On the seventh day of TBIR Christmas – The Best Game of 2014

Happy New Year one and all…I hope last night wasn’t too hard on you all mentally and have your winter woollies on ready for a day at football..

We’ve seen a few turkey’s this season, and we’ve seen a fair few average games.  In fact it is hard to reflect on whether a game is good or bad in the hour or so after it finishes.  So trying to choose three of the best games of the year is a bit easier when we put everyone into context and focus. But three we did find, although it was easier to find the three worse games!

3rd Place – USA 2 Turkey 1
For the USA this was one of the last warm-up games before they jetted off to Brazil.  For Turkey, it was a distraction from their shopping trip in 5th Avenue.  The last time I was at the Red Bull Arena, the kick off had been delayed to try and rustle up a few more fans to break the four digit mark for the Red Bulls.  For this game we had to pay over $80 for a ticket on the secondary market.  #MNTUSA was in full effect.  The Americans do patriotism end of.  Everything about the game was rammed full of nationalism (in a good way). The game itself was very open, with the USA impressing from the first minute.  I could almost forgive the ridiculous licencing laws in US sports grounds….almost I said.

2nd Place – Real Madrid 2 Sevilla 0
Chances to see some of the best players in the world don’t come around every week…unless you live in Munich, Barcelona or Madrid of course.  When I first heard of the Super Cup being played in Cardiff I didn’t believe it.  But then I remembered that Platini is in charge of UEFA so figured that it was another one of his bizarre decisions, although it would actually be the biggest stadium this game had been played at.  The opportunity to watch Real was too good to miss – Ronaldo, Bale, Rodriquez, Modric et al.  The weather was perfectly Welsh – sunshine and heavy rain, the hospitality was tip top and the game itself didn’t disappoint.

1st Place – Lewes 3 Grays Athletic 2
You have to love it when your team scores an injury time winner.  It’s even sweeter when it delivers your first win of the season after a sticky start.  Add in the fact that you had also thrown away the lead when playing against 9 men and the game starts to change in context.  Amazingly, there was only two reds as both teams could have had men sent off – Lewes keeper Rikki Banks when conceeding an early penalty and veteran ex-Burnley and Reading midfielder, Glenn Little for a cynical and dangerous tackle when the visitors were already down to nine men.  But this was all about the winner, scored by Fraser Logan (and captured here by James Boyes).  The goal that saved a season?  Possibly.

Tomorrow, on day eight of the TBIR Christmas, the best

Falling in love with you

Six years ago I was a happy Hammer. Happy because I didn’t know what the joy was in watching football without Big Brother(s) watching over me, telling me when to sit, stand, shout and be quiet.  My epiphany came when I started going to watch Non-League football on a regular basis.  One of the first games in my “new life “was at Grays Athletic at Their New Recreation Ground against Canvey Island (how life has changed for all partied involved!).

During the next few seasons I started going more regularly to Non-League games, discovering new places that were almost on my doorstep.  Once I chose a Forest Green Rovers versus Oxford United over West Ham v Fulham I knew I was on a slippery slope.

397502_10152258011760853_1378592530_nMy first game at the Dripping Pan was a Conference Premier game against today’s visitors Grays Athletic.  It was the club’s one and only season in the highest level of Non-League football.  If ever there was a club that were a fish out of water, then it was Lewes during the 2008/09 season.  Just six wins and six draws all season, including just seven points taken on their travels the team were relegated by Easter.  Speaking to those who experienced the whole season tell the tale of not only the club being out of their depth but also of the joyless environment of playing at this level.  The club had to implement segregation, stop people drinking on the terraces and even have a sponsors board to facilitate live interviews post match.  Anyone who has visited the Pan since knows that is not how we do things.

Last year I was asked to contribute to a book – the task being to write “How I fell in love with my club” in less than 3,000 words.  I didn’t choose West Ham, the club I had supported for the best part of thirty years of my life.  I chose Lewes.  Last week the book was finally published by Ockley Books and not only features a chapter on Lewes, but similar ones on Weymouth, Tooting and Mitcham and the 1990 Cameroon World Cup Squad.  What the book tells me is that I am not alone in upgrading my footballing pleasure.

Lewes v Essex 2014Today the club is very happy playing two levels below the Conference Premier.  Crowds are increasing, bar takings are up and the football is making people smile once again.  Our ambition is to play at a higher level but as a board we will always make sure every step is a sustainable and financially viable. Today we welcomed Grays Athletic, a club who had endured a similar annus decadus.  Whilst Lewes’s free fall had been almost terminal, we always had the parachute of our ground.  Grays haven’t had that luxury and have endured somewhat of a nomadic existence since the heady days of finishing third in the Conference Premier and back to back FA Trophy wins.  Their Recreation Ground was sold to developers in 2010 and since they have ground shared with East Thurrock, West Ham reserves and now Aveley.

It had only been ten days since we last faced Grays, losing 4-2 in an entertaining game at Mill Field.  Since then both sides had played two league games, winning them both as too had Lewes.  Two weeks ago both sides would have put the file “Play Off Chances” in the filing cabinet but with games in hand over those above both sides who knows what could happen, especially as the respective home form has been so strong. Continue reading

Like a night out in Aveley….

There comes a point in life when you just need to give up on something.  It doesn’t matter how many times you repair the holes in your lucky pants, you are simply kidding yourself – they aren’t fit for purpose.  The late, great Roger Lloyd-Pack in his famous role as Trigger once said he had used the same broom for 25 years, albeit that in that period he had replaced the handle 1o times and the brushes even more.  Tonight Lewes travel north of the Thames for the fifth time of asking to take on Grays Athletic in the Ryman Premier League.  The teams were due to meet back in early November, then again in December, January and finally last night.  As the rain started to fall around lunchtime today we all looked skywards.  Someone up there simply didn’t want this game to ever take place. If it was cancelled a sixth time apparently both teams got a crystal decanter from the Isthmian League.

New Picture (53)Grays, more than any other team in our division, have suffered during the past few months of poor weather.  The problem they have is that they share facilities with Aveley at Mill Field, possibly the most exposed football ground in England which means the slightest bit of rain and the ground is waterlogged.  Whilst they sit just above the relegation zone, they have played a whopping nine games less than the leaders Dulwich Hamlet and could still conceivably make a push for the play-offs, although having a minimum of three games per week from now until the end of the season could be a tall order for a squad of their size not to mention the lost revenue from these home games. Continue reading

A Gray day I could Ilford to miss

Some time very soon we will be up in arms about the death of another football club in London. It is a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon at 3.05pm and I have joined barely 150 other paying spectators who are watching Grays Athletic take on Needham Market in the 8th level of English football. Why are there so few fans bothered about football at this level? Well, a scan on the immediate horizon will give you a good idea.

Just as the hosts breath down the Needham Market goal in the first minute of the game, Leyton Orient are holding their own against Sheffield United at the Matchroom Stadium and the mighty Dagenham & Redbridge are probing at Bradford City defence less than 2 miles down the Rainham Road. Two nPower Football League games kicking off at the same time. Oh, and of course let’s not forget that if ESPN didn’t have their way West Ham would have been hoofing high balls into the Arsenal box at Upton Park as well at this time.

So perhaps we can see why there are only just a few hardy souls in the Rush Green Sports and Leisure Centre for this game. But it is not just Grays who face this issue of trying to compete with the big boys this afternoon. Local rivals Redbridge and Ilford are around 2 miles North and West respectively, who both average less than 70 fans for their home games, although a late postponement of the game at Redbridge doesn’t trouble the turnstile operators elsewhere. Even if these clubs were to admit fans for free I doubt they would be able to increase attendances by more than 10-15%. Continue reading

Essex United

I kid you not there is now a team called Essex United. They are the side put together by ex-Grays Athletic and Lewes footballer Mark Wright. Wright is of course better known from the ITV series “The Only Way is Essex”. The team have embarked on a series of pre-season games this year, trying to boost their “popularity” as well as giving local women an opportunity to practice their “cougar” skills. In fact they are due to play next this Sunday at The Dripping Pan against Lewes.

Last weekend they took on the once mighty Grays Athletic, now in the Ryman League North after their chaotic resignation from the league/re-instatement/demotion/promotion from last summer. They lost 4-0 which isn’t too much of a surprise considering the difference in skill between the two sides.

Grays are going through another “re-birth”. Last season with Julian Dicks at the helm, supported by ex-West Ham players John Moncur and Kenny Brown, the club flirted with the play offs for a while but had to look on enviously as landlords East Thurrock United waltzed away with the title. It is strange to think our last visit to watch the club had been on a sunny day almost two years to the day at their old Recreation Ground in the centre of Grays when they narrowly lost to West Ham United.

Two years later and the ground is a building site, the team who were looking forward to a season playing against the likes of Cambridge United, Stevenage Borough and Oxford United are now preparing to face Soham Town Rangers, Leiston and Thamesmead Town.

But there is still the pride of Essex to fight for. Last season that was taken quite literally in the remarkable games against bitter rivals Tilbury, where over a hundred “fans” were involved in a fight after the game at Chadfields. This season there will be league games against Romford, Ilford and Brentwood as well as “the Dockers” but first up was another all Essex affair against AFC Hornchurch.

The visitors knew all about spectacular falls from grace themselves. Touted as the “money bags” of the non league back in the mid 2000’s, the club were able to sign high profile players such as Ex-Chelsea keeper Dimitri Kharin thanks to some significant investment from their then owners. Unfortunately, when the money ran out the players up and left, quite a few of them to fellow Conference South rivals Grays Athletic creating a little bit of hostility that exists today in the bars and clubs of Epping Forest.

This was my first trip to the village of Corringham, home of East Thurrock United’s Rookery Hill. And pulling up outside of The Bull just across the road from the ground I was pleasantly surprised. It was almost rural. If you could ignore the huge oil refineries in the distance this could be your quintessential English village scene. I walked through the small churchyard and into the ground just as the two teams emerged.

Grays Athletic 0 AFC Hornchurch 1 – Rookery Hill – Wednesday 27th July 2011
After 20 months in charge, Grays and Julian Dicks went their separate ways back in May. Dicks felt he could and should be managing at a higher level, and as recently as last weekend he confessed so to the Non League Paper, expressing his disappointment that former team mates such as Paolo Di Canio with no previous managerial experience at all had been given the chance at Swindon Town. The new Grays era is being managed by ex-Thurrock manager Hakan Hayrettin and judging by their attacking start, with ex-Lewes striker Jean-Michel Sigere causing a threat they will be one to watch this season.

With the sun setting low over the ground and both teams forgetting that this was a “friendly”, the match made for a very interesting spectacle. There didn’t seem to be much between the sides with the ball being played through the midfield and out wide as and when a crunching tackle didn’t stop play. Chances on goal on the other hand were few and far between. Grays had the better of the earlier exchanges but it was Hornchurch who broke the deadlock just before the half hour mark.

It followed a Jon Hunt corner which was played short to Tommy Black. The ball came in but was cleared although only to the covering midfielder. When the ball found its way back into the area Lewis Smith had space and seemed to miss touch it to Curley to buried the ball from ten yards.

Half time saw the usual raft of substitutes and with the daylight fading neither team could really take a hold on the game. With the ground bathed in the last bit of sunshine (yes, in this great British Summer I have at last been able to use that world) I took stock of the surroundings. Rookery Hill is an odd ground. Behind one goal are two of the smallest piece of covered terracing I have ever seen. Stands that I would have made in five minutes in my Lego world (see my article for In Bed With Maradona on the subject). One side of the ground has a strange double decker portakabin situation going on, and the dressing rooms were in what could be described by my generation in a “Scout Hut”. But it is a welcome home to Grays, who would have been in a whole world of trouble if East Thurrock wouldn’t have thrown open their doors to help them last season.

Despite a few good saves from Grays keeper Northwood there was much more action in the second period. AFC Hornchurch can be pleased with a win over a local rival, and Grays can be pleased with the performance they put in. After all pre-season is “all about the performance” right? Or am I confused again.

More pictures from the not so friendly friendly can be found here.