Keeping the faith?

Preparing the half time rant

Preparing the half time rant

Just over a week ago Luton Town came from two nil down, with ten men, away from home, to beat one of the strongest teams in the league. Lets just repeat that, two nil down, one less man, at the home of one of the strongest teams in the league and they won. Everyone would be delighted yes? Well no. In fact when seventy-two hours later they lost at home to a team ABOVE them in the league the manager paid the ultimate price. “Mutual consent” was the official line, but everyone in football knows that mutual consent simply means, “We want to get rid of you and here is a pay off – do you want it?”.

After the game against Cambridge I managed to grab 10 minutes with Mick Harford.  I had met him before at Morecambe last season and on both occasions he was more than willing to talk and take time out to pose for pictures.  Having got used to being blanked or ignored by players and managers in the course of my writing it made a refreshing change.  And that is why I still cannot understand the reasons behind his removal as manager.  Sure, I am no Luton die-hard but I know enough about football and business as a whole to recognise a decision based on logic and commercial sense, and one made without any assessment of the opportunity costs.

Let me take you back to January 2008. Luton Town, under Kevin Blackwell travel to Anfield for the FA Cup Third round replay against a weakened Liverpool team. The club are in 21st place in League One and are still under the control of am administrator. The club are still being investigated after comments made by previous manager Mike Newell who was hell bent to criticising everything to do with the way the club and football in general was run. The result was unsurprisingly a 5-0 defeat despite holding out for 45 minutes before conceding. A week later Blackwell announced he was going to leave the club in February, citing “financial instability” and the fact that the administrators had simply set up a fire sale to rid the club of some of their best players irrespective of their true value. The Administrators had other ideas and sacked Blackwell just days after the Anfield defeat.

With the club being purchased by a consortium led by Nick Owen, Mick Harford was appointed as caretaker manager, with a brief to try and keep them up. This was Harford’s second spell on the coaching staff at Luton, having previously been part of the successful Joe Kinnear era. Try as he could Harford could not keep the club up, but set about the difficult tasks of reducing the wage bill and getting the team in place and prepared for their first season at this level for eight years. He trimmed the wage bill significantly and said goodbye to many players.

As the club were preparing for a campaign where they felt they could reach the play offs at least, The FA announced that they would start with a ten point penalty relating to “irregular” payments made to agents under the previous administration. A situation similar to giving a speeding fine to a driver of a car that occurred when someone else owned it. Worse was to come as the club then had a further 20 points taken off them relating to the way they came out of administration. So essentially they were fined for keeping the club alive. There was no right to appeal either as the Football League said if they did they would withdraw their “share” essentially relegating them into the non-leagues. So Harford had to start with a young squad, a thirty point penalty and because the club were in Administration, no way to sign anyone new.

The fight went on long into the season but it was inevitable that 30 points was a bridge too far. Without the penalty it wouldn’t have just resulted in a mid table finish, but the club would have been able to attract better players, without the fear of relegation. The club did win its first cup final since Harford himself had inspired the club to a League Cup win in 1988 when they beat Championship bound Scunthorpe United in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley.

So the club faced life in the Blue Square Premier. Twenty years ago when automatically promotion/relegation was introduced it was almost a given that the team coming down would bounce straight back up. Lincoln City, Colchester United and Darlington all proved that playing the Football League way was the way to success. But then teams started getting better, more traditional league sides slipped down the league and two clubs were relegated as of 2003.

So what did this all mean? Well as Luton entered the Blue Square Premier for the first time they had to prepare to meet eight other ex-league clubs. One can hardly say that Mansfield Town, Oxford United and Wrexham were small clubs but they had gone through the pain of relegation and set realistic expectations for their return. The passion of their fans had not diminished during their enforced exile but they had all endured the “big club syndrome” which essentially meant that most teams viewed their games against them as cup finals.

So day one came around on a sunny Saturday in August and Luton were drawn to play away at new boys AFC Wimbledon, another team creaking under expectation. Harford had retained many of the players who had vainly fought against relegation and they counted themselves desperately unlucky to get a point from the game after a late AFC penalty squared the score. Ten points from their next three games saw them top the table with Oxford United as of the end of August but from the three games so far at Kenilworth Road it was obvious that teams had come there to simply put ten men behind the ball.

September started with a three nil win at home to Crawley that lifted the club back into the playoff spots and keeping the pressure on leaders Oxford United who had started off as they left off last season. A draw away at surprise package Salisbury was not a bad result, but was then followed by defeats to league leaders Oxford United, and Wrexham before the epic victory against Cambridge United.

So going into the game with Stevenage Borough, The Hatters had won six, drawn four and lost two. Twenty-two points from twelve games. Pro-rata that out through the season and you would get to eighty four points, which has been the better than the amount of points needed to reach the play offs in every season since promotion to the Football League started. Stevenage arrived, parked their bus in the penalty area and scored on the counter attack with five minutes to go. Sure it was a local derby but was the abuse rained down on the manager necessary? Stevenage came into this game on higher in the table and just one defeat to their name (against leaders Oxford), having continued their play off form from last season. They are a good team at this level. Luton dominated the game but failed to put away any chances, a story that was similar to the games against Kettering Town, Chester City and AFC Wimbledon.

So why was it necessary to fire the manager? What did the fans and the board expect to happen? Interestingly enough a few days later a win at home to Tamworth took them back into the play off spaces. Did the team play any different? No – same players, same formation, same style of opposition but a little bit of luck saw them through.

The Blue Square Premier (Football Conference etc) is a difficult league to get out of. For a start only one team is guaranteed an automatic way out. It has been twenty years since Darlington bounced straight back up as champions to the Football League after being relegated out the season before. A few teams had gone up via the play offs after just one year including Shrewsbury Town and Carlisle United and surely that had to be the benchmark for this season? Sacking a manager when you are two points off this position (with a game in hand) smacks of a knee jerk reaction to me.

Harford had been in charge at Luton for essentially a season and a half. During that period the club had been relegated twice, but had also suffered over a year in administration (meaning no players could be signed and the most valuable ones would be sold). They had been docked a total of forty points yet still kept on fighting. They had been to Wembley, and won in front of an estimated thirty thousand Luton fans, yet where were they for the first home game against Mansfield Town in August?

The fickle foot of fate?

The fickle foot of fate?

Football is a fickle friend and very few decisions are made with long-term logic. Of course the club will say the acted in the “best interests of the fans” but what happens next? A new man is appointed, demands a transfer kitty of his own and needs “time to bed in his team” which essentially means if they miss the playoffs at the end of the season “it’s not my fault”. And if that happens? Well the club has to be prepared for two strong teams entering the league next season, fresh from the Football League and the whole process starts again.

Football defies all logic. In a business world, expectations in terms of success are set realistically, but also take account of externalities. Companies rarely change their day-to-day management because of one bad month (and that is what Luton had in September). They review at the end of the year. In a time when Football likes to think it is a commercial organisation decisions like this hardly give external stakeholders faith in how clubs are run and the long term viability of their investments. Perhaps I am too logical or have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

Taking the Mick – one last time….

A change in format this weekend….A match report first, followed by an exclusive chat with Luton Town’s Mick Harford in his last ever public interview as the Hatters Manager, the newest fan of the Blog.  And what a game it was.  Seven goals, appalling refereeing, a sending off, the first appearance of the season of the riot police, Football Jo on her best behaviour for some reason and a reality TV star…not often you can say you see all of that in 90 minutes of Indian Summer.  All that was missing was my EFW logo…Please forgive me Danny…

Cambridge United 3 Luton Town 4 – The Abbey Stadium -Saturday 26th September 2009

The start of the comeback

The start of the comeback

Forty three minutes into this game Liam Hatch needlessly challenged late for the ball in no-mans land near the Cambridge by line and was shown a second yellow card.  Luton were 2-0 down, playing against Cambridge and a referee who seemed to be blind to what had gone on before, and coming on the back of some important defeats on the road recently, had nearly two thousand away fans baying for blood.

The game had started well for the Hatters.  They passed the ball well, creating some early chances for Hatch and Gallen up front.  But in the twentieth minute it was the home team who took the lead against the run of play as Courtney Pitt turned in the ball from close range after Mark Beesley had squared the ball.  One became two thirteen minutes later when the referee saw a challenge in the box Anthony Tonkins that nobody else in the stadium saw and he awarded a penalty.  Liam Hatch protested too much and was booked for his haranguing of the official.  Holroyd made no mistake from the spot, and it looked all over for the visitors.  After recent away defeats at Oxford and Wrexham many of the fans had come expecting a better performance, and despite the efforts of the players, they had been done up like a kipper by the officials.  The away fans occupying the terrace along the side of the pitch let their feelings be known and some over zealous policing took a manageable situation to the brink of all out hostility.

On the other side of the pitch in the Main Stand the non-playing Luton Town players had had enough of the abuse being levelled at them, and led by Kevin Nicholls they attempted to head to the South Stand, only to be blocked by the police who insisted they went down the tunnel instead.  Harford looked in disbelief as Hatch picked up his second yellow and stayed behind on the edge of the tunnel to have “a word” with the referee, knowing that public opinion was definitely swinging against him.

What was said at half time will remain a mystery (we did ask him afterwards) but whatever it was it deserves to be up their with Al Pacino’s speech in The Whole Nine Yards. Three minutes were on the clock when the veteran Kevin Gallen turned the ball in from close range after the keeper had made a great save.  Luton went on the attack immediately afterwards, coming close to an equaliser before five second half minutes were on the clock.  They did have to wait though until the 60th minute for that.  Gallen picked up a loose ball outside the penalty area and squared it to Ross Jarvis who picked his spot and gave the Cambridge keeper no chance.  The fans went wild, quite unsure as to what they were seeing on the pitch.  The local police took the jubilation for some sort of mass violence and went into the crowd to try and remove a few of the most “boisterous” fans.  A minute later it was 3-2 to Luton as Kevin Gallen found himself one on one with the keeper, and despite his effort being saved, Jake Howells was on had to complete a remarkable recovering.  In the ensuing celebrations Howells hurt his leg and another twist to this amazing game took place as he could take no further part.

So three goals in eighteen second half minutes had left the home teams and fans stunned.  Martin Ling made a tactical change, and for the first time in the half Cambridge launched an attack against the ten men.  Two minutes after Luton had taken the lead it was 3-3 as the impressive Tyler in the Luton goal made a great save from Hatswell’s header only for Holroyd to smash the ball home form the equaliser.

Five minutes later Cambridge almost took the lead as another Tyler save rolled along the goal line just needing a touch from anyone.  The crowd were then treated to ten minutes to relative calm until the referee decided to take centre stage, awarding a penalty to Luton after some pushing and shoving in the area by Brian Saah, who in fairness had actually been booked for a similar offence a few minutes before.  Harsh, but equalling up the decision from the first half.  Up stepped Gallen and it was 4-3 to Luton.

Five minutes of injury time proved too much for many fans who could not watch, but the final whistle was greeted by jubilation from the 1,700 away fans (including Cerys Matthews from Catatonia), although the scenes of Riot Police on the field, police dogs outside the gates and a police helicopter flying overhead was hardly what you expect from Blue Square football.  Game of the season so far and a win that took Luton shooting back up the table.

The team here at The Ball is Round pride ourselves on our contacts within the game.  After a year of working with Danny Last and his magnificent Logo gallery with all of the good and famous in Non-League football, I though it was time I delivered a big fish of my own. After all it’s not what you know but what you know about someone else that you can use to your advantage that matters.  Now I am not revealing any of my sources, but when I approached Mick Harford, current manager of Luton Town and generally all round nice guy, he agreed to a chat within seconds after the game versus Cambridge United with Football Jo, Lolly and myself.

Harford build a reputation through his career as a no-nonsense type of centre forward.  Blessed with height and more than a match for most centre backs, he played for ten clubs over a career that spanned over 20 years, 600 matches and nearly 200 goals.  A goal every 3 games is a decent return in anyone’s book and coming in a time when the Premier League was at an embryonic stage and the foreign invasion had not yet started you can only wonder was he would have achieved in the modern game where training regimes would have strengthened his game, and the quality of the ball into the box would have been so much better for him to get on the end of.

He was also known as someone not to mess with.  Legend goes that when he joined Wimbledon in 1994 he was spared the usual new signing initiation ritual for the other squad members fear of reprisal – and this included a squad including shrinking violets such as Vinnie Jones, Robbie Earle and Marcus Gayle.  He stayed on at Wimbledon after his playing career ended at the grand old age of 38 and picked up his coaching badges, and working with Joe Kinnear.  When Kinnear went onto Luton a few years later Mick went with him and masterminded their promotion season in 2001/02.  Spells at Nottingham Forest, Colchester United, Rotherham United and Queens Park Rangers followed before the opportunity arose to return to Luton Town in February 2008.  He joined a club in turmoil from the previous management and coaching staff, a club destined for relegation and being investigated by the Football League for all sorts of “irregularities” he inherited.  Try as he could the club could not avoid Administration and the ten point penalty that went with it effectively ended all hope long before the final ball was kicked.

Happy with the interview

Happy with the interview

Worse was to follow in the summer when the club were hit with a massive 30 point penalty for various reasons by the Football League, including exiting Administration – which for some reason the footballing authorities deemed twice the sin as entering it in the first place.  Harford vowed the club would try to survive against all the odds, and pulled off a remarkable achievement in guiding the club to the Johnstones Paint Trophy Final at Wembley, and then beating Championship bound Scunthorpe United in extra time.  Without that penalty the club would have finished in 15th place in the division – justice? I don’t think so.

At what point last season did you realise all of your hard effort was in vain?
When I was told that we had been relegated after the match at home with Chesterfield in April.   Whilst we came away with a 0-0 draw from that game Grimsby Town’s 2-0 defeat of Notts County meant it was mathematically impossible with just four games left.

What did you say to the team when relegation was confirmed in the dressing room?
There wasn’t alot of talking going on but after a while when the players had realised the situation I said “Look at the clock and remember this time and date. This is the new beginning of Luton Town FC. Thanks for all your efforts and I’m sorry it was all in vain.”

For the final four games when you knew you were going to be playing in the Blue Square Premier, how did you motivate yourself and the team?
Motivation to go out on the field and play our best was never an issue because we are professionals and we had a responsibility to the fans and the other teams in the league who still had something to play for.

Turning the attention to this season, what will you class “success” in May?
Promotion.  Simple as that.  Getting Luton Town back into the Football League.


Preparing the half time rant

Preparing the half time rant

Tuesday 11th August 2009.  First home game at this level in front of an impressive 7,000+ crowd at Kenilworth Road.  Eighteen minutes on the clock and Mansfield take the lead. What went through your mind?
Here we go again! But the plan worked over the ninety minutes and a 4-1 victory was a fair reflection on the chances we created.

How much homework have you done on the division as a whole?
A lot and it’s an ongoing process.  There are quite a few teams we have never come up against and so homework is vital –  Watching games, speaking to other managers and players.  We only have one objective this season – Promotion.  That is what I will use as the yardstick for success.  In the first few weeks of the season it is obvious from the teams we have played (such as Forest Green, Gateshead, Kettering Town, etc) that they raise their game against us.  We are a big scalp for them, and for many it is their Cup Final.  The one game I am looking forward to is the one that wins us promotion.

Luton+Town+v+Scunthorpe+United+Johnstones+3VUvK3cbpY_lAfter your success in winning the JPT at Wembley Stadium last year, what about a nice cup run?
Of course I wouldn’t say know but the league is the priority.  If I had a hand in the draw I’d love to get Watford or Millwall – that would be quite an atmosphere!

 So was that final the highpoint of your career in football?
As a manager definitely.  Not many managers these days can say they have won a cup at Wembley.  I have been very fortunate to win one both as a player and a manager but the win last season was special as being a manager means you are responsible for so much more.  
My highpoint as a player was my second cap for England against Denmark at Wembley in 1989.  One of the lowpoints was the moment I realised that I couldn’t carry on playing.  After Wimbledon played Aston Villa in 1998 I damaged by Achilles again and realised that I would need an operation.  At the age of 38 1/2 I felt that was a step too far.

So you played for England under the late Sir Bobby Robson.  How did you find out you had been called up into the squad?
At the time I was playing at Luton Town, and we were on a great run (it was the year that we went on to beat Arsenal at Wembley in the League Cup Final).  England had a friendly coming up away to Israel in Tel Aviv.  I found out I had been selected for the squad after the FA sent a letter to the Club, and the manager Ray Harford (no relation I should add!) called me into his office and told me.  I made my debut in the second half when I came on for Clive Allen.  The game ended up 0-0.

So some of the best moments of your career have come at Luton
Yes.  Both as a player and a manager.  And that is why it was so disappointing to be relegated last season because even with the 30 penalty point I thought we could get out of it.  I had a great time with the club as a player and settled in the area.  My son was born in Luton, I have so many friends in the area and have built a strong affiliation with the people at the club.

Who inspired you as a player, and as a manager?
I was a Sunderland fan from boyhood and was greatly inspired to become a player by Bob Stokoes team that beat the great Leeds United team in the 1973 FA Cup Final.  Brian Clough stands out as a great inspiration as a manager – he wanted his team to play good football and never wavered or compromised.


Lolly and big Mick

Lolly and big Mick

Looking back on your career which I believe covered nearly 600 games for 10 different clubs, what stadiums stand out?
As a player I thoroughly enjoyed playing at Wembley obviously, as well as Old Trafford.  As a manager I remember going to West Ham’s Upton Park at Christmas in 2004 when I was at Nottingham Forest and that was one of the most hostile places I had been – no Christmas cheer for us there!

Best player you played with?
Chris Waddle without a doubt!  I was a strong, abrasive and technical player, and he was cultured and skillful.  What a combination!

 So lets turn our attention to the game today.  What do you think about the events at Manchester City and Real Madrid in the past few months?
Good luck to them!  But in the longer term it will push English players further down the ladder at Manchester City and could weaken our national side.  In terms of the whole Ronaldo saga I am not sure whether they wanted the player or the brand.  Either way £80million is a hell of a lot of money to spend on one person.

Talk us through some of your matchday preparations
I have a Lucky Suit that has seen me through some good times.  After the game I will sit down and watch the video of the game, look at the components of the team and individuals and plan some ways to improve and ways to eliminate the mistakes.  I then translate these into plans for training.  Alas my knee is too sore for me to take part myself! I do make a habit of never listening to the football phone ins!

So there we have it.  Mick has promised to give us more during the season, and we wish them well and officially appoint Luton Town our “Football Friend” of the Blue Square Premier League this season, and Mick an honorary member into the TBIR Hall of Fame.









Club update of the Week – Forest Green Rovers

One of our new features this season will be to get regular updates on how some of the clubs we have featured here are faring this season.  First up is Forest Green Rovers, who we visited back in March 2009 when they entertained (and they certainly did) Oxford United.  Our resident TBIR Fan at new Lawn is Phil, so I will leave it to him to give us an update on a turbulent six months in rural Gloucestershire.

During the close season we lost a lot of experienced Conference players, such as Lee Fowler, Darren Jones & Alex Lawless and sadly they were not replaced.  The manager, Jim Harvey decided to go with players from a local college (Hartbury College), who played in our reserves, and try and mould them in to Blue Square Premier players. Rumours of budgetary cuts forced him to do this but I’m not so sure as these have been denied since by a board member. Then Jim Harvey was sacked and the whole pre-season build up was thrown in to the air. Then the Andy Mangan ban came into effect (Andy was one of five players who used to play for Bury and Accrington Stanley who were found guilty in a FA probe into betting last year and he has a five month ban) and we still have no experienced striker to start the season with.

In fairness I’ve never been a Jim Harvey fan. He didn’t seem to show the commitment to FGR. He’d been allegedly going for other Conference manager jobs whilst on contract to us but it had been built in to his contract he couldn’t do this without the clubs permission. His scouting network was somewhat limited to generally ex Morecambe players and recommendations. Couple that with a few high earning non-performing signings of his and we had problems. On the football side if a Harvey side plays well you will struggle to beat them as he likes the pure football 4-4-1-1 formation but in the rough and tumble of the Conference not many teams let you do this. Add in this was the only system he really had, bizarre substitutions on a weekly basis and players played way out of position you get the picture! The odd few excellent performances/results were overshadowed by far too many mediocre ones.

The fans position on Harvey were mixed. Some thought he was God-like but I was not in that group. I’d say it was 50/50 toward the end of his tenure. Good things I will remember from his era are the 3-0 win at Rotherham United (probably the best ever performance by a Forest Green Rovers side) and games against Derby County, Swindon Town and Rochdale in the FA Cup so we should all thank him for that.

When Harvey was sacked 30 year old centre forward David Brown was thrust in to the managers hotseat. The guy had no coaching/managerial experience and was also left with a squad not good enough to cope at this level.  Couple this with his game suffering, a few loan signings to plug the gaps and all of a sudden after 9 games we only had 2 points!.  He also played the 4-4-1-1 formation of a Harvey side but we don’t have the players this season to do it. In the past two years we’ve been spoilt with the Mark Beesley/Stuart Fleetwood and David Brown/Andy Mangan partnerships but this season we started with an 18 year old right winger playing as a lone striker.

It’s not rocket science to see that we needed a striker as soon as Andy Mangan was banned. This hasn’t happended to this day and in my thinking this is the main reason why we are struggling. In three out of our last four games we’ve kept clean sheets and apart form the drubbing at Cambridge where we played for so long with 10 men after our keeper was sent off, defending is not the problem. We also tend to raise our game against the better footballing sides hence the excellent goalless draw at Oxford last month.

The crowd at Forest Green Rovers are a more than patient lot. We only have a hard core of 5-600 fans and they do realise the position we’re in regarding finances (the new ground cost a lot more than budgeted as is always the case in football hence a shortfall) and the need for the club not to go under. Match day revenue is essential for Forest Green Rovers but then again the club have to help themselves. Blue Square football is becoming expensive business to watch so more incentives are needed to be brought in. The idea of Kids for a quid is essential and this has been done a few games per season but in my opinion it should be now at every game. We live in a rugby watching area so you need to try things to bring people in especially the younger generation and this is something the club need to address.

We don’t have a large traveling support at Forest Green Rovers. We took 11 fans to York the other week and 150+ to Oxford, which is our nearest other club but generally 50ish is our regular following. Couple that with our lack of strikers/negative formation and it does make it hard for people to get the enthusiastic to go. There is a coach going to Barrow this week for a 600 mile round trip so fair play to those 30 or so that are traveling.

This season if we stay up it will be deemed a success.  We would be bottom if it wasn’t for Chester City’s huge penalty points.  New manager  Dave Hockaday has come in and the first thing he saw was a lack of fitness in the squad, something that came from the previous regime. I’m still 50/50 that we will survive as the damage could have already been done . If we start scoring goals I think we will, just!!!! One player we could sign on a free? ANY EXPERIENCED CONFERENCE STRIKER but more importantly for me is the 4-4-2 system for him to play in but then again I’m not the manager I am just a fan who pays his money and has no choices right?

Many thanks to Phil for these words.  We thoroughly enjoyed our day out at Forest Green last season and wish them well in their search for goals this season.

Who is the fairest of them all?

Twenty years ago automatic promotion from the Conference to the Football League structure was introduced, with Scarborough becoming the first club to “step up to the big time” with Lincoln City falling into the unknown of Non-League football. For years many well run, well supported non-league clubs had been denied their chance in the league thanks to an anarchaic process that involved the chairman of the league clubs voting on who should stay in.



Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic were the last two teams voted into the league in the late Seventies, replacing Workington and Southport respectively. This decision was justified with both teams going onto reach the Premier League and a major domestic cup final apiece, whilst the teams they replaced are still knocking around in the Blue Square North. Who is to stay what the league structure would have looked like now if automatic promotion and relegation would have been put in place then. Twenty years later and we have seen new teams make an impact on the leagues, such as Wycombe Wanderers, Yeovil Town (who came within minutes of a place in the Championship a few seasons ago), Cheltenham Town, Dagenham & Redbridge and this season Burton Albion.

The process has also seen a number of teams fall out of the league, only to return much stronger, the best example being Doncaster Rovers who fell out in pieces with possibly the worst ground in the league, only now for them to be sitting in midtable in the Championship with a lovely new 10,000 capacity stadium. colchester United (also with their own new stadium), Carlisle United, Exeter City, Barnet (twice!), Shrewsbury Town, Lincoln City, Torquay United, Hereford United and Darlington have all returned to the fold after relegation. A few teams though have struggled. Macclesfield Town, Accrington Stanley and Morecambe all have struggled to adjust to full time life and the locals have not supported them in the new world of league football. Accrington recently had to rely on the generosity of Premier League newboys Burnley in playing a friendly at the Fraser Eagle Stadium to ease the financial pressure on them.

In total twenty seven diffrent teams have been promoted from the Conference since 1987.  Out of these Boston United and Halifax Town have almost disappeared back into the lower non-leagues.  Maidstone United and Scarborough have gone out of business and three teams are back in the Conference (Kidderminster, Chester City for the second time and Rushen & Diamonds).  The rest have made progress to varying extents in the league structure.  The conference was created in 1979 after Wigan Athletic’s promotion to the league.  In the seven years between formation and automatic promotion the league was won by five teams, four of which do not exist as they were today – Runcorn, Enfield, Wealdstone and Maidstone United.  Only Altrincham who won the first two titles in 1980 and 1981 are still in the same division but more by luck than judgement.

Take a look at the crowds on Saturday 12th September from the respective leagues. League Two had a high of 11,439 thanks to Bradford City, who are far and away the best supported team in the division. Two old non-league teams all got relatively disappointing crowds – Dagenham & Redbridge just over 2,000 and Macclesfield Town just over 1,100. Rochdale and Bury got under 2,400 each. In the Blue Squar Premier this situation was remarkable.

Five clubs got over 2,200. The highest, Luton Town’s 6,264, which only included 35 away fans from Barrow was higher than every League Two gate apart from Bradford City’s and the Sven-fuelled Notts County experience. It was also higher than five clubs in League One. In total seven clubs in this league average over 3,500. And all of these clubs, only one has technically never played league football – AFC Wimbledon. Of the others, Oxford United and Luton Town expect crowds of 6,000 + for most home games, significantly higher than all but a small handful of clubs in the division higher.  In contract eleven clubs in Division Two average less than this, of which NINE are former non-league clubs or have played in the non-leagues in the last twenty years.

A bit of a dramatic entrance

A bit of a dramatic entrance

So is it as simple as that? Not at all. Look at the other spectrum in the Blue Square Premier. Hayes & Yeading, promoted from the Blue Square South last season via the play offs got a crowd of just 355 for their game against Tamworth. Gateshead, promoted in the same manner from the north division 478. These clubs are simply out of their depth at this level. What would happen if they somehow were promoted? Would the crowds flock to see them? I doubt it. Gateshead obviously come from an area that is already supporting two huge teams in Sunderland and Newcastle United, but play in the very unfriendly International Athletics Stadium. With both the Geordies and the Mackems playing in front of empty seats week in, week out I do not see many being interested in a game against the likes of Salisbury City, let alone Barnet. Altrincham, once one of the great non-league teams now sees most young fans head up the metro to Old Trafford or City of Manchester stadium rather than watching their local team. Small local teams such as Forest Green Rovers, Eastbourne Borough, Salisbury City and Crawley Town survive on crowds below 1,000 but simply do not have the financial muscle to make an impact on the division now, so the final table will always have a familiar look – the top 6 today has 4 ex-league clubs in it.

One level below is the Blue Square North and South. Crowds down this far rarely get into four figures. Fleetwood Town, currently enjoying an excellent season just one point off top spot got 1,126 on Saturday, the best crowd in the division but most were around the 500 mark. In the South division four clubs often get over the 1,000 mark with Newport County, Woking, Chelmsford City and Dover. All of these clubs have played at a higher level for significant periods in the past and crowds have been used to success (Just under 30 years ago Newport County were in the Quarter Finals of the European Cup Winners Cup!). Dover, Newport and Woking are currently occupying the top three spots – any co-incidence?

Lolly's interpretation of "The Ball is Round"

Lolly's interpretation of "The Ball is Round"

So what does all this show us? Ex-league clubs get the bigger attendances? Sure, but just because you have big crowds is no pre-requisite for success. Or that in any league you will have big clubs and little clubs rubbing along in blissful harmony. Every team has its own hardcore of fans, following them through thick and thin. Cynical Dave and Deaks are two such fans, following Lewes all over the league, adding two to the attendance at Bath City and Chelmsford City in the past week.

Have we fallen out of love with the beautiful game, or have we been priced out? £10 for a ticket at virtually every club in the Blue Square South is good value considering how much it is to see a Premier League game, but what is the club doing to attract new fans? Nothing, and that is the fundamental problem with football. It’s been run for too long as an insular industry, encouraging the same people and ideas to be regurgitated at a commercial level…..but that is for another day.

And now, the end is near…..

“….and so I face the final curtain”….not my words but those of Frank Sinatra, Ol’ Blues Eyes.  And what could be more apt for a final day game in the Blue Square Premier League than a trip back to one of my favourites, Lewes for their last game at this level.  Since seeing them beat Grays on the 22nd November (see When Two Blogs Collide) the team have played twenty five league games, winning three times and losing the remaining twenty two games.  Nine points out of seventy five is not really play off material so it comes as no surprise to anyone, including the Lewes fans that the team confirmed their relegation some weeks ago back to the Blue Square South.  Hopes were never very high for this season after the farcical events of last summer after promotion had been confirmed, and hadn’t been helped by the management of ex-Brighton & Hove Albion commercial manager (i.e no football management experience) Kevin Keehan being in charge of team affairs for most of the campaign.

Last April things were so different in this lovely little town in East Sussex.  The club has risen from Rymans League Three to the Blue Square Premier in just seven seasons, an amazing effort and I doubt that any visiting fan can ever have a bad word to say about visiting the Dripping Pan.  Then the owners of the club made some bizarre decisions and have reaped the rewards of their bad harvest this season.  Administration has been avoided, which appeared to be the only option a few months ago for the club.  So there are some positives for next season andI have vowed to adopt them as my second team from August and get to as many away games as I can in the Blue Square South to keep up our commitment at TBIR to cover non-league as much as European football.

But for this last horaahI was obviously going to be attending with Mr. Last.  The man who has taken his blog (EFW) to new levels of reporting by securing endorsement this season from the creator of Steptoe & Son (Alan Simpson), two Ashes winners (Jimmy Anderson and Jack Russell) and a comedy genius (Frank Sidebottom).  This would obviously involve a number of Harvey’s being sampled – when in Rome, etc so the train was the carriage of choice for this one.

York were the visitors for the last day, and after a bit of squeekybum time in the past few weeks they secured Conference football with a 2-1 away win at Weymouth on Friday night.  I had seen York on four occasions already this season and their performances had varied from solid (Histon), attacking (Burton Albion), defensive (Salisbury City) and woeful (Eastbourne Borough).  Of course there was always the passionate support to look forward to.  The York fans have supported their club through thick and thin over the past few seasons and are one of the only clubs to have a recognised “Ultra” following.  Some of their fans can be a bit exuberant to say the least (see February 2009’s post on “I do like to be beside the seaside”) but at least they care and show a bit of passion.  They have exceeded a number of expectations though this season.  The form of centre-forward Brodie has been nothing short of sensational at times, and with 18 goals this season he has been their shining light.  His goals also secured a first trip to the New Wembley Stadium for the club as they are due to play Stevenage Borough in the FA Trophy final in a few weeks.

With all four relegation places confirmed these two had nothing to play for.  I had some money on an outside bet for Oxford United to reach the play offs which required a Torquay defeat at home to Burton Albion and a Kidderminster draw or defeat at home plus the assumption that Oxford would beat already relegated Northwich Victoria themselves. So I would have one eye on the Blackberry and one eye on the fantastic bar at the Dripping Pan.

The sun was shining as CMF taxi’s pulled up in Brighton andafter an hour on the beach with the Little Fullers I was off up the road to meet Mr Last at the European Football Weekends HQ – aka The Lord Nelson, officially the darkest pub in the world.  Obviously a couple of Harvey’s were in order and after a discussion on the latest non-league gossip we were off to Lewes on the train.

Lewes 1 York City 1 – The Dripping Pan – Sunday 26th April 2009 4pm

The teams emerge to an almost San Siro welcome

The teams emerge to an almost San Siro welcome

The weather was so good in East Sussex that it seemed a shame to play a football match.  One good thing to come out of the relegation of the club is that next season they do not have to abide by the ridiculous rule that means that no alcohol is allowed to be served during the game from the bar behindthe goal will not be enforced.  The amount of revenue the club will see next season should make up for the lower number of away supporters.  This season the biggest attendances have been when the big clubs have come to visit.  York brought a couple of coaches with them and filled the small away terrace at the far end, enjoying the BBQ in full force.  Danny took the opportunity to induct a couple more people into the EFW fanclub, snapping Richard Brodie and Martin Foyle from York City into the gallery.

To tell you the truth the game was poor.  York City played witha number of squad players starting, with Foyle looking at likely candidates for their big Wembley appearance.  He had kept top scorer Brodie on the bench, and even Lewes chose to rest their teenage sensation David Wheeler for the first half.  I cannot remember one single chance in the first half, although you would have never guessed by the noise the few hundred Lewes fans made.  Scored kept filtering through from around the country.  Firstly Torquay scored against Burton, and then news came through that the divisions form team Northwich Victoria had taken the lead at the Kassam against Oxford United.

Half time came and another Harvey’s disappeared and it was touch and go whether we went back out onto the terrace.  But we did and both teams decided to take it a bit more seriously and on came Brodie and Wheeler.  York City eventually took the lead with ten minutes to play as Brodie headed a free kick across the goal for York captain Mark Greaves to turn the ball in, and the hopes of all home fans that there would be anything apart from another defeat.

But the team obviously wanted to give the fans something of a summer send off and from a Foreman free kick, Cullip knocked the ball on and top scorer Joe Keehan was on handto bundle the ball home with just two minutes left on the clock.  So a predictable result in the end, which is more than can be said from elsewhere in the Conference as Kidderminster Harriers, Stevenage Borough and Burton Albion all lost.  Now that could (and should) have meant that Cambridge United and Oxford United winning their home games to secure automatic promotion (Cambridge) anda play off place (Oxford United).  But with matters in their own hands they could not deliver and so Burton Albion won automatic promotion, and Oxford United fell short of the end of season shakedown.  And Lewes?  Well they will be looking forward to renewing acquaintances with Havant and Waterlooville, Bromley and Welling United next season.  Of course this will mean a few new grounds for the travelling Rooks including Dover Athletic.  One thing is for sure, this will not be the last time I visit the Dripping Pan….

The teams emerge to an almost San Siro welcome

One to go and all to play for…

 As a new twist to the family of football offerings from Fuller Inc you can now add Scouting.  Not the Baden Powell type but the “seeing what talented footballers are out there” type.  I had been asked by a certain football league club to have a look at Kidderminster Harrier’s Player of the Season in 2007 and 2008 Mark Creichton in their game at Stevenage Borough.  This suited me perfectly for three reasons:-

1. I hadn’t been to Stevenage for over 12 years;

2. I have always said I knew more about football than most of the people I have ever met in football.

3. I managed to persuade Football Jo to come, and to get her to drive me to and from the station

Let’s look at point one.  In November 1996 on a “country drive”, CMF and I stumbled upon a small farm called Tewin Bury.  At the time we were shacked up with Marc Oedipus in our love nest in Notting Hill (above Mike Atherton, opposite Lawrence Dallaglio and two doors down from Norman Lamont if you wanted to know) and in a rash moment of impulse we decided to get married there.  We were not engaged, nor had we ever really planned to get married but we (well she) was seduced by the beauty of the venue, and they had a space for our (her) preferred date in August 1998.  So we booked it and I paid a £2,000 deposit.  I thought it was a tad unfair that we had spent so much money on something I would get little enjoyment out of (don’t say I just said that!)  so I suggested we go into Stevenage so that I could look in PC World.  Thirty minutes later I had spend £1,000 (Remember this was pre-little Fuller’s and life was good) on a new PC and £400 on a new DVD player (at the time when they were like suitcases).  I noticed that a few people were parking on the retail park with football shirts on and threw in a request to go to the game, whoever the locals were playing.  The response I got chilled me to the bone:-

“Now that we are engaged that is fine”

Er when had I proposed.  Sure, I had just paid £2,000 as a non-returnable deposit on a wedding but that wasn’t the same as actually proposing.  Still I bit my tongue and we went off to find out it was an FA Cup 1st round game between Stevenage Borough and Hayes in the FA Cup. 

Anyway, back to the present.  Yes I went through with the wedding and yes I did the proper proposal (Amsterdam 9th February 2007 if you want to know) and yes I had never been back since.  Football Jo was at a loose end as her latest chap had decided to go to work so she wanted to come along and “advise” me on the best players to scout.  It was going to be an interesting evening.  So 20 minutes after being picked up in Harpenden we had parked across the road from the ground.

Inside the stadium hadn’t changed much – a new roof at one end but it still looked one of the better stadiums in the Conference.  Stevenage had been there or there abouts on a number of occasions at this level, coming mightily close in 1994/95 when they actually won the Conference but the stadium was not deemed fit to allow league football.  It took then nearly a decade, a few financial close escapes and an FA Trophy victory to get back into the play offs but they lost to Carlisle United in 2005.  This season their form had taken them from the bottom three (after a disastrous start which saw them lose 5-1, 3-1 and 4-0 in their first four games) to the situation in early 2009 when they won ten consecutive games.  In fact since the turn of the year the team had only lost once in their last thirty games and that was to tonight’s opposition just two weeks previous.

Kidderminster had also been in a similar position to Stevenage in that they had finished top of the conference in 1994 but were refused entry into the league due to the ground not being up to standard.  This was rich at the time considering the state of a number of grounds in the Football League.  Who can ever forget visiting grounds like Barnet, Blackpool or Cambridge United in that season and seeing the poor facilities on offer.  Ironically that season they hosted West Ham United in the FA Cup in front of 8,000 at the so-called unprepared stadium without any issues.  They eventually made it into the league in 2000 when they won the league at a canter.  If ever there was a title not to make the step up to league football it was 2000.  First went the revenues from ITV Digital, then the revenues from the deal to supply websites through Premium TV and finally the strength of the local Premier League teams meant that money was hard to come by.  They returned to the non-leagues in 2005/06 and have since failed to threaten the top of the league until this season when Manager Mark Yates has created an impressive attacking team.  Their home form for most of the season has been the impressive element so this game was to be a real challenge for them.

 Stevenage Borough 3 Kidderminster Harriers 1 – Broadhall Way – Tuesday 21st April 2009

Stevenage Borough 3 Kidderminster Harriers 1

Stevenage Borough 3 Kidderminster Harriers 1

 There was a fair size crowd in the stadium for his one.  Obviously the Stevenage public had been wowed by the style of football they had seen and the astounding results of the team.  Quite rightly the club can be proud of their performance in the second half of the season, but with up to six big games left it could all end in tears.  Step one was to beat Kidderminster Harriers, one place above Stevenage in the league in what would be a huge motivational boost for the team.

I was very keen to see how the Stevenage front two played.  I had heard good things about Morison up front, and being one of the leading scorers in the league where goals are often hard to come by was going to be interesting.  Lee Boylan on the other hand was a name from the past.  I first saw him in West Ham United’s youth set up in the late 1990’s, and was at the Youth Cup Final at Anfield when West Ham lost to Liverpool 2-1 in the second leg in a team alongside Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard (The Liverpool team on that day included Gerard and Michael Owen).  What did surprise me was that he had appeared to have scored many goals so far this season.  Kidderminster had an impressive front two themselves, with Barnes-Homer and Richards having scored 35 goals between them, making them the most prolific duo in the Blue Square Conference this season.  

So the game started on a lovely Bedfordshire (or is it Herftordshire?) evening and it was obvious that the man we had come to watch Creighton looked tired and unfit.  He seemed to make his way forward for early set pieces but left his team mates exposed as he was not able to get back in time to assist the defence on the break.  Stevenage attacked from the word go and right midfielder Drury impressed with his speed down the flank.  From his cross on four minutes top scorer Morison slammed the ball home after his initial shot was blocked.  Kidderminster were reeling and within minutes it was nearly two as Morison took a ball on his chest on the right hand side of the penalty area and hit a magnificent volley that dipped, curled and swerved over the keepers head before it smashed into the bar.

Stevenage were certainly playing impressively and it took a good half an hour before Kidderminster found their rhythm.  Their front two were certainly fast and the midfield engine Penn (who was rumoured to have been the subject of a £100,000 transfer approach recently) was instrumental in pulling them back into the game.  His pass found Richards 20 yards out and his quick feet found a space and a shot which ended up in the back of the net to make it one all.

The second half was a completely different story.  To tell the truth we had given up watching our friend from Kidderminster as he was simply being run ragged by Boylan and Morison although he was certainly “no nonsense” in his approach to defending, a characteristic that is essential at this level.  Just two minutes into the second half Boylan turned him around 30 yards out, took two steps and then rifled a low shot into the corner.  Fifteen minutes later he made it three one when he beat Creighton at the near post to turn in a smart cross from Mitchell Cole.

After this the game was never in doubt.  Stevenage have hit form just at the right moment and this win lifted them into the playoff places for the first time in a few weeks.  With just one game to go they now hold the upper hand over Oxford United, Torquay United and Kidderminster in the race for the final slot.  Kidderminster seem to have done enough to earn a spot, and with Torquay United hosting Burton who have to win they could still yet make it into the end of season shake down, and who knows a repeat of the 2007 FA Trophy final against Stevenage.

We exited stage left, winding our way through the non-league WAG’s (have to be seen to be believed), past the signs around the pitch for “missile defence systems” (I didn’t know it was so rough in the town) and crossed the main road.  Outside the car park was a Robin Reliant with the sign Boys2Men on the side – nothing like drawing attention to yourself…As I say – strange place Stevenage.

About the Broadhall Way
Certainly one of the better grounds in the Blue Square Premier and one which would not look out of place in the Football League. On one side is the all seated covered, Main Stand, that looks quite impressive. It is unusual in so much that at the back of the stand on either side of it, there are large gaps between the back of the roof and the stand below. Whilst in the middle of the stand at the back, there are a number of glass fronted areas to various Club offices. Opposite is the fair sized East Terrace, that is covered and is quite steep. Eventhough like the rest ground, the stand is relatively new, it does have a gable with a clock sitting on its roof above the half way line, which gives it a touch of character. At one end is the South Stand, which is another single tiered all seated covered stand. This stand given to away supporters. There is an electric scoreboard on the roof of this stand. Opposite at the North End of the ground, is a small covered terrace. A set of four new floodlights (one pylon in each corner) were installed for the start of the 2007/08 season.Thanks to Duncan Adam’s excellent site for the above information

Getting to Broadhall Way
If you are driving you will undoubtably come via the A1. In which case exit at Junction 7 and take the A602 towards Stevenage. Go straight across the first roundabout and as you approach the next roundabout you can see the floodlights of the ground over on the right. However, if you go straight across the roundabout then you will see the entrance on the left to the large official car park which is free. You can also take the 1st left at the roundabout and park in Old Meg – not the local witch but an retail park.The nearest station is Stevenage which is about a mile away from the ground. Leave the station booking hall and turn left towards the town. Take the stairs on the right before the bridge over the dual carriage way and head along the A602, Lytton Way. At the roundabout which has the police station on the right, take the second exit into Six Hills Way. At the next roundabout take the third exit (south) continuing along the A602, Monkswood Way, passing a large Asda store on your right. After about 3/4 mile (McDonalds/Burger King etc will be on your right) you will arrive at a roundabout and the ground will be opposite you on the other side of the A602.

How to get a ticket for Broadhall Way 
It’s pay on the door for all games (bar any big FA Cup matches) at Stevenage.  Even the FA Trophy Semi-Final this season only attracted just over 3,000.  Pricing is relatively simple – £15 for a seat in the main stand or away end behind the goal and £12 for a place on the covered terrace.