The Sands of time

On the 2nd June 1978 history was made at the Football League’s Annual General Meeting held at the Café Royal in London.  Every year the clubs got to vote on whether the teams who had finished at the bottom of the then Division Four would be “re-elected” to the Football League for the following season, or replaced by a team from the Non-Leagues.  There was no formalised pyramid as there is today with any club who felt they had the resources able to make an application to join the league.  In the previous decade, clubs such as Chelmsford City, Romford, Gravesend & Northfleet and Altrincham had made applications to get into the league without success, with the advantage always with the league sides.  That was until 1977 when Workington were voted out of the league, having finished adrift at the bottom of the Fourth Division, replaced by Wimbledon FC.  However, it was events on Regent Street a year later that would be remembered in the annuls of footballing history.

The bottom four sides in the Fourth Division in that season in order were:-

Hartlepool United – 37 Pts
York City – 36 Pts
Southport – 31 Pts
Rochdale – 24 Pts

They would be joined in the vote by Bath City and Wigan Athletic, the two representatives from the Southern and Northern Leagues respectively.  Wigan hadn’t even won their league, finishing runners-up to Boston United although they were no strangers to playing their hand in trying to gain election, having made 34 previous applications.

In the first round of voting, York City, Rochdale and Hartlepool United topped the voting, meaning they were safe, whilst Bath City received just 21 votes and were discounted.  But Wigan Athletic and Southport both gained 26 votes meaning a second vote was needed.  Unfortunately, Southport lost by 29 votes to 20 and were ceremoniously kicked out of the league, the last club ever to suffer the re-election fate.  The fans blamed the trumpet-playing pub landlord and chairman, Walter Stanley Giller although Wigan Athletic had been very canny in their campaigning, bringing in former England Manager Sir Alf Ramsey to help influence some of the voters – every Football League club got to vote, not just the teams in Division Four and he was still a revered character in English football.

Almost forty years later, Southport were lining up against Lincoln City in the Conference Premier in the final game of the regular season.  In just a few months time the two clubs would be playing their football two divisions apart as the Imps would be returning to the Football League after a six-year hiatus whilst Southport would head in the other direction after seven years at the highest level of Non-League football.  Since that June day nearly 40 years ago they’d rarely come close to returning to the Football League – a 3rd place finish in 1994/95, eight points behind champions Macclesfield Town was the closest they came.

With the Isthmian League season done I could put the stresses and strains of my Lewes role behind me and go back to being a wandering football fan for a few weeks.  Come July time and I am itching to get back into action at The Dripping Pan but by the end of April I am looking forward to a break.  Don’t get me wrong – I’d have loved for us to be playing 250 miles south in the Isthmian League South Play-off Final but we weren’t (although next year will be different I am sure) and so I could get the footballing map out and find some new grounds to visit.  This time last season I saw a double-header in snowy Harrogate Town and Guiseley – this year I would be heading North-West to take one step closer to finishing off the 92 for the third time (after the weekend there would be just Morecambe left to do) and also take in some racing at Haydock Park and Rugby League at Salford Red Devils and their new A.J. Bell stadium.

Southport have undoubtedly suffered as Liverpool and Everton have benefited from the ever-generous Premier League revenue streams.  As I walked down Haigh Avenue I passed a group of youngsters heading in the opposite direction of the ground – 3 Liverpool and 2 Barcelona shirts, oblivious to the game about to start on their doorstep.  Before the season-high attendance, they had averaged just over 1,000, down by around 800 from their Football League days.

In the same season that Southport were facing up to life outside the Football League, Fleetwood Town were formed, starting their life in the Cheshire League.  Twenty years later they folded, reformed and took their place in the tenth tier of English football as Fleetwood Freeport.  They regained the Town name in 2002 and since then they have been on an upward trajectory unlike anything else that has been seen in Non-League football, thanks in main to Chairman Andy Pilley who has run the club since 2004.  Their story is one of the only successes of the single investor models.  Whilst the soap opera continues to play out at Billericay Town, the carcasses of similar stories litters the Non-Leagues.  Margate, Kings Lynn and Histon, to name but a few are examples of where such a strategy has gone horribly wrong but at Fleetwood, the success is all too clear to see with a club that is thriving off the pitch as well as on it.  The club was promoted five years ago into the Football League, with striker Jamie Vardy leaving at the end of the season for a Non-League record fee of £1m paid by Leicester City.  Almost a year to the day of my visit, the club opened an £8m training facilities, putting them on a par with clubs in the Championship.

Southport 1 Lincoln City 1 – Merseyrail Community Stadium – Saturday 29th April 2017
On paper this was a dead rubber with both sides fate already determined.  In reality it played out like one.  Lincoln City had made a number of changes to their side and consequently none of the urgency that had characterised their games in recent weeks was there.  Southport showed in the opening period why they had been in the bottom four for over three-quarters of the Conference Premier season, with the fans seemingly resigned to defeat before a ball had been kicked.

Lincoln City had sold their allocation of tickets, and some more, occupying two sides of the ground and a fair section of the main stand.  The home side formed a guard of honour for the Imps as they entered the field accompanied by a riot of red and white from the away fans.  The home fans looked on in envy – relegation would see few such days in the coming twelve months, especially as local upstarts AFC Fylde would be heading the other way.

Despite the weakened side, Lincoln City were looking to finish the season on a high, coming into the game on the back of a ten game unbeaten streak.  They looked to get the ball wide as often as they could, trying to find space behind the Southport full-backs, whilst the enigma that is Matt Rhead played the pantomime villain to a tee, winding up the home players and fans alike, constantly in the ear of the referee about the treatment he was receiving.  On the half-hour his presence in the area caused all sorts of chaos and Lee Angol had the simplest job of putting the Imps into the lead.

Back in 1973 when both sides were in the Football League, the crowd was entertained by an appearance from Red Rum at half-time, who had just won his first of three Grand Nationals.  Today, we had the excitement of a kids five-a-side tournament and the songs of Coldplay.  Don’t get me started about the demise of half-time entertainment…oh OK if you insist then have a read of this.

The rest of the game was played with the intensity of a pre-season friendly.  The home fans around me on the Scarisbrick Terrace were reading out the teams currently in the Conference North, mentally ticking off where they had been, getting very excited about a day trip to Blyth Spartans, although the claim by one that they were from Blythe in Staffordshire rather than Blyth in Northumberland was amusing to listen to.  Just as most of the home fans were getting ready to head home for an afternoon of Jeff Stelling, Southport scored through Neil Ashton.  I had made my excuses before the final whistle, heading down to Haydock Park to watch the action on and off the track.

Twenty two hours after leaving Haigh Avenue I was on my way into Fleetwood, about an hour north of Southport, past the town’s most famous feature, the Fisherman’s Friend factory.  I’d been tipped off that if I could get into the club lounge area then I may meet up with Syd Little, a long-time fan of the club and often seen helping out his wife who runs the kitchen.  Alas, with that avenue of pleasure closed off, I headed to the Highbury Chippy, which came highly recommended but like Chessington World of Adventures was a disappointment.  Apparently it is under new management but it appears they are yet to get to grips with exactly how long to cook food for.

Fleetwood Town 0 Port Vale 0 – Highbury Stadium – Sunday 30th April 2017
It is rare that you watch a game that is so bad you wish someone had invented a time machine to get those 2 hours of your life back to do something more interesting, like watching paint dry.  There’s no disrespect in that statement to Fleetwood Town as hosts – after all they had little to play for once Bolton Wanderers had taken an early lead.  However, at the other end of the pitch, if I was one of the thousand plus Port Vale fans who had turned up in hope they could get a win, I would have been furious that the team simply looked ill-prepared, tactically inept and completely devoid of motivation.  For the home side, they had to hope Bolton Wanderers slipped up for them to have any chance of automatic promotion.  Possible, but unlikely.  For Port Vale, the maths was much simpler.  Better the Gillingham result and they would be safe.

The strong cross wind made it difficult for both sides, but it was clear what the issue was from early in the game so why continue to try to plan long cross-balls?  Neither keeper really had anything to worry about in the first half bar dodging the litter blowing onto the pitch whilst the fans put on their best smiles for the completely over the top Police presence and their roving video camera man.

I cannot really tell you anything of interest in the second half.  With five minutes to go and the police readying themselves for a potential pitch invasion from the away fans I headed out.  As I got to the corner of Highbury Avenue a huge cheer went up.  I got to the car and checked the score, expecting to see one of the sides had scored but there was nothing.  I can only assume the cheer was for a corner, so bad the game was.  In the end Port Vale went down without a whimper and I hope for the fans sake that they find some comfort in an opportunity to be at the top end of the table next season, albeit at a lower level although I think there may need to be a big chance off the field before the good times start to roll again.

Football has moved on beyond comparison in the last forty years, mostly for the good.  The anarchic process of re-election, the perfect example of the old-boys club in action, has fortunately been scrapped but that’s no comfort to Southport (although it may be for Port Vale next season!).  For Lincoln City and Fleetwood Town the future looks bright.  Even if the latter do not find success through the Play-offs, they will get stronger on and off the pitch, looking forward to having a local(ish) derby with at least Wigan Athletic and possibly even former Premier League Champions, Blackburn Rovers.  Strong foundations built on and off the pitch, with a good local fan base can only lead to good times ahead for the Trawlermen and the Imps.

Just one week later Hartlepool United, the club with the most reprieves from re-election (14 times) were relegated from the Football League after rivals Newport County scored an 89th minute winner in their game against Notts County to leapfrog United and send them down in the final minute of the season, having spent just two weeks in the bottom two all season.

Impishly Good Friday

Today’s attendance is……9,011. Thank you for your attendance”

You’d be forgiven for thinking I was spending my Good Friday watch a game in English Football League One, or even in the lower reaches of the Championship. I wasn’t. I was watching a club that is in all but status a Football League club, but officially is classed as a Non-League side, or grassroots as our beloved Football Association often class all teams playing below the Football League. Only in Germany would you find crowds like this in the fifth tier of their game.

Prior to the visit of Torquay United, league leaders Lincoln City were three wins and a draw from a return to the Football League after a six-year hiatus. This season has almost been a perfect debut for the Cowley brothers. Four years ago to the day they were in charge at Concord Rangers when the mighty Rooks rolled into town and in the sunshine with all three points in a 3-2 win. Now they stand on the verge of taking the Imps back into the Football League in a season that has seen them make global headlines for their FA Cup exploits, yet ask them about the regrets and they will wince when they mention missing out on a trip to Wembley in the FA Trophy final after an extra-time defeat to York City in the semi-final second leg. They’ve set a high bar since arriving in Lincoln last summer and the team have responded.

What’s been impressive is how the whole city has got behind them. Attendance numbers at Sincil Bank started around the 3,000 mark as the fans were slow to return after so many false dawns in recent years. Even when they hit the top spot and started to progress in the FA Cup in mid-November, the crowds were only just topping 3,500, which in itself was higher than more than ten Football League sides. A week after the visit of Wrexham in front of 3,300 fans they faced League One Oldham Athletic in the Second Round of the FA Cup. Over 7,000 fans saw the 3-2 win and the vast majority returned two weeks later for the top of the table clash with Tranmere Rovers.

Since then the locals seem to have been hooked. Of course there has been a band wagon and people have jumped on it after the FA Cup wins against Ipswich Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and Burnley, but the difference here is the crowds have stuck with The Imps post-cup exit. Any Non-League club that’s successful will see the fair weather fans come out for the big games, claiming they’ve been fans for life but a few weeks later they are nowhere to be seen when a midweek league game takes place. Sutton United also hit the FA Cup headlines, for the right and most definitely wrong reasons this season. Eight days after 5,013 saw them take on Arsenal, 1,441 saw the home game with Boreham Wood. In fact their biggest attendance since the Arsenal game when Lincoln City arrived bring hundreds of fans to boost the attendance to over 2,200.

The club will argue there’s been a positive effect of the cup run – the average attendance at Gander Green Lane has gone up from around 1,400 at the start of the season to around 1,800 now. Gaining news fans in an area that is within the Crystal Palace catchment area is tough – Lincoln City’s big advantage is that traditionally their biggest rival for the locals football-watching attentions is Nottingham Forest, 30 minutes away on the train. Their continued demise on and off the pitch has certainly worked in the Imps’ favour.

The Football League and its member clubs continue to fail to recognise the Conference Premier as an equal. They’ve denied a third promotion place for decades, ruled that no clubs using a 3G can be promoted (despite the fact over a quarter of a Scottish Premier & Football League sides use them) and even decided to allow Premier (and subsequently Championship) B-teams to enter their Members Cup rather than opening it up to teams at the top of the Conference.

The Football League are scared of progress – why else wouldn’t they want sides such as Lincoln City or Tranmere Rovers, themselves getting average home attendances of 6,000 plus? An additional spot would generate greater competition and bring the potential of new teams joining the league. Forest Green Rovers, financially and ecologically sustainable, have been knocking on the door for years and a third spot would have seen them promoted some time ago. It’s hardly as if when new teams join the Football League they all struggle is it? Fleetwood Town, promoted less than five years ago could be a Championship side next season, joining Burton Albion. AFC Wimbledon seem to be doing well in mid-table in League One too.

On the other side of the coin you have the Football League sides struggling. The two teams currently occupying the relegation spots in League Two have both been beset by ownership issues which has in turn led to financial problems off the field and poor form on it. Just above them sit Morecambe (granted a former Conference side), another club that has an owner who appears to have disappeared off the face of the earth, taking the cheque book with him, leaving the players, management and suppliers high and dry.

I can’t see one compelling reason why at least there should not be three-up, three-down between the Football League and the Conference. In fact I’d go a bit further and restructure the leagues completely, having a 20 team Premier and Championship league, then three regionally based leagues of 20, meaning the top 8 of the Conference would join the league – less travel, less long midweek trips, more local games, more new grounds for fans to visit.

So back to Good Friday. It had indeed been a good Friday before we arrived at a heaving Sincil Bank as my horse had come in at 33/1 at Lingfield Park. Of course that meant the beers and pies would be on me but that’s a small price to pay for such luck. There’s fewer better sights approaching a football ground than the walk up Sincil Bank itself, with the modern Co-Operative Stand trying to nudge the Cathedral out of shot in the distance. I came here at the start of last season when Torquay United were the visitors on that occasion. No more than a couple of thousand had been here and what was noticeable back then were the lack of fans in Lincoln shirts, with kids running around sporting Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona and even a LA Galaxy shirts. Today I felt out-of-place without a Lincoln City shirt on. The transformation was amazing.

Northern Steve had procured the last seats in the house a few hours earlier. So last-minute that the seats didn’t actually exist – I believe we were supposed to bring our own emergency chairs. The seats were in the front row behind the goal, but were taken by wheelchair users and their carers. Fortunately the stewards re-housed us in the overflown section, next to the away fans. Everyone we met (and Steve knows a few in these parts) greeted us with a “UTI!”. At first I tried to explain that the coins in my pocket were chaffing, hence my strange gait rather than it being some Urinary Tract Infection but in these parts it means Up The Imps. Comfortably seated with any pain, let the game commence.

Lincoln City 2 Torquay United 1 – Sincil Bank – Friday 14th April 2017
The mark of a good team is knowing that they’ve never been beaten. When Torquay took the lead thanks to Ruairi Keating (nephew of Ronan no less) close range effort with just ten minutes to play you got a sense that The Gulls could upset the odds and put a dent in Lincoln’s promotion push. They’d kept the Imps at bay for most of the game with keeper Brendan Moore being tested only on occasion as Lincoln seemed to feel the long-ball game would have more success against a side fighting for their lives at the bottom.

The style of Lincoln play had surprised me.  I’d seen them fleetingly this season, and had seen the Cowley’s teams play not only at Concord Rangers but also at Braintree Town.  They are set up with two big, but mobile centre-backs, pacy full-backs and workmen-like midfielders and of course the away fans pantomime villain Rhead up front.  But they also had been successful playing the ball to feet this season.  Torquay were more than a match for most of the opening half, with Paul Farman in the Lincoln goal the busier of the two.

In the final minute of the first half Moore pulled off a great save down at his post which better keepers would have never got to.  But overall, the visitors could be pleased with a good half of football.  Other scores from around the division were kind to both teams, with Torquay’s need more pressing than the Imps you would say, having suffered so badly with events off the pitch in the last few years.  Seeing the Lincoln City re-birth in the past couple of seasons both on and off the pitch should give Gulls fans some hope, although in the darkest days you really don’t want to open the curtains and see who else is having a good time.

The goal was the tipping point to try something different. The ball stayed on the ground and they stretched Torquay, forcing them into conceding free-kick after free-kick on the edge of the box.  With three minutes to go Harry Anderson was the quickest to react to Marriott’s shot that had been well saved by Moore and the Imps were back in the game.  They could sense victory and threw everyone forward.  As the clock ticked over the 90th minute mark, another foul was awarded just outside the box.  With the Torquay wall being assembled, Rhead stood in front of the keeper, moving step by step with him, telling him where the ball was going to go in the football equivalent of sledging.  He stepped back and Sam Habergham’s free-kick was as good as you would see anywhere in World Football.  The Torquay players sank to their knees – they knew they were beaten.

Momentum is hard to create but once a team has it, they are hard to stop.  The fans went off into the rainy Lincolnshire afternoon knowing that just two more wins stood between them and a return to the Football League.  For Torquay it would be a nervous few weeks hoping others would slip up in their fight against relegation to Conference South, where their local derby next season could be with Truro City.

IMPending doom in the Lincolnshire Derby

It’s Boxing Day. A time to put on your Christmas jumpers and escape from the family. In recent years it has been a tradition that I head off to football with varying success.  The TBIR records show that in the last five years we’ve only had one postponement, although last year’s encounter between Lewes and Bognor Regis should never have been completed due to the weather, and consequently cost the life of my car (long story about cam belts and water). Football and Boxing Day have been Christmas necessities long before Terry’s brought us the Chocolate Orange. The fact that I head off to two games a week during the other 51 weeks of the year is irrelevant.

Boxing Day is all about renewing local rivalries and sharing them with your loved ones.  Some of the biggest crowds of the season are seen on Boxing Day, despite the lack of public transport in many areas of the country. In recent years I have experienced the likes of Burton Albion, Carshalton Athletic v Sutton United, West Ham and of course, Lewes.  But this year, weather permitting, it was about “the big one”.  One that all of the locals were talking about.  In the land of Northern Steve you are either an Imp or a Cod Head.  Unless you support Manchester United, Forest, Liverpool, Leeds United, Peterborough United or even Grantham Town.  The forthcoming Boxing Day derby was the talk of the town.

11582833293_0d77c430b1_bDespite falling out of the Football League, both Lincoln City and Grimsby Town still remain big clubs in a smallish pond.  That pond, otherwise known as the Conference Premier, is getting too big nowadays for the ex-league clubs, and faced with even stiffer competition to return to the Football League, it is sink or swim for many.  Stockport County, just a five years after winning the playoffs to the third tier of English football, found out to their cost how difficult the Conference was last season and now have fallen even further, looking forward to local derbies against the likes of Stalybridge Celtic.

Every season it seems the same names are tipped for being promotion challengers – Wrexham, Cambridge United, Luton Town and Kidderminster Harriers.  Add in the mix newbies Aldershot Town and Barnet as well as clubs rising up with a financial backing such as Forest Green Rovers and Alfreton Town meaning in summary “it’s bloody difficult”.

11582614135_48eb476ef2_bThis season Grimsby Town are giving a go, coming into Christmas in third place with games in hand to mount an assault on the summit, currently occupied by Cambridge United.  Lincoln City, on the other hand, were once again trying to keep their head above the relegation zone.  Twelve months ago the situation was almost identical, although the Mariners were top at Christmas coming into the game at Sincil Bank.  In that game, Grimsby won 4-1 in a lunch time kick off in front of a season-best 5,700 before all sorts of fun and japes took place in and around the city centre for the rest of the day.  Surely history wouldn’t repeat itself this year?

Lincoln’s support had been in the press for the wrong reasons “up here” in recent months.  A massive brawl prior to the game versus Nuneaton Town led to front page news and then a few weeks ago eleven fans were given custodial sentences and banning orders after pre-match trouble against Luton Town.  Tensions would sure to be high for the visit of their fiercest rivals. But it’s Christmas – a time for peace and goodwill.  The presence of a new jumper and a Santa’s hat would surely be more effective than riot police?

Lincoln City 0 Grimsby Town 2 – Sincil Bank – Thursday 26th December 2013
It wasn’t a good day to be a Lincoln fan.  It was an even worse one for Northern Steve being a Imps/Rooks/Hammer who had to miss the post-match pint to return home to entertain his in-laws (me excluded of course).  Lincoln were toothless in front of goal, simply not being able to turn any possession into clear chances on goal.  They had 15 off target attempts in a frustrating ninety minutes that saw them play out the last few minutes with ten men.

11588326565_9ddc428f5e_bIt was quite clear that Imps boss Gary Simpson had told his team to “get into them early”, judging by the quickest booking I had seen in many-a-year when Danny Rowe flew into a Grimsby defender with just 16 seconds on the clock.  A definite yellow and it if wasn’t for the sensible head of Grimsby’s Pearson there would have been handbags flying within the first few seconds – nobody would have wanted to have seen a 22-man brawl by the edge of the Lincoln fans in the first minute of the game would’ve they?

Ten minutes gone and Grimsby were one-nil up.  Despite some early Lincoln pressure, mainly due to the Delap-esque throw-ins from Miller, Grimsby took full advantage of confusion in the Imps penalty area from a corner, allowing Ross Hannah to power home a header.  His choice of running to celebrate in front of the home fans wasn’t the best decision, but still allowed a few fans who had indulged a bit too much over Christmas to shed an ounce or two as they ran down the steps of the stand to give Hannah some seasonal greetings.

The next fifteen minutes saw poor timed challenges galore as the referee issued three further yellow cards, giving the game a nice little edge.  However, a second Grimsby goal in the 40th minute by Craig Disley sent the 1,700 away fans into Boxing Day delight and effectively sealed the victory with over a half of the game to play.

With the temperature dropping like a stone we needed something to keep up going.  For future reference I wouldn’t recommend the “Premium Hot Dog” at £3.50 which was possibly the most tasteless thing I have ever eaten.  It wasn’t unpleasant, just absolutely devoid of any flavour.  You could have got better value eating the paper napkin in was wrapped in.

11588330335_b19f7c0397_bBut we weren’t here to eat, drink or be merry.  We had a game to watch.  Lincoln were sure to come out fired up and give this a go.  But they didn’t.  The game descended into a series of niggly fouls and blocked shots with Lincoln unable to break down a solid Grimsby defence, and Grimsby unwilling to commit more men forward.  The final act was the sending off of Lincoln’s Jake Sheridan for a bad tackle.  Quite why the home fans clapped him off is beyond me – it was rash, late, high and dangerous.

Fair play though to the fans on both sides.  Lincoln’s vocal element are now housed in the corner of the Co-op Stand, with the 1,700 away fans in the Stacey West Stand adjacent which was an impressive effort on a day where public transport wasn’t running.  The constant noise made by the two sets of fans created an atmosphere that is very rare at Non-League level.  Deep down both teams will feel they should be playing at a higher level and I tend to agree.  For one that ambition may be realised sooner than the other.

Welling up the table

The debate about the status of the Conference Premier has been raging for many years.  Take a look at the league at the moment and you cannot fail to notice some very familiar names.  Cambridge United were once a few minutes away from the top-level of English football and after what seems like years in the Non-League, are now leading the pack in the Skrill Premier.  Not far behind them are fellow Football League exiles Grimsby Town, Luton Town, Kidderminster Harriers and Barnet.  All of these clubs could essentially slot straight back into the world of the SkyBet, or whatever it is called, League tomorrow, competing on and off the pitch.

Take a look at the average attendances in the league so far this season and the best eleven supported teams are all ex-League teams.  In fact all of these apart from Halifax Town have a higher average attendance than Accrington Stanley, Dagenham & Redbridge and Morecambe (all of who were until recently, Non League sides).  But there are a couple of new names appearing towards the top of the table.  Alan Devonshire’s Braintree Town are punching well above their weight in 4th place, surviving on crowds of around a thousand.  Salisbury City and Nuneaton Town are new-boys in the league but both have relatively good catchment areas, free from the distractions of bigger sides.

10635884434_1e8b74840d_bAnd then there is Welling United.  Sitting in ninth place in the league, just one win off fourth place, the Wings are enjoying life back in the top-level of Non-League football.  Whilst they have been here before, from 1986 to 2000, the world of Non-League football has moved on, so their achievements in winning the Conference South last season was remarkable to say the least. I say that based on some local knowledge.  Living just 4 miles away I have been a regular visitor at Park View Road over the years.  Earlier this year I was at the top of the table clash with Chelmsford City.   Whilst Welling were demolishing a fellow title-contender on the pitch, off it were collection buckets encouraging fans to “dig deep” for Jamie Day’s, the player-manager’s budget.  A year on from play-off final defeat away to Dartford, Welling won the Conference South and took their place with professional clubs who had tasted victory at Wembley when they were Football League sides.  With average attendances of just over 800, few expected anything more than a season-long fight with relegation.  Instead, impressive form at Park View Road has seen them already find their feet in an ultra-competitive league. Continue reading

Possibly the best match report ever written

Northern Steve loves a game or two whenever I go up to visit him in the lowlands of Lincolnshire , but with no one to lead him astray the rest of the time he rarely gets to go to football.  My sister-in-law, SOCMF (Sister of Current Mrs Fuller), isn’t a “football lass”.  In fact the contempt she flicked at me when I got excited last year about a trip to Lincoln Moorlands Railways FC in the FA Cup just a few hundred yards away from her own front door was enough to have me hiding in the proverbial dug out for good.

But last week she surprised us all.  She willingly went to a football match. And just to show that she really does have a normal bone in her body, she actually quite liked it.  Well, that is what she told me.

“As me and (Northern) Steve haven’t been out for a few months I could hardly turn down a “date” with my husband.  The date turned out to be Lincoln Moorlands Railways versus Lincoln City in something called a “pre-season friendly”.  It was sold to me as a chance to catch up with some of our friends we hadn’t seen for a while.  Little did I realise that our friends were actually in opposition on the touchline (One of whom was Grant Brown who we interviewed here).

Steve knows how to treat a girl on a night out and he wasn’t shy about it, buy me a tea all to myself and a hotdog when we got to the ground, although I repaid him by spilling my onions all over his shoes.  True love never dies.

I haven’t got a clue who any of the players were because they didn’t have one of those big screen things we see on the TV.  They didn’t even have one of those magazine things, although that’s what Steve told me and he may have just have been too tight to buy one.

So you want a report?  Well here it is.  Moorlands were in yellow tops with blue shorts and Lincoln City were red and white striped tops and black shorts!! I always assumed they were called the Limps, but apparently it is the Imps which makes a bit more sense now. Two men took off their shirts and the Moorlands captain, number 9, was quite fit!! I think one team scored three goals and the other one scored one, but as they swapped sides at the break thing I have no idea what the final score was.”

So thanks for that SOCMF..I am sure we will all wait with baited breath for your next trip to football.

My first game – Adam Bate

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Lincoln City
Football League Division 4
2nd May 1987

It is difficult to write an account of my first game without it feeling like a substandard Nick Hornby pastiche. Whether I like it or not, sentimental clichés and sepia images are all my mind has left of that May day in 1987. Fortunately, I do quite like it.

The match was Wolverhampton Wanderers versus Lincoln City in the old fourth division and the setting was Molineux. Not the post-Taylor report all-seater Molineux that exists today. This was old dilapidated Molineux with just one and three quarter stands open – the rest closed for safety reasons. Remarkably, it could still hold over 20,000 people thanks to the South Bank terrace.

Ah, the South Bank. At one time, of all the ‘Kops’ in England, only Villa’s Holte End accommodated more people. Not this day against Lincoln. The crowd was sparse – just 7,285 to be precise. But these were dark days for Wolves and a distinct lack of turnstile operators meant there was still frenzied queuing outside to get in the ground. I vividly remember my dad lifting me on his shoulders as he nervously alerted the drunken fans around us that a child (me!) was being caught in the crush.

The next thing I remember, we were inside. This was my first look at a football ground in the flesh and, despite Molineux’s tragic appearance, I thought she was magnificent. Wolves were already 1-0 up – not something that was to become a habit although it did explain the pushing and shoving outside.

Inside that vast South Bank my dad actually had to wander over to the nearest fan – a good ten yards away – and ask who had scored. The answer came back: Steve Bull. Unluckily for me, I had just missed his 13th goal for the club. No matter. I was lucky enough to see his second of the game moments later and most of the 102 that followed in the back-to-back title seasons that followed.

In all honesty of course, there have been plenty of lows to go with those heady childhood days. And my mum even insisted I sit in the family enclosure seats for the next ten years! But I’ll always remember my first and last game on that South Bank terrace with my dad. Perfect.

Adam Bate

When we were young…

Where does time go?  One minute you are a young striker forming the most lethal all English partnership the Premier League has ever seen, the next you are managing a 4th tier provincial club struggling against relegation from the football league.  But everyone has to start somewhere, and when Lincoln City appointed Chris Sutton as manager in September 2009 they hoped that he would one day follow in the footsteps of Graham Taylor and errr John Beck.

But while Sutton was scoring for fun in Norwich City’s golden age in Europe, Lincoln City were enjoying one of their rare moments in the spotlight.  Tuesday 21st September 1993 is not a day etched in the memory of many of us, but at Sincil Bank that night in the 1st leg of the 2nd round of the League Cup (known then as the Coca-Cola Cup) they will remember a real humdinger of a game played out between two teams over 70 positions apart.  Lincoln under Keith Alexander were in 19th place in Division Three as it was then, and had just one win behind them.  Everton were in sixth place in the Premiership (as it was then) and had won four of their opening seven league games.

Over 9,100 saw the game, which Everton ran out 4-3 winners thanks to a Paul Rideout hatrick (Everton won the second leg 4-2 as well) but it was their squad that caught my eye.  Below is the Everton squad, along with their respective costs:-

Goalkeeper – Jason Kearton – Free from Brisbane Lions
Full Back – Paul Holmes – £100,000 from Birmingham City
Full Back – Andy Hinchliffe – £1,200,000 from Man City
Centre Back – Gary Ablett – £750,000 from Liverpool
Centre Back – Matt Jackson – £125,000 from Luton Town
Midfield – John Ebrell – Schoolboy
Midfield – Mark Ward – £1,000,000 from Man City
Midfield – Barry Horne – £650,000 from Southampton
Midfield – Peter Beagrie – £215,000 from Stoke City
Forward – Paul Rideout – £500,000 from Glasgow Rangers
Forward – Tony Cottee – £2,000,000 from West Ham United

Subs: Graham Stuart (£850,000), Preki (£100,000) and Reeves (Free)

Total value – £7,915,000

In today’s money, using our trusted Inflation Calculator, this would be worth just over £12million.  Is Everton’s squad today worth this?  Er no I don’t think so.  Big haired Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellanini cost as much as this when he signed from Standard Liege in September 2008.  Last season David Moyes squad was assembled at a cost of £60.25m, which using our reverse calculator £40million – meaning that the spending of Everton, an average Premier League club as multiplied by over three fold.

So what about Lincoln City?  Their squad that night cost a total of £343,000, with their record signing Grant Brown costing £63,000 when they signed him from Leicester City.  Today that would be worth £96,000.  But here we can see where football has gone so wrong.  In today’s game where the money all floats to the top of the tree, Chris Sutton’s squad has been assembled at a cost of….£17,500!

We caught up with Lincoln City’s star man, Grant Brown recently to get his views on the game.  Brown went on to make 407 appearances for the Imps, and after two stints as caretaker manager, is back at the club today as Assistant Head of Youth at the club.

As a former player, you can surely swing a few favours here and there. So When was the last time you paid to watch a game?
The Play-off final against Bournemouth at the Millennium Stadium in May 2003

Lower league fans are wittier than those you find in the Premier League so what is the best insult thrown at you?
During an away game at Gillingham at a time when my hair was particularly long our fans sang for me to get my haircut….probably not not worst insult I have had but it’s all I’m telling you!!!!

Football fans often show little respect for the players.  Have you ever been tempted to do a Cantona and jump in the crowd after some sustained abuse from an individual?
No, but was tempted to do it to a few of the opponents dug outs

Having played nearly 600 games for various clubs, you must have played with some decent players, so who is the best player you have lined up with?
Gary McAllister without a doubt when we were both at Leicester City.

And against?
Emile Heskey – big, strong and a real handful

You must have played in some really important games in your career, but what was the biggest game you have played in?
Lincoln City v Brighton & Hove Albion when we won promotion in 1998.  We had to beat Brighton and hope Torquay lost away at Orient.  We did our bit, and despite some intense Torquay pressure in the final few minutes, Orient won and we were promoted.

So most memorable game?
The promotion game, or the Cup ties v. Man City and Everton (See above). I also remember getting beaten 7-1 at Bury and Colchester United, not nice!!!

Six hundred games, that must be a fair few grounds you have playes at.  So what is your favourite ground?
It may surprise to you to hear that I always enjoyed playing at Glanford Park, Scunthorpe where the crowd are always on top of you and there is a decent rivalry with Lincoln City.

Funniest moment on the pitch?
Macclesfield away when Barry Richardson (legendary Lincoln City goalkeeper) got sent off and booted the ball out of the ground in anger and then us playing the rest of the game with John Whitney in goal.

Football clubs one tradition that they are always trying to out do each other on is their Christmas parties.  So what is the best one you have taken part in?
A few years ago when we started in The Miller’s in Lincoln with us all dressed as old ladies, the entertainment that was arranged was top drawer!!!! No more comment apart from that.

When did you realise you had to give up playing?
When I couldn’t combine playing and coaching, and of course when the legs wouldn’t do what the brain was telling them to do!

What is your long term ambition in and outside of football?
In football is to be as succesful as I can be, outside of football is to continue to be as good a father and husband as I can be.

Some of the wages being bandied around the media is scary.  My club West Ham this week were trying to sign Van Nistelrooy for a reported £100k per week.  Obviously part of that money goes into a central pension fund. Do all footballers get the same pension amount from the PFA?
No, it depends how much you have earned and how long you have played.

So you played both in the Football League and in the Northern and Southern Leagues.  What is the main difference between a non-league player (say at Alfreton Town) and a league player?
As a League player you don’t realise how lucky you are until you drop out of it, virtually everything is done for you, all you have to do is get to training each day and perform during matches, Non-League players do it all for themselves and also have a full time job.

You played at Alfreton Town, now of the Blue Square North for a couple of years.  What were your best memories of Alfreton? It scared us going there last season!
Great team spirit, good manager (David Lloyd), great lads and the best food after matches of all the Conference North clubs.

Having seen a number of games at the lower level this season I have to say some of the officiating has been very poor.  So worst refereeing decision you have seen?
I can’t remember the occasion but when referee wrote reports on why they cautioned a player I received one that said ” the Lincoln City No.6 called the decision a load of shite” so that must be it then

So you played for over a decade at Lincoln. Did you get a Testimonial and if so what say do you have in arrangements?
Yes I got a Testimonial in 1999/2000 season which was very well organised by a committee that was set up on my behalf and I shall always be grateful for the work they did in that year.

Based on the freezing conditions and severe weather in the past few weeks, ever been so cold that you have faked an injury to come off?
Never!!!! I’m from the North East, they breed them tough up there.

What is worse? Wet Wednesday night game in Grimsby or Grantham?
Grimsby by a mile, Grantham is a great place to play on a wet night!

What sympathy do you have for big clubs with financial problems – such as Portsmouth, West Ham United or even Manchester United?
None whatsoever.

What about some of the little teams – I am not sure you are aware that Kings Lynn recently went bust and dropped out of the Northern Premier League?
It is a real shame about Kings Lynn, they were one of the best teams in the league when I was at Grantham. It’s difficult to get the right balance between living within your means and being ambitious and gambling a bit to try to get success.

What more could be done to help the smaller teams in the lower/non-leagues to survive?
I think more of the huge pool of television money that goes to Premiership clubs should go to the lower League clubs, how far this should filter down I’m not sure.

Do you think there should be more promotion/relegation to and from the Conference/Blue Square Premier?
Difficult question for me to answer considering Lincoln’s precarious position in the league, but yes I think three up, three down should be introduced.  Many of the clubs in the Conference have Football League sets ups – Oxford, York , Mansfield, Luton, Cambridge – the list gets bigger every year.

What team did you love playing and why?
Hull City because we usually got a good result against them.

Worst decision you have made in football?
Away at Chesterfield, I tried to head the ball over the bar and scored an own goal.

What chance do Lincoln have of finding and keeping a really special youth team player with the Premier League Academies breathing down your neck?
We will always be vulnerable to Premiership clubs taking our best players but as long as they pay a good transfer fee then it’s good business all round.

One of the friends of the blog is Mick Harford who was also born in Sunderland and played for Lincoln. Did you ever play against him, and if so did he give you a hard time?
I only ever played against Mick in a friendly when I was at Leicester and he was with Luton, he had just been called up to the England squad so I don’t think he was too bothered about giving an 18 yr old centre half too hard a time

So finally, 407 appearances, Caretaker Manager, Coach and now Assistant Head of Youth Development…Why do you love Lincoln so much?
It’s a great place to live with good people and a football club that is desperate to be successful.  And I want to continue to be a part of that.

Many thanks to Grant for taking time out to take us down memory lane.  Football has a habit of making those games from yesteryear seem like yesterday.  Cottee and Rideout will probably forget that night at Sincil Bank, but player like Grant never will.  And that is why we love football, and honest professionals like Brown.  If there was more like him in the game today it would be a much nicer place.