Artificial Intelligence or Pitch Perfect?


The calls for more clubs to install 3G pitches reaches fever pitch every time there is a spell of bad weather in this country but having an artificial surface is not necessarily the answer.

During the first few days of March, the ‘Beast from the East’ delivered snow and freezing temperatures to many parts of the United Kingdom that we had not seen for many years.  Public transport ground to a halt, many major roads became unpassable and unsurprisingly, sporting fixtures suffered.  At the time of writing three Championship games have already been cancelled, including Sky Sports Live game at Wolverhampton Wanderers as overnight temperatures have dropped as low as -11 in some parts.

The Non-League programme has been decimated with just four games surviving from steps 1 to 4 from a total of 140 games due to be played this Saturday.  Two of those four (Dover Athletic and Folkestone Invicta) have benefited from their coastal location whilst the other two (Grays Athletic and Worthing) both play their home games on a 3G surface.  So you could put an argument forward that 3G’s have proved their worth in this instance, with both Grays Athletic and Worthing likely to get bumper crowds due to the lack of other games in the area (many Lewes fans are heading to Worthing for instance rather than sitting at home, whilst I myself am heading to Aveley FC, where Grays Athletic play).  But that isn’t strictly true.

Many other clubs have 3G pitches and have seen their games cancelled.  Cray Wanderers, Horsham, Walton Casuals, Merthyr Town, Redditch Town and Romulus among others who use an artificial pitch have seen their games today cancelled whilst in Scotland, every professional side who uses a 3G pitch including Clyde, Alloa Athletic, Montrose and Airdrieonians has seen their games postponed too. Unfortunately, just because you replace grass with a synthetic material, you do not avoid all of the side-effects of the bad weather.

An artificial pitch is not simply a big roll of fake grass that is laid like a carpet.  There’s significant amounts of preparation work that has to happen to the ground itself before you get to that stage.  The shock-pad is like an underlay for a carpet.  That is the bit that does the hard work and like any underlay, the quality and therefore the longevity of the pitch itself is based on cost – the better shock pad used, the more expensive it is but the more wear the pitch will handle.  Once the “grass” is laid then the filler is used – in most instances rubber crumb – which keeps the blades of grass upright and also adds as an additional layer of absorption.

The issue at the moment is when snow falls and settles on a 3G you can’t simply sweep it off as you will remove the rubber crumb in the process.  No rubber crumb means you damage the top layer of the pitch when you play on it.  If the snow compacts and freezes and isn’t allowed to thaw or be removed, then playing on it will increase the pressure on the shock pad and could damage that.  Replacing that would involve completely removing the pitch first – a very expensive job.

Whilst some 3G playing surfaces may have been fit for football, the surrounding areas such as terraces, stands, walkways and car parks may not.  In the case of Cray Wanderers’s game today, at Bromley FC, this was the issue that saw their game postponed.  There’s very little a club can do to protect these areas from the freezing temperatures – again something that few people factor into their argument as to why clubs should have a 3G pitch.  I saw this first hand in December when I visited Airdrieonians for their game with Raith Rovers.  The temperatures fell well below zero and whilst the game went ahead on their frosty 3G, the car park was akin to a curling rink and was incredibly dangerous for spectators leaving the ground.

The costs in installing a 3G are prohibitive to many clubs.  Whilst there are huge benefits aside from being able to use it in bad weather, such as the opportunity to create a community facility and one that produces a regular revenue stream (and allows clubs to save costs on renting external training facilities), they have to find the initial cash to build one.  Like many things, costs can be reduced, but a decent 3G pitch will set a club back in excess of £500,000 – hardly small change.  There are some grants available from the Football Foundation and Sport England, but not every club is able to qualify for those.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the Football League rules.  Any clubs that have ambitions of moving up to the professional game in England is thwarted if they have a 3G by the rule, set by the Football League clubs themselves, that does not allow for 3G pitches to be used.  No such rule exists for the FA Cup, the Champions League, UEFA and FIFA competitions – in fact every professional league in Europe allows them (including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) but England doesn’t.  So for clubs like Sutton United, Bromley and Maidstone United, challenging currently for the National League Play-offs, they face a dilemma of either dropping out of contention or ripping their 3G pitch up (which in part is the revenue generator that has allowed them to rise up the leagues).  Should they do neither and qualify for the Play-offs they face demotion down to the National League South.  How is that fair in a sporting sense?

Artificial surfaces have their benefits but let’s all just remember that they aren’t always the answer to the curve-balls that Mother Nature throws at us.

 

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Everybody needs good neighbours


19183144984_09dad2cd1c_kHaving a professional club just five miles down the road often appears to be a bad thing for a Non-League club.  You have to make the best of the situation and respect the pecking order in terms of league position.  Sometimes, when home league fixtures clash, we have to compromise on either suffering lower gates or moving our game much to the annoyance of our fans.  But the cold, hard economic truth is that if we don’t, we lose out.  Our bigger, stronger neighbours don’t even register a raised heartbeat if we move to an earlier or later game to accommodate the few dozen fans who otherwise may not come to us. But that few dozen matter.  Financially, that’s another £500 in the bank.  Whilst that is less than a couple of hours pay for some Championship players these days, that is a quarter of our budget for the whole of our squad.

We are fortunate to have Brighton & Hove Albion almost on our doorstep.  Relations between them and us (in that order as it’s not a symbiotic relationship) are good, and for the second year in a row, they agreed to send a first team squad down the A27 in a luxury coach for our first home game of the season.  Interest for the game locally is obviously very high.  So high that we have to make the game all ticket and cap the attendance at 2,300.  Whilst the Pan probably could hold more, fans want to be able to buy food, get to the bar and have a decent view.  At that number all of that is possible.

19185004683_23c0e26130_kObviously we have to make a number of logistical changes for the game.  As tickets are only sold online and have to be printed out, we need an army of volunteers armed with scanners, rather than turnstile operators taking cash.  We need additional toilets, food kiosks and car parking for the TV crews (yep, plural this year) who will be attending.  Because we are playing a Championship side then the draconian FA rules on when and where alcohol can be served have to be adhered to.  Yep, we know it was just a friendly, and yes we know that they will probably never know if someone sneaks a pint out of the clubhouse, but rules are rules. *takes health and safety hat back off*

Off the pitch the club is in rude health at the moment.  The 3G is the talk of the town and has had a very positive impact on the first team’s training, with smiling facing, fitter, stronger players and a queue of players who are interested in signing for us.  Alas for the reduced budget.

The result is more irrelevant for us than for the Seagulls.  They will be expected to win.  The fans are growing more and more impatient with Chris Hughton after his negative tactics at the end of last season (which did keep them in the division mind).  Last season it ended 5-0 to Brighton and no Lewes fans would go home feeling ashamed by that.  But manager Steve Brown was having none of that, telling anyone who would listen that we would give them a fight.

19183085844_5c7a44553b_kSo with the sun shining, the drummers drumming, the pitch looks superb and the fans are in full voice as the two captains led the teams out. Neither season will be made or broken today, but to 2,300 fans of East Sussex football it promised to kick off a long, hard season.  Before the football could start the whole ground observed a minute’s silence in memory of Don Lock, a life-long Brighton fan who had been killed a few days earlier.

Lewes 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 18th July 2015
Some may think that the awarding of the Man of the Match to the young Lewes keeper Dan Hutchings told a different story to the one the score line did.  However, they would be wrong.  Whilst Hutchings was called upon to make a couple of good saves, he was one of five or six Lewes players who could have won the award, chosen by the Match Sponsors.  He would have been my choice, both for the excellent second half double save that denied Colunga a nailed-on goal (and would have won me the Golden Goal!) but also for the way he has slotted into the side in the last week.  It probably helped having a vastly experienced back four in front of him, made up of two A Trialists (OK – Steve Sutherland from Met Police and Jordan Wilson from Grays Athletic if you really want to know), Rooks legend Chris Breach and new signing March-Brown.

For the first few minutes Lewes probably gave the visitors too much respect, allowing them to retain possession of the ball.  But when they realised that Brighton’s best chance of a goal came from 17 year old James Tilley, confidence grew and they started playing the ball around.  It was always going to be a tough ask to win this one but Lewes had a very good shout for a penalty in the first period when Nathan Crabb was wrestled to the floor by the Seagulls keeper and Calderon as a corner was on its way over.

19183340834_64e028387b_kThe second half saw 20 changes made in total, which for me on the PA was a nightmare.  At one point I announced Brighton’s third choice keeper Sanchez had donned the number 26 shirt and was playing on the right wing, whilst Josh Courtney came on for the Rooks, looking very similar to Steve Brinkhurst (because it was Steve Brinkhurst).  Whilst Brighton fans will point to the very young eleven that finished the game, so can Lewes with Hutchings, Welch, Marshall, Conlon, Laing and Brown all still young enough to turn out for our Under21’s/Development squad.

19810651691_5e4511b218_zWhilst Brighton should have wrapped it up at the death when Ward pulled his shot wide, a draw was a fair result for both teams, although obviously one set of fans went off down Mountfield Road much happier than the other set.  Putting my Chairman’s hat back on, we couldn’t have been happier.  Excellent crowd, good bar and food takings, award-winning programmes all sold out, great TV coverage and I even got to nutmeg Gully, the Brighton mascot.  Not quite up there with the wedding day but close.  Roll on 8th August and the start of the new season.

 

A love of Tembling Madness


downloadI’m showing my age by sharing a joke from my adolescent years that is tenuously connected to this year’s annual Northern Capricorn adventure.

“What’s the difference between Joan Collins and a KitKat?”

Answers on a postcard to the usual address and if you don’t know who Joan is, have a look in your Dad’s shed in his collection of video tapes in those fake book covers for The Bitch or The Stud. If you need to Google what a video is then give up now. As a hint, KitKat has either two or four fingers of chocolate-covered wafer.

After the excitement of Hucknall Town, Sheffield, Farsley and Jarrow Roofing Borough in recent years, Northern Steve and I had gone all upmarket for our trip this year, dipping our toe into the Football League with a visit to York City. It’s been over 20 years since I’d last visited Bootham Crescent, in which time the Minstermen had been taken over by a mad American chap who seemed to think he’d bought an American football team and tried to rename them York City Soccer Club, almost gone to the wall, been relegated from the Football League, almost gone bankrupt again, renamed their ground after a chocolate bar, played at Wembley and lost, played at Wembley and won the FA Trophy, bounced back in the words of Alan Partridge and finally regained their place in the Football League.

Memories of York City? Has to be Keith Houchen’s goal in the mid-Eighties to beat Arsenal in the FA Cup. Back then Arsenal were a poor side, frightened by the looming presence of the opposition’s goal and constantly moaning that their artistic flare was being stifled by brutish tactics from the opposition. So nothing’s really changed.

16302323235_8ed47d705a_kThese days York is a trendy weekend break city for tourists (shameless plug for our new non-football website). Quaint lanes lined with Ye Olde Worlde-type shops rub shoulders with some superb pubs, whilst the traditional industries of the city, railways and chocolate, are honoured with respectful museums. The city is watched over by the Minster, making sure all those boys and girls on their nights out behave themselves.

Our annual January trips follow a similar pattern. We deposit the Current Mrs Fuller and Sister of CMF at a ‘classy’ bar in the city centre (by SoCMF standards, classy means they wash the unused cherries they put in drinks before re-using them), pop along to the nearest Step 7 or below football match, return to hotel where the girls will have tried, but miserably failed to do the whole minibar (it’s always the rum that does them in). A slap up meal somewhere before we end up in a nightclub that plays Now That’s What I Call a Music 13 on a loop whilst Cyndi Lauper impersonators mime out of time on a vomit streaked dance floor. Harsh? That’s what an afternoon in South Shields can do to a rational man.

16301470792_14048c50ce_hBut York was going to be different. We, well CMF and SoCMF had family in York. Aunt, an Uncle and cousins who love nothing better than trying to take the piss out if our southern ways, accents and mannerisms whilst looking jealously at how we could use a knife and fork. Of course they’d be joining us in our Saturday night out – who in their right mind could refuse that opportunity although they were less than eager to join Steve and I at Bootham Crescent. Dave (Uncle) even went as far as saying he was going to see Grimsby Town v Barnet. As if anyone would believe that?

This was also likely to be my last trip to Bootham Crescent as the wheels now appeared to be back on the new stadium bandwagon after 10 years of delays. The new stadium at Monks Cross would be a similar design to Princes Park in Dartford but with a 12 foot Viking instead of the Wooden Man I assume. Planning permission for an 8,000 capacity ground was submitted late in 2014. Whether the notorious Jorvik Reds would be welcome is another question after a spat with the club a few years ago.

16300532721_765221ee86_kYork has a fair few decent pubs including a Ossett Brewery outpost and possibly the best named pub in England, The House of Trembling Madness and England’s most haunted pub, the Golden Fleece where ghostly apparitions still happen on a nightly basis, especially after ten pints of old Wallop. With a few hearty lunchtime Yorkshire ales inside us, we headed along to Bootham Crescent, ready to watch some Viking fire. And drink beef-flavored hot drinks.

York City 0 Stevenage 2 – Bootham Crescent – Saturday 17th January 2015
16302340645_9aeb09bc97_kUnless they were completely blinded by the low winter sun, there could be few York fans who wont begrudge the visitors all three points.  As a few Stevenage fans started a conga at the far end, the York fans put their heads down and walked out into the night, shaking their heads about another performance where they simply weren’t at the races.  Two superb shots, one that found the cross-bar and was then followed in, and another that flew into the top corner saw Stevenage’s fine recent run continue as the home team fell a few steps further down the ladder towards the Conference Premier.  York’s manager, Russ Wilcox summed up the mood in his post match interview:-

“Not good enough, that’s the bottom line really. I feel for the supporters. The last two home performances have been outstanding, but today we just didn’t perform.  The lack of quality today was eye-catching – we just looked lost and it was a really bad day”

Despite being fairly well matched in terms of possession and early chances, Stevenage just seemed to want to win more than the home side.  I’d taken the opportunity to grab a Bovril when the crowds “oooh’d” in the 39th minute as Charlie Lee’s superb volley hit the bar.  Adam Marriott looked to be in an offside position when he headed the rebound home, but there was no doubt in the officials mind.

16116492777_75638e0d6a_oThe York fans tried to raise a pulse from the team with the beat of their drums early in the second half.  Three quick corners produced some scary moments in the Stevenage box but then Stevenage re-asserted themselves in the game and wrapped up the points when Tom Pett, playing for Wealdstone in the Ryman Premier League this time last season, struck a peach of a shot into the top corner in the 64th minute to wrap up the three points with the only attacking chance from York coming in the 85th minute when Morris’s shot was somehow kept out by the keeper and a post.

Whilst none of the York fans will want to return to the bizarre days of Soccer City or the dark days of Conference football, they probably do want to be playing League Two football as and when they move to their new stadium. For now there was the bitterness of defeat but as the fans filed into the fantastic pubs in the city centre, the beer would soon soothe all of those pains.  It is only a game after all.

Go East, my son


What to do, where to go. That is the first point on the agenda at the weekly TBIR board meeting on a Monday morning.

“Do you fancy Bury St. Edmunds v Lewes on Saturday then?” was my opening suggestion to the team.

“Hmm…I’m not sure” they answered. I could see the cogs in their mind working, thinking about the Greene King IPA that runs on tap like water..”We could do Calais…5pm kick off, £25 on the ferry AND 6 free bottles of Lambrini – that will be our wives Christmas presents sorted”. I wasn’t so sure. A trip across the water would mean I would have to drive, and I didn’t have the motivation for that, watching Mr Last et al quaff various French beers whilst I had a bar of Côte D’or for company in the car.

Then I had an idea – let’s go retro. Let’s start visiting some of the Football League clubs again. After all, when was the last time we were told were to sit, when to stand, what to say and so on? Well, apart from at West Ham a few weeks ago…oh and Wembley before that and then there’s Danny’s season ticket in the North Stand at The Amex..but you get my point. So we looked in the crystal ball and one name popped up – Leyton Orient.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the O’s since childhood. They were one of the few teams that thought about kit rather than shirt design. The classic Admiral number, up there with Coventry City’s famous brown kit had those red tram lines down the front that looked so smart. And during the 80’s they had a team and a half. Ralph “combover” Coates, ex-West Ham players Mervyn Day, Tommy Taylor, Billy Jennings, Patsy Holland (what modern player would get away with a name like that!) and Tunji Banjo. They even had room for Carl Hoddle, Glenn’s crap brother. But it was their dashing wingers that had people streaming through the gates of Brisbane Road. On the flank was Nigerian John Chiedozie, who had taken over the number 11 jersey from Laurie Cunnigham who went on to be a huge success at Real Madrid (being their first ever English signing). Exciting times indeed. Continue reading

Gone and forgotten – Aberdare Athletic FC


High up in the Rhondda valley in South Wales is the small town of Aberdare. It was here in the 1920’s that Aberdare Athletic added to the strength of professional football in South Wales, along with their local rivals Merthyr Town. Their Football League life wasn’t spectacular, nor did it leave any lasting legacy, but it demonstrates the thoughts of the administrators of the game at the time to try and build following for the game in the region.

After enjoying success in the Welsh Cup a few years after they were formed in 1893, they joined the newly created Southern League, Welsh Division in 1920. With so many clubs in the region vying for a spot in the Football League, the new division was viewed as a feeder league to the national set up. In their first season they finished runners-up to Barry in the league of eleven teams and applied for election to the Football League at the end of the season. A total of eight teams applied for election and Aberdare, along with Charlton Athletic were accepted for the start of the 1921/22 season.

Aberdare was a boom town post World War One. The local landscape was dotted with mines, both in terms of coal and iron ore and employment was high. The football club played at the Aberdare Athletic Ground (also known as the Ynys Stadium) which had a capacity in its prime of around 23,000. However, with Rugby Union (and League) very strong in the area, the football club always had a challenge to attract the crowds, apart from the local derbies against Merthyr Town and Swansea Town. In their first season they finished in 8th place, which was the highest league position they ever reached. The following season they finished second from bottom and faced re-election, but survived although it was only a stay of execution. Continue reading

Gone and forgotten – Part 4 – Nelson FC


Ninety years ago, Northern Lancashire had a wealth of teams playing in the Football Leagues.  The powerhouses of Preston North End, Burnley, Blackburn Rovers and , er Accrington Stanley fought out keen local derbies.  All four of these sides are today still doing battle at various levels of the footballing pyramid.  Some pretenders have come but all have since disappeared.  The names of Darwen and Blackburn Olympic are etched in footballing history (as covered by David Hartrick in his excellent book 50 Teams that mattered) but one name that came, saw and then went again is Nelson FC.

Nelson is a small town on the edge of Burnley.  It is notable for having some of the lowest house prices in the United Kingdom, where you can still buy a two bedroom terrace for less than £30,000.  But for ten years the town could also boast a Football League side that went on to beat one of the biggest teams in the world.

After forty years in the Lancashire Leagues they applied to join the Football League when they announced the expansion of the divisions to accommodate the new regional third tier.  They had the requisite facilities, with their Seedhill ground holding 15,000 but it was still surprisingly for many the application was successful, especially as the previous season they had only managed a 17th place finish in the Central League, and they kicked off their life as a league side on 27 August 1921 in front of 9,000 against Wigan Borough, taking the lead in the 2nd minute of the game when Billy Halligan scored, before falling to a 2-1 defeat.  However just a few weeks later they gained revenge on Borough with their first ever league win, coming away from Springfield Park with a 4-1 win which saw them top the league for the one and only time that season. Continue reading