Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 3 – Wearing many hats

ff806c39-66d7-49e8-bf3e-bdcd3da80933-mediumIt took less than 5 minutes before my phone rang with a journalist wanting to try and get the “inside track” after we announced that we had parted company with our previous management team last month.  4 minutes 47 seconds to be precise, which was a good 60 seconds longer than I had said it would be to Club Sec Kev.

Despite being Chairman of Lewes Football Club I still would retain my other duties which meant writing the copy for the website, co-ordinating the publishing of the news across all of our social media channels at once (it is amazing how many Publish/Post/Tweet and Send buttons you can press simultaneously on multiple devices) and answering questions by email, text, phone and post such as “Can you tell me your website address”, “Can I bring my motorbike into the ground?” and one of my all time favourites “Will I be arrested if I streak across the pitch?  Does it make a difference if it was for charity?”

I was in high demand whilst we were managerless but as soon as Steve Brown had been appointed, I was dropped like a stone.  Even when BBC 5Live’s Non League show came a-calling, they wanted Steve as well as me, as if to play on the whole “interim” situation.  We showed them though, with Steve unable to take part in the interview at the last minute, meaning I had a national platform to avoid any difficult questions and turn the conversation onto chips with cheese and gravy.

So a typical home game now means a full week of preparation.  As co-editor of the award winning match day programme (have a butcher’s for yourself here) with Barry Collins we have to start planning at least seven days before the game.  Content doesn’t write itself.  In fact, as with most Non League programme editors, we end up writing virtually the whole programme ourselves, despite all of the promised made by people to write for us.

Another job on match day is to grab the radio microphone and be our cheery PA announcer.  Once again, preparation is key – knowing what to say and more importantly, what not to say is all prepared for me by our general manager, Adrian and by the time the teams take to the field, today led by one of Lewes’s oldest and most loyal fans, Ethel, I hope I have spelt phonetically those names that could be problematic.  Pre-match duties over there’s time to grab a beer and try and watch some of the game.

Lewes 0 Leiston 2 – Saturday 21st March 2015 – The Dripping Pan
CAocQglW4AAIyqfIt is always a bad sign when we lose the toss and have to kick towards the Rook Inn in the first half.  It does have one main advantage though.  It allows me to grab some double-cooked chips with French onion gravy and mature cheddar, although problems arise when the away team opens the scoring when you are mid-mouthful and wasn’t really concentrating.  Lesson number 1 – ABC – Always Be Concentrating.  I had no idea who had scored.  No TV replays, no Rookmeister’s insightful tweets, no John Murray in my ear.  Instinct takes over and you judge which player was getting the applause of his team mates.

“Opening goal this afternoon scored in the ….” checks clock “19th minute by, I think, number 8 Gareth Heath”.  I look for a reaction from the players to see if any of them looked confused at the announcement.  They didn’t.  I think I had got away with that one.

Lesson number 2 – ABC (again)  Always Be Checking.  I’d already announced the Golden Goal.  It went in after 18 minutes 58 seconds and thus the 19th minute.  I unfolded my Golden Goal ticket.  20 minutes.  Two seconds out.  Nobody would have batted an eyelid if I announced 20 minutes.

Goal number two for Leiston was as problematic as the first.  Free-kick on edge of box, pinballs in the area and the number 11 celebrates like mad, running off to celebrate with the five away fans.  The rest of the team all rush to congratulate the number 4.  Who would you give the goal to?  I said 4, Club Sec Kev posted on Football Web Pages it was number 11, Boysie thought it was number 5 and Twitter suggested it was an own goal.

The second half saw Lewes lay siege to the Leiston goal. Well, by siege I mean we pushed forward and tried to get the ball into the danger area and test the keeper.  For all the good approach play, Danny Gay will have much busier afternoons than he had at The Dripping Pan.  Then Tom Davis got himself sent off by blasting a spare ball that had strayed onto the playing surface into the opposition dug out. Despite being only a few yards away, and the bench being full, he missed everyone – a fact that summed up the whole Lewes afternoon.  Davis departed and so should have the Rooks hope.

But we were 2-0 down (“the most dangerous score line in football” according to football expert David Pleat) and down to ten men (“the most dangerous formation in football” according to football expert David Pleat).  What a combination.  How could we fail?  Well, we did.  Two-nil was the final score and our hopes for a “we are staying up” celebration party would have to be put on ice for another week, or so.

Post match I complete my duties by wishing our visitors all the best for the rest of the season before heading into the debrief with our management team.  The ground is long-empty by the time we leave.  It’s been a long week and we have nothing to show for all of our collective effort bar a litter-strewn terrace.  But we will be back to do it all again when Enfield Town come to visit on Wednesday.

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

On the first day of TBIR Christmas – The best Non League Away Day

We love Non League Football here at TBIR Towers.  It annoys me when commentators talk about “the beautiful game” when describing our sanitised, pampered Premier League game.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Our beautiful game takes place in hundreds of grounds up and down far away from the Porsche’s, the WAGS and the Robbie Savages.  Some grounds are full of character, others are just plain shit.  But the thing that Non League grounds all have in common is that they are staffed by people who live, breathe, eat and sleep Non League football.  The unsung heroes of our game.  So we celebrate the top three Non League away days we have experienced this season.  For sake of fairness I have excluded Lewes as I am a tad bias.  So without further ado let’s get this Polar Express underway.

3rd best Non League Away Day – Bury Town
7774048974_c15a7944a4_zYou cannot fail to go wrong by visiting a town where there is a brewery.  Well, apart from Reading that is.  And Bury St Edmunds has one of the best.  Greene King has been brewing in the town for hundreds of years and is a fine reason to visit in itself.  There is also the novelty of visiting England’s smallest pub, the Nutshell.  But its football we are here to celebrate and there are few better places to watch a game as the sunsets than Ram Meadow, sitting in the shadow of the cathedral.  Located just a short walk from the town centre, but still far enough to get diverted into a number of excellent pubs, the ground is full of charm and well worth the long drive.

2nd best Non League Away Day – Leiston
8151563068_247f23c018_zSuffolk has a monopoly on great away trips this season in the Ryman League and a welcome addition to Lewes’s list of roadtrips was Leiston.  Hard to find on the map, the town/village can be missed in the blink of an eye as you pass by.  It doesn’t even have a railway station, the nearest one is in Saxmundham, some 5 miles away.  It is close to Sizewell nuclear reactor though, which probably explains the reason why they don’t need floodlights.  Adnams is brewed locally and no visit here will be complete without a pint of two in the Engineers Arms close to the ground.  The club have progressed through the county leagues at quite a lick but the reason why they are so high up in our list is the hospitality of the club and its staff.  Top notch food, excellent beer and a welcome to all visitors in the club house.  The model for success if ever I saw one.

Best Non League Away Day – Maidstone United
7570356036_e08097de4d_zAfter years of toil, political intrigue and bargaining, the Stones finally moved back home in July this year.  And haven’t they reaped the success.  Going into the Christmas period the club sat proudly a-top of the Ryman League South, averaging crowds of 1,600 in their new city centre Gallagher Stadium.  1,600 – more than some teams in this league get in a season!  The stadium has been built for a club on the way up.  A decent size clubhouse, serving local Shepherds Neame beer, railway stations within a ten minute walk, decent pubs across the road and of course THAT pitch.  The Stone were ballsy enough to challenge the FA and ridiculous rules on the use of 3G pitches and have reaped the benefits. On Saturday 22nd December they were the ONLY club in the Ryman League able to host a game, resulting in a crowd of more than 1,600.  But it is the never-say-die attitude of the staff, the entertaining style of play and the ease of watching a game here that makes it our BEST NON LEAGUE AWAY DAY of 2012.

Remember Leiston

Every football club has its “Leiston” moment. That game where everything goes wrong and you finish up on the end of a giant killing. As a West Ham fan I’ve experienced that pain all too often – in fact I couldn’t define just one game which sums up the word properly. Aldershot Town, Wrexham, Grimsby Town and Swansea City (when they were a Vetch Field-based Division Four side not a modern Liberty Stadium Premier League side) all spring to mind although there has been a few near misses (Farnborough and Emley anyone?) but I didn’t think Non League clubs had a giant killing moment. That was before I started following Lewes.

Back in 2008/09 Lewes had made it to the pinnacle of Non League football. Whilst they could never say that season in the Conference Premier was a success, they were on the same Ceefax page as Oxford United, Mansfield Town and Torquay United for one memorable season. The FA Cup gave the club the opportunity to play with the even bigger boys. Lewes entered the competition at the Final Qualifying Round. One win and they would be in the hat along with 48 Football League sides. In their way was an away trip to Eastern Counties League side Leiston – four divisions below the Conference Premier.

Firstly, the fans (and players!) needed to find the place on the map. Leiston, around 80 miles east of London on the Suffolk coast,  doesn’t really feature in much popular culture. In fact the Wikipedia entry tells us under culture that the town has a post office, library and two pubs.  The town doesn’t have a railway station and is probably more famous for being the closest habitat to Sizewell Nuclear Reactor.  Alas, you can no longer visit the reactor, but the pub across the road, the Vulcan Arms, was one to visit if only for the fact it won “Best Pub Sign of the Year” in 2011.

After a 1-1 draw in Suffolk, few people would have put money on anything apart from a Lewes home win in the replay. In fact, few people actually bothered attending the replay at all (just 347).  But on a miserable night in East Sussex, the County League side turned over the Rooks, coming away with a 3-1 victory that will forever go down in the history of both clubs.  Leiston progressed into the First Round of the FA Cup, drawing at home to Fleetwood Town before losing to them in a replay. Continue reading