they are here to watch the magic on the pitch..in theory.

I took my seat just as the teams came out on the pitch.  My first sign of the demographic of the fans around me was when the club anthem, Cant del Barca, fired up.  All around me the phones came out, videoing the scene.

The couple in front of me settled down for the next 90 minutes.  Each of them had a carton of popcorn and got their phones out.  As the game started he pressed the record button on his phone, she fired up her Netflix app and started watching ‘The Good Place”.  Welcome to the world of the Modern Football Fan.

Resplendent in their £70 shirts (or £99 if you want the ‘vapour’ version whatever that is) and half/half scarves, they are the perfect fans for Barca.  Spending close to £500 on a single visit to the Camp Nou is what Modern Football is all about.  Popcorn-eating, Netflix-watching fans who actually don’t care what happens on the pitch but have at least Instagramed their visit and ticked off another tourist destination.

The free-kick in question caused quite a stir.  Not for the quality of the strike but for the tactic used by the visitors in laying a player on the floor to stop the genius of a free-kick hit low to take advantage of the jumping wall.  The fan in front captured the moment on his phone and replayed the moment first to himself and then to his non-interested girlfriend, missing the resulting corner and goal-line clearance.

I’m sure my neighbours aren’t unique either in the Camp Nou or in most other major stadiums in Europe.  The huge increase in commercial and TV revenues now means major clubs and their stars are as big as movie stars, and people are prepared to pay top dollar to watch them.  That means clubs are prepared to price-out some of their traditional, loyal fans who turn up close to kick-off, don’t spend in the club shop or overpriced concessions stands.  Unfortunately, that is Modern Football.

As a self-appointed Football Tourist I have nothing against the sentiment of travelling around the world to watch football, but that is what it should be – watching football.  Not watching football through a lens, or watching US hit TV shows.

 

Be careful what you wish for would-be Premier League clubs


Over the weekend I had a lively debate with a Wolverhampton Wanderers-supporting friend who was venting his anger that eight out of their first ten games in 2019 would be moved for TV purposes. My argument was that he should have known what he had signed up for at the start of the season. Whilst Wolves are the current ‘fad’ club, fuelled by significant overseas investment from a long line of messiah’s who would make the club “the biggest in the world” within a few years.

For all we know, Fosun International’s claims may be right. Wolves fans, who have suffered years of boom and bust (significantly more of the latter than the former), are quite rightly full of beans at the moment, blinkered to the pit-falls of their owners current strategy. Unfortunately, they are in a crowded race of other high net-worth club owners, all trying to make their club the biggest in the world.

Few football fans or commentators would have predicted Manchester United’s current predicament of looking at a League Cup trophy as a good return from their season, but they are now behind their “noisy” neighbours in terms of on and off field success. Who would have seen that a decade ago? And it’s not just City. Add in Chelsea and a resurgent Liverpool. Spurs new stadium could see them finally make the step up to that level too. West Ham, with their 50,000+ stadium they play at for a hugely subsidized fee, could potentially move into that elite category if they find owners who are willing to invest in the squad.

Why? Why are wealthy individuals investing in clubs? Whilst fans may believe it is to deliver on-field success, at the end of the day it is simply an investment, one which they expect to grow substantially over time. Part of that growth is based on success on the field, but the English Premier League is like no other – it is the potential returns off the pitch that fuels that interest.

Most clubs now make more money from TV than from gate receipts, which in its most basic form means that the fans have become less important than the TV slot, which is why you won’t see club owners complaining when they have to play on a Friday night 250 miles away. There will be some noises made about “the difficult journey for our loyal fans” but no one involved is prepared to go out on a limb and say “no”.

So, the situation for clubs like Wolves, or further down the leagues, Leeds United won’t get better any time soon. Success on the pitch means compliance off it. But what if there was no TV revenue of substance? To understand a little how that would look fly 1,375 miles east to Belarus.

In the next few weeks Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electronics, or BATE as they are more commonly known, should wrap up their 13th consecutive title, a European record also held by Norway’s Rosenberg. The former works team from Belarusian’s biggest tractor manufacturer rose to become the biggest club in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1992. Dinamo Minsk, funded as most other “Dinamo” clubs within the Soviet Union by the Military, were the biggest club and had won the Soviet Championship back in 1992 but since then their dominance has waned and in 1996 the company, and consequently, the football team were taken over by successful businessman Anatoli Kapski. A decade later and the club had retained their title at the start of their record-breaking run.

That initial investment happened at the right time as other clubs struggled to find their feet in Belorussia’s post-independent world, whilst money started to flow from UEFA and their commercial partners into European competition. As each season passed and BATE celebrated another title, the prize money from their forays into Europe got bigger and bigger, which in turn saw them build a stronger and stronger squad.

They became the first, and only Belarusian side to feature in the Champions League Group Stages, a feat they have repeated on four occasions and can include wins against Roma, Bayern Munich and Athletic Bilbao. Each game played in the competition just adds another obstacle to the remaining teams back in the Belarusian Football League.

Without meaningful domestic TV money, no other club stands a chance of competing in the foreseeable future. This is the alternative scenario for fans who feel that the TV companies have too much influence over the Premier League. I’m sure there will come a time when Dinamo Brest, owned by Middle Eastern company Sohra, will challenge for the title but until then, domestic fans will have to make do with the odd domestic cup and a long-shot at the Europa League.

So, what do we want? The devil or the deep blue sea?

Many thanks to Steve Menary for his excellent background on BATE in October’s When Saturday Comes.

The myth of the curse of Manager of the Month


Ask any manager at any club around the world and they will tell you they don’t care for plaudits of being the manager of the month until the season has ended. Despite being top of the Bostik League South Division for two-thirds of last season, our very own Darren Freeman didn’t win a single monthly award, something that also happened when he was in charge of the very successful Whitehawk side that gained three promotions in just a few years.

But against his wishes the gaffer won the award for September in the Bostik League Premier Division, which is a fantastic achievement for him, Ross and Codge, after just a few games back at this level. In September we took seven points from a possible nine, the best record in the division. It wasn’t just the results though, it was who they were against. Wins at Margate and Wingate & Finchley plus a draw against second place Enfield Town. Whilst they didn’t count towards the award, we could also add in five unbeaten FA Cup ties, including the 8-1 thrashing of Molesey. Few could argue it wasn’t a deserved reward for a fantastic month.

Yet ringing Darren and telling him the news was a job that Barry and I had to flip a coin for. His immediate reaction was to say he’d refuse to accept it and wouldn’t attend the presentation ceremony. When I told him that as a representative of the Isthmian League board I would fine him he grudgingly accepted but, wary of the superstition of the “Curse of the Manager of the Month”, he immediately banned any further talk of the award.

Results in the first half of October seemed to bear out his suspicions. Consecutive defeats to Worthing, Bath City and Potters Bar Town represented the worse run of form The Rooks had had for over eighteen months. But is there really a curse? Statistics suggest that it is all in the manager’s mind.

Last season the Manager of the Month in the Bostik League Premier Division won an average of 1.8 points per game in the month after they won the award. Whilst this was a slight drop from just over 2 points per game for the month in which they won it, it is still a very impressive return, almost Play-off form. The situation in the Bostik League North and South Divisions wasn’t too different, with a return of 1.6 and 1.5 points respectively. But certainly not the level of poor form that most managers think.

The numbers don’t tell the whole story. For all the money and hype around Billericay Town, their joint managers, Glenn Tamplin and Harry Wheeler, won the Manager of the Month award five times thanks to some excellent performances. Excluding April’s award, their subsequent month performance ranged from 3 points per game in September to just 1 point per game in January. Likewise, Dulwich Hamlet’s Gavin Rose only gained an average of 1 point per game in November after winning October’s award, whilst Greenwich Borough’s Paul Barnes could only gain 0.8 points per game in April after scooping March’s award.

So next time you hear a manager talk about the curse of the award, take a careful look at their next set of results. No manager, well apart from a certain Portuguese one in North-West England, wants to really big up their abilities, and that’s why they created the curse. If you don’t believe me, then you can ring Darren and give him the good news next time!

A step in the digital world of the football programme


Over the past few months, the future of the humble football programme has been front and centre after a decision was taken by the EFL clubs that it was no longer mandatory to produce one for each and every game. There can be no doubt that the original purpose of the programme to educate and inform fans about what was going on at the club, who the opposition were and a vehicle to promote commercial partners (there were more reasons than this but at its core, this was the purpose).

Today, our instant-on digital world means most of the content in the programme is out of date as soon as it is printed, with most fans attending a game having access to significantly more up-to-date information in the palm of their hands. Football fans want more today than just a memento of a game attended. On the most part they want content that is up to date and informative, adding value to their match day experience.

Further down the leagues, the question of “to publish or not” comes down to money, or more than often, the lack of it. Few clubs can say that they make money on producing and selling a programme today, unless they are simply creating the bare minimum, printing in-house on a black and white photocopier. The programme is a conundrum for clubs at the Non-League level. On one hand, it is a valuable tool to get information over to the fans, whilst on the other it is a commercial vehicle for the club to sell advertising space. Unfortunately, whilst the commercial manager may be happy at selling 20 pages of ads, the reader wants to see editorial and content not ads. So, they won’t buy it and because they don’t buy it, the appeal to the advertiser falls over time. An inverse catch 22.

From experience, we have taken great pride in our match day programme, inviting a wide breadth of writers to produce unique and varied content coupled with some excellent match images. Our style and quality of content hasn’t changed much over the past few years, yet the number of copies we sell per game has slowly reduced despite attendances rising by nearly 25% over the last three seasons.

We have traditionally sold 1 programme for every 4 attendees. On an average match-day we print 200 copies, 50 of which are used for players, management, guests and officials. The other 150, in most instances sell, at £2 a copy. Multiply that by 21 league games and the £6,300 is a very useful revenue stream. In addition, we have produced an online version, made available to anyone, 24 hours after the game. With over 700 owners living outside of the East Sussex catchment area, we have seen on average an additional 150 views of this. Of course, some of those who previously bought a programme could be now viewing the free online version, thus cannibalising our own sales but likewise, one of the appeals of the online programme is allowing those fans who cannot get to games to access the content.

In most instances a programme for a Saturday game goes to print after a thorough edit on a Thursday at the very latest, which means that two whole days of footballing news, views and scandal can break before the programme is printed. We all want to consume our news now – this is the prime reason why traditional hard-copy newspaper circulation has fallen so dramatically and a match programme often contains nothing new to the reader.

To many fans, buying a programme is seen as an essential part of going to a game. But like every other element of the game, it needs to get with the times. This is why from the start of the 2018/19 season, Lewes FC will not be publishing a match-day programme. Instead, we will be producing a ground-breaking matchday publication in the form of an e-programme. As soon as fans enter The Dripping Pan on a match-day they will be able to access the digital content, which will include the traditional elements such as a preview of our opponents, match reviews, details of forthcoming away trips and information on what is going on at the club. However, we will be mixing this text-based content with video interviews from our management team, players and the Chairman, previews recorded by visiting fans, and much more.

We know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but Lewes have always been about innovation and pushing the envelope for football clubs everywhere. We believe we will be the only club to do this in England and whilst we will be reducing some of our operational costs, we will hopefully be setting the standard for the future of the football programme.

The e-programme opens up a whole new world of opportunities, not only for the club but also for the reader. The ability to be able to add dynamic content is a huge opportunity – putting video into the programme, having a live scores feed, making adverts interact with the user (and thus making space more valuable to the advertiser), the opportunity to sponsor players whilst the game is going on and being able to access it from the palm of your hand in real time. Oh, and of course it is free of charge.

I’m not a traditionalist but likewise I understand the place for the humble football programme and those who will rally against embracing the digital age. Technology can deliver reduce costs, increased revenues and a wider readership for every club, big or small. But are we ready and brave enough to embrace it? We think so but don’t just take my word for it, have a look yourself.

Postscript – some people complained but by 8pm the e-programme had been viewed by 750 people. For our last home game in the 2017/18 season we sold 223 programmes. Just saying

Premier League football German-style


It’s 5pm on a beautiful Wednesday evening in early August and the FC Kaiserslautern team bus is slowly maneuvering itself down a lane not really wide enough of a Smart car in the heart of Saarland, South-West Germany.  Die Roten Tuefel, or the Red Devils, may have arrived in style but a few hours later they will leave with their forked tails between their legs.  Whilst the team who took the 3G surface in Wiesbach may not have been the Red Devils first XI, this was a competitive game and one that would still embarrass the management of one of Germany’s founding members of the Bundesliga.

Shaun Harvey and the management of the EFL must look longingly at Germany (and Spain) and see how the top flight teams are allowed to enter their reserve sides into the competitive league structure.  Of course there are rules around who they can and cannot field, as well as a rule that means they can never be in the same division, but it is accepted here in a way that I doubt it could never be back in England.

FC Kaiserslautern’s reserve side play in the fifth tier of German football, the Oberliga.  Those of you with O-Level German will know that ‘Ober’ in German means ‘upper’, so Oberliga literally means ‘the top league’ or as we would call it The Premier League (well, until the marketing men took their millions for coming up with EPL).  Confused?  Yep, me too.

Werder Bremen had the highest placed reserve team, last season playing in the Bundesliga III but relegation back in May meant they will be in the Regionalliga along with the stiffs from 18 other Bundesliga I and II clubs.  Step down one more level and you will find a host of others including Kaisersluatern II, now playing in the Oberliga Rheinland-Pfalz/Saar along with clubs such as BFV Hassia Bingen, TSV Schott Mainz and today’s hosts, Hertha Wiesbach.

One way to look at the similarities between the respective step 5 leagues in the English and German footballing pyramids is average attendances.  The Conference Premier/National League in England has some clubs who have certainly had better days such as Leyton Orient, Chesterfield and Wrexham but their core support hasn’t disappeared as they’ve headed down the pyramid.  Last season the National League had an average attendance of 2,048 with three clubs (the aforementioned Leyton Orient and Wrexham, plus promoted Tranmere Rovers) averaging over 4,000. Compare that to the Oberliga, which had an average of just 289, with only two clubs out of the 14 leagues with average attendances over 1,000 (FC 08 Homburg and SC Borussia 04 Fulda in case you wanted to know).

Facilities at this level are probably on a par with England’s Step 5 or 6.  Hertha Wiesbach’s ProWin Stadion was situated in a small valley, with steep hills rising behind the club house and the main stand – perfect on a hot, summer’s night but treacherous I would imagine come the winter.  Their 3G pitch provides a facility for the local community, whilst the club-house was advertising a number of events over the coming weeks. Oh, and being Germany, you could have a beer whilst standing on the hill watching the game, trusted that you wouldn’t start a Mexican Wave or some Icelandic Clap.

On the pitch it is a different matter – the Step 5 teams here in Germany certainly looked technically as good as our National League, if not better.  The home side blew the famous visitors aside, scoring three second-half goals as Kaiserslautern wilted in the sunshine (and bizarrely only arrived with two on the bench).  The win, lifted the home side to top of the table, with a 100% record after three league games and no goals conceded.

There can be few better ways to spend a hot Summer’s evening than watching football, beer and sausage in hand and Wiesbach delivered on every level.  I wasn’t the only one who left with a spring in my step, with the knowledge that David had sort of got one over on Goliath, albeit Goliath’s little brother, Bob.

Thankfully the 6.30pm kick-off meant that as I headed south-wards towards my hotel for the night, I drove right past (OK, so there was a 2.5km detour) the Sportplatz Papiermühle (or Paper Mill Sportsfield), where the second half between SPV Dillingen and SV Engers 07, also in the Oberliga Rheinland-Pfalz/Saar was just kicking off.  The ground wasn’t too dissimilar to the ProWin Stadion, with one low-level clubhouse with standing in front.  A similar demographic of fan was watching this one, albeit with contrasting fortunes to the first match as unbeaten Engers ran out 4-0 winners.

Not a bad evening all being told.  Just like there’s some real gems in and around the Non-League scene in England, seek and you shall find beauty in the most unlikely of places in Germany too.

What is Non-League?


A decade ago this would have been a relatively easy question to answer but today the lines are now so blurred perhaps it is time we dropped the phrase all together. Non-League used to refer to any team that was not part of the Football League but with the creation of the Premier League in 1992, the situation started to change.

It would have been unheard of to find a full-time side below the Football League but today, certainly at Step 5 or National League, most sides will be full-time and thus classed as professional players. So, another loose definition of the “amateur game” is out of date. In fact, there are teams at Step 6 who are now full-time, such has the game changed.

What brought this question to a head was the “debate” over Social Media last week between Gary Neville, one of the co-owners of Salford City and Accrington Stanley’s Chairman, Andy Holt, over the signing of Aberdeen’s Adam Rooney by Neville’s club.

Salford City’s rise through the leagues has been impressive – just over a decade ago they were playing in the North-West Counties League (Step 9). Then came the “Class of ‘92” and their billionaire friend, Peter Lim, and invested heavily into the squad and the infrastructure and the club hasn’t looked back, taking their place in the National League this season for the first time. There’s nothing new in a club getting significant investment and rising through the leagues, although in most cases it does end in tears. I’m not sure the risks of the owners walking away is anywhere near as high at Salford City, but it has caused some bitterness and rivalry from other clubs.

Salford’s signing of Rooney has certainly set a new bar though for the “Non-League” game. The Irishman swapped the promise of Europa League football with Aberdeen for the chance to play in the FA Trophy with Salford City, oh and the small matter of a reputed £4,000 per week – or in Lewes FC speak, 150% of our weekly playing budget.

Ah yes, the playing budget. Rooney’s transfer set up a war of words between Neville and Holt, with the Accrington Stanley chairman happy to reveal his annual playing budget, but when pushed, Neville wouldn’t reveal the Salford City one, saying “You think I’m going to disclose my wages on here?” (Twitter). Why not? Why can’t clubs all be transparent with their wages?

Last season we saw significant amounts of “investment” at Step 7, with Billericay Town signing players such as Jamie O’Hara, Jermaine Pennant and Paul Konchesky. Whilst the owner/manager (until he sacked himself, then re-appointed himself) claimed his wage bill was nothing like the amounts being bandied around the media, they were still eye-watering in terms of the level Billericay Town were playing at, and probably on a par with the amounts Holt claimed Accrington Stanley, now an EFL One club, paid.

This season Step 5 of the English Football Pyramid, the National League, contains 11 clubs who have played in the English Football League, plus two (Salford City and Ebbsfleet United) with significantly wealthy owners. It would be an insult to call this Non-League anymore as many of these clubs have facilities and resources that some EFL clubs could only dream of.

Money does not always buy success, but it certainly gives you a big head-start and this season few would bet against Salford City being one of the main challengers for promotion to the Football League. They will face some still opposition from the likes of Chesterfield, Barnet and Leyton Orient, all who are desperate to regain their Football League status.

Two leagues below Salford City, the Rooks will take their place back in Step 7, the Isthmian League Premier Division, after two seasons at Step 8. We led the Isthmian South division for three-quarters of the season on a budget per week of half an Adam Rooney, winning promotion with four games to spare. We’ve managed to find a modest increase in the playing budget for manager Darren Freeman and we believe we have a squad that can compete rather than struggle. But the gulf between Step 7 and Step 6 is huge in terms of finances and if we were to gain promotion, we would be ill-equipped at the moment to match any of the clubs at the National League South level. Of course, that wouldn’t stop us giving it a go!

So, should we stop referring to our game as Non-League? Whilst we all understand what we mean when we say it, we are in a structure, the ‘pyramid’, that gives us a path to promotion all the way to the Premier League (we can but dream). We aren’t grass-roots either. The recent debate about the sale of Wembley and the plan to invest millions in ‘grass-roots football’ may have got us excited that some of that cash could come our way, but grass-roots means just that – the amateur game in its purest sense where facilities today in many instances are an embarrassment to our National Game.

For now, I don’t think we have any option but to refer to ourselves as being part of the Non-League game. We all know where we stand, and even if clubs like Salford City want to think and act as if they are already in the Football League, then let them. We will still stand on the Terry Parris Terrace next season, beer in hand and marvel at the part-time players, the volunteers and the beauty of the game we call Non-League.