Will Chinese investment in the Premier League harm the lower leagues?


The English Premier League is undoubtedly the wealthiest football division in the world game and signs in the current market indicate that the teams that compete in it are only going to get richer. Eye-watering television deals have become commonplace as the global appeal of Manchester United, Chelsea and the rest of the English heavyweights grows across the world. One country that’s affinity with the beautiful game is clearly growing is China, with the Asian nation having grand plans to become a powerhouse of the global game.  The investment of Chinese Super League teams to tempt household names to swap the historic for the new has been evident over the last 12 months, with the likes of Carlos Tevez, Oscar and countless other international players signing for clubs in the Far East.

Chinese president Xi Jinping is a football enthusiast and has grand plans of reignited the ability of the country’s national team, as soccer schools sprout up and Government investment in the game takes commitment to a new level.  However, China’s fascination with football is starting to have real knock-on effects in the English game – especially as the moneymen focus on bankroll management.  The Asian nation has a reported 350 million Premier League fans, with massive audiences turning on their television sets to watch West Brom, Burnley and Everton on a weekly basis.

As such, English teams have been quick to tap into this market, with Manchester United, the traditional heavyweight and fans favourite in that part of the world.  However, other Premier League teams are sitting up and taking note in an attempt to win a share of this massive fanbase and reap the obvious financial rewards that come with attracting new supporters.

Tottenham Hotspur are set to set off on a post-season trip to Hong Kong after the domestic action finishes this term, while Arsenal and Manchester City have also played friendly fixtures in China in recent years.  But, how does the booming appeal of the English game impact upon the Football League?  Quite simply, the gulf between the Premier League and the lower divisions of the national game is as big now as it has ever been – and is only set to widen.  The amount of money that teams in the English top flight make on an annual basis is blowing out year-on-year, with the increased global appeal leading to more revenue and hence additional available expenditure.  As Reading and Huddersfield Town get set to contest the Championship Play Off final, both sides will know the unbelievable opportunity that the eventual winner will be handed.  By just competing in the Premier League the amount of money one of these modest clubs will be handed is beyond comprehension – the Play Off final at Wembley has been called the £300 million match as a result.  Wealthy Chinese backers are also starting to make in-roads into the English game and beginning to invest into some of the clubs.  A Chinese consortium led by media mogul Li Ruigang bought 13 per cent of Manchester City’s parent company, City Football Group, last year and as such the Etihad Stadium side have even more newfound wealth.

Aston Villa has been purchased by eccentric businessman Dr Tony Xia, who has already poured more money into the Midlands club in 12 months than any other Championship side has seen in some time.  As the money-men start to have more-and-more of an influence on the game, expect more Chinese investors to spend their vast wealths in England.  This will only lead to the rich clubs becoming even richer and the rest of the sport being left behind.  Although the likes of Lincoln City caused an upset or two in this season’s FA Cup and defied the odds, as documented in the Coral Betting review for 2016-2017, the uneven playing field between the Premier League clubs and those in the lower leagues is starting to become ridiculous.  As such, instead of the prestige of being promoted to English football’s top tier and the chance to play against some of the most-historic teams in the game, lower division clubs now will dream of making it to the big financial table and be spurred on by the windfall of making the Premier League.

Just how the burgeoning wealth of the Premier League impacts at grassroots level remains to be seen, but it is certainly getting more difficult for a talented young player on the books of a Football League club to make a move to the top tier.  The fairytale story of Jamie Vardy moving from non-league  to become a Premier League winner may well be the last of its kind, as top-flight clubs have massive sums of money to spend on established stars from overseas (not forgetting Brighton & Hove Albion’s Solly March having his roots at Lewes!).   Chinese investment in the English game is set to increase and will play a role in dictating the health of the sport on and off the pitch for years to come.  Those clubs in the Football League will hope that the ever-expanding budgets of Premier League teams do not kill the romanticism and history that the game in England has forged over the last 100 years.

The Sands of time


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impishly Good Friday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking football


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking out of turn


More through necessity than anything else, I still have the pleasure of holding the microphone at The Dripping Pan for every home game I attend.  Whilst the job isn’t that hard, you are forced to pay a little more attention than most fans to what is going on on the field, and such luxuries as having a pee, eating anything that requires two hands or even tweeting add an extra layer of complexity to the job.  It is a thankless, mostly dull job really but one that is essential.  In the three years that I’ve been doing the job I have had to deal with two lost children, five lost wallets, numerous cars blocking access in the car park and one request to “ring home”.  Alas, I am still waiting for my first marriage proposal or the nadir of a PA announcers career, “Mr x just to let you know you are the father of a new baby boy/girl”.

Thanks to Boysie for getting my best side

Thanks to Boysie for getting my best side

When I agreed to take it on I wanted to do it my way. No sitting up in the stand, no cheesy announcements, no muffled voices. It had to be big and bold, whilst still standing on the terraces with a pint of Harveys. Of course this leads to problems, especially when I can’t get to the bar until we have kicked off and am scared to turn my back just for a second in case I miss a bit of action.  I should do my research on pronunciation of player names but rarely do (apparently I’m still pronouncing Gus Sow’s name wrong), breaking it down phonetically and hoping I’ve got it right.  You can get too cocky though and announce something without referring to the team sheet such as the announcement of Tooting’s fourth goal scorer yesterday, Adam Cunningham….for Adam read Alexander.

Standing on the terraces does have issues though – it’s not that easy to see what’s going on at the other end.  I’ve lost count the number of times an opponent has scored and we have no idea who got the final touch.  In games when the reliable Rookmeister isn’t Tweeting in the stands I have to make a brave decision, knowing that the name I pick will be added to Football Web Pages and go down in history.  Of course we can try to find out from the opposing keeper, but they rarely know or even bother to respond.

And then there are times when you simply forget that you are doing the job as was the case yesterday when we conceded the comical second goal.  We were all so confused as to what happened that it was a good five minutes later before I remembered that I hadn’t announced it, although the handling of an own-goal is always a difficult one to decide what to do.  Should I say “own goal by Lewes number 4 Lloyd Harrington”, adding fuel to the fire of an already fuming midfielder, or should I give it to the “supplier” of the final ball?  In this case the Tooting player could hardly claim any credit for it.  Perhaps simply not announcing it was the best option, although if it was the first goal, what should I have done then as the Golden Goal competition is resting on my announcement of the time.  During the second half I bumped into an old friend, Gary Hancock, down from Tooting and started chatting to him, only realising a few minutes later than both sides had brought on substitutes unannounced.

Now that’s one aspect where I have the power of life or death. Well, sort of.  Yesterday we sold out of Golden Goal tickets meaning that two lucky punters would win £25.  I’m a bit conflicted here as I always have two tickets although I never open them until the first goal has been scored and I’ve announced the winner – I’m sure there would be a stewards enquiry if I did ever win, despite spending a King’s ransom on it over the years.

img_2858Announcing the teams is a challenge in itself.  They don’t put pronunciation guides on team sheets these days – was Tooting’s left-back “Ade-bow-ale”, “Ad-ebo-wale” or “Ade-bowal-e”?  The temptation to adopt Alan Partridge-style exclamations has so far been suppressed but it is only a matter of time before one or two slip out.

The rules keep on coming – Don’t announce the man of the match or official attendance too early – my rule is during a stop in play once we get into the 89th minute. Three years ago versus Brighton & Hove Albion in the Sussex Senior Cup, Sam Crabb was chosen and I announced the award when we were 1-0 down but then two Tom Davis specials saw us win and would’ve had won him the award. Yesterday there was an audible groan when I announced Charlie Coppola as Man of the Match, with comments like “you sure?” and “what game are you watching?” but I don’t choose the winner, I just announce it.

And finally you need to thank the away fans for attending, even if they’ve smashed up half the ground and invaded the pitch, and wish them luck for rest of season and a safe journey home.  Yesterday I made the “mistake” of suggesting we would see the Tooting & Mitcham United fans next season despite them sitting proudly on top of the table.  Or was it a mistake?

So let’s get to the game itself…

Lewes 1 Tooting & Mitcham United 5 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 18th February 2017
Let’s start with the positives.  Our matchday poster got national media attention.  We scored the best goal of the game and the crowd of 769 was the second biggest in the Ryman League South this season and the third biggest at step 3 and 4.  Reasons to be cheerful 1, 2 and 3? Alas the 5-1 scoreline where we actively contributed to four of the goals didn’t make for a happy post-match analysis.

c4uutyaweaa-fj8It could have been so different as we should have taken the lead inside the first two minutes, as Charlie Coppola found Jonté Smith in space in the penalty area, only for the striker to see his initial strike and then his effort on the rebound saved by Kyle Merson in the Tooting goal.  Then the roles were reversed and we almost saw a Coppola headed goal as he got his head to Smith’s excellent cross.

Alas, we couldn’t take our chances and fell behind in the 26 minutes when Chace O’Neill cut inside from the right and saw his long-range effort appear to take a deflection and loop over Winterton into the top corner.  Tooting’s lead was doubled in bizarre circumstances nine minutes later, as Winterton called for the ball as he looked to claim a cross from the right, with Lloyd Harrington ducking to get out of the goalkeeper’s way, only for the ball to hit him on the back and end up in the back of the net.

We needed to score the next goal and started the second half positively but when chances presented themselves we couldn’t quite find the final touch.  On the hour mark Stacey Freeman fouled Mike Dixon in the area and former Lewes player Jordan Wilson sent Winterton the wrong way from the spot to make it 3-0 and effectively end any hope of a come-back.

Tooting increased their lead further with ten minutes remaining, as substitute Adam/Alexander Cunningham capitalised on hesitant defending to run through and finish past Winterton.  The afternoon went from bad to worse four minutes later, as Lloyd Cotton was shown a straight red card for hauling down Dixon in the penalty area as the striker looked to get his shot away with only Winterton to beat.  Wilson was pushed aside with Dunn desperate to score his first goal since returning from Greenwich Borough and he chipped the ball down the middle to make it 5-0.

Despite a small exodus of fans when that goal went in, the biggest cheer of the day came when Stephen Okoh danced through the visitors defence and rolled the ball through Merson’s legs to give us some consolation.  It was certainly a kick in the teeth but other results mean that a win on Wednesday against Dorking Wanderers (only!) could still see us rise to fourth place, our highest league position this season.

Dorking hell


There’s defeats and then there are last-minute, defence lapse after you’ve been on top for 89 minutes 55 seconds sort of defeats.  Yesterday’s game at Dorking fell firmly into the latter category.  There’s only so much preparation you can do prior to games both in terms of analysing the way your opponents play, and adapting your line up and formation accordingly.  With almost every member of the first team squad available to train, Darren Freeman’s major problem on the morning of the game was who leave out.  We’d seen enough of Dorking, who have topped the Ryman League South longer than any other side this season, to know how they would play and where our opportunities would come from.

32466009431_27739d1ddb_kThe difference between teams at the top of the league and those firmly stuck in mid-table at this time of the season is bravery.  Do we go to places like Dorking and set up to grab a point? Or do we go with the full intention of winning the game, concentrating on our strengths and their weaknesses rather than the other way around.  Lewes of old would have certainly taken a Craig Levin approach to away trips (Scotland famously played a 4-6-0 formation under his leadership in the Czech Republic once) but today we have a squad of talented individuals whose sum parts are much greater than their individual contribution.

If the players believe in themselves then the fans will follow, just as they did yesterday when over 80 Lewes fans added some noise and verbal encouragement to the afternoon.  How much of a difference does that make to the team?  An unbelievable difference.   Players want to play for teams where the fans care. Opposing team goal keepers certainly cannot ignore the noise and the comments coming from the likes of Cynical Dave standing just a few feet behind them.  At our level they simply do not experience that from many sides, especially away support.  If every time as a keeper you know that 80 voices are encouraging you to make a mistake, only the strongest characters will be untroubled.

Picture by James Boyes

Picture by James Boyes

Yesterday we all did our bit.   Darren, Ross, Codge and Paul prepared the team.  The fourteen players who were involved in the game gave everything.  The fans never gave up hope.  But sometimes you fall just short, irrespective of the effort of everyone involved.  A 2-1 last second defeat in those circumstances is harder to stomach than getting smashed 5-0 to a team below you in the table.

Dorking Wanderers 2 Lewes 1 – Westhumble Sports Ground – Saturday 28th January 2017
We started positively, full of running and stretching the play.  Dorking play a similar game to us, which would have led to this being a fantastic match for the neutral, less so for an away fan as the game went into the 90th minute.  Our formation saw us use our full-backs as overlapping wingers, trying to get behind their full-backs and pull the ball back for our midfielders running.

Twenty five on the clock.  Full-back Matty George cuts inside his man, takes a touch past a second, gets a lucky rebound from a third and is through one-on-one.  The ball just runs away from him and he goes down under the challenge from the Dorking keeper.  From the referee’s angle behind play it looks a certain penalty, from ours behind the goal it is 50/50.  But the referee can only give what he sees and he points to the spot.  Protests are pointless, but the Dorking players feel the need to do so anyway.  Huk in the Dorking goal is booked. Dixon waits patiently then slots the ball in the corner. 1-0 Lewes.

32451270201_865dbbc58c_k-1Our lead lasts four minutes.  Dorking at their best, swapping passes at pace, catching the Lewes back four out of position and the prolific McShane smashes home.  The heads don’t go down.  Brinkhurst to Okoh, to Brinkhust, to Okoh.  The ball is fizzled across the six yard line and Jonté Smith taps home.  Bermuda’s scoring sensation jumps into the arms of Cynical Dave.  Alas the flag is up.  We protest, as the unwritten rule book says we should, but the goal is ruled out.

Man of the match Huk in the Dorking goal seems spurred on by the taunting from the Lewes fans, pulling off outstanding saves from Dixon and Okoh.  Half-time and players, management and fans alike go to re-hydrate, knowing that we won that half.

The start of the second half is more of the same.  Hammond shaves a post, Smith heads just wide whilst at the other end Sole hits the bar.  The game could go either way, as both sides are now committed to attack.  Full-back Matty George comes off.  Lewes try to bring on Dan Perry but he’s having a fight with his shirt.  “Go on, go on” shouts Darren as the ball is played to Stephen Okoh.  Dan, who still hasn’t got the shirt on, assumes his gaffer is talking to him, so he runs on, still with his shirt only partially on, keen to join the attack.  Alas, Darren’s comments were directed to the Lewes winger, Okoh, and not Dan who is promptly booked for illegally entering the field of play.

32588806205_13bf2c7079_kFive minutes are put up on the fourth officials board.  Dorking hit the ball from left to right.  Brinky has switched from right to left back to cover for the departed Matty George.  He controls the ball on his left, tries to push it onto his favoured right to clear but the impressive Briggs takes it off his toe and smashes it home within half a second.  Dorking celebrate wildly, the Lewes side sinks to their knees.

Five additional minutes don’t bring and further chances to a Rooks side who have been sucker-punched.  The full-time whistle blows and the response from the Lewes fans is as warm and heart-felt as any victory this season.  Every player gave everything and whilst we didn’t take any points home, no fan can bemoan the way we played, the effort, the passion.

As a fan all you can ask is seeing your team give a damn, playing to the best of their ability.  Sometimes it will be your day, other times you will suffer that 90th minute defeat, wandering off into that night feeling mortally wounded but knowing that you, like the players and management, will be back, full of optimism in a week’s time.

Is the Chinese cash a bad thing for English football?


So it is official.  World football has gone mad.  Oscar’s transfer to Chinese side Shanghai SIPG ratified on the 1st January meaning he left these shores to become the richest player in the world, with an estimated salary of £400k.  And for Chelsea?  Well they will get £60 million as “compensation”, £35 million more than they paid for the 25 year old Brazilian or in terms of games played, a profit of £172,414 for every game he played for the Blues.

Oscar kept the “richest player” in the world for almost an hour as Carlos Tevez agreed to join cross-city rivals Shanghai Shenhua on a weekly wage of £615,000, or in layman’s terms, £1 per SECOND.

This is a very similar conversation to what we were having a year ago when the likes of Ramires and Alex Teixeira joined the league for tens of millions of dollars yet that hasn’t destabilised world football has it?  So the scaremongering about this being the beginning of the end is pure hyperbole.

In the history of football in England there have been five clear compelling events that have shaped our game today.  Whilst some people may consider other events in a similar vein, football is today a global business rather than a game of the people.  How have we got to this point?

Back in 1888, William McGregor, a director at Aston Villa wrote to a small number of other football clubs and suggested the creation of a league competition, based on the structure of “football” in the United States college system.  The league kicked off in September of that year, the first organised football league-based competition in the world.

At the turn of the century, the Football Association passed a rule at its AGM that set the maximum wage of professional footballers playing in the Football League at £4 a week, and banning any payment of match bonuses. The concept of the maximum wage stayed in place for sixty years until it was abolishing it in January 1961, the second compelling event in British football.

Money has been the root of all evil in our game and the third tipping point came in 1990 after the publication of the Football Association’s “Blueprint for the Future of Football” which essentially laid out the concept of the Premier League.  There’s little debate that the Premier League was created to ensure that the clubs at the top of English football were able to maximise revenues potentially on offer of the next TV deal.  The heads of terms agreement was signed in July 1991, with the First Division clubs giving notice to resign from the Football League a few weeks later.

Hot on the heels of the formation of the Premier League came the next compelling event – the first BSkyB Television deal, signed in May 1992, for £191 million paid over five years.  Five years later that amount more than trebled to £670 million.  Now, twenty five years later that amount is over £5 billion.

The huge amounts being offered by the TV companies also had a knock-on effect, one that today is still the most emotive subject for the fans and the media alike.  Overseas ownership of clubs.  Whilst some may point the finger for the huge sums paid for players today at the door of Blackburn Rovers, and what owner and life-long fan Jack Walker did in the early years of the Premier League by buying the best of British and delivering an unlikely Premier League title to the Lancashire club.  Walker invested nearly £100 million of his own fortune to bring a redeveloped, modern stadium to Rovers along with the league title for the first time in 80 years.

However, it was the arrival of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in West London that really changed football as we knew it.  It’s not public knowledge how much exactly Abramovich has invested into the club but it will have run into hundreds of millions.  What his investment has proved is that money does buy success and it is will some irony that Blues current manager Antonio Conte has issued a stark warning about the impact of the cash being spent on players in China could have on the rest of football.

To me, they are the five moments in the history of English football that have shaped our game more than any other events.  Like it or not, the TV deals now dictate how our football clubs think and act, with managerial careers now at the mercy of the riches on offer for simply keeping a team one place above the Premier League relegation zone.

But let’s assume for one minute that the transfer market in China does accelerate and they start making serious offers for the most talented players in the Premier League.  What are the potential ramifications for our game should we start leaving these shores?

Scenario 1 – Investment into Premier League clubs from foreign ownership comes to an end

In this case, the growth in Supporter-owned clubs would increase.  Is that a bad thing?  We only have to look at the Bundesliga, often used as the ‘model’ for successful leagues.  In Germany all clubs in the Bundesliga are issued with a licence which is based on financial criteria as well as the fact that no one individual can own more than 49% of the shares in a club.  Football clubs are incredibly resilient.  Out of the 88 clubs that played in the Football League ninety years ago in the 1926/27 season, only two of the clubs completely cease to exist today (Aberdare Athletic and New Brighton).  In that same period, huge numbers of companies have gone to the wall.  Football does have a Teflon coating and any withdrawal of funds from one source will be replaced from elsewhere.

Scenario 2 – Clubs are forced to play home-grown talent

With Chinese clubs happy to raid the Premier League on a regular basis perhaps the clubs will invest more in the pathway for the development of their players.  Instead of simply stockpiling young players who are loaned out until their value drops to a point where they are simply released, clubs will give the youngsters a chance.  The more young English players that are given the opportunity to play in the Premier League, the better it will be for our National side.  In addition, clubs will be more willing to work with grassroots clubs in the development of players through that channel.  With potentially less cash available for wages, hopefully the players that come through will be more “balanced” and more in touch with the fans.  Again, look at the situation in Germany where the majority of the team that won the 2009 UEFA Under21 Championship were also part of the 2014 World Cup winning squad – all of whom bar one (Mesut Özil) plied their trade in the Bundesliga.

Scenario 3 – Premier League TV rights are devalued

With an exodus of the “best” players, the Premier League is no longer seen as the best league in the world and when the parties sit round the table in 2018 to renegotiate the three year deal due to expire in 2019 the offer will be significantly less than we saw in 2016.  Bear in mind that initial viewing figures for this Premier League season have seen a decline by nearly 19% in the first two months, hardly the result the winning bidders expected for the record TV deal.  If the product is devalued by the exodus of players then what bargaining chips will the Premier League clubs have?  Less TV revenues coming in will reduce the level of commercial agreements and thus clubs will once again have to look at alternative revenues or cost-cutting measures.  Fans may then start to see the value of the grassroots game, and attendances may will rise in the Non-League game.

Scenario 4 – Absolutely nothing changes

In all honesty, it would take a massive investment within the Chinese league to make an impact on English, Spanish, German or Italian football.  The whole reason for the increase in investment by the Chinese clubs is to increase their talent pool.  The concept is that you bring in overseas coaches to help develop Chinese coaches, you bring in world-class players that will also hopefully increase the skill levels of home-grown players which in turn strengthen the Chinese national team.  That’s the ultimate aim.  Having played in just one World Cup (back in 2002 where they lost every game and failed to score a goal), they are significantly behind the countries who they would consider rivals.  Japan have qualified for the last five World Cup Finals, reaching the knock-out stages twice, whilst South Korea have qualified for the last eight and finished fourth in 2002.  If they cannot improve their performance on the world stage then this whole phase will go down in history alongside the ultimately failed North American Soccer League in the 1970/80s where some of the best players were tempted for one last hurrah.

Of course there may be other consequences but I think scenario 4 is the most likely to play out.  Whilst the headline numbers are all round how much some of these players will be paid, the pressure and media scrutiny they will be under to perform will be intense.  Footballers such as Tevez are already millionaires multiple times over.  They could retire tomorrow and never have to worry about money every again.  So what is their motivation to move?  Only they can answer that but I do not feel a small handful of players heading east is the next compelling event in our beautiful game.