Merstham Tanned in Battle of M25 Junction 8 and 9


Since 1965 Christmas football has been the preserve of Boxing Day. One of the most eagerly anticipated days of the season, where crowds are bumper, especially in Non-League football.  This is despite the complete lack of public transport.  Take Brighton & Hove Albion’s trip to Brentford for a 1pm kick off.  The Seagulls fans had to set off around 8am, get three trains and a rail replacement bus to arrive by 12.30pm for the 60 mile journey.   Then, of course there is the weather.  Fortunately, the South had been spared, for now, the torrential rain that had caused widespread flooding in certain areas.

Every December there is a call from various Premier League managers that they play too many games and that there should be a winter break. This nearly always comes from manager’s who have just lost (again) and need to blame something other than the fact their team was actually crap.  The BBC News reported that “Even Premier League players had to train on Christmas Day”. So , someone who is paid up to £500k a month (and the rest!) has to work on Christmas Day? How is that a story? Policemen, nurses, firemen and soldiers also had to work. Did they get a mention? No of course not.

With an impending trip to the North and the need for a bit of intel on our opponents next week, I navigated around the shopping traffic, or as the BBC said “Millions braved the Boxing Day sales” (no hype there then) to take in the South M25 derby.  To sum up the game in five phrases – Muddy, End to End, Howling misses, No burgers, Late chested winner.

Merstham 1 Leatherhead 2 – Moatside – 26th December 2015

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Ten out of ten


Words have been hard to come by in recent weeks.  I’ve not let up in the number of games I have been watching, although for once my work trips haven’t coincided with any games (they’ve wised up to my little games perhaps?)I’ve just been short of motivation on what to write.  Being a fan of a team who go through a poor run isn’t much fun.  Being in a position of accountability of a team who go through a poor run is even less fun. Match days become longer and longer as you examine every little detail to see what you can do to end the run.

Today’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of mid-table Leatherhead marked the tenth consecutive defeat for Lewes in all competitions. The game, as the scoreline suggests, was pretty decent – five of the seven goals coming in the opening quarter of the game no less.  But I’m no longer able to walk away at full time as a neutral or even a fair-weather fan and have simply enjoyed the thrilling game.  I have to analyse where we as a club went wrong both in terms of preparation but also execution.  Whether we lost 4-3 or 7-0, we came away from the game with the same number of points – zero and our league position worsens.

FullSizeRender (8)You look for crumbs of comfort in this situation.  We’ve lost seven of those ten games by just one goal.  Seven different bounces of the ball, seven shots that the keeper could fumble, seven crosses we head to safety.  Seven different decisions could have given us seven points we don’t have today.  There’s no satisfaction in scouting a team, documenting their yellow belly but then falling foul to the sole threat they offer.  You can draw positional play diagrams to your hearts content, play videos of set-pieces all night or write detailed notes on tactics but if the players don’t take it on board then there is little you can do.  Leatherhead’s star man Karagiannis scored two superb, almost identical goals yesterday.  He’s a left-footed player who plays on the right. He hugs the touchline then runs inside the full back and shoots from distance. He’s done that twice in games I’ve seen.  Yesterday he did it twice in a few minutes and scored on both occasions.

Someone recently wrote on the club’s forum “Being a director isn’t about being popular.  It is about doing the right thing.” Yes, we are all fans but that doesn’t make us immune from not being accountable.  You need a thick skin at times – every decision is open to scrutiny.  Football fans at all levels see the game through different eyes and are satisfied by different things.  Growing up as a West Ham game I was always told it was better to play the “West Ham way” and lose 4-3 than to play direct and win 1-0.  I saw exciting players such as Alan Devonshire, Ray Stewart, Alan Dickens, Frank McAvennie and Paolo Di Canio. But some of the most memorable games were those where Julian Dicks, Martin Allen and David Cross were at their best.  They weren’t “flair” players – they played with their hearts and had a “win at all cost” mentality.  However, when you are deep in the relegation myre you will take a win at all costs.  We can all comfort ourselves that we lost whilst still playing some good football, but we still lost.

FullSizeRender (7)Earlier this year we took a tough decision to change our management team.  We were on a bad run and whilst we could have potentially scraped through without making a change, there was enough of a risk that we could be relegated for us to take the tough decision.  The majority of the fans backed the decision and we brought in someone who had managed at a higher level but limited knowledge of football in Sussex.  We battled and won games at all costs.  We retained our place in the division without any outside intervention yet some still questioned the style of play.  Our sole objective was to stay up yet some expected that “West Ham way”.

Lewes may be very different from other Non League Clubs in that we think about the future as much as the present.  The past is gone – we cannot change it BUT we can learn from it.  Coming within a whisker of not having a club at all is a sobering situation.  That near death experience will never be forgotten by those who went through it.  Thinking about the future means ensuring that we need to live within our means, not mortgaging today for something that will almost certainly not happen in the future.  Football is littered with the casualties of this blinkered view.  Leeds United, Coventry City, Blackpool, Portsmouth, Torquay United, Hereford United – the list goes on of clubs who have ignored the lessons of the past.  Some, such as Portsmouth and to an extent Coventry City now think in a very different way.

I would like to think that in five or ten years time we have a very different board at Lewes than we have today.  Change is good – a fresh perspective, new ideas not encumbered by the past. But none of the existing board will renegade on their responsibilities today.  Nobody tells you what the “right thing to do” actually is.  What is right to me may be wrong to one, two, ten, two hundred others.  Our frame of reference is and will continue to be until we are 100% self-sustaining “what impact will this decision have on the club tomorrow?”  The club has been criticised from some quarters that we concentrate too much on the off the field activities – the posters, the beach huts, the 80’s band as a shirt sponsor.  Without these things we would almost certainly be playing at a much lower level than we are today.  We are very good at creating media interest and consequently more revenue that can be invested on the pitch because we have that expertise within the club.

Fans come to football for a number of reasons.  Escapism, to meet up with friends, to be entertained, to play our their dreams.  You can fall out of love with football if you start seeing the game as a millstone around your neck, knowing that someone decisions made by 11 men on the pitch are your collective responsibility.

Yesterday could have ended up 5-5 or more.  Lewes created more chances in one game than they had done in the previous five or six.  Less than sixty seconds after we drew the score back to 2-2 the Leatherhead keeper made a save that he knew nothing about, keeping the ball out with his cheek.  At 4-2 our centre-back found himself with the ball at his feet with only the goal keeper to beat and poked the ball wide. Alex Laing hit the post.  That in itself brought some of that love back.  It made me realise the team did care, that the ten defeats to them meant something too.  For some fans it still wasn’t enough.  They wanted a win, a win at all or any cost.  I can understand that too.  But going back to something I said earlier, we didn’t lose because the club promotes its beach huts, its posters or its catering.  Likewise when we win (and we will do very soon) it has nothing directly to do with those things either.

When teams win every week, everything is right.  The team and the club can do no wrong.  But then when things do start to falter they are blown out of all proportion.  Chelsea’s start to the season has been average in comparison to other Premier League sides.  But they aren’t considered to be “another” Premier League side.  The media prefix their name with “reigning Premier League Champions” all the time.  The past is past.  There is no sense of entitlement in football.  West Ham’s win over Chelsea yesterday was down to the referee, goal line technology and Mourinhio’s half time spat.  Bilic’s tactics or the performance of players such as Payat become irrelevant.  Chelsea lost the game rather than West Ham winning it apparently.  According to the loyal fans, Chelsea’s predicament is down to the manager not getting the players he wanted to sign in the summer.  The fact that other teams have invested their smaller resources in a better way is irrelevant.

So back to football in East Sussex and our losing streak.  Defeats hurt, especially when you are hopelessly second best.  For the first time in quite a while I saw hope yesterday.  Hope that the players are caring as much as I do, hope that we can create chances and more importantly take them, hope that come what May (or April) that we will be looking down the table rather than up it.  Football should come with a health rather than a wealth warning at our level

Getting our backsides Tanned on the opening day


3pm on the opening day of the season and everything is good.  The sun is shining, the beer tastes good, even the dubious looking food tastes fantastic.  You see the group of fans that for the next nine months will be your second family, sharing pain and pleasure, hope and despair, joy and agony.  In some cases that feeling will disappear within minutes as a defensive slip will lead to that all too familiar sinking feeling and the look of “it’s going to be a long long season” passes from fan to fan on the terraces.

For those involved off the field then the opening day comes with a sense of relief.  Work started on preparations the day after the season ended, often with a number of challenges, none more so than trying to ensure you have a squad ready and raring to go when the season starts.  Fans often vent their frustration on forums that there appears to be no activity with the team.  On the contrary, things are so fluid and change all the time that if we updated every movement of a player in or out the fans would soon get bored.  A player agreeing to sign today could be playing for another team tomorrow.  And bear in mind it is not just about the willingness of a club to offer players deals, the player’s circumstances may change and thus club X albeit one offering less money may be more practical for them.  As my learned colleague Mr Bazza Collins said this week “It’s not a question of finding players to play on Saturday but rather who to leave out”.

Non League doesn’t have the same transfer restrictions as the professional game.  Come 1st September and we can still sign players, right up until the morning of a game in fact.  The whole Enfield Town debacle at the end of last season will make club secretaries more cautious when they register a player now, although with Club Sec Kev at the helm for Lewes we know that he double and triple checks anything as it is, treating player registrations the same way as he treats the freshly ironed ten pound notes in his wallet every time it’s his round, his diligence again would prove valuable come 2pm today when the team sheet needed to be submitted.

Then of course we have the kit issues – you go online, choose what you want and it just arrives in the post right?  Alas, if it was only that simple.  A lot of it comes to the UK via lorry, who have to use the Channel Tunnel.  So delays such as the ones we have seen have caused issues for many clubs, the most ironic being Folkestone Invicta who can probably see the delivery lorry in question with a good pair of binoculars.

19784718544_28aae8ff56_kThe Rooks traveled to Leatherhead with some confidence.  The doom and gloom that sat over the club for most of last season appeared to be lifting and manager Steve Brown and new assistant Jay Lovett have built a squad on a smaller budget that looked impressive in pre-season, holding a virtual full-strength Brighton & Hove Albion side to a goal-less draw and running an impressive Crystal Palace development team close last weekend.  Youth is the order of the day at The Pan this year, with some impressive young players ready to make their mark on the Ryman Premier League.  Of course we still need the old, wise heads and between our three centre-halves we have plenty of that, with a combined age touching 100 years.

At least as that whistle blows at 3pm we can all sign in unison “We are top of the league”…for how long, well that’s anyone’s guess.

Leatherhead 3 Lewes 0 – Fetcham Grove – Saturday 8th August 2015
About 4 minutes 53 seconds to be precise.  That’s how long it took Kiernan Hughes-Mason to take advantage of a lapse in concentration in the Lewes defence and lob the ball over Dan Hutchins. The first goal of the new season seems to exaggerate the pain and pleasure for both teams and to be honest it felt awful.  Five minutes later Leatherhead hit the bar, then doubled the lead when a wickedly deflected free-kick saw Hutchins scrambling across his line only to get fingertips on it. Fifteen minutes into the new season and how we all wished we could hit the rewind button.

20219020708_32d0d8473a_kCould it get any worse?  Well how about your keeper being knocked unconscious making a save?  Yep, let’s throw that one in before half-time too with 17-year old Nathan Stroomberg coming on for his debut.  Our line up ending the half featured five players under the age of 23, with our bench consisting of two 18 year olds and a 20 year old.  We would have also had 17 year old Jack Rowe-Hurst on the bench but a minor error on his registration forms from Brighton was spotted by Club Sec Kev on arrival at the ground so he was withdrawn as a precaution.

20219009168_3cfbc17679_bThe second half saw Lewes have more of the play but fail to create any real chances until the dying minutes of the game.  The third Leatherhead goal came against the run of play in injury time but was meaningless, the only real impact was seeing The Rooks drop to the bottom of the league on goal difference on day one.  Well, I suppose the only way is up from here.

Football can be a cruel mistress.  The traveling fans left with an air of doom and gloom, those months of anticipation and hope wiped away in 90 minutes.  But we will go again, 45 more times before April is out and a lot can happen.  Alan Hansen may be right all along, we may win nothing with kids but we will certainly give it everything we’ve got.

At the Cole face


Every Non-League team dreams of a run in the FA Cup. The chance to take on a Football (or even Premier) League side, the presence of national media around the club and the chance to bask in the limelight for a period of time. There will be few football fans outside of Exeter, and probably Runcorn, who won’t have enjoyed seeing Warrington Town humble Football League Two Exeter City live in the BBC last night. The media lapped it up. “Plucky little Warrington”, “Goal scored by plasterer Craig Robinson”, “part-timers” we’re all common phrases being bandied about as the game progressed.

Nobody can begrudge the club their payday. The win over Exeter was their third consecutive 1-0 home victory in the competition, along the way beating teams in a higher division in each case including Conference North pre-season favourites North Ferriby United. The game was a 2,500 sell out and with the money from the BBC to televise the game, the club will have received over £50,000 getting to this stage of the competition. But is the money always a blessing for Non-League clubs?

The big challenge Warrington face is to try to get some of those local fans back in two weeks time when they host Radcliffe Borough in the Evostik Premier League North match, and those league games beyond that. So far this season only around 150 come to Cantilever Park to watch games. A big cash injection is never a bad thing at this level but the challenge is to try and use it to encourage more fans to come back. Warrington’s challenge is three-fold.

Firstly, they have to compete every Saturday with fans heading along the M62 to either Liverpool or Manchester to watch the Reds or the Blues.  One of the positive factors that televised football has brought the game is when some of the Premier League games are moved to a Sunday or Monday night, the local Non-League teams can try to take advantage of those fans who still want to go to a 3pm Saturday kick off.  This is one of the reasons why some clubs offer discounted entry for season ticket holders at bigger clubs, although in truth if you can afford the £700 plus ticket at Old Trafford or Anfield you are hardly likely to grumble at paying the tenner to get in at Cantilever Park.

Secondly, they are located in an overcrowded area of Non-League clubs of similar sizes.  Within a twenty-minute drive there are over a dozen teams playing at the same level or just above Warrington.  It is rare that Non-League leopards change their spots and so they will be fighting a losing battle trying to win these fans hearts and minds.

Finally they have the biggest challenge.  Warrington is a Rugby League town, home of the The Wolves, one of the most successful modern era clubs who play in the 15,000 Halliwell Jones Stadium in the town.  They tend to be very different sets of fans despite the fact that there is only an overlap of the two respective seasons for a couple of months each year.

Unfortunately, it is not always the case that Non-League clubs who benefit from a great FA Cup run can translate that into ongoing success in the league.  The last headline club who did Non-League football proud in the FA Cup was Hastings United back in 2012/13.  They reached the third round, finally losing to Middlesbrough at The Riverside in front of 12,500 fans.  However, the cup run was to be the club’s undoing in the league as the fixture pile up caused by playing the FA Cup games and subsequent bad weather meant that they had to play 13 league games in just 28 days.  With the transfer window for Non-League clubs closed, and league officials who had enjoyed riding on the coat-tails of the club’s success now cocking a deaf ear, Hastings buckled under the sheer weight of pressure and were relegated.  Two seasons on and they have still not returned.

15718020616_e8fc8b7832_kForty years ago the Non-League team to hit the FA Cup headlines was Leatherhead FC who made it all the way to the Fourth Round, where they lost 3-2 to Leicester City at Filbert Street in front of the Match of the Day cameras.  Along the way they beat Colchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion, and were leading The Foxes 2-0.  Back then, when football wasn’t a 24 hours 7 day a week “in your face” event, the heroics of that Isthmian League side was headline stuff.

Today, Leatherhead are back in the same division as they were in 1974.  They enjoyed some more of the limelight in 1978 when they reached Wembley in the FA Trophy final, losing to Altrincham but since then they have floated around the Isthmian leagues without being able to climb any higher.  As with most of the cases of the “giant killers”, the revenue earned from the cup run didn’t lead to success on the field.  Twenty five years after their cup exploits the club came close to folding, only saved by the actions of a group of fans who once again proved that Fan Ownership is the only real sustainable model for Non-League clubs.

Talking of Fan Ownership, who were Leatherhead’s visitors today? None other than the mighty Rooks, who were on their best run of form so far this season, coming off the back of two consecutive wins.  We haven’t had a lot to shout about this season down at The Dripping Pan but things are changing.  A new formation, some inspirational experienced players coming back into the team and fans who were behind the management 100% meant that we arrived in the rain at The Tanners with strutting confidence.

Leatherhead 0 Lewes 1 – Fetcham Grove – Saturday 8th November 2014
We came, we saw and we got very very wet.  In front of the biggest away support so far this season the Rooks put on the kind of battling display that had been missing for so long in 2014.  A change to 3-5-2 prior to the Met Police game worked wonders at the Dripping Pan but here it appeared to be ineffective in the first half against a confident Leatherhead team who passed the ball around well.  The Tanners looked to stretch the game, trying to nullify the threat of Sam one and Sam two as our flying wing backs.  The home side hit the inside of the post after twenty minutes which seemed to shake the Rooks into life and from that moment they never looked back.

15740983815_b6036a75b4_kSome comedy rolling around on the floor by the Leatherhead players did the job of conning the referee, who wasn’t helped by inept performances by his assistants who couldn’t have been anymore unhelpful in letting the game flow.  Petty, niggly free-kicks sucked the life out of the game in the first half.  Perhaps I was just in a bad mood as I had dropped my chips on the floor.

15556169660_be58abd60f_oAs the second half started, so did the rain.  When it passed from torrential to monsoon setting, most of the 40-strong Lewes fans headed for the covered terrace, leaving the hardcore LLF on behind the goal.  Our dedication was rewarded on the hour mark when Sam 1 (Crabb) beat his man on the right, crossed to the penalty spot where Sam 2 (Cole) met the ball on the volley and gave Louis Wells absolutely no chance.

Lewes started to take control of the game and always looked the more dangerous side, although some superb defending from Rowe, Elphick and Banks ensured that the Rooks goal went unbreached for another game.  The final whistle was greeted with fist pumps, back slaps and even a hug or two.  In the grand scheme of things it was only 3 points, but for Lewes it was another step towards redemption.

Forty years is literally a lifetime in football.  Whilst both sets of fans looked on enviously at East Thurrock United’s result at Hartlepool United in the FA Cup, we knew that our time will come once again.  For now, it was all about the magic of the Isthmian League.  Cup football is so over rated anyway….

The Leatherhead Lip


A few weeks ago, Lewes visited FA Cup giant killers Harlow Town and came away with a shock of their own after the Ryman League One North side came from two goals down to win three-two in the FA Trophy. Today we were on the road again to another club whose exploits were inscribed on the fabric of the cup, Leatherhead FC.

The year was 1975. The Tanners then of the Isthmian League had gone on a mazy run in the FA Cup and had beaten Bishops Stortford, Colchester United and Brighton & Hove Albion to set up a fourth round tie at home to 1st division Leicester City. In a move that today would be “banned”, the game was switched to Filbert Street on request of Leatherhead to maximise the revenue earning potential and over 32,000 fans and the Match of the Day cameras crammed in the ground to see the non league side take a two goal lead. Star of the show (and of the club) was a chap called Chris Kelly who liked to talk up not only the team’s abilities but those of his own and earned him the nickname, The Leatherhead Lip. Unfortunately fitness saw the 1st division side score three goals to take the tie but the Tanners held a place in many neutrals heart (A great article on their cup run can be found here). Continue reading

All in the line of duty


“All Police leave cancelled”…That was the message pinned up to the notice board at Imber Court two weeks ago.  The Notting Hill carnival was in town and worried about the risk of a repeat in the “civil disorder” all spare members of the police in London were put on standby.  This meant that Met Police’s games versus Wingate & Finchley and Leatherhead were moved.  Despite what people may think, there is no longer any requirement for the team to be made up of serving police officers but the administrative staff at Imber Court, the home of the Met Police Sports and Social club are.

Met Police are not the best supported team in the league, you may be surprised to know.  Last season they averaged 123 and in their opening game this season it was less than 100.  The majority of most attendances are away fans.  But does that impact the players?  Not one bit.  They play football at this level because they love the game. Continue reading