The Unreal situation of counterfeiting in football


Last year saw the launch of the BBC’s annual Cost of Football survey which once again leads to lots of back-slapping, table thumping and general head scratching at the costs fans have to pay to watch and engage with their teams.

Whilst some of this year’s headlines will focus on the first drop in ticket pricing in some areas for the first time in a long time, primarily due to an agreed cap in prices for away ticket sales, you cannot ignore the numbers relating to the cost of football shirts.  Newport County Football Club have probably never been top of many league tables, but according to the survey, they sell the cheapest current replica shirt at £37.50 out of the 92 clubs playing in the professional game today.  At the other end of the scale, the two Manchester clubs sell the most expensive replica adult shirt at £60.

Whilst the cost of football shirts is not a new tub-thumping topic, you can understand some of the outrage today at these figures.  Whilst the actual of producing the shirts is a closely guarded secret by the manufacturers, it is highly unlikely to be more than 20% of the sale price.  It is no mystery in many instances, however, about the amounts that clubs are receiving from shirt sponsorship and the deals with the shirt manufacturers.

The news that Chelsea have signed a new kit deal with Nike for a reported £60 million A SEASON once again puts into perspective how money is dominating the highest level of our national game.  The Blues terminated their existing deal with adidas six years early in what can have only been a purely money-motivated move (that deal was rumoured to be “just” £30 million a year) to sign the deal with Nike for the next fifteen years, which will see them earn £900 million (assuming there are no other bonus elements for winning cups) – read more about the Chelsea deal here.

Football shirts are not like Gucci handbags or Hermes scarves.  They are not luxury items.  They are lifestyle items. Yet they are priced as such. Some brands will say that the reason why the shirts are priced so high is as a direct result of the problem of counterfeiting.  Is that fair?  This is a Catch 22 situation – the more a manufacturer invests in the production process to try and defeat the counterfeiters, the higher the retail price is set which will drive more people to but an inferior but lower cost counterfeit.

One in six products sold today is counterfeit.  In the UK alone it is an industry worth over $20billion.  This number continues to rise every year despite attempts by companies such as NetNames to scour the Internet, find the infringing items and removing the offending websites or online sellers from the web.  However, with money still tight in many households, high-ticket desirable items such as the football shirts fuel the growth in counterfeiting.

Manufacturers state that the prices are being driven up by counterfeiters, not realising that by increasing their prices they make the issue worse.  They claim that the effect of buying fake ‘knock off’ goods has a ‘knock on’ effect on the price of legitimate products.  Every pound, euro or dollar spent on counterfeits is a pound, euro or dollar not spent with the brand owner, reducing the savings from economies of scale that can be passed on to the consumer. Production costs, support costs, marketing costs and legal costs are all higher, which the brand owner must pass on to the consumer – a double whammy.  However, in the football shirt world it seems that the price tag is high because they know irrespective of the purchase price, the demand for the product is already there.  A Liverpool football fan is hardly likely to decide to support arch rival Everton and buy a Blues football top simply because of a price tag.  They will simply seek a cheaper “fix”.  A football fan with £20 to spend on a shirt will spend £20 on a shirt whether it is a fake or not in most cases.

It’s not hard to find counterfeit football shirts.  Many of us will have seen them for same in tourist destinations or street markets – even at first glance you can see they are inferior quality either by spelling mistakes on the sponsor name or even the club badge itself whilst a simple search on a number of market place websites such as Taobao reveals shirts for most major clubs in frightening volumes.

So what is the answer? We’ve seen that fan power does has an impact on the costs associated with football from the agreement that away tickets in the Premier League are capped at the moment at £30. Perhaps a similar campaign could force the club’s and the manufacturers to reduce the price of replica shirts?  They need to be as a part of the solution as they are in the problem.  Educating fans about the social costs of counterfeiting is also a step in the right direction, especially targeting the fans of tomorrow with purchasing power.

This is one aspect that the International Trademark Association (INTA) have been focusing on through its Unreal campaign which aims to educate 16-18 year old on the dangers, both real and hidden of buying counterfeits.  Sporting goods and equipment such as replica football shirts are very much in these consumer’s eyes and so trying to spell out the ethical and criminal nature of counterfeits and the effects it has on society as a whole can only be a good thing.  However, it still needs the manufacturers to do their part too – they need to also educate consumers on the costs and dangers as well as ways by which counterfeits can be reported.

Nothing really changes in football, nor in any other sport.  Despite what many commentators will tell you, it’s no longer a beautiful game.  Clubs are commercial entities with shareholders and owners to deliver a return to.  Fans are brand ambassadors whose loyalty is often measured on how much they spend on branded merchandise rather than if they can remember who scored the FA Cup 3rd round winner back in 1972.

Economic Theory explained by Football 22 – The Public Choice Theory


It’s quite probable that when James M Buchanan Jnr created is Public Choice Theory he didn’t expect to win a Nobel Prize.  But that’s what he did.  He probably also didn’t think it would be used to explain why certain players strike up natural partnerships with each other that delivers significant benefits for their club.

Buchanan was almost certainly a fan of the great Rapid Vienna side of the early Eighties who won back to back Austrian Bundesliga titles whilst he was teaching at the Austrian School of Economics.  They won the1982-83 title on goal difference from city rivals Austria Vienna thanks in no part to the goal-scoring partnership of Hans Krankl and Antonín Panenka.  Krankl was a goal-scoring legend for the club, scoring 267 goals in 350 games but he rarely found a striking partner who he worked well with.  Enter Czechoslovakian Panenka in 1981 and the rest is history and he averaged a goal every other game in his four years at the club.

So what’s a Nobel-winning Economic theory got to do with the scoring exploits of Krankl and Panenka?  Good question to ask and one that Buchanan could have taken to his grave if it wasn’t for his study, Buchanan lays out his award-winning theory in a book he co-authored with Gordon Tullock called, “The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy.”

Buchanan brought together insights from political science and economics to explain how public-sector individuals, such as politicians and civil servants make decisions. He showed that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that the public-sector acts in the public’s best interest, unless there is a clear win-win situation.  In footballing terms, players, especially strikers, are inherently selfish, wanting all the glory for themselves.

However, once in a while a club will stumble of a partnership where both players work in unison, understanding that the sum of the two talents is greater than their individual efforts and thus debunking Buchanan’s work.  Shearer and Sutton, Sheringham and Cole, Cottee and McAvennie and now Smith and Okoh for the mighty Rooks have proved that mutual interest is stronger than self-interest.

Since our dynamic duo were paired together against Sittingbourne, they’ve scored six between them, of which five have been laid on by each other.  Last weekend’s opening goal against Godalming Town was a classic example with Jonté Smith holding the ball up and drawing defenders to him before playing Stephen into space behind the defence to slot home.  For us Rooks fans the partnership is getting better game by game although would have had Buchanan tutting into his Apple Strudl.  He would have enjoyed Okoh’s solo effort in Guernsey though where he appeared to take on the whole Guernsey side without a care in the world for the Rooks players (including Jonté himself) in support before curling it home.

So next time you see a player decide he’s going go it alone and ignore his team mates in better positions rest assured it’s not through self-interest but rather conforming to a Nobel-prize winning theory.

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.

Notes from the Main Stand


We’ve got a relatively settled routine as to how we prepare for home games.  At around 2.15pm (for a 3pm kick off) we will get the first sight of the opposition’s starting XI and from that moment we will start to compare their line up to their previous game, or one that we have got a scouting report on.  In the next ten minutes alterations will be made to our formation, tactics and set-pieces, to try to exploit any weaknesses.  Of course, our approach isn’t unique and our opponents will be more than likely doing exactly the same downstairs in their changing room.  Whilst no one will ever confess to games being won off the pitch, the importance of preparation cannot be under estimated even at our level.

fullsizerenderYesterday the preparations and execution were slightly different.  Having played our visitors just four days previously meant we knew a fair bit about them.  It’s fair to say that we spent some of the time on Tuesday watching how they played rather than our own performance in preparation for today.  Few teams set themselves up the same when they travel away.  Alas, with a threadbare squad at the moment, we don’t have much choice.  Injuries to Matthew George and Ronnie Conlon further depleted our squad yesterday but we have a talented group of youngsters such as Dean Stewart-Hunter who came into the side.  The notable change in our visitors line up was the return of keeper Jack Delo, who had been injured in the warm up.  Even knowing what the injury was enabled us to have a plan to try to exploit that weakness.

fullsizerender-1Our visitors “secret weapon” on Tuesday was their huge long-throws which when they first started taking them, surprised us.  So the key to this game was don’t concede throw-ins in the final third.  If in doubt, concede a corner or simply clear it in-field.  If we did concede one, then bear in mind they would be likely to throw the first couple short to surprise us.

The second complicating issue for this game was that Darren would be serving a one-game touchline ban relating to his dismissal back in October against Cray Wanderers.  He’d entered the field of play after a Cray player had assaulted Lloyd Cotton and subsequently been red-carded.

We could of course appeal against the charge but would need to submit evidence to the contrary of the match officials.  Lose the appeal and the fine (£100), and the ban (1 game) could be significantly worse.  So Darren took his punishment and headed to the stands.   But how could we ensure he would be manager seen and not heard?  Simple – I would sit next to him and make sure he served his ban.

According to the official FA guidelines on an official serving a touchline ban, the ruling is:-

“A participant serving a touchline ban should take up a position in the directors box if one is in existence. Where there is no directors box (or a position is not available) they are required to take a position in a stand or position which is detached from and some distance away from the dugouts”

fullsizerender-3With only a few rows of seating in our Main Stand, Darren would be within shouting distance of Ross and Codge.  However:-

“The participant can make communication with members of the coaching team within the dugout but only via the use of a telephone or a ‘runner’.”

So the “runner” would be me, passing notes down to the dugout.  Not quite the normal afternoon of watching the game for me then.

Lewes 3 Herne Bay 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 14th January 2017
The first instruction is written down and is given to me.  As I head down the steps to tell Ross that James Hammond should take the free-kick, I can hear Darren shout “Get ‘Ammo to take it..”  Hammond does indeed take the free-kick and he curls it perfectly into the top corner to give us a 1-0 lead.  It’s going to be a long afternoon.

img_2835-700x400Thirty seconds later Stephen Okoh races clear of the Herne Bay defence and lobs the ball over the keeper…as the ball is in the air I feel a grab on my arm.  Could it be two?  No, the ball shaved the post and goes wide.  Notes are furiously written by Darren as he sees things I can’t see.

“Win the ball faster” he shouts at nobody, but Codge hears him, translating his message into a quiet word in the ear of Lloyd Harrington as he comes over to take a throw-in.  On the twenty minute mark, the Vice-Chairman of the Isthmian League sits directly behind Darren.  I write on a note that he is sitting behind him, but Daz is too engrossed in the game, concerned that Jack Dixon is sitting on the ball too long.

He races off at the half-time whistle, trying to get into the dressing room before the players, ready to give his full and frank opinion on why we aren’t more than one goal ahead.

Less than two minutes into the second half Dixon fouls his marker, picks up a yellow card which will see him banned for two more games (having just come back from a two game suspension) and the referee points to the spot.  On Tuesday night Adria pulled off a superb save from Pulman’s spot kick.  Today it is Walder who steps up and slots it into the corner.  Somehow we are level.

“We’re flat and that’s making the crowd flat”  I text Deaksy and tell him to start singing.

The written messages soon dry up, replaced by my phone being used as a walkie-talkie with Ross on the touchline.  James Hammond restores our lead with a tap-in after the impressive Kaja roasts his man down the right and tees him up.  Then the crowd start making some noise and we start dominating play.

fullsizerender-2Lloyd Harrington picks up a yellow, meaning he will also miss the two vital games against Dorking Wanderers.  “Looks like I’m going to have to play in those games”.  I assume he’s joking although when Charlie Coppola neatly flicks the ball round his marker, Darren tells me the England Schoolboys international learnt that trick from him in training and I can see the seriousness in his eyes.

We huff and puff and finally blow the Herne Bay resistence down with a third in injury time, Egli Kaja (the first ever Albanian to play for Lewes for those who love a random fact) beats his man and is then hauled down.  A mele breaks out as four or five Rooks players want to take the spot-kick.  Jack Dixon wins the discussion and slots home.  Job well done all round.  I could now have a beer and relax, around two hours later than I normally could.

Three wins on the bounce, scoring nine times and conceding just twice means that we rise to 5th in the table, the highest we have been since the opening day win at Chipstead.

The final restriction that we had to ensure Darren complied with was a little bit stranger:-

“The participant who is subject to a touchline ban may not make contact with match officials, match delegates or assessors prior, during or after the match.”

Which technically meant when the officials came into the bar for their pasta post-match, Darren couldn’t even go and shake their hand and say “well done” although he resisted passing me any further notes.  Normal service will be resumed in two weeks time thankfully.

Master of none


What happens when you get a bit lippy and suggest to one of your colleagues that their job on a match day was “easy”? It seemed I was just about to find out the hard way as our beloved club secretary Barry was heading off on a business trip 24 hours prior to our final game of 2016.  To make matters worse, we also had no kit man for the game.  First rule behind the scenes in Non-League football is “Be prepared to do it yourself” which is why I was wandering into the Dripping Pan four hours before kick off against Three Bridges with a bag full of assorted sock tape.

Lay the kit out, pump up a few balls, write out the team sheet and shake hands with the referee right?  What’s so difficult about that?  Alas, it if was that simple I would have been enjoying a beer or two an hour before the game rather than worriedly looking for instructions about how to use Football Web Pages live system and trying to find the season ticket list for Gate 3.

img_2255The first issue on arrival was the fog.  The previous evening has seen the game at The Amex postponed due to it and it appeared that overnight the problem hadn’t got much better in these parts. There was not a lot I could do about that bar man the phones and let people know that I could see both goals from the office and we “should” be OK for 1pm.

Before Barry headed off to try to increase our 12th Man Fund in Las Vegas, he left some instructions for me in terms of the Club Secretary duties for a match day.  Even by Barry’s very organised standards, I wasn’t expecting a four page document for each role (plus attachments), all colour-coded and in chronological order.  According to his list, by 1:45pm I should have been collecting biscuits from the Referees room.  Or was it giving them biscuits and taking their expense claims?  Of course, Barry had forgotten we had moved the kick off forward to 1pm so I was either 2 hours early or 2 hours late.  I’m not sure which.  The biggest worry was the fact if I didn’t do something to someone on the Internet at 1pm/3pm then Kellie Discipline, the League Secretary, would be straight on the phone giving me a dressing or a fine.  Or perhaps both.  Oh, and the fact it said “5:30pm – relax and have a beer” – that was three hours away.

img_2136So here I am thirty minutes before kick off trying to sort out a kit issue (one of those strange cut-off under socks has gone missing), whilst re-printing forty team sheets that had a big spelling mistake on (Thee Bridges may have been popular in Shakespeare’s time but not today apparently) on a printer that will only allow me to print one at a time due to a cartridge “issue”.  Oh and sorting out the play list which has all of a sudden started playing Isabella’s Disney Princess mix from 2008.  The phone rings and someone from the local paper wants to come along and watch the game and would like a pass for the 3pm game which he then goes into a panic over when I say it is a 1pm kick off as he has just arrived as “Monkey Biz” with his daughter and “there was no way he could get her out of the ball pool in 15 minutes’.  First world problems.

A normal pre-match for me involves a pint, chatting with some of my fellow fans, an in-depth discussion with Darren on our opponents and where the strengths/weaknesses are before preparing myself for any tricky names to read out on the team sheet.  Today I’m having to find the charger adapter for the substitutes board (The League donated one to each club but when we opened the package it had a European plug on), that should have been on charge an hour ago whilst ensuring that the referees assessor was put on the guest list.

I’d already had the dilemma of how to lay out the kit.  The home dressing room only has 24 pegs up – we have a squad of 20 arriving, but should the 1-11 get two pegs (one to hang the kit and one for their stuff) or does everyone get one each?  I’m mildly concerned that we have two slightly different sets of socks and my OCD kicks in by unravelling every pair to ensure that at least each pair matches.  Then there is the TV – it should be showing BT Sports but it has QVC on.  The signal comes from the bar, which is currently locked.

img_2256Best of all, our superb Groundsmen have arrived to use a fancy new machine on the pitch but they are unaware it is a 1pm start and so are trying to ride this contraption up and down the grass, avoiding the players now warming up.

Sounds like fun?  Too right it is.  I love being part of the magic that is match day.  Huge amounts of work goes into making sure that everyone gets to try to enjoy ninety minutes of football.  Whilst we can’t influence the result directly, the preparation that is necessary before every game should be aimed at giving Darren’s side the best opportunity possible to win the match.

I started this year sitting in the stands scouting at Peacehaven & Telscombe and would end it clearing up the detritus from the home team bench. That’s the beauty of the game at this level – you make a difference, as too does every other volunteer that gives up their personal time to help the club.

So how has 2016 treated us?  With all the doom and gloom around in the past few weeks you’d be mistaken to think that our relegation at the end of last season automatically made 2016 a bad year for us.  Actually, we probably made more progress this year on and off the pitch that any year in the past five including winning the Sussex Intermediate Cup.  2015 saw us avoid relegation technically on the last day of the season (although events elsewhere meant we couldn’t be relegated even if we had lost to Bury Town on the final day), get hammered in the Sussex Senior Cup Final and then start the 2015/16 season poorly.  The first half of the 2015/16 was no better as we started poorly and got worse.  It wasn’t until last December that things began to improve on the pitch.  Since January performances have been stronger and there is more of a settled feel in the squad as the stats below illustrate.

In the previous year we played 50 Ryman League games, gaining just 37 points and conceding a mammoth 93 goals in the process.  We won just 10 times, whilst tasted defeat on 33 occasions.  It is fair to say that was relegation form.  Prior to today’s game we’d played 43 Ryman League games in 2016 and gained 65 points, winning 17 and drawing 14.  We had scored 69 goals and conceded 70.  If we think back to that period between the start of March and the end of the season where we drew eight out of our ten games, losing just once, what might have happened if we would have not conceded late equalisers (Grays Athletic and VCD Athletic at home anyone?).  Extrapolate the 43 games into 46 and we have a 70 point season, enough in recent years to be in the top third of the table.

img_2257Unbeaten at home since early October, we hoped to finish the year off with a win against a Three Bridges side who have just two wins on the road (although they have been in their last trips away).  But football can be as unpredictable as the playlist I had put on before the match.  Just because the last two songs have been by the Killers, there’s no guarantee song three will not be something by The Cheeky Girls, or that Apollo 440, lined up as the walk-out song for the two teams actually turns out to be the Jive Bunny.

Lewes 4 Three Bridges 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 31st December 2016
Well, we’d got to the point where the referee had kicked off so we must have got most things right.  I checked Football Web Pages and saw that our starting XI was remarkably similar to last week’s, which wasn’t right so had to quickly amend that, not the easiest thing to do on a mobile.  Seven minutes gone and The Rooks were in front as Jonté Smith turned in the ball from close range.  Five minutes later I remembered that not only did I have to announce the goal but also add it onto Football Web Pages.

It wasn’t the best of halves to be honest although we were playing some nice football and never looked under threat.  Jamie Brotherton added a second in the 35th minute after a neat exchange of passes with Jonté and we should have had a penalty on the stroke of half-time when Conlon was bundled over.

The Lewes side emerged for the second half but there was no sign of our opponents or the officials.  The referee, showing that he is human, had not put enough change in the parking meter and so had to dash out to top it up, meaning nobody called the Three Bridges side out.  The additional time sat in the warm hardly did them any favours as Ronnie Conlon curled a beauty into the top corner within 46 seconds of the restart to make it 3-0.  Game over.  The fans in Philcox started singing “You’ve got more bridges than fans”, winning the chant of the year competition.

Or not quite.  We still have this ability to try to let victory slip out of our fingers.  It’s nothing new, especially here at The Pan.  Last season we gave up four points in two games by conceding injury time equalisers and all of a sudden in this game it went from 3-0 to 3-2.  There was an audible hum of discontent around the ground.  If we are to have any thoughts of breaking into the play-offs then we need to be winning games against teams at the wrong end of the table.

One magic substitution later and it was all smiles again as Charlie Coppola spanked home a loose ball in the area to make it 4-2.  In the two games between these sides this season there have been 14 goals.  Undoubtedly there could have been half a dozen more had it not been for the fine form of former Rook Kieron Thorp in the Three Bridges goal who kept the scoreline respectable in the final ten minutes.

At the final whistle I can enjoy that long overdue pint.  Alas it is not for relaxation – I just need to wait for the players to get changed so I can start sorting the kit and cleaning the dressing room so that come 1pm on Monday when they walk back in for the game against Horsham.  I’m not sure that 20 individuals could purposely make more mess if they tried.

With a game on Monday there would be no time for our usual kit washing or dressing room cleaning routine.  Duncan (Ops Manager) and I grabbed the brooms, buckets and mops and got to work whilst Jane (Director) picked up the kit to deliver to Carol (Director) to wash and dry all of the kit – the happiest of happy new year eve’s I’m sure with 21 shirts, 22 pairs of shorts (not quite sure why there were more shorts than shirts!), 22 pairs of socks, 11 pairs of cut-off socks, 24 warm up t-shirts, 18 warm up jacket and a random pair of Pringle pants for company as Big Ben struck twelve.

img_2262I’d read earlier in the day that the reason why it was a 1pm kick off was so that the directors had time to get ready before going up to London.  I wish that was the case.  The two hours we gave everyone back to enjoy the last night of the year was taken up for me by cleaning and then sitting in a traffic jam on the M25.  Did I mind?  Not one bit.

The afternoon summed up all that was good with the club.  I’m sure a few will grumble about the queue for food (a solution is in the pipe, or should I say pie, line) whereas I heard of a few others who missed the game because they didn’t know it was a 1pm kick off despite us promoting it through every available channel.  But a team effort on and off the pitch saw us end 2016 with three points and a smile on everyone’s faces.

Same again tomorrow everyone?

2016 – A year in football


So that was 2016.  A year most will remember for famous people dying, although the stats will show that no more than a normal year (our love of Social Media partly fuels this hyperbole about the mourning of our celebrity culture) but also a year of watching football.  Footballing duties at the mighty Lewes have restricted my consumption of random games and most certainly weekends away in the past twelve months but with the contract renewed for a third Football Tourist book in 2017/18 I will again be dusting down the passport.

Even so, 2016’s haul hasn’t been bad.  82 games, an average of one every 4 1/2 days in seven countries at 45 different grounds including 24 new stadiums.  In the process I witnessed 255 goals, an average of 3.1 goals per game, 36 home wins, 28 away wins and 17 draws.  Some games will be memorable for years, others have already been forgotten.

We all see games through various shades of rose tint.  A thriller for the neutral will be heartache for one set of fans.  The best referee in the world is a purely subjective decision based on what marginal calls he makes for your side.  So my list of the “best of” is how I saw football in 2016 – there’s no right or wrong just the opinions based on the games I saw.

The Best New Grounds visited
There’s always a sense of excitement visiting a new ground, especially one that people have raved about for years.  Some of my new “ticks” in 2016 were as basic, albeit enjoyable, as Glebe FC down in the SCEFL division 1, others told a story of success against the odds such as last week’s trip to Fisher FC’s new community stadium in Bermondsey.  But the three stadiums below, in no particular order were hands down the best visited for different reasons in 2016.

Glentoran – The Oval

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A hulking main stand, grass banks behind the goal, a bar buried in the history of the club and the stand, the giant cranes of Harland & Wolff in the distance and the planes making their descent into Belfast City Airport overhead – sometimes first time visitors to the iconic Oval may forget there’s a game going on.  The club are contemplating the future of the ground, drastically cut in capacity due to the sands of time but no football fan can ignore the lure of its rustic beauty.

Athletic Bilbao – San Mamés

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Inside the new San Mamés you could be forgiven that you are in any big new stadium in the world – functional is a word I’d use to describe the 60,000 odd red seats.  But put a roof on and smother the exterior with black and white panels and you’ve got a design icon that even Sir Norman Foster gave an approving nod to. Bilbao is already a weekend destination that just about hits every note, the addition of the new San Mamés has simply added it to the top of the list for the Football Tourist.

Olympique Marseille – Stade Vélodrome

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It’s hard to imagine this is the same ground I visited over a decade ago to watch an England v France rugby match but it is.  Back then there was no roof and the atmosphere drifted into the night sky, carried away on the Mistral.  Millions were spent upgrading the stadium making it fit for the 2016 European Championships.  The result is a stunning arena with curves that make Marilyn Monroe slimmer of the month.  Obviously what happened in the game between England and Russia is not how a visit should be remembered but still.

The Best Games of 2016
Goals win games and whilst we’ve all seen “entertaining” scoreless draws, unless a match has some life then it’s just going to fade into the memory bank along with all those other 2/5 rated games.  We saw some absolute shockers in 2016, some perhaps that may appear on other fans top games of the year (Faversham Town 5 Lewes 0 anyone?) but the games below are those that as a neutral had that ‘X’ factor…and goals plus a red card or two…oh, and a pie.  Who doesn’t love a pie at football?

AFC Guiseley 4 Torquay United 3
26138079974_c44c4ab0bd_kWhat could be better than a last day of the season “must-win” home game? One where attentions will also be focused on events elsewhere that could ultimately make the score irrelevant.  Add in a season-best crowd, a good natured pitch invasion and the seven goals and this was the best game ever.  The home side needed to win and hope that Halifax didn’t in their home game against Macclesfield Town.  After racing to a 3-0 lead the home nerves were put on edge when Halifax scored.  It got even worse in the second half when Torquay, with nothing left to play for suddenly pulled it back to 3-2.  Then Macclesfield scored and to make the situation even better Gisele scored a fourth.  Torquay made it 4-3 ensuring the final few minutes were very nervous but with the full time whistle blown at The New Shay, the fans invaded the pitch to celebrate ultimate safety.

Northern Ireland 4 San Marino 0
29577405693_e86f13bde5_kThe opening of the redeveloped Windsor Park was a night of celebration with Northern Ireland’s finest sons and daughters paraded before a sell-out crowd on a chilly night in October.  Unlike a Audley Harrison fight, their opponents hadn’t been chosen at random to ensure that the night of celebration would result in a win.  San Marino’s hopeless cause wasn’t helped by the dismissal early in the second half of Mirko Palazzi but even still Northern Ireland peppered the visitors goal with 35 shots over the ninety minutes yet somehow only scored four.  A superb atmosphere accompanied the one way traffic and there was even time post match for a beer or two in the city centre.  Marvellous.

 

Athletic Bilbao 5 KRC Genk 3
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It’s not often that you see one player dominate one game to so much of an extent as Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz did in this Europa League tie back in November at the San Mamés but anyone who scores five goals in a game deserved all the respect of world football.  Granted he scored a hatrick of penalties given by Martin Atkinson but he could have five or six more goals from open play.  The game ebbed and flowed, with both teams committed to trying to win the game.  Add in a few yellow cards and a decent atmosphere in an outstanding stadium and it is up there with one of the best games I’ve seen in recent years.

Here’s to 2017….