LIfe in the gutter


Hope is a viable strategy for many football clubs – in fact for many it is the only strategy. It’s a motto, held together by duck tape, that underpins the grass-roots of our beautiful game. That’s not to stop the dreamers dreaming. As Oscar (Wilde not the Chelsea midfielder) famously said, “we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars”. Today we were most certainly looking up at the stars.

Our day started at 8am discussing the future of the football club surrounded by history and tradition. Our home for the first part of the day was The Royal Oak, just a stone’s throw from Lewes Station,  where back on Wednesday 23rd September 1885 our football club was formed. In an article published in the Sussex Agricultural Express a few days later, it was reported under the headline “Formation of a Football Club” that a meeting the previous Wednesday at The Royal Oak Public House, chaired by Mr J Plummer Chapman had seen the created of Lewes Football Club and that “The Dripping Pan would be available for football matches during the winter months. Over 130 years later and we are still going, with the Pan now being one of the oldest 20 football grounds in the world used continuously by the same club.

FullSizeRender (1)One hundred and thirty years later, our objective was to create a strategy for the next five years for the club. In some ways we had to thank our lucky stars we had made it this far, having come so close to letting unbridled (and some might say unfounded) ambition take the club away from us. Just like any organisation in the commercial world, we need to have a clear vision, a set of objectives and a framework for growth. We may be tiny when compared to Premier League clubs but our ambitions boil down to the same thing – progress. The difference is that we have to grow within our means and in a sustainable manner, with every programme we sell mattering whilst they can just sit back and watch some of that £1bn a year TV money roll in, not even caring today that they have priced out a generation of fans.

Creating a strategic plan that everyone buys into don’t just happen overnight. An initial strategy was created back in 2010 when the football club passed into community ownership under the leadership of the original Rooks125 group. Most of those initial objectives have been met during the last 5 1/2 years with Charlie and Ed the two remaining members on the board from the original six. The new plan would see us through to 2020 as well as providing a framework for growth past that date, where it is hoped we will have more willing individuals invested in the club.

I took on the initial task of drafting the first draft of the new plan. It’s quite daunting to start writing such a document, having to balance the core, day-to-day tasks with trying to find the inspiration, aspiration and perspiration for growth. You look for clues from other clubs but have to be mindful that you don’t want to simply copy something someone else does – one size certainly doesn’t fit all. I’m used to having to write strategies for others in my other life, being a paid outsider looking in on the business models created by others, making recommendations for improvements and hammering home the point that they, not me, have to own the actions. A strategy without owners prepared to make changes and buying into the vision is simply a word document with pretty pictures.

Some fans may question why we need a strategy – we are after all a football club – our only objective games should be to win games. If only that was the truth. Others simply lament for the free spending, couldn’t give a toss about what happens tomorrow, days gone by. The work that goes on behind the scenes will never be enough for them. But for the majority of our 1,200 owners they want to know that the club is in good hands, not just today but years into the future. That’s what today was all about. Assessing whether the ways we did things today were the right ways, and right things as well as looking for other ways to grow the club.  No idea was a bad one (even some of Ed’s ones).  The football club has many moving parts such as our community work, our ownership model, our commercial proposition, our 3G and our Academy as well as our footballing sides.  Each is somewhere intertwined with another, so creating a plan for one, would have a knock-on on another.

1_NeedhamMarket2015-282x400As a group we have differing visions of where we could and should be and what our motivations were for sitting around the table in the first place. We have different backgrounds, different skill sets, different strengths and different temperaments – as the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your fellow board members in a democratically elected organisation. Or something like that anyway. But we all are gathered in the same place at silly o’clock on a match day to discuss the same thing. What can we do to make the future of this football club better.

Strategising over, and safe in the knowledge that we think we were heading in the right direction it was time for some football.  To turn again to Wilde, Lewes came into this game well and truly in the gutter but recent form had seen us not only looking but in the words of S Club 7, reaching for the stars. Unbeaten in 2016 versus a side who had just one win since mid-November and had slid down the table to sit just above the relegation zone. It made a welcome change that we weren’t looking to the stars for signs of poor weather for what seemed like the first time in weeks. A Rooks win and we’d not quite be breathing down Needham Market’s neck but we’d be sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend in preparation.

Lewes 0 Needham Market 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 6th February 2016
After our enthusiasm at looking into the future, the present was a little more like the weather.  Dreary.  A point and a clean sheet would have been a good result a few months ago.  Today it is a small step up a big mountain.  The frustration was we did enough to win the game, and should have been celebrating another win tonight, especially as the linesman’s flag to deny Jonte Smith’s late effort was proved to be wrong on the edited highlights (in fact it was the only second half highlight).

FullSizeRender (3)The conditions were tricky, but it was the same for both sides.  The visitors started the brighter, with centre-forward Michael Brothers proving a real handful for the Lewes defence, and it was his strength and determination that should have seen Needham go in one-nil up at the break but his cross shot failed to hit the target.  A second half change to an all-energy front four by Darren Freeman tantilised the biggest crowd of the day in the Ryman Leagues but never quite troubled the visitor’s keeper, with Smith’s disallowed goal proving to be the major talking point.

Other results at the foot of the table meant we actually gained points on teams above the relegation zone in the most part, and didn’t fall any further behind.  With a game against Dulwich Hamlet to come on Wednesday the unthinkable could still happen.  Even our strategic plan can’t call that one.

Conditional decisions


Up and down the country teams who haven’t had the best of starts to the season will be encouraged by the fact they come into the first game of the new year unbeaten in 2016. Yep, we’ve all said it, more out of hope that our team’s fortunes will miraculously change simply because the calendar has rather than through any other event. Of course, for those fans who follow a team in the top four leagues the prospect of the transfer window now being open brings the hope that you may sign someone who will turn your season around, or get an opportunity to offload someone who has been the root cause of your problems.

Down here in the seventh tier of English football we don’t have the same type of transfer window. Ours is more of a fly screen which can be opened at will. Few players at our level are on anything more than a nod and a wink contract, with the mystical 7 Day Approach process often the only thing standing between that key player shooting you up the table or seeing you fall through the relegation trap door. I don’t really deal with that side of footballing affairs. Give me a notebook, a pen and a little video camera and send me off to watch a game and I will give you a full tactical analysis of a team, their strengths and weaknesses, set-piece routines and quality of pies on a nicely presented PDF within 24 hours. But ask me which form needs to be signed by our new Spanish winger (no word of a lie by the way) and where to send it then I’m lost. Thank goodness for Club Sec Kev and his magic cardigans is all I will say.

Suffice to say that if someone puts in a “Seven Dayer” you have a week to convince the player to stay with you. My idea would be to play on the ‘caring, sharing’ perception of our fantastic community club. A bunch of flowers delivered to Mrs Centre Forward, some sweets for Holding Midfield junior or a case of Becks for Goalkeeper’s flat mate. It’s all very well the club’s chairman trying to lay on the charm but when it comes from their nearest and dearest it tends to resonate more.

Alas, it normally comes down to cash. You will have managers who are simply better negotiators and persuaders than others but nothing peaks the interest of a footballer than money, especially at this level of the game. By money I also mean opportunity costs – the reduced time (and cost) of getting to training, the fact we never fail to pay players on time, that we have a very cool shirt manufacturer and sponsor.

But back to today. It’s the start of a New Year and a win could put us top of the first 2016 table. Well, when you’ve had such a desperate 2015 you will cling to any hope.

FullSizeRender (25)The first victory of the day was over the elements. Heavy rain overnight may have dampened the pitch but not the spirit of everyone at the club. Alas, in true Lewes style the elements rallied and scored a late equaliser. At 1pm when the referee arrived, the pitch was playable. At 1.45pm after over half an hour of heavy rain it wasn’t. By the time I arrived at 2pm and congratulated myself at being able to park outside the ground for the first time this season fans were heading in the opposite direction.

At 9am the pitch was playable. At 11am it was almost good enough for a garden party. At 1pm when the officials arrived it could have hosted world championship bowls. Then it started to rain….and rain…and rain. At 1.45pm the referee decided that the conditions were bad enough to warrant an inspection, and consequently, postponed it. “You should have communicated the game was in doubt” said one fan. But the game was never in doubt until the referee said it was. Five minutes later it was called off. You can’t make decisions on contingent liabilities. The heavy rain was forecast from 9am. It didn’t materialise until 1pm. Of course, we could have communicated that the 3pm kick off was subject to final approval of the officials but then that’s the same for any game. The pitch could be too hard, the snow could obliterate the lines on the pitch, the wind could cause structural damage, the ice could make spectating areas dangerous. Only the referee can determine how the weather conditions impact on the game. I totally get the frustration of anyone who travelled to the game but we could only work with absolute facts and not what ifs.

FullSizeRender (25)So instead of watching The Rooks I headed down the road, along with a fair few other Rooks fans plus a smattering of Whitehawk fans also without a game, to watch over the young ex-Rooks (Peacehaven & Telscombe) play older ex-Rooks (Hastings United). Not quite the afternoon I had in mind but having travelled so far, I couldn’t go home empty-handed.

Peacehaven & Telscombe 0 Hastings United 4 – The Sports Park – Saturday 2nd January 2016
Just before Christmas, Peacehaven announced that they were going to cut their playing budget. The announcement went on to explain that the decision, whilst a very difficult one to make knowing the potential ramifications for the team, was in the best interests of the club. Most of the senior, and potentially bigger weekly earners had departed, leaving manager Simon Colbran with a very young squad. However, despite their age and experience, and Colbran’s absence due to illness, Peacehaven put up a strong fight against a Hastings side who would still consider a play-off spot as a realistic ambition this year.

FullSizeRender (26)With the postponement of both Lewes’s and Whitehawk’s games, Peacehaven saw a significant increase in spectators – we simply cannot deal with a Saturday afternoon without our football – which hopefully translates into some additional cash into the budget for them.  The 250-odd fans will have seen a decent, open game, played in testing conditions.  Peacehaven certainly had their chances to equalise Billy Medlock’s early goal for Hastings in the first half, hitting the bar and missing a couple of great opportunities.  Players slipped and slid around the muddy pitch, with the referee letting the game flow as much as possible.  Hastings scored a second when former Rook Sam Cole finished off an excellent move that ripped apart the home defence to give them a comfortable lead at half-time.

The second half saw Hastings dominate, with conditions worsening.  The Peacehaven keeper struggled to stay on his feet on many occasions but he could do little with the two late goals.  First, a Sam Adams free-kick seemed to stick in the air due to the wind, and despite trying to re-judge where the ball would finally come back to earth, it slipped from his grasp and Richardson-Brown tapped home.  The scoring was complete when Cumming-Bart shot from the edge of the area after some neat build up play.

Whilst Hastings walked away with three points, Peacehaven can also pride themselves on being winners.  Not only did they manage to get the game on (or perhaps have a referee who wanted to officiate a game despite the conditions) but they also competed for long periods with a team short on experience and age.

Screw you guys, I’m going home


To be fair there was a dozen or so titles I could have used for this mini-blog about my visit to watch South Park.  Not since Rhubarb & Custard Rovers went bust back in 1978 has a football club spawned its own animated show.  Not even the Oil and Gas billions of Chelsea and Manchester City led to the resurrection of a new series of Hong Kong Phoey or Top Cat (rumours that Barcelona have signed a deal to remake that as “Top Catalunya” are yet to be confirmed).  According to the Buzzfeed website, the catchphrase in the title is the most recognised line in the animated sitcom that has been running for 18 series since the late 1990’s.  Oh how the fans of Ryman League South side South Park must laugh every time visiting supporters leave.  The club apparently still has a ban on signing players called “Kenny” for fear of their lives.

The football club’s trajectory has been at the expense of the TV show.  There could only be the place for one South Park in the media and it was the time of the football club to claim their rightful mantle.  Just ten years ago the club were playing in the Crawley & District League.  They didn’t play their first national cup game, the FA Vase tie against Shoreham, until 2006 and five years ago entered the FA Cup for the first time.  In 2014 they won promotion to the Ryman League and more than held their own in their debut season last year, mainly thanks to the goals of Chris Smith (34 goals) who had now joined tonight’s opponents, Burgess Hill Town.

FullSizeRenderOne of the keys to their success is having a 7 day a week facility that is used by the community.  Whilst the clubhouse sits a couple of hundred of yards from the ground, it is used for all hospitality for the club as well as a cricket pavilion and darts.  Dare I say there was a fast shoe shuffled there a few nights a week too.  For those who don’t know where South Park is then let me enlighten you.  Head around the M25 to junction 8, follow signs to Reigate, navigate the one-way system and then head down the narrowest, twisty country lanes for 1.4 miles and you have arrived at your destination.

Tonight’s game was a bit of a bonus as it gave me the chance to have a little look at one of our opponents next season, Burgess Hill Town who swept all before them last season and judging by their pre-season acquisitions will be quite a proposition this season.  Not that you can ever learn anything from friendlies, apparently.

South Park  1 Burgess Hill Town 4 – King George’s Field – Wednesday 29th July 2015
The one vital component in scouting a team is a team sheet.  It’s all very well in the professional era where all of the players have names on their shirts, but at a Non-League level it is neigh on impossible to find out who is who unless you know the club well.  Which I didn’t.  Still you can look at formations and style of play – that is until they change that two or three times in the game.  Still, I had a nice bottle of Hog’s Back Brewery TEA which more than made up for my almost blank sheet of paper at half time.

FullSizeRender (1)This really was a game of two halves.  It also broke my run of twelve consecutive games where both teams had failed to score, a run that had taken me across the world and back. South Park started the brighter and took an early lead and had the better of the midfield exchanges in the first period, then after the break it was a different story as Burgess Hill changed things around and scored four goals which their dominance deserved.

Time will tell how far the South Park journey will go.  For now they seemed very much at home in their little country pad, with an excellent community facility, looking to upset the bigger teams in the league.

 

We’ll win nothing with kids….probably


It’s been fourteen games and nearly three years since Lewes’s first team squad won a Pre-Season Friendly.  Of course we will always be told that at this stage of the season it is all about the performance and not the final score – but that’s three years, or to be precise 1,084 days of pre-season hurt.  Only a very small percentage of fans turn out for the pre-season games – whether it is because of holidays, because you can’t every really gauge anything from them or simply on a day like today it is simply the chance to sit in the sunshine.  Nobody would surely forsake the football for a trip to Ikea or B&Q megastore?

Once again we have a mix of opponents this season – Our headline game is the, now annual, visit of Brighton & Hove Albion next week with their full first team squad, whilst in a few weeks Alan Pardew will bring down his second string Palace side (which to a man will probably earn more in a week than we do in a year).  Our home programme is completed by Eastbourne Borough in the “we play each other every year and really should get a cup but we can’t be bothered sort of way”.  Away from home we visit Sussex League Hassocks, Ryman South League Worthing and today’s trip down the River Ouse and along a bit to the Sports Park at Peacehaven.

Last season the Magpies suffered the heartbreak of a last day relegation, having been two-nil up in their final game needing a win to be safe.  Four second half goals, coupled with virtually every result going against them saw them relegated after just one season in the Ryman Premier League.  Despite them being our nearest rivals, there’s no animosity between the two clubs and their loss will be felt by us this season in terms of two local derbies.  So an opportunity for an early season local trip was more than welcome.

FullSizeRender (1)There’d been talk on the Lewes Forum in recent days as to whether we would be even able to raise a team.  Some fans don’t seem to understand the fluid nature of pre-season and that you can announce a player as signed today and tomorrow he is off down the road for £3 more per week.  Consequently, until we have 100% (or as close as we can get it) commitment, we will not announce someone as “signed”.  I’m sure that frustrates some fans who are expecting news, but that’s the way we want to run things now.

The squad that traveled down the A26 then around the Newhaven one-way system before climbing up the A259 would certainly be a young one although there’s not alot that the centre-back pairing of Lovett and Breach haven’t seen in their time.  Peacehaven on a sunny July afternoon is a great place to watch football.  The beautiful Sussex Downs roll away in the distance, the seagulls were flying overhead and the Harvey’s was on draft.  Heck, even the chips at £1.50 a pop were bringing a smile to Cynical Dave’s face.

Peacehaven & Telscombe 0 Lewes 3 – The Sports Park – Saturday 11th July 2015
“You’ll never win anything with kids” is probably one of the most famous lines ever uttered by a football pundit.  Alan Hanson will forever be reminded of his words by Manchester United fans after their opening day defeat to Aston Villa back in August 1995.  Those kids were the Neville brothers, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Lee Sharpe and of course David Beckham.  Some kids, eh!

FullSizeRender (2)Nobody will get carried away with the result from the first game of Pre-season but those who did see the game will have all seen something we haven’t seen for a long time as Lewes fans.  Players playing without fear.  No fear of making a mistake.  No fear of taking players on.  No fear of trying a killer pass.  One game does not make a season, but even if we saw half as much of the communication, enterprise and spirit as we did yesterday in our league campaign we would have made some significant progress.

The Rooks finished the game with seven players under the age of 21, and more importantly, playing good football.  That to me is more important than the result.  Short passing to feet rather than hoofing it long, especially from the back.  Players talking to each other, encouraging each other.

For the record James Fraser opened the scoring on twenty minutes, slamming the ball home from ten yards after Jay Lovett’s goal-bound shot struck a Peacehaven arm.  The second was a deft flick from Elliot Levy from a deep Redwood cross that the Peacehaven keeper should have grabbed and the third in the opening minutes of the second period was tapped in by Nathan Crabb after a horrible mix up between keeper and defender from a Lewes free-kick.  It could have been more – the very impressive Alex Laing’s late free-kick cannoned off the bar.

Of course it will be a different story next Saturday when Chris Hughton brings his full Brighton & Hove Albion first team squad to the Pan.  But once again, the result will be secondary – it will be about testing the mental strength of the squad, giving them experience of what they will come up against sometimes this season and above all learning from how the professionals do it.

 

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Tale 11- Pre-season opponents


Ever wondered the rationale behind who your team play in a pre-season friendly?  Well, putting the money aside from the likes of the International Champions Cup, Audi Cup or the Emirates Cup, you may be surprised to hear there is some method in the madness of arranging these pre-season games.  I only found this out when I started suggesting potential opponents to our manager and was surprised by some of the feedback.  So, based on the last month or so, here is the undefinitive guide to pre-season friendlies.

Non-League clubs arrange pre-season games based on three criteria:-

Lewes v Brighton 20151. To make as much money as possible – These will be games on a Saturday, ideally, at home against either a team from a much higher division or a local rival in another division (not necessarily higher).  These games are the cream on the top of the Non-League milk bottles, the ones that keep you going through the winter when cash is tight and home games fall foul to the conditions.  For most Non-League clubs the chance that an Arsenal, Chelsea, Man United or a West Ham (one of the big teams in other words) would ever consider playing a friendly against you, and if they did even contemplating bringing a first team squad get rarer every season.  Gone are the days when most of the team that plays in these games would have first team experience.  Go and watch an Arsenal XI these days and you will see players who will never even get a sniff of the bench for League Cup 3rd round games.  Anyone who has a first team future or a resale value will be with the squad on their pre-season tour of Dubai/Hong Kong/Beverly Hills.  You can try to seduce them by playing on their conscious for something like a testimonial for someone who has been at the club for 75 years or that you want to commemorate switching on your new floodlights then they may just do something.  Otherwise it is all about getting in quick – most of these big games are arranged 6-12 months before they ever take place.  It’s not just the fans that flock to these games, but sponsors and commercial opportunities.  Time it right and you may also get some major media interest such as the first game in charge for a new manager (the opposition rather than yours).

For Lewes we have two games that generate the interest to bring in the crowds – Brighton & Hove Albion and Eastbourne Borough.  No real surprises about the former – sitting right on our doorstep and many fans having an allegiance to both clubs, this will be the third year in a row we have hosted The Seagulls.  Last season was Sami Hyypia’s first game in charge so there was the curiosity value as well which helped towards a 2,300 sell-out and the attendance of Sky Sports News.  Eastbourne Borough is a rivalry that grew out of the relative successes of both sides as they rose up the leagues a decade ago, culminating in both teams reaching the Conference Premier in 2009.  Games these days aren’t as passionate as they were on Boxing Day back then but they still pull in a four-figure crowd.  Both will be visiting the Pan this season as part of our pre-season programme.

9330354256_82d3fe528b_b (1)2. To show your benevolent side – As point 1 but this time you are deemed the bigger side and you head off into the county leagues to play someone.  Most clubs at our level will look to play three or four of these in the pre-season, testing out various new formations.  Expect to see your second or third choice goal keeper used in these games (or in most Non-League team’s cases the Under21’s and Under18’s keeper).  The away fans like the opportunity to visit grounds/pubs we wouldn’t normally go to and quite often there is local interest from players where this may be their local club, or even fans.

IMG_36153. To test your squad/tactics – Sometimes you will see a pre-season game that will look strange on paper.  Why would we be playing a team who simply lump the ball long to an ogre of a centre-forward.  How can that possibly help?  What better way to test whether your new centre-back pairing can handle the aerial threat of certain teams in your division (no names but they come from Essex), or whether your new 2-3-5 formation will work by playing someone who you should score double figures against.  This is often known as the cannon-fodder strategy, similar to the way a boxer will use a sparring partner.  What fans have to remember here is that you may well lose the battle so that you can win the war.  In other words, you may end up getting beaten (or vice-versa beating a team you wouldn’t normally expect to) but you will have found out if one specific element of your preparation has worked or not.  It is also at these games that you can expect an appearance from that chap A Triallist.  That’s always good fun to see who in the crowd can recognise him.  The issue comes when you have two of them in the squad for a game – do you call the second one B Triallist or AA Triallist or A Test?

Once in a while there are also the very strange games that seem to serve no purpose at all.  A few years ago Lewes hosted Essex United FC, which was essentially a few members of the cast of TOWIE and some production crew.  Ralph Little probably played too – he seems to play for a different team every day, billed as “star of The Royal Family”.  Mark Wright (the “actor” rather than the Ex-Southampton and Liverpool centre-back) played in the game and the hope was to draw a crowd of screaming teenagers to fawn over him.  It didn’t work, and Lewes could only manage a 1-1 draw against a team of thespian in front of a few hundred people.  Hardly the sell out crowd that our manager at the time had promised.

There may also be the hastily-arranged “Behind Closed Doors” game that fans sometimes never hear about.  These tend to be arranged to try out a few new players who you don’t necessarily want to announce you have signed just yet, or you could have players coming back from long-term injury and you don’t yet want to offer them a deal “just in case”.

Of course, you have to remember that age-old rule of “never play a pre-season game against a team from your own division”.  I still do not understand this wives tale.  Why wouldn’t you play someone who you could potentially play in a few weeks?  This of course goes out of the window if you are playing in a pre-season tournament on the other side of the world (i.e for lots of cash) such as Man Utd playing Liverpool in the final of the ICC last season, or those bizarre games between Chelsea and Man City last year at Yankee Stadium in New York.

Waking up the neighbours


In a couple of years there could well be a brand new football stadium at the end of the road here in TBIRville in South London. In fact, we have a few building projects on the map that will make a huge difference to the area. First up will be our very own Premier Inn at the top of the hill. Whilst the Sizzle Grill can boast a 4.5 rating on TripAdvisor, the other main attractions of the area hardly demand a hotel.

“A library, Co-operative Food Store, a butchers and a Dance studio” says Wikipedia, which isn’t really known for playing down the truth. Heck, we only have 1 pub, in a mile radius. This is suburbia not the Shetlands!

Perhaps the hotel is needed for when Paramount Park opens in 2020. Europe’s largest Theme Park, indoor venue and entertainment attraction no less, to be built in Swanscombe just 7 miles away. I’m not sure why we need such excitement – after all we’ve already got a petting zoo round the corner.

But who wants inverted 4G rollercoaster when you can have football. Paramount Park? Pah! It’s all about Flamingo Park and the news that the world’s third oldest football team will finally stop being wanderers and have a home of their own. Welcome to the neighbourhood, Cray Wanderers.

IMG_2345The club, formed in 1860, may not be known to many who don’t frequent the Non League circles. The last few years haven’t been the kindest to the club. After sacking manager of 14 years, Ian Jenkins, in September 2013 the club have been on a downward spiral, first being relegated from the Ryman Premier League and not in the relegation zone of the North Division. The one ray of sunshine has been the news that the club have bought the option on the land to build the new stadium. There’s no houses close by (thus no potential NIMBY influence), surrounded by a crematorium and a driving range and access would be direct onto the A20 dual carriageway. It would replace the existing Flamingo Park structure, home now to car boot sales, desperate over 40’s singles nights and the occasional travelling fairground that keeps the teenage birth rate up in the area. Who wouldn’t want to give planning permission for that?

All being well The Wanderers could be on my Christmas card list in three years, although by then the 2,200 capacity stadium may be hosting county league football. Something needs to stop the rot. A pre-Christmas visit of high-flying Harlow Town and their goal machine Alex Read was surely just the tonic. In terms of preparation, losing your manager (Mike Paye) 24 hours before kick off probably isn’t the greatest preparation either.

With landlords Bromley playing on Saturday, Cray were bumped off the main bill to the support card of Sunday. What a perfect opportunity for all the harassed fathers and husbands to drop their treasures off in the High Street then escape for a couple of hours to watch some good, honest football? Or was it just me who had that idea?

IMG_2334The first thing you notice if you haven’t been to Bromley FC this season is that the ground is now called The Fortress.  Alas, despite the coaching genius of Hugo Langton, the name has nothing to do with the impregnable Bromley defence, it is related to a sponsorship deal.   Once you pass through the turnstiles you will also notice that the old “lower” bar has now been replaced.  Instead of the jigsawed portakabin structure there is now Ravens, a wooden-bedecked bar and grill.  Very smart too – would have been even better if there any staff actually serving before the game though.

Cray Wanderers 2 Harlow Town 2 – Hayes Lane – Sunday 21st December 2014
Twenty minutes into this game you felt like waving the white flag on behalf of the home side.  Two nil down to high-flying Harlow, to anyone watching the game it was a case of how many the visitors would score.  But football is a fickle mistress and within a minute Cray were back in the game.  A spirited second half performance against ten men almost saw them grab all three points, rather than the one they finally earned.

With no other games in London today, the crowd was boosted by a fair few anorak wearers, desperate to find a team sheet and get a touch of the ball.  There were some loud tuts in the bar at the fact there was no real ale on, with the closest thing being some bottles of MasterBrew.  A ground of German ground hoppers didn’t care as they tucked into the Oranjeboom (“It’s a lager not a tune” I reminded one), fresh from a trip to see Spurs yesterday.

IMG_2332Despite the culture shock of having to play on a ploughed field compared to their lush 3G pitch, Harlow started with the kind of momentum their league position suggests and had come close twice before Junior Appiah opened the scoring in the 4th minute in somewhat comical style.  A Cray goal kick hits a defender’s back on the half-way line, the wind then carries the ball back over the heads of the back four, Alex Read mis-hits the ball into the path of Appiah and he slots the ball home.

Appiah and Read were causing all sorts of problems for the Cray defence, with some calamitous defending keeping the score down.  That man Read then pounced on a loose ball in the box, doubling the score with just twenty minutes on the clock.  It was all going so well for the visitors.  And then it all changed.  Cray’s first corner of the game saw centre-half, Dmitri Larin, steal in and head home.  Hope springs eternal.

IMG_2343Despite mounting pressure in the second half, Harlow simply couldn’t find the target.  Their job of holding onto the lead was made harder when Billy Jones was sent off for what was deemed a “reckless foul”, a harsh decision in most people’s book although the resulting 20 player melee was amusing to say the least.

With the temperature plunging, Cray started to warm up.  Poor defending left the Cray sub Shaun Welford unmarked and he headed home.  Two goals conceded from two unmarked positions. Only one team seemed to be in the hunt for the winner and Cray came within inches of grabbing all three points in the final seconds when only an acrobatic clearance denied them.

Full time – a great way to spend the final hours of the weekend before Christmas.  Harlow wont be happy with a point after their early domination, but Cray showed the type of fight that’s needed to drag themselves out of the relegation zone.  Who knows, with a point here, and news of a new ground on the horizon there could be a happy ending for one of the world’s oldest Wanderers.

The Nowhere Men


“You can never have enough heads”, so Worzel Gummidge once said and nothing could be closer to the truth than the roles I currently have at Lewes.  Director, co-website editor, co-programme editor and post-match interviewer. But I wouldn’t change them for the world.  We all have numerous roles at the board level, all unpaid and all done because we love the club. But this season I have taken on a new role.

imagesIn his recent book, the Nowhere Men, author Michael Calvin explores the role that scouts play in modern football.  These incredibly poorly paid, dedicated people see hundreds of games a season, often being paid no more than expenses, to try to find the next “Wayne Rooney”.  The book, one of the finest I have read in the past year, details Calvin’s interactions with the unseen, unheard of, secret layer of football. The Scouting network.  Whether it is trying to spot the next Rooney (Wayne rather than his cousin John) before anyone else, or trying to spot a weaknesses in the way a centre-back reads the game, a scout’s success or failure can often be a margin call, a gamble or even a gut feeling.

Tonight I have joined the Nowhere Men at Carshalton Athletic versus Dulwich Hamlet.  Whilst most football fans will be sitting comfortably at home, beer in hand, watching Olympiakos versus Manchester United, I am at The War Memorial Ground , struggling to see what I am writing in the darkness of the main stand, as I compile a scouting report on our forthcoming opponents.  With the information fresh in my head I will burn the midnight candle to get my observations onto a formal report before sending off to our management team.

It has come to something when I now get a formal nod of respect from others who tread this lonely path.  I made by scouting debut some years ago, but it wasn’t until this season that it become a regular gig.  I now look after “Scouting operations” in Kent, London and Essex.  Sounds flash, eh?  Well it is a self-awarded title but one I am proud of.  Essentially whenever I have a spare evening (or a Saturday as has been the case all too often this winter) and one of our opponents are within an hour’s drive I will be there, huddled in my big coat trying to work out if the right back really is right-footed at all and whether the centre-midfielder is really a holding player or simply unfit.  With every game you watch, you learn more about the game, more about how players minds work and more about the vulnerabilities and weaknesses each team has. And how desperate we all are at this level to pretend we are really making a difference. Continue reading