Five things to look out for in Non-League football in 2018


Apart from events at The Dripping Pan, there’s plenty to look forward to in non-league football during 2018, with clubs across the land battling to progress up the ladder.

A revised structure of the National League system will see a new steps created at tiers 3 and 4 created in time for the start of the 2018/19 season, which in theory will help iron out geographical anomalies, cut down on travelling costs and time for fans, players and officials and encourage more Step 5 clubs to climb the pyramid.

We take a look at five things from the non-league game worth keeping an eye on during 2018.

The Macc Lads making a comeback 

The National League Premier now has a dozen clubs with Football League experience, some more recently that others.  Many clubs have dropped out of the professional game and used the opportunity to become more sustainable both on and off the pitch, implementing a strategy of gradual improvement.  Current league leaders Macclesfield Town have struggled financially since relegation from the Football League in 2012, but they look well-placed to win promotion from the National League going into 2018.

John Askey’s side are six points clear at the top of the table and are favourites to win the title and should you fancy a wager on them to finish top, use this bonus code with Unibet.  Askey has done a superb job on limited resources and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him targeted by a club higher up the scale in the near future.

Artificial pitch decision could have big repercussions 

A series of meetings are planned throughout the country to look at allowing the use of artificial pitches in Leagues One and Two within the next two years.   Promotion-chasing Sutton United, Maidstone United and Bromley all play on 3G pitches and they are hoping for a positive outcome otherwise they could face extreme (and unfair) sanctions if they do not replace their surfaces with grass ones.

If the Football League refuses to change it’s rules on the use of 3G to accept artificial surfaces the clubs would be denied entry into the EFL if they finish in the play-off (or promotion) positions, but could then face relegation to step 3 of the National League.

Torquay United’s demise continues

The Gulls are in their second spell in Non-League football after twice being relegated out of the Football League in the last decade.  They are ten points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table and head coach Gary Owers is set to make wholesale changes to his squad.

The club has been on a downward spiral for some time now and it would take a minor miracle for them to escape from trouble this season, having narrowly avoided relegation for the last two seasons.

Class of ’92 making their mark at Salford

Aided by investment from Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, who also holds a stake in Spanish side Valencia, Salford went full-time last summer.   However, it’s the involvement of former Manchester United players Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt that has put the club on the map and they are closing in on promotion from National League North.  There’s no doubt the involvement of the five ex-United players has been the compelling reason for success, albeit one that has been fuelled specifically by the BBC in their “fly on the wall documentaries’ and they current sit top of the National League North, favourites for promotion.

Whilst significant investment has gone into the squad and the ground, which has changed beyond all recognition in the last three years, the owners have also dramatically improved the community and academy facilities, building closer links with the local community.

The longest season

One story that may not have hit the national headlines is that of Heybridge Swifts and their remarkable season.  After narrowly missing relegation from the Isthmian League North to the Essex Senior League at the end of last season, Jody Brown rebuilt his squad in the summer and has seen the club go on two amazing cup runs.

In the FA Cup they played seven matches before travelling to face EFL Division Two side Exeter City in November, losing 3-1 whilst their run in the FA Trophy is still alive and they travel to Maidstone United next weekend in the 2nd Round Proper.

All of this cup action has meant their league programme has suffered.  The club have currently played just 15 Bostik League North games, nine less than leaders AFC Hornchurch.  Cup success for the Swifts will mean they will be playing catch-up at a rate of at least one midweek game per week until the end of the season and that’s assuming they don’t suffer with any postponements!

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The Forgotten little brothers


Little Brothers – don’t you just love them.  But what about football club little brothers?  There out there, often forgotten by local fans and the media but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognise them and the impact they have.

Ferdinand, Wilkins, Rooney, Terry, Ross.  Legends in their own way I am sure you will agree.  But what if I was to tell you I was talking about Anton, Graham, John and Paul (and Paul)?  The siblings of Rio, Ray, Wayne and John (and Jon)?  Not quite in the legends bracket are they?  The same can be said for some clubs as well.  Whilst some towns and cities can boast two (or more) clubs playing at a professional level, other places in England have a definite big brother v little brother arrangement.

Norwich City v Norwich United
2014/15 was a good year for the two teams from Norwich.  Whilst City triumphantly returned to the land of milk and honey, beating Middlesbrough in the Play-off final at Wembley, United stormed to the Eastern Counties League Premier Division Title, finishing a ridiculous 26 points above 2nd place Godmanchester Rovers.  However, for a number of reasons the club declined promotion to the Isthmian League, waiting for two more years before finally making the jump up to step 8 of the English Pyramid, by which time City were back in the Championship.  United were originally formed as Poringland back in 1903, playing at the superbly named “The Gothic”.  They were renamed in 1987 and moved to their current home, Plantation Park back in 1990.  With United’s best run in the FA Cup when they made it to the Second Qualifying Round it may be some time before they meet in a competitive match.

Cambridge City v Cambridge United
Just a couple of seasons ago the two teams from Cambridge were separated by just one division as United were playing in the Conference Premier and City in the Conference South.  Today they are separated again by four divisions as United have returned to the Football League whilst City suffered enforced relegation in 2008 when their Milton Road ground failed a FA Inspection and then again from Step Seven.  Worse was to come for City as they became embroiled in a legal battle over the ownership of the ground, which has now been demolished, forcing City to first groundshare with Newmarket Town, then Histon and now with St Ives Town. It looks like a long way back before the clubs will be on an equal footing.

Oxford City v Oxford United
In recent times Lewes have actually played both City and United in competitive games, although few Rooks fans will want to remember our visits to the City of Spires as we lost in the Conference Premier back in 2009, then crashed out of the FA Trophy in November 2014 to Oxford City, now playing in the Conference South after being shunted across from the North Division.  City’s recent experiment of importing La Liga cast offs almost paid off as they finished just outside the playoffs, although the locals didn’t appear to warm to the experiment with crowds at Marsh Lane rarely broke the few hundred mark.  City were once managed by Bobby Moore, with Harry Redknapp as his assistant.

Lincoln City v Lincoln United
Whilst both Lincoln City and United have played Non-League football as recently as last season, they are light years apart in terms of facilities and momentum.  Promoted as champions of the National League last season and enjoying a spectacular FA Cup run to the Quarter-Finals and the Emirates,  City have the 10,000 capacity Sincil Bank with four almost new stands.  This season they are sitting nicely in the Football League Division Two play-off spots.   Travel west from Sincil Bank for a couple of miles and you will reach the leafy tranquillity of Ashby Avenue (formerly the impressively-named Sunhat Villas & Resorts Stadium), home of The Amateurs, Lincoln United.  Currently played four steps below City in the Northern Premier League Division One South, their local derbies are against the likes of Cleethorpes Town, Goole AFC and Spalding United in front of a hundred or so fans.

Ipswich Town v Ipswich Wanderers
In May 2013 Ipswich finally got their hands on a trophy in front of an excited crowd at Portman Road.  Ipswich Wanderers that it, not Town.  Wanderers won the Suffolk Senior Cup in that year on penalties in front of a crowd of 1,000.  Whilst The Tractor boys have been stuck in the Championship ploughed field for a decade, The Wanderers are on the up.  They were promoted back to the Eastern Counties League Premier Division in 2014 and finished last season in 10th place.  Their former chairman is a familiar name to some – Terry Fenwick – the man who decided not to tackle Diego Maradona when he scored “that” goal in the 1986 World Cup Quarter-Final.  If only he did perhaps he could have now been chairman of Ipswich Town.

There are others of course.  Swindon Town may consider their local rivals to be Oxford United or Bristol City but Swindon Supermarine, the original works team from the Supermarine airplane company, will have a different opinion.  Southend United fans may think that their local rivals are Colchester United but what about Essex Senior League Southend Manor?  There was a story a few years ago about a disillusioned Newcastle United fan deciding to turn his back on St James’ Park and support Newcastle Town.  The only problem with this one is that the teams play 191 miles apart – Newcastle Town are based in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The magic of the Football League War Cup


First published back in November 2012, a look at the often forgotten Football League War Cup

On the 1st September 1939, Adolf Hilter invaded Poland, sparking outrage across Europe and in the corridors of power in Westminster.  However, twenty four hours later, the third “round” of games in the Football League took place as normal with barely a murmur of concern for events that were to unfold in the next few years.  On that Saturday Blackpool’s 2-1 at Bloomfield Road meant they had won three out of three in the Football League Division one, just a point ahead of Sheffield United and Arsenal.

A few hours later, on Sunday 3rd September, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany and ordered an immediate ban on the assembly of crowds for safety reasons.  Faced with a potential long campaign, the Football League announced that the 1939/40 season would be terminated with immediate effect.  Whilst Blackpool (and Luton Town in the Second, Accrington Stanley in the Third North and Reading in the Third South) topped their division, they were not awarded any trophy.

However, regulations were soon relaxed and the government announced that football could return but with maximum capacities of 8,000 and no travel outside a fifty mile radius.  So the guys at the Football League got their thinking caps on and came up with the idea of a cup competition instead of a league competition.  And so was born the Football League War Cup.

The competition consisted of 137 games (including replays) which commenced in October and were all complete bar the final by January 1940.  However, with London under constant threat of the commencement of bombing raids, no floodlights could be used and so it was decided to play the final during the summer months.  The date was set as Saturday 8th June 1940, with West Ham United and Blackburn Rovers due to contest the final at Wembley Stadium.  However, on the 10th May the Germans pushed into France and the threat of invasion increased.

But the English showed their stiff upper lip and carried on regardless, turning out in numbers for the final.  Over 40,000 spectators filed into Wembley Stadium to see Sam Small score the only goal for the Hammers and they became the first ever winners of the new trophy, commissioned by the Football League.  It is reported that after the game there was no official reception for the team but instead they headed back to Upton Park for a “few pints in the Boleyn”.

The following season saw the commencement of bombing raids on Britain, with London heavily hit.  But football still carried on, as the government saw it as “good for morale”.  The War Cup provided a great tonic for many Londoners who had been almost under siege for months and in May 1941 the second final took place at Wembley with over 60,000 coming out to see Preston North End take on Arsenal.  A Denis Compton goal for the Gunners was enough to earn them a replay at Ewood Park where over 45,000 saw the Lancastrians run out 2-1 winners, who featured a very young Bill Shankley in their line up.

The cup was still an important part of “business as usual” in England during the almost daily bombing raids.  Attendances remained very high, and a number of clubs had players on active military duty, returning to the first team when they came back to Blighty.  The Football League kept tinkering with the format in the next few years, firstly introducing a two legged final (won by Wolves 6-3 against Sunderland), and then in 1943 with Northern and Southern Finals with the winners meeting at Stamford Bridge (won by Blackpool who beat Arsenal).

In 1944 with the threat of bombing still high the title was shared between Aston Villa and Charlton Athletic after a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.  The southern semi-final saw Charlton beat Chelsea in front of over 85,000 at Wembley which caused some panic for the authorities.

Whilst the Second World War didn’t finish until September 1945 when the Japanese forces surrendered, the war in Europe effectively ended in May of the same year, meaning the cup in that year was the last time it was ever held.  On the 2nd June 1945 35,000 people saw Bolton Wanderers beat Chelsea 2-1 to win the cup which fortunately since has never been competed for.

Whilst Portsmouth’s 4-1 over Wolverhampton Wanderers in May 1939 was officially the last FA Cup final until 1946, many will class the War Cup as a continuation of the competition.  It cannot be underestimated the effect the cup had on morale of the English general public and for that reason it will always have a special place in the history of our game.

The turkey tastes just a little bit better this Christmas


Winners know that the hard work starts when they’ve achieved their greatest goal. Whilst some have greatness thrust upon them, the vast majority of outstanding sporting individuals and teams go through years of preparation and perspiration before they can rightly call themselves a champion.

Football is no different. It is incredibly rare that a team will upset the odds on a consistent basis. There’s a few examples of Cup giant killings, but in most of those instances Lady Luck plays a factor. Longer competitions also require an element of luck as well as other sides creating a path to glory. Take the Greek side that won the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. They went into the tournament as one of the outsiders but ended up as champions. Were they the best side in the competition? Absolutely not, but they played to their strengths and others weaknesses as well as seeing other sides who were more highly fancied beat each other. But they weren’t a flash in the pan. They worked on a game plan and everyone in that squad executed it to perfection across the whole tournament – take Manchester City’s unbelievable performance this season.  They have a great squad but it’s not head and shoulders above the rest. Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have spent tens of millions in the past year, like City, but they’ve found a level of consistency that is above and beyond what we’ve ever seen in the Premier League.  The club leaves nothing to chance and will be working even harder to keep the run going off the pitch.

Many may cite Leicester City as another example. 5000/1 outsiders for the Premier League title at the beginning of the 2015/16 season, with a manager at the helm who had won almost nothing in his career. Two magical things aligned in the next nine months – a squad of players who almost to a man performed at the top of their game plus their main rivals all seemingly in a season of “transition”. However, there’s also an oft overlooked element to the Leicester City dream – the role behind the scenes of Steve Walsh and Craig Shakespeare who assembled the squad, not Claudio Ranieri, and a huge focus on the preparation for each game.

The 2003 English Rugby World Cup Champions revolutionised the way teams should prepare, a methodology copied by the massively successful British Cycling Team at the last two Olympic Games, using a common approach of marginal gains – improving a high volume of multiple things by small amounts rather than focusing on high levels of improvement in a small number of things.  Take one look at the huge army of people who work behind the scenes at the top Premier League clubs and you will understand the concept of marginal gains even better – A soft tissue therapist may sound like a strange role, but to Pep Guardiola, employing one could be the difference between getting a player Aguero fit a game earlier, which could be three points closer to a time.

As we pass the halfway mark in the season, Lewes still remain top of the Bostik League South, a position we’ve held, bar one week, since the end of September.  It’s not all been plane sailing and we’ve had our fair share of injuries and suspensions as this last week will testify but the hard work off the pitch by dozens of volunteers means we have gone into virtually every game as prepared as we could be.  We don’t have the luxury of a soft tissue therapist or a head of sports nutrition but we do do everything we can to help the players.  Our marginal gains can actually be far more impactful than those in the highly competitive, money-focused Premier League.

As we sit down and enjoy our Christmas I’d like to thank everyone, not only at Lewes but across every football club who gives up their time freely to try to make a difference for their club.  We know that the second half of the season will be even tougher – everyone raises their game against the teams at the top but that’s just going to make us more determined to get things right off the pitch.  Happy Christmas one and all.

Tough at the top, tougher down the bottom


During the Leicester City vs Manchester United game on Saturday night, commentator Alan Parry mentioned the “stresses and strains” on the Premier League players at having to play four games over the Christmas period.  “Some of these players face four games in just nine day!” Parry remarked as if this was a massive hardship for them.  That will be the same four games in nine days that virtually every club playing at Steps 7 and 8 of the footballing pyramid face over Christmas.

I hear the arguments about the stresses and strains of the Premier League, apparently the fastest league in the world (although I am not sure how that has been measured) but these players are professional.  They have the best facilities for fitness and recovery at their disposal – Pep Guardiola’s 16 man management team includes such roles as a Sports Therapist, a Head of Human Performance, a Soft Tissue Therapist and a Head of Sports Medicine.  Below them is an army of experts whose job is to ensure that Pep’s record breaking team are in peak condition when they cross the white line.  In most instances they are told what to eat and drink, when and where.

Down in the Bostik League South (as with in most other Non-Leagues), today was the first of four games Lewes played in the next nine days.  Our players and physios head home to their families tonight for Christmas and some will return to their normal jobs tomorrow and even Christmas Day before regrouping on Tuesday for the next game meaning that they cannot spend any time with the players and their rehabilitation.  We share the same concern as Guardiola that four games over the Christmas period is too much, especially with small squads and half way through the season where suspensions are starting to bite.  Today was our 33rd game of the season, and whilst our three new signings who all made their debuts today due to the growing injury list took the number of players we have used over the 30 mark, only 20 have played in more than five games, exactly the same number of players Manchester City have used in their 28 games this season.

Ultimately, the commercialisation of the Premier League game means that clubs have little control as to when games are scheduled.  Whilst other leagues across Europe have mid-Winter breaks, that simply means the Premier League can charge a higher fee to overseas broadcasters to schedule games at times attractive to foreign audiences – why else would the Leicester City game be scheduled on a Saturday night two days before Christmas?  In the Non-Leagues Christmas games bring in vital revenue, with local derbies boosting attendances although the continued lack of public transport on Boxing Day does prove problematic to many – Lewes take on Hastings United on Boxing Day despite the fact there is no public transport running between the two East Sussex towns 29 miles apart.

Commentators and members of the media often talk about Premier League players in revered terms, forgetting the hundreds of other equally committed and passionate individuals give up their time to bring joy to thousands of us who prefer our football a little less sanitised than that at the top level.

Happy Christmas to everyone who will take part in those games over the next nine days and spread the joy of the beautiful game to us all.

 

 

Takeley, I’m yours


It’s a Tuesday night in early December. It’s freeing – no surprise there – and I’m the only person to align at Stansted Mountfichet station.  A loan taxi gets his hopes up as I walk towards him but he’s not going to be lucky this time.  My mind is focused on food and football, in that order.

Fortunately, I’ve arrived in take-away city by the look of it.  Quite why a village of 5,500 needs so many eateries is a mystery to many, especially when they appear to be quite literally in direct competition – the Mayflower and Lams Chinese takeaway guard the entrance to Station Road, trying to lure the passing trade (me) in with offers such as “unlimited prawn crackers” and “free chopsticks with every meal”.  Ruthless marketing, I tell you.

My relationship with Stansted Mountfichet is one of pure convenience.  Many a traveller will have been seduced by the thought of a visit to the House on the Hill Toy Museum, reputed to be the largest of its kind in the world, whilst others over the years will have arrived, suitcase being pulled a few metres behind like a disobedient dog, searching for the airport terminal.

The latter, wayward tourists would be too far out of their way.  Stansted Airport lays three miles to the east, 5 minutes on the train.  Originally a US Airforce base on the edge of the village of Stansted Mountfichet, it was taken over by the government and for a short period acted as a Prisoner of War camp before being developed as a commercial airport in 1966, today handling nearly 25 million passengers, one of which in just twelve hours would be me.

Despite Christmas approaching, work travel had not started to wind down for the festive period which meant that after flying out of Stansted on Monday morning, arriving back on Tuesday, I was about to go through the whole process again.  Rather than driving the hour or so back home I’d decided to stay at the airport so the 4am start became a much more reasonable 5am one.  CMF was hugely impressed that I chose to stay in a Travel Tavern than go home to her.

As luck would have it (genuinely), there a game to go to see almost on the doorstep of the airport.  Not just any old game either – a local derby pitting one of the front-runners for the Essex Senior League title with a team currently on an alarming and rapid slide down the table.  In these parts Stansted FC versus Takeley is talked about in hushed tones, normally reserved for the likes of Ossett Town versus Ossett Albion or even the Dunstable Derby.

To say that Stansted FC were having a bit of a ‘wobble’ was an understatement.  It had been nearly two months since the side had experienced the joy of a win and came into the local derby on a run of eight consecutive defeats that had seen them fall to just three points off the Essex Senior League.  Takeley, on the other hand were firmly looking at the opportunity of promotion to the Isthmian League North.  With two teams likely to move up to step 4 of the Non-League game from the Essex Senior League at the end of the season they had been there or there abouts all season, off the back on an impressive home record that had seen them take 31 points from a possible 33. Not bad I suppose.

The home side had had little to shout about for a number of years.  They still talk about that team in and around the ground.  That team being the one in season 1983/84 that not only won the Eastern Floodlight Cup, The East Anglian Cup and the Essex Senior League Cup.  Oh, and a small matter of the FA Vase, beating Stamford 3-2 at Wembley Stadium.  Fast forward to 2010 and the team finally won the Essex Senior League but inadequacies with their Hargrave Park ground saw Witham Town promoted into the Isthmian League.

The internet is great for finding out facts such as Stansted’s record win came in that golden season when they beat Coggeshall Town 15-0, their assistant manager when they had their big day out at Wembley was Glenn Hoddle’s Uncle Dave or that an anagram of the name Takeley is Teak Eye but on this occasion it failed to mention that the 0.5 mile walk from the station to Hargrave Park should only be attempted with oxygen.  Granted it is not in the league of Stocksbridge but it was a bit of a shock to the system having just taken advantage of the freebies offered by the Chinese takeaway(s).  Note to village council – open a pub about halfway up the hill for unfit, random Non-League football fans who arrive by public transported.

I actually knew a resident of the village, who had promised to accompany me to the game.  Kevin is an accountant by trade and supports Everton, so he needed some escapism from the reality of pessimism.  What better way to lift the spirits than watching a Non-League game on a day and freezing night along with a few dozen other hardy souls.

You can understand why Hargrave Park didn’t quite make the ground grading for step 4.  It has a very shallow, albeit full of charm, main stand with a small cabin that reminded me of Santa’s workshop from various films that was the committee room.  Around the pitch the perimeter was a series of metal barriers, the ones used to keep screaming kids away from their pop star idols, or grandmas trying to get to Cliff Richard, which if I had my health and safety hat on would worry me considerably.

The teams were warming up when we arrived which involved, in Takeley’s case, smashing the balls as hard as they could from the penalty spot at a teenager in goal which either hit in or flew over the bar and into the gardens of the houses behind.  The referee suddenly appeared at our side, through a magic door on the side of the main stand, shook me by the hand (perhaps confused by my Lewes FC jacket) and said “Right, let’s get this circus pumping” before heading onto the pitch.


As for the game itself?  The differing fortunes of the two sides was clear to see as the first half wore on, with Takely opening the scoring through the impressive Mullings.  Whilst Stansted tried to break down the visitors, especially down the left-flank, the final ball was often misplaced or simply not there at all.  There wasn’t much between the two sides for long periods but a slice of luck with some cream on the side saw Takeley double their lead when a wickedly deflected shot from Todd saw the Stansted keeper flat on his arse as the ball trickled despairingly out of reach.  Mullings scored a cracker of a third late in the game when he flicked the ball up and volleyed home from the edge of the box.  Whilst the score line may have flattered the visitors, there’s no denying they were the better side.

With only one train an hour back to the airport I ducked out a few minutes before the end, gaining momentum from the strong wind as I headed down the south face of K2, avoiding the Chinese takeaway wars and onto the platform.  Mission accomplished.

Life is all about taking the opportunities as they are presented to you and I think I can quite-rightly claim 9/10 for making the most of an otherwise boring night in a hotel at the airport with nobody for company apart from a bunch of sales reps and overseas visitors who believed the hype that Stansted was actually in London.

Men of steel


It has been awhile since I have filed a match report on these hallowed digital pages.  A combination of not having much more to say about the mighty Rooks that the world and his various wives have not read elsewhere, a duty of care in my positions on various boards of directors meaning I can no longer say anything bad/mean/defamatory/blatantly untrue about anyone in the game south of the M6 and only writing about my overseas visits in the next chapter of The Football Tourist (@OckleyBooks), due for publication in 2018.

It is even rarer these days that I miss a Rooks game other than when I am posted somewhere around the world for work.  But sometimes even the most ardent fan has to put family before football and today was one of those days.  Two months ago when I agreed to take Lolly, my eldest daughter, up to Leeds (Leeds, Leeds) to look at the University campus I had no idea we would still be playing in the FA Trophy.  Our national cup competitions are normally done and dusted by mid-October, falling less than heroically to a side from a lower division.

But Lewes 2017 are made of stronger stuff and wins over East Grinstead Town, Dunstable Town and Bishop’s Stortford (the last two playing a division higher than us no less) had seen us progress through to the Final Qualifying Round – a stage of the competition we last played at in 2014 when we conceded five first half goals away at Oxford City to crash out.  We gathered round the laptop a few weeks ago, pressing F5 on the FA’s Twitter feed waiting to hear who we would be playing.

“Anyone at home” said Ross

“Anyone from our level” said Darren

“Anyone near Leeds” was my response

“Home to Truro City” said Baz, who had been emailed the details 10 minutes earlier and assumed we were looking at the new Sports Illustrated calendar online, rather than waiting for the draw

Technically, Leeds is actually closer to Lewes than Truro by a few miles which just goes to show how crazy the geographical split of the Non-League system is.  But that wouldn’t help me in the slightest, meaning that I would miss one of our biggest home games in years.

I’d done the dutiful thing and gone to watch Truro City on Tuesday night as they made another 700 mile round trip for a National League South game, albeit it one that could have taken them top of the table and meant that we could not have possibly drawn a higher ranked team in this round of the competition.  Scouting report filed with our management team and back of quinoa packet drawing complete of how I would exploit their deep-sitting 5-3-2 formation, I could concentrate on where I would get my football fix on Saturday afternoon, post University visit, and as Lolly suggested, write something for my blog so that she could show her Maths teacher.  Apparently my last piece, “PSYCHOLOGY THEORY EXPLAINED BY FOOTBALL – 1. EXISTENTIALISM“, was a bit pretentious for his liking.

My source of inspiration was my publisher, and good friend, David Hartrick who quickly drew up a short-list of games which were a) on my way home to London, b) that I’d never been to before, c) had a bit of a story behind and d) served chips with gravy.  Point d) was definitely the deal breaker but the lad did good when he emailed the results of his extensive research (that’s what his invoice suggested anyway) and said we would be heading to the town of Stocksbridge, home to around 10,000 people, experimental rock group Rolo Tomassi and a football club with a pedigree of England Internationals.

Stocksbridge Park Steels Football Club came into existence in 1986 as a result of the merger of Stocksbridge Works, the team from the local steel plant, and Oxley Park Sports.  Their place in Non-League folklore has been cemented by five footballing facts, which to those from these parts will be as dull as dishwater but to us Southerners, are the stuff of legends.

Fact number 1 – In August 2002 the club beat Oldham Town in the FA Cup Preliminary Round 17-1.  Striker Paul Jackson claimed 3 match balls, almost bankrupting the club after his record goal scoring haul of 10 goals in that game, a record that still stands today.

Fact number 2 – With 22 different sides below the senior team, the club are recognised as the biggest community club in South Yorkshire.

Fact number 3 – In 2002, former England international Chris Waddle joined the club and played one game for them at the age of 42 years old.  Also at the same age, relegation specialist and king of the Yorkshire clubs, Neil Redfearn joined the club.

Fact number 4 – The ground only has 3 sides, with the fourth being a fence, albeit a nice wooden one.  It sits on top of a hill, with oxygen needed for those making the journey up the hill from the town centre.

Fact number 5 – A certain Jamie Vardy started his career off at Bracken Moor, after being released by Sheffield Wednesday at the age of sixteen.  Vardy spent seven seasons at the club, three in the senior squad on a reputed £30 a week before joining Halifax Town.  He scored 54 goals (all listed in the match programme) including a remarkable three-minute hatrick in the FA Trophy game against Mossley back in October 2008.  Two weeks previous he had scored a six-minute treble against Grantham Town.  The club is understandably proud of the association with the England international, naming their main stand in his honour.

Today, the club play in the 8th tier of English football, like Lewes and are challenging for one of the two promotion places into the Premier League (Evostik rather than the sticker Bostik version), like Lewes and part of my interest in this game would be to understand how different life up here was compared to down south.  Whilst I would be watching most of the action with one eye on events 242 miles due south, it would be good to catch up with Dave and listen to his enthralling stories that would undoubtedly involve snooker, Marvel comics and another one of his hatricks in five-a-side (for those who don’t know, Dave has a block booking at the Goals centre in Huddersfield on a Thursday night at 10pm where he is the only player and consequently, the top scorer in the league).

We parked up outside the turnstiles just as the snow started, giving the ground a magical look and feel.  I’d literally taken two steps in the ground before being ushered into the boardroom and had a cup of tea thrust in my hand.  The power of Social Media had meant my impending arrival had been announced and I spent ten minutes discussing the various merits of our clubs and leagues with Stocksbridge Park Steels Commercial Manager Roger Gissing.

With around a hundred hardy souls taking their place in the stand, sheltering from the biting wind and flurries of snow, Roger explained the club’s (and the league’s) issues.  They faced a huge struggle to attract fans, averaging around 110 this season or about 1% of the town’s population.  Sitting just 10 miles from Sheffield and 30 miles each from Manchester and Leeds, football fans in these parts head off to the glitz and glamour of the Premier League and Championship most Saturday’s rather than supporting their local team.  They have a thriving juniors section and community programme but come 3pm on a Saturday many of those kids are nowhere to be seen. Despite offering the cheapest admission in the league, at just £7 and the club once again doing well, it seemed that the X-factor in getting people to watch the game was still missing.

I have no idea why as even before the game had kicked off I was struck with how fantastic the club was.  Everyone to a (wo)man was friendly, the set up of the club with its quirky stands and fantastic warm bar, offering a bird’s-eye view of the action.  Fifteen pounds got Lolly and I admission, a programme, a pint and a coke and a large sausage roll. Add on top the potential to see a cracking game of football and you have a fantastic value afternoon.

The club also face issues with how the geographical split of the league has been made and something that is a real concern with a further restructure due at the end of the season.  Their shortest journey is to Sheffield FC, 21 miles away yet the two Ossett clubs, who play in the North Division, are around the same distance away.  Rather make those short journeys, they have away trips to Peterborough Sports, Alvechurch, Market Drayton Town and Corby Town, all 200 mile plus round trips.

However, they were once again challenging towards the top of the table and a win over Loughborough Dynamo (named after the great Dynamo Moscow should you want to know) then they could climb up to 2nd place and into the automatic promotion places behind runaway leaders Basford United.

Stocksbridge Park Steels 4 Loughborough Dynamo 3 – Bracken Moor – Saturday 25th November 2017
In terms of value for money, you cannot complain about a seven-goal thriller, with a last-minute winner.  Except we didn’t realise it was a) a seven-goal thriller or b) there was a last-minute winner.  In fact, we missed four of the seven goals through a variety of reasons.

As the teams emerged down the steep steps and into the mini-blizzard, we finished up our cup of tea in the boardroom, zipped up the coats and made our way outside.  As I did the gentlemanly thing and held the door open for a lady coming in, the home side scored.  Fifteen seconds had elapsed since I put down my cup but in that time the home side and won a free-kick 30 yards out.  Jack Poulton sent his ball into the box and it fooled everyone and ended up in the back of the net.

The game was a relatively cagey affair, with both sides trying to make the best of the conditions.  Just as the referee was about to blow for half-time the home side grabbed a second as Matt Reay’s shot eluded everyone and trickled into the corner.

We took refuge from the cold in the bar, which positioned in the corner of the ground and on the first floor, offered outstanding views of the action.  Unsurprisingly, the window seats were at a premium – why wouldn’t they with Bracken Moor Smooth on draft and Jeff Stelling updating everyone in the corner (not literally Jeff).  The second half was about six minutes old when we headed downstairs, stopping for a toilet break.  I heard a muffled cheer whilst I was in there but thought nothing more of it.

The tide seemed to be turning and the visitors grabbed a couple of goals through Riley to level the scores (at this point we assumed it was 2-2).  The final fifteen minutes were as action-filled as you could ever hope to see.  Bodies were being thrown on the line at both ends to keep efforts out and there was a real cup tie feel about the game with both sides wanting a winner.  However, it was the home side who prevailed, scoring in the first minute of four in injury time when Litchfield bundled in from close range after the mother of all scrambles.

Full time and Stocksbridge’s fans celebrated the win with reserved confidence, a win that took them back to third place in the table.  As we waited for the players to make their way off the pitch a fan shouted at the ref: –

“7/10 for that today ref”

The ref looked at the fan and responded “If you knew my wife then you’d know that would be a good assessment of my performance at any time especially in the cold”

We ducked into the boardroom, thanked our hosts for their hospitality and started our long journey south, still in complete ignorance of the two goals, one for each side we missed on our comfort break in the second half.

I’d urge any fan of football, whether they lived in South Yorkshire or not, to make a trip to visit this wonderful club.  Like hundreds of others up and down the land, they survive thanks to the efforts of their volunteers rather than the numbers that come through the turnstile.  If ten percent of the regular fans who go to Bramall Lane and Hillsborough came to watch just one game a season at Bracken Moor it would more than double their average attendance.  And that, could be the difference between having a community club for years to come or not.