Master of none

What happens when you get a bit lippy and suggest to one of your colleagues that their job on a match day was “easy”? It seemed I was just about to find out the hard way as our beloved club secretary Barry was heading off on a business trip 24 hours prior to our final game of 2016.  To make matters worse, we also had no kit man for the game.  First rule behind the scenes in Non-League football is “Be prepared to do it yourself” which is why I was wandering into the Dripping Pan four hours before kick off against Three Bridges with a bag full of assorted sock tape.

Lay the kit out, pump up a few balls, write out the team sheet and shake hands with the referee right?  What’s so difficult about that?  Alas, it if was that simple I would have been enjoying a beer or two an hour before the game rather than worriedly looking for instructions about how to use Football Web Pages live system and trying to find the season ticket list for Gate 3.

img_2255The first issue on arrival was the fog.  The previous evening has seen the game at The Amex postponed due to it and it appeared that overnight the problem hadn’t got much better in these parts. There was not a lot I could do about that bar man the phones and let people know that I could see both goals from the office and we “should” be OK for 1pm.

Before Barry headed off to try to increase our 12th Man Fund in Las Vegas, he left some instructions for me in terms of the Club Secretary duties for a match day.  Even by Barry’s very organised standards, I wasn’t expecting a four page document for each role (plus attachments), all colour-coded and in chronological order.  According to his list, by 1:45pm I should have been collecting biscuits from the Referees room.  Or was it giving them biscuits and taking their expense claims?  Of course, Barry had forgotten we had moved the kick off forward to 1pm so I was either 2 hours early or 2 hours late.  I’m not sure which.  The biggest worry was the fact if I didn’t do something to someone on the Internet at 1pm/3pm then Kellie Discipline, the League Secretary, would be straight on the phone giving me a dressing or a fine.  Or perhaps both.  Oh, and the fact it said “5:30pm – relax and have a beer” – that was three hours away.

img_2136So here I am thirty minutes before kick off trying to sort out a kit issue (one of those strange cut-off under socks has gone missing), whilst re-printing forty team sheets that had a big spelling mistake on (Thee Bridges may have been popular in Shakespeare’s time but not today apparently) on a printer that will only allow me to print one at a time due to a cartridge “issue”.  Oh and sorting out the play list which has all of a sudden started playing Isabella’s Disney Princess mix from 2008.  The phone rings and someone from the local paper wants to come along and watch the game and would like a pass for the 3pm game which he then goes into a panic over when I say it is a 1pm kick off as he has just arrived as “Monkey Biz” with his daughter and “there was no way he could get her out of the ball pool in 15 minutes’.  First world problems.

A normal pre-match for me involves a pint, chatting with some of my fellow fans, an in-depth discussion with Darren on our opponents and where the strengths/weaknesses are before preparing myself for any tricky names to read out on the team sheet.  Today I’m having to find the charger adapter for the substitutes board (The League donated one to each club but when we opened the package it had a European plug on), that should have been on charge an hour ago whilst ensuring that the referees assessor was put on the guest list.

I’d already had the dilemma of how to lay out the kit.  The home dressing room only has 24 pegs up – we have a squad of 20 arriving, but should the 1-11 get two pegs (one to hang the kit and one for their stuff) or does everyone get one each?  I’m mildly concerned that we have two slightly different sets of socks and my OCD kicks in by unravelling every pair to ensure that at least each pair matches.  Then there is the TV – it should be showing BT Sports but it has QVC on.  The signal comes from the bar, which is currently locked.

img_2256Best of all, our superb Groundsmen have arrived to use a fancy new machine on the pitch but they are unaware it is a 1pm start and so are trying to ride this contraption up and down the grass, avoiding the players now warming up.

Sounds like fun?  Too right it is.  I love being part of the magic that is match day.  Huge amounts of work goes into making sure that everyone gets to try to enjoy ninety minutes of football.  Whilst we can’t influence the result directly, the preparation that is necessary before every game should be aimed at giving Darren’s side the best opportunity possible to win the match.

I started this year sitting in the stands scouting at Peacehaven & Telscombe and would end it clearing up the detritus from the home team bench. That’s the beauty of the game at this level – you make a difference, as too does every other volunteer that gives up their personal time to help the club.

So how has 2016 treated us?  With all the doom and gloom around in the past few weeks you’d be mistaken to think that our relegation at the end of last season automatically made 2016 a bad year for us.  Actually, we probably made more progress this year on and off the pitch that any year in the past five including winning the Sussex Intermediate Cup.  2015 saw us avoid relegation technically on the last day of the season (although events elsewhere meant we couldn’t be relegated even if we had lost to Bury Town on the final day), get hammered in the Sussex Senior Cup Final and then start the 2015/16 season poorly.  The first half of the 2015/16 was no better as we started poorly and got worse.  It wasn’t until last December that things began to improve on the pitch.  Since January performances have been stronger and there is more of a settled feel in the squad as the stats below illustrate.

In the previous year we played 50 Ryman League games, gaining just 37 points and conceding a mammoth 93 goals in the process.  We won just 10 times, whilst tasted defeat on 33 occasions.  It is fair to say that was relegation form.  Prior to today’s game we’d played 43 Ryman League games in 2016 and gained 65 points, winning 17 and drawing 14.  We had scored 69 goals and conceded 70.  If we think back to that period between the start of March and the end of the season where we drew eight out of our ten games, losing just once, what might have happened if we would have not conceded late equalisers (Grays Athletic and VCD Athletic at home anyone?).  Extrapolate the 43 games into 46 and we have a 70 point season, enough in recent years to be in the top third of the table.

img_2257Unbeaten at home since early October, we hoped to finish the year off with a win against a Three Bridges side who have just two wins on the road (although they have been in their last trips away).  But football can be as unpredictable as the playlist I had put on before the match.  Just because the last two songs have been by the Killers, there’s no guarantee song three will not be something by The Cheeky Girls, or that Apollo 440, lined up as the walk-out song for the two teams actually turns out to be the Jive Bunny.

Lewes 4 Three Bridges 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 31st December 2016
Well, we’d got to the point where the referee had kicked off so we must have got most things right.  I checked Football Web Pages and saw that our starting XI was remarkably similar to last week’s, which wasn’t right so had to quickly amend that, not the easiest thing to do on a mobile.  Seven minutes gone and The Rooks were in front as Jonté Smith turned in the ball from close range.  Five minutes later I remembered that not only did I have to announce the goal but also add it onto Football Web Pages.

It wasn’t the best of halves to be honest although we were playing some nice football and never looked under threat.  Jamie Brotherton added a second in the 35th minute after a neat exchange of passes with Jonté and we should have had a penalty on the stroke of half-time when Conlon was bundled over.

The Lewes side emerged for the second half but there was no sign of our opponents or the officials.  The referee, showing that he is human, had not put enough change in the parking meter and so had to dash out to top it up, meaning nobody called the Three Bridges side out.  The additional time sat in the warm hardly did them any favours as Ronnie Conlon curled a beauty into the top corner within 46 seconds of the restart to make it 3-0.  Game over.  The fans in Philcox started singing “You’ve got more bridges than fans”, winning the chant of the year competition.

Or not quite.  We still have this ability to try to let victory slip out of our fingers.  It’s nothing new, especially here at The Pan.  Last season we gave up four points in two games by conceding injury time equalisers and all of a sudden in this game it went from 3-0 to 3-2.  There was an audible hum of discontent around the ground.  If we are to have any thoughts of breaking into the play-offs then we need to be winning games against teams at the wrong end of the table.

One magic substitution later and it was all smiles again as Charlie Coppola spanked home a loose ball in the area to make it 4-2.  In the two games between these sides this season there have been 14 goals.  Undoubtedly there could have been half a dozen more had it not been for the fine form of former Rook Kieron Thorp in the Three Bridges goal who kept the scoreline respectable in the final ten minutes.

At the final whistle I can enjoy that long overdue pint.  Alas it is not for relaxation – I just need to wait for the players to get changed so I can start sorting the kit and cleaning the dressing room so that come 1pm on Monday when they walk back in for the game against Horsham.  I’m not sure that 20 individuals could purposely make more mess if they tried.

With a game on Monday there would be no time for our usual kit washing or dressing room cleaning routine.  Duncan (Ops Manager) and I grabbed the brooms, buckets and mops and got to work whilst Jane (Director) picked up the kit to deliver to Carol (Director) to wash and dry all of the kit – the happiest of happy new year eve’s I’m sure with 21 shirts, 22 pairs of shorts (not quite sure why there were more shorts than shirts!), 22 pairs of socks, 11 pairs of cut-off socks, 24 warm up t-shirts, 18 warm up jacket and a random pair of Pringle pants for company as Big Ben struck twelve.

img_2262I’d read earlier in the day that the reason why it was a 1pm kick off was so that the directors had time to get ready before going up to London.  I wish that was the case.  The two hours we gave everyone back to enjoy the last night of the year was taken up for me by cleaning and then sitting in a traffic jam on the M25.  Did I mind?  Not one bit.

The afternoon summed up all that was good with the club.  I’m sure a few will grumble about the queue for food (a solution is in the pipe, or should I say pie, line) whereas I heard of a few others who missed the game because they didn’t know it was a 1pm kick off despite us promoting it through every available channel.  But a team effort on and off the pitch saw us end 2016 with three points and a smile on everyone’s faces.

Same again tomorrow everyone?

Decisions in nobody’s interest

Last Saturday Lewes looked to record their sixth consecutive league win.  These are heady times for us Rooks fans, with many of us never experiencing the crushing inevitability of snatching defeats from the jaws of victory, but coming into the game against Molesey we were top of the current form table over the last ten games, having won eight and drawn two.  Such form was unheard of but was down to a new spirit within the dressing room and players hitting form.  During that spell we have also scored goals for fun, twenty-three of them in the last ten games prior to Saturday.  Scoring goals, playing entertaining football, winning games – we were living the dream.

fullsizerender_2Saturday’s opponents, Molesey, had lost seven out of their eight away league games, scoring just twice in the defeats.  If I was a betting man then I may have put a pound on a home win.  Confidence has that effect on me – heck I’ve even been known to turn the heating on before the end of November at home.

But what you can never factor in is the weather.

The forecast for Saturday was for a storm to hit the South Coast in the evening, so bad that a yellow weather warning had been issued.  I’d flown in from Florida, landing at Gatwick at 11am with bright blue sunshine.  The pitch looked perfect and we looked forward to seeing some free-flowing football especially with the return of striker Jonté Smith to the Dripping Pan.

Lewes 2 Molesey 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 19th November 2016
Ten minutes in and whilst the rain had started to fall, it was no worse than what we would have expected at this time of year.  Charlie Coppola got the right side (for us) of the full-back and was hauled down.  Penalty.  Jamie Brotherton slotted home 1-0.  The only disappointment was having the golden goal at 9 minutes.

The rain started to get harder but still it wasn’t causing us many issues.  We were able to play the ball around on the floor and always looked like scoring again, the surprise being we had to wait until the 40th minute when Jonté Smith picked the ball up 40 yards out, twisted his marker inside out before slotting in to the far corner of the net.  2-0 at half-time.

img_1915As the teams came out for the second half there was concern in the stands and personally I felt that if the rain did not let up we would soon run into a situation where puddles would start appearing on the pitch and the game would be in doubt.  I’d hate to see the game abandoned, especially as we were on top and currently sitting in 5th place in the league, our highest position all season.

On the hour mark the puddles were very evident and the ball started to stick.  There was no way that the game would finish, with the rain continuing to fall.  Five minutes later Molesey scored, a great solo effort from Ashley Lodge.  The Rooks performance seemed to mirror the state of the playing surface – deteriorating quickly.

Seventy minutes gone and the Molesey bench started making serious noise to the officials that the game was becoming farcical.  I couldn’t agree more.  It was only a matter of time before the pitch got saturated to a point of unplayability.  Five minutes later Molesey equalised when Tom Windsor tapped into an empty net.

After the goal celebrations the referee consulted with his linesmen and called the captains together.  “Here we go” we thought, game off.  But he actually asked whether they wanted to continue to play to the end (discovered post match).  Both captains felt they could win the game, but surely that’s not a decision they should be asked to make.  Neither side would be the loser if it was abandoned – Molesey may have felt aggrieved they would have lost a point but would have probably fancied their chances against us again.

img_1917The rain continued to fall, the puddles started to join together to form a lake. Running with the ball became impossible (as the above picture from the awe-inspiring James Boyes shows), passing the ball became a lottery and trying to make any timely tackles was a recipe for disaster.  Whilst it was amusing to watch, the core elements of the game – skill, passing, movement – become secondary to trying to predict how the ball would move.  We had chances to win it, so did our opponents.

fullsizerenderWith 90 minutes played the referee inexplicably blew for time.  The second half had featured five substitutions, two goals, a caution and a few stoppages for the elements.  To add nothing on seemed quite bizarre but more so was the decision to continue to play it when there was the opportunity for the officials to call it a day.  It may seem a bit like sour grapes, especially as our loss was greater than the Molesey gain but few who watched that game could say the weather didn’t materially affect the match.  We often cry for common sense in the game and in this case I don’t think that principle was applied.

You win some, you lose some and some are simply determined by the elements.

Sofa life is not all it’s cracked up to be

Despite the fact we conceded two goals in 45 injury-time seconds against ten men on Saturday, Non League Day was once again a success. Our previous experience in hosting a game on NLD was four years ago when Hampton & Richmond Borough came to visit in our Conference South days. Seven hundred and eight eight fans saw the game on Saturday, the highest crowd in the Ryman Premier League this season (bar Maidstone United), up 48% on our last Saturday home game against Canvey Island. Across the Ryman Premier League every club who played at home on Saturday saw a rise in attendances from a normal Saturday. Hornchurch up by 50%, Bury Town up by 60% and even Cray Wanderers saw a 25% rise.

9706320038_f38cb1225e_bBut Non League is for life and not just for one day when the Premier League players are on the piss in Marbella. So the big test would be how many fans would come back to games this week when the temptation of England’s latest borefest would be on the TV. Last season, the average attendance at the Pan was 542 and this year the first Tuesday game had seen 532 come through the gates, with the average already over 650. There isn’t much more we can do to get our message across in the media. Last week we saw the cameras from Sky Sports News come to the Pan to get an insight into how we have bounced back, in true Partridge-style, from the brink of Non-League extinction as well as the Guardian once again issuing a rally call to come and watch the Rooks. As one of my more media-savvy fans said to me over a few beers last Christmas, “For a club of your modest size, you get a fucking ridiculous amount of attention from the lovely-doveys, don’t you.” But grass-roots football is all about sustainability to steal the latest post-Olympic buzz word. To clubs like Lewes that means becoming a bigger part in the local community. That is where the fans of tomorrow will come from.

Few football clubs really understand the need to recruit new fans these days. Encouraging young fans to come to games means that they will bring along their parent(s) and spend money over the bar and in the club shop. Make the entry point affordable, or even free as with the case for many clubs in the Non-Leagues, then slowly they will return time and time again. Football is in competition with other leisure activities on a Saturday afternoon yet some football clubs still simply see all fans, irrespective of age, as cash machines. The concept of affordabilty and value has simply never been considered by many clubs. Continue reading

Ut victor spolia sunt tam dulcia nectar

All you Premier League pansies out there don’t know what you are missing. Whilst you are being told to sit in your plastic seat, drinking your club-branded fizzy pop and eating your bland, dubious quality burger, thousands of other football fans are enjoying the game in its most purest sense. The beautiful game exists many leagues below the Emirates or Stamford Bridge, with more people watching grass-roots football than in any other country around the world.

I’m not here to tell you about the joys of having a beer when you are watching the game, eating freshly cooked food locally sourced (Sussex Stilton on your venison burger sir?), whilst taking part in the age-old tradition of changing ends at half time. We all know that is what makes watching non league football so great. Nope, I am here to extol the pleasures of one feature of the game at this level. Something that all you Premier League or nPower followers simply cannot understand the pleasure it brings us, whether our team is winning or losing. Two words. Golden Goal.

8646641948_4d203636b8_bWhether you be 8 or 80, punk or rocker, innie or outie, Beatles or Stone, rich or poor, you have as much chance as winning as your mortal enemy. To me, it is quintessentially Non League, summing up the proximity the fans can get to the players themselves. The volunteers who man the buckets on the other side of the turnstile don’t need a long-winded sales pitch. A simple shake of the bucket and the utterance of those two words are enough to have even the tightest fan handing over a pound or two. Pure love goes into the preparation of the tickets – each is hand cut, hand folded and hand blessed, ready for the game.

Some, like Cynical Dave would never dream of opening their ticket until that first goal goes in, unwrapping the carefully folded piece of paper as if it were the last present under the Christmas tree. Others know their lucky minute from the first kick, caught in a dilemma if the ball is in your penalty area when the big hand ticks over to the right minute. Surely it’s OK to secretly hope for a goal, even if it’s at the wrong end if it means winning £25? Twenty-five pounds. A Pony. That’s a full day out in the non leagues and enough for your bus fare home where as that would get you little more than a seat behind a concrete post for thirty minutes at Loftus Road. Continue reading

Sibling rivalries

…and relax….

Lewes v Hastings 2013A week has elapsed since Lewes lost to a referee and his liberal interpretation of the rules regarding injured players. Since then many words have been written on forums, websites and social media but nothing really matters. It is irrelevant if the referee from last week had admitted the error of his ways, and as penance wandered down Lewes High Street in an Eastbourne Borough shirt made of sack cloth. The result stands and Lewes are still deep in the sticky toffee mire.

Seven days on and I have no idea who the current favourites for relegation from the Ryman Premier League are. It could be two from eight in all honesty. A few weeks ago when some of our relegation rivals had up to eight (8!!!) games in hand, the future certainly didn’t look orange. But since then winter has refused to remove its icy grip on the league and now those teams potentially face a farcical game every three days just to finish the league by a ridiculously early end of April deadline. It’s hardly like this season is unique. The last three seasons have seen poor weather decimate the Ryman league fixture list. Once bitten, twice shy? No, three times bitten, fourth time plead ignorance it seems.

So clubs like Thurrock and Hastings United still have four games in hand on Lewes as I write this, but with fixtures for them still falling foul to the weather, the points in the bank are certainly favourable. Thurrock have suffered due to the pitch at Ship Lane with poor drainage and the pitch being used by two other sides. Hastings are paying the price of the heinous crime of having the best run a Ryman team has had in the FA Cup for decades. Boo, hiss, the cheek of the Arrows in being successful!

Unfortunately the league takes no account for cup success. On one hand they are happy to bask in the glory of Hasting’s cup run, representing the league in front of the national media, whilst on the other they are given no leeway in terms of fixture congestion caused by the cup run.

I still do not understand why the league has to finish so early? The last games have to be played on the 27th April. Nine days later on Bank Holiday Monday, the play off finals will determine which teams are promoted. The league will then restart some four months later. Some leagues, such as the Kent Premier have agreed to a week extension. Even those highly paid prima donnas in the Premier League get less of a break and still don’t moan. Many comparable leagues in Europe continue their season into May, and even in the case of Italy and Denmark, June. I know only too full well the club’s dilemma of the weekly wage bill but perhaps there could be some creative thinking in these parts. Many players are not on contract, rather on pay per week. Couldn’t they adopt a pay per game basis for final part of the season?

photo (6)Anyway, back to today and the local derby against Hastings United (boo, hiss). Our rivalry goes back all the way to 1066 where the locals still believe to this day that King Harold was shot in a friendly fire accident by a Lewesian. Simmering rivalry is a phrase I would use to describe tensions over the past thousand years, with blame being thrown across the River Ouse for such incidents as The Great Fire of London, The Wall Street Crash and Joe Dolce getting to number one back in 1981. Fortunately football came along and we’ve been Facebook friends ever since.

Nobody was more pleased, in a jealous “that could have been us” way, of their amazing run to the FA Cup 3rd round this year. Ladbrokes obviously gave them no hope for the game with odds of 20/1 for the win (and still only 500/1 for the cup at the time!). My only disappointment, and we see it everywhere in football, is that a lot of those “life-long loyal” Hastings fans who went to the Riverside seem to have forgotten where The Pilot Field is when the team really need their support as they fight against relegation. Despite a high of over 4,000 at home for the FA Cup game against Harrogate Town, just four days before only 458 came to the game versus Concord Rangers. On Tuesday night the crowd versus Met Police was down to 219. When the going gets tough, those loyal fans get going. It would be a real shame if the low point of such a momentous season is a drop into the Ryman League South. We of course wish our good neighbours all the best in their remaining 11 games AFTER today.

So it’s been a remarkably quiet week in Lewes. After the unbelievable scenes last Saturday against Kingstonian and *those* decisions that even had the K’s fans belly chuckling, our official line was one of disappointment that the official did not interpret them in accordance with the FIFA rules of the game. Inside of course we were fuming, but the big positive was the excellent second half effort and intent so come 3pm on Saturday when the Rooks lined up against Hastings, the fire would still be in the bellies.

A visit of Hastings this season also means a visit from Hugo Langton. If you ever feel your love of the game waning, talk to Hugo. The man loves the game, and wants to see it coached in the right way, played in the right way and managed in the right way. Hasting’s gain is the rest of football’s loss. But of course for two hours on Saturday afternoon we hoped he had got his tactics all wrong and that Hastings would leave the Pan with an arrow firmly in their behind.

Lewes 1 Hastings United 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 30th March 2013
Of course a professional like Hugo hadn’t got it wrong and two set pieces within a 90 second spell in the first half saw Hastings United take all three points in this relegation battle. Whilst Lewes tried to throw the kitchen sink at the visitors in the second period, there wasn’t enough invention to get past a solid Hastings defence who used the mantra “if in doubt of the plan, boot it out of the Pan”.

With the sunshine threatening to spoil the run of poor weather as we prepared to enter the fourth month of the year, Lewes started brightly and could have had a penalty as early as the 2nd minute when Brinkhurst was bundled over as he entered the box. The referee blew his whistle for a foul but looked to his linesman for guidance of where the offence took place. He looked back, shrugging his shoulders. Benefit of doubt to Hastings and a free-kick was awarded.

photo (5)Whilst the Rooks looked busy, they struggled to break down the Hastings back four, seemingly forgetting the attacking intent they had last week against Kingstonian. However, the opening goal took everyone, including me by surprise. I had forgotten that I had the microphone for the day and so when Hastings took the lead in the 11th minute I patiently waited for the announcement of the opening scorer. Of course, that announcement should have been made by me. Fortunately ClubSec Kev was on hand to tell me that Hastings Player/Manager Sean Ray was the scorer.

As if some of the Lewes players had missed the first goal, Hastings decided to rerun it two minutes later, this time leaving N’Diaye unmarked at the far post to double the lead. The Jungle wasn’t happy but got behind the team, knowing that in Pleatland, 2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline in football. Breach’s downward header that found the one bone-dry spot on the pitch and bounced over the bar was the best chance the Rooks had in the first half.

Half-time. Time for announcements and to sample some of the fantastic cakes, entered by the fans in the Great Lewes Bake Off (including the very unusual but delicious Parsnip and Maple Syrup winning entry) whilst the kids played “hit the chicken” penalty shoot out. The feel good factor around the pitch was still there. If only we had a slice of luck somewhere.

Just three minutes into the second half and the Hastings keeper landed awkwardly, hurting his knee. Of course the official stopped play (are you watching Mr. Spain?) and after some lengthy treatment the keeper decided to carry on, obviously immobile and in considerable pain. Yet not once did Lewes try to take advantage of the situation. The Hastings defenders took a no-nonsense approach to defending which was effective in helping increase our match ball costs.

After ten minutes Cruttwell couldn’t carry on and so he was replaced by substitute Sam Adams (no beer related jokes here please) who seemed to enjoy the banter with the crowd. Still he was hardly tested as Lewes tried to play the ball through the middle to Godfrey rather than using the width and pace of Brinkhurst and Harding.

photo (7)With just under 15 minutes to play Crabb broke into the area and went down under the challenge from Ray. From our angle it could have been given either way but with the referee some way behind play, his view would have been of man playing man rather than the ball. Beckford stepped up and all of a sudden Lewes were back in the game. But Hastings stuck to their game plan which was ruthlessly effective.

Eleven minutes of injury time followed but Lewes simply couldn’t break down the Hastings back four. The final whistle brought some wild celebrations from the Hastings team and some slumped shoulders from the Lewes players. 788 fans, the second biggest of the season at The Pan and the fifth in the division all season deserved more of an Easter treat on a chilly afternoon, and the red and black half went on their way nervously looking at results elsewhere. Monday’s game away to Bognor Regis Town cannot come soon enough.