Northern Soul


Despite the fact we drowned our sorrows on a season to mostly forget last Saturday, there was still a fair amount of business to be decided in other leagues up and down the country.  Not only was there the small matter of deciding who would be moving up from the Ryman North and South but the National Leagues were also heading into their final games.  A sensible decision by the Conference meant that the final games in the Premier league would kick off at 5.30pm, meaning that if you picked the right games, you could see an earlier and a later game.

Never one to need an invitation to get involved in something like that I packed up the car and drove 252 miles north through rain, hail, sleet and snow to Harrogate to watch their final game of the season against Corby Town.  I could have lied to the Current Mrs Fuller and said this was a scouting trip; to some extent it was – a visit to a new ground means looking at their facilities, having a chat with officials and trying to get under the bonnet of the workings of their club – but this was purely down to having a rare opportunity to spread my wings and go for a wander, being a Football Tourist for the day.

Harrogate Town 5 Corby Town 0 – Wetherby Road – Saturday 30th April 2016
Harrogate Town had already sealed their Conference North Play-off spot and were hosting already relegated Corby Town.  The winter weather had passed over the Pennines and the sun was shining as crowds built up down Wetherby Road to get in.  An old chap behind me in the queue moaned that if this was what it would be like if they did go up to the Conference Premier, he wouldn’t be coming again.  He also said if they lost in the Play-offs he wouldn’t be coming again – you can’t please everyone!

26140376933_f671c8b014_kHarrogate have a decent ground with three of the four sides with good-sized structures.  There was also a hospitality area with a decked “porch” with nice tables and chairs set out.  There was a real family atmosphere feel around the ground, with kids having space to play their own games of football adjacent to the pitch.  Their 1919 hospitality area was doing a roaring trade before the game as well as the food van which was serving the staple in these parts, pie, peas and mint sauce plus a huge home-made sausage roll that would have made Katie Price blush.

26140279633_afa0f8ccfa_kThe difference between the two sides was evident within the first few minutes as Harrogate raced to a 3-0 before I’d finished said sausage roll.  Chatting to one of their officials it seems that to compete in this league you need a budget in the region of £5,000 per week, although Champions Solihull Moors have managed to win the league on a smaller budget.  Travel is a major issue for clubs with teams like Lowestoft Town, Gloucester City and Worcester City having to play against Barrow and Harrogate.  Whilst there isn’t one team who appears to have tried to buy their way to the league, next season the league will feature Darlington and Salford City, both of whom have significant resources behind them.

The club have a decent, vocal support though, who kept encouraging the team throughout the game.  In truth they could have scored double figures – whether that was simply the fact that the visitors had already given up for the season or that everything clicked over the 90 minutes.  One of the biggest cheers of the day was on the news that Leeds United had lost to doomed Charlton Athletic at Elland Road.  Whilst only being 20 miles down the road, the club didn’t seem to suffer in terms of attendances – in fact with the club still facing so much off-the-field turmoil, it has actually benefited Harrogate with a number of fans shunning the professional game for the beauty of the Non-League variety.

Could they cope with life at a higher level?  They certainly have the facilities in place and hopefully more locals, like today, would come and give the club a try.  After all, clubs of a similar size such as Boreham Wood, Welling United, Braintree Town and Guiseley had managed it for more than a season.  Good luck to Harrogate.

Guiseley AFC 4 Torquay United 3 – Nethermoor Park – Saturday 30th April 2016
My choice for the later game turned out to be inspired.  Just twenty minutes away on the other side of the runway of Leeds-Bradford Airport, is the small town of Guiseley, famed for being the birthplace of Harry Ramsden and Harry Corbett (he of Sooty and not of Steptoe fame).  They would be hosting Torquay United in a must-win final game of the season.  Even if they could gain a victory, results across the moors at Halifax could still see them relegated.

26138079974_c44c4ab0bd_kIt is fair to say that nearly 2,000 squeezed into the tiny Nethermoor Park ground on the edge of the town, making enough noise to be heard in Lancashire.  They raced into a 3-0 lead in the first half, with Torquay, already safe, mentally on the beach, but then just before half-time Halifax scored.  With Boreham Wood also winning, Guiseley occupied the final relegation spot.  The Torquay fans took to reminding the home fans of the fact that they would be relegated even if they won which pleased the locals no end.

Torquay finally realised they were here to play football in the second half and pulled two goals back, with veteran centre-half Exodus Geohaghon’s long throw-ins causing no end of issues for Guiseley.  The nerves of the home fans were eased when Macclesfield equalised at Halifax but with Torquay always looking dangerous, Guiseley simply had to try to score.  They did but back came Torquay to make it 4-3.  Every time a Guiseley player went to take a throw he’d ask someone in the crowd what the score was at Halifax..”1-1” came the reply. The final whistle blew and the fans invaded the pitch, but there was no cheering just yet.  It was a good two minutes before the cheer hit the stands.  Halifax had drawn, Guiseley had escaped.

26650810632_83abfd584a_kEven as a neutral it was hard not to be caught up in the celebrations.  Having been in this position myself I know the relief it brings, as well as those promises of “never again”.  The fans, the players and the whole club can celebrate for a day or two before the planning has to start on making sure the same thing doesn’t happen again next year.

I’m sure the footballing authorities would much rather have more “traditional” clubs in the Conference Premier such as Kidderminster Harriers, with their nice Football League ground, but it is clubs like Guiseley and Braintree Town who demonstrate you can upset the odds on modest budgets and give every club in the leagues below that you can have the dream.

A fond farewell…sort of


Humans are rubbish at saying goodbye.  We will put something off as long as we can, often kidding ourselves that we will get “one final chance” to say farewell, even when deep down we know it’s not going to happen.  I’ve known for three years that at some point I would be making my final visit to Upton Park yet when the realisation comes that “this is it” I didn’t really know what to think.

26578670721_9db220e464_zI recently worked out I had seen West Ham play at The Boleyn Ground over 300 times.  My first visit was back in 1976, coming to a game with my Dad and brother against Burnley.  I’ve seen promotions, relegation, riots, sit-ins, utter jubilation and crushing defeats.  As a father I remember bringing both my children to the ground for the first time, hoping that they would fall in love with the stadium just like I had.  One hated her first experience of football so much (and we were sitting in a box!) that she vowed never to come back.  There are few games that for one reason or another I don’t recall.  Despite the game becoming this global, polished marketing vehicle, the life that teems around Upton Park on a match day hasn’t really changed in that 40 years.  Ken’s Cafe, Nathan’s Pie and Mash, the same bloke selling the programmes (the one with the pierced ear and funny teeth).  I still wonder today what happened to the Monkey Nuts seller on the North Bank.

There was never going to be a chance of getting a ticket for Swansea City, or latterly Manchester United.  Football doesn’t work on compassion and nostalgia these days.  My years of loyal support and tens of thousands of pounds count for nothing – it is all about the here and now, and I have no issues with that having given up my season ticket six seasons ago.  So my chance to say goodbye was going to be in the Premier League Development Squad League Cup Final First Leg (nothing like a catchy title) against Hull City on a freezing cold April night.

West Ham’s current owners do some things really well. But they also far too often go back to type and think of the fans as ATM machines, happy to dish out cash on demand.  Take the start of this season where West Ham had qualified for the Europa League for the first time in over a decade.  Tickets for those opening games were priced from £10.  That is cheaper than watching games eight levels below the Premier League.  Consequently virtually every ticket for the three games played at The Boleyn Ground sold out.  A few days after the last of those games was a friendly arranged against Werder Bremen where the ticket prices were doubled.  The attendance? Well let’s just say tickets were available to buy on the day.

The positive vibes the clubs created by announcing a year in advance of the move to the Olympic Stadium with some of the cheapest season ticket prices in the Premier League were seriously undone by the legal wranglings over the exact details of the stadium deal. 26578680771_7a998b40f8_zA walk around the stadium store just shows how much money the owners have tried to make out of this final year at The Boleyn Ground.  Almost every item under the sun had a “Farewell Boleyn” logo on.  Based on the number that had started to appear in the bargain buckets, I guess fans have got “farewell” fatigue.

Every fan will have their own special memories of the ground and meeting up with Dagenham Dan and Brian we spent a fair amount of time taking a trip down memory lane to the most obscure places.  In the fullness of time I am sure I will remember more but for me the five most vivid memories have been:-

West Ham 5 Notts County 2 – August 1978 – My first real season at Upton Park and on the opening day a team inspired by Devonshire and Brooking scored four first half goals to top the league. I assumed from my spot on the lip over the entrance to the South Bank, just in front of the man bar that every game would be as easy as this….

West Ham 1 Dynamo Tblisi 4 – March 1981 – Almost 35,000 squeezed into Upton Park to see one of the finest performances ever witnessed at the ground.  The Russians (now Georgians) arrived for this European Cup Winners Cup Quarter-Final as relative unknowns but undid a West Ham side who had lost just a handful of games all season.  Even now I can remember the names of players such as Chivadze, Chilaya and Shengalia. By the time we reached the ground at 7pm, the North Bank and West Stands were full, but for some reason nobody was using the “away fans” turnstile – the first time I ever stood in that corner of the old South Bank.

West Ham 6 Aldershot 1 – January 1991 – Non-League Aldershot had managed a 0-0 draw in the initial tie in this FA Cup 3rd Round tie and with the replay also to be played at Upton Park I took the opportunity to take my then girlfriend of 9 months to The Boleyn Ground for the first time.  She hated the whole experience of standing on a cold and wet South Bank, despite the six West Ham goals.  I had to act fast to turn a desperate situation around so I proposed, kneeling down in the passenger foot-well of her pink Fiat Panda at some traffic lights in Walthamstow.  She said yes and for the next year I wasn’t allowed near a football ground because we were “wedding planning”.  By the time we drew with Non-League Farnborough a year later at the same stage of the cup, the wedding was off and I was again back on the South Bank.

West Ham 2 Ipswich Town 0 – May 2004 – After the shock of dropping out of the Premier League on the last day of the previous season, West Ham made a real hash of trying to immediate return, losing to sides such as Gillingham, Rotherham United and Millwall.  We scrapped into the Play-offs, winning just five of our last ten and then lost to Ipswich Town at Portman Road in the first leg.  This was the Pardew “Moore than just a football club” era and the noise levels at the ground on the night of the second leg were off the scale.  Etherington brought us back into the tie just after half-time and then Christian Dailly scrambled home a winner with twenty minutes to play to send nearly 32,000 Hammers fans into delirium….”Oh Christian Dailly, you are the love of my life, Oh Christian Dailly, I’d let you shag my wife, she’s got curly hair too”.  Less said about the final in Cardiff the better.

West Ham 3 Newcastle United 1 – September 2008 – In one of the first games of the Zola era I decided to bring my daughter to her first West Ham game.  I gave up my Season Ticket in the Bobby Moore lower to watch a team featuring Ilunga, Behrami and David  Di Michele.  The little Italian shone on that day, scoring two in the 3-1 win but more importantly giving every fan hope that we had found the new Di Canio.  Some of the football played on that afternoon was sublime and hard to forget, unlike the performance two weeks later against Bolton Wanderers where we lost by the same scoreline where it was hard to remember.

There are a host of other games that have less positive memories of course plus a huge bunch of matches that just merge into one.  Any fan could wax lyrical about their team’s performances over the year, with their most memorable games being close to their heart.  Being in the stadium one last time brings all of those to the fore, just like the memories of a dearly departed friend or love one.  As Shankly said, football isn’t a matter of life or death – it is more important than that.  Whilst I wouldn’t 100% agree, I do see on the emotional side where he was coming from.

26578684361_98d38ac4d4_zLooking around the ground before kick off it is still hard to fathom why the club feel the need to move.  With just the old East Stand needing redevelopment to make the stadium a more than comfortable 40,000 all seater, blind ambition seems to have got in the way of sense.  This season has taught us a number of things.  Firstly, you don’t need a massive stadium, nor billions of pounds to challenge (and win) at the top of the table.  The fact that West Ham are still chasing a Champions League spot with three games to go has nothing to do with the stadium but the squad assembled.  Secondly, clubs that have ignored their youth development will temporarily be replaced in the hierarchy.  Both Chelsea and Manchester United have suffered this season, primarily down to the old guard simply not reaching the standards required.  Again, that has nothing to do with the stadium.  Finally, it is about the football club being part of the community – moving to the Olympic Stadium will remove the club from the kill parts of this small area of London.

I get the fact this is about ambition and about being able to compete at the highest level of the Premier League but we also have to be realistic.  Only a small number of clubs can compete for the major honours and we have to go head to head against some of the world’s most wealthiest clubs – the new TV deal will make the rich, richer.  Investment will be required and I am not sure our current owners are willing to make that additional step once the club moves to the new ground.

West Ham United DS 1 Hull City DS 1 – The Boleyn Ground – Monday 25th April 2016
In some ways a crowd of over 10,000 for this game was quite impressive, but with tickets on sale for as little as £4 for adults and only a few more games left in the ground I expected more.  There was a danger that the football would become a mere side-show but fortunately a decent game, punctuated by some excellent performances ensured that a fine balance between nostalgia and excitement was maintained.

26371043240_ee9b71b1c6_zDespite the last-gasp winner for substitute Djair Parfitt-Williams, West Ham dominated the game with the stand-out player being Martin Samuelsen, who impressed back in pre-season in a number of games and was again displaying some of the impressive skills that have seen him play regularly in League One this season at Peterborough United.  At the back, a mature performance from Reece Oxford ensured that it was unlikely Hull would ever be leaving East London with anything more than a point from a goal-less draw.

It is hard to imagine how many of the squad will go onto be regulars in the first team.  Sam Byron signed in a high-profile move from Leeds United, whilst Josh Cullen has been playing at Bradford City.  Whilst the Europa League run last season gave us a taste of the potential future talent at the club, few have been regulars in the first team squad yet.  The fabled West Ham academy production line seems to have temporarily gone on strike, although the purposes of youth development for Premier League clubs has changed so much in such a short period of time to almost being defensive in approach rather than looking to polish the diamonds of tomorrow.

As the rain and sleet fell at the end of the game there were a few fans shedding a tear as they posed for one last photo next to the pitch.  For my final visit there was no queue at the bar at The Boleyn nor was there one to get into the tube station at Upton Park – hardly like old times then.

The Boleyn Ground – 1904 to 2016 – Rest in Pieces

It’s all a bit academic


“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride – where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will be always under good regulation.”

Perhaps the first time an article about football has started with a quote from Jane Austen.  But my rare football wanderings had taken me to Scotland where it was all about Pride.  Motherwell came into their home game with Celtic in 4th place but if other results went against them, they could finish in the bottom six, meaning that they would play out the final weeks of the season in the “relegation” group rather than the top six “European” group.  Sitting 15 points behind 3rd place and a Europa League spot, and 15 points above the relegation Play-off, the season is essentially over for ‘Well.  Not so for the visitors to Celtic who are just a few wins from their fifth consecutive Premiership Championship.

The whole Promotion/Relegation split for the final five games of the season has rarely led to any excitement in the Scottish game.  This season the clubs who entered the final five games in 4th, 5th and 6th had nothing to play for in terms of the title or European football, whilst those in 7th, 8th and 9th were safe from relegation.  If the concept of introducing the system was to stop a hatful of dead rubbers at the end of the season then I think it may have failed, with at least half of the league already on their sun loungers.  Still, it could be worse – they could have adopted the Belgian Play-off system which Stephen Hawking tried to describe a few years ago, gave up and published his book “A Brief History of Time”.

26341907565_0f2ae4073f_zLet me rewind just a few paragraphs and start again.  Hi! How are you?  So with Lewes already relegated, and an inevitable 2-2 draw on the cards for their home game with Staines Town (it end 2-2 as well), I took advantage of a work trip to stay on in Glasgow and “tick off” two more Scottish Premiership grounds.  Not just any old two either – two that are separated by just three miles a river, a motorway and a racecourse.  Motherwell have been an almost permanent fixture in the top flight of Scottish football without ever really having the golden period that clubs such as Dundee United or Aberdeen had had.  In fact, this May marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of their last major honour, when they won the Scottish Cup.  The absence of Rangers from the top flight had given them the opportunity to try to be the “best of the rest” and had finished runners-up, inevitably to Celtic, two seasons ago.

Thanks to those pesky people at Sky Sports re-arranging this game, I could see two games in my afternoon with nothing more than an eight minute train ride and a ten minute walk, with Fir Park my first destination for the 12.30pm start.

My train from Glasgow Central would eventually end up, some thirteen hours later, in Penzance so not one to just have a little snooze on.  Twitter told me to head for the Brandon Works, just a couple of minutes from the station, for a decent beer.  Alas, even at 11.07am, it was heaving with away fans as too were all the bars en route to the ground.  The Football Grounds Guide suggested the Fir Park Social Club next to the ground which was doing a good impression of Jessops when I arrived (i.e closed down).  I had to console myself with a new pair of football socks (£5 in the sale) and a greetings card that said “Get ‘Well Soon” before I headed into the ground.

26315943256_e18b61071e_zNot many people know that just over a year ago Motherwell manager Mark McGhee was sort-of assisting good-old Lewes FC in their quest for cup glory.  We had parted ways with our management team but had the small matter of a Sussex Senior Cup Semi-Final to prepare for.  McGhee, in his role as Assistant to Scottish National Team boss Gordon Strachan, living on the South Coast and a School run acquaintance of one of our directors agreed to help on a “let me give you a bit of my ample experience” basis – nothing formal you understand but a few pointers as to what we could be doing better.  We beat Loxwood 3-0 and that will forever see Mark immortalised as the most successful non-manager that we’ve ever had.

12 months later and McGhee is doing a fine job in what must be a less stressful environment than Sussex Non-League football.  Manager of the month for the second time in just a few months, Motherwell had more than held their own in the top half of the league, actually beating Celtic away earlier in the season.  Despite the futility of the league split in their current situation, pride meant that a top half finish was desired and that almost certainly meant needing a point, or more, against the champions elect.

My good friend Stoffers had told me prior to the games that I would “love” Fir Park and “hate” New Douglas Park.  Michael knows we well and he was not far from the truth.  Fir Park was rocking with noise as the two teams emerged.  Celtic had filled the gigantic South Stand with their voracious support, whilst the Motherwell band of hardcore fans in the corner nearest the visitors tried to raise the roof themselves.  Talking of roofs, on the opposite side of the pitch from me was the strange Main Stand, named after former captain Phil O’Donnell stand which according to Simon Inglis in his book ‘The Football Grounds Of Great Britain’, was supposed to run the full length of the pitch and the frame was built accordingly but due to a dispute with a an owner of a house beyond the corner of that ground (a dispute which the club lost) it was never completed as intended. And we thought NIMBY’s were a modern thing.

Motherwell 1 Celtic 2 – Fir Park – Saturday 9th April 2016
It was a case of what could have been as the full-time whistle blew.  The stats will show that the visitors dominated the game, with 23 attempts on goal to Motherwell’s 9, but it could have so nearly been a point apiece.  The hero and villain of the game was Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths who bagged two goals, one in each half, but missed an earlier penalty, given for a soft challenge on the promising Patrick Roberts.

25739132863_7471401bc0_zFor most of the first half it looked like Men versus Boys (as opposed to Bhoys).  Even the ultra-neutral BBC website said “Celtic lorded it early on”.  It’s fair to say that Motherwell keeper Connor Ripley was the Man of the Match, making a string of saves when Celtic threatened to run away with it.  Somehow they needed 44 minutes to open the scoring, with Griffiths finally getting his goal and then running the full length of the pitch, evading his team mates, shedding his shirt on the way to reveal a natty black sports bra thing and picking up a yellow card for his fashion show.  Pointless.

McGhee must have read to The Dossiers (surely one of the best football club nicknames ever) as they came out firing on all cylinders.  McDonald had the ball in the Celtic net on 55 minutes but a linesman’s flag denied them their goal. Five minutes later McDonald got his goal, against his old club, thumping the ball home from close range. A point was probably enough for Motherwell, but they could sniff all three.

26341900495_c604d81e8d_zCeltic’s players started to bicker among themselves.  Kazim-Richards should have seen red for his reaction to a challenge from a Motherwell player and nothing appeared to be going right for them.  The title was never in doubt – for them the small matter of a long-overdue Old Firm meeting in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final in eight days was on their mind.  However, Griffiths once again proved to be their saviour, finally beating Ripley to score the winner with fifteen minutes left.

“Well done ‘Well.  Blown it again” said a chap as we filed out of the ground.  Apparently, it now needed Partick Thistle, St Johnstone and Dundee all to lose for Motherwell to stay in the top half.  And that, as my new friend told me, was as likely to happen as “Lulu marrying the Pope”.

Hamilton Academicals 2 Dundee 1 – New Douglas Park – Saturday 9th April 2016
As you get off the train at Hamilton West you follow the path that runs along side the track to get to New Douglas Park.  You walk past Sainsbury’s which was built back in 1995 on the site of Douglas Park, Hamilton Academicals former home.  Despite the new ground having been open for nearly fifteen years, it is still only two-sided with skin-flint fans able to watch the whole game from the Sainsbury’s loading bays.  It simply doesn’t look right, and whilst the facilities are adequate for the club and its ambitions, the whole ground feels unfinished.

25739156553_1d6104a17a_zIt would be hard for even the most fanatical of fans to whip up an atmosphere here, especially in freezing cold and wet conditions but the Dundee fans tried.  After Motherwell’s defeat earlier they knew that a point could be enough for their top six finish, with Hamilton, without a win at home for six months, there for the taking.  Alas, it wasn’t until the final few minutes of this game that Dundee realised that when it was too late.

Hamilton started the brighter of the two sides and took the lead after fifteen minutes when Crawford turned the ball into the bottom corner of the net.  Ten minutes later they were 2-0 up when a harsh penalty was given against Extabeguren and Garica Tena scored from the spot.

25739155073_e114329094_zThe game wasn’t the best – in fact the most enjoyable aspect was watching the Hamilton “youths” in the main stand trying to flex their muscles with a group of stewards.  One accidentally knocked a cap off a steward and was meekly forced to go and fetch it.

Scores from elsewhere meant that Dundee now needed to win and they finally woke up with fifteen minutes to play.  The substitute Harkins scored at last with minutes to go but they needed a win rather than a draw to give them an unlikely boost back into the top six.

Alas, it was not to be and I joined the disappointed Dundee fans as they headed out of the ground, in the realisation they had nothing left to play for in the season.

Another successful mission accomplished in Scotland.  News of Lewes’s standard 2-2 draw didn’t fill me with joy but a couple of pints of Candy Kaiser in the Brewdog pub before I headed back to England soon put that right.

Sealed with a kiss


When we met Brentwood Town for our first ever league meeting back in September, manager Dean Holdsworth led his side to a 5-1 win, probably the lowest point Lewes hit this season to and one that contributed to manager Steve Brown decided to quit a few days later.

Six months later and we would be travelling to Essex still in a desperate position, but with hope in our hearts.  Neither Steve Brown nor Dean Holdsworth would be in the respective dugouts.  Brown has yet to return to management, whilst Holdsworth has swapped his Sugar Hut sponsored bench coat for a leather chair and a spot behind a big wooden desk at The Macron Stadium.

Holdsworth was a business consultant for the Sport Shield Consultancy who finally took control of Bolton Wanderers earlier this month, when he was appointed Chief Executive.  Based on their desperate league position, facing relegation to Football League One and without a manager after the departure of Neil Lennon last week.  Relegation to the Ryman League South may not have been so bad considering the huge task in front of Holdsworth.

FullSizeRender (10)Brentwood Town face a dilemma of their own as to whether they can make the necessary investments in the ground to bring it up to the required standard to remain at this level.  Work needs to be completed by the 31st March, which would include a significant increase in the number of seats at the Brentwood Centre.  Failure to reach the standard could mean relegation back to the Ryman League North.  So currently sitting in the relegation zone, do they invest with the hope they can win their games in hand and reach safety or take the penalty and build again next season both on and off the pitch.

Lewes were without talismanic striker Jonte Smith who was away on international duty with Bermuda in the Caribbean Cup.  We would have to win this one with our youngsters to the top of their game, on a pitch that would make our passing style more difficult than normal.  But when your backs are against the wall you need to come out fighting.

Brentwood Town 0 Lewes 1 – The Brentwood Centre – Saturday 19th March 2016
Coming away from an away game with three points is great, but to win convincingly is always better.  In the grand scheme of things this win may mean nothing for either side, but try telling that to the players, management, the board and of course the fans who saw a great team performance and a fully deserved win.  The key moment was Henry Muggeridge’s 51st minute goal.  Instead of describing the pivotal moment, just follow the action for yourself below.  Until next week I bid you a great weekend.

Fortress Dripping Pan….sort of


In the latest in their excellent series of myth-busting articles, the BBC published a study in February about whether a “cold night in Stoke” is an influencing factor on results.  Whilst the decision to pick Stoke City and The Britannia Stadium may simply be based on the fact that it is freezing on an August Bank Holiday rather than any other factor, the results were quite interesting.

Former England international Danny Murphy says opposing players have seen going to play Stoke City as a tough away game, but not necessarily because of the weather.  “It was because they were playing a certain style under Tony Pulis and it was as hard a place to go as any,” said Murphy.  “The pitch was really small, it was a tight ground with a lively atmosphere, and they would fire balls into your box from everywhere.”

The BBC analysed the results of every midweek Premier League match during winter months over the past 10 seasons to find out which grounds are the most likely to leave visitors going home unhappy – and surprisingly found that Stoke City isn’t even in the “worst” five grounds to visit in terms of away team performance, especially since Mark Hughes has been appointed where the home win ratio has fallen from 50% under former boss Tony Pulis to just 20%.  In fact, the research suggests the best time to visit the Britannia is during the winter months.

The research got me thinking about our own home form during the winter midweek nights.  The recent wins against Merstham and Dulwich Hamlet were both played in freezing conditions with both away teams seemingly not up for the fight.  But what does the trend look like over the past few seasons?  Well, the stats are very interesting indeed.

imageIn the period from 1st November to 15th March since 2012, we have played 15 midweek home games in the league and cup, excluding the “Christmas games” (i.e those played on Boxing Day or New Years Day with 3pm kick offs).  Out of those Lewes have won an amazing 11 times (or a 73% win rate) – I say amazing because when you look at our overall home record in that period our win rate is around half of that.  Included in that list are wins against Brighton & Hove Albion and Eastbourne Borough in the Sussex Senior Cup, Maidstone United and Lowestoft Town.  We’ve only lost three times (Enfield Town this season), Canvey Island and AFC Hornchurch, with one draw against Heybridge Swifts in the Ryman League Cup.

So why have we got such a good record under the lights?  One reason that could help us is our location.  Teams will have to leave early afternoon to get down to Lewes, potentially having to navigate through the rush hour traffic, in a similar vein to the fact our away record in that midweek period where we often have to set off at 3pm is poor.  Of course the wit of Cynical Dave on the terraces and the distraction of the Circa food also cause our opponents to lose their concentration.

So next season we’ve asked the Ryman League to schedule all of our home fixtures in midweek – that way we could be promoted by Easter….well, we can but dream!

The Ayr that I breathe


Standing in the pouring rain on a terrace that has seen better days watching Scottish third tier football doesn’t sound like a particular fun way to spend an early Saturday evening but unless you’ve experienced the raw beauty of Somerset Park in Ayr then your life cannot be considered complete.  Add in a greasy Scotch Pie and a mug of instant coffee and perhaps I’m beginning to wear you down.  Up there with my wedding day.

My plan for this weekend had originally involved three games, two Scottish Premier League ones and then a trip to round the weekend off at Somerset Park with their kick off being handily moved to later in the day to accommodate the TV cameras.  That was until the latest Storm (Storm Roger or something like that) hit Glasgow and my plans had to be rapidly re-arranged.  My saving grace was that I had decided to hire a car on arrival at Glasgow airport, meaning not only could I see how many Magic Doors I could find (five in two days since you asked) but was able to put Plan B into full effect.

FullSizeRender (3)That meant a trip down to Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park on Friday rather than Saturday, to watch rugby. Never has there been a more apt name for a stadium, bar Stamford Bridge hosting the world Rubber Bridge championships.  Two trips to Scotland’s Most Improved Town (does that mean it was really really bad before, or that the improvement has been so good?) would be a bit excessive even if the opportunity for double Killie Pie was on offer.  Friday night’s rugby was a decent affair though, watched by almost double the number who would watch Kilmarnock take on Dundee on Saturday afternoon.  Should you be that way inclined, feel free to have a read of my report on that excellent website The Ball is Oval.

An early start on Saturday meant that I could complete a circuit of the surrounding area of Glasgow before heading down to Paisley for the first game of the day.  In the course of four hours I managed to visit Airdrieonians, Alloa Athletic, Albion Rovers, Clyde, Stirling Albion, Dumbarton and Morton’s grounds with a brief scenic detour to Loch Lomond Shores somewhere in between.  What was quite interesting was three of these grounds (Airdrie, Alloa Athletic and Clyde) had various Saturday morning kids coaching sessions going on, utilising the 3G facilities to full use.  Whilst the national side may be in the doldrums at the moment, the focus on youth development and the availability of facilities is something that can only benefit the development of the game and players in due course.  I watched a pitch inspection at Albion Rovers fail to convince the referee the pitch was playable and was given a guided tour of Cappielow Park, one of the best old-school grounds I have ever visited (see my pictorial highlights here).

DCIM100GOPRO

The rain hadn’t let up all day until I parked just a stones throw from St Mirren Park in Paisley.  Sunshine welcomed me to Renfrewshire’s biggest town, Paisley, birthplace of Gerard Butler, residence in his youth of David Tennant and famed for the Paisley Snail, a historic case in British Legal history, setting the precedent of modern Tort Law.  But today it was all about football.  St Mirren can lay claim to something that no other club can in British football.  They own two football stadiums.  Their old Love Street ground, vacated seven years ago is still standing after repeated planning requests for the redevelopment have been turned dow, whilst the club have moved around three-quarters of a mile westwards down Murray Street to the smart, if relatively character-less St Mirren Park.

St Mirren 1 Dumbarton 0 – St Mirren Park – Saturday 20th February 2016 3pm
FullSizeRender (7)
On 37 minutes something strange happened that caused players, managers and the fans to stop and wonder what was going on.  The sun came out.  It was probably the highlight of a tepid first half that the visitors could probably say they dominated with midfielder Grant Gallagher the stand-out man.  St Mirren did have the ball in the net in the first half with a corner that appeared to catch the jet stream and beat the Dumbarton keeper all ends up.  The referee obviously felt it was a tad unfair and blew for an imaginary foul.

The game sprang into life early in the second half.  Well, the one moment that could be used as part of a highlights package happened just after the hour mark when Shankland played a decent one-two that put him in the clear and he made no mistake.  The visitors tried to rally but the effective St Mirren defence held firm and take all three points to keep alive their chances of a Play-off spot at the end of the season.  Actually, in all honesty I missed the last twenty-five minutes of the match as I headed back to the car in readiness for the main event of the day happening some 33 miles due south-west.

Ayr United 2 Forfar Athletic 1 – Somerset Park – Saturday 20th February 2016 5:15pm
I made it to Somerset Park with five minutes to spare, finding a parking spot slap-bang outside the turnstiles.  From the outside the ground looked brilliant – such a contrast to St Mirren Park and some of the other grounds I had visited during the day.  The TV cameras were in town for this clash so everyone was on their best behaviour, suited, booted and well turned out.  It’s something that Ayr is used to, still smug from winning the coveted 2014 Royal Society for Public Health’s 2nd place in United Kingdom’s “healthiest High Street”, narrowly missing out on the title to Shrewsbury.

IMG_7650Scotch Pie in hand I headed to the open terrace.  I heard a rumour that Biffy Clyro’s lead singer, and resident of Ayr, Simon Neil was in the ground but to be honest, whilst liking their music, I wouldn’t recognise him from Adam.  This was proper football being played in a proper old ground.  The footballing world may have moved on but what’s the hurry down here in Scottish League One?  The club had one of the best stocked club shops known to man, a great covered terrace perfect for making a din and that Scotch Pie which outscored the Killie Pie in my complicated scoring system for football ground food.

The game itself was a decent affair.  The conditions made it an entertaining affair, especially when the rain really started to fall just as Ayr took the lead thanks to Ryan “Stevo” Stevenson’s header from a corner.  Half-time and another Scotch Pie?  Why not!

IMG_7627With a crowd of around 750 making the noise of 3,000 (apparently they have a mild dislike of Killmarnock in these parts), Ayr roared out for the second half but it was the visitors who drew level just after the hour mark when Ryan ran onto a smart through ball, dancing on the wet surface like a ballerina as he rounded the Ayr keeper and slotted home.  However, it was the Stevo show as the Ayr midfielder scored the winner ten minutes later with an overhead kick, again from another corner that was worthy of winning any game.

Ayr gets a massive thumbs up from the Football Tourist panel.  Give it a go…go on.

Has football already eaten itself?


The last week has seen the footballing world go into meltdown about ticket prices as if it was something that had just started to be an issue.  It hasn’t.  It’s quite difficult to pinpoint one particular moment where it all got a bit silly as the initial tipping point seems to vary from club to club.  Some may point at the formation of the Premier League nearly twenty five years ago as the catalyst, whilst for others it has been around takeovers and new stadiums.

But before we get back into the nuts and bolts, indulge me in the follow dilemma.  Once a week I enjoy a Chicken Katsu Curry from Wasabi for lunch.  I’m not alone.  Queues snake round the block at peak time in Canary Wharf. That was until a few weeks ago.  Turning up at 1pm two weeks ago there was just a handful of people queuing. The reason became apparent when you went to pay.  Prices for the most popular dishes, including Chicken Katsu Curry had risen by 20%.  With so many alternatives within a couple of minutes, fans of the spicy chicken had voted with their feet.  How did the brand react on Social Media?  It ignored what their “fans” were saying, refusing to engage on the subject.  Sound a little bit familiar?  However, Wasabi aren’t like a football club. Despite being a “fan” I am now less likely to go so frequently even though I may end up spending more at an alternative restaurant.  Why? Because I cannot see any value in that extra 20% cost.  I don’t get any bigger portions, the service is still the same fast speed, the sauce still as spicy.  That to me is one of the keys in the whole Premier League ticketing debate – the question of value.

18852242056_a32ecb4972_kValue is the key here.  Suppose Liverpool would have suggested that for the increase in ticket pricing to £77 fans got additional value.  A free programme, access to a lounge, a free scarf, a free link to exclusive media content, a free pie or pint?  Would there have been the same uproar about the price?  There was more than just the top price ticket behind the protests at Anfield and I applaud them for their stance.  But football clubs need to also look at the situation and learn from the mistakes Liverpool made.

The impact of investment in Premier Leagues from overseas is often quoted as the tipping point for escalating price rises.  The takeover of Manchester United by The Glazers back in 2005 saw a mass exodus of some fans who could no longer take the commercial changes at the club to form FC United of Manchester.  However, their absence was never noticed by the new owners, with United at their peak and valued as one of the richest sporting institutions in the world.  The empty seats never stayed empty, with waiting lists of fans willing to pay what it took to see Ferguson’s side win the top honours in the game.

Down south there is a perception that Arsenal’s move to The Emirates as the tipping point for ticket price rises.  However, the start of the rolling stone went back much further than that.  An average ticket at Highbury back in 1991/92 was £10.  Seems reasonable based on today’s wages but actually that represented the biggest hike in ticket prices that the fans have experienced in the last thirty five years, rising from £7.26 on average the year before (a 38% increase).  This season a ticket for the centre lower tier at The Emirates is £45.69 on average this season, up from £40.47 five years ago and just over six pounds since they moved into the new stadium (Thanks to http://www.thearsenalhistory.com for the stats).  Arsenal’s “utilisation”, the percentage of seats sold (not necessary used – another Premier League bad trait) when compared to the total (not necessarily usable) capacity is in the high 90th percentile.  In fact, allowing for seats removed from sale due to segregation, there are probably only a few dozen seats remaining unsold throughout the whole season.  What would happen if Arsenal slashed ticket prices in half?  Would they be able to sell any more tickets? No.  Does the club really care whether a particular seat is bought by an adult, a child or a concession?  Absolutely.  So as a commercial enterprise what is their motivation for cutting ticket prices?

The issue of ticket prices may be a hot topic today, and we may argue that we are pricing out a generation of future fans, but have we already passed that point?  If I wanted to take my daughter to West Ham United v Manchester United next month her ticket (assuming there were any available), the cheapest ticket I could buy for her would be £45.  West Ham will argue that for other games I could buy her a seat for £1, but that misses the point.  People may argue it is no different to going to the theatre or the opera.  It’s not.  I want to go to see West Ham because it is my club.  Even if Leyton Orient a few miles down the road are at home on the same day and offer under16’s for £1 it is not an alternative I would choose.  If a ticket isn’t available for La Bòheme at the Royal Opera House isn’t available today, I can try again for tomorrow’s performance, or one next month.  Same performers, same venue, same storyline, same music.  Sport isn’t anything like that.

West Ham have gained many plaudits for their decision to reduce prices massively for the move to the Olympic Stadium next season.  But what was stopping them slashing the prices for this season, the last at Upton Park?  They know that every Premier League game would sell out and so in whose real interest would it have been to reduce prices?  Next season is a massive risk in terms of reputation for the club.  You can be sure that if the club would have funded the building/conversion of the stadium themselves then they wouldn’t have been so generous with the ticket prices.  They need to build an additional 15,000-20,000 new loyal fans and the best way to do that is ticket concessions.

Matthew Syed at The Times was involved in a heated debate this week with fellow Times correspondent Henry Winter about the issue of ticket prices.  Winter’s view was very much of the “we need to act now to stop the future degradation of the game”.  Syed’s counter argument was that it was too late.  Club are commercial entities.  They want and need to make as much money as possible a) to give returns to shareholders and thus make them a more attractive vehicle for further investment and b) to fund more expensive player acquisitions that will give them more chance of being successful which in turn leads to points a) and b) being repeated.  He was quite right in saying that if 10,000 Arsenal fans don’t renew their season tickets next season, there are 10,000 more waiting in line who would even pay a premium for the opportunity to get a ticket.

We may think that if nothing changes we will be playing in front of empty stadiums in years to come.  We won’t.  As soon as attendances start to fall, clubs will undoubtedly cut prices and demand will rise.  They have no interest to do that today, unfortunately, in most instances.  Football clubs will never come out and agree with the statements made by Football Supporters Federation Chairman Malcolm Clarke about tourists filling our grounds wearing half and half scarves taking selfies.  Would a club want a fan who comes every week, turning up at 2.55pm (or whenever 5 minutes before kick-off is), leaving at 4.55pm or someone who will turn up at 1.30pm, spend money in the club shop, spend money on food and drink and then share their experiences on social media?  We would all like to think it’s the former, the loyal fan, but in this ultra-commercial world I would suggest for many, the ideal fan is the latter.

The Premier League has stayed almost silent in the whole affair, yet they are the one organisation who has the remit to allow change.  The question of ticket prices should have been addressed a decade ago.  Why couldn’t they have put in a fixed price rise structure that is set for the Train franchises for instance?  The wealth now flowing into the game should be a catalyst for change, but it is simply an accelerant for faster growth of the same problem.