The turkey tastes just a little bit better this Christmas


Winners know that the hard work starts when they’ve achieved their greatest goal. Whilst some have greatness thrust upon them, the vast majority of outstanding sporting individuals and teams go through years of preparation and perspiration before they can rightly call themselves a champion.

Football is no different. It is incredibly rare that a team will upset the odds on a consistent basis. There’s a few examples of Cup giant killings, but in most of those instances Lady Luck plays a factor. Longer competitions also require an element of luck as well as other sides creating a path to glory. Take the Greek side that won the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. They went into the tournament as one of the outsiders but ended up as champions. Were they the best side in the competition? Absolutely not, but they played to their strengths and others weaknesses as well as seeing other sides who were more highly fancied beat each other. But they weren’t a flash in the pan. They worked on a game plan and everyone in that squad executed it to perfection across the whole tournament – take Manchester City’s unbelievable performance this season.  They have a great squad but it’s not head and shoulders above the rest. Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have spent tens of millions in the past year, like City, but they’ve found a level of consistency that is above and beyond what we’ve ever seen in the Premier League.  The club leaves nothing to chance and will be working even harder to keep the run going off the pitch.

Many may cite Leicester City as another example. 5000/1 outsiders for the Premier League title at the beginning of the 2015/16 season, with a manager at the helm who had won almost nothing in his career. Two magical things aligned in the next nine months – a squad of players who almost to a man performed at the top of their game plus their main rivals all seemingly in a season of “transition”. However, there’s also an oft overlooked element to the Leicester City dream – the role behind the scenes of Steve Walsh and Craig Shakespeare who assembled the squad, not Claudio Ranieri, and a huge focus on the preparation for each game.

The 2003 English Rugby World Cup Champions revolutionised the way teams should prepare, a methodology copied by the massively successful British Cycling Team at the last two Olympic Games, using a common approach of marginal gains – improving a high volume of multiple things by small amounts rather than focusing on high levels of improvement in a small number of things.  Take one look at the huge army of people who work behind the scenes at the top Premier League clubs and you will understand the concept of marginal gains even better – A soft tissue therapist may sound like a strange role, but to Pep Guardiola, employing one could be the difference between getting a player Aguero fit a game earlier, which could be three points closer to a time.

As we pass the halfway mark in the season, Lewes still remain top of the Bostik League South, a position we’ve held, bar one week, since the end of September.  It’s not all been plane sailing and we’ve had our fair share of injuries and suspensions as this last week will testify but the hard work off the pitch by dozens of volunteers means we have gone into virtually every game as prepared as we could be.  We don’t have the luxury of a soft tissue therapist or a head of sports nutrition but we do do everything we can to help the players.  Our marginal gains can actually be far more impactful than those in the highly competitive, money-focused Premier League.

As we sit down and enjoy our Christmas I’d like to thank everyone, not only at Lewes but across every football club who gives up their time freely to try to make a difference for their club.  We know that the second half of the season will be even tougher – everyone raises their game against the teams at the top but that’s just going to make us more determined to get things right off the pitch.  Happy Christmas one and all.

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Tough at the top, tougher down the bottom


During the Leicester City vs Manchester United game on Saturday night, commentator Alan Parry mentioned the “stresses and strains” on the Premier League players at having to play four games over the Christmas period.  “Some of these players face four games in just nine day!” Parry remarked as if this was a massive hardship for them.  That will be the same four games in nine days that virtually every club playing at Steps 7 and 8 of the footballing pyramid face over Christmas.

I hear the arguments about the stresses and strains of the Premier League, apparently the fastest league in the world (although I am not sure how that has been measured) but these players are professional.  They have the best facilities for fitness and recovery at their disposal – Pep Guardiola’s 16 man management team includes such roles as a Sports Therapist, a Head of Human Performance, a Soft Tissue Therapist and a Head of Sports Medicine.  Below them is an army of experts whose job is to ensure that Pep’s record breaking team are in peak condition when they cross the white line.  In most instances they are told what to eat and drink, when and where.

Down in the Bostik League South (as with in most other Non-Leagues), today was the first of four games Lewes played in the next nine days.  Our players and physios head home to their families tonight for Christmas and some will return to their normal jobs tomorrow and even Christmas Day before regrouping on Tuesday for the next game meaning that they cannot spend any time with the players and their rehabilitation.  We share the same concern as Guardiola that four games over the Christmas period is too much, especially with small squads and half way through the season where suspensions are starting to bite.  Today was our 33rd game of the season, and whilst our three new signings who all made their debuts today due to the growing injury list took the number of players we have used over the 30 mark, only 20 have played in more than five games, exactly the same number of players Manchester City have used in their 28 games this season.

Ultimately, the commercialisation of the Premier League game means that clubs have little control as to when games are scheduled.  Whilst other leagues across Europe have mid-Winter breaks, that simply means the Premier League can charge a higher fee to overseas broadcasters to schedule games at times attractive to foreign audiences – why else would the Leicester City game be scheduled on a Saturday night two days before Christmas?  In the Non-Leagues Christmas games bring in vital revenue, with local derbies boosting attendances although the continued lack of public transport on Boxing Day does prove problematic to many – Lewes take on Hastings United on Boxing Day despite the fact there is no public transport running between the two East Sussex towns 29 miles apart.

Commentators and members of the media often talk about Premier League players in revered terms, forgetting the hundreds of other equally committed and passionate individuals give up their time to bring joy to thousands of us who prefer our football a little less sanitised than that at the top level.

Happy Christmas to everyone who will take part in those games over the next nine days and spread the joy of the beautiful game to us all.

 

 

Rooks Actually


10308569_1562939613952439_3537806835309713134_nChristmas football.  It seems that everyone loves Christmas football.  Apparently, football on Boxing Day is a tradition – so much so that Lewes’s decision to move our derby game with Bognor Regis Town to 24 hours later nearly caused an online riot.  We made the announcement back in August when Christmas was still a speck on the horizon, after discussions with our opponents.  Some saw the decision as simply pandering to the fact Brighton & Hove Albion were also at home – which came into our thought process but wasn’t the deciding factor, others bemoaning our lack of respect to the traditional festive game.  With Boxing Day falling on a Friday AND the popular movement to return games to their Saturday 3pm position, that is what we did.  With no Premier League/ Football League or even Conference football to be played on the 27th, we would have little competition – in fact there would be a very good chance we could draw the biggest crowd in England. Bognor fans, who had no public transport options on Boxing Day were happy, heck, even a few of our fans were too.  Interestingly enough, only four games were played in the Ryman Premier League yesterday, with the remaining eight games kicking off today.  Fair decent attendances for those local derbies too.  Those seven other clubs hosting games today also saw sense in moving it to Saturday.

In the run up to the game, a small number of Lewes “fans” seemed to be willing the weather to turn, wanting the game to be called off, simply out of spite it seemed, the “told you so” mentality.  The fact that dozens of people had put in an extra shift to get everything ready for one of the biggest games of the season seemed irrelevant. Fans are free to express their opinions on any decision a club makes but you have to question those who seems so hell-bent on being so disingenuous at every opportunity. When the team are losing it is “sack the managers”, when the fixtures are changed it is “disrespectful” and when all of those are going OK, dissent turns to the catering or the half-time crowd at the bar.  These are of course the same “fans” who as soon as the fortunes of the team turn, disappear from public view.

Despite the game being moved to the 27th, it was still our Christmas game. Despite our nearest “rivals” now being Peacehaven and Telscombe, The Ryman League retained our traditional local derby. Lewes’s biggest crowds in recent memory have come over the Christmas period – over 1,000 versus Horsham in 2011/12 and crowds double that for games against Eastbourne Borough in our Conference days. Last season we were denied a bumper New Years Day crowd when our game versus Maidstone United fell foul to the weather, annoying as the weather the week previous on Christmas Day and Boxing Day had been so good.

A number of supporters of other clubs, who played yesterday, ventured down to the Pan to take in the game too – Barnet, Manchester United, Crystal Palace and Harrods fans that I knew of.  Faces who come down once or twice a year such as England’s foremost female cricket writer Lizzy Ammon,  as well as a couple of Dripping Pan virgins including the lovely Lucie Allen.

Xmas DayThere was a time when Christmas Day games were the norm in England. Mr Fuller Snr talks fondly of getting on his bike and cycling to Upton Park to watch West Ham on Christmas Day, and up until 1957 there was a full Football League programme on December 25th. Interest waned in subsequent years with the last ever Christmas Day game played in 1965 between Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers, although a decent crowd of over 20,000 suggested that there was still significant interest in Yuletide football.

In 1983, Brentford announced that they would be hosting Wimbledon on Christmas Day with an 11am kick off, “to revive the old tradition of husbands going to football on Christmas Day while the wives cook the turkey,” according to a Bees spokesman. But the wives thought differently and the fans’ protests in the run up to Christmas saw the match brought forward to Christmas Eve, when a 6,689 crowd, the second highest League crowd at Griffin Park that season, witnessed a 4-3 Wimbledon victory.

The Christmas Day games weren’t always without their problems. Due to a lack of local derbies, Portsmouth ended up having to travel to Blackpool back in 1954. In 1940, with the war in full swing, teams often struggled to put sides out, and players were allowed to play for more than one team, which saw Len Shackleton play for Bradford Park Avenue and Bradford City on Christmas Day. That same day was a Christmas to forget for Brighton & Hove Albion, who turned up for their game versus Norwich City with only five players! Anyone who had a pair of boots was invited to play and unsurprisingly the Seagulls suffered an 18-0 defeat.

FullSizeRenderObviously, bad weather affects the Christmas fixtures. Two year’s ago our Boxing Day game against Bognor Regis shouldn’t have finished due to the torrential rain, and we have suffered with postponements due to snow, such as the game versus Ebbsfleet United back in our Conference South days. But that pales in significance to the First Division game in 1937 between Chelsea and Charlton Athletic, when heavy fog caused the game to be abandoned.

Nothing strange about that until Charlton Athletic realised their goalkeeper, the legendary Sammy Bartram, was missing. The keeper was still on the field, completely unaware that the game had been abandoned, and just assumed that Charlton were putting pressure on the Chelsea goal. Now you know why Rikki Banks wears a bright yellow outfit.

So for my 51st game of the season so far, and the last time I will visit the Dripping Pan in 2014, Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present you with the story of The Rooks versus The Rocks.

Lewes 1 Bognor Regis Town 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 27th December 2014
In the 85th minute I had the pleasure of reading out the official attendance as 1,007, making it the best attended match in England.  To put that gate in context, our last two games we have played on Boxing Day were against Bognor in 2012 where the crowd was 883, and against Dover Athletic in 2010 when it was 505.  On both occasions the weather was similar to this year and Lewes were floating around the bottom of the table.  So much for ruining Christmas tradition. Whilst some many still think we could have got more people, we will never know.  The crowd was almost double our budgeted average attendance and thanks to the result, most went home with that warm smug glow of victory.

It wasn’t a classic but when you are fighting for every point it rarely is.  Unbelievably, despite sitting just above the relegation places, The Rooks haven’t lost a league game since the 19th October – four wins and four draws.  With the next two games against Margate and Dulwich Hamlet, it was important to get a positive result today, and that’s exactly what happened.  The goal that warmed up the Philcox Stand came in the 58th minute.  The very impressive Nicky Wheeler crossed, and Luke Blewden’s powerful header did the rest.  The last ten minutes were a bit of a backs to the wall job, made harder by losing Matt Crabb to two soft yellow cards, but Rikki Banks’ goal stayed in tact.

IMG_2443Last season in the corresponding game at Christmas, the pivotal moment was the Bognor Regis goal keeper getting Lewes’s Jack Dixon sent off in the first half.  After deliberately tripping the Lewes player as he ran back from a corner, unsighted by the referee, Dixon reacted and the keeper fell to the ground as if he had been taken out by a sniper.  Great sportsmanship.  The relevance of the incident seemed lost on the Bognor fans in the second half of this game when they were loudly accusing Lewes keeper Rikki Banks of feigning injury after a clash with Ollie Prior.

B55cQQOCQAAZRJzFull time and most fans went home happy including our contingent from the good ol’ US of A, Mr Luge Pravda, who couldn’t resist the chance to try to get the biggest every Lewes FC selfie.  The Bognor faithful, who had come in numbers, made an excellent contribution across the bar and sang/shouted their hearts out may feel aggrieved at the final score.  We’ve all been there before, we know how it hurts and we look forward to our fourth meeting of the season at Easter when we hope both of us are looking up the table with confidence rather downwards with concern.

 

 

Waking up the neighbours


In a couple of years there could well be a brand new football stadium at the end of the road here in TBIRville in South London. In fact, we have a few building projects on the map that will make a huge difference to the area. First up will be our very own Premier Inn at the top of the hill. Whilst the Sizzle Grill can boast a 4.5 rating on TripAdvisor, the other main attractions of the area hardly demand a hotel.

“A library, Co-operative Food Store, a butchers and a Dance studio” says Wikipedia, which isn’t really known for playing down the truth. Heck, we only have 1 pub, in a mile radius. This is suburbia not the Shetlands!

Perhaps the hotel is needed for when Paramount Park opens in 2020. Europe’s largest Theme Park, indoor venue and entertainment attraction no less, to be built in Swanscombe just 7 miles away. I’m not sure why we need such excitement – after all we’ve already got a petting zoo round the corner.

But who wants inverted 4G rollercoaster when you can have football. Paramount Park? Pah! It’s all about Flamingo Park and the news that the world’s third oldest football team will finally stop being wanderers and have a home of their own. Welcome to the neighbourhood, Cray Wanderers.

IMG_2345The club, formed in 1860, may not be known to many who don’t frequent the Non League circles. The last few years haven’t been the kindest to the club. After sacking manager of 14 years, Ian Jenkins, in September 2013 the club have been on a downward spiral, first being relegated from the Ryman Premier League and not in the relegation zone of the North Division. The one ray of sunshine has been the news that the club have bought the option on the land to build the new stadium. There’s no houses close by (thus no potential NIMBY influence), surrounded by a crematorium and a driving range and access would be direct onto the A20 dual carriageway. It would replace the existing Flamingo Park structure, home now to car boot sales, desperate over 40’s singles nights and the occasional travelling fairground that keeps the teenage birth rate up in the area. Who wouldn’t want to give planning permission for that?

All being well The Wanderers could be on my Christmas card list in three years, although by then the 2,200 capacity stadium may be hosting county league football. Something needs to stop the rot. A pre-Christmas visit of high-flying Harlow Town and their goal machine Alex Read was surely just the tonic. In terms of preparation, losing your manager (Mike Paye) 24 hours before kick off probably isn’t the greatest preparation either.

With landlords Bromley playing on Saturday, Cray were bumped off the main bill to the support card of Sunday. What a perfect opportunity for all the harassed fathers and husbands to drop their treasures off in the High Street then escape for a couple of hours to watch some good, honest football? Or was it just me who had that idea?

IMG_2334The first thing you notice if you haven’t been to Bromley FC this season is that the ground is now called The Fortress.  Alas, despite the coaching genius of Hugo Langton, the name has nothing to do with the impregnable Bromley defence, it is related to a sponsorship deal.   Once you pass through the turnstiles you will also notice that the old “lower” bar has now been replaced.  Instead of the jigsawed portakabin structure there is now Ravens, a wooden-bedecked bar and grill.  Very smart too – would have been even better if there any staff actually serving before the game though.

Cray Wanderers 2 Harlow Town 2 – Hayes Lane – Sunday 21st December 2014
Twenty minutes into this game you felt like waving the white flag on behalf of the home side.  Two nil down to high-flying Harlow, to anyone watching the game it was a case of how many the visitors would score.  But football is a fickle mistress and within a minute Cray were back in the game.  A spirited second half performance against ten men almost saw them grab all three points, rather than the one they finally earned.

With no other games in London today, the crowd was boosted by a fair few anorak wearers, desperate to find a team sheet and get a touch of the ball.  There were some loud tuts in the bar at the fact there was no real ale on, with the closest thing being some bottles of MasterBrew.  A ground of German ground hoppers didn’t care as they tucked into the Oranjeboom (“It’s a lager not a tune” I reminded one), fresh from a trip to see Spurs yesterday.

IMG_2332Despite the culture shock of having to play on a ploughed field compared to their lush 3G pitch, Harlow started with the kind of momentum their league position suggests and had come close twice before Junior Appiah opened the scoring in the 4th minute in somewhat comical style.  A Cray goal kick hits a defender’s back on the half-way line, the wind then carries the ball back over the heads of the back four, Alex Read mis-hits the ball into the path of Appiah and he slots the ball home.

Appiah and Read were causing all sorts of problems for the Cray defence, with some calamitous defending keeping the score down.  That man Read then pounced on a loose ball in the box, doubling the score with just twenty minutes on the clock.  It was all going so well for the visitors.  And then it all changed.  Cray’s first corner of the game saw centre-half, Dmitri Larin, steal in and head home.  Hope springs eternal.

IMG_2343Despite mounting pressure in the second half, Harlow simply couldn’t find the target.  Their job of holding onto the lead was made harder when Billy Jones was sent off for what was deemed a “reckless foul”, a harsh decision in most people’s book although the resulting 20 player melee was amusing to say the least.

With the temperature plunging, Cray started to warm up.  Poor defending left the Cray sub Shaun Welford unmarked and he headed home.  Two goals conceded from two unmarked positions. Only one team seemed to be in the hunt for the winner and Cray came within inches of grabbing all three points in the final seconds when only an acrobatic clearance denied them.

Full time – a great way to spend the final hours of the weekend before Christmas.  Harlow wont be happy with a point after their early domination, but Cray showed the type of fight that’s needed to drag themselves out of the relegation zone.  Who knows, with a point here, and news of a new ground on the horizon there could be a happy ending for one of the world’s oldest Wanderers.