On the twelfth day of TBIR Christmas – The best things about football in 2014

So here it is – our final award for 2014, despite the fact we are now six days into 2015.  But football is the gift that keeps giving so here is my last offering for this year.  My three favourite moments from my footballing year.

3rd Place – New York Cosmos
Back in August on a regular trip to New York I got the opportunity to tick not one, but two things off my lifetime wish list.  An opportunity to see the famous New York Cosmos was obviously the main agenda item here (complete coincidence that they were playing in the very week I was over), having grown up reading about the mythical team from the 1970/80’s in the NASL with Pele, Beckenbauer and of course Barrow’s finest, Keith Eddy.  Now back in the second tier of US football, the good times could be coming back, especially after announcing the signing of Raul.  But this wasn’t a night to remember.  A dull 0-0 draw played in a school’s athletics stadium but it was still “the Cosmos”.  And the second thing?  Getting to ride on one of those yellow American School buses I’d seen so often in films.  Oh, and I took a pretty good picture.

2nd Place – Lewes v Dulwich Hamlet and Maidstone United
2014 hasn’t been the best year for The Mighty Rooks but for five glorious days back in March we were the best team in the world.  Well, perhaps in the Ryman Premier League anyway, as the top two came to The Dripping Pan and were both dispatched goal less and point less.  Luck?  Nope – I’m putting it down to the fact we (OK, I) scouted them both on a number of occasions.  Being taught how to scout is like being tutored in how to drink a fine wine.  Once learnt, you will never watch a game of football in the same way, unable to make remarks incomprehensible to the people around you such as “look at how the number 9 leads with his left arm” or “the keeper won’t come if it’s 6 yards out”…And I bloody love it.  The warm, satisfaction you get after the team has put in place tactics based on your knowledge and won!  That’s why those two games are so special…we wont talk about Grays or Wealdstone away though.

1st Place – The World Cup 
14268867827_784aff2d77_kFor four years I moan about our elite players, their attitude and generally the beautiful game being corrupted by billions of pounds.  Then, every two years a major tournament comes along and everything is right with the world. I came very close to being in Brazil.  Very close in an all-expenses paid trip to Sao Paolo to write about it, sort of way, but passed up the opportunity and Rookery Mike went instead. We haven’t spoken since.  Due to my travelling schedule I spent nearly the whole of the tournament in various corners of the world.  Germany’s demolition of Portugal in their opening game of the tournament was shared with a couple of hundred German fans in a bar in Singapore at 1am then being featured on local TV.  Watching Australia and then England make their early exits from the World Cup at 5am in the morning in a Melbourne casino, with an endless supply of Coopers Ale or watching the Brazilian demolition in a bar in Eindhoven with a German Hen party.  The actual games weren’t bad too.

Our highlights of 2014 can be viewed here, all in one handy little spot.

So see you all next year – one year older, one year wiser, one year damages by poor performances by our respective sides on the pitch.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Part 4 – Value Proposition

In the fourth of articles, I try to explain why Dulwich Hamlet rather than most other teams were the real winners on Non-League Day back in September.

On the 6th September, Non-League Day broke all records, with over 50,000 fans attending games in the top three levels of the grassroots game.  One of the biggest crowds was at Champion Hill, home of Dulwich Hamlet, where 2,856 people saw their Ryman Premier League game.  More people attended the game against Hampton & Richmond Borough than at Football League matches at Accrington Stanley, Dagenham & Redbridge, Exeter City and Morecambe.  Pretty impressive, but why did they get so many people to that game?

dulwich-hamlet-non-league-day-1The answer can be found in a theory first proposed by US Economists Ayelet Gneezy and his brother, Uri.  Their research took them around the US, visiting Theme Parks (that is a real job apparently) and testing people’s propensity to part with cash.  Their concept was to sell photos of visitors on roller coasters under the principal of “Pay What You Want”.  Whilst their results showed that more people bought the pictures than when they were at a fixed price, the average price was so low that they actually made a loss.  BUT when it was announced that the Pay What You Want was coupled with a charitable cause, the price paid on average increased by nearly seven fold.  They summed up this behaviour as individuals feeling bad when they paid less than the perceived value for something if they knew the money was going to good causes.

So what has that got to do with Dulwich Hamlet?  Whilst many clubs announced free or pay what you want for Non-League Day, fans didn’t necessarily see the value in the game they were paying to watch.  Some, for instance had already paid to attend as season ticket holders, others were simply skin-flints.  However, couple it with a charitable element, such as Dulwich Hamlet did and people are willing to pay more for the same event, because if they simply paid what they felt the true value to be, they would inherently feel bad – us humans do have consciences after all.

Our own experiences of Pay What You Want back this theory up.  Back in March 2013, 405 attended our midweek game against Carshalton Athletic.  The first encounter had been abandoned due to floodlight failure, yet the re-arranged game saw a bigger than average midweek attendance.  In fact, the attendance was identical to that a few days later on a Saturday when Kingstonian visited.  The average payment was approximately £2.40 per head, about 60% less than we would normally take on a match day.  Compare that to a Pre-Season game, on a Friday, in peak holiday season in July against a team just promoted from the County League with little or no marketing.  An attendance of 250 for the game against East Grinstead Town was more than we expected, but what was very interesting was that they paid £2.50 on average.  Why? Because all of the takings were for charity.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is The Theory of Pay What You Want in a nutshell.

Team work makes the dream work

Lewes v Dulwich MaidstoneRemember my article from Tuesday night about The Nowhere Men and the dark secret world of the football scouts?  Well, here comes the litmus test.  Just how good was my intel when it mattered when Dulwich Hamlet arrived at the Pan for today’s game. Firstly we should all raise our glasses to the immense work carried out by the Pitch Team (groundsmen sounds so web 2.0) who once again performed miracles in getting the game on.  In fact, on Thursday it was almost as good as a goner, but then they found a machine in a locked cupboard at the ground which was basically a big sponge on wheels and used that to mop up the water.

We needed to get today’s game on.  Not only would the Dulwich fans be travelling in big numbers to see their table-topping side, but with only one game having been played at The Pan since Christmas, we could have really done with some gate receipts.  Some Premier League fans may not realise that it’s not all Official Partnerships with fizzy drinks companies, or selling media rights to Uzbekistan in the Non-Leagues.  We actually need paying fans through the gate on a regular basis so that we can do little things like pay players, utilities and maintain the ground.  With no chance of any help from our dear leaders at the league, Lewes, like virtually every other club at our level (and below) have had to pray daily for an end to the rain.

Beer-Festival-poster-e1391783221190There was also the small matter of the leftovers from the Lewes Beer Festival that needed finishing off.  Not that football fans need an excuse to have a beer, especially as at The Dripping Pan you can have said beer whilst watching the game.  Twenty guest ales, some of course exclusively provided by club sponsor and world-famous brewery, Harveys had been lined up for Friday night, and whilst the locals did serious damage to the volumes of beer, there would be some left over for today.  Left over beer?  No such thing.  Just beer that hasn’t yet been enjoyed.

So a perfect combination of football and beer was on the cards.  And to celebrate the sun even decided to make an appearance.  Terry had kindly pulled my lucky number out of the monthly Panning For Gold draw so I arrived at the ground £60 better off.  Could the day get any better?  Well if the Lewes side that traveled to Cray last Sunday made an appearance rather than the one that took the field at Grays on Thursday then this could be the best day ever. Continue reading

The Nowhere Men

“You can never have enough heads”, so Worzel Gummidge once said and nothing could be closer to the truth than the roles I currently have at Lewes.  Director, co-website editor, co-programme editor and post-match interviewer. But I wouldn’t change them for the world.  We all have numerous roles at the board level, all unpaid and all done because we love the club. But this season I have taken on a new role.

imagesIn his recent book, the Nowhere Men, author Michael Calvin explores the role that scouts play in modern football.  These incredibly poorly paid, dedicated people see hundreds of games a season, often being paid no more than expenses, to try to find the next “Wayne Rooney”.  The book, one of the finest I have read in the past year, details Calvin’s interactions with the unseen, unheard of, secret layer of football. The Scouting network.  Whether it is trying to spot the next Rooney (Wayne rather than his cousin John) before anyone else, or trying to spot a weaknesses in the way a centre-back reads the game, a scout’s success or failure can often be a margin call, a gamble or even a gut feeling.

Tonight I have joined the Nowhere Men at Carshalton Athletic versus Dulwich Hamlet.  Whilst most football fans will be sitting comfortably at home, beer in hand, watching Olympiakos versus Manchester United, I am at The War Memorial Ground , struggling to see what I am writing in the darkness of the main stand, as I compile a scouting report on our forthcoming opponents.  With the information fresh in my head I will burn the midnight candle to get my observations onto a formal report before sending off to our management team.

It has come to something when I now get a formal nod of respect from others who tread this lonely path.  I made by scouting debut some years ago, but it wasn’t until this season that it become a regular gig.  I now look after “Scouting operations” in Kent, London and Essex.  Sounds flash, eh?  Well it is a self-awarded title but one I am proud of.  Essentially whenever I have a spare evening (or a Saturday as has been the case all too often this winter) and one of our opponents are within an hour’s drive I will be there, huddled in my big coat trying to work out if the right back really is right-footed at all and whether the centre-midfielder is really a holding player or simply unfit.  With every game you watch, you learn more about the game, more about how players minds work and more about the vulnerabilities and weaknesses each team has. And how desperate we all are at this level to pretend we are really making a difference. Continue reading

Pin-up poster boys

20140118-100833.jpgEnglish football is admired across the world.  The Premier League is a global brand, drawing millions of viewers to televised games in all four corners of the globe.  Even the Championship and Football League has fans overseas – on a recent trip to New York, a bar close to my hotel proudly advertised they were opening early to show “the big game” between Wolves Wanderers (sic) and Swindon Town.  Whilst the professional clubs are busy sticking their logo on everything that doesn’t move, PR men talk about their global audiences, eyeballs, Klout scores and official partnership agreements, Non-League football is looking at days gone-by to resurrect the magic of a match day.  Non-League clubs are wise-enough to realise they cannot compete with their biggest, richer neighbours so they have to be clever.  And in a few cases they are proving to be top of the class. Welcome to the world of the Match Day Poster.

20140118-100905.jpgI remember when I was a young Hammer and I used to save my pocket money to buy a pack of Match Posters once or twice a season.  For just £1 I got a random selection of five or six posters from previous games that would take pride of place on my bedroom wall, in between the Toyah picture and one of Bananarama (come on, admit it even now you wouldn’t turn them down).  The posters were simple – a light blue paper with the match details in bold claret ink.  Somehow they made me feel part of the club.

As the times have moved on, clubs have slowly replaced tradition with commercially-fuelled rubbish.  If something can be sponsored, it will.  Why bother with a poster displaying forthcoming matches when you can use the space on your website to advertise your new Energy Drink partnership?  As clubs have become less engaged with their fans, the creative brains are moving into the Non-League game to sate their creativity.

GuisboroughWith a lack of volunteers, Non-League football is crying out for such creative ideas and the rise of the Match Poster is a phenoneom that cannot be stopped.  At Lewes we have built a following of fans, not just for the club, but for the creative efforts of our design team who think up the off-the-wall ideas.  Whilst our average attendances may rarely break the six hundred mark, the launch of the next match poster via Social Media will often get double that in terms of views.  Whilst they may not result in additional people through the gate, it increases the interest in the club.  And with this internet thing being a global network, new fans are popping up in all sorts of places.  As a community club, Lewes have owners in over a dozen countries at the moment.

1376440_10151608160941556_1548268990_nWe thought we were slashing a lonely path through the jungle of creativity, but we were wrong.  In the past few months we have stood up and applauded the efforts of Altrincham, Fisher FC, Newport Pagnell and Jarrow Roofing BCA in creating magic, all the while cocking a thumb at our bigger neighbours who had ignored our existence for so long.

But slowly they are sneaking back into the professional game.  Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and when Burnley FC copied our poster design (exactly) for their game against QPR we were initially miffed, but then saw that actually it was the ultimate honour that a club of their size and with so much resource would choose to adopt the work of a club 250 miles south and who get crowds of 20,000 less.

tumblr_mwzegdK0TW1sn4d9xo1_500But The Clarets are still in their minority.  Whilst clubs like Altrincham, Dulwich Hamlet and Lewes continue to use the posters locally to promote their forthcoming games in shop windows, schools and billboards, professional clubs stick to their websites missing a major trick in a simple fan engagement way. With the cost of watching professional football rising each season there is a danger that a whole generation of potential fans could be priced out of the game.  Non-League clubs who are creative enough will be the winners in the end.

So hats off to the pioneers of the Non-League game – keep the good times rolling.

To see the full collection of Lewes match posters click here.

An edited version of this article was published in April 2014 When Saturday Comes magazine.

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

BVmHhwgCQAAP6U0Today, Lewes faced possibly their biggest test of the season. Yep, we said that before we travelled to Maidstone United in the pouring rain, and again when we faced the wrath of Wealdstone just 50 or so hours after a bruising encounter at Wingate a few weeks ago but on both occasions we came away with draws. But today we travelled to Dog Kennel Hill, in the Metropolis, to face Dulwich Hamlet.  The Ryman Pemier new boys have certainly adjusted to life quickly in the rarified heights of Step 3 of the Non-League Pyramid, scoring goals for fun and coming into this game in second place in the table.  Competition at the top is intense with no fewer than seven teams having held top spot so far this season and despite the Rooks unbeaten record since day one, they still sat outside the play-offs in 6th place, but just six points (with a game in hand) behind AFC Hornchurch in top stop.

This was a game that had a big red ring around it on the calendar.  Not only do I have a few Dulwich supporting friends who had been nervously trying to taunt me about the impending end of our record-breaking start,  but it was one of our rare away days that I could cycle to.  Could cycle ,I said, not was going to cycle.  Technically, I could cycle to any game but I was never going to get on by bike for the 60 mile trip down to Lewes, was I?  But Dulwich Hamlet, as the crow flies is just 8 miles from TBIR towers.  Being so close obviously meant an opportunity for a beer or two with the Lewes Lunatic Fringe as well as such noble gentlemen as The Real FA Cup team, who just happened to be not only Hamlet fans, but sponsors of their captain Ellis Green.

10107155104_e31589c767_bBack in the day, when I was a few pounds lighter, I often played on the old Dog Kennel Hill ground, which in its day was a fine old-fashioned stadium holding over 20,000.  In fact, it could claim the honour of being one of a small elite of grounds that has hosted Olympic football in this country (alongside Old Trafford, Wembley, Ilford and of course Walthamstow), back in 1948 when over 23,000 saw South Korea beat Mexico.  One of my greatest moments came when I scored here from the half-way line for Fleetdown United versus Dulwich Vista, spotting the keeper off his line and BOOSH…1-0!  Alas, my performance in that game would be best remembered by the dozen or so spectators for taking the ball around the keeper before deciding to smash the ball as hard as I could at the empty net from 8 yards, only to see the ball hit both posts and rebound back to the keeper in a move since copied by Liverpool’s Ronnie Rosenthal against Aston Villa a while back.

Today, the turf I graced is under the cold meat counter in Sainsburys.  Back in the 1990’s, the club having fallen on hard times sold the land to the supermarket giant and built a modest ground next door.  The access road, Edgar Kail Way, was named after the club’s most famous player, who was capped by England whilst still an amateur player during the club’s golden period that saw them win the Amateur Cup three times at Upton Park.  But the spirit of the club has never been stronger.  Their support, both home and away gives them a real advantage but had they yet met their match in the form of the LLF – The Lewes Lunatic Fringe.

10103607074_32c6365788_bMany have tried to infiltrate the LLF, trying to understand the psychology of the group, but have failed.  To know them you have to be one of them, something I have learnt through years of running alongside them.  Today, I am welcomed into their bosom but it was not always the case. I stood on and watched the carnage in a pub in Dorchester when Terry found out his ploughman’s lunch didn’t have a pork pie in, or the lunacy of failing to buy a bottle opener before the long trip home from Lowestoft Town.  The Dulwich game would be a real test.  The plan was a 12pm rendezvous in Millwall territory, platform 9 at London Bridge where we would aim to give the authorities the slip. Quick train ride down to East Dulwich before we entered the Actress, did unspeakable deeds to The Bishop before larging it with not one, but two different flavours of crisps in the East Dulwich Tavern – right under the noses of the Hamlet fans, armed with footballing trivia, real ale guide vouchers and potentially Cynical Dave’s concealed humus.  People still question why we do it.  Well, it’s the buzz ‘init.

Dulwich Hamlet 4 Lewes 2 – Champion Hill – Saturday 5th October 2013
The run had to end at some point and there was no shame in it being against Dulwich in a very pleasing on the eye encounter.  The toll of injuries, suspensions and a rampant Hamlet side was the undoing at last of the Rooks who probably put in one of their best performances of the season so far but came up short in terms of attacking intent.  The absence of the centre-forwards Nathan Crabb and Ade Olorunda, plus the enforced withdrawal just after half time of Jack Walder put the Rooks on a backfoot that against other teams they would have been able to cope with but today the home side were simply too strong.

10107133103_ea79d99c52_bAfter a very enjoyable pre-match warm up around the pubs of East Dulwich we had hardly taken our places behind the goal when a superb cross from the right was turned into his own net by Steve Brinkhurst to give the home side the lead. “That’s his pocket money gone for this week!” said his Dad next to us.  But then Lewes kicked into gear and it is fair to say that they dominated the rest of the half. just lacking the finish to the possession which Crabb or Olorunda would have given us.  But on 35 minutes we got our equaliser when Jay Lovett pounced on a loose ball in the area after Dulwich had failed to clear a Ross Treleaven “Delap-style” throw in.

The second half was barely a minute old when Dulwich had the ball in the net, but it was ruled out for offside. Oh how we laughed at their premature celebrations for all of 30 seconds before Jerome Walker scored for real.  Two became three just before the hour mark when Kevin James scored which seemed to wake up the Rooks and Jack Dixon’s screamer from 25 yards 90 seconds later brought Lewes right back into the game.

For fifteen minutes it seemed that Lewes may get something out of the game.  If Dan Smith would have been wearing stilts then he would have had a simple tap in at the far post from Matt Crabb’s cross but alas such items are still banned by FIFA and it turned out the next goal won the game, scored by dangerman Marc-Anthony Okoye, the player I had highlighted as a major concern for Lewes when I scouted Dulwich a few weeks ago.

10107035605_232fccbeac_bAt the final whistle there were no complaints from the fans or the management team alike.  It had been a great game of football and we came up short, simple as that. Dulwich had simply been too strong over the 90 minutes and the win kept them in seventh place.  News came through that Wealdstone, the league’s only other unbeaten side, had lost to Margate so we will claim we had the longest unbeaten run in the league, albeit by a few seconds.

It would have been rude not to finish off an excellent away day with a beer and around these parts you don’t have to wander too far to find a pub.  The LLF were in a philosophical mood, contemplating the biggest game of the season next weekend when Sutton United, third in the Conference South, would be visiting in the FA Cup.  As Hamlet himself once said, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

Happiness is a game at Hamlet

When London hosted the summer Olympics in 1948, the football tournament was spread around the capital with a few detours down to the south coast. At the time the amateur game had never been so popular, coming after the war when football-starved Londoners had been denied their regulars fix of the beautiful games, so the decision to use some of the classic old-school grounds was very popular with the public. Games were played at Lynn Road, Ilford, Green Pond Road in Walthamstow and Champion Hill in Dulwich.

dulwich 4The first two grounds no longer exist, their history buried beneath supermarkets and executive-style apartments. But football is still played every week at Champion Hill although the ground has gone through a number of changes over the past 65 years. Home of Dulwich Hamlet, and their tenants, Fisher Athletic, crowds are a modest few hundred rather than the thousands that flocked here in the old amateur days in the innocent age of football including that gloriously typical English summer’s day in August 1948 in driving rain when South Korea beat Mexico.

Dulwich Hamlet are one of the oldest clubs still knocking around the London Non Leagues. The club was formed in 1893, by Lorraine ‘Pa’ Wilson when Dulwich was an affluent village-like suburb of London, hence their rural name. Their greatest ever player was Edgar Kail, who scored over 400 goals for the club as an amateur who went on to win three caps for England in 1929, and turned down moves to professional clubs to stay playing for Dulwich, loving life at this level. Despite winning the Isthmian League just after the war, it’s been a story of near-misses characterised by the last few years which has seen play off defeats to Leatherhead and Bognor Regis Town in the past two seasons for a spot in the Ryman Premier League. Continue reading