LIfe in the gutter

Hope is a viable strategy for many football clubs – in fact for many it is the only strategy. It’s a motto, held together by duck tape, that underpins the grass-roots of our beautiful game. That’s not to stop the dreamers dreaming. As Oscar (Wilde not the Chelsea midfielder) famously said, “we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars”. Today we were most certainly looking up at the stars.

Our day started at 8am discussing the future of the football club surrounded by history and tradition. Our home for the first part of the day was The Royal Oak, just a stone’s throw from Lewes Station,  where back on Wednesday 23rd September 1885 our football club was formed. In an article published in the Sussex Agricultural Express a few days later, it was reported under the headline “Formation of a Football Club” that a meeting the previous Wednesday at The Royal Oak Public House, chaired by Mr J Plummer Chapman had seen the created of Lewes Football Club and that “The Dripping Pan would be available for football matches during the winter months. Over 130 years later and we are still going, with the Pan now being one of the oldest 20 football grounds in the world used continuously by the same club.

FullSizeRender (1)One hundred and thirty years later, our objective was to create a strategy for the next five years for the club. In some ways we had to thank our lucky stars we had made it this far, having come so close to letting unbridled (and some might say unfounded) ambition take the club away from us. Just like any organisation in the commercial world, we need to have a clear vision, a set of objectives and a framework for growth. We may be tiny when compared to Premier League clubs but our ambitions boil down to the same thing – progress. The difference is that we have to grow within our means and in a sustainable manner, with every programme we sell mattering whilst they can just sit back and watch some of that £1bn a year TV money roll in, not even caring today that they have priced out a generation of fans.

Creating a strategic plan that everyone buys into don’t just happen overnight. An initial strategy was created back in 2010 when the football club passed into community ownership under the leadership of the original Rooks125 group. Most of those initial objectives have been met during the last 5 1/2 years with Charlie and Ed the two remaining members on the board from the original six. The new plan would see us through to 2020 as well as providing a framework for growth past that date, where it is hoped we will have more willing individuals invested in the club.

I took on the initial task of drafting the first draft of the new plan. It’s quite daunting to start writing such a document, having to balance the core, day-to-day tasks with trying to find the inspiration, aspiration and perspiration for growth. You look for clues from other clubs but have to be mindful that you don’t want to simply copy something someone else does – one size certainly doesn’t fit all. I’m used to having to write strategies for others in my other life, being a paid outsider looking in on the business models created by others, making recommendations for improvements and hammering home the point that they, not me, have to own the actions. A strategy without owners prepared to make changes and buying into the vision is simply a word document with pretty pictures.

Some fans may question why we need a strategy – we are after all a football club – our only objective games should be to win games. If only that was the truth. Others simply lament for the free spending, couldn’t give a toss about what happens tomorrow, days gone by. The work that goes on behind the scenes will never be enough for them. But for the majority of our 1,200 owners they want to know that the club is in good hands, not just today but years into the future. That’s what today was all about. Assessing whether the ways we did things today were the right ways, and right things as well as looking for other ways to grow the club.  No idea was a bad one (even some of Ed’s ones).  The football club has many moving parts such as our community work, our ownership model, our commercial proposition, our 3G and our Academy as well as our footballing sides.  Each is somewhere intertwined with another, so creating a plan for one, would have a knock-on on another.

1_NeedhamMarket2015-282x400As a group we have differing visions of where we could and should be and what our motivations were for sitting around the table in the first place. We have different backgrounds, different skill sets, different strengths and different temperaments – as the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your fellow board members in a democratically elected organisation. Or something like that anyway. But we all are gathered in the same place at silly o’clock on a match day to discuss the same thing. What can we do to make the future of this football club better.

Strategising over, and safe in the knowledge that we think we were heading in the right direction it was time for some football.  To turn again to Wilde, Lewes came into this game well and truly in the gutter but recent form had seen us not only looking but in the words of S Club 7, reaching for the stars. Unbeaten in 2016 versus a side who had just one win since mid-November and had slid down the table to sit just above the relegation zone. It made a welcome change that we weren’t looking to the stars for signs of poor weather for what seemed like the first time in weeks. A Rooks win and we’d not quite be breathing down Needham Market’s neck but we’d be sucking on a Fisherman’s Friend in preparation.

Lewes 0 Needham Market 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 6th February 2016
After our enthusiasm at looking into the future, the present was a little more like the weather.  Dreary.  A point and a clean sheet would have been a good result a few months ago.  Today it is a small step up a big mountain.  The frustration was we did enough to win the game, and should have been celebrating another win tonight, especially as the linesman’s flag to deny Jonte Smith’s late effort was proved to be wrong on the edited highlights (in fact it was the only second half highlight).

FullSizeRender (3)The conditions were tricky, but it was the same for both sides.  The visitors started the brighter, with centre-forward Michael Brothers proving a real handful for the Lewes defence, and it was his strength and determination that should have seen Needham go in one-nil up at the break but his cross shot failed to hit the target.  A second half change to an all-energy front four by Darren Freeman tantilised the biggest crowd of the day in the Ryman Leagues but never quite troubled the visitor’s keeper, with Smith’s disallowed goal proving to be the major talking point.

Other results at the foot of the table meant we actually gained points on teams above the relegation zone in the most part, and didn’t fall any further behind.  With a game against Dulwich Hamlet to come on Wednesday the unthinkable could still happen.  Even our strategic plan can’t call that one.

A Gray day I could Ilford to miss

Some time very soon we will be up in arms about the death of another football club in London. It is a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon at 3.05pm and I have joined barely 150 other paying spectators who are watching Grays Athletic take on Needham Market in the 8th level of English football. Why are there so few fans bothered about football at this level? Well, a scan on the immediate horizon will give you a good idea.

Just as the hosts breath down the Needham Market goal in the first minute of the game, Leyton Orient are holding their own against Sheffield United at the Matchroom Stadium and the mighty Dagenham & Redbridge are probing at Bradford City defence less than 2 miles down the Rainham Road. Two nPower Football League games kicking off at the same time. Oh, and of course let’s not forget that if ESPN didn’t have their way West Ham would have been hoofing high balls into the Arsenal box at Upton Park as well at this time.

So perhaps we can see why there are only just a few hardy souls in the Rush Green Sports and Leisure Centre for this game. But it is not just Grays who face this issue of trying to compete with the big boys this afternoon. Local rivals Redbridge and Ilford are around 2 miles North and West respectively, who both average less than 70 fans for their home games, although a late postponement of the game at Redbridge doesn’t trouble the turnstile operators elsewhere. Even if these clubs were to admit fans for free I doubt they would be able to increase attendances by more than 10-15%. Continue reading

Camulodnum accipiatur primum….

First we take Colchester….then we take Sudbury.  Not my words, or those of Leonard Cohen but actually Boudica in AD61 when she attacked the Roman garrison and capital of Britain, raising it to the ground resulting in the centre of power moving down the Roman road to a little settlement called Londinium.

One thousand nine hundred and fifty years to the day that Camulodnum fell (well, newspapers from that day are a bit thin on the ground) here Danny and I were as we heading along the A12 in deepest, darkest Essex trying to find the Weston Homes Community Stadium.  My feelings of building identikit stadiums on the outskirts of towns with no facilities or decent public transport nearby are widely known (feel free to read about my previous visit to Colchester United here).  Since my last visit here it was good to see that access had been improved with a shiny new slip road directly off the A12 being built.  But obviously the local council are embarrassed by the presence of the ground and/or the team as there are still no signs for the stadium – just one for a hospital.

Our plan was to take in the early midday plus fifteen minutes kick off between Champions Brighton & Hove Albion, who incidentally have built a very nice looking new stadium with public transport provisions included, and Colchester United before we headed up the B1508 to Sudbury for the vital promotion/playoff local derby in the Ryman League One North.

The car park was full so we were forced to park on a nearby industrial estate for a bargain of £8.  Remind me again why I don’t normally watch league football?  We met up with Nick who had our tickets and entered via a breeze block portal, of course after being searched.  Brighton fans have a reputation don’t you know, so the steward doing the searching told me.  I wasn’t going to ask as what, although the small (and I mean small) amount of home fans obviously knew as they apparently “could see us holding hands”, even though we were in the concourse.

It was sit where you wanted in the stand.  Although actually it wasn’t.  Despite Colchester managing to sell a massive 4,000 seats for this game, the East Stand was kept half empty, with the vacant seats towards the Brighton end.  So why on earth could the away fans then not use the whole North Stand?  With the three central blocks almost full, any attempt made to move across the aisle was met with rebuke from the little Hitlers.  Simple questions like “Can we sit there?” were simply ignored.  Logic and sense are not words that can ever be applied to stewards at League clubs.  Take a bow the boys from Tamdown Securities, you did a hell of a job today.

It was hoped that this may be a promotion/championship party for Brighton & Hove Albion.  However, they did something that is quite rare for teams who run away with the league towards the end of the season with the finishing line in sight.  They carried on winning.  They wrapped up promotion against Dagenham & Redbridge a few weeks ago (see Daggers Diary for more details of this game), became champions against Walsall and then partied on Saturday against Southampton.  This game had thus became the day at work after the big leaving do on a Thursday night. And Sky had been left with egg on their face by showing it live. The two last honours left to get under their belt were to break the 100 point mark, thus becoming only the third Football League team to do this (Fulham and Sunderland being the other two), and finally to keep hold of Gus Poyet.

The Uruguyian’s stock has been rising since he left the Assistant Manager’s position at Leeds United to take a similar role at Spurs in 2007.  With Premier League clubs about to start their annual cull, there are fears that Gus will be prized away from the American Express Community Stadium before the first ball is kicked, with West Ham United looking favourites to want his services just as soon as the owners finish congratulating themselves about “winning” the Olympic Stadium (and thus all the personal benefits that go with the disposal of the existing more than adequate Boleyn Ground) and realise that the team on the pitch are on the verge of relegation.

Sorry mate you are in my seat

After a couple of seasons playing in the Championship, Colchester United had dropped back into the third tier two seasons ago.  Their season in the sun saw them at one stage hint at a push towards the play offs, finally finishing in 10th place but gaining the crown “Kings of East Anglia” (because there is such a title) by finishing above Norwich City and Ipswich Town.  This season their form had been erratic and results in the previous week meant a play off shot this season was now out of the question.

With the Bank Holiday sun beating down, the game kicked off at 12.15pm.  Someone had obviously forgotten to tell the home fans who forgot to turn up.  Without my glasses on I had assumed that the blue and white silent and motionless figures at the far end were just empty seats.  Oh hang on, they were.

Colchester United 1 Brighton & Hove Albion 1 – Weston Homes Community Stadium – Monday 25th April 2011 12.30pm
“Was this the real thing, or was it just fantasy?  Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.  Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see.”  Not my words but those of the late, great Freddie Mercury.  But after the comedy value of the opening goal it could apply to any one of three Brighton players.

Calm down son it was only a tap in

Ankegren, granted carrying a knock from a clash a few minutes before (that actually saw him substituted soon after) spilt a ball into the box from O’Toole, but Elphick was on hand to smash the ball away….straight into fellow defender Calderon who then attempted to clear it and to give it straight to Colchester’s Henderson who tapped it in, although his over the top goal celebrations would have suggested to an outsider it was the goal of the decade.

Henderson should have doubled the lead just before the break when a miss hit shot fell at his feet with an open goal six yards out but he blazed it over.

The second half started with a fine display of authoritative stewarding.  With more fans now in the seats again they denied anyone having access to the empty areas.  Also they persisted in getting the front dozen rows to sit down, but left the remaining rows standing up.  Of course when one of the portly chaps fell throw a gate around the edge of the pitch nobody laughed.

Brighton improved in the second half and it was plain to see why Barnes and Bennett are the two most talked about players.  Bennett’s movement was excellent, and it was no surprise when these two combined for the equaliser.  The Colchester keeper had made a couple of excellent saves prior to the goal and had no chance when Barnes volleyed in at the near post from an excellent cross by Bennett.  The away side then took the game to Colchester.  Danny was sweating, and not just from the temperature (which apparently was “Hotter than Greece”) but because he has a small wager on there being more than 2 goals (or actually 2.5 goals – quite how someone can score 2.2 goals is a mystery to me).  But it was not to be.  Wood’s header from close range was the last action of a much better second half and honours were shared.

More pictures from the game can be found here.

We hotfooted it back to the car like Mercury and Eros from aforementioned chilly Greece and pointed the car Northwards to Suffolk.

AFC Sudbury 2 Needham Market 2 – King’s Marsh – Monday 25th April 2011 3pm
Some twelve miles and 33 minutes later we ignored the sign for the sewage farm and drove down a narrow country lane to AFC Sudbury’s King’s Marsh ground.  The home of Gainsborough and Constable, Sudbury is as quaint as a small market town could be with thatched cottages, Britain in Bloom signs and cricket being played on the green. Parking on a roped off field gave us the impression it was a Summer Fete or Garden Party and as if the club were waiting for the appearance of “Two World Famous Bloggers” (Not my words, but those of Charlie Dobres at Lewes FC), the teams emerged just as we did from the strange conservatory which acted as the turnstiles.

To say the Ryman League One South has been a two horse race this season is a bit of an understatement. Since prior to Christmas the top of the table has been all about East Thurrock United and Needham Market.  Three weeks ago they passed the point where they could be caught by anyone else.

Needham Market are following in the footsteps of Lowestoft Town and Bury Town in strengthening the position of Non League football in East Anglia.  Last season they won the Eastern Counties League, gaining promotion to the Ryman League structure for the first time.  Fortunately they had already invested in their ground to satisfy the beauocrates of the League and this season they have continued this momentum. This season it has been about the goals of Craig Parker and Sam Newson who have 48 league goals between them, nearly 60% of the team’s total for the season.

This route will be familiar to AFC Sudbury fans.  They have won the Eastern Counties five years in a row before at last the powers that be deemed their ground could cope with an extra dozen or so fans.  They also got to three consecutive FA Vase finals during their league domination, although they lost all three.  This time last year they were floundering in the Southern League Midland division, travelling to places like Aylesbury, Rugby and Atherstone Town.  A year down the line after moving into the Ryman League they have had a much better season again thanks to the goals of James David Baxter who has weighed in with 22 so far this season.

1-0 to Sudbury

The club has invested its money wisely in facilities.  With a nice size bar, function rooms, its own air raid siren (more of that later), very good food and drink and signs for just about everything it was the perfect setting.  And the game?  Well we couldn’t complain.

AFC Sudbury raced into a two goal lead against the run of play.  First Jack Wignall headed home through a crowd of players before a minute later James Baker did his reputation no harm with a fantastic header into the bottom corner and a superb run up field by Sudbury’s left back.  Two nil at such an early stage was harsh but the Needham fans rallied their team and for the remainder of the half they tried any which way to break through the home defence.

2-1 - Game on!

After a quick refreshment top up (a £1 for a pie!!!), it was back into the action.  Sudbury knew that anything but a win would end their season, whilst Needham had little to play for apart from Suffolk bragging rights.  And what better way to rally your team than a good old fashion air raid siren.  Dug out from a long lost cupboard in the ground and still sporting its “Property of the Home Office” sticker, it was being used in the second half to “wind up” the away fans.  It didn’t work as Needham eventually found their feet and thanks to some bizarre refereeing found themselves back in the game when our friend in black awarded a controversial penalty to the visitors.  Two – one and the away fans went into choruses of “Danny Last’s Red and White army” (well, that is if you believe Mr Last’s version anyway). And just as we saw in the first half Needham followed this one up with another less than sixty seconds later.

A Terrace Trannie from back in the day

With scores elsewhere filtering through on the terrace trannies (How times have changed – this now means something completely different), Sudbury knew that they needed to score a winner.  But that goal didn’t come, and it was the away fans who celebrated the “moral” victory and left Sudbury heartbroken for another season.

The official crowd of 512 made it the joint highest in the division for the season (ironically with another home gate at Sudbury) and it was great to see so many families enjoying the game and facilities.

I am not going to mention events some 120 miles south of here.  That is for another day and another post.  For now it was back in the car and a trip back to the Capital of Cool (aka Copenhagen) for me.

We came, we saw, we ate a rather nice chicken burger with lettuce and we drank cider.  That is all I am saying.

More pictures can be found here.