Tough at the top, tougher down the bottom


During the Leicester City vs Manchester United game on Saturday night, commentator Alan Parry mentioned the “stresses and strains” on the Premier League players at having to play four games over the Christmas period.  “Some of these players face four games in just nine day!” Parry remarked as if this was a massive hardship for them.  That will be the same four games in nine days that virtually every club playing at Steps 7 and 8 of the footballing pyramid face over Christmas.

I hear the arguments about the stresses and strains of the Premier League, apparently the fastest league in the world (although I am not sure how that has been measured) but these players are professional.  They have the best facilities for fitness and recovery at their disposal – Pep Guardiola’s 16 man management team includes such roles as a Sports Therapist, a Head of Human Performance, a Soft Tissue Therapist and a Head of Sports Medicine.  Below them is an army of experts whose job is to ensure that Pep’s record breaking team are in peak condition when they cross the white line.  In most instances they are told what to eat and drink, when and where.

Down in the Bostik League South (as with in most other Non-Leagues), today was the first of four games Lewes played in the next nine days.  Our players and physios head home to their families tonight for Christmas and some will return to their normal jobs tomorrow and even Christmas Day before regrouping on Tuesday for the next game meaning that they cannot spend any time with the players and their rehabilitation.  We share the same concern as Guardiola that four games over the Christmas period is too much, especially with small squads and half way through the season where suspensions are starting to bite.  Today was our 33rd game of the season, and whilst our three new signings who all made their debuts today due to the growing injury list took the number of players we have used over the 30 mark, only 20 have played in more than five games, exactly the same number of players Manchester City have used in their 28 games this season.

Ultimately, the commercialisation of the Premier League game means that clubs have little control as to when games are scheduled.  Whilst other leagues across Europe have mid-Winter breaks, that simply means the Premier League can charge a higher fee to overseas broadcasters to schedule games at times attractive to foreign audiences – why else would the Leicester City game be scheduled on a Saturday night two days before Christmas?  In the Non-Leagues Christmas games bring in vital revenue, with local derbies boosting attendances although the continued lack of public transport on Boxing Day does prove problematic to many – Lewes take on Hastings United on Boxing Day despite the fact there is no public transport running between the two East Sussex towns 29 miles apart.

Commentators and members of the media often talk about Premier League players in revered terms, forgetting the hundreds of other equally committed and passionate individuals give up their time to bring joy to thousands of us who prefer our football a little less sanitised than that at the top level.

Happy Christmas to everyone who will take part in those games over the next nine days and spread the joy of the beautiful game to us all.

 

 

Friendly Fire…or how to navigate through the pre-season dance


No, no, no.  One after the other the emails from professional clubs arrive as responses to our requests for pre-season friendlies.  At least the clubs in question have had the decency to reply – 50% of the requests we send out go unanswered, consigned to the trash folders or passed around the clubs until they fall into someone’s spam filters.  We did consider the idea of requesting friendlies in writing, rather than email, but there’s even less certainty that the request will end up on the desk of the right person, or even if they are in the office during the close season.

Every season we start the planning earlier and earlier, based on feedback we get from the pro clubs that their schedules have already been locked down when we ask.  And initially they all say “it’s too early for us to be arranging our pre-season games” before letting us down gently a few weeks later.

At our level it is all about who you know – there’s very little chance of success trying to appeal to the benevolent side of a pro club, they don’t care.  They are doing you a favour and if something more attractive comes along you will be dropped like a stone.  Likewise, with the average life expectancy of a Football League manager now around 14 months, the summer is a fertile time for change and anything agreed is quickly disagreed when the new man comes in as we found out last season when an unnamed current League One club pulled out of a friendly at The Pan with a few weeks notice due to a change in manager and no chance for us to fill it with a similar fixture. Cobblers is what we said to that this time last year.

We quickly filled our local away games and extended the hand of friendship to our old friends from Dulwich Hamlet and Burgess Hill Town who would bring a fair few thirsty fans but every year we try to have one friendly that will get our fans tapping their feet in expectation.

Our “headline” act this year is a decent one and one that has come about through the patient building of a wider relationship.  We’ve enjoyed a good relationship to date with Chelsea and whilst we would have loved to have seen Conte’s men come down to the Pan, their DS side is still an attractive draw.  Who knows, there could be a famous name or two in the pack come the 22nd July.  

If you don’t ask you don’t get so we asked.  Multiple times.  And then they said yes.  It’s likely to be an attractive enough game for the fans of both sides that we will beat our budget for gate receipts from our pre-season games from this one game alone which puts us on a strong footing financially for the start of the season.

At least there is some logic in our Pre-Season plans which is more than can be said for my once beloved West Ham.  Their “European Tour” as they are calling it consists of three games against two opposition, one of which is a fellow Premier League side (someone obviously hasn’t been reading the Pre-Season Friendly rule book).   Despite the platitudes that come out of the club, surely someone up on high must have questioned the logic behind the games.  A pre-season training camp in Germany (not sure what’s wrong with Butlins at Camber Sands like in the old days) followed by two games against Werder Bremen in 24 hours but in locations over a hundred miles apart.  It’s not even that they are playing in well-known stadiums or in cities that have some link with either club – Schneverdingen has a population of around 20,000 and one of the biggest places of interest is a bog called Pietzmoor.  Twenty four later they decamp in Löhne (literal translation “wages” – how apt) in Nord-Rhein Westphalia.

But then they ramp up their preparations by heading to Iceland where they will take on Manchester City.  Iceland.  What’s the point of that?  No disrespect to Iceland but is there any relevance to the game being played there?

“It is fantastic that we will make history by becoming the first Premier League clubs to face each other in Iceland, and we are really looking forward to visiting Scandinavia, where there is a very big West Ham following.

“Iceland captured the imagination of everyone with their fantastic performance at the European Championships last year and, although the country is small in population, they have a huge love for football.”

The words of Slaven Bilic apparently.  Not sure what definition of Scandinavia he has read but according to Encyclopedia Britannica, Iceland is a Nordic Island Country and not part of Scandinavia.  But even so, what a flimsy reason to suggest why the game is being played there.  I certainly struggled to find any evidence of the West Ham Fan Club, Reykjavik branch (Chelsea and Spurs yes).  On West Ham’s official website there is a directory of hundreds of fan clubs not not one from Iceland.  Perhaps the club has confused the popularity of the discount frozen goods store in Green Street?

Good luck to the Hammers fans heading off to follow the side.  I’m sure the players will acknowledge your loyal support as always even if the club continue to wear their blinkers.

Walking football


Growing up I pleaded with my Dad to buy every house we saw for sale on our walk from the car parked near Plaistow tube station to The Boleyn Ground.  Wouldn’t it be brilliant to live next to a football ground?  I used to believe that the players spent every waking hour at the ground and probably would be a neighbour when we moved it.   I couldn’t understand his reluctance to give up our nice house in the country with a big garden for a terrace house on Green Street with a sofa in the front yard.

As the years have passed my interest in living so close waned as I saw exactly what fans did in the front gardens of the houses near grounds.  Of course the players didn’t live anywhere near the ground or even the fans, shudder the thought of having to mix with them.  But the idea of being able to nip out of the door at 2:55pm and be back in time for the distinct sounds of Sports Report is somewhat appealing.

Whenever I travel to games overseas I always try to stay close to the stadium, not having to worry about public transport post match.  I also love the idea of waking up, opening the curtains and seeing a stadium there in front of me, as I did in Bilbao back in November when I was almost in touching distance of the beautiful San Mames stadium.

Whilst it wasn’t quite in touching distance, the away trip to Greenwich Borough was one I had been looking forward to because I didn’t have to rely on any public transport or any need to drive or be driven (in the end I did use public transport and I did get a lift home) as their home ground in Middle Park Avenue was just 1.6 miles away, and with the Park Tavern at the half-way point, the meeting point for the extended Lewes Lunatic Fringe.  The Park Tavern is my local, despite being a mile away (we are bereft of pubs bizarrely in this area of London) and it was confirmed that we were the largest away support they had ever seen, although our only competition was the three Belgium fans who had got off the train at Mottingham just down the road thinking it was Nottingham and were looking for the City Ground apparently.

In a week where finances in Non-League football have come under the spotlight again with the crazy situation taking another turn for the ridiculous at Billericay Town, we headed down to Greenwich Borough.  It’s very hard to find out the real numbers behind virtually every club at our level and whilst we are completely transparent in publishing our budget, we still get questions from other clubs saying “but that’s not your real budget though is it?” And our answer is always the same, “yep” although of course the number we publish is the gross number, not the net one.  Greenwich Borough’s entry into the Isthmian League and the investment in Gary Alexander’s squad has led to many speculating that they are the best funded squad in the league, with former Football League players such as Peter Sweeney, Bradley Pritchard, Charlie MacDonald and Glenn Wilson.  Expectations are therefore high down at The DGS Marine Stadium (named after the Chairman’s shipping business) and they will be seething at the fact they let top spot slip through their fingers in the Autumn, although they’ve never fallen out of the Play-off spaces since.

Fifteen minutes before kick-off with our formation and tactics sorted, captain Lloyd Cotton put his foot down a divot on the warm-up pitch.  His presence at the back cannot be underestimated.  In the 19 games he has played centre-back this season, we had won 13 and drawn 3.  Fortunately we had Stacey Freeman on the bench to come into the side at the eleventh hour, albeit carrying an injury himself.  With the sun shining, the Rooks took to the field hoping that they would put in a South Park rather than a Godalming Town performance and move level on points with our hosts.

Greenwich Borough 1 Lewes 0 – DGS Marine Stadium – Saturday 26th March 2017
In the end this game was decided by two poor decisions, one made by Lewes’s Jack Dixon and one made by the referee. Third versus fifth and there was very to choose between the two sides at the start but by 5pm there was six points and four places – the difference between having a shot at promotion come end of April and a summer licking our wounds.

Football should always be enjoyed in the sunshine with a beer but in the first twenty minutes there was very little action on the pitch.  Both sides were cancelling themselves in midfield and with the Rooks battling both with the uphill slope and the strong wind in their face, they were happy to restrict the hosts to shots from distance.  Then in the space of a minute we went from attacking a corner to picking the ball out of the net.

It essentially went like this.  Sow corner to far post, Freeman jumps and is penalised.  Holloway takes free-kick, the bounce beats Harrington but Dixon is there to clear danger.  He under-hits his back pass to Winterton and Charlie MacDonald gets in front of Stacey Freeman and drills it past the Lewes keeper.  It was OK though as we would have the conditions in our favour in the second half.

The second period was dominated in my eyes by two events.  Firstly the wind blew over my 1/2 full pint of Badger’s Bitter and then Stephen Okoh was blatantly taken out in the area and the referee turned a blind eye.  There was no doubt that the first incident was an accident but the second was as clear a penalty as you could ever ask for.  On many other occasions we would have been celebrating a spot kick but that’s football for you.  Okoh then hit the bar with ten to play but that was the closest we came to scoring.  At the other end Winterton was rarely troubled as Greenwich Borough professionally saw the game out to grab all three points.

The disappointment wasn’t in the manner we lost – there was very little between the two sides – but in the fact every other team challenging with us for the Play-offs won.  We’d gone from fourth to seventh in the space of six days.  But with games coming thick and fast against 9th, 6th, 5th and 4th in the table to come in the next three weeks, nobody was giving up.

I could have walked home, smug that I had not added anything to my carbon footprint but Baz offered me a lift.  Just like living next to a ground seems like a great idea, turning down a lift to walk home was the sensible option.

Speaking out of turn


More through necessity than anything else, I still have the pleasure of holding the microphone at The Dripping Pan for every home game I attend.  Whilst the job isn’t that hard, you are forced to pay a little more attention than most fans to what is going on on the field, and such luxuries as having a pee, eating anything that requires two hands or even tweeting add an extra layer of complexity to the job.  It is a thankless, mostly dull job really but one that is essential.  In the three years that I’ve been doing the job I have had to deal with two lost children, five lost wallets, numerous cars blocking access in the car park and one request to “ring home”.  Alas, I am still waiting for my first marriage proposal or the nadir of a PA announcers career, “Mr x just to let you know you are the father of a new baby boy/girl”.

Thanks to Boysie for getting my best side

Thanks to Boysie for getting my best side

When I agreed to take it on I wanted to do it my way. No sitting up in the stand, no cheesy announcements, no muffled voices. It had to be big and bold, whilst still standing on the terraces with a pint of Harveys. Of course this leads to problems, especially when I can’t get to the bar until we have kicked off and am scared to turn my back just for a second in case I miss a bit of action.  I should do my research on pronunciation of player names but rarely do (apparently I’m still pronouncing Gus Sow’s name wrong), breaking it down phonetically and hoping I’ve got it right.  You can get too cocky though and announce something without referring to the team sheet such as the announcement of Tooting’s fourth goal scorer yesterday, Adam Cunningham….for Adam read Alexander.

Standing on the terraces does have issues though – it’s not that easy to see what’s going on at the other end.  I’ve lost count the number of times an opponent has scored and we have no idea who got the final touch.  In games when the reliable Rookmeister isn’t Tweeting in the stands I have to make a brave decision, knowing that the name I pick will be added to Football Web Pages and go down in history.  Of course we can try to find out from the opposing keeper, but they rarely know or even bother to respond.

And then there are times when you simply forget that you are doing the job as was the case yesterday when we conceded the comical second goal.  We were all so confused as to what happened that it was a good five minutes later before I remembered that I hadn’t announced it, although the handling of an own-goal is always a difficult one to decide what to do.  Should I say “own goal by Lewes number 4 Lloyd Harrington”, adding fuel to the fire of an already fuming midfielder, or should I give it to the “supplier” of the final ball?  In this case the Tooting player could hardly claim any credit for it.  Perhaps simply not announcing it was the best option, although if it was the first goal, what should I have done then as the Golden Goal competition is resting on my announcement of the time.  During the second half I bumped into an old friend, Gary Hancock, down from Tooting and started chatting to him, only realising a few minutes later than both sides had brought on substitutes unannounced.

Now that’s one aspect where I have the power of life or death. Well, sort of.  Yesterday we sold out of Golden Goal tickets meaning that two lucky punters would win £25.  I’m a bit conflicted here as I always have two tickets although I never open them until the first goal has been scored and I’ve announced the winner – I’m sure there would be a stewards enquiry if I did ever win, despite spending a King’s ransom on it over the years.

img_2858Announcing the teams is a challenge in itself.  They don’t put pronunciation guides on team sheets these days – was Tooting’s left-back “Ade-bow-ale”, “Ad-ebo-wale” or “Ade-bowal-e”?  The temptation to adopt Alan Partridge-style exclamations has so far been suppressed but it is only a matter of time before one or two slip out.

The rules keep on coming – Don’t announce the man of the match or official attendance too early – my rule is during a stop in play once we get into the 89th minute. Three years ago versus Brighton & Hove Albion in the Sussex Senior Cup, Sam Crabb was chosen and I announced the award when we were 1-0 down but then two Tom Davis specials saw us win and would’ve had won him the award. Yesterday there was an audible groan when I announced Charlie Coppola as Man of the Match, with comments like “you sure?” and “what game are you watching?” but I don’t choose the winner, I just announce it.

And finally you need to thank the away fans for attending, even if they’ve smashed up half the ground and invaded the pitch, and wish them luck for rest of season and a safe journey home.  Yesterday I made the “mistake” of suggesting we would see the Tooting & Mitcham United fans next season despite them sitting proudly on top of the table.  Or was it a mistake?

So let’s get to the game itself…

Lewes 1 Tooting & Mitcham United 5 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 18th February 2017
Let’s start with the positives.  Our matchday poster got national media attention.  We scored the best goal of the game and the crowd of 769 was the second biggest in the Ryman League South this season and the third biggest at step 3 and 4.  Reasons to be cheerful 1, 2 and 3? Alas the 5-1 scoreline where we actively contributed to four of the goals didn’t make for a happy post-match analysis.

c4uutyaweaa-fj8It could have been so different as we should have taken the lead inside the first two minutes, as Charlie Coppola found Jonté Smith in space in the penalty area, only for the striker to see his initial strike and then his effort on the rebound saved by Kyle Merson in the Tooting goal.  Then the roles were reversed and we almost saw a Coppola headed goal as he got his head to Smith’s excellent cross.

Alas, we couldn’t take our chances and fell behind in the 26 minutes when Chace O’Neill cut inside from the right and saw his long-range effort appear to take a deflection and loop over Winterton into the top corner.  Tooting’s lead was doubled in bizarre circumstances nine minutes later, as Winterton called for the ball as he looked to claim a cross from the right, with Lloyd Harrington ducking to get out of the goalkeeper’s way, only for the ball to hit him on the back and end up in the back of the net.

We needed to score the next goal and started the second half positively but when chances presented themselves we couldn’t quite find the final touch.  On the hour mark Stacey Freeman fouled Mike Dixon in the area and former Lewes player Jordan Wilson sent Winterton the wrong way from the spot to make it 3-0 and effectively end any hope of a come-back.

Tooting increased their lead further with ten minutes remaining, as substitute Adam/Alexander Cunningham capitalised on hesitant defending to run through and finish past Winterton.  The afternoon went from bad to worse four minutes later, as Lloyd Cotton was shown a straight red card for hauling down Dixon in the penalty area as the striker looked to get his shot away with only Winterton to beat.  Wilson was pushed aside with Dunn desperate to score his first goal since returning from Greenwich Borough and he chipped the ball down the middle to make it 5-0.

Despite a small exodus of fans when that goal went in, the biggest cheer of the day came when Stephen Okoh danced through the visitors defence and rolled the ball through Merson’s legs to give us some consolation.  It was certainly a kick in the teeth but other results mean that a win on Wednesday against Dorking Wanderers (only!) could still see us rise to fourth place, our highest league position this season.

Dorking hell


There’s defeats and then there are last-minute, defence lapse after you’ve been on top for 89 minutes 55 seconds sort of defeats.  Yesterday’s game at Dorking fell firmly into the latter category.  There’s only so much preparation you can do prior to games both in terms of analysing the way your opponents play, and adapting your line up and formation accordingly.  With almost every member of the first team squad available to train, Darren Freeman’s major problem on the morning of the game was who leave out.  We’d seen enough of Dorking, who have topped the Ryman League South longer than any other side this season, to know how they would play and where our opportunities would come from.

32466009431_27739d1ddb_kThe difference between teams at the top of the league and those firmly stuck in mid-table at this time of the season is bravery.  Do we go to places like Dorking and set up to grab a point? Or do we go with the full intention of winning the game, concentrating on our strengths and their weaknesses rather than the other way around.  Lewes of old would have certainly taken a Craig Levin approach to away trips (Scotland famously played a 4-6-0 formation under his leadership in the Czech Republic once) but today we have a squad of talented individuals whose sum parts are much greater than their individual contribution.

If the players believe in themselves then the fans will follow, just as they did yesterday when over 80 Lewes fans added some noise and verbal encouragement to the afternoon.  How much of a difference does that make to the team?  An unbelievable difference.   Players want to play for teams where the fans care. Opposing team goal keepers certainly cannot ignore the noise and the comments coming from the likes of Cynical Dave standing just a few feet behind them.  At our level they simply do not experience that from many sides, especially away support.  If every time as a keeper you know that 80 voices are encouraging you to make a mistake, only the strongest characters will be untroubled.

Picture by James Boyes

Picture by James Boyes

Yesterday we all did our bit.   Darren, Ross, Codge and Paul prepared the team.  The fourteen players who were involved in the game gave everything.  The fans never gave up hope.  But sometimes you fall just short, irrespective of the effort of everyone involved.  A 2-1 last second defeat in those circumstances is harder to stomach than getting smashed 5-0 to a team below you in the table.

Dorking Wanderers 2 Lewes 1 – Westhumble Sports Ground – Saturday 28th January 2017
We started positively, full of running and stretching the play.  Dorking play a similar game to us, which would have led to this being a fantastic match for the neutral, less so for an away fan as the game went into the 90th minute.  Our formation saw us use our full-backs as overlapping wingers, trying to get behind their full-backs and pull the ball back for our midfielders running.

Twenty five on the clock.  Full-back Matty George cuts inside his man, takes a touch past a second, gets a lucky rebound from a third and is through one-on-one.  The ball just runs away from him and he goes down under the challenge from the Dorking keeper.  From the referee’s angle behind play it looks a certain penalty, from ours behind the goal it is 50/50.  But the referee can only give what he sees and he points to the spot.  Protests are pointless, but the Dorking players feel the need to do so anyway.  Huk in the Dorking goal is booked. Dixon waits patiently then slots the ball in the corner. 1-0 Lewes.

32451270201_865dbbc58c_k-1Our lead lasts four minutes.  Dorking at their best, swapping passes at pace, catching the Lewes back four out of position and the prolific McShane smashes home.  The heads don’t go down.  Brinkhurst to Okoh, to Brinkhust, to Okoh.  The ball is fizzled across the six yard line and Jonté Smith taps home.  Bermuda’s scoring sensation jumps into the arms of Cynical Dave.  Alas the flag is up.  We protest, as the unwritten rule book says we should, but the goal is ruled out.

Man of the match Huk in the Dorking goal seems spurred on by the taunting from the Lewes fans, pulling off outstanding saves from Dixon and Okoh.  Half-time and players, management and fans alike go to re-hydrate, knowing that we won that half.

The start of the second half is more of the same.  Hammond shaves a post, Smith heads just wide whilst at the other end Sole hits the bar.  The game could go either way, as both sides are now committed to attack.  Full-back Matty George comes off.  Lewes try to bring on Dan Perry but he’s having a fight with his shirt.  “Go on, go on” shouts Darren as the ball is played to Stephen Okoh.  Dan, who still hasn’t got the shirt on, assumes his gaffer is talking to him, so he runs on, still with his shirt only partially on, keen to join the attack.  Alas, Darren’s comments were directed to the Lewes winger, Okoh, and not Dan who is promptly booked for illegally entering the field of play.

32588806205_13bf2c7079_kFive minutes are put up on the fourth officials board.  Dorking hit the ball from left to right.  Brinky has switched from right to left back to cover for the departed Matty George.  He controls the ball on his left, tries to push it onto his favoured right to clear but the impressive Briggs takes it off his toe and smashes it home within half a second.  Dorking celebrate wildly, the Lewes side sinks to their knees.

Five additional minutes don’t bring and further chances to a Rooks side who have been sucker-punched.  The full-time whistle blows and the response from the Lewes fans is as warm and heart-felt as any victory this season.  Every player gave everything and whilst we didn’t take any points home, no fan can bemoan the way we played, the effort, the passion.

As a fan all you can ask is seeing your team give a damn, playing to the best of their ability.  Sometimes it will be your day, other times you will suffer that 90th minute defeat, wandering off into that night feeling mortally wounded but knowing that you, like the players and management, will be back, full of optimism in a week’s time.