Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 8 – Win or not quite bust

It started out with a miss
How did it end up like this
It was only a miss, it was only a miss

At exactly 11am 258 days ago we boarded a train at Liverpool Street station, heading east to pastures new with hope in our hearts.  The new season was upon us and after a disappointing previous campaign we had rebuilt in the summer and quite fancied ourselves for a shout at the play offs.  Of course, putting my official hat on we were “confidently optimistic of an improvement on last season”, but as we know there are only four objectives any club really sets out to achieve every season.

“Consolidation” – means avoid relegation but at least keep the interest of the fans up until Easter then we can slash the budget
“Pushing on” – means we’ve increased the budget to what the management team wanted so they better reach the play offs
“Challenging” – we’ve mortgaged ourselves to the hilt and sacrificed our first born for promotion and don’t want to think about not going up
“Happy with our lot” – we really have no idea which of the three above apply

17267771231_2f0f73d226_zWe wanted to “push on”. We increased the budget, we brought in two or three players that had other clubs and observers suggest we were dark horses in a league that would be dominated by the two big spenders in Maidstone United and Margate.  When Luke Blewden opened scoring on a dust bowl of a pitch at the Village Glass Stadium in Witham back on the opening day with twenty minutes to play, the Lewes Lunatic Fringe were in full voice.  But football is a fickle mistress. Five minutes later Witham equalised to snatch a point.  Five games later and we had two points from a possible fifteen. Five more weeks on and we had been dumped out of the FA Cup back at the Village Glass Stadium. Five months later and we felt we needed to change the management team to give us some fresh impetus.

We looked for crumbs of comfort.  We had games in hand.  We seemed to be on the end of every poor refereeing decision dished out.  We had injuries to our key on the pitch leaders. Our much heralded, long overdue 20 goals-a-season striker suddenly developed an irrational fear of shooting.  Whilst we have the responsibility of governance of a football club owned by 1,000 plus people across the world, we are also first and foremost fans.  We see what everyone who stands on The Jungle sees or who travels up and down the rail networks as part of the Lewes Lunatic Fringe.  Sometimes it’s hard we represent the hopes, dreams and fears of that group.  We want to believe things will turn out “alright in the end”.

Sometimes you need to take a step back to see the reality.  Despite what we are led to believe in the movies, there are no happy endings in life, especially in football.  We can look back at a dozen or more incidents in the season with the “what if?” question.  What if we hadn’t given the ball away so cheaply in injury time against Harrow a few weeks ago leading to them scoring? What if we had a competent referee in the home game against AFC Hornchurch who would admit he made a mistake in the lead up to their opening goal? What if Elliot hadn’t been sent off away to Canvey Island when we were in control of a 1-0 lead? What if is a game that any football fan can play for ever.

17080473148_1f2636ab18_zNo one connected with the club expected our longest and last away journey of season to be so vital, even a few weeks ago.  Destiny is always in our hands for the most part of the season, and our recent run of poor results has coincided with two of the four “dead and buried” teams going on championship runs.  We imagined today’s visit to the picturesque Ram Meadow in Greene King country being a shorts and t-shirt day, looking forward to a decent drink and a mellow reflection on the season.  Instead we go dressed for wind, rain and 90 minutes of keeping one eye on results elsewhere.

As an owner of Lewes Community Football Club I’m invested in the future of the team, both on and off the pitch.  However, as Chairman I have to be 100% invested in what happens today. If results don’t go our way will it be catastrophic in the long term for the club? Probably not, but it will sure hurt and I have to bear some of the responsibility for that.  As I mentioned earlier, sometimes being a fan can make you see things differently.  If we get what we need today the euphoria will be short-lived.  Yes, we did the short-term job, but what about our original goals for the season? We certainly haven’t progressed for a number of reasons that collectively aren’t any one persons fault.  As a member of the elected board of directors we all have to shoulder the blame and responsibility.  Time for reflection will come in due course.

For those who have been Lewes followers for a few seasons will know the drill by now. Five years ago we were dead and buried in the Conference South with five games to go.  Somehow we managed to give ourselves a shot at survival on the final say, needing a win at Hampton and Richmond Borough.  Nearly 150 Lewes fans descended on the Beveree that day to see The Rooks grab a 2-1 win and survive.  Two years ago we needed at least a point as we trailed Cray Wanderers in injury time away to give ourselves hope of survival.  The scenes when Nathan Crabb equalised will long live in the memory of the hundred or so fans at Hayes Lane that night.  Few will remember the two games after that where we played for nothing more than a few more points for respectability.

But back to today.  As our train passed the Village Glass Stadium on its way to Bury St Edmunds, via Ipswich, we raised a plastic cup of Jaipur to those halcyon days of summer and for one brief five minute spell where we saw a season full of 3 point away days, flowing football and an end of season promotion party.

17266471962_aacd85df5d_zThis was to be our last league visit to Bury Town for the foreseeable future.  Relegation had already been assured some weeks ago but instead of rolling over and sacking off for the rest of the season, they’ve started putting in some decent performances.  In fact, in the current form tables Bury rank higher than Dulwich Hamlet and Margate.  We certainly weren’t arriving expecting any favours.  We knew that 3 points was our prize. We congregated in the Old Cannon brewery, just a five minute stroll from the ground.  The mood was quietly confident. If it wasn’t for the need for three points this would be the best away day ever.

The final pre-match thought as we entered the delightful Ram Meadow come from Lewes-born US firebrand Tom Paine, which adorns the home team dressing room at The Dripping Pan “The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph”

Bury Town 0 Lewes 2 – Ram Meadow – Saturday 25th April 2015
With 5 minutes plus stoppages to go we heard the news that Peacehaven & Telscombe had lost 4-2 meaning our safety was assured.  Lewes had dominated the game, scoring twice and retaining possession for the best part of 85 minutes.  Rikki Banks could have joined us on the sideline for a pint from our hosts Beer festival and still kept a clean sheet.  Two goals made by Nicky Wheeler, scored by Elliott Romain and Henry Muggeridge saw the Rooks home.  The travelling fans basked in the Suffolk sunshine and celebrated with the players at the final whistle.  Game over, job done.

16645740604_08d43770f4_kIt wasn’t the easiest ninety minutes though when you have to keep an eye on scores elsewhere.  To give you a flavour of the afternoon, here’s what happened:-

3:09 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 1 Hampton & Richmond Borough 0 – Lewes drop into the relegation zone on goals scored
3:11 – Canvey Island 0 Wingate & Finchley 1 – Lewes climb to 19th as Canvey fall into bottom 4
3:18 – Tonbridge Angels 1 Dulwich Hamlet 0 – As you are
3:22 – Tonbridge Angels 1 Dulwich Hamlet 1 – No changes
3:22 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 0 – Nervous looks around the terrace
3:23 – Bury Town 0 Lewes 1 – Elliott Romain’s goal sends us up to 16th, Canvey still in bottom 4
3:27 – Leatherhead 0 Harrow Borough 1 – Harrow leapfrog Lewes into 16th
3:33 – Canvey Island 0 Wingate & Finchley 2 – Fat lady starting to sing at Canvey Island
3:35 – Canvey Island 1 Wingate & Finchley 2 – Nope, it was a whale in the Thames Estuary, sending VCD into the bottom 4

So at half-time the bottom of table looked like:-

16th – Harrow Borough 53pts (-13)
17th – Lewes 53pts (-23)
18th – Tonbridge Angels 52pts (-4)
19th – Peacehaven & Telscombe 51pts (-24)
20th – Canvey Island 50pts (-18)
21st – VCD Athletic 50pts (-19)
22nd – Witham Town 42pts (-22)
23rd – AFC Hornchurch 39pts (-23)
24th – Bury Town 32pts (-50)

Surely the second period couldn’t throw up as many twists and turns, could it? Well, how about:-

4:03 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 1 – Charlie Moone…of course Charlie Moone.  No changes at the bottom though.
4:11 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 2 – Now this is interesting
4:12 – Bury Town 0 Lewes 2 – Muggeridge’s peach of a header gives us breathing space
17266415262_56d15160ba_z4:12 – Canvey Island 2 Wingate & Finchley 2 – What a 90 second period – Canvey on a roll, Peacehaven wobbling
4:17 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 3 – What on earth is going on down there?  Peacehaven fall back into bottom four
4:17 – Canvey Island 3 Wingate & Finchley 2 – The reverse comeback at Canvey Island..Only Peacehaven in the group of relegation candidates now losing
4:27 – Tonbridge Angels 1 Dulwich Hamlet 2 – Worrying glances at what’s going on at Peacehaven from the Angels
4:39 – Peacehaven & Telscombe 2 Hampton & Richmond Borough 4 – All over bar the shouting as Peacehaven will have to score 3 times and hope that Bury or Wingate can muster two goals.
4:40 – Tonbridge Angels 2 Dulwich Hamlet 2 – Angels can party as it will take a miracle for them to go down
4:42 – VCD Athletic 1 Billericay Town 0 – VCD leave it late but that should put the final nail in the Peacehaven coffin
4:44 – VCD Athletic 2 Billericay Town 0 – And relax

So final table looks like:-

CDeKrBlWIAEyaV_16th – Harrow Borough 53pts (-13)
17th – Canvey Island 53pts (-16)
18th – VCD Athletic 53pts (-17)
19th – Lewes 53pts (-22)
20th – Tonbridge Angels 52pts (-4)
21st – Peacehaven & Telscombe 48pts (-27)
22nd – Witham Town 42pts (-22)
23rd – AFC Hornchurch 39pts (-23)
24th – Bury Town 32pts (-50)

There wasn’t the same elation as we saw at THAT game at Hampton & Richmond Borough all those years ago, but the trip back to Liverpool Street was a lot more pleasant than the trip up.  That was until when we looked forward three weeks to the Sussex Senior Cup final at The Amex against Whitehawk. Objective number 1 achieved. Hope had delivered.

Bury the bad news

The end of a football season is a day of mixed emotions.  For some fans there will be the euphoria of promotion, the nervousness of not wanting to be totally embarrassed playing at a higher level next season, whilst for others there is the dread of relegation, the gnarling feeling that your team is too good to go down and that immediate promotion is so much of a certainty they may as well not relegate you at all.  For the vast majority of us though it is simply a time to breathe a big sigh of relief that another campaign of broken dreams and false hope has ended.  “Next season, it will be all so different” we tell ourselves, knowing deep down that apart from the odd result here and there, it wont be any different at all.  In fact it will be exactly the same, with only the players names being different.

In the Non-League world we have the added concern about whether the club we support will still be going come August.  In the past nine months a number of teams have simply given up mid-season, realising there is no future for them.  Spare a thought for the Eastwood Town or  Rye United fans who would have started the season will hope in their hearts only to see the club they loved vanish before the first signs of Spring.  You can’t be a glory hunter in the grass roots game that’s for sure.

13938821455_382e6265ca_bToday was my last visit to the Dripping Pan for the season (for footballing reasons anyway). With a work trip taking across the Atlantic next weekend, the visit of Bury Town would be my sign-off for the season.  The lot of being a Director of the club however, does mean I will still be involved in the club every day of the Summer break.  And what a Summer it promises to be.  We have some big plans this year, plans that will hopefully see us start the long climb back up the Non-League pyramid. For us at Lewes it has been all about stability in the past few years, picking up the pieces of the broken Non-League dreams of our fathers and patiently gluing them back together to make sure they don’t shatter again.  Get the off the field stuff right and on the field it will click into place.

Our season has been no different to 75% of the rest of the Ryman Premier League clubs.  We have had high points – a fourteen game unbeaten start to the season gave us all hope that this season could be the one, followed by six weeks without a game due to the weather that ultimately decided our fate.  A mad March saw us having to play nine games, including matches against the six of the top seven in the division with a heavy injury list.  Things got so bad that it was nearly time for me to polish up the Puma Kings.  But our Premier League survival was ensured mathematically a week or so ago meaning that we would be living to fight another day next season.

Planning for the end of season period starts around Christmas time.  We need to ensure we have budgeted for all the essential work that needs to take place around the ground, including the pitch. Many fans forget that we have zero income from the end of April to July when we start selling Season Tickets, yet costs are still incurred. The land grab of trying to find a “big” club to come down and play in a pre-season friendly often starts a year in advance, and this year, without mentioning any names, we think we have pulled the golden rabbit out of the hat – I would say more but fear for my life from the wrath of Garry Wilson.  A game against a big name side can generate a huge amount of cash for a Non-League club – a crowd of even 1,500 paying an average of £10 (inc food and programme) would be enough to bring in two or three more decent players for a season.  Yet it is the hardest job in the world to get any of the big clubs interested – they probably received dozens, if not hundreds of requests to play against Non-League teams every season, each one as deserving on paper as the next.

13915682416_12fa913d62_bThere’s no better place to watch a game when the sun is shining than at The Dripping Pan, and with Brighton not having a game today the hope was a decent attendance.  Sure, there was nothing to play for but pride and a mid-table league position, but at least there are no dodgy dealings going on akin to a Biscotto, the Italian term used for convenient drawn games at end of season which hinders neither side.  Our attendances this season had fallen in the past two months with so many midweek home games but still we would finish the season with an average just over 500 – a figure higher than more than 60% of the teams playing in the Conference North/South.

Everyone was looking forward to the game.  After the win in midweek this was a banker walk in the park.  And then our mood changed.  At the side of the pitch was Patrick Marber.  The doom-monger.  The curse of the Lewes win.  If we had any sense we would have left there and then and headed down the road to Whitehawk for the afternoon.  His track record of not seeing us win this season played on all of our minds.  Despite his place in the Lewes Hall of Fame somewhere in the past few years he had brought a curse across the Pan whenever he visited.  Dave suggested we all pissed on him to remove the spell and had to be forceably stopped dropping his trousers on the Jungle as the game kicked off.

Lewes 1 Bury Town 4 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 19th April 2014
After 30 minutes there wasn’t anyone in the ground who thought this wasn’t going to be our day.  Winning one-nil thanks to Joel Ledgister’s sixteenth minute headed goal, and Rikki Banks having saved a harshly-awarded penalty when the Bury forward ducked his head into Malins clearance, it was the best day ever.  The sun was shining, the Harveys was a perfect temperature and even Patrick Marber was admitting the curse had been lifted.  And then it went wrong.

13939255594_f7b5e073b6_bJust before half-time Bury Town’s Wales stumbled into the area, picked up a deflection or two and manage to stab the ball passed Banks to equalise.  It hadn’t been the best of halves, enlightened only by the goal, penalty save and the heated debate between Marber and Lord Plumpton about the fact both held the same Golden Goal ticket.

If the first half was low on excitement then the second was utterly forgettable, at least for the Rooks.  Ten minutes in and Allen smashed the ball into the roof of the net to put the visitors into the lead.  Five minutes later and the referee was once again called into action to make a big decision, this time deeming Jack Dixon had stamped on Bennett, although the influence of the two Bury centre-backs who ran 70 yards to give their opinion seemed to sway his opinion that is was a straight red and not just a yellow.

13938869523_2de803e060_bThe goal meant Lewes had to throw on the not fully fit Nathan Crabb up front and pull Blewden into midfield.  Bury simply stepped up a gear and scored two more without the Rooks ever threatening the visitors goal.  Chants went from “sack the board” to “say away Marber”.  But like water of a duck’s back he vowed to be back next week for the visit of Leiston.

It was a disappointing end to my Dripping Pan season but I would be back (well, I have to as we have bi-weekly Board Meetings) next season, which would undoubtably be the best season ever.

Bury the bad news

I truly hate the last day of the season. For many it is a time to celebrate, but being a West Ham and now a Lewes fan, the end of season is normally a time to reflect on a relegation season rather than winning anything (Play off final at Wembley last year accepted). But to me, after planning my games with military precision for the past nine months I have nothing to look forward to. What will I do next weekend (OK, apart from going to the FA Vase and Blue Square Bet Premier Play off Finals…and a few games in the Summer European leagues…and then pre-season starts in late June…but apart from that)? Or in June when the sun is shining? Cricket? Rugby League? Gulp, family days out at the seaside?

20130427-220836.jpgOnce the last ball has been kicked I will be counting down the days until clubs start to announce pre-season fixtures. My objective of a 100-game season may fall just short this season but I will be back next season, fitter, stronger and willing to travel to even more obscure places to see a game. But hang on, this season still wasn’t quite over yet. The sword of relegation was still hanging over The Dripping Pan. With just one game to go, there was still one spot in the relegation zone left to be decided and Lewes were technically still a “relegation contender”. Granted it would have to take an extraordinary set of results to see that happen, but I look at the fact Titus Bramble is still a Premier League football to prove that football is a funny game and anything can happen. So for those unaware of the current situation, or my visiting colleague from the New York office, here was the low down.

In order for Lewes to be relegated (a concept that would take a few thousand words to explain to any US sports fan) we had to a) lose to Bury Town, b) see Carshalton Athletic win away at Enfield Town, and c) see a seven goal swing to Carshalton Athletic. Possible? Yes. Probable? Even with our poor performances this season, we hadn’t been thumped by anyone this season (well, apart from the 6-1 defeat to Wealdstone). So this wouldn’t be an end of season party, rather a slightly nervous 90 minutes, looking at our phones at events from North London.

Come match day and the traditional end of season sunshine had appeared from behind the rain.  The pitch looked fantastic, just two weeks after the game against Leiston which should have been abandoned.  Ironically this was to be Roger, the groundsman’s, last game in charge of the turf after what seemed a lifetime.  Never a more loyal and passionate fan you could want to meet and it is volunteers like Roger (or Boysie who was stepping down as programme editor) that keep non league football alive.  Thankfully Roger’s departure will mean we can play some decent pre-match music, especially as Ed Ramsden is still serving his three year ban from the PA system after trying to slip on one too many Fall songs earlier in the season (the actual number was of course one).  So next season there will be a new man on the seat of the lawnmower and in the editor’s chair for the programme.  Who they will be is yet to be revealed, although I have a pretty good idea who the latter will be (The Pan is Round is a catchy title, no?).

20130427-220854.jpgThe bumper crowd were showing no nerves as they tucked into the Harvey’s.  In fact this had the optimistic feel of a first game of the season, rather than the last.  Bury Town arrived in Lewes with nothing but some pride to play for, knowing that they had once again shown the league they were not to be underestimated.  Whilst not quite making a second successive play off spot (they beat us to 5th place last season by just 2 points), they have once again been there or there abouts in a tougher league. Continue reading

On the first day of TBIR Christmas – The best Non League Away Day

We love Non League Football here at TBIR Towers.  It annoys me when commentators talk about “the beautiful game” when describing our sanitised, pampered Premier League game.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Our beautiful game takes place in hundreds of grounds up and down far away from the Porsche’s, the WAGS and the Robbie Savages.  Some grounds are full of character, others are just plain shit.  But the thing that Non League grounds all have in common is that they are staffed by people who live, breathe, eat and sleep Non League football.  The unsung heroes of our game.  So we celebrate the top three Non League away days we have experienced this season.  For sake of fairness I have excluded Lewes as I am a tad bias.  So without further ado let’s get this Polar Express underway.

3rd best Non League Away Day – Bury Town
7774048974_c15a7944a4_zYou cannot fail to go wrong by visiting a town where there is a brewery.  Well, apart from Reading that is.  And Bury St Edmunds has one of the best.  Greene King has been brewing in the town for hundreds of years and is a fine reason to visit in itself.  There is also the novelty of visiting England’s smallest pub, the Nutshell.  But its football we are here to celebrate and there are few better places to watch a game as the sunsets than Ram Meadow, sitting in the shadow of the cathedral.  Located just a short walk from the town centre, but still far enough to get diverted into a number of excellent pubs, the ground is full of charm and well worth the long drive.

2nd best Non League Away Day – Leiston
8151563068_247f23c018_zSuffolk has a monopoly on great away trips this season in the Ryman League and a welcome addition to Lewes’s list of roadtrips was Leiston.  Hard to find on the map, the town/village can be missed in the blink of an eye as you pass by.  It doesn’t even have a railway station, the nearest one is in Saxmundham, some 5 miles away.  It is close to Sizewell nuclear reactor though, which probably explains the reason why they don’t need floodlights.  Adnams is brewed locally and no visit here will be complete without a pint of two in the Engineers Arms close to the ground.  The club have progressed through the county leagues at quite a lick but the reason why they are so high up in our list is the hospitality of the club and its staff.  Top notch food, excellent beer and a welcome to all visitors in the club house.  The model for success if ever I saw one.

Best Non League Away Day – Maidstone United
7570356036_e08097de4d_zAfter years of toil, political intrigue and bargaining, the Stones finally moved back home in July this year.  And haven’t they reaped the success.  Going into the Christmas period the club sat proudly a-top of the Ryman League South, averaging crowds of 1,600 in their new city centre Gallagher Stadium.  1,600 – more than some teams in this league get in a season!  The stadium has been built for a club on the way up.  A decent size clubhouse, serving local Shepherds Neame beer, railway stations within a ten minute walk, decent pubs across the road and of course THAT pitch.  The Stone were ballsy enough to challenge the FA and ridiculous rules on the use of 3G pitches and have reaped the benefits. On Saturday 22nd December they were the ONLY club in the Ryman League able to host a game, resulting in a crowd of more than 1,600.  But it is the never-say-die attitude of the staff, the entertaining style of play and the ease of watching a game here that makes it our BEST NON LEAGUE AWAY DAY of 2012.

In a Nutshell

After two weeks of Olympic drama, our Greatest Show on Earth had come to an end. Despite frantic F5’ing on the official London 2012 website no further tickets came up that would have fitted our schedule so we had to be content with a Decathlon of watching – 10 different events in 10 different venues. But now it was time to put the football hat on. The Olympics had kept the footballs off of the back pages for once at it almost slipped out of sight and out of mind. But reality bit hard at my first board meeting of the “new season” and talk came around to the opening of the nPower Championship this weekend. This weekend! Where had the summer gone. I shared my dismay with CMF but she did rightly point out that I had already seen twelve games since my official season start of the 1 July.

I needed to prepare, plan my strategy. It’s not as simple as picking a game and then turning up. Oh no…a 100 game season needs stamina, energy, cunning and above all determination. There was only one thing for it – a pre-season training camp. And I knew just the place. Somewhere free from the trappings of the modern world. No telephone reception, no wi-fi and no cars (In truth based on my recent experience of using T-Mobile that could apply to anywhere in Central London). A complete break to study the form, examine real old fashion maps, have a few beers, run around a lake and then jump in an ice bath.

Our country retreat was perfect. Miles from the main road, surrounded by woodland and with my family. Within an hour of arriving we had seen deer, geese, ducks and rabbits all hopping around our patio. Unfortunately they didn’t stay long. I forgot to add that at Centerparcs you are never more than 1.7 metres from another human being and so our “neighbour” decided to try and catch the duck to put on his BBQ that was filling our villa with acrid smoke.

After an afternoon of research I headed to the bar, not being able to last more than two hours without some kind of link to the outside world. I wandered into the Parc Market and picked up the local paper. On the back page, just above a picture of Jess Ennis was an advert for Bury Town. They were playing their final friendly, on this very night in a local derby against AFC Sudbury. Continue reading

Temper, temper you big knit!

This was going to be quite a weekend.  Work decreed that I must go to New York City for a week.  Hard life eh?  But because I needed to be fresh and ready for action on Monday morning I had to fly on Sunday.  And Sunday in mid November in New York means American Football.  You either love it or hate it.  I was trying to love it.  But it does go on a bit.  Did that put me off splashing out hundreds of dollars on a ticket for the 82,500 all seater state of the art MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford?  Not a chance.  I was going with two intentions.  Firstly to eat every single type of food that passed my way, and secondly to jump up and down, shouting “Awesome” and high fiving everyone around me.  How very British. Continue reading