Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 10 – Post/Pre-Season Planning


As soon as the final ball of the season has been kicked in the professional game, the players and managers disappear off into the sun (that is unless you play for Chelsea, Manchester City or Spurs and have to fly to the other side of the world to play a pointless friendly), leaving the running of the club in the hands of the groundsmen, ticket office staff and commercial department.  Changes in the commercial relationships mean that players and managers rarely talk to each other outside of a training ground.  “My agent will talk to your advisor” is now more common than “I will give you a bell” in a relationship between the two.  Deals are done, often as we are led to believe by managers who are normally on their way to the exit, by overbearing owners and new fangled Directors of Football.

If only that was the case in the Non-League game.  At step 3 of the Non-League pyramid few players are contracted to a club, which means that if someone else likes the look of your centre-forward, they can put in a “7 day approach” which basically means “I have a week to try and convince X that he only deserves an extra tenner a week to play for us even though we are 50 miles away”.  However, a player can choose to leave at any point without giving his club any reason.  Likewise, a club can dump a player without any notice too.  The dilemma for Non-League clubs is who they offer a contract to.  The contract, normally fixed for a year, guarantee a weekly wage but also mean that if a club comes along and wants that player, they will have to essentially pay a transfer fee.  Likewise, if a player is injured or the club wants shot of him, they will have to pay the remaining term of his contract.  You hear horror stories of players put on significant-sized contracts who then injure themselves in pre-season training, leaving the clubs massively out of pocket and also having to find a replacement.  These players may feel that “football owes them” but in truth they can end up crippling a club.

Some players will have already sorted their clubs before the end of the season.  A nod and a wink is often good enough, although more cash is obviously preferable.  Players want to feel that every year they appreciate in value.  The truth is that the cold-hard economics of Non-League football is that the club’s cost base rises more than any revenue opportunities.  It costs more to repair the pitch, more to maintain the floodlights, more to repair the fences, yet less people are coming through the gates.  Obviously, for clubs who have a Sugar-Daddy who is willing to pump in funds unconditionally, that isn’t a problem, although they also cause ripples across the whole Non-League pond.

Let’s say club X is taken over by Billy Bigwallet.  Billy wants promotion at all costs and employs an experienced manager to build a championship winning squad.  With few players on contracts in the league he will lure them to his club X with ridiculous weekly wages.  Some of these players will never get a game and one day will have a shock when they are off-loaded from their £1,000 a week wage only to find that the rest of the league can pay £150 a week.  Likewise, average players in the league will use club X’s wage structure as their negotiating tool with their existing club.  As history has proved time and time again, club X’s ambitious plan will more than likely end in a broken dream, the casualties being the fans.

So come the end of the season clubs have to start to think about their retained players and their wish list.  The board will tell the manager his budget, which will depend on the ambitions for the coming season (for a translation guide to Non League club ambitions read Tale 4).  The manager will then normally shake his head, say “it’s going to be tough to achieve that on this budget” before getting on the phone and starting to try to retain the players he wants.  Some will try and play hardball, but most will see the light.  Within a day or two you will have a core of a squad.  Of course, without giving them a contract they could agree today and come pre-season be already playing elsewhere.  As we have said before, there is little loyalty in football these days, especially on the Non-League pitches.

Then comes the job of filling the rest of your squad.  There is a great scene from the film Money Ball where Brad Pitt plays the legendary General Manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team.  He is sitting in a room filled with his scouts as they try and discuss how to replace three world-class players with the smallest budget in the league.  That’s what the squad planning session is like.  Well, sort of.

I’m not sure there was a board on the wall of the Portakabin that could hold the weight of a magnetic board, let along a post-it note but that’s how this whole process started.  Except I was 123 miles away, virtually being in the room thanks to Mr. Skype.  Between the four of us (Browny, Club Sec Kev, Bazza and myself) we spent the next 3 1/2 hours going through every team we played working out if there was anyone we could get in, wondering their budget for the next season and of course putting together a plan as to what to offer to who and when.  It’s all a game of cat and mouse.  You offer £150, they want £200.  They try and get £200 down the road, but they will only offer £140. So they come back and ask for £160.  You offer £150 and they accept. Then you move onto the next one.  Slowly but surely a squad takes shape, although you never know what pre-season will throw your way that you have to legislate for.

We don’t have the mountain of stats that Jonah Hill’s character in the film, Peter Brand, has.  We have to go by our collective memories of what our opposition played like and who was the stand out players.  Sometimes even that is hard – our bible is Football Web Pages yet if an opposing team upload the wrong team list, or get two players numbers the wrong way round we could end up buying a donkey when we wanted the dogs bollocks.  The whole process can eventually be completely meaningless.  We could end up retaining none of the players we want to and then have to re-assess our requirements for each and every role.

You can only gauge success when the season has ended in a year’s time really.  Did we get it right can be answered by our league position, our cup record and what the squad (and the budget!) looks like compared to when we started the season.  Sometimes you win, most of the time you don’t.  But that’s what makes the game so addictive – the endless search to get all the ingredients together at the right time for the right money.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 7 – If…


“If you can keep your cool when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming results on you,
If you can trust yourself when all fans moan at you,
But don’t slag them off for their moaning too;
If you can wait for an away win and not be tired by waiting,
Or talking your chances up but dealing in lies,
Or being hated, yet don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too smart, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream of an FA Cup run and not make that dream your master;
If you can imagine a 3rd Round home tie and not make gate receipts your aim;
If you can meet with floodlight failure and waterlogged disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by local journalists to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the players you rely on, on the floor broken,
Whilst the poor officials obviously don’t know the rules:

If you can make one gamble with half your weekly budget
And risk it on one big name ex-Premier League midfield boss
And see him break down on his debut, and have to think again
Or smile outwardly after their mistake causes another loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To stay behind the goal in the rain long after the others have gone,
And hold on when there is no warmth left in you
Because nobody else will shout at your winger to warn him: “Man on!”

If you can stand on the Jungle and keep your pint safe,
Or talk with Kingy—remembering the common touch,
If neither fanzines nor the Philcox chants can hurt you,
If all fans count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving half time break
With fifteen minutes worth of Non-League boardroom small talk,
Yours is the Dripping Pan and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be the chairman, my son”

With thanks to Kipling (Ruyard, not Mr) for the original words.

So T-minus 3 for the Rooks.  In fifteen days time we will know our fate. 270 minutes of football.  At this stage of the season every fan studies the results for hours, looking for any little chink of hope.  We couldn’t have asked for a better Bank Holiday with the win at Bognor Regis Town, but now we had to do it all again.  Whilst being a fan at the business end of the season can be a very nervous time, being a fan and a chairman is certainly something I wouldn’t recommend for the feint-hearted.

17110644981_6a09bf1e96_zOf course, we had done our homework, having our opponents Met Police watched, choosing their 5-0 home win against East Thurrock United last week as the basis for our preparations.  The scouting report wasn’t overly positive about their performance in that game, yet they still scored five times without reply.  I’d hate to think what it would read like if they played well!  Scouting reports are essential for preparation at this level.  Last year I tried to explain the art of scouting opponents but at this level literally anything can happen to a player or a team in a matter of hours, so often all of that hard work goes out the window.  I rang two managers I have contact details of in my phone (don’t ask why…) and got their opinion.  Both had played Met Police in recent weeks, both had recorded positive results against them and both told me two completely ways that they would set themselves up against them.

The math was simple as we looked optimistically into our pints in the Marney’s Village Inn.  Win here and it would take a freak set of results for us to be heading, quite literally, South next season.  A draw and we would be 75% safe but a defeat?  Well, that would potentially drag us down into the dark depths of the bottom of the table.  We don’t mention the R word at board meetings but it is there.  We can all feel it, hiding in the darkness, laughing at us when we talk about plans for next season.  To paraphrase Stephen King:-

“Monsters are real.  Ghosts are real.  Relegation is real.  They exist and they all live inside us.  And sometimes they win”

Metropolitan Police 2 Lewes 0 – Imber Court – Saturday 11th April 2015
16903909027_2be2d93db1_z“Just bloody score Wingate” was the most popular phrase uttered during the second half of the game. A group of grown men, all huddled together looking at their mobile phone screens.  I often tell me daughters off for anti-social behaviour such as this but this was different.  If we all looked hard enough at the same latest score page then surely Wingate would score and our precarious position might become a little easier.  Of course, the opposite happened.  VCD Athletic scored again to double their lead and with it climbed out of the bottom four for the first time since September.  The gap between us and the drop zone was now just 3 points.

By this point we had come to realise it wasn’t our day.  Try as we might, and we did mightily try in the second half, we simply couldn’t find the Met Police net.  Even the referee wasn’t playing ball, denying us a clear-cut penalty for hand ball on the hour mark.  So much for the reports we had received,  that suggested Hudson-Odoi looked disinterested and Reid was goal-shy.  In the space of three first half minutes they combined twice to give the home side what transpired to be an unassailable lead.

17111288455_4a23383d61_zWe came in hope rather than expectation, enjoying the sunshine for the second away trip in six days, and once again provided a large proportion of the total attendance.  In this case it was 37 fans out of a total of 85.  It is hard to believe that it is still possible for Met Police to be playing in the Conference South in just a few months time, with this win doing their late play-off charge no harm at all.  Yet, no more than a few dozen fans come to watch them.  You can’t fault the facilities at Imber Court, although the strict rule that guests had to be wearing a jacket and tie to enter the board room (in theory you could wander in wearing shorts and flip-flops as long as you had a tie and jacket on) does seem quite formal for the confines of the Ryman Premier League.  Fortunately, a board member, seeing my predicament, or mores to the point, Club Sec Kev taking the piss because he could go in and I couldn’t, came out with a plate of sandwiches for me.

Other results were OK – we are one of nine teams that could still be relegated, although three of the four sides in the drop zone can no longer catch us.  Next Saturday, when the Rooks host Leatherhead looking for those vital three points, I will be in the Stadion Gorče Petrov watching Makedoniha GJP take on Vrapciste.  Whilst my head will be filled with the delights of Skopje and Macedonia, my heart will be 1,500 miles away at The Dripping Pan.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 4 – Hope is the only strategy


At the start of the season all Non-League boards will sit down, set a budget and perhaps even be as bold to set some objectives for the season ahead.  Outwardly fans hear words such as “consolidation” “on-field progress” or even if they are brutally honest, “survival”.  Inwardly you may not be surprised to hear that board’s are much more bullish.  They look at clubs who punched above their weight in the previous season and say “why can’t we do that? We spend more money than them!”, so more money is put into the squad and the manager is. Given an objective to push for the playoffs. As I write this, over half of the teams in the Ryman Premier League are within 1 or 2 wins of the final, achievable play off spot with just half a dozen games to go.  There’s going to be some disappointed boards in a month’s time.

hope-284x400What then happens depends on the attitude and experience. Some boards will say let’s out-spend everyone else and push for promotion again, whilst others will cut the budget to something more realistic and take a risk that it will just be enough to avoid relegation.  The danger of the former strategy is that it’s like building a skyscraper on shifting sand.  Undoubtably the cash has to come from an external source and there comes a point when that “structure” becomes unstable and the fragile foundations are removed.  The Non-Leagues are littered with the bones of such follies yet there are still clubs and individuals who think they can change the age-old model.  Look away now if you are a fan of a club who is currently high on the euphoria of a speeding train up the divisions.  This model does not work and in 99% of cases will end at best in tears, at worst without a club to support every Saturday.

Like most football fans, my opinion of Robbie Savage as an “expert pundit’ isn’t particularly complimentary.  Starting each retort to callers on his phone-in show on BBC 5Live’s 606 with “Did you play the game?” doesn’t endear him to the vast majority of people but last weekend he said something that made a lot of sense and actually changed my view on something.  West Ham had just beaten Sunderland 1-0. It wasn’t a pretty win and a number of fans were unhappy with the style of play.  “In reality, where did you think you could finish this season?” He asked one caller, then going through each team who could and should have been in top seven.  Presently six of those teams mentioned occupied those slots – the only absence was Everton, who had been replaced by Southampton.  Savage then said “so realistically your best hoped would be to finish 8th” the caller couldn’t argue, ” so currently you are one place off winning YOUR league”.  Does style really matter if you win the league? That’s the view that boards at Non League have to think about.  If the objective is to reach the play offs and you fall one point short by playing “ugly”, is that a failure? What about 20 points shy? You’ve been as successful in hitting your objective – in other words second place is the first loser, tenth place is ninth loser – but you are both losers.

When a club puts together its budget at the start of the season they do so with some assumptions of what will happen.  They assume that key players won’t get injured in pre-season.  Even worse, that players on a contract don’t get injured in pre-season, or arrested, or go on holiday to Magaluf and never come back.  Fans of professional clubs will laugh at that but it happens every season in the Non-Leagues.  Ambitious plans created on the 1st July could be in tatters by the 31st July.

When serving as Mayor of New York. City, Rudy Giuliani came up with the phrase “hope is not a strategy”.  We all know that Rudi has never managed in the Non-Leagues because Hope is certainly the key part of every clubs strategy.  We hope that key players don’t get injured, we hope that our young up and coming manager is not poached by a bigger rival, we hope that our floodlights don’t fail during a game, we hope that our boiler doesn’t fail, we hope that we don’t have a bad winter that stops us playing home (and thus our main revenue generating activity). Hope is certainly the cornerstone of every Non-League club’s strategy.

Most Non-League grounds are held together with Duck tape and SuperGlue.  Rustic, charming, quaint are all words used to describe some grounds.  They aren’t by design, trust me.  They are through necessity.  Ground improvements are carried out in almost all instances on the pain of death.  Ask a Non-League fan whether we should spent £5k on new toilets or on a centre-forward? We can all venture into the abyss and close ours eyes and hold their nose, yet none of us (honestly) can score 15 goals a season.  So hope once again is the cornerstone of the strategy. Hope that nothing goes wrong.

IMG_3575Sometimes factors completely out of a club’s control.  Today Lewes made their first ever trip to Vickers Crayford Dartford, or VCD Athletic.  This is the highest level the team from the London/Kent borders have played at, and whilst they come into the game still in the relegation zone.  They have refused to change their passing style that saw them crowned as Ryman North champions last season and they should be applauded for that.  But they know full well bout factors completely outside their control.

After winning the Kent League back in 2009 they played in the Ryman League for the first time in the 2009/10 season.  They finished 8th yet come the end of the season the Ryman League demoted them back to the County Leagues. Why? Because they had failed to build a concrete path around their pitch.  Not that they had refused to do so, rather the goalposts had shifted.  The club had been given notice about requirements to achieve a particular ground grading by a date in June.  They had played for a whole season with a concrete path (obviously said path is so critical to the actual football being played) without any issues at all.  Then all of a sudden that date was brought forward by a month.  Bear in mind this was in the close season so no games were being played yet it was deemed so non-compliant that they were expelled from the league. How can you plan for such changes in policy or rules? Once again, hope is all you have.

And with that in mind and the relegation trap door still firmly open for nine clubs, we arrived in Crayford with that same sense of hope.  Wednesday’s win against Enfield Town had been a real bonus meaning that a win today and we would be on the magic 50 points mark.  A defeat and it may be a nervous Easter.

As away trips go, VCD is one of the best in the business.  Well, for me at least.  4 stops, or 11 minutes on the train from TBIR Towers, the prospect of a bit of a gamble at Crayford Dogs and then a visit to a new micro-pub, the Penny Farthing.  Will the football ruin a great day out like it does so often?

VCD Athletic 2 Lewes 0 – Oakwood – Saturday 28th March 2015
In a nutshell, yes.  Once again, we were left talking about the performance of an official for the majority of the game rather than the players.  One incident changed the game without a doubt.  Just fifteen minutes were on the clock when a VCD corner bounced around the area.  A goal-bound effort hit Jack Rowe-Hurst’s arm, rather than the other way round.  There were players behind him from both teams, plus the keeper.  Penalty?  Probably, although some referees will argue it was “ball to arm” and unavoidable.  But a red card?  Never.  Alas, as a club we have no right of appeal.  If the game was being videod we could supply footage to the FA and have the decision reviewed, but it wasn’t.

The use of technology has been welcomed in the game at the highest level – goal line cameras has already proved to be a great addition to the game.  However, this is provided to all clubs in the Premier League and not just those who could afford it (obviously they all could).  In the lower leagues it is each club who have to fund the use of video so consequently it is hit and miss whether the games are recorded.  Two weeks ago in the game against Hornchurch, one of their players was sent off.  They used video to prove it wasn’t a red and they won their appeal.  But why shouldn’t it be uniform across the league?  Surely, having 3 or 4 clubs using it gives an unfair advantage to the rest?  We use Football Exclusives, who have contracts with half-a-dozen clubs in the Ryman League.

IMG_3573The sending off was pivotal.  Rowe-Hurst has been one of our best players in the past few weeks.  A fast, winger who isn’t afraid to take on his man, scoring two in the last three games.  Take him out of the team and Lewes lacked pace or any wide option.  We then lost our other wide man, O’Connor and it was going to be an uphill struggle especially when Duckworth seemed to receive the ball in an offside position before he turned and slotted home to make it 2-0.

Lewes huffed and puffed in the second period, with the referee producing another red, this time for VCD’s centre-back Reeves for a “denying a goal-scoring opportunity” although there appeared to be covering defenders.  The resulting free-kick was tipped over the bar, which was as close as Lewes came to scoring.

This was a disappointing whimper of a defeat.  In front of one of our biggest away followings of the season (a second half headcount put it at 47 out of a crowd of 136) we simply didn’t show up.  The worry is that with Harrow Borough arriving at the Pan next Saturday in excellent form and closing in on us, the last few weeks could be very nervous indeed.

Hope is most certainly the only strategy at the moment.

Tales from a Non-League Chairman – part 1 – The home game


It’s fair to say that when I was asked to become Chairman of the team I support I was chuffed to bits. Images of cigar-smoking, brandy-swilling, blonde-holding flashed through my mind but alas being Chairman means I’m still programme co-editor, match day announcer, website editor and communications co-ordinator. But it’s still a bloody great honour and I agreed to do it because I deeply care and believe in what we stand for and do as a club. We’ve got a vision and we are going to deliver on it, and to be leading that is bloody exciting.

So 10 days into the role and we find ourselves without a management team, looking down at the relegation zone and facing our biggest cup game in 10 years. So Stuart, what are you going to do now? The words of Lance-Corporal Jack Jones came into my head. Don’t panic. Fortunately, having the likes of Bazza Collins and Club Sec Kev around meant we quickly had a plan. Even Kev’s wife Laura giving birthday to baby Henry didn’t knock him off his stride. Within 7 minutes of the announcement of Garry Wilson, Danny Bloor and Dean Lightwood leaving the club I received my first phone call. A journalist (no names) asked if “mutual consent” was agreed by both parties. 4 minutes later I received the first job application by email. And so the madness began.

IMG_3423Despite Lewes “just” being a step 7 Non-League club we received over 20 applications. Some well-known people, and not just in terms of the Sussex footballing scene, applied including four candidates who had Premier League experience. Never judge a book by its cover is as true in this situation as anywhere else. Good footballers rarely make good managers. We also had applications from people with absolutely no background in Non-League football or management in general, who put over compelling arguments why they should be considered. Perhaps in different circumstances where we weren’t fighting for our Ryman Premier League survival we may have talked further to these people but we needed a wise head who could guide us out of the tricky situation. Our caretaker team of Martin Hinshelwood and Steve Eke did us proud in the interim period, taking four points from a possible six and more importantly, guided us to our first cup final in ten years.

In a very short space of time I’ve come to realise that being chairman isn’t just about swanning into the ground at 2.55pm having parked the Jag in my reserved space and shaking hands with a few fans. Firstly, I’m in the ground around 2pm on a match day taking care of all those duties that I did before being chairman that, like at most Non-League clubs, most fans think the pixies do. There’s no Jag either, nor is there a reserved parking spot unless you call the one marked “Reserved for Hair & Beauty clients” in Sussex Downs College car park, which for some strange reason nobody ever parks in but me. Being a Chairman means that people expect you to do things that other people won’t do.

In just a month I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard from my colleagues the phrase “As Chairman, you should do that Stu”. Not that I’m complaining – after all if the shoe was on the other foot, I’d do the same. Being manager less for a few weeks also means I have to field the calls from journalists. Some will write what you say, others will try and second guess the meaning of what you have said and print that instead. Just one “added” word can cause offence, embarrassment or anger to anyone and everyone. Fortunately, in my real word job I’ve had a bit of training in dealing with journalists so am pretty good at keeping things “on record”. During the period where the managerial search went on there was very little speculation in the press bar a few names that the journalist in question had observed watching our games.

I found it amusing to see headlines in the local press using my adopted new name “Chairman Fuller”. In the space of a few days my Christian name had been lost, replaced by a title more akin to a Communist Party leader. I also received random texts from people telling me where I was and what I was doing. “I see you were on the early train down to Lewes today. Interviewing a new manager?” and “I saw you shaking Kingy’s hand at Lancing – please don’t tell me he is coming back a third time?”

We’ve all heard the stories about secret trysts in service stations to do deals (legitimate ones not featuring shoeboxes full of cash I hasten to add!) away from prying eyes but I never thought that’s what really happened. That was until I’d agreed to meet one prospective candidate for the manager’s role and he asked if we could meet in a pub, some miles away from Lewes in a very rural location. Even as I pulled into the car park I doubled checked the mirror to make sure I hadn’t been followed. The Current Mrs Fuller even questioned me as to whether I was meeting another woman (or women as she said – I like her style at suggesting I still had the energy).

IMG_3432But the story has a happy ending. We got our man and today we welcome ex-Charlton Athletic legend Steve Brown into the dug out for the game versus Kingstonian. Could he start with a win? Our record in previous seasons against the K’s isn’t good, having taken just 2 points in the seven games we’ve played against them in the last four seasons. There has also been a red card in every game we’ve played against them in recent times. Expect a dull 0-0 draw then!

Lewes 1 Kingstonian 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 7th March 2015
Nil-nil it nearly was but it certainly wasn’t dull. Lewes can mark this one down to the Footballing Gods, smiling down at them as Kingstonian were well and truly robbed. The Rooks finished the game with nine men whilst Kingstonian could only rue a hat-full of missed second half chances including a missed Gomez penalty.

To be fair to both sides, the extraordinary sight of the sunshine probably distracted them from trying to play football in the first half, with neither side really creating any chances in the first period. The half was livened up in a three minute spell just before the break that saw two red cards. First up was Kingstonian’s Alex Addai who simply lost the plot, planting his head into the face of Tom Davis for a tackle made by Matt Crabb. Addai then displayed all of the characteristics of a 5 year old being told he couldn’t go to Thorpe Park. Jumping up and down, trying (and failing at first) to remove his shirt and then sitting on the naughty step.

He was joined there a few minutes later when Sam Cole appeared to leave his foot in when challenging for the ball and he saw a straight red.  10-a-side it was to be after the break.

Lewes started the half well, with the K’s now infamous keeper Rob Tolfrey being called into action to keep out a James Fraser shot from 40 yards and then a point-blank range Elphick header.  Seconds later Lewes keeper Rikki Banks charged out from his line and took out Pico Gomez. Clear penalty.  Gomez stepped up and smashed the kick against the post.  Perhaps this was to be our day.

With five minutes to go Lewes launched a free-kick into the box.  Tolfrey came for it, dropped it and Rowe slotted home.  Cue manic scenes as the players joined in with fans celebrating including one chap who had obviously given his wife a break and brought their baby to the game.  He was almost offering his child to the players to celebrate with.  In my experience that may get you a telling off a home, especially if you also douse the child in beer.

From the rather long lens of James Boyes

From the rather long lens of James Boyes

There was still time for the referee to make a complete fool of himself by only booking the K’s centre-half for scything down Sam Crabb, a tackle far worse than Sam Cole’s first half red.  Brotherly concern and love took over as Matt Crabb pointed this out to the ref and was given a red card.

So three points, a winning start for our new management team and a pretty decent roast pork loin ciabatta with apple lavender slaw and smoked chilli for a pre-match snack.  We will have better days, we will have worse days.  But for today, the lot of the chairman is a happy one.