On the twelfth day of TBIR Christmas – You, the fans

Well that’s it for another year. Christmas is officially over, the decorations should be down and we are all back to work moaning about rain price rises and shops selling Easter cards.  But our work here isn’t quite done.  We still have one reason to celebrate 2013, our final award in the 12 Days of Christmas.  One category that is often overlooked as football marches on chasing the gold at the end of the rainbow, and that is the fan.  You, me, the bloke next door.  The woman with the kids, the boy with the dog.  We are all fans of football and whether we support the biggest club in the world, or a Sunday League team that plays at the bottom of the road, we can all stand together, united by the beautiful game.  So raise a glass to football fans everywhere – once again in 2013 you did the sport proud.

On the eleventh day of TBIR Christmas – the best amateur photographer

If the pen is mightier than the sword, and a picture paints a thousand words then how powerful is the camera today?  We now take it for granted that our phone has a camera on it – or actually our cameras have a phone built in.  We have all become photo journalists, being able to record anything and everything that happens around us.  Thanks to Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat, those pictures can be beamed across the globe in seconds.  Gone are the days when you needed to have studied photography for years and have enough cash to buy PhotoShop to take “altered images”. Today we have thousands of apps that all us to manipulate our images, making even the ropiest image look “hip”.

Our celebration today is not about the professionals.  I’m not sure there is a football photographer in the UK who doesn’t admire the world of Stuart Roy Clarke and wish they could emulate him.  But we can’t. Ditto David Bauckham, Stuart Tree and Chris Hayes – fine photographers who I have the pleasure of knowing and even on occasions shooting with capture the spirit and essence of Non-League football as good as anyone in the UK.  They are all winners in my book. But this award is about those people who don’t have any professional kit but just use a simple point and shoot, or their phone to record the action, or more often than not, the non-action going on off the pitch.  Every photo should tell a story and you can see War and Peace in all of the winners pictures.

3rd Place – James Boyes (@gingeraction)
Yes I may be slightly biased by picking Lewes’s number one snapper, but I love James.  His dedication to his art is legendary and he always seems to get the shot that captures the moment perfectly.  Not one to ever shirk from the foul weather he has got some of the best moments (and there hasn’t been many) for the Rooks in recent years.

2nd Place – Adam Lloyd (@adamlloyd)
11503414903_2d84d16a57_bBeing sent to Rome to work has agreed with Adam if the quality of his pictures is anything to go by.  When in Rome what do you do?  Fire up your iPhone, get a season ticket for AS Roma of course and spend you time taking pictures of the colour behind the fanatical support by the Tifosi.  Whilst he also turns his eye to the beauty of the city and the country and culture as a whole, it’s his interpretations of life in the Stadio Olimpico that puts him in my top three.

1st Place – Danny Last (@dannylast)
11632329284_73079170ca_bNo surprises that Danny is number one on the list.  There are few people who don’t look forward to a Saturday night when Danny uploads his pictures from his adventures at football and the unique view he has on life.  His trademark shots tend to be black and white, focusing on the fans around him simply acting naturally which makes the picture so engaging.  Whilst his shots may look random, he spends time researching before he goes to a game, knowing exactly what and where his “money shot” will be.  His weapon of choice?  A simple point and click Canon lens that he slips into his pocket.

On the eighth day of TBIR Christmas – The best match day programme

The age of the match day programme may seem to many to be dying but to many it is still the integral part of going to a game here in England.  The content of many club’s programmes is out of date as soon as it has been written – that is the nature of the world of technology we live in today.  Gone are the days when footballers would only ever speak to the match day programme editors or reporters.  Today the mixed zone is full of every Tom, Dick and Sally who put quotes and comments up onto the internet within seconds of them being uttered, consumed by a global audience.  Premier and Football League clubs still produce high cost, glossy match day magazines, filling it with bland articles about players trying to appear like normal chaps.

But it’s not all bad.  Many clubs are trying to break the mould and doing something different.  Once again, I have put my personal biased to one side as I have a little bit of a vested interest in the Lewes FC programme.  We try to be different, pulling together articles from part-time writers up and down the land, making it topical rather than worrying too much about being bang up to date.  We also produce an “e-programme” which we share with our members 24 hours after the game.  So I would say we are a shoe-in for the top prize, but you will never forgive me.  So here’s our three best other offerings from 2013.

3rd Place – Jarrow Roofing Football Club
New Picture (36)Down in the Northern League Division Two, or step six of the Non-League pyramid there is a great little story building in the suburbs of Tyneside.  Jarrow Roofing have embraced Social Media, offering interviews via their AudioBoo channel, match highlights via YouTube and of course all the trappings of Facebook and Twitter.  Someone up there knows their fan engagement onions that’s for sure.  But they also produce a decent programme, both in print and in e-format which you can subscribe to for a season (at just £20) and have it delivered into your email account pre-match.  Hats off for innovation and showing that it’s not all about size, but what you do with it.

2nd Place – Clapton FC
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Essex Senior League Clapton have struggled in recent years to get more than a couple of dozen fans through the games of the Old Spotted Dog ground.  However, this year that has all changed by a group of new fans who have formed a support that has all of the Non Leagues talking.  They have brought colour and passion to the club, even if the owners do not approve.  They have also started producing a programme that is free for anyone to download (try a copy yourself here).  Reviews of old programmes (from 1940/50’s), almost completely devoid of adverts and relevant stories not only from the Non Leagues but also football in general.  Standing ovation from one Programme editor to another.

1st Place – Champions League/FA Cup Final
New Picture (37)I’m not shy in giving stick to our footballing authorities but I have to say the quality of the programmes produced for major finals is absolutely top quality.  Full of information about both sides, reviews from games in history and fantastic photography.  I rarely bother with a programme these days, but this year I was lucky enough to attend both major finals at Wembley in May and both editions were must-reads.  Yes, they were pricey, but these are programmes that I will keep in mint condition for years to come.

On the seventh day of TBIR Christmas – The best game of 2013

So we have already had the worst games in 2013 and now it’s time for the best.  Fortunately these were harder to pick than the worst ones, but even so the three best were head and shoulders above the also rans.  Our criteria here was based on the match itself rather than the whole event.  So here goes…

3rd – Metrogas FC 1 Fleet Leisure 2
With virtually every league all but done in London and the South, it took some searching to find a game on in mid-May.  But one league, the Kent County League or Step 11 of the footballing pyramid in this country, still had the matter of the title to decide.  As the game was almost on my doorstep it was rude not to go.  The home side, actually having to play away as their ground was being used for a wedding, had to win to take the league title.  The visitors had nothing to play for but put in an inhumane effort into the game, which went from end to end for the 90 minutes.  Three great goals, so many close shaves, five (5!) dogs watching the game at one point, and a bigger crowd than some Conference South teams get. In the end the home side missed out on the title and their disappointment was clear to see at the final whistle.  Oh, and admission was free.

2nd – Bayern Munich 2 Borussia Dortmund 1
The hottest ticket in town this summer wasn’t One Direction, Wimbledon’s Mens Final or even Mrs Brown’s Boys Live at the O2.  It was the all-German Champions League Final at Wembley.  The combined average attendance for these two clubs is close to 150,000 so given only 38,000 between them, spares were hard to come by to say the least.  However, thanks to a “prid pro quo” deal with a marketing agency I was given a golden tickets and in return asked to take a few snaps.  Tough old life!  The atmosphere was unbelievable, the event perfectly delivered but the game itself was worthy of the best stage in the world.  Before Robben’s late winner, it could have gone either way and it was one to saviour. And it was free.

1st- Ilford 2 Witham Town 7
8562024643_b5e486dda7_bI’m sure you will all remember this classic from March this year from the Isthmian League North, right?  Probably not. In front of a crowd of 55 this was by far the best game of the season.  The nine goals aside, both teams simply wanted to attack.  Ilford were fighting for their lives at the bottom of the table, Witham Town were launching an assault on the play offs.  Witham showed more ability, but Ilford never game up.  The pitch looked like a ploughed field, the hospitality was first notch right from arriving and being offered a can of Stella by the chap on the gate to the Ilford manager who came and thanked us all personally for coming.  Football isn’t all about superstars, it is about honesty and playing for the love of the game.  And the £10 was worth every penny.


On the sixth day of TBIR Christmas – The best Non League day out

Slowly but surely I know you are all coming around.  You are seeing the light, the enjoyment of football in its most basic form.  Non-League.  As the gap between the Football League and the Conference narrows to a point that most teams are now completely interchangeable, you have to drop down a few divisions before you find the beating heart of grassroots football.  Places where people say “thank you” when you give them money at the gate.  Places where children are admitted free, because, as we all know, children are the future.  Places where food is home cooked, the beer is local and the atmosphere is welcoming.  Of course I have omitted Lewes from this list, as although I may be biased, they would win hands down every year.

3rd – Hassocks FC 
9330354256_82d3fe528b_b (1)Nestled in a nook of the South Downs about 10 miles from Brighton, Sussex County League Hassocks won our hearts this year when we visited in pre-season.  The smart little ground is enclosed by fields and trees and overlooked by not one, but two windmills.  I’ve never been to a ground with one close by, so to have two is, well as the Ambassador’s guests would say, “spoiling us”.  Feeling lazy?  Well, you can park your car right behind one goal and not move a muscle.  Come when the sun is shining and have a picnic on the hill behind the goal – if its good enough for Glyndebourne or Kenwood, it’s good enough here!

2nd – Sheffield FC
The home of football has to be on everyone’s list to visit.  But history aside, this is a fantastic place to watch Non-League football.  Located in the village of Dronfield in North East Derbyshire, the club has grown up with the Coach and Horses pub next door which is a reason to visit on its own (six Thornbridge ales on tap if you are asking).  Facilities are good with a couple of covered stands and the people behind the club not only have respected the past but are looking to the future for the club.

1st  – The Ossett Double
There are few places in England so small that can support two football teams, but Ossett pulls it off in style.  The West Yorkshire market town has a population of just over 21,000 but has two football teams playing in the Northern Premier League Division One (North) who are separated by just under half a mile.  Add in some decent pubs who serve the fine Ossett Brewery beers then you have the makes of a great day out.  Saturday’s when both are at home are few and far between, but if you do find one then sample a half in each – you can easily walk between them during half time.  Ossett Albion is on the edge of the town and has a pitch with a slope that rolls away into the Calder Valley.  The magnificent Peninnes frame the scene perfectly.  Hospitality here is served with a chip butty and a pint of mild. Ten minutes walk away and Ossett Town is an old-school ground with a big stand behind one goal.  The outlook here is definitely urban but the welcome from the locals is heart-felt and well worth the visit.

On the fifth day of TBIR Christmas – The best football tat

We didn’t think we could find better items than last year’s winners which included the Nodding Sullivan & Gold and of course, the Lille toaster that played a song when the toast was ready.  I have to say this year has been a challenge as many clubs don’t particularly like you taking pictures of their precious items.  I also blame Kenny Legg for not getting out and about more as he has the eye for these things.  But we do have three clear winners this year, simply for the ingenious way someone in marketing has managed to slap a club badge on something and call it official.  Follow the respective links if you want to buy one for someone special in your life.

3rd Place – Borussia Dortmund light switches (€24.95)
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“A practical light switch for any Borussia Dortmund fan” – A simple explanation for such a simple product.  Why haven’t more clubs done this?  I mean when the Current Mrs Fuller wanted the front room redecorating, she insisted on new switches and sent me off to B & Q to get some swish chrome ones at £7.95 each.  Instead we could have had these BVB embossed ones at three times the price….I would be very disappointed if the floodlight switches in the stadium do not have these!

2nd Place – West Ham United Cluedo (£29.99)
New Picture (31)I’m not sure if someone is being ironic with this, but to release Cluedo and have the main strapline as “Who stole the silverware, where have they hidden it?” I assume refers to our 2000 Intertoto Cup success.  Having seen that trophy, which rivals the Ashes Urn in terms of size I think it would be impossible to find in CMF’s handbag let alone the whole of Upton Park.  These are “limited edition” so make sure you get in quick.

1st Place – Bayern Munich wheel nuts (€9.95)
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If truth be told we could have picked lots of things from the Bayern shop, but these beauties caught our eye at the shop at Munich airport.  What respecting Bayern fan wouldn’t want to improve the image, and value of his Mercedes or BMW with these wheel nuts?  What better way to show your allegiance when you are cruising down the Autobahn at 150 miles per hour, waving as you pass Eintract Frankfurt fans who can only display their branded wing mirror covers?  Hats off to Germany for once again getting one over on us Englishmen.

On the fourth day of TBIR Christmas – The worst game seen in 2013

After notching up 90 games in 2013 we have seen a fair few crackers, a lot of average matches and then there is the pot that you want to immediately erase from your brain.  I could take the category as the worst for my teams (West Ham or Lewes) but that would be unfair – the three “losers” here are those games that the neutral would have been itching to leave from well before the hour mark.  These are not necessarily representative of the clubs themselves, just the fayre they served up on the particular day.

3rd Place – East Thurrock United 1 Lewes 0 – 23rd February 2013
I only actually saw the last half hour of this torrid affair in Essex but by all accounts I saw the best bits of the game.  I’d elected to watch Witham Town instead of Lewes, knowing full well the type of team and performance I would see.  At half-time in the Witham Town game I felt The Rooks needed my support so I drove down only to find a depressed group of fans behind the goal who had been frozen with boredom.  Neither side created a chance, it was freezing cold and by the time I arrived they had run out of any food.  Lewes had lost their previous two visits to Corringham 1-0 so it was no surprise that they obliged the Essex side once more.

2nd Place – Dartford 1 Ebbsfleet United 0 – 29th October 2013
photo (61)Having grown up equidistant between the two towns, separated by the A2 I knew of the bitter rivalry between them.  There was no love lost from Gravesend when Dartford went pop twenty years ago, having to start again in the County Leagues, meaning opportunities to play each other have been few and far between in the last two decades.  But drawn against each other in the FA Cup, there was sure to be a great atmosphere when they played at Stonebridge Road.  Nearly 3,000 fans watched a decent 1-1 draw, over three times the average attendance, and I couldn’t be happier with a draw as it meant I could go to the replay at Princes Park.  Alas, it wasn’t anything like I was expecting.  Apart from two penalties, one scored, one saved, it was a game lacking in any passion that you would associate with a) the FA Cup and b) a local derby.  Talk on the forums was of a bumper 3-4,000 crowd but just under 2,000 attended, with the atmosphere quite muted.  The home fans talked of dull and negative tactics and that the club didn’t want to move forward (since this game they have drawn one and lost twelve!).  You have to admire what has happened at Dartford in the last ten years but for this night it was a visit to forget.

1st Place – Valeciennes 0 Lille 1 – 30th November 2013
11179517845_8758808416_bThere was no debate about the worst game of the year.  Perhaps it was because we eventually arrived at the Stade du Hainaut with high expectations of a cracking atmosphere and a decent game between two local rivals. Perhaps it was the fact that we were in the holiday mood or perhaps it was the four pints of Leffe pre-match.  But this was as flat as an ironed pancake.  Many of Lille’s fans had thrown a strop and decided not to travel, pissed off that this was a Combi game.  Add in the French rule about no alcohol allowed in the stadium at all and then the incessant rain and it was a heady mixture of dullness.  The stadium is just a few years old, but it adored with headache-inducing red everywhere and has a real soul less feel once inside.  Add in some officious stewards, a freezing wind and a home side who would have struggled to score if Lille would have left the pitch and it was hands down the worst game we saw in 2013.