Economic Theory explained by Football – The Concept of Marginal Gains


Just down the road, 2 1/2 hours before Lewes kick off in their game against Farnborough, The Football League Championship’s two clubs go head to head.  Brighton & Hove Albion are the last remaining unbeaten team in the top 10 divisions of English football, a remarkable turnaround from last season where they avoided relegation in the last few weeks of a season characterised by dull, scoreless football.  Back in the Summer, Chris Hughton brought his first team squad down the A27 and could count themselves lucky to go back with a 0-0 draw.  Confidence was high from the Lewes camp, whilst the draw against a team five divisions lower hardly increased the membership of the Hughton Appreciation Society.

Six months on and the situation could hardly be more different.  Hughton is being hailed a messiah by the North Stand faithful whilst Lewes are still looking for their first home win and are looking up the skirts of every other team in the Ryman Premier League.  We could spend hours debating why, but it is more important to touch on what the future holds in my opinion.

In the last few days I’ve read a couple of interesting pieces about the finances of The Seagulls.  The superb Swiss Ramble analysed the numbers in detail on his website last week, There can be no denying the investment by owner Tony Bloom in the club, both on and off the pitch, and for the sake of their loyal fans I hope they do reach the promised land of the Premier League, not only because they deserve a crack at it, but to also give Bloom some financial return on his huge investment.  Footballing history has given us plenty of examples as to where the single investor model turns sour at some point, and whilst Brighton fans may say “It’ll never happen to us with our Tony around”, I’m sure that is what Bolton Wanderers fans said when Big Phil was splashing the cash for Big Sam at the Reebok.

FullSizeRender (16)But what about Lewes?  We don’t have the ownership model that means we are indebted to one person.  However, we are bottom of the league.  In such situations managers tend to grab at any straw going.  How often will you see them bring in a raft of new players to try to solve an issue, normally expelling a fair few out the back door.  It is very rare that the financial situation in such cases ends up with the club making a profit on the dealings or paying less wages.  We all deep down know that, unfortunately, Chelsea will not get relegated this year.  Whoever comes in in the short-term will be given some patience and will make small changes that turn defeats into draws, and draws into wins.  Before you know it they will be knocking on the door of the top seven.  Why?  Because in most instances, teams do not become bad teams overnight or even over a pre-season.  If you can keep the same core of players then with small adjustments they will become better gradually.

This is the theory of marginal gains.  The concept is that if you improve in every variable underpinning or influencing your performance by just 100% then cumulatively you get a significant performance improvement.  The Performance Director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford is often quoted as the biggest proponent of the theory, but it was actually Sir Clive Woodward to first openly admitted to using the concept in the preparation for the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, that England would ultimately win.  “Winning the World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but by doing 100 things 1% better” he said post tournament.

So what does that actually mean for a grass-roots club like Lewes?  It means working with the management team to make sure when the team step onto the pitch they are 100% prepared.  Kit may seem a small issue, but for one player having a pair of shorts that aren’t too tight could be that 1%.  Energy drinks – another 1%.  Ensuring the showers are hot – 1% and so on.  That’s obviously not going to be the reason why Chelsea improve but their 1% gains may come from preparation patterns, pre-match meals, warm up routines as well as personnel changes.

Lewes manager Darren Freeman has been used to winning both as a player and a manager.  He has a formula as to the type of player that he wants to see pull on the red and black shirt each week.  Coming into the club where it was already in the bottom four and three months into the season, his marginal gains are a lot tougher to deliver. But that doesn’t stop him trying.  There’s not going to be one single event that can turn the current situation into a rosier one – unless half a dozen teams all play ineligible players for 5 or 6 games in which they win and get 15 point deductions.  So the club has to look at improving marginally, and more importantly, within budget, in a multitude of areas.  Obviously, players will come and go such as this week where a new winger and a new centre-forward have come in, replacing an existing proven scorer.  Unusually, the net effect of the transfer dealings is financially positive.  Two for the price of one – a marginal gain in terms of squad numbers.

Fans obviously play a part as well.  Any Brighton & Hove Albion supporters heading back to Lewes that could be enticed in, irrespective of the price they pay should lead to a marginal financial gain.  The cost of admitting one extra fan is essentially zero.  There is a stewarding cost, but you can only set that prior to the game based on what you think the crowd would be.  If an additional 1,000 fans turned up today it would cost the club nothing extra but we would gain from whatever they pay through the turnstile and then food/drink/merchandise and so on.  That revenue would then boost the budget which would then be re-invested in different aspects of the club and thus delivering that marginal gain.

PastedGraphic-2-page-001It’s fair to say that the biggest marginal gain from today’s game though would be three points.  In fact, anything less than three points would be a significant blow to the club.  Farnborough’s off the field problems are well documented, falling from being just one game away from the Conference Premier four years ago to facing expulsion from the league.  We’ve been there and know how the fans pain feels, knowing that their fate is often out of their hands.  But for today it would be all about the Lewes win.  Still without a home win this season, Lewes could at least look to Farnborough’s away record of drawn one, lost ten as a positive omen.

The marginal gains philosophy and approach is  hardly rocket science. It’s a simple idea, but with many simple ideas, takes some energy, commitment and discipline to see the positive results.  Alas those three words are often lost on fans who want immediate results.  As a club we have to balance both.

Lewes 1 Farnborough 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 19th December 2015
It has only taken 269 days but finally we have a home win to celebrate.  25th March was the last time we really got to dance a silly jog of delight on the Philcox at the full-time whistle but yesterday we got that winning feeling again.  In terms of marginal gains the result was huge. We got 3 points, 3 more than the six teams above us.  In the grand scheme of things it makes little difference to the table or the threat of relegation, but we came out of the day the winner at the bottom end.

FullSizeRender (15)Farnborough were poor.  They lined up with a 5-3-2, failed to get one shot on goal, picked up five bookings and the only threat they posed was when Estonian striker Vastsuk threw himself to the ground in the penalty area and picked up a caution – interesting that we normally only see antics like that from players with league experience, and Vastsuk is no different, on loan from Reading.  Good to see the professional game teaching players the importance of ethics.

Lewes were good.  They started strongly and could have had a couple of goals (and at least one penalty) before Phil Appiah’s 25 yard blockbuster on the stroke of half-time put The Rooks in the lead.  By then the curse of the new striker had struck as George Landais limped off on his debut.  His replacement Trevor McCreadie was denied a penalty in the second half by yet another poor performance by the officials, being tripped in exactly the same spot as last week in the area.  OK, it wasn’t a vintage performance, probably not as convincing as last week’s draw against Leiston BUT you could see the 1%’s.  Winger Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe beat his man more frequently, the two centre-backs blocked more shots on the edge of the area, James Fraser looked a little more match fit.  Marginal gains.

So we danced all night to the best feeling ever.  Three points can make or break your weekend.  Hopefully the couple of dozen Brighton fans who decided to stick around after their painful first defeat of the season will have enjoyed a pint of Harvey’s, a slice of Christmas Pie and a goal worthy to win any game.

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Everybody needs good neighbours


19183144984_09dad2cd1c_kHaving a professional club just five miles down the road often appears to be a bad thing for a Non-League club.  You have to make the best of the situation and respect the pecking order in terms of league position.  Sometimes, when home league fixtures clash, we have to compromise on either suffering lower gates or moving our game much to the annoyance of our fans.  But the cold, hard economic truth is that if we don’t, we lose out.  Our bigger, stronger neighbours don’t even register a raised heartbeat if we move to an earlier or later game to accommodate the few dozen fans who otherwise may not come to us. But that few dozen matter.  Financially, that’s another £500 in the bank.  Whilst that is less than a couple of hours pay for some Championship players these days, that is a quarter of our budget for the whole of our squad.

We are fortunate to have Brighton & Hove Albion almost on our doorstep.  Relations between them and us (in that order as it’s not a symbiotic relationship) are good, and for the second year in a row, they agreed to send a first team squad down the A27 in a luxury coach for our first home game of the season.  Interest for the game locally is obviously very high.  So high that we have to make the game all ticket and cap the attendance at 2,300.  Whilst the Pan probably could hold more, fans want to be able to buy food, get to the bar and have a decent view.  At that number all of that is possible.

19185004683_23c0e26130_kObviously we have to make a number of logistical changes for the game.  As tickets are only sold online and have to be printed out, we need an army of volunteers armed with scanners, rather than turnstile operators taking cash.  We need additional toilets, food kiosks and car parking for the TV crews (yep, plural this year) who will be attending.  Because we are playing a Championship side then the draconian FA rules on when and where alcohol can be served have to be adhered to.  Yep, we know it was just a friendly, and yes we know that they will probably never know if someone sneaks a pint out of the clubhouse, but rules are rules. *takes health and safety hat back off*

Off the pitch the club is in rude health at the moment.  The 3G is the talk of the town and has had a very positive impact on the first team’s training, with smiling facing, fitter, stronger players and a queue of players who are interested in signing for us.  Alas for the reduced budget.

The result is more irrelevant for us than for the Seagulls.  They will be expected to win.  The fans are growing more and more impatient with Chris Hughton after his negative tactics at the end of last season (which did keep them in the division mind).  Last season it ended 5-0 to Brighton and no Lewes fans would go home feeling ashamed by that.  But manager Steve Brown was having none of that, telling anyone who would listen that we would give them a fight.

19183085844_5c7a44553b_kSo with the sun shining, the drummers drumming, the pitch looks superb and the fans are in full voice as the two captains led the teams out. Neither season will be made or broken today, but to 2,300 fans of East Sussex football it promised to kick off a long, hard season.  Before the football could start the whole ground observed a minute’s silence in memory of Don Lock, a life-long Brighton fan who had been killed a few days earlier.

Lewes 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 18th July 2015
Some may think that the awarding of the Man of the Match to the young Lewes keeper Dan Hutchings told a different story to the one the score line did.  However, they would be wrong.  Whilst Hutchings was called upon to make a couple of good saves, he was one of five or six Lewes players who could have won the award, chosen by the Match Sponsors.  He would have been my choice, both for the excellent second half double save that denied Colunga a nailed-on goal (and would have won me the Golden Goal!) but also for the way he has slotted into the side in the last week.  It probably helped having a vastly experienced back four in front of him, made up of two A Trialists (OK – Steve Sutherland from Met Police and Jordan Wilson from Grays Athletic if you really want to know), Rooks legend Chris Breach and new signing March-Brown.

For the first few minutes Lewes probably gave the visitors too much respect, allowing them to retain possession of the ball.  But when they realised that Brighton’s best chance of a goal came from 17 year old James Tilley, confidence grew and they started playing the ball around.  It was always going to be a tough ask to win this one but Lewes had a very good shout for a penalty in the first period when Nathan Crabb was wrestled to the floor by the Seagulls keeper and Calderon as a corner was on its way over.

19183340834_64e028387b_kThe second half saw 20 changes made in total, which for me on the PA was a nightmare.  At one point I announced Brighton’s third choice keeper Sanchez had donned the number 26 shirt and was playing on the right wing, whilst Josh Courtney came on for the Rooks, looking very similar to Steve Brinkhurst (because it was Steve Brinkhurst).  Whilst Brighton fans will point to the very young eleven that finished the game, so can Lewes with Hutchings, Welch, Marshall, Conlon, Laing and Brown all still young enough to turn out for our Under21’s/Development squad.

19810651691_5e4511b218_zWhilst Brighton should have wrapped it up at the death when Ward pulled his shot wide, a draw was a fair result for both teams, although obviously one set of fans went off down Mountfield Road much happier than the other set.  Putting my Chairman’s hat back on, we couldn’t have been happier.  Excellent crowd, good bar and food takings, award-winning programmes all sold out, great TV coverage and I even got to nutmeg Gully, the Brighton mascot.  Not quite up there with the wedding day but close.  Roll on 8th August and the start of the new season.

 

We can see you sneaking out


Come on, we’ve all done it.  Assumed that nothing will happen if we sneak out a few minutes early to beat the traffic or get to the train station.  Later we will sit at home or have got a round in before the crush at the bar, feeling very smug with ourselves.  “Did I miss anything?” you’d ask, knowing full well that nothing had happened bar one side lumping the ball into the corners, protecting their lead.

Euro2000I used to think like that until 21st June 2000 at around 8pm CET.  The venue?  The Jan Breydel Stadion, Bruges.  The occasion?  The last round of games in Group C in the European Championships.  Group leaders Yugoslavia knew that unless Norway won in their game versus Slovenia, they could afford to lose to Spain, who had to win and hope that Norway didn’t. But a Slovenia win could still take them through.  In a nutshell, anyone could go through and the two sets of fans in Bruges would have to keep a close eye on events in Arnhem.

When the 4th official held up the board saying there would be four additional minutes, Spain were dead and buried.  Losing 3-2 to Yugoslavia, and with Norway’s game finishing goal less meaning that they were in the runners-up spot they threw everyone forward.  But I didn’t know that – with a ferry back to Ramsgate to catch from Ostende, our little group had left to try to beat the traffic.  Five minutes later we were back at the car.  With a favourable wind, we were able to tune into BBC Radio Five Live who were reporting live from Arnhem.  The Norwegians were on their knees on the pitch, unable to believe what had just happened.  Not only had we missed Gaizka Mendieta score from the spot but 90 seconds after that, Alfonso Perez scored another, meaning Spain won 4-3 and the group, eliminating Norway in the process.

1078768_1541762016070199_1777799447471449438_oOnce bitten and all that.  Fast forward fifteen years and Lewes are hosting the Kings of the County, Brighton & Hove Albion.  It is Sussex Senior Cup time, a competition that Lewes last won over ten years ago.  The dilemma you have in the County Cups is that you want a decent run, meaning that you want easier ties but on the other side you want games like this where the crowds will be four or five times as high than any other game.  You wouldn’t expect league sides like Brighton to field their first team, but every player that pulls on a blue and white striped shirt is a professional footballer who trains every day (in Brighton’s case at one of the most impressive and modern training facilities in this country). Three consecutive wins meant that the hope was there of a famous victory.

Lewes 2 Brighton & Hove Albion 1 – The Dripping Pan – Wednesday 12th November 2014
Somewhere in East Sussex there will be one or two people this morning in the same boat.  With the 9:50pm from Lewes to London Victoria waiting for no man, a few fans sneaked out of the Dripping Pan just as Sam Piper held up the 4 minute board.  Lewes trailed Brighton & Hove Albion 1-0, having thrown everything at the Seagulls and having nothing to show for it apart from a cross-bar still rattling and two players being treated by paramedics.  Then the referee gives the Rooks a free-kick on the edge of the box.  Tom Davis stands over the ball and is told by the referee this will be the last kick of the game.  Win or bust.  Extra time or inglorious defeat.  Three steps, clean contact and the ball is in the back of the net.

64761_10152757416120202_1885479251637112931_nDue to an issue with the PA system I’m having to watch the game from the office, which doesn’t quite afford views of the goal line at the Philcox Stand end.  So I see Davis strike the ball, the wall jump, the ball go under them and then…..the cheer.  I high-five Club Sec Kev, do a little dance around the room and then remember I am supposed to do the announcement.  I’m using the emergency speaker system, meaning an airport style “bing bong” every time I have to say something.  It’s pointless really, the crowd are still bouncing up and down and wont hear a word anyway (Great picture capturing the moment from the genius that is James Boyes)

Five minutes later and extra-time was underway.  I’d given up on trying to announce anything and headed onto the Jungle to watch with the masses….OK, with Deaks, Cynical, Dave Lamb, Terry and Barry – the hardcore LLF.  Idle chatter of penalties had already permeated the air when all of a sudden we saw a glint in the eye of Davis some 30 yards out.  He looked up, aimed directly at Deaks and hit the ball as true as his free-kick from a few minutes previous.  The Brighton keeper didn’t move but the net did.  BBC Sussex described the goal as the best they have ever seen at the Pan.  Babies born all over the County will forever be called Tom and the piece of turf that he hit the ball from will sell on eBay for thousands. You could say it was a beauty.

Unsurprisingly, Lewes played for time in the last fifteen minutes although Brighton, having withdrawn their biggest attacking threat, Fenelon, rarely troubled the makeshift Lewes back four.  Finally, the referee blew for full-time. Veteran striker fell to his knees in exhaustion, before throwing off his shirt and fist pumping the air.  Griffiths has played for 20 clubs in his 15 year career, yet he celebrated as if it was his first ever win as a player.

A famous victory?  In the grand scheme of things, probably not.  But for sheer drama it was up there with that day in Bruges, the FA Cup Finals of 1979 and 2005 and the 1970 Watney Cup semi-final.  So whilst we can raise a glass to the beauty of the game, we should also think of those poor souls who probably still think it finished 1-0 to the Seagulls.

Seagulls brought down to earth by busy Boro


This week has once again seen the cost of watching the beautiful game hit the headlines with the release of the BBC’s annual cost of watching football survey.  Like last year (and the years before that) the results of the survey simply proved a platform of out-of-touch politicians to bleat about how unfair it was on the average fan and their family whilst not actually having the balls to do something about it.  Football clubs on the most part hid in a corner, not prepared to justify the true reasons behind the rise in the whole matchday experience.

The situation wasn’t helped by the comments of rent-a-gob Robbie Savage who added fuel to the flames by saying that “To be completely honest, during my 20-year playing career, I never once thought about how much it was costing fans to go to game”.  Why did he think that would be a good thing to say?  Why not just keep his mouth shut.  Comments like this just make him look even more out of touch.  His frequent responses on Radio5Live’s 606 to fans phoning in of “have you played the game?” to try and put down people’s valid opinions have simply added to the irritant factor that he developed as a player.  In all of the years I have been watching football I have never found anyone who has a good word about Savage.

The main reaction to the results for the English clubs was to compare it to watching football in Europe.  The BBC somehow managed to concoct a figure that 1,000 (an amazingly exact figure) watch Borussia Dortmund at every home game.  How on earth do they know that?  Having been a relatively regular visitor to the Bundesliga, you rarely hear an English voice.  With demand for Dortmund and Bayern Munich far outstripping supply, where these 1,000 tickets come from is still a mystery. Likewise, the mythical sub £100 season tickets are on available to those on a long waiting list.  Of course there are some English-based fans who do own season tickets with overseas clubs and make frequent trips overseas, but these are in the minority.

Arsenal came out of the survey poorly, once again, with their cheapest season ticket the most expensive in British football three-times more expensive than Premier League Champions Manchester City.  In their AGM, held just 24 hours after the result of the survey were released, the club tried to justify that paying over £1,000 for a season ticket or £97 for a seat was value for money.  After all, they did beat Wigan Athletic and Hull City in the FA Cup last season.  According to the survey, you can buy a ticket for West Ham for £20.  That is correct.  For the Leicester City game only.  For seven other games in the Premier League this season that same seat would cost between £50 and £60.

Nowadays my viewing pleasure is almost exclusively restricted to the Non-League game…and European matches.  But today I would be making a rare excursion in the SkyBet Championship.  According to the survey, a trip to watch Brighton & Hove Albion is the most expensive in the whole Football League, and five pounds more than a trip to Upton Park.  Exactly. That’s why some of the results of the survey cannot be taken on face value, a comment echoed in the match day programme by CEO Paul Barber.  What you cannot fault The Seagulls for though is the imagination they put into their match day catering.  For this game we had the choice of a Sausage with Cheezy Beans Pie and a pint of Hobgoblin.  Take that Pukka and Fosters!

IMG_3534Every couple of weeks I drive past the monument to the Seagulls on my way to The Dripping Pan. The Amex is one of the best new stadiums built in this country in the last fifty years.  A bold statement but one backed up by the views of the fans who flock there every two weeks. In the first season the “sold out” signs were a frequent occurance leading to the club increasing the capacity by adding an additional tier on the East Stand leading to the club having the highest average attendance in the Championship for the last two years.  Part of the reason for the growth has been the expectations set on the pitch – two consecutive appearances in the Play-offs have been bitter-sweet rewards for the fans who have experienced the pain of defeat and the subsequent loss of their manager.

The club will have looked on enviously as Leicester City, Burnley, Hull City and especially bitter rivals Crystal Palace move up into the land of milk and honey.  With the new TV deal in place for the lucky twenty clubs in the Premier League, The Seagulls acted quickly in the summer to bring in a manager with top league experience, recruiting ex-Bayer Leverkusen manager Sami Hyypiä.  Results haven’t so far been stellar, with four draws in their eleven league games so far.  Depending on how you look at results, they came into the game against Middlesbrough on a five game unbeaten run, including a win in the League Cup that has taken them into the last sixteen and a game against Spurs, or they had only won once in the last eight.  Football, eh!

The visitors also had their eye on the Premier League, having endured the last six seasons in the Championship and dispensed with the services of club legend Tony Mowbray last year, replacing him with Spaniard Aitor Karanka.  So far, so good this season as Boro’ arrived in East Sussex just one point of top spot.  Had a score draw written all over it.

Brighton & Hove Albion 1 Middlesbrough 2- The Amex – Saturday 18th October 2014
Despite the late, last-gasp rally by The Seagulls they were clearly the second best team on display at The Amex despite what the stats say.  Brighton had 62% of the possession and sixteen shots on target yet it Boro’ keeper Konstantopoulos hardly got his gloves dirty as the the visitors defence held firm and threw themselves at everything heading their way.

The visitors, starting the game with just one up front, could have possibly been down to ten men in the first fifteen seconds when George Friend’s “welcome” to Brighton’s Teixeira was late and high.  Ref Andy D’Urso (remember him?  The stress of refereeing has turned him grey) elected not to play the advantage despite Teixeira’s pass having sent one of his colleagues free on goal.  D’Urso adopted the “well, it’s early in the game” rule meaning Friend escaped any censorship at all.  Fifteen minutes he finally went in the book after another “robust” challenge.  Teixeira would only go on to last half an hour.

The visitors took the lead in the 7th minute when a well-worked move saw Tomlin sweep the ball high into the Seagulls net after Brighton had failed to clear any danger.  Whilst Albion huffed and puffed around the edge of the box they lacked the cutting edge that put the Boro goal under pressure.  The half-time break couldn’t have come quick enough for Hyypiä, nor by the look of the queue for beer on the concourse the vast majority of the Seagulls fans.DCIM100GOPROHyypiä made a change at half-time and for the first few minutes they played with some pace, but then in the 52nd minute they were undonw by a Middlesbrough counter-attack and when the ball was played into the danger area Adomah reacted quickest.  Although his first effort was well saved down at the near post, he Boro’ forward was on hand to squeeze the rebound home from a tight angle.  Two-nil and it appeared game over.

With just ten points separating the promotion from relegation positions in the Championship, teams can move up and down the table quickly and the in-play score saw Middlesbrough heading to the summit whilst Brighton headed towards the League One trap door.  Some fans around us high in the West Stand started to vent their frustration and headed for the exits…although in truth they were really going to the bar and would watch the rest of the game on the TV screens.  There’s almost 3/4th of the season to play for – plenty of time for things to go right (or wrong).

A late spell of pressure on the Boro’ goal resulted in Greer heading home after a spell of aerial pinball to give Albion hope but even with five added minutes to play they never really looked, or in truth, deserved an equaliser against a very well marshalled Middlesbrough team.

To relate back to the BBC survey – had we had value for money?  Absolutely.  Whilst the cold, hard stats suggest The Amex is not the cheapest place to visit, it certainly is one of the best in the Football League and certainly a favourite among away fans, especially when they don’t have to work too hard to come away with three points.

Don’t believe the Hyypia


It’s always nice to build up to a climax in your season, knowing that those cold Tuesday night away trips to the corners of Suffolk when the last train leaves before you have entered injury time have not been in vain.  The thought of a cup final or a final play-off push gets everyone behind the club, pushing attendances up and general adding to the club’s bank account.  But for many Non-League clubs, that cup final often happens before the season has started in earnest.  The visit of a Premier or Football League club can have a massive boost to the season ahead as well as re-engaging with some fans who may have drifted out of love with the game or the club.

14394319070_170dcc6795_zThis is especially true for clubs who sit in the long shadows of bigger teams, having to stand by and watch glumly as hundreds of fans park up outside their grounds, only to walk on by, tucking their real team colours in their jackets as they head for their slice of Premier or Football League action.  We see this frequently down at Lewes.  The fight that Brighton & Hove Albion fans endured to a) come back to the city and then b) have a home of their own has been well documented in hundreds of places.  Three years ago they were finally given the keys to the superb Amex Community Stadium and since then, things on the pitch haven’t been too bad with two consecutive play-off spots.  All should be rosy in the Tony Bloom garden? Well, not quite.  In the last two seasons the club has dispensed with the services of their head coaches, Messrs Poyet and Junyet after the play-offs for differing reasons, so to try to make it third time lucky they have employed former Liverpool defender, Sami Hyypiä.  No sooner had he brought the players back for pre-season than he was off down the A27 to visit the Dripping Pan.

So this is our cup final.  There is no shame in admitting it (unlike Spurs fans who lost their cup final three times last season to West Ham).  Bar four or five of the Premier League teams, a game against Brighton & Hove Albion is probably as big as we could hope for, especially one where the Seagulls would bring down the whole first team squad.  Two years ago they came, weathered a Lewes early battering and left with a 3-0 victory in front of just over 2,000 fans.

We are fortunate that we do not have many fixture clashes with Brighton & Hove Albion.  When there has been conflicts in the past, we have tried to change our kick-off times so that we can try to accommodate those fans who support both clubs.  Unfortunately, it is not always possible – we have to have the agreement of the League and our opponents.  Whilst we may see the merits of a 7:45pm Friday night game, or a 12pm Sunday kick off, they normally don’t, so we have to play at the same time, knowing our car park will be full of Seagulls fans heading for the station for the 5 minute train journey to Falmer.

New Picture (84)We decided to make the game all ticket.  There were a number of reasons for this.  Our capacity is limited, although due to changes in the whole health & safety, ground grading and licencing laws, we have never got to a point where we can say we are “full”.  Secondly, we did not want to have to try to deal with hundreds of fans trying to pay at the turnstile five minutes before kick off.  And finally, we wanted to not have to worry about having thousands of pounds floating around the ground. Two thousand two hundred tickets went on sale two weeks ago and yesterday the last one was sold.  The game was officially a sell out.

You’d think everybody would be happy, right?  Alas no.  Putting aside the fact he is a Scotsman, our manager Garry Wilson wasn’t best pleased.  He broke the news about securing this valuable friendly along the lines of “the good news is that I’ve got us a friendly against Brighton here….the bad news is that I am on holiday.”  After a few minutes he broke our excited babble with “you are still thinking of the good news aren’t you?”.  Cheer up Garry, I am sure Danny Bloor will do an excellent job…but what happens IF we win??

Oh, and have I mentioned the beer?  Well, once again, ridiculous football laws in this country mean that alcohol couldn’t be consumed in sight of the pitch.  FFS – it is a friendly.  All the rule does is create absolute chaos and a very packed club house, leading to a more dangerous situation than if those having a beer could take it outside. Football authorities + logic = foreign language.

So after a few days of temperatures officially hotter than Greece (Gravesend 28 degrees at 12pm on Friday, 27 degrees Mykonos), the start of the 2014/15 season started with….rain.  Lots of it.  “It’s good for the garden” my Mum told me on the phone…but not particularly good for the 1,000 or so fans who would be without a cover this afternoon.  Fortunately, an hour before kick off the sun was shining on the carpet-like Dripping Pan surface, Sky Sports News were capturing the mood of the afternoon and the ground was filing up nicely.

14580955765_80e6a4bcc5_bOur excitement so far had been around our new signings.  We had somehow sneaked into the Tonbridge Angels Big Brother house this summer and came away with the signatures of a few of their players.  Attack would be the best form of attack this season with three (THREE!) new strikers joining the club. Messers Wilson and Bloor had obviously been reading Kevin Keegan’s coaching manual during the summer, finally binning Otto Rehhagel’s 2004 Greek tactic book.  Alas, being Non-League football, it wasn’t only Garry Wilson who was absent overseas – our new hot-shot centre-forward Terry Dodd was also enjoying his Club 18-30 holiday.

Having co-edited the world-famous, award-winning programme for this game (a sell out long before kick off I am pleased to say), it was time to not only grab the mic for this game but also to slip into twitter mode as a substitute for Orlando-bound Rookmeister.  And where better to situate myself than between the two dugouts.  If there was going to be 20-odd substitutes then I needed to know what was going on.

Lewes 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 5 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 5th July 2014
Rule number 1 of pre-season.  It is all about the performance and not the result….assuming that you lose or draw to a team lower than you.  Did we seriously think we could beat the Seagulls?  In our hearts, yes.  But our brains are in our heads and logic says that a team playing six levels above should win and potentially win with ease.  And that is exactly what happened.  Over 2,400 saw Brighton & Hove Albion win with ease, with football and the club’s bank balance the winners today.

14579184744_2eed47d812_hThe media hype was all about Hyypiä with Sky Sports bringing their cameras down.  When you haven’t the rights to the World Cup, Wimbledon or the Tour de France then live coverage of headline sports is a bit difficult.  Their loss was our gain. For the first thirty minutes the main talking point was how many times the new Brighton manager would jump up from his seat in the dug out and hit his head on the roof (five times in the first half).

Lewes certainly held their own during the opening period and could count themselves unlucky to go 1-0 down just after the half hour mark when Calderon turned in the ball at the far post after corner had eluded the 18 players in the penalty area.  If that was unlucky, then LuaLua’s strike a few minutes later from distance to double the score certainly wasn’t.

The half-time whistle was the signal for a complete 11 man substitution by the Seagulls, which as the announcer made it a relatively straight forward second half for me.  Less than a minute after the restart Craig Mackail-Smith scored a third (his father-in-law Barry Fry was in the crowd btw) and that killed off the game.  Whilst Lewes toiled, the absence of graft players such as Walder and Nathan Crabb meant that it was always going to be a mountain to climb to get back into this game.

14601068993_767f533128_kTwo further goals from Goodwin put a one-sided gloss on the final score but there were no sad faces from the Lewes fans or management.  Today was raising the profile of the club, and some kind words to the TV cameras from the new Brighton manager helped the cause no end.  Our season starts in earnest when we finally get to see our opening fixture…or if we beat Hassocks on the 16th July.

Football is back…we’ve missed you.  Don’t leave us again.

Sell out!


For most Non League sides the difference between success and failure in a season can be found in their pre-season calendar.  One or two big name friendlies can add anything up to 20% to the income stream for a season.  Planning starts in some cases a year in advance and is often added as a sweetener for any transfer deals that are done involving the Non League club and a professional outfit.  Big clubs will get dozens of approaches every year from clubs big and small, although the world has moved on from the fact the biggest game they would play would be against a Coronation Street XI.

Today it is all about the pre-season overseas tour.  Everyone is at it these days.  No longer is it the preserve of the Premier League sides – League One and Two clubs these days often head overseas to get their “team building” in as well as a few games in the sunshine.  This week sees the departures of Charlton Athletic and Brighton & Hove Albion to Spain for pre-season tours against the likes of Real Betis, Sporting Lisbon and er, Portsmouth.  However, before the Seagulls depart for some sun, sand and soccer they had an appointment down the A27 with the Rooks.

For Lewes this was the biggest game in a number of seasons.  It had been in planning for over 6 months and just 48 hours before the game the Rooks were able to announce that the game was a 2,200 sell out (later revised to 2,426).  In terms of potential receipts, this would see around £15,000 flow into the club (excluding any bar takings, food and club shop sales) although some of that had already been earmarked.  With a club like Lewes having a playing budget around the £75,000 mark for the season, this game could make the difference between a new player or two.

After their exploits in the rain in the shiny new Gallagher Stadium in Maidstone, the Seagulls swooped into the good old Dripping Pan.  Lewes don’t have fancy new dressing rooms, a car park big enough for a coach or a 3G pitch, but they have heart, passion and an army of helpers who were determined to make this event a success.  And they did what they do best – they all mucked in and improvised.  Car parking spaces were reserved in the pay and display with Under18’s players standing in the spaces for the Brighton players BMWs and Mercs, treatment tables were set up outside the dressing room and boardroom converted into a bar (The Boardakabin became the Barakabin). Continue reading

Twenty four years of hurt


One of my ancestors, Thomas Fuller, was the first person recorded as saying “It is always darkest before the dawn” in his legendary book A Pisgah-sight of Palestine and the confines thereof”, published in 1650, the 50 Shades of Grey of its time. Fuller was known to speak sense when he wasn’t in a drunken stupor with his brother, the Great Grandfather of John Bird Fuller who would go on to form the Griffin Brewery (and hence why Brentford play at a ground called Griffin Park).  Us Fullers have a pedigree you know.

Anyway, the relevance of my trip down History Lane was to put in focus the trials and tribulations of those less fortunate than us.  In footballing terms it is the clubs who through no fault of their own find themselves wandering nomads, as Paul Young once probably meant to say “Wherever I lay my net, that’s my home”.  Clubs such as Fisher FC, Cray Wanderers and Hendon still dream of a return home to their own ground, whilst for the likes of FC United of Manchester and Grays Athletic are on a path already to realise their dream.

But one club who have fallen more than most is Maidstone United.  Twenty two years ago they were in the old Fourth Division end of season play offs, having had a dream debut season in the Football League.  They came within a few minutes of a Play Off final spot, and who knows what might have been.  However, the club had over-extended themselves in trying to become Kent’s Premier club.  They sold their old ground in their home town back in 1988 to MFI and moved in with Southern League Dartford, some twenty-five miles away.  Alas, despite league football on offer, the crowds simply didn’t materialise.

They had a plan to move back home once Football League football was established.  The club bought some land for nearly £400,000 in the town centre but planning permission was declined, leaving them with land they couldn’t use and a very expensive weekly grass cutting bill. Continue reading