Tales of a Non-League Chairman – part 2 – The away game


This week I’m on the road with The Rooks, making the relatively short journey to the fantastic Gallagher Stadium, home of Maidstone United. Turn right out of TBIR Towers, left onto the A20 and 25 mins later I’m pulling up outside The Flower Pot, one of the best little real ale pubs in Kent for a quick pre-match strategy session with the Lewes Lunatic Fringe before I head into the boardroom at The Gallagher Stadium.

16607855597_8626c47328_zYou may be disappointed to know that I’m not “suited and booted”. As I approached the gate I was looked up and down and expected to be ushered towards the turnstiles due to my dress code. The world has moved on in most places, and the sight of directors in jackets and ties is relatively rare these days, something that has mirrored real life and especially at The Dripping Pan. I’ve worn a tie once in just over a year for work purposes and on that occasion it lasted about an hour. Most companies now have a more relaxed dress code, with ties today becoming a more fashionable item to wear around the wrist than the neck, thanks to the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. I fail to see why wearing a tie makes me more acceptable as a club official, a sentiment shared by everyone else on the Lewes board. One club in our league insist on the stuffy dress code to enter their boardroom. One or two give you a funny look when you wander in in jeans but don’t say anything but most give you a warm, hospitable welcome irrespective of what you are wearing.  Not that we are a scruffy bunch, mind. So once you have passed the dress code test, what actually happens in the inner sanctum at other clubs?

Some clubs put on hot food pre-match, others offer a decent fayre post match (nods to East Thurrock United, Billericay Town and Leiston in that area). Pre-match talk will be centred on recent form, perhaps a brief fact-finding interrogation about budgets (as ours are published on our website we don’t have to resist for long) or the good-old British conversation staple of the weather. Half-time is a time for inflection, a cup of tea and shaking you head at the latest scores. Nobody wants to be too cocky at this stage, irrespective of the score “just in case”.  Full-time is about putting on your noncommittal, neutral game face irrespective of the result. A win and you need to hide the smug grin. A defeat and you need to hide your disappointment, blaming it on the ref. I’ve yet to be offered a cigar and only once been given a brandy.

You don’t get a guidebook on how to be a chairman.  I’m lucky that I have chairman mentors in two generations of Parris’s and Peter Hiscox who have coached me in what to say and when.  There is a whole lexicon of boardroom speak.  When asked if I’d like a beer before the game, you should say “No thank you.  I want to stay sharp just in case I need to come on!” (then laugh out loud).  You need to remember to shake everyone’s hand when you arrive, and when you leave, not forgetting to wish them well for the rest of the season.  If you are visiting a club where you have had problems in the past then you should talk about the weather, how bad the England cricket team is and whether Man Utd are a spent force (unless of course you are in the boardroom at Old Trafford).

Few would have thought a few weeks ago that The Rooks would be travelling to The Gallagher Stadium with a better current form record than The Stones. In the last four Ryman Premier League games, the Rooks can boast two wins and a draw, whilst Maidstone United, like the other teams at the top of the league are on a bit of a wobble. Draws against Leiston and Harrow Borough, a defeat against Hampton & Richmond Borough with just a single win against Billericay Town. Is there a better time to visit the league leaders?

16627583818_ab7da6e214_zDespite their current form, the league title appears to be theirs to lose. Who can really deny them their success after over twenty years of struggle. Eight points clear of Margate and due to play their nearest rivals in an already sold-out game at The Gallagher in two weeks time, many will feel a win in that game will be one hand on the trophy.

Where there’s time, there’s hope, and with 90 minutes ahead of us that’s the best we can wish for. The Stones have only lost once at home this season, a 3-0 reverse to Enfield Town who ironically recorded the same result last week at Margate. That has been the only home game so far this season where they’ve failed to score in and they have the best home record in the Ryman Premier League. They average 2.17 goals per game at home, conceding less than 1. The Rooks on the other hand have struggled away from home this season, taking just 11 points on the road, the second worse record in the Ryman Premier League. Our 11 away goals is the lowest total out of all 24 clubs. It’s not hard to draw a depressing conclusion from these stats, but football is a beautifully unpredictable game.

Maidstone United 2 Lewes 1 – The Gallagher Stadium – Saturday 14th March 2015
16629030429_90a5890105_zIn the end, Lewes left the pitch pointless.  Up until the 75th minute this result was never in doubt, despite the home side rarely getting into third gear.  Two May goals, both tapped home from a few yards were early Christmas presents for the home side but then a late rally, thanks to a superb free-kick from James Fraser made the last fifteen minutes interesting for the away fans and very nervous for the 1,950 home fans.

The afternoon started very well – a visit to the Flower Pot was, as expected, superb.  They only had 10 guest beers on tap.  As we left we expressed our regret at this being our last visit for a few years due to Maidstone’s pending promotion. “Don’t worry lads – we’ve got a beer festival with even more guest beers on in late July”.  As chairman, I have now arranged a friendly here for that date.

The welcome in the boardroom was warm.  The lovely ladies who were looking after us, once I had managed to convince them I was chairman, quipped I must be the money man as I didn’t look like a former player. We were wined (well tea’d) and dined (biscuited) and then it was kick off time.  You cannot fail to be impressed by the Gallagher and the passionate fans inside.  This isn’t a Ryman Premier set up – in fact it is hard to imagine it in the Conference South.  There are League One and Two clubs that would die for the facilities (obviously, less the pitch) and passion the Maidstone fans show.

Despite injuries,suspensions and absences, Lewes battled well in the first twenty-five minutes, adapting to the pitch well and playing a passing game.  Heck, we should have even taken the lead when Matt Crabb’s shot almost saw the Lewes faithful drop their pints of Whitstable Bay Oyster Stouts (another tick in the box).  Then a dangerous free-kick flew into the Lewes box, keeper Rikki Banks came flying out and was a second too late getting in front of a Maidstone player who headed on and May had the easiest job of tapping into an empty net.  It was disappointing that the Maidstone player didn’t get down on all fours and head it home, just like you used to in the playground before you got a kicking for being so cheeky.

16627584528_c146b3d66f_zLewes went two down in the 52nd minute when May once again tapped home from three yards out after a great cross from Collin had eluded the Lewes defence.  Time to tighten things up?  Not really. Faint heart won no fair maiden so they went onto the offensive.  With fifteen minutes to go James Fraser stuck a beautiful free kick into the top corner and all of a sudden Maidstone started to wobble.  Worgan was the busier of the two keepers and made a couple of good stops.  However, the home side hung on for all three points.  There was no shame in losing this one, and the Rooks showed some real fight.

We headed back to the boardroom, shook hands with our victors, craning our heads to look at the results flowing through on Sky Sports.  “How about Dulwich Hamlet, eh?” was the standard line as everyone came into the room.  Homemade pea and mint soup, a bottle of Spitfire and a trip down memory lane to the dark days at Watling Street were the order of the day before it was time to depart.

Obviously we wish Maidstone every success in the future.  Their fans have been through the mill, sticking by them and now reaping the reward.  But we will miss this away day – it never fails to deliver on every level (apart from the result of course).

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On the twelfth day of TBIR Christmas – The best things about football in 2014


So here it is – our final award for 2014, despite the fact we are now six days into 2015.  But football is the gift that keeps giving so here is my last offering for this year.  My three favourite moments from my footballing year.

3rd Place – New York Cosmos
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Back in August on a regular trip to New York I got the opportunity to tick not one, but two things off my lifetime wish list.  An opportunity to see the famous New York Cosmos was obviously the main agenda item here (complete coincidence that they were playing in the very week I was over), having grown up reading about the mythical team from the 1970/80’s in the NASL with Pele, Beckenbauer and of course Barrow’s finest, Keith Eddy.  Now back in the second tier of US football, the good times could be coming back, especially after announcing the signing of Raul.  But this wasn’t a night to remember.  A dull 0-0 draw played in a school’s athletics stadium but it was still “the Cosmos”.  And the second thing?  Getting to ride on one of those yellow American School buses I’d seen so often in films.  Oh, and I took a pretty good picture.

2nd Place – Lewes v Dulwich Hamlet and Maidstone United
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2014 hasn’t been the best year for The Mighty Rooks but for five glorious days back in March we were the best team in the world.  Well, perhaps in the Ryman Premier League anyway, as the top two came to The Dripping Pan and were both dispatched goal less and point less.  Luck?  Nope – I’m putting it down to the fact we (OK, I) scouted them both on a number of occasions.  Being taught how to scout is like being tutored in how to drink a fine wine.  Once learnt, you will never watch a game of football in the same way, unable to make remarks incomprehensible to the people around you such as “look at how the number 9 leads with his left arm” or “the keeper won’t come if it’s 6 yards out”…And I bloody love it.  The warm, satisfaction you get after the team has put in place tactics based on your knowledge and won!  That’s why those two games are so special…we wont talk about Grays or Wealdstone away though.

1st Place – The World Cup 
14268867827_784aff2d77_kFor four years I moan about our elite players, their attitude and generally the beautiful game being corrupted by billions of pounds.  Then, every two years a major tournament comes along and everything is right with the world. I came very close to being in Brazil.  Very close in an all-expenses paid trip to Sao Paolo to write about it, sort of way, but passed up the opportunity and Rookery Mike went instead. We haven’t spoken since.  Due to my travelling schedule I spent nearly the whole of the tournament in various corners of the world.  Germany’s demolition of Portugal in their opening game of the tournament was shared with a couple of hundred German fans in a bar in Singapore at 1am then being featured on local TV.  Watching Australia and then England make their early exits from the World Cup at 5am in the morning in a Melbourne casino, with an endless supply of Coopers Ale or watching the Brazilian demolition in a bar in Eindhoven with a German Hen party.  The actual games weren’t bad too.

Our highlights of 2014 can be viewed here, all in one handy little spot.

So see you all next year – one year older, one year wiser, one year damages by poor performances by our respective sides on the pitch.

A rolling Stone gathers all the moss


There are three ways to win the league in my view.  It doesn’t matter what the league is, essentially the characteristics are all the same but to be successful you have to either a) Have someone (individual or group of people/company) who are willing to spend significantly more than anyone else; b) Invest heavily in the best infrastructure you can that will then work your assets (players) more effectively or c) find a way of playing that other teams simply cannot handle.

There have been lots of examples of A’s in our time, few of whom ever last the course.  Titles may be won but after a while the money dries up (or disappears), the investors realise that there is no Return on Investment or simply get bored.  Remember Gretna?  Probably not.  But they went from the Junior Leagues in Scotland all the way to the Premier League (and Europe) off the back of one man’s money.  When he died, so did the dream and ultimately the club.  The Non-Leagues are full of stories of blind ambition, foolhardy investments and ultimate failures.

In the case of B’s sometimes the success takes longer but when it arrives it gathers pace.  Good players do not always want to play for the money (shock, horror).  They will join teams with ambition but also those with the best facilities.  Swansea City are a good example here.  Part fan-owned, they have risen through the leagues not off the back of massive investment, but with the help of improvements in their infrastructure.

Finally, the C’s.  Much harder to find these days when every move on the pitch is watched by hundreds of eyes (in the case of Non-League) and smartphones.  Wimbledon and Cambridge United are two clubs that rose up the leagues and became massively successful by playing in a particular style that other teams were too unprepared to handle.

IMG_1194Today, Lewes host Ryman Premier League leaders Maidstone United.  They are most-definitely in the B category.  Having fallen as far as they could after a brief spell in the Football League, they are now on the rise again thanks to the facilities they have built.  The Gallagher Stadium is their kingpin.  A 7 day a week, 52 weeks of the year money-making machine.  The cash is invested in improving facilities, developing the academy side of the club and of course on player wages.  Sustainable growth that was only halted last year by the narrow-minded, selfish views of the Conference clubs in voting against 3G pitches.  Less than a year later and the sentiment has changed and they are all of a sudden welcome again (noting to do with the Football League and FA clarifying their positions of course). With promotion now a possibility is it any wonder that the Stones have won 10 out of their 11 league games this season?  Oh, and recorded a 10-0 win in the FA Cup.  When we hosted Margate (definitely in the A category by the way) a few weeks ago their post match celebrations weren’t for the 5-1 over us it seemed but for the fact the Stones had lost away to Tonbridge Angels.  Four games into the season and such paranoia?

Last season Lewes took 4 points off the Stones, keeping two clean sheets in the process.  It is fair to say that in the game at their place in August, with the traditional summer rain putting the completion of the game in doubt despite the artificial surface, we parked the bus.  Not taking anything away from the Lewes back four, which included two centre-backs who had a combined age of nearly 75, but we put men behind the ball and played on the counter attack.  It worked.  In the reverse fixture Maidstone were well and truly beaten, their game plan cruelly exposed by some scouting information (ahem).

IMG_1193Whilst Maidstone’s form was stellar, Lewes’s has been too shabby either.  Unbeaten in five games with four consecutive clean sheets is certainly rare for us Lewes fans, and with some of our long-term influential absentees returning soon from injury and suspension, things are looking up.  With the thunderstorms clearing and the promise of Stoke City v QPR on the TV as pre-match entertainment a bumper crowd was expected.  This was our first clash with Brighton & Hove Albion this season as they were taking on Blackpool.  We try our hardest to avoid such clashes, knowing the impact it has on our friends down the A27 but sometimes they just wont listen and move their fixture.  We track our attendances closely and whilst we would lose around 50 fans to the Amex, Maidstone’s travelling support would more than make up for the short-fall.

Lewes 0 Maidstone United 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 20th September 2014
“I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life. ” A quote that sums up the afternoon but not from Garry Wilson or Danny Bloor but from Mohammed Ali. There was no shame in being defeated to The Stones this afternoon, on a beautiful sunny afternoon although Lewes will be disappointed that the possession they enjoyed for most of the first half  didn’t lead to anything.  A decent, season-best, crowd of 621 saw a finely matched first half, although it was the 150 or so travelling fans who celebrated at the final whistle, finally breaking the seal over the Lewes goal that had lasted for over 7 hours.

The first half saw possession switch between the two teams, with Rikki Banks being the busier of the two keepers although the main talking points, alas, were around the performance of the officials – a referee who couldn’t see incidents happening in front of his eyes and a linesman who seemed to think he could make decisions whilst being 30-40 yards away from the action. 0-0 at half-time was a fair score but we knew that unless we scored early in the second half, Maidstone would rise like a wounded animal.

IMG_1195And so it was.  A poor headed clearance from a Stones corner saw the ball fall to Alex Flisher who smashed the ball across the area into the bottom corner.  Lewes responded quickly and the main talking point was a bizarre decision when Nicky Wheeler’s beautiful chip hit the inside of the post and seem to be over the line before Worgan grabbed it.  The linesman, mirroring the performance of his colleague in the first half, raised his flag which at first we assumed was to signal a goal.  Yet it appeared he was flagging for offside.  Let’s rewind.  Wheeler is 15 yards out, with defenders and the keeper in front of him when the ball falls at his feet, he beats the defender before chipping the ball to the far post.  No other Lewes player is near the ball as it sails over the keeper or when it hits the post.  So exactly who was offside?

Maidstone’s second comes from another strange decision, when Wheeler was fouled yet the referee saw the offence the other way.  Ten seconds later Phillips had buried the ball in the Rooks net.  Game over.  The Stones go rolling on.

The defeat sent Lewes back into the bottom four.  Has the panic button been pushed? Not at all, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and get ready for the visit of VCD Athletic on Wednesday.

 

The bigger they come, the harder they fall


In terms of great days, few can beat the combination of beautiful sunshine, a win against the league leaders and winning some money out of the blue.  Oh, and a choice of 20 different guest ales.  So perhaps I should have simply called it a day at 5.30pm on Saturday in terms of supporting Lewes.  But football just keeps sucking you back doesn’t it?  So here I am, pint in hand watching us take on Maidstone United, currently second place in the Ryman Premier League on a chilly Tuesday evening.

Thanks to the weather it is Saturday-Tuesday for Lewes until the end of the season, with nearly twice as many games still to play at home than away. Only Wealdstone have lost fewer games than Lewes this season, leaving us to think about the “what-ifs” from earlier in the season when we drew games we could have won (other the other hand we were drawing games than last season we would have lost). The re-arranged fixtures meant that the top four teams in the Ryman Premier League had to visit The Pan in the space of four weeks in March. Dulwich Hamlet opened the festivities on Saturday with Maidstone United following quickly behind.

1380099_10152275799706240_720740824_nToday had been another good day even before I reached the Lansdowne for the pre-match warm up. Being Pancake Day I headed up to Borough Market in my lunch hour to see if I could grab a sweet treat. As I walked around the market I saw a familiar face albeit one that was a lot thinner than usual. Television is supposed to make people look fatter but Man versus Food’s Adam Richmann looked as if he had shed his twin brother. Thanks to Luge Pravda’s eagle-eyed twitter search he had discovered Richmann was in town to do some pancake judging and lo-and-behold he just happened to be standing next to me.

Richmann is a big Spurs fan, although he admitted he had always had a soft-spot for the Hammers. “Oh, my God. Frankie McAvennie. Now he was the Brad Pitt of the 1980’s. I loved his Capri Sport”. A few tourists came up and WE, yes WE posed for photos. As I walked away someone even asked me who WE were. Of course five minutes later when my mobile rang and I had to field another question about DPML exceptions (one for the real techies) I was brought back to earth with an almighty bump.  Head down, work finished, it was finally time for some football. Continue reading

Artificial Intelligence


It’s the second weekend of February. I’ve just returned from a business trip in Copenhagen where the snow lays fresh on the ground and the temperatures barely broke freezing point. Whilst people’s perception of Denmark is that at this time of the year it is a frozen wasteland, the snow has arrived nearly two months later than normal – hardly ideal when their football league is coming towards the end of their winter break.  A few inches of snow doesn’t stop sport in these parts. A few years ago I experienced the lowest temperature I had ever experienced at a football match in Randers, in the north of Denmark when the FC Copenhagen were the visitors in a game played among piles of snow and temperatures as low as minus 15. It was November. Today it is February and we are still yet to see any of the white stuff.  We know though that when it arrives it will be the worst winter ever .

Because we need more issues with the weather right? I can’t remember a day when it hasn’t rained this year.  On Friday I was supposed to be heading for the bright lights of Newport County but their game against Fleetwood  Town fell victim to the rain.  To add insult to injury (as well as the reported £180,000 the club has lost since late December) the Football League had written to the club to “express concern” at the fact their last four (now five) games had fallen victim to the weather.  Really?  As if the club needed any reminding! They even approached AFC Wimbledon, opponents for their next home game on Tuesday night to see if the game can be played in Kingsmeadow, but I am sure there is a rule somewhere the footballing authorities have saying they can’t.

12389182495_f6f185ee43_bBut what about further down the leagues?  Some County League clubs haven’t seen any action since mid-December.  In the Ryman League once again over 80% of the games this Saturday were cancelled.  Of course the league authorities are all over the situation, giving help and support to the clubs who are suffering.  Yeah, right.  Not a word apart from a reminder that when a game is cancelled, we need to re-arrange it as soon as possible.    Our postponement count so far has now reached eight games. Eight games that we now have to fit in somehow, somewhere. And that is before any of the potential white stuff arrives causing more chaos. Our game today away at Enfield Town was called off DESPITE the pitch being playable when the pitch inspection was carried out.  The referee decided, without any consultation with Lewes, that conditions would get worse and it would be an issue for us to travel at 9.15am.  Thanks for that. If he would have bothered to ask he would have found out we were willing to travel. Continue reading

Rain men


At a recent Lewes FC board meeting one of the items on the agenda was the forthcoming Ground Grading inspection. This joy of joys takes place every three years and determines whether, if results dictate, we can be promoted. In recent years, some of the results of these grading inspections around the Non Leagues have been “interesting” to say the least. But just because a club can prove it can host big games, it doesn’t mean it is allowed to.

9582285233_5c4169d9d5_bI’m sure many people’s favourites for promotion from the Ryman Premier League this season is Maidstone United. Last season they gained promotion via the play-offs from the Ryman South, being able to bolster their squad with players like ex-Chelsea and West Ham full back Jon Harley. The reason why they could afford to invest in their squad was in part thanks to the installation of their 3G pitch at the Gallagher Stadium that opened a year ago.  A spokesperson from Hitechturf.co.uk explained: “Technology in artificial grass has moved on a lot since the late 80’s and artificial grass pitches are now manufactured from polyethylene rather than nylon; this has meant that these new turfs have been approved by FIFA and UEFA.”

Last season, when every other Non League club saw game after game postponed, the Stones were not only able to play their games, but also hire the pitch during the rest of the week. The irony here was that during the poor weather, attendances were higher than normal as football-starved fans flocked to Maidstone for their Saturday football fix, thus adding further to the pot they can use to lure good players.  Don’t misunderstand me Stones fans.  I applaud your resolve during the dark days and would only wish our footballing authorities would see common sense.

But what many people don’t realise is that the current grading rules mean that The Stones will not be able to take their place in the Conference, should they win promotion, because of the pitch. The FA’s rules state that the pitch cannot be used in competitions featuring Premier League, Football League or Conference teams. Not only does this preclude Maidstone from promotion, but as the rules stand, they are not able to play any home FA Cup past the Fourth Qualifying Round at home.   So Maidstone could host a sell-out game versus Lincoln City, Stockport County or FC United of Manchester but not against Accrington Stanley or Morecambe.  It is also possible (possible not probable note) that Maidstone could win the FA Cup and qualify for the Europa League where they could then host any European site on the artificial turf. Continue reading

On the ninth day of TBIR Christmas – The best new ground visited


In 2012 we went to 45 new grounds (not new builds, but new to us) on our trek around the European leagues.  Some were good, some were bad (see the fifth day for our worst three) and some were simply in the middle.  But there were a few that were simply outstanding.  These were ground that for one reason or another made us want to buy a season ticket, there and then.  We didn’t of course, as no amount of Petrol Station Flowers could possibly forgive us for owning season tickets for half a dozen teams.  So we tried to come up with our top 3.

These three were for a number of reasons head and shoulders above the rest.  Whilst the new Friends Arena in Stockholm was impressive, warm (a major plus for anywhere in Scandinavia) and ultra modern, we were looking for places with a bit more of a soul.  So without further ado let’s introduce our winners for 2013:-

3rd best new ground visited in 2012 – Arbroath FC’s Gayfield Park
8259709182_29758065c9_bThis had been on my list for years.  The fact that it was slap-bang next to the North Sea, had a nightclub nearby called DeVito’s and was once the scene of a 36-0 world record score line was reason enough.  And then Danny Last came along with a plan to see the Dundee derby.  Fate decreed that Arbroath were also at home that weekend, and the rest is destiny.  So what makes it so special?  Average crowds rarely break the 500 barrier (unless the Old Firm are visiting as they have done in 2012), it is as cold as Posh Spice smile in July, let alone December and the football isn’t much cop.  But it just felt so right being there, on an old fashioned terrace chatting away to the locals, even if they couldn’t understand a word I said, and them vice-versa.  Yes it was minus five, yes it was dark by 3.30pm but oh yes, the sunset was one to die for.  Everyone should experience Arbroath at least once in their footballing lives.

2nd best new ground visited in 2012 – Alemmania Aachen’s New Tivoli
7826305414_68b451846c_bTivoli is Danish for fairground, and based on our visit to the German/Dutch border in ridiculous heat in August I can see why this is the New Playground.  Inside, the sunshine on the yellow seats almost makes your eyes bleed, but when it is full and rocking, it personifies German football to a tie.  Passion, atmosphere and Freundschaf.  The supporters bar is one of the finest known to man, filled with memorabilia, waitresses bringing endless beers and even an appearance by Germany’s number one George Michael impersonater whilst we were there.  The downside is that it is a bit far out and Aachen are currently a long way off a return to the Bundesliga.  I loved it so much I still have my Stadium card, topped up and ready for my next visit.

The best new stadium we visited in 2012 – Maidstone United’s Gallagher Stadium
7570384206_77e6f16d20_bCould there really be any other choice?  After a wait of two decades, this summer the Stones finally came home.  After years of looking for a suitable venue, they found one right under their noses.  Football stadiums should be easily accessible by good transport links, near a variety of good pubs and have a bit of individuality.  The Gallagher Stadium ticks them all.  The owners insistence on a 3G pitch in the face of sanctions from the FA was a brave move but has already reaped rewards as Maidstone have kept on playing during the poor weather, attracting crowds that some nPower League Two sides would be jealous of.  Oh, and it has a decent bar!