Football for the jilted generation

I’m heading towards Braintree on the A120 when I decide to engage my teenage daughters in polite conversation.  Of course, being plugged into the Apple grid they huff and puff as they have to take out their earphones.  “You know what Braintree is famous for?” I ask them.  Within seconds they have Googled the answer and Littlest Fuller tells me to “Smack my bitch up, you Firestarter”.  Yep, I walked into that trap didn’t I? The answer I was looking for was it was the ancestral home of John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, rather than the town that spawned The Prodigy.

The plan today had originally been to head to Yorkshire for an afternoon as a Brighton fan at The McAlpi..doh…Galpha..sorry John Smiths in Huddersfield.  But eyebrows were raised by CMF, who politely pointed out the fact that  “20 out of the next 30 days out of the country and you still decide to spend a bloody Bank Holiday driving 4 hours each way to watch a game involving two teams you care nowt about”.  Granted, she did have a point and so I agreed to take the family shopping.  “What about a designer outlet place?  There’s one in Essex, only an hour away called Braintree Freeport”.  “Braintree, as in Braintree Town?” She’s quick is CMF.  “Erm, I think so”, “And I bet they are playing today aren’t they?”…Plan rumbled, but accepted.  You shall go to the ball Cinderella, albeit one at the Working Mens Club rather than the Palace.

With just three games left in the Skrill Conference Premier, three of the four Play-off spots are still up for grabs.  With Cambridge United confirmed as runners-up to Luton Town, five teams could realistically say they were still in with a shout at a shot at a place in the Football League.  Four of the five had Football League pedigree, albeit in Gateshead’s case it was over fifty years ago since they failed to gain re-election.  The fifth was Braintree Town.  And next week, on the final day of the season, the five (plus Cambridge United) all play each other.  No pressure at all then on today’s game.

13925498603_70b7a7255d_bWhen we last visited the Amlin Stadium (then Cressing Road) back in 2009 it was relatively basic for the Conference South.  Five years on and a new stand had been added at one end of the ground in order to pass the ‘A’ Ground Grading meaning that they could host Football League games but it still retains that Non-League feel.  There is space behind the south stand for expansion as well as land to the west.   Talk of a new stadium off the A120 has disappeared although should they reach the promised land it would undoubtably return.  Average crowds of less than 1,000 suggest that it may be an investment too far, but when was logic ever applied to football clubs (George Reynolds and Darlington anyone?).

Should the Iron reach the Football League they would join a small band of clubs who play in towns with a population of less than 45,000.  Accrington (35,000), Morecambe (33,000) and Fleetwood (25,000) are all towns that support clubs who have risen through the Non-Leagues although it is still possible that either Accrington Stanley or Morecambe could well return back there this season.  Braintree’s rise hasn’t been fueled by a rich benefactor in the case of Fleetwood Town but by hard graft and a manager who knows a thing or two about the game.

13925910364_93e4bbceda_bAlan Devonshire is a TBIR legend.  We’ve met him on numerous occasions since he dazzled English football as a flying winger for West Ham back in the 1980’s through to his stint as manager at Hampton & Richmond Borough.  Always willing to have a chat about football after the game over a beer, he doesn’t hold a grudge or any bitterness that his International career was curtailed by a serious knee injury, or that manager’s at clubs in the 92 haven’t had to learn their apprenticeship the same way he has, starting Maidenhead United fifteen years ago.  He took over at Braintree Town in the summer of 2011 after the club had won the Conference South and has kept them in the top half of the table for the last two seasons.  But this year could be the year that they move to the next level.

The visitors Dartford had their eyes on Premier League safety.  After a horrendous run of ten consecutive league defeats in late 2013, Dartford have had to fight against the spectre of relegation.  With a week of the season to go they were still in the bottom four, with a gaping goal difference that could be the deciding factor. The indulgence in chocolate over Easter would have to be put on hold for a few days yet.

With the female Fullers safely deposited at Braintree Freeport I walked to the ground, passing a police cordon (apparently someone was murdered close to the ground on Thursday night) and joined a long queue of fans at the turnstiles.  Had football fever ignited the locals?  Was Devonshire the true Firestarter?  Which manager would be able to Breathe easily? With both teams desperate for a win for completely different reasons it was bound to be a dull scoreless draw.

Braintree Town 1 Dartford 0 – The Amlin Stadium – Friday 18th April 2014
As the game entered the 94th minute and the home side holding onto their one goal lead, Dartford threw the ball into the box once again.   Suarez (Mikel alas not Luis)  saw his shot deflected away by Iron keeper Hamann diving to his right. The rebound went straight to Jim Stevenson who forced a second outstanding save and potentially three points that would bring ultimate joy to Braintree and despair to Dartford.  A Darts fan behind me turns to his mate “I’d rather we go down than bankrupt ourselves chasing an unsustainable dream”.

13925413343_76fd7b78a7_bIt wasn’t a classic, with some interesting tactics deployed by both teams that lead to frustration both on the bench and on the terraces.  Braintree liked to get the ball wide but virtually every single cross into the penalty area was played over the lone striker to the far post where there was no one attacking the ball.  Dartford on the other hand kept playing the ball through the middle where the two Braintree centre-backs snaffled out any threat.  Either instructions from the respective benches were not getting through or they simply didn’t see the error of their ways.

The Braintree fans weren’t big in number but made themselves heard in the covered terrace that ran along the side of the pitch.  Whilst the early possession gave them something to cheer about it took 25 minutes before the roof was raised when Kenny Davis picked the ball up 25 yards out and struck the ball sweetly, giving Alan Julian in the Dartford goal no chance.

At this time of the season fans are easily distracted by what is happening elsewhere.  Standing between the two sets of fans I was getting the stories from both ends of the table.  One set of fans were bemoaning the events unfolding at Alfreton Town where the Grimsby Town team coach had been delayed in traffic.  “S’not right innit” said one.  “They’ve got a competitive advantage ain’t they?”.  “I reckon they should stop our game until they catch up” (which would have meant a delay of around 40 minutes).  Of course our mastermind had forgotten the fact that Braintree play at 5:15 away at Barnet on Monday night, thirty minutes after all of their rivals games have finished.

Going back to the issue of the ground.  The official attendance was 1,200 – boosted by a fair contingent from Dartford, but it did seem that the club struggled.  Long queues to get in, get food, programmes sold out, a 15 minute wait for a beer at half-time.  Whilst you can never deny a club a place at a higher level, the fans will notice a massive difference in their match-day experience.  The club will have to jump through more hoops and comply to more rules (no changing ends at half-time for instance) than today.  Some of the reasons why people love the Non-League game will be swiftly and sharply curtailed.

13925386195_803c5bbcf0_bThe second half saw both teams try to play with more positivity.  The home side were causing Darts keeper Julian some concern, although not as much as the stick he was getting from the home fans behind the goal.  Julian had made the mistake in the first half to respond to “banter” and that immediately made him a target for all the wit and wisdom of the fans.  Any save was deemed a fluke or lucky.  When he called for a ball and failed to get it, he was derided with donkey chants. The lot of a goalkeeper.

Scores elsewhere meant at one point Braintree had risen into the play-off spots, so the three points became vital.  Despite the last-gasp scare they held on.  Three points kept the dream alive for the Iron and the nightmare a reality for the Darts.  It hadn’t been the best of games but it was a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine.  Oh, and I managed to pick up a couple of bargains at Freeport too.


IMPending doom in the Lincolnshire Derby

It’s Boxing Day. A time to put on your Christmas jumpers and escape from the family. In recent years it has been a tradition that I head off to football with varying success.  The TBIR records show that in the last five years we’ve only had one postponement, although last year’s encounter between Lewes and Bognor Regis should never have been completed due to the weather, and consequently cost the life of my car (long story about cam belts and water). Football and Boxing Day have been Christmas necessities long before Terry’s brought us the Chocolate Orange. The fact that I head off to two games a week during the other 51 weeks of the year is irrelevant.

Boxing Day is all about renewing local rivalries and sharing them with your loved ones.  Some of the biggest crowds of the season are seen on Boxing Day, despite the lack of public transport in many areas of the country. In recent years I have experienced the likes of Burton Albion, Carshalton Athletic v Sutton United, West Ham and of course, Lewes.  But this year, weather permitting, it was about “the big one”.  One that all of the locals were talking about.  In the land of Northern Steve you are either an Imp or a Cod Head.  Unless you support Manchester United, Forest, Liverpool, Leeds United, Peterborough United or even Grantham Town.  The forthcoming Boxing Day derby was the talk of the town.

11582833293_0d77c430b1_bDespite falling out of the Football League, both Lincoln City and Grimsby Town still remain big clubs in a smallish pond.  That pond, otherwise known as the Conference Premier, is getting too big nowadays for the ex-league clubs, and faced with even stiffer competition to return to the Football League, it is sink or swim for many.  Stockport County, just a five years after winning the playoffs to the third tier of English football, found out to their cost how difficult the Conference was last season and now have fallen even further, looking forward to local derbies against the likes of Stalybridge Celtic.

Every season it seems the same names are tipped for being promotion challengers – Wrexham, Cambridge United, Luton Town and Kidderminster Harriers.  Add in the mix newbies Aldershot Town and Barnet as well as clubs rising up with a financial backing such as Forest Green Rovers and Alfreton Town meaning in summary “it’s bloody difficult”.

11582614135_48eb476ef2_bThis season Grimsby Town are giving a go, coming into Christmas in third place with games in hand to mount an assault on the summit, currently occupied by Cambridge United.  Lincoln City, on the other hand, were once again trying to keep their head above the relegation zone.  Twelve months ago the situation was almost identical, although the Mariners were top at Christmas coming into the game at Sincil Bank.  In that game, Grimsby won 4-1 in a lunch time kick off in front of a season-best 5,700 before all sorts of fun and japes took place in and around the city centre for the rest of the day.  Surely history wouldn’t repeat itself this year?

Lincoln’s support had been in the press for the wrong reasons “up here” in recent months.  A massive brawl prior to the game versus Nuneaton Town led to front page news and then a few weeks ago eleven fans were given custodial sentences and banning orders after pre-match trouble against Luton Town.  Tensions would sure to be high for the visit of their fiercest rivals. But it’s Christmas – a time for peace and goodwill.  The presence of a new jumper and a Santa’s hat would surely be more effective than riot police?

Lincoln City 0 Grimsby Town 2 – Sincil Bank – Thursday 26th December 2013
It wasn’t a good day to be a Lincoln fan.  It was an even worse one for Northern Steve being a Imps/Rooks/Hammer who had to miss the post-match pint to return home to entertain his in-laws (me excluded of course).  Lincoln were toothless in front of goal, simply not being able to turn any possession into clear chances on goal.  They had 15 off target attempts in a frustrating ninety minutes that saw them play out the last few minutes with ten men.

11588326565_9ddc428f5e_bIt was quite clear that Imps boss Gary Simpson had told his team to “get into them early”, judging by the quickest booking I had seen in many-a-year when Danny Rowe flew into a Grimsby defender with just 16 seconds on the clock.  A definite yellow and it if wasn’t for the sensible head of Grimsby’s Pearson there would have been handbags flying within the first few seconds – nobody would have wanted to have seen a 22-man brawl by the edge of the Lincoln fans in the first minute of the game would’ve they?

Ten minutes gone and Grimsby were one-nil up.  Despite some early Lincoln pressure, mainly due to the Delap-esque throw-ins from Miller, Grimsby took full advantage of confusion in the Imps penalty area from a corner, allowing Ross Hannah to power home a header.  His choice of running to celebrate in front of the home fans wasn’t the best decision, but still allowed a few fans who had indulged a bit too much over Christmas to shed an ounce or two as they ran down the steps of the stand to give Hannah some seasonal greetings.

The next fifteen minutes saw poor timed challenges galore as the referee issued three further yellow cards, giving the game a nice little edge.  However, a second Grimsby goal in the 40th minute by Craig Disley sent the 1,700 away fans into Boxing Day delight and effectively sealed the victory with over a half of the game to play.

With the temperature dropping like a stone we needed something to keep up going.  For future reference I wouldn’t recommend the “Premium Hot Dog” at £3.50 which was possibly the most tasteless thing I have ever eaten.  It wasn’t unpleasant, just absolutely devoid of any flavour.  You could have got better value eating the paper napkin in was wrapped in.

11588330335_b19f7c0397_bBut we weren’t here to eat, drink or be merry.  We had a game to watch.  Lincoln were sure to come out fired up and give this a go.  But they didn’t.  The game descended into a series of niggly fouls and blocked shots with Lincoln unable to break down a solid Grimsby defence, and Grimsby unwilling to commit more men forward.  The final act was the sending off of Lincoln’s Jake Sheridan for a bad tackle.  Quite why the home fans clapped him off is beyond me – it was rash, late, high and dangerous.

Fair play though to the fans on both sides.  Lincoln’s vocal element are now housed in the corner of the Co-op Stand, with the 1,700 away fans in the Stacey West Stand adjacent which was an impressive effort on a day where public transport wasn’t running.  The constant noise made by the two sets of fans created an atmosphere that is very rare at Non-League level.  Deep down both teams will feel they should be playing at a higher level and I tend to agree.  For one that ambition may be realised sooner than the other.

Diwrnod mawr y tu allan (A Grand Day Out)

On Friday night I made my long-awaited return to a football pitch as I turned out for the Lewes FC Elite team in a post-season friendly.  As I crawled off the field with 75 minutes on the clock I made a vow never to criticise a non league player again.  Most have full-time jobs (like me), a family (like me) and have to travel to get their fix of football (delayed, like me, on the ever unreliable trains).  Yet they still manage to keep themselves fit enough to effortlessly manage 90 minutes.  Whilst I have my age as my defence, I was on my knees.

8706968606_e138ee798b_bYes, I could blame the dust-bowl of a pitch, the lack of match fitness (or fitness in its entirety) or confusing tactics (I have to blame someone, so sorry Kev as I missed the pre-match briefing due to said train issues) but the simple matter is my days of playing the game are well and truly over.  So never again will I criticise these fine players, who play not for money, but for love.

Forty eight hours later I am sitting at a desk at the most famous stadium in the world, waiting for twenty-two Non League players to take the field in the biggest game in their lives.  For one of these teams, they can look forward to hosting Portsmouth and Scunthorpe United next season, for the other it would be Welling United, Hyde and Braintree Town.  For one afternoon this would be a battle between North and South Wales as to who would be joining Mansfield Town in the nPower League Two next season. Continue reading

Welling continue to spread their Wings

Good Friday.  A day for some chores, DIY and then some football.  That’s what we are supposed to do, right?  And what better way to top off a morning of painting window ledges and door frames than a trip to table topping Welling United.  Four miles is all that separates Park View Road and TBIR Towers and as I spend most of my life building a massive carbon footprint by flying around the world I thought I would do my bit for the future of the planet by getting on my bike and cycling.

Top of the table Welling United versus play off chasing Chelmsford City.  Could the Wings take a massive step towards life in the Blue Square Bet Premier, or would Chelmsford make a late dash for the end of season lottery?  A picture tells a thousand words so here is the story of a very chilly afternoon in South East London/Kent.

Welling United 3 Chelmsford CIty 0 – Park View Road – Friday 29th March 2013

Still not sure they will win the league? Betting on Football is always difficult and to have some chance of making profit you have to do your homework very well. There are sites like that can really help you on football betting. They have tips from experts and also a selection of the best free bets deals from leading bookmakers.  Even the bookies in the know will stop taking bets on the Wings very soon though.

Lose your pounds or lose your club!

We all know that Non League football is going through a tough time.  At the top end of the pyramid, clubs like Luton Town, Wrexham and Grimsby Town are operating almost as League clubs still, whilst the “upstarts” of Forest Green Rovers and Newport County have wealthy owners who are gambling on the next step.  The crowds are comparable with their Football League cousins as too are the wage bills.  But even in the top division there exists the “have” and “have-nots”.  This season the Blue Square Bet Premier features ten clubs who have Football League experience in the past.  Most of these still retain a Football League business model.  But at the other end of the spectrum the Conference hosts teams such as Braintree Town, Hyde, Nuneaton, Alfreton and Tamworth.  Clubs who survive on crowds as low as 600 in the case of some of these, competing with full-time outfits.  Even in the Premier League the comparison between the likes of Man City and United and Fulham and Wigan Athletic is not so stark.

8436784684_1952d040f1_bMany clubs reach the Blue Square Bet Premier, but soon slide back down, with the financial burden simply too much.  The season Lewes spent in the top-level of non league football some five years ago almost cost the club its very existence.  Forced to put in additional turnstiles, segregation and other ground-grading criteria, the clubs fail to see additional fans come through the turnstiles to prop up the other side of the balance sheet.  No investment on the pitch soon sees a season long fight against the drop, and with four going down it is hard to escape.  Some clubs are simply too good for the regional Blue Square Bet North/South but not able to compete in the league above.  One such club is Ebbsfleet United.

Last weekend the Chairwomen of the club made a dramatic appeal to the fans:-

“In all seriousness and joking aside, now is the time to stand up and be counted. Whether you are MyFC, Fleet Trust, both or one of our loyal supporters who just enjoys watching the Fleet, please lose your pounds now!

The unfortunate timing of the weather and home fixtures being cancelled has really left the club strapped for cash and the coffers are bare!


The Football Club is asking EVERY MyFootballClub member, EVERY Fleet Trust Member and EVERY Supporter near and far to donate a minimum amount of £30.00 or as much as you can afford to save the club.

Please do not ignore this plea, it is very real and has been decided as a last resort today here at the club.” Continue reading