The Sands of time


On the 2nd June 1978 history was made at the Football League’s Annual General Meeting held at the Café Royal in London.  Every year the clubs got to vote on whether the teams who had finished at the bottom of the then Division Four would be “re-elected” to the Football League for the following season, or replaced by a team from the Non-Leagues.  There was no formalised pyramid as there is today with any club who felt they had the resources able to make an application to join the league.  In the previous decade, clubs such as Chelmsford City, Romford, Gravesend & Northfleet and Altrincham had made applications to get into the league without success, with the advantage always with the league sides.  That was until 1977 when Workington were voted out of the league, having finished adrift at the bottom of the Fourth Division, replaced by Wimbledon FC.  However, it was events on Regent Street a year later that would be remembered in the annuls of footballing history.

The bottom four sides in the Fourth Division in that season in order were:-

Hartlepool United – 37 Pts
York City – 36 Pts
Southport – 31 Pts
Rochdale – 24 Pts

They would be joined in the vote by Bath City and Wigan Athletic, the two representatives from the Southern and Northern Leagues respectively.  Wigan hadn’t even won their league, finishing runners-up to Boston United although they were no strangers to playing their hand in trying to gain election, having made 34 previous applications.

In the first round of voting, York City, Rochdale and Hartlepool United topped the voting, meaning they were safe, whilst Bath City received just 21 votes and were discounted.  But Wigan Athletic and Southport both gained 26 votes meaning a second vote was needed.  Unfortunately, Southport lost by 29 votes to 20 and were ceremoniously kicked out of the league, the last club ever to suffer the re-election fate.  The fans blamed the trumpet-playing pub landlord and chairman, Walter Stanley Giller although Wigan Athletic had been very canny in their campaigning, bringing in former England Manager Sir Alf Ramsey to help influence some of the voters – every Football League club got to vote, not just the teams in Division Four and he was still a revered character in English football.

Almost forty years later, Southport were lining up against Lincoln City in the Conference Premier in the final game of the regular season.  In just a few months time the two clubs would be playing their football two divisions apart as the Imps would be returning to the Football League after a six-year hiatus whilst Southport would head in the other direction after seven years at the highest level of Non-League football.  Since that June day nearly 40 years ago they’d rarely come close to returning to the Football League – a 3rd place finish in 1994/95, eight points behind champions Macclesfield Town was the closest they came.

With the Isthmian League season done I could put the stresses and strains of my Lewes role behind me and go back to being a wandering football fan for a few weeks.  Come July time and I am itching to get back into action at The Dripping Pan but by the end of April I am looking forward to a break.  Don’t get me wrong – I’d have loved for us to be playing 250 miles south in the Isthmian League South Play-off Final but we weren’t (although next year will be different I am sure) and so I could get the footballing map out and find some new grounds to visit.  This time last season I saw a double-header in snowy Harrogate Town and Guiseley – this year I would be heading North-West to take one step closer to finishing off the 92 for the third time (after the weekend there would be just Morecambe left to do) and also take in some racing at Haydock Park and Rugby League at Salford Red Devils and their new A.J. Bell stadium.

Southport have undoubtedly suffered as Liverpool and Everton have benefited from the ever-generous Premier League revenue streams.  As I walked down Haigh Avenue I passed a group of youngsters heading in the opposite direction of the ground – 3 Liverpool and 2 Barcelona shirts, oblivious to the game about to start on their doorstep.  Before the season-high attendance, they had averaged just over 1,000, down by around 800 from their Football League days.

In the same season that Southport were facing up to life outside the Football League, Fleetwood Town were formed, starting their life in the Cheshire League.  Twenty years later they folded, reformed and took their place in the tenth tier of English football as Fleetwood Freeport.  They regained the Town name in 2002 and since then they have been on an upward trajectory unlike anything else that has been seen in Non-League football, thanks in main to Chairman Andy Pilley who has run the club since 2004.  Their story is one of the only successes of the single investor models.  Whilst the soap opera continues to play out at Billericay Town, the carcasses of similar stories litters the Non-Leagues.  Margate, Kings Lynn and Histon, to name but a few are examples of where such a strategy has gone horribly wrong but at Fleetwood, the success is all too clear to see with a club that is thriving off the pitch as well as on it.  The club was promoted five years ago into the Football League, with striker Jamie Vardy leaving at the end of the season for a Non-League record fee of £1m paid by Leicester City.  Almost a year to the day of my visit, the club opened an £8m training facilities, putting them on a par with clubs in the Championship.

Southport 1 Lincoln City 1 – Merseyrail Community Stadium – Saturday 29th April 2017
On paper this was a dead rubber with both sides fate already determined.  In reality it played out like one.  Lincoln City had made a number of changes to their side and consequently none of the urgency that had characterised their games in recent weeks was there.  Southport showed in the opening period why they had been in the bottom four for over three-quarters of the Conference Premier season, with the fans seemingly resigned to defeat before a ball had been kicked.

Lincoln City had sold their allocation of tickets, and some more, occupying two sides of the ground and a fair section of the main stand.  The home side formed a guard of honour for the Imps as they entered the field accompanied by a riot of red and white from the away fans.  The home fans looked on in envy – relegation would see few such days in the coming twelve months, especially as local upstarts AFC Fylde would be heading the other way.

Despite the weakened side, Lincoln City were looking to finish the season on a high, coming into the game on the back of a ten game unbeaten streak.  They looked to get the ball wide as often as they could, trying to find space behind the Southport full-backs, whilst the enigma that is Matt Rhead played the pantomime villain to a tee, winding up the home players and fans alike, constantly in the ear of the referee about the treatment he was receiving.  On the half-hour his presence in the area caused all sorts of chaos and Lee Angol had the simplest job of putting the Imps into the lead.

Back in 1973 when both sides were in the Football League, the crowd was entertained by an appearance from Red Rum at half-time, who had just won his first of three Grand Nationals.  Today, we had the excitement of a kids five-a-side tournament and the songs of Coldplay.  Don’t get me started about the demise of half-time entertainment…oh OK if you insist then have a read of this.

The rest of the game was played with the intensity of a pre-season friendly.  The home fans around me on the Scarisbrick Terrace were reading out the teams currently in the Conference North, mentally ticking off where they had been, getting very excited about a day trip to Blyth Spartans, although the claim by one that they were from Blythe in Staffordshire rather than Blyth in Northumberland was amusing to listen to.  Just as most of the home fans were getting ready to head home for an afternoon of Jeff Stelling, Southport scored through Neil Ashton.  I had made my excuses before the final whistle, heading down to Haydock Park to watch the action on and off the track.

Twenty two hours after leaving Haigh Avenue I was on my way into Fleetwood, about an hour north of Southport, past the town’s most famous feature, the Fisherman’s Friend factory.  I’d been tipped off that if I could get into the club lounge area then I may meet up with Syd Little, a long-time fan of the club and often seen helping out his wife who runs the kitchen.  Alas, with that avenue of pleasure closed off, I headed to the Highbury Chippy, which came highly recommended but like Chessington World of Adventures was a disappointment.  Apparently it is under new management but it appears they are yet to get to grips with exactly how long to cook food for.

Fleetwood Town 0 Port Vale 0 – Highbury Stadium – Sunday 30th April 2017
It is rare that you watch a game that is so bad you wish someone had invented a time machine to get those 2 hours of your life back to do something more interesting, like watching paint dry.  There’s no disrespect in that statement to Fleetwood Town as hosts – after all they had little to play for once Bolton Wanderers had taken an early lead.  However, at the other end of the pitch, if I was one of the thousand plus Port Vale fans who had turned up in hope they could get a win, I would have been furious that the team simply looked ill-prepared, tactically inept and completely devoid of motivation.  For the home side, they had to hope Bolton Wanderers slipped up for them to have any chance of automatic promotion.  Possible, but unlikely.  For Port Vale, the maths was much simpler.  Better the Gillingham result and they would be safe.

The strong cross wind made it difficult for both sides, but it was clear what the issue was from early in the game so why continue to try to plan long cross-balls?  Neither keeper really had anything to worry about in the first half bar dodging the litter blowing onto the pitch whilst the fans put on their best smiles for the completely over the top Police presence and their roving video camera man.

I cannot really tell you anything of interest in the second half.  With five minutes to go and the police readying themselves for a potential pitch invasion from the away fans I headed out.  As I got to the corner of Highbury Avenue a huge cheer went up.  I got to the car and checked the score, expecting to see one of the sides had scored but there was nothing.  I can only assume the cheer was for a corner, so bad the game was.  In the end Port Vale went down without a whimper and I hope for the fans sake that they find some comfort in an opportunity to be at the top end of the table next season, albeit at a lower level although I think there may need to be a big chance off the field before the good times start to roll again.

Football has moved on beyond comparison in the last forty years, mostly for the good.  The anarchic process of re-election, the perfect example of the old-boys club in action, has fortunately been scrapped but that’s no comfort to Southport (although it may be for Port Vale next season!).  For Lincoln City and Fleetwood Town the future looks bright.  Even if the latter do not find success through the Play-offs, they will get stronger on and off the pitch, looking forward to having a local(ish) derby with at least Wigan Athletic and possibly even former Premier League Champions, Blackburn Rovers.  Strong foundations built on and off the pitch, with a good local fan base can only lead to good times ahead for the Trawlermen and the Imps.

Postscript:
Just one week later Hartlepool United, the club with the most reprieves from re-election (14 times) were relegated from the Football League after rivals Newport County scored an 89th minute winner in their game against Notts County to leapfrog United and send them down in the final minute of the season, having spent just two weeks in the bottom two all season.

Impishly Good Friday


Today’s attendance is……9,011. Thank you for your attendance”

You’d be forgiven for thinking I was spending my Good Friday watch a game in English Football League One, or even in the lower reaches of the Championship. I wasn’t. I was watching a club that is in all but status a Football League club, but officially is classed as a Non-League side, or grassroots as our beloved Football Association often class all teams playing below the Football League. Only in Germany would you find crowds like this in the fifth tier of their game.

Prior to the visit of Torquay United, league leaders Lincoln City were three wins and a draw from a return to the Football League after a six-year hiatus. This season has almost been a perfect debut for the Cowley brothers. Four years ago to the day they were in charge at Concord Rangers when the mighty Rooks rolled into town and in the sunshine with all three points in a 3-2 win. Now they stand on the verge of taking the Imps back into the Football League in a season that has seen them make global headlines for their FA Cup exploits, yet ask them about the regrets and they will wince when they mention missing out on a trip to Wembley in the FA Trophy final after an extra-time defeat to York City in the semi-final second leg. They’ve set a high bar since arriving in Lincoln last summer and the team have responded.

What’s been impressive is how the whole city has got behind them. Attendance numbers at Sincil Bank started around the 3,000 mark as the fans were slow to return after so many false dawns in recent years. Even when they hit the top spot and started to progress in the FA Cup in mid-November, the crowds were only just topping 3,500, which in itself was higher than more than ten Football League sides. A week after the visit of Wrexham in front of 3,300 fans they faced League One Oldham Athletic in the Second Round of the FA Cup. Over 7,000 fans saw the 3-2 win and the vast majority returned two weeks later for the top of the table clash with Tranmere Rovers.

Since then the locals seem to have been hooked. Of course there has been a band wagon and people have jumped on it after the FA Cup wins against Ipswich Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley, but the difference here is the crowds have stuck with The Imps post-cup exit. Any Non-League club that’s successful will see the fair weather fans come out for the big games, claiming they’ve been fans for life but a few weeks later they are nowhere to be seen when a midweek league game takes place. Sutton United also hit the FA Cup headlines, for the right and most definitely wrong reasons this season. Eight days after 5,013 saw them take on Arsenal, 1,441 saw the home game with Boreham Wood. In fact their biggest attendance since the Arsenal game when Lincoln City arrived bring hundreds of fans to boost the attendance to over 2,200.

The club will argue there’s been a positive effect of the cup run – the average attendance at Gander Green Lane has gone up from around 1,400 at the start of the season to around 1,800 now. Gaining news fans in an area that is within the Crystal Palace catchment area is tough – Lincoln City’s big advantage is that traditionally their biggest rival for the locals football-watching attentions is Nottingham Forest, 30 minutes away on the train. Their continued demise on and off the pitch has certainly worked in the Imps’ favour.

The Football League and its member clubs continue to fail to recognise the Conference Premier as an equal. They’ve denied a third promotion place for decades, ruled that no clubs using a 3G can be promoted (despite the fact over a quarter of a Scottish Premier & Football League sides use them) and even decided to allow Premier (and subsequently Championship) B-teams to enter their Members Cup rather than opening it up to teams at the top of the Conference.

The Football League are scared of progress – why else wouldn’t they want sides such as Lincoln City or Tranmere Rovers, themselves getting average home attendances of 6,000 plus? An additional spot would generate greater competition and bring the potential of new teams joining the league. Forest Green Rovers, financially and ecologically sustainable, have been knocking on the door for years and a third spot would have seen them promoted some time ago. It’s hardly as if when new teams join the Football League they all struggle is it? Fleetwood Town, promoted less than five years ago could be a Championship side next season, joining Burton Albion. AFC Wimbledon seem to be doing well in mid-table in League One too.

On the other side of the coin you have the Football League sides struggling. The two teams currently occupying the relegation spots in League Two have both been beset by ownership issues which has in turn led to financial problems off the field and poor form on it. Just above them sit Morecambe (granted a former Conference side), another club that has an owner who appears to have disappeared off the face of the earth, taking the cheque book with him, leaving the players, management and suppliers high and dry.

I can’t see one compelling reason why at least there should not be three-up, three-down between the Football League and the Conference. In fact I’d go a bit further and restructure the leagues completely, having a 20 team Premier and Championship league, then three regionally based leagues of 20, meaning the top 8 of the Conference would join the league – less travel, less long midweek trips, more local games, more new grounds for fans to visit.

So back to Good Friday. It had indeed been a good Friday before we arrived at a heaving Sincil Bank as my horse had come in at 33/1 at Lingfield Park. Of course that meant the beers and pies would be on me but that’s a small price to pay for such luck. There’s fewer better sights approaching a football ground than the walk up Sincil Bank itself, with the modern Co-Operative Stand trying to nudge the Cathedral out of shot in the distance. I came here at the start of last season when Torquay United were the visitors on that occasion. No more than a couple of thousand had been here and what was noticeable back then were the lack of fans in Lincoln shirts, with kids running around sporting Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona and even a LA Galaxy shirts. Today I felt out-of-place without a Lincoln City shirt on. The transformation was amazing.

Northern Steve had procured the last seats in the house a few hours earlier. So last-minute that the seats didn’t actually exist – I believe we were supposed to bring our own emergency chairs. The seats were in the front row behind the goal, but were taken by wheelchair users and their carers. Fortunately the stewards re-housed us in the overflown section, next to the away fans. Everyone we met (and Steve knows a few in these parts) greeted us with a “UTI!”. At first I tried to explain that the coins in my pocket were chaffing, hence my strange gait rather than it being some Urinary Tract Infection but in these parts it means Up The Imps. Comfortably seated with any pain, let the game commence.

Lincoln City 2 Torquay United 1 – Sincil Bank – Friday 14th April 2017
The mark of a good team is knowing that they’ve never been beaten. When Torquay took the lead thanks to Ruairi Keating (nephew of Ronan no less) close range effort with just ten minutes to play you got a sense that The Gulls could upset the odds and put a dent in Lincoln’s promotion push. They’d kept the Imps at bay for most of the game with keeper Brendan Moore being tested only on occasion as Lincoln seemed to feel the long-ball game would have more success against a side fighting for their lives at the bottom.

The style of Lincoln play had surprised me.  I’d seen them fleetingly this season, and had seen the Cowley’s teams play not only at Concord Rangers but also at Braintree Town.  They are set up with two big, but mobile centre-backs, pacy full-backs and workmen-like midfielders and of course the away fans pantomime villain Rhead up front.  But they also had been successful playing the ball to feet this season.  Torquay were more than a match for most of the opening half, with Paul Farman in the Lincoln goal the busier of the two.

In the final minute of the first half Moore pulled off a great save down at his post which better keepers would have never got to.  But overall, the visitors could be pleased with a good half of football.  Other scores from around the division were kind to both teams, with Torquay’s need more pressing than the Imps you would say, having suffered so badly with events off the pitch in the last few years.  Seeing the Lincoln City re-birth in the past couple of seasons both on and off the pitch should give Gulls fans some hope, although in the darkest days you really don’t want to open the curtains and see who else is having a good time.

The goal was the tipping point to try something different. The ball stayed on the ground and they stretched Torquay, forcing them into conceding free-kick after free-kick on the edge of the box.  With three minutes to go Harry Anderson was the quickest to react to Marriott’s shot that had been well saved by Moore and the Imps were back in the game.  They could sense victory and threw everyone forward.  As the clock ticked over the 90th minute mark, another foul was awarded just outside the box.  With the Torquay wall being assembled, Rhead stood in front of the keeper, moving step by step with him, telling him where the ball was going to go in the football equivalent of sledging.  He stepped back and Sam Habergham’s free-kick was as good as you would see anywhere in World Football.  The Torquay players sank to their knees – they knew they were beaten.

Momentum is hard to create but once a team has it, they are hard to stop.  The fans went off into the rainy Lincolnshire afternoon knowing that just two more wins stood between them and a return to the Football League.  For Torquay it would be a nervous few weeks hoping others would slip up in their fight against relegation to Conference South, where their local derby next season could be with Truro City.

Which league is winning the sack race?


Question – Which English league has so far seen the most managerial sackings?

For those fans who live in the warm, safe environment of the Premier or Football League I don’t they will know the answer to hand.  For the record there have been eight managers leave their posts since the start of the season, although you could also bundle in the likes of Allardyce and Bruce who left their positions in the pre-season period.  The Championship actually leads the way with three manager’s fired so far this season – Nigel Pearson at Derby County, Paul Trollope at Cardiff City and Roberto Di Matteo at Aston Villa, with League One and Two only having two casualties apiece, whilst poor old Francesco Guidolin being the sole Premier League scalp so far.

However, take one step down from Football League Two and you will find possibly the most cut-throat managerial environment in England.  The National League Premier, aka The Conference Premier has so far seen seven of the twenty-four clubs lose their managers since the opening day of the season.  With almost a third of the season so far played, that number is ridiculous, but why is it over double that of any of the leagues above them?

26138079974_c44c4ab0bd_kThe clubs that have so far changed their managers on the whole would have expected to have been doing better than they had been at the time of the change:-

– Braintree Town – sacked Jamie Day in September.  After finishing in the Play-offs last season expectations would have been high but the loss of former manager Danny Cowley to Lincoln City was a big blow – borne out by the fact that Lincoln City are currently enjoying one of their best seasons in years, sitting in third place at the time of writing.  Day was fired with the club in 22nd place, one place lower that they are today.

– Eastleigh – sacked Chris Todd in August.  The season was only four games old when Eastleigh fired Todd after a shocking start had seen them bottom at the time.  Since appointing Ronnie Moore they have climbed up to 8th in the league, winning six and drawing three of their last ten games.

– Guiseley – sacked Mark Bower in August.  After surviving on the last day of the season with a win over Torquay United, it was somewhat of a surprise that the board at Guiseley decided to act so quickly, despite them being bottom of the league.  They are one of the smallest clubs in the league and keeping their head above water was always going to be a struggle with teams on significantly bigger budget.  Adam Lockwood was appointed as his replacement but they are still in the bottom four.

– Southport – sacked Andy Bishop in early September.  A similar situation to Guiseley where they have been just keeping their head above water for a while.  The former Football League club dispensed with Bishop’s services when the club were in 23rd spot.  He was replaced by Steve Burr and things are still not going to plan with the Sandgrounders currently propping up the rest of the league.

– Tranmere Rovers – sacked Gary Brabin in September, then replaced Interim manager Paul Carden in October.  It doesn’t seem that long ago since Tranmere Rovers were ripping up the Championship (or whatever it was called back then) and playing in a cup final at Wembley every year.  It must be hard being a Rovers fan today having those memories so vivid.  When they fell out of the league in 2015 they hoped to “do a Bristol Rovers” and bounce straight back up.  Under Brabin they finished last season in sixth place, missing out on the Play-offs by 2 points.  With the team in 5th place it seemed the decision to sack Brabin was harsh to say the least to an outsider.  Carden’s brief reign saw a win, a draw and a defeat before former Shrewsbury Town manager Mickey Mellon was appointed.

– Wrexham – sacked Gary Mills in October with the club in 15th place after defeat at Tranmere Rovers had left them in 15th place.  A subsequent home defeat in the FA Cup to Evostik First Division South Stamford, and a potential lucrative tie at Hartlepool United wouldn’t have particularly pleased the fans either.

– York City – Jackie McNamara “moved” upstairs in October.  There doesn’t appear to be much fun had supporting York City at the moment.  Earlier this week they crashed out of the FA Cup at Curzon Ashton, missing out on a tie against the lowest ranked side, Westfields, in the First Round Proper, whilst Chairman Jason McGill had to explain comments he made on national radio about the fans.  Whole situation with McNamara was bizarre to say the least.  He was given one game to essentially save his job, away at Braintree, which he drew and then appeared to have been sacked, only to them be appointed Chief Executive which begs the question why did they go public with the ultimatum in the first place.  Gary Mills, fresh from leaving Wrexham, was appointed this week as the new manager with York in 19th place.

So why has the National League Premier so far produced so much managerial upheaval?  Could it be that the Football League is due to decide next year on whether to completely revamp the structure of leagues, going from 3 divisions of 24 teams to 4 of 20, which would mean an additional 8 teams would join the professional game.  There had been some concern that the proposal may have been a back-door to try to sneak in Celtic and Rangers or some of the Premier League Development Squads, such as had happened in the failing and flailing Football League Trophy.  The “Whole Game Solution” was discussed at a meeting in September where it was agreed by a majority vote that it would NOT include the two previous options of the Old Firm and Premier League DS teams.  At that point the Non-League sides obviously started to rub their hands together, especially when a suggested was tabled for a 14 team expansion, making a Championship to twenty sides and then 22 in Leagues One, Two and Three.  If the Football League had any sense they would have already started down this route by allowing the National League sides to play in the laughable Football League Trophy rather than the Premier League DS sides but that’s another story for another day.

Consequently, clubs in the National League are eager to finish as high as possible to stand a chance to finish above whatever cut-off point is put in place.  Prize money, sponsorship money, TV revenues and so on are significantly higher in the Football League than the Non-Leagues and so clubs appear to be more prepared to make a change earlier in the season when things aren’t going their way (bar perhaps Tranmere who dispensed of Brabin when they were in 5th place).

With the proposals not now due to be discussed until June next year, the chance of any changes happening for the start of the 2017/18 season are very slim indeed.  However, that doesn’t appear to have stopped some teams where ambition may be significantly higher than reality in making managerial changes.  What some of the “traditional” Football League clubs may be missing is that some of the clubs now challenging in the National League are doing so from a stronger position both on and off the pitch.  Current leaders Forest Green Rovers have a multi-millionnaire owner who has invested in the infrastructure and squad over a number of years and it is only a matter of time before they reach the Football League either on their own merits or through the inevitable reorganisation.  Eastleigh and a wealthy backer who wants to deliver Football League status to the club, Maidstone United, Sutton United and Boreham Wood all have business models that have enabled them to build excellent facilities and continue to improve on the pitch.

Currently six points separates six former Football League sides in places 2 to 7 in the table.  Undoubtedly there will be more managerial merry-go-rounds before the year is out as boards of directors all across the league can almost touch the opportunity to play in the Football League (again).

Football for the jilted generation


I’m heading towards Braintree on the A120 when I decide to engage my teenage daughters in polite conversation.  Of course, being plugged into the Apple grid they huff and puff as they have to take out their earphones.  “You know what Braintree is famous for?” I ask them.  Within seconds they have Googled the answer and Littlest Fuller tells me to “Smack my bitch up, you Firestarter”.  Yep, I walked into that trap didn’t I? The answer I was looking for was it was the ancestral home of John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States, rather than the town that spawned The Prodigy.

The plan today had originally been to head to Yorkshire for an afternoon as a Brighton fan at The McAlpi..doh…Galpha..sorry John Smiths in Huddersfield.  But eyebrows were raised by CMF, who politely pointed out the fact that  “20 out of the next 30 days out of the country and you still decide to spend a bloody Bank Holiday driving 4 hours each way to watch a game involving two teams you care nowt about”.  Granted, she did have a point and so I agreed to take the family shopping.  “What about a designer outlet place?  There’s one in Essex, only an hour away called Braintree Freeport”.  “Braintree, as in Braintree Town?” She’s quick is CMF.  “Erm, I think so”, “And I bet they are playing today aren’t they?”…Plan rumbled, but accepted.  You shall go to the ball Cinderella, albeit one at the Working Mens Club rather than the Palace.

With just three games left in the Skrill Conference Premier, three of the four Play-off spots are still up for grabs.  With Cambridge United confirmed as runners-up to Luton Town, five teams could realistically say they were still in with a shout at a shot at a place in the Football League.  Four of the five had Football League pedigree, albeit in Gateshead’s case it was over fifty years ago since they failed to gain re-election.  The fifth was Braintree Town.  And next week, on the final day of the season, the five (plus Cambridge United) all play each other.  No pressure at all then on today’s game.

13925498603_70b7a7255d_bWhen we last visited the Amlin Stadium (then Cressing Road) back in 2009 it was relatively basic for the Conference South.  Five years on and a new stand had been added at one end of the ground in order to pass the ‘A’ Ground Grading meaning that they could host Football League games but it still retains that Non-League feel.  There is space behind the south stand for expansion as well as land to the west.   Talk of a new stadium off the A120 has disappeared although should they reach the promised land it would undoubtably return.  Average crowds of less than 1,000 suggest that it may be an investment too far, but when was logic ever applied to football clubs (George Reynolds and Darlington anyone?).

Should the Iron reach the Football League they would join a small band of clubs who play in towns with a population of less than 45,000.  Accrington (35,000), Morecambe (33,000) and Fleetwood (25,000) are all towns that support clubs who have risen through the Non-Leagues although it is still possible that either Accrington Stanley or Morecambe could well return back there this season.  Braintree’s rise hasn’t been fueled by a rich benefactor in the case of Fleetwood Town but by hard graft and a manager who knows a thing or two about the game.

13925910364_93e4bbceda_bAlan Devonshire is a TBIR legend.  We’ve met him on numerous occasions since he dazzled English football as a flying winger for West Ham back in the 1980’s through to his stint as manager at Hampton & Richmond Borough.  Always willing to have a chat about football after the game over a beer, he doesn’t hold a grudge or any bitterness that his International career was curtailed by a serious knee injury, or that manager’s at clubs in the 92 haven’t had to learn their apprenticeship the same way he has, starting Maidenhead United fifteen years ago.  He took over at Braintree Town in the summer of 2011 after the club had won the Conference South and has kept them in the top half of the table for the last two seasons.  But this year could be the year that they move to the next level.

The visitors Dartford had their eyes on Premier League safety.  After a horrendous run of ten consecutive league defeats in late 2013, Dartford have had to fight against the spectre of relegation.  With a week of the season to go they were still in the bottom four, with a gaping goal difference that could be the deciding factor. The indulgence in chocolate over Easter would have to be put on hold for a few days yet.

With the female Fullers safely deposited at Braintree Freeport I walked to the ground, passing a police cordon (apparently someone was murdered close to the ground on Thursday night) and joined a long queue of fans at the turnstiles.  Had football fever ignited the locals?  Was Devonshire the true Firestarter?  Which manager would be able to Breathe easily? With both teams desperate for a win for completely different reasons it was bound to be a dull scoreless draw.

Braintree Town 1 Dartford 0 – The Amlin Stadium – Friday 18th April 2014
As the game entered the 94th minute and the home side holding onto their one goal lead, Dartford threw the ball into the box once again.   Suarez (Mikel alas not Luis)  saw his shot deflected away by Iron keeper Hamann diving to his right. The rebound went straight to Jim Stevenson who forced a second outstanding save and potentially three points that would bring ultimate joy to Braintree and despair to Dartford.  A Darts fan behind me turns to his mate “I’d rather we go down than bankrupt ourselves chasing an unsustainable dream”.

13925413343_76fd7b78a7_bIt wasn’t a classic, with some interesting tactics deployed by both teams that lead to frustration both on the bench and on the terraces.  Braintree liked to get the ball wide but virtually every single cross into the penalty area was played over the lone striker to the far post where there was no one attacking the ball.  Dartford on the other hand kept playing the ball through the middle where the two Braintree centre-backs snaffled out any threat.  Either instructions from the respective benches were not getting through or they simply didn’t see the error of their ways.

The Braintree fans weren’t big in number but made themselves heard in the covered terrace that ran along the side of the pitch.  Whilst the early possession gave them something to cheer about it took 25 minutes before the roof was raised when Kenny Davis picked the ball up 25 yards out and struck the ball sweetly, giving Alan Julian in the Dartford goal no chance.

At this time of the season fans are easily distracted by what is happening elsewhere.  Standing between the two sets of fans I was getting the stories from both ends of the table.  One set of fans were bemoaning the events unfolding at Alfreton Town where the Grimsby Town team coach had been delayed in traffic.  “S’not right innit” said one.  “They’ve got a competitive advantage ain’t they?”.  “I reckon they should stop our game until they catch up” (which would have meant a delay of around 40 minutes).  Of course our mastermind had forgotten the fact that Braintree play at 5:15 away at Barnet on Monday night, thirty minutes after all of their rivals games have finished.

Going back to the issue of the ground.  The official attendance was 1,200 – boosted by a fair contingent from Dartford, but it did seem that the club struggled.  Long queues to get in, get food, programmes sold out, a 15 minute wait for a beer at half-time.  Whilst you can never deny a club a place at a higher level, the fans will notice a massive difference in their match-day experience.  The club will have to jump through more hoops and comply to more rules (no changing ends at half-time for instance) than today.  Some of the reasons why people love the Non-League game will be swiftly and sharply curtailed.

13925386195_803c5bbcf0_bThe second half saw both teams try to play with more positivity.  The home side were causing Darts keeper Julian some concern, although not as much as the stick he was getting from the home fans behind the goal.  Julian had made the mistake in the first half to respond to “banter” and that immediately made him a target for all the wit and wisdom of the fans.  Any save was deemed a fluke or lucky.  When he called for a ball and failed to get it, he was derided with donkey chants. The lot of a goalkeeper.

Scores elsewhere meant at one point Braintree had risen into the play-off spots, so the three points became vital.  Despite the last-gasp scare they held on.  Three points kept the dream alive for the Iron and the nightmare a reality for the Darts.  It hadn’t been the best of games but it was a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine.  Oh, and I managed to pick up a couple of bargains at Freeport too.

 

Hive Talkin’


At least this week we weren’t waiting around for games to be called off.  After the rain started falling on Tuesday night it simply didn’t stop.  Some clubs had made their decisions yesterday that there would be no football, and by 10am 90% of the games in the Ryman Premier League were lost once again to the weather.  The situation is now getting beyond a joke, yet the League administrators are conspicuous by their continued silence.  “Problem? There isn’t a problem here” they will be saying as fixtures start to pile up and clubs are forced into financial dire straits by the lack of home gate revenues.

By 11am only two Non League games within the M25 had survived – one at Thamesmead Town where I had been a frequent visitors in recent months on scouting missions and one in unchartered territory at Barnet FC.  No brainer where I would be heading then.  It almost seemed to calm to be true as I checked the Barnet website and Twitter feed – “pitch in immaculate condition” was the main message which did seem to defy the odds considering the chaos and mayhem playing out in front on my eyes on the iPad.

I have always had a soft spot for the Bees and for one magical season back in 1991 I went to most games in the first Football League season at Underhill.  I was romantically involved with a young lady who lived in Barnet, and to escape Saturday afternoon’s shopping in Brent Cross with her and her mother, I became a Barnet fan, managing to convert her father after their amazing Football League debut against Crewe Alexandra where they lost 7-4.  The club was welcoming and rough around the edges, without any airs and graces.  You had the feeling that the club, owned at the time by self-confessed ticket tout Stan Flashman and managed by the original wheeler-dealer Barry Fry, didn’t give a toss for the officialdom of the Football League.  The Non-League spirit lived on at Underhill for many years despite changes in ownership, management and league status.

But somehow in recent times it all changed.  Perhaps it was simply that football itself changed and the Bees realised if you can’t beat them then you need to join them, or that people with different agendas got involved in the club.  The long-term legal wranglings over the suitability of Underhill as a League ground were always the main topic of discussion when I met Barnet fans, rather than their league status.  They still remain the only club that has been promoted twice from the Conference and relegated twice back down from where they came. Continue reading

Welling up the table


The debate about the status of the Conference Premier has been raging for many years.  Take a look at the league at the moment and you cannot fail to notice some very familiar names.  Cambridge United were once a few minutes away from the top-level of English football and after what seems like years in the Non-League, are now leading the pack in the Skrill Premier.  Not far behind them are fellow Football League exiles Grimsby Town, Luton Town, Kidderminster Harriers and Barnet.  All of these clubs could essentially slot straight back into the world of the SkyBet, or whatever it is called, League tomorrow, competing on and off the pitch.

Take a look at the average attendances in the league so far this season and the best eleven supported teams are all ex-League teams.  In fact all of these apart from Halifax Town have a higher average attendance than Accrington Stanley, Dagenham & Redbridge and Morecambe (all of who were until recently, Non League sides).  But there are a couple of new names appearing towards the top of the table.  Alan Devonshire’s Braintree Town are punching well above their weight in 4th place, surviving on crowds of around a thousand.  Salisbury City and Nuneaton Town are new-boys in the league but both have relatively good catchment areas, free from the distractions of bigger sides.

10635884434_1e8b74840d_bAnd then there is Welling United.  Sitting in ninth place in the league, just one win off fourth place, the Wings are enjoying life back in the top-level of Non-League football.  Whilst they have been here before, from 1986 to 2000, the world of Non-League football has moved on, so their achievements in winning the Conference South last season was remarkable to say the least. I say that based on some local knowledge.  Living just 4 miles away I have been a regular visitor at Park View Road over the years.  Earlier this year I was at the top of the table clash with Chelmsford City.   Whilst Welling were demolishing a fellow title-contender on the pitch, off it were collection buckets encouraging fans to “dig deep” for Jamie Day’s, the player-manager’s budget.  A year on from play-off final defeat away to Dartford, Welling won the Conference South and took their place with professional clubs who had tasted victory at Wembley when they were Football League sides.  With average attendances of just over 800, few expected anything more than a season-long fight with relegation.  Instead, impressive form at Park View Road has seen them already find their feet in an ultra-competitive league. Continue reading