If…


Day six and I’m touching on my poetic side for today’s retrospective with my Lewes FC version of Rudyard Kipling’s If….

“If you can keep your cool when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming results on you,
If you can trust yourself when all fans moan at you,
But don’t slag them off for their moaning too;
If you can wait for an away win and not be tired by waiting,
Or talking your chances up but dealing in lies,
Or being hated, yet don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too smart, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream of an FA Cup run and not make that dream your master;
If you can imagine a 3rd Round home tie and not make gate receipts your aim;
If you can meet with floodlight failure and waterlogged disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by anonymous forum trolls to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the players you rely on, on the floor broken,
Whilst the poor officials obviously don’t know the rules:

If you can make one gamble with half your weekly budget
And risk it on one big name ex-Premier League midfield boss
And see him break down on his debut, and have to think again
Or smile outwardly after their mistake causes another loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To stay behind the goal in the rain long after the others have gone,
And hold on when there is no warmth left in you
Because nobody else will shout at your winger to warn him: “Man on!”

If you can stand on the Jungle and keep your pint safe,
Or talk with Codge—remembering the common touch,
If neither fanzines nor the Philcox chants can hurt you,
If all fans count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving half time break
With fifteen minutes worth of Non-League boardroom small talk,
Yours is the Dripping Pan and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be the chairman, my son”

With thanks to Kipling (Rudyard, not Mr) for the original words.

The Blueprint for the future of Non-League football – The FA Cup


Day five and a superb piece from back in 2013 about how the FA Cup could be revamped to give the Non League sides more of a slice of the pie, thanks to Mr Real FA Cup, Damon Threadgold.  

The 2013 final saw one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history, but that’s an outlier – the competition has been one almost exclusively by clubs from the traditional big six for two decades.

English football is geared towards benefitting the top teams – but there is still plenty of work that can be done to change football for the better.

The FA Cup is, arguably, a tarnished bastion of English professional football in times where the collection of wealth has become a greater priority than glory. League status and European qualification is more lucrative than the kudos of a cup win or run, so priorities have been adjusted accordingly. As a consequence this oldest of cup tournaments is now not taken seriously by the vast majority of clubs in the top two tiers of the English pyramid. The majority of Championship clubs have their eye on the main prize of promotion to the cash cow, the majority of lower Premier League clubs are too busy sucking nervously at the udders to bother with the Cup*, and the top Premier League sides are more interested in getting in to, or retaining their place in, the top four.

That’s life, and the lure of cold hard cash is not just the preserve of the elite, it is also a driver for those in the lower and non leagues, it’s just the figures are lower and the need is greater. That lucrative promise of a tie against higher opposition focuses the mind of the lower league sides. While some non-league teams view the early Preliminary/Qualifying rounds in similar ways, the revenue that can be generated just by winning a few games might mean the difference between the club house getting a lick of paint and it being pulled down for houses. But the kudos does also play a part, ask the Giuliano Grazioli’s of the world, taking the tournament seriously can invigorate your career.

So, my proposal for improving non-league football is to shake up the FA Cup to give more non-league sides a shot at a league side.

There is an appetite for the Cup in the non-leagues like at no other level.  To many clubs it’s still the oldest and best loved cup, players can say they played in it despite never playing above the amateur game and a spot in Round 1 is coveted as much as the odd pro covets a Wembley date. The fans feel the same, just look at the (admittedly slightly selective) stats. Southern League (now Isthmian League) Cambridge City got to Round 1 this year and it took them 5 games to get there. In those 5 games, four of them were attended by significantly more than their average league gate of 333. Given they largely played teams in or around the same level in the pyramid, that says a lot about their fans’ view of the tournament itself, especially when you consider the attendance drop off when similarly ranked PL or Championship teams are drawn against each other.

The story was even more marked for Hastings United, who got to the dizzy heights of the 3rd Round. Until they got there, they only played fellow non-league sides. In the 2nd Round they played Harrogate Town, who were only one tier above them in the pyramid and a club of similar stature. Hastings’ crowd for the home replay was a mind-boggling 4,028, ten times their average league gate of 404. Similarly to Cambridge City they only had one home FA cup attendance below their league average gate – and even in that very 1st Qualifying Round game the attendance was actually higher than their league average at that time of the season, despite playing a team further down the pyramid.

That’s not to say that this applies across the board, of course, some ties turn out to be damp squibs and, as implied above, getting back into pro football can turn higher placed Conference sides off the FA Cup temporarily. And, due to regionalisation of the early rounds, the very smallest teams often find themselves pitted against their fellow league sides, which is a bit dull for fans. A bit like if Norwich were to face Stoke in the 3rd Round, the world and indeed both sets of fans would shrug with indifference. But, that appetite of NL clubs/fans should be embraced, it could invigorate both the non leagues and the FA Cup. Which brings me to the proposition for improving non league football:

Firstly, change the names of the rounds to be more inclusive. The current 1st Round is actually the 7th round of the competition, let’s not pretend it isn’t. This separatism suggests non league sides don’t count and are playing in a different competition just to get into the real competition, a feeling exemplified by the exclusionist colloquialism for the 1st Round onwards, the ‘propers’. The football league is now an open shop to non-league teams, why not make the FA Cup seem like that too and start the thing off at Round 1 and be inclusive?

Secondly, bring forward the time when professional clubs enter the competition. Why should these teams be treated so favourably when so many treat the competition with such disdain? Top-two-tier sides have to win less games to win the Cup than many non league sides currently have to win to even get a chance to play those big sides. This seems very unfair. The pot is skewed as it is, why not even it up a bit, make the league sides work harder to win it and make the non league sides feel further included in their national cup?

Three, (in fact a consequence of the second one) increase the number of non league sides with the potential to draw a league side. At present only 36 non league sides have a chance to draw a league side in the 1st Round. The chances of those sides being from outside the National League system are extremely low, due to the fact that the Conference Premier sides only have to play one game to get in to the main draw and often they only have to beat a side further down the pyramid. When the Conference is full of professional ex-football league sides, the chances for the lower non league sides to progress to the current 1st Round are further distorted. Under our proposals the league clubs would enter with all of the National Leagues sides. Under this system, what would become the 5th Round would comprise 256 teams – with 92 of them from the Football League and Premier League and, therefore, 164 non league sides get the chance to draw a plum tie instead of 36.

OK, so in this system a club in the top 2 tiers drawing a minnow won’t field their strongest side but, then again, the vast majority don’t field their strongest side in the FA Cup anyway. Also. many pro sides send development or reserve sides to play local non league sides in pre-season now anyway – and those games attract larger than normal crowds at those non league grounds. So, in a competitive match, who is to say that number won’t be even larger.

Finally, as happens in France, the lower league side in any tie always plays at home. Many big clubs won’t relish this but it makes perfect sense and means they get forced to put something back into the lower leagues.

At present, the trickle down of cash to the lower leagues is minimal, this system would arguably widen the spread of income around the pyramid.

Simple Plan:

1st Round – Effectively the Qualifying Round, to even up the numbers – There are usually about 600 clubs below the National Leagues who enter the FA Cup so the lowest will play-off to whittle down to 384.
2nd Round – 384 NL Clubs
3rd Round – 192 NL Clubs
4th Round – 256 Football Clubs (96 NL CLubs from 3rd Round, 68 National League Clubs + 92 League Clubs)
5th Round – 128 Clubs
6th Round – 64 Clubs
7th Round – 32 Clubs
8th Round – 16 Clubs
QF – 8 Clubs
SF – 4 Clubs
Final – 2 Clubs

*Couldn’t let this pass without commending Wigan, they pretty much sacrificed their league status for Cup glory. TOP NOTCH. Time won’t pay much heed to their league position in 2012-13, their ‘honours’ section, though, will say “FA CUP WINNERS”, you can’t take that away.

Let them hate so long as they fear


Day four and a revisit to the biggest rivalries in North America – Timbers versus Sounders on a scorching hot day in Portland.  More pictures can be found from the game here.

It all started with Peter Withe.  The bearded, sweat-band wearing centre forward who went on to score the winner in the 1982 European Cup Final for Aston Villa scored the Timbers first ever goal against Seattle Sounders in Portland Timber’s 2-1 victory back in 1975.  Withe was a hit with the Portland fans who referred to him as the “Wizard of Nod”.  A year later when the sides met again, Seattle could boast the legendary skills of Harry Redknapp and Geoff Hurst up top.  Today, the English contingent consists solely of Liam Ridgewell, former West Ham trainee and now campaign of the Timbers.

Forty three years later and the two sides were meeting for the 100th competitive time on a beautiful sunny day in mid-May (there’s a couple of great videos commemorating the occasion here and here from both sides of the state line).  The intense rivalry between the two sides has never let up and noise coming from both sides had been at an intense level since an hour before the game started.  Due to the huge distances in the US, there’s few games where supporters travel in numbers.  Even in New York where the two clubs are less than 20 miles (although technically in different states), the rivalry is muted to say the least.  However, on the Pacific North-West Coast, 175 miles is nothing and so the games have always been played out in front of both sets of fans.  Add in Vancouver Whitecaps and you have a hot-bed of football.  The Cascadia Cup was introduced in 2004 by the fans of the three clubs and awarded annually to the club with the best record during the season against each other, with the current holders being Portland after three wins and a draw from the six games they played.

I’ve been to some pretty insipid MLS games before, where atmosphere was non-existent.  The best I had come across was a New York Red Bulls versus DC United game a few years ago, although just a few weeks later when I returned to Harrison, New Jersey for the RB game against KC Sporting there was no more than a thousand in the stadium (due to the Yankees being at home some 20 miles away apparently).  So I was looking forward to sampling some European-style atmosphere.

Distance makes rivalries hard in the US.  There’s no love lost between the Yankees and the Red Sox in baseball, nor between the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL but in reality it is a rivalry played out in and by the media, as few hardcore away fans make the respective trips.  And for those that do, they seem to be able to sit among the home fans albeit with some gentle ribbing.

For The Timber Army and the Emerald City Army, the performance off the pitch of the fans is almost as important as the result on it.  Both sets of fans were in fine voice as the kick-off approached, although they both seemed keen to ‘build a bonfire’ and put each other on the top.  Poor old Vancouver were stuck in the middle of both versions, a rare thing that both sets of fans could agree on!

Providence Park is still a work-in progress with construction underway to make it an even more atmospheric stadium than it is today.  The curve behind the goal, home to the Timbers Army, is being extended around to mean 3/4 of the ground will be covered, just leaving the final end, a very low terrace area, currently with ‘bleacher’-like seats.

At the appointed kick-off time (1pm) there as no sign of any players.  I’m used to this now with US Sports but still have no idea why.  At 1:03pm the players emerged (from very separate tunnels), sang the national anthem, the crowd waved their scarves and finally the game kicked off at 1:09pm.  The Timber Army, led by a couple of Capo’s at the front of the stand kept the beat up during the opening period as the sun beat down on them.  Above the entrance to the tunnel and below the Timber Army was a flag in the colours of the state of Oregon with the latin phrase Oderint Dum Metuant – “let them hate so long as they fear”.  Who could hate such a passionate display of support? OK – apart from the Sounders fans who were doing a pretty impressive job themselves of making themselves heard.

The first half was a tense affair.  Portland looked to stretch the play and tried to get their two wide men behind the Seattle defence, whilst the Sounders seemed happy to play on the break.  Timber’s star man, Argentine Diego Valeri was singled out for some “special” treatment from the away side before he had the best chance of the game when he pulled the ball wide after a swift break.  At the other end Clint Dempsey fluffed his lined in front of goal after Nouhou Tolo’s shot had flashed across the area.

Half-time and all square.

Seattle started the second period the brighter of the two sides and Tolo was played in within the first minute but his shot was easily saved by Timbers keeper Attinella.  At the other end Valeri looked odds-on to score before a last-gasp intervention from Marshall ten yards out.  Andy Polo, who I know is Peruvian from my Panini collection (the most un-Peruvian name you ever come across) and he came close to scoring, curling an effort from just inside the box but it was beaten away from Stefan Frei in the Sounders goal.

Once again the howls of disapproval were reserved for another foul on Valeri as he broke at speed and was wrestled to the floor by Norwegian Magnus Wolff-Eikrem, who got a yellow card for his impudence.  By this stage the heat seemed to have drained the effort and energy out of both sides, seemingly happy to settle for a draw.  With ten minutes to go Swede Samuel Armenteros was played in and found himself clear on goal. He took one stride into the area but then fell, slightly theatrically, under a challenge. Looked a clear penalty to me but the referee was having none of it, although didn’t feel the tumble warranted a card for simulation.

And then finally we had a goal. Armenteros robbed a Seattle defender in midfield and played a neat ball behind the centre-back for Blanco to run onto and he slide the ball past Frei and into the net.  Unsurprisingly the reaction from the home fans was deafening, although the Seattle fans certainly weren’t silent. A chorus of a Portland remix of Anarchy in the UK broke out with the Timber Army bouncing around the stand as the game went into six minutes of injury time.

Ninety-five minutes gone and the referee was alerted to something that had happened in the build-up to a Seattle attack with Leerdam laying prostrate on the floor.  He ran over to the monitor behind the goal line, ran back to the middle of the pitch and gave a drop-ball.  Not quite sure what that was all about.  And then it was all over.  A hard-fought victory for the home and the party would go on into the afternoon in the sunshine.  The Sounders went over to thank their fans for playing their part but it was the green flares that belched out into the air from the Timbers fans to celebrate their victory and bragging rights until the two sides met again next month.

West Ham United – Champions of North America


Another day of our looking back without anger..This story is one for all West Ham fans to remember and pull from their sleeves when other fans start asking what we have won….

I like to think I know the history of West Ham quite well.  When I was younger I poured over statistics, history books and programmes to learn the managers, the players and the key games in their history.  I knew all about the War Cup victory, the FA Cup Final appearances of 1923 and 1964, the European Cup Winners Cup campaigns of 1965, 1966 and of course 1976.  I was lucky enough to experience the “golden” age of 1980 to 1986 first hand, and once touched the Intertoto Cup we won in 2000. But last week whilst researching Czech Republic football for a new project (coming to your bookshelves in 2013) I came across the International Soccer League which ran from 1960 to 1965.  When I looked at the winners of the trophy during that five-year period I was stunned.  Back in 1963 the Hammers became the first, and only English team to win the trophy.

I always look forward to my work trips to New York.  It is a chance to experience one of the greatest cities in the world, and often to get a slice of sport, US-style.  Unfortunately my timings this week meant that there was no sporting action on the agenda.  The MLS was about to kick off the 2013 season, Baseball was a month off and the NBA is dullsville.  ut over dinner at Swine (vegetarians look away now) I heard an amazing story about a little known football tournament from 50 years ago.  And apparently, West Ham had been a household name in these parts.

I can see you scratching your head, assuming that this was some random one-off game played between small clubs at the start of the season.  But you would be very very wrong. The tournament was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

Polo GroundsIn its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  Bayern Munich, Nice, Glenavon, Burnley and Kilmarnock competed with the New York Americans in a round-robin tournament played within New York State.  The Scots shocked everyone by winning Section 1 and eventually went on to meet Bangu, from Brazil who had topped a group featuring Red Star Belgrade, Sampdoria, Sporting Lisbon, Norrköping and Rapid Vienna.  Unsurprisingly, the Brazilians took the first ISL title by beating the Scots 2-0 at The Polo Grounds (there is even video of the game here).

The following year the tournament was expanded to feature eight teams in each section with Everton winning six out of seven games against Bangu, New York, Karlsruhe, Kilmarnock, Montreal, Dinamo Bucharest and Besiktas before losing in the final to Dukla Prague 9-2 on aggregate.  Such was the interest within North America that half of the games were played in Canada.

In 1962 the organisers decided to add in the American Challenge Cup, pitting the season winners against the previous years champions.  The only British team to enter in this year was Dundee who finished fifth in a group won by eventual champions America RJ from Brazil.  They then faced 1961 winners Dukla Prague over two legs in New York, losing to the Czech’s 3-2.

Taça_da_International_Soccer_LeagueBut in 1963 it was the turn of the Hammers to take part, accepting an invite from the organisers to play in Section I along with the Italians Mantova, Kilmarnock, Recife from Brazil, Preussen Munster, Deportivo Oro from Mexico and France’s Valenciennes.  With Bobby Moore leading the side, the Hammers topped the group in one of the tightest competitions yet, with just four points separating all seven teams.  They went forward to play Section II winners Gornik Zabrze from Poland and beat the Poles 2-1 on aggregate on Randalls Island to claim the title as well as Moore being named the tournament’s “MVP”, winning the Eisenhower Trophy, and Geoff Hurst the tournament’s leading scorer with eight goals.

The following year the tournament had a number of drop-outs, reduced from fourteen sides to just ten, with Polish side Zaglebie Sosnowiec beating Werder Bremen to win the trophy, although the Hammers decided not to compete for the American Challenge Cup, passing the honour instead to 1963 runners-up Dukla Prague who beat the Poles 4-2 over two legs in New York.

The final year of the tournament was in 1965 and the Hammers were back, fresh from winning the European Cup Winners Cup against 1860 Munich who they faced again in New York.  This time they finished bottom of Section 1 with the US team, New York Americans finally winning the group, although they had to settle for the runners-up spot after losing in the final to Polonia Bytom.

This was the last season of the ISL.  The United States Soccer Federation Association filed a law suit banning the “import” of any foreign teams to play in the competition, although Cox later won a court case to overturn the decision which led to the strange United Soccer Association League in 1967, but that one is for another day.  For now I am safe in the knowledge that West Ham have won ANOTHER tournament (to go along with the Intertoto Cup) that no other English team has.  And that will buy me plenty of ammunition in the office football banter wars.

The wonderful Pitch Invasion has a complete history of the tournament that can be read here.

Only four teams on Merseyside


As part of the series I wrote on Football League clubs that are gone and almost forgotten, I stumbled on the amazing story of New Brighton FC and their ground, which today would have been the largest stadium in the UK.  Despite attempts to keep a club going, today there’s not a club based on the area sporting the famous name.

Name four teams that have played League football on Merseyside? Liverpool, Everton, Tranmere Rovers and who else? Well, go back to the 1898 and Tranmere Rovers biggest rivals would have been just around the corner from Prenton Park. On tip of the Wirral you will still find today the lonely spot of New Brighton, and it was here at the start of the 20th century that league football was being played by New Brighton Tower FC. Clubs came and went all the time at this point, with the likes of Loughborough, Darwen and Glossop North End making up the 2nd tier of English football.

Thanks to Les Ward for this one

The club were formed in 1896 and moved immediately into a ground adjacent to the New Brighton Tower (hence their name). What made this so unique was that at the time it had a capacity for 100,000, and thus one of the largest stadiums in Britain. The development included the actual Tower, which when opened in 1900 was the tallest building in Great Britain at 189 metres tall, looking out over the Mersey and the Estuary and modelled on the Eiffel Tower. With a ballroom at the bottom, the whole area was THE place to be seen in Merseyside.

The club won the Lancashire League in only their second season and were elected to the Football League in 1898, taking their place in the newly expanded Second Division. Their record in the first season was good – finishing 5th and just three points off 2nd place and promotion. One of the reasons for this success was the club’s intention to sign up as many of the top footballers in the country as they could. After all, who else could offer the bright lights and glamour that New Brighton could at the time? The Football League were aghast at such behaviour and strongly rebuked the club for their strategy.

Thanks to Les Ward for the use of this picture

Did it have any affect? Not really. The club continued to try and offer the best salaries and in the following season they gambled on promotion to the top tier. The local authorities were desperate to make New Brighton an all year attraction to rival, if not beat Blackpool amongst others, and saw a successful football team playing during the winter months as key to this strategy. Unfortunately the gamble didn’t work as less than 1,000 spectators on average saw the club finish in tenth place and then in fourth in 1901. The consortium that had been bank rolling the club admitted failure. They simply could not keep bankrolling the experiment so it was with some relief that the Football League accepted their resignation in September 1901 with their position being taken by Doncaster Rovers.

The ground was still used for other sports including cycling and motor bike racing. However, the company struggled to make anything really work. They even tried a live action Cowboys and Indians show during the summer months of 1908 with over 500 performers.

With the onset of World War One the tower was deemed too dangerous to use, and by June 1919 it had been decided to dismantle the structure. The ballroom and the stadium stayed, although the terraces were reduced in size. In 1921 a new club was formed after the demise of South Liverpool FC, and two seasons later they were elected into the Football League 3rd Division North. Initially they played at Rakes Lane close by but after the Second World War games were played back at The Tower, although by this stage the capacity was a shadow of its former self. In 1951 the club finished bottom of the Third Division North and were voted out of the league in favour of Workington.

The club continued to play in the regional leagues, still using the New Tower Athletics Ground but it was clear the future wasn’t bright. Finally, the left home in 1970’s after fire and vandalism had made it unusable, and the ground lay vacant until purchased by a developer who over time turned the site into houses.

Today nothing is left of one of Great Britain’s biggest ever football stadiums bar a memory. The Wirral has returned to a one club area (although step 6 Vauxhall Motors may say otherwise), but for a couple of glorious years, one club tried to break the mould of English football, and basically failed. Kevin Costner may have been told “Build it and they will come” in his dreams in Field of Dreams, but for New Brighton Tower it was all just a Nightmare on Egerton Street.