A step in the digital world of the football programme


Over the past few months, the future of the humble football programme has been front and centre after a decision was taken by the EFL clubs that it was no longer mandatory to produce one for each and every game. There can be no doubt that the original purpose of the programme to educate and inform fans about what was going on at the club, who the opposition were and a vehicle to promote commercial partners (there were more reasons than this but at its core, this was the purpose).

Today, our instant-on digital world means most of the content in the programme is out of date as soon as it is printed, with most fans attending a game having access to significantly more up-to-date information in the palm of their hands. Football fans want more today than just a memento of a game attended. On the most part they want content that is up to date and informative, adding value to their match day experience.

Further down the leagues, the question of “to publish or not” comes down to money, or more than often, the lack of it. Few clubs can say that they make money on producing and selling a programme today, unless they are simply creating the bare minimum, printing in-house on a black and white photocopier. The programme is a conundrum for clubs at the Non-League level. On one hand, it is a valuable tool to get information over to the fans, whilst on the other it is a commercial vehicle for the club to sell advertising space. Unfortunately, whilst the commercial manager may be happy at selling 20 pages of ads, the reader wants to see editorial and content not ads. So, they won’t buy it and because they don’t buy it, the appeal to the advertiser falls over time. An inverse catch 22.

From experience, we have taken great pride in our match day programme, inviting a wide breadth of writers to produce unique and varied content coupled with some excellent match images. Our style and quality of content hasn’t changed much over the past few years, yet the number of copies we sell per game has slowly reduced despite attendances rising by nearly 25% over the last three seasons.

We have traditionally sold 1 programme for every 4 attendees. On an average match-day we print 200 copies, 50 of which are used for players, management, guests and officials. The other 150, in most instances sell, at £2 a copy. Multiply that by 21 league games and the £6,300 is a very useful revenue stream. In addition, we have produced an online version, made available to anyone, 24 hours after the game. With over 700 owners living outside of the East Sussex catchment area, we have seen on average an additional 150 views of this. Of course, some of those who previously bought a programme could be now viewing the free online version, thus cannibalising our own sales but likewise, one of the appeals of the online programme is allowing those fans who cannot get to games to access the content.

In most instances a programme for a Saturday game goes to print after a thorough edit on a Thursday at the very latest, which means that two whole days of footballing news, views and scandal can break before the programme is printed. We all want to consume our news now – this is the prime reason why traditional hard-copy newspaper circulation has fallen so dramatically and a match programme often contains nothing new to the reader.

To many fans, buying a programme is seen as an essential part of going to a game. But like every other element of the game, it needs to get with the times. This is why from the start of the 2018/19 season, Lewes FC will not be publishing a match-day programme. Instead, we will be producing a ground-breaking matchday publication in the form of an e-programme. As soon as fans enter The Dripping Pan on a match-day they will be able to access the digital content, which will include the traditional elements such as a preview of our opponents, match reviews, details of forthcoming away trips and information on what is going on at the club. However, we will be mixing this text-based content with video interviews from our management team, players and the Chairman, previews recorded by visiting fans, and much more.

We know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but Lewes have always been about innovation and pushing the envelope for football clubs everywhere. We believe we will be the only club to do this in England and whilst we will be reducing some of our operational costs, we will hopefully be setting the standard for the future of the football programme.

The e-programme opens up a whole new world of opportunities, not only for the club but also for the reader. The ability to be able to add dynamic content is a huge opportunity – putting video into the programme, having a live scores feed, making adverts interact with the user (and thus making space more valuable to the advertiser), the opportunity to sponsor players whilst the game is going on and being able to access it from the palm of your hand in real time. Oh, and of course it is free of charge.

I’m not a traditionalist but likewise I understand the place for the humble football programme and those who will rally against embracing the digital age. Technology can deliver reduce costs, increased revenues and a wider readership for every club, big or small. But are we ready and brave enough to embrace it? We think so but don’t just take my word for it, have a look yourself.

Postscript – some people complained but by 8pm the e-programme had been viewed by 750 people. For our last home game in the 2017/18 season we sold 223 programmes. Just saying

What is Non-League?


A decade ago this would have been a relatively easy question to answer but today the lines are now so blurred perhaps it is time we dropped the phrase all together. Non-League used to refer to any team that was not part of the Football League but with the creation of the Premier League in 1992, the situation started to change.

It would have been unheard of to find a full-time side below the Football League but today, certainly at Step 5 or National League, most sides will be full-time and thus classed as professional players. So, another loose definition of the “amateur game” is out of date. In fact, there are teams at Step 6 who are now full-time, such has the game changed.

What brought this question to a head was the “debate” over Social Media last week between Gary Neville, one of the co-owners of Salford City and Accrington Stanley’s Chairman, Andy Holt, over the signing of Aberdeen’s Adam Rooney by Neville’s club.

Salford City’s rise through the leagues has been impressive – just over a decade ago they were playing in the North-West Counties League (Step 9). Then came the “Class of ‘92” and their billionaire friend, Peter Lim, and invested heavily into the squad and the infrastructure and the club hasn’t looked back, taking their place in the National League this season for the first time. There’s nothing new in a club getting significant investment and rising through the leagues, although in most cases it does end in tears. I’m not sure the risks of the owners walking away is anywhere near as high at Salford City, but it has caused some bitterness and rivalry from other clubs.

Salford’s signing of Rooney has certainly set a new bar though for the “Non-League” game. The Irishman swapped the promise of Europa League football with Aberdeen for the chance to play in the FA Trophy with Salford City, oh and the small matter of a reputed £4,000 per week – or in Lewes FC speak, 150% of our weekly playing budget.

Ah yes, the playing budget. Rooney’s transfer set up a war of words between Neville and Holt, with the Accrington Stanley chairman happy to reveal his annual playing budget, but when pushed, Neville wouldn’t reveal the Salford City one, saying “You think I’m going to disclose my wages on here?” (Twitter). Why not? Why can’t clubs all be transparent with their wages?

Last season we saw significant amounts of “investment” at Step 7, with Billericay Town signing players such as Jamie O’Hara, Jermaine Pennant and Paul Konchesky. Whilst the owner/manager (until he sacked himself, then re-appointed himself) claimed his wage bill was nothing like the amounts being bandied around the media, they were still eye-watering in terms of the level Billericay Town were playing at, and probably on a par with the amounts Holt claimed Accrington Stanley, now an EFL One club, paid.

This season Step 5 of the English Football Pyramid, the National League, contains 11 clubs who have played in the English Football League, plus two (Salford City and Ebbsfleet United) with significantly wealthy owners. It would be an insult to call this Non-League anymore as many of these clubs have facilities and resources that some EFL clubs could only dream of.

Money does not always buy success, but it certainly gives you a big head-start and this season few would bet against Salford City being one of the main challengers for promotion to the Football League. They will face some still opposition from the likes of Chesterfield, Barnet and Leyton Orient, all who are desperate to regain their Football League status.

Two leagues below Salford City, the Rooks will take their place back in Step 7, the Isthmian League Premier Division, after two seasons at Step 8. We led the Isthmian South division for three-quarters of the season on a budget per week of half an Adam Rooney, winning promotion with four games to spare. We’ve managed to find a modest increase in the playing budget for manager Darren Freeman and we believe we have a squad that can compete rather than struggle. But the gulf between Step 7 and Step 6 is huge in terms of finances and if we were to gain promotion, we would be ill-equipped at the moment to match any of the clubs at the National League South level. Of course, that wouldn’t stop us giving it a go!

So, should we stop referring to our game as Non-League? Whilst we all understand what we mean when we say it, we are in a structure, the ‘pyramid’, that gives us a path to promotion all the way to the Premier League (we can but dream). We aren’t grass-roots either. The recent debate about the sale of Wembley and the plan to invest millions in ‘grass-roots football’ may have got us excited that some of that cash could come our way, but grass-roots means just that – the amateur game in its purest sense where facilities today in many instances are an embarrassment to our National Game.

For now, I don’t think we have any option but to refer to ourselves as being part of the Non-League game. We all know where we stand, and even if clubs like Salford City want to think and act as if they are already in the Football League, then let them. We will still stand on the Terry Parris Terrace next season, beer in hand and marvel at the part-time players, the volunteers and the beauty of the game we call Non-League.

New National League play-off format already adding to end-of-season drama


The battle to reach the play-off finals across three National League divisions is underway, with clubs across the country striving to secure promotion to the next level in the pyramid.

There is a new format this season, with the champions going up automatically and the next six clubs in each division taking part in an extended play-off format.

Two eliminator matches take place before the semi-finals and the set-up is sure to add even more drama to the end-of-season showdowns in each section.

Read on as we take a look at the National League play-offs.

Vanarama National League

Ebbsfleet United finished a point behind Aldershot Town during the regular season, but it was the Kent side who progressed to the semi-finals after a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

United were awarded a penalty during the second-half, but top scorer Danny Kedwell was superbly denied by Lewis Ward.

The game eventually went to extra-time, it was Aldershot who finally managed to break the deadlock in the 109th minute when Nicke Kabamba headed home.

It looked as though that goal would be enough to take the Shots through, but in the last minute of extra-time, Dave Winfield headed United level to take the game to a shoot-out.

Ward saved two penalties to leave Aldershot with two chances to win it, but Lewis Kinsella and Fabien Robert fluffed their lines.

Dean Rance fired home the decisive spot kick to book United’s place in Saturday’s semi-final against Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park.

Boreham Wood face AFC Fylde in the second elimination game on Thursday, with the winners going on to meet Sutton United in Sunday’s second semi-final.

If you’re inclined towards betting check out these football betting predictions before wagering on the outcome of the play-offs.

Vanarama National League North

League positions went out of the window in the National League North play-off elimination games on Wednesday, as Bradford Park Avenue and Chorley defeated Kidderminster Harriers and Stockport County respectively.

Kidderminster, who were beaten by Chorley in the play-off semi-finals last season, suffered more heartbreak against Park Avenue at Aggborough.

Adam Boyes bagged an early goal for the visitors after 10 minutes and although Harriers dominated for long periods they could not find an equaliser.

Oli Johnson’s goal 12 minutes from time sealed the victory and sent Bradford through to Sunday’s semi-final at Brackley Town.

Wednesday’s other eliminator between Stockport and Chorley attracted a bumper crowd of 6,230 to Edgeley Park and fans were treated to an excellent advertisement for non-league football.

Jason Walker settled the game with a fine header after 68 minutes to book Chorley’s place in the last four. Matt Jansen’s side now visit Harrogate Town on Sunday in the other semi-final.

Vanarama National League South

Sunday’s National League South play-off semi-finals will be between Chelmsford City and Hampton & Richmond Borough and Dartford and Braintree Town following Wednesday’s elimination matches.

Hampton had failed to beat Truro City in three attempts season, drawing 1-1 in both league games and losing 2-0 in the FA Cup.

Rocky Neal gave Truro an early lead, but Jack Cook’s 34th minute effort tied things up. City’s Connor Riley-Lowe had a penalty saved in the second-half, and Bradley Hudson-Odoi took full advantage in extra-time with a pair of goals to send Hampton through.

Hemel had won both of the games against Braintree during the regular season and with home advantage they began as favourites to reach the last four.

They had the better of the game in terms of possession and chances, but neither side were able to break the deadlock during 120 minutes of play.

Scott Shulton, David Moyo and Sanchez Watt all failed to convert their penalties for Hemel, while Marcel Barrington, Luke Allen and Dan Thompson scored theirs for Braintree to secure victory.

Artificial Intelligence or Pitch Perfect?


The calls for more clubs to install 3G pitches reaches fever pitch every time there is a spell of bad weather in this country but having an artificial surface is not necessarily the answer.

During the first few days of March, the ‘Beast from the East’ delivered snow and freezing temperatures to many parts of the United Kingdom that we had not seen for many years.  Public transport ground to a halt, many major roads became unpassable and unsurprisingly, sporting fixtures suffered.  At the time of writing three Championship games have already been cancelled, including Sky Sports Live game at Wolverhampton Wanderers as overnight temperatures have dropped as low as -11 in some parts.

The Non-League programme has been decimated with just four games surviving from steps 1 to 4 from a total of 140 games due to be played this Saturday.  Two of those four (Dover Athletic and Folkestone Invicta) have benefited from their coastal location whilst the other two (Grays Athletic and Worthing) both play their home games on a 3G surface.  So you could put an argument forward that 3G’s have proved their worth in this instance, with both Grays Athletic and Worthing likely to get bumper crowds due to the lack of other games in the area (many Lewes fans are heading to Worthing for instance rather than sitting at home, whilst I myself am heading to Aveley FC, where Grays Athletic play).  But that isn’t strictly true.

Many other clubs have 3G pitches and have seen their games cancelled.  Cray Wanderers, Horsham, Walton Casuals, Merthyr Town, Redditch Town and Romulus among others who use an artificial pitch have seen their games today cancelled whilst in Scotland, every professional side who uses a 3G pitch including Clyde, Alloa Athletic, Montrose and Airdrieonians has seen their games postponed too. Unfortunately, just because you replace grass with a synthetic material, you do not avoid all of the side-effects of the bad weather.

An artificial pitch is not simply a big roll of fake grass that is laid like a carpet.  There’s significant amounts of preparation work that has to happen to the ground itself before you get to that stage.  The shock-pad is like an underlay for a carpet.  That is the bit that does the hard work and like any underlay, the quality and therefore the longevity of the pitch itself is based on cost – the better shock pad used, the more expensive it is but the more wear the pitch will handle.  Once the “grass” is laid then the filler is used – in most instances rubber crumb – which keeps the blades of grass upright and also adds as an additional layer of absorption.

The issue at the moment is when snow falls and settles on a 3G you can’t simply sweep it off as you will remove the rubber crumb in the process.  No rubber crumb means you damage the top layer of the pitch when you play on it.  If the snow compacts and freezes and isn’t allowed to thaw or be removed, then playing on it will increase the pressure on the shock pad and could damage that.  Replacing that would involve completely removing the pitch first – a very expensive job.

Whilst some 3G playing surfaces may have been fit for football, the surrounding areas such as terraces, stands, walkways and car parks may not.  In the case of Cray Wanderers’s game today, at Bromley FC, this was the issue that saw their game postponed.  There’s very little a club can do to protect these areas from the freezing temperatures – again something that few people factor into their argument as to why clubs should have a 3G pitch.  I saw this first hand in December when I visited Airdrieonians for their game with Raith Rovers.  The temperatures fell well below zero and whilst the game went ahead on their frosty 3G, the car park was akin to a curling rink and was incredibly dangerous for spectators leaving the ground.

The costs in installing a 3G are prohibitive to many clubs.  Whilst there are huge benefits aside from being able to use it in bad weather, such as the opportunity to create a community facility and one that produces a regular revenue stream (and allows clubs to save costs on renting external training facilities), they have to find the initial cash to build one.  Like many things, costs can be reduced, but a decent 3G pitch will set a club back in excess of £500,000 – hardly small change.  There are some grants available from the Football Foundation and Sport England, but not every club is able to qualify for those.

And then, of course, there is the issue of the Football League rules.  Any clubs that have ambitions of moving up to the professional game in England is thwarted if they have a 3G by the rule, set by the Football League clubs themselves, that does not allow for 3G pitches to be used.  No such rule exists for the FA Cup, the Champions League, UEFA and FIFA competitions – in fact every professional league in Europe allows them (including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) but England doesn’t.  So for clubs like Sutton United, Bromley and Maidstone United, challenging currently for the National League Play-offs, they face a dilemma of either dropping out of contention or ripping their 3G pitch up (which in part is the revenue generator that has allowed them to rise up the leagues).  Should they do neither and qualify for the Play-offs they face demotion down to the National League South.  How is that fair in a sporting sense?

Artificial surfaces have their benefits but let’s all just remember that they aren’t always the answer to the curve-balls that Mother Nature throws at us.

 

Tough at the top, tougher down the bottom


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Takeley, I’m yours


It’s a Tuesday night in early December. It’s freeing – no surprise there – and I’m the only person to align at Stansted Mountfichet station.  A loan taxi gets his hopes up as I walk towards him but he’s not going to be lucky this time.  My mind is focused on food and football, in that order.

Fortunately, I’ve arrived in take-away city by the look of it.  Quite why a village of 5,500 needs so many eateries is a mystery to many, especially when they appear to be quite literally in direct competition – the Mayflower and Lams Chinese takeaway guard the entrance to Station Road, trying to lure the passing trade (me) in with offers such as “unlimited prawn crackers” and “free chopsticks with every meal”.  Ruthless marketing, I tell you.

My relationship with Stansted Mountfichet is one of pure convenience.  Many a traveller will have been seduced by the thought of a visit to the House on the Hill Toy Museum, reputed to be the largest of its kind in the world, whilst others over the years will have arrived, suitcase being pulled a few metres behind like a disobedient dog, searching for the airport terminal.

The latter, wayward tourists would be too far out of their way.  Stansted Airport lays three miles to the east, 5 minutes on the train.  Originally a US Airforce base on the edge of the village of Stansted Mountfichet, it was taken over by the government and for a short period acted as a Prisoner of War camp before being developed as a commercial airport in 1966, today handling nearly 25 million passengers, one of which in just twelve hours would be me.

Despite Christmas approaching, work travel had not started to wind down for the festive period which meant that after flying out of Stansted on Monday morning, arriving back on Tuesday, I was about to go through the whole process again.  Rather than driving the hour or so back home I’d decided to stay at the airport so the 4am start became a much more reasonable 5am one.  CMF was hugely impressed that I chose to stay in a Travel Tavern than go home to her.

As luck would have it (genuinely), there a game to go to see almost on the doorstep of the airport.  Not just any old game either – a local derby pitting one of the front-runners for the Essex Senior League title with a team currently on an alarming and rapid slide down the table.  In these parts Stansted FC versus Takeley is talked about in hushed tones, normally reserved for the likes of Ossett Town versus Ossett Albion or even the Dunstable Derby.

To say that Stansted FC were having a bit of a ‘wobble’ was an understatement.  It had been nearly two months since the side had experienced the joy of a win and came into the local derby on a run of eight consecutive defeats that had seen them fall to just three points off the Essex Senior League.  Takeley, on the other hand were firmly looking at the opportunity of promotion to the Isthmian League North.  With two teams likely to move up to step 4 of the Non-League game from the Essex Senior League at the end of the season they had been there or there abouts all season, off the back on an impressive home record that had seen them take 31 points from a possible 33. Not bad I suppose.

The home side had had little to shout about for a number of years.  They still talk about that team in and around the ground.  That team being the one in season 1983/84 that not only won the Eastern Floodlight Cup, The East Anglian Cup and the Essex Senior League Cup.  Oh, and a small matter of the FA Vase, beating Stamford 3-2 at Wembley Stadium.  Fast forward to 2010 and the team finally won the Essex Senior League but inadequacies with their Hargrave Park ground saw Witham Town promoted into the Isthmian League.

The internet is great for finding out facts such as Stansted’s record win came in that golden season when they beat Coggeshall Town 15-0, their assistant manager when they had their big day out at Wembley was Glenn Hoddle’s Uncle Dave or that an anagram of the name Takeley is Teak Eye but on this occasion it failed to mention that the 0.5 mile walk from the station to Hargrave Park should only be attempted with oxygen.  Granted it is not in the league of Stocksbridge but it was a bit of a shock to the system having just taken advantage of the freebies offered by the Chinese takeaway(s).  Note to village council – open a pub about halfway up the hill for unfit, random Non-League football fans who arrive by public transported.

I actually knew a resident of the village, who had promised to accompany me to the game.  Kevin is an accountant by trade and supports Everton, so he needed some escapism from the reality of pessimism.  What better way to lift the spirits than watching a Non-League game on a day and freezing night along with a few dozen other hardy souls.

You can understand why Hargrave Park didn’t quite make the ground grading for step 4.  It has a very shallow, albeit full of charm, main stand with a small cabin that reminded me of Santa’s workshop from various films that was the committee room.  Around the pitch the perimeter was a series of metal barriers, the ones used to keep screaming kids away from their pop star idols, or grandmas trying to get to Cliff Richard, which if I had my health and safety hat on would worry me considerably.

The teams were warming up when we arrived which involved, in Takeley’s case, smashing the balls as hard as they could from the penalty spot at a teenager in goal which either hit in or flew over the bar and into the gardens of the houses behind.  The referee suddenly appeared at our side, through a magic door on the side of the main stand, shook me by the hand (perhaps confused by my Lewes FC jacket) and said “Right, let’s get this circus pumping” before heading onto the pitch.


As for the game itself?  The differing fortunes of the two sides was clear to see as the first half wore on, with Takely opening the scoring through the impressive Mullings.  Whilst Stansted tried to break down the visitors, especially down the left-flank, the final ball was often misplaced or simply not there at all.  There wasn’t much between the two sides for long periods but a slice of luck with some cream on the side saw Takeley double their lead when a wickedly deflected shot from Todd saw the Stansted keeper flat on his arse as the ball trickled despairingly out of reach.  Mullings scored a cracker of a third late in the game when he flicked the ball up and volleyed home from the edge of the box.  Whilst the score line may have flattered the visitors, there’s no denying they were the better side.

With only one train an hour back to the airport I ducked out a few minutes before the end, gaining momentum from the strong wind as I headed down the south face of K2, avoiding the Chinese takeaway wars and onto the platform.  Mission accomplished.

Life is all about taking the opportunities as they are presented to you and I think I can quite-rightly claim 9/10 for making the most of an otherwise boring night in a hotel at the airport with nobody for company apart from a bunch of sales reps and overseas visitors who believed the hype that Stansted was actually in London.

Men of steel


It has been awhile since I have filed a match report on these hallowed digital pages.  A combination of not having much more to say about the mighty Rooks that the world and his various wives have not read elsewhere, a duty of care in my positions on various boards of directors meaning I can no longer say anything bad/mean/defamatory/blatantly untrue about anyone in the game south of the M6 and only writing about my overseas visits in the next chapter of The Football Tourist (@OckleyBooks), due for publication in 2018.

It is even rarer these days that I miss a Rooks game other than when I am posted somewhere around the world for work.  But sometimes even the most ardent fan has to put family before football and today was one of those days.  Two months ago when I agreed to take Lolly, my eldest daughter, up to Leeds (Leeds, Leeds) to look at the University campus I had no idea we would still be playing in the FA Trophy.  Our national cup competitions are normally done and dusted by mid-October, falling less than heroically to a side from a lower division.

But Lewes 2017 are made of stronger stuff and wins over East Grinstead Town, Dunstable Town and Bishop’s Stortford (the last two playing a division higher than us no less) had seen us progress through to the Final Qualifying Round – a stage of the competition we last played at in 2014 when we conceded five first half goals away at Oxford City to crash out.  We gathered round the laptop a few weeks ago, pressing F5 on the FA’s Twitter feed waiting to hear who we would be playing.

“Anyone at home” said Ross

“Anyone from our level” said Darren

“Anyone near Leeds” was my response

“Home to Truro City” said Baz, who had been emailed the details 10 minutes earlier and assumed we were looking at the new Sports Illustrated calendar online, rather than waiting for the draw

Technically, Leeds is actually closer to Lewes than Truro by a few miles which just goes to show how crazy the geographical split of the Non-League system is.  But that wouldn’t help me in the slightest, meaning that I would miss one of our biggest home games in years.

I’d done the dutiful thing and gone to watch Truro City on Tuesday night as they made another 700 mile round trip for a National League South game, albeit it one that could have taken them top of the table and meant that we could not have possibly drawn a higher ranked team in this round of the competition.  Scouting report filed with our management team and back of quinoa packet drawing complete of how I would exploit their deep-sitting 5-3-2 formation, I could concentrate on where I would get my football fix on Saturday afternoon, post University visit, and as Lolly suggested, write something for my blog so that she could show her Maths teacher.  Apparently my last piece, “PSYCHOLOGY THEORY EXPLAINED BY FOOTBALL – 1. EXISTENTIALISM“, was a bit pretentious for his liking.

My source of inspiration was my publisher, and good friend, David Hartrick who quickly drew up a short-list of games which were a) on my way home to London, b) that I’d never been to before, c) had a bit of a story behind and d) served chips with gravy.  Point d) was definitely the deal breaker but the lad did good when he emailed the results of his extensive research (that’s what his invoice suggested anyway) and said we would be heading to the town of Stocksbridge, home to around 10,000 people, experimental rock group Rolo Tomassi and a football club with a pedigree of England Internationals.

Stocksbridge Park Steels Football Club came into existence in 1986 as a result of the merger of Stocksbridge Works, the team from the local steel plant, and Oxley Park Sports.  Their place in Non-League folklore has been cemented by five footballing facts, which to those from these parts will be as dull as dishwater but to us Southerners, are the stuff of legends.

Fact number 1 – In August 2002 the club beat Oldham Town in the FA Cup Preliminary Round 17-1.  Striker Paul Jackson claimed 3 match balls, almost bankrupting the club after his record goal scoring haul of 10 goals in that game, a record that still stands today.

Fact number 2 – With 22 different sides below the senior team, the club are recognised as the biggest community club in South Yorkshire.

Fact number 3 – In 2002, former England international Chris Waddle joined the club and played one game for them at the age of 42 years old.  Also at the same age, relegation specialist and king of the Yorkshire clubs, Neil Redfearn joined the club.

Fact number 4 – The ground only has 3 sides, with the fourth being a fence, albeit a nice wooden one.  It sits on top of a hill, with oxygen needed for those making the journey up the hill from the town centre.

Fact number 5 – A certain Jamie Vardy started his career off at Bracken Moor, after being released by Sheffield Wednesday at the age of sixteen.  Vardy spent seven seasons at the club, three in the senior squad on a reputed £30 a week before joining Halifax Town.  He scored 54 goals (all listed in the match programme) including a remarkable three-minute hatrick in the FA Trophy game against Mossley back in October 2008.  Two weeks previous he had scored a six-minute treble against Grantham Town.  The club is understandably proud of the association with the England international, naming their main stand in his honour.

Today, the club play in the 8th tier of English football, like Lewes and are challenging for one of the two promotion places into the Premier League (Evostik rather than the sticker Bostik version), like Lewes and part of my interest in this game would be to understand how different life up here was compared to down south.  Whilst I would be watching most of the action with one eye on events 242 miles due south, it would be good to catch up with Dave and listen to his enthralling stories that would undoubtedly involve snooker, Marvel comics and another one of his hatricks in five-a-side (for those who don’t know, Dave has a block booking at the Goals centre in Huddersfield on a Thursday night at 10pm where he is the only player and consequently, the top scorer in the league).

We parked up outside the turnstiles just as the snow started, giving the ground a magical look and feel.  I’d literally taken two steps in the ground before being ushered into the boardroom and had a cup of tea thrust in my hand.  The power of Social Media had meant my impending arrival had been announced and I spent ten minutes discussing the various merits of our clubs and leagues with Stocksbridge Park Steels Commercial Manager Roger Gissing.

With around a hundred hardy souls taking their place in the stand, sheltering from the biting wind and flurries of snow, Roger explained the club’s (and the league’s) issues.  They faced a huge struggle to attract fans, averaging around 110 this season or about 1% of the town’s population.  Sitting just 10 miles from Sheffield and 30 miles each from Manchester and Leeds, football fans in these parts head off to the glitz and glamour of the Premier League and Championship most Saturday’s rather than supporting their local team.  They have a thriving juniors section and community programme but come 3pm on a Saturday many of those kids are nowhere to be seen. Despite offering the cheapest admission in the league, at just £7 and the club once again doing well, it seemed that the X-factor in getting people to watch the game was still missing.

I have no idea why as even before the game had kicked off I was struck with how fantastic the club was.  Everyone to a (wo)man was friendly, the set up of the club with its quirky stands and fantastic warm bar, offering a bird’s-eye view of the action.  Fifteen pounds got Lolly and I admission, a programme, a pint and a coke and a large sausage roll. Add on top the potential to see a cracking game of football and you have a fantastic value afternoon.

The club also face issues with how the geographical split of the league has been made and something that is a real concern with a further restructure due at the end of the season.  Their shortest journey is to Sheffield FC, 21 miles away yet the two Ossett clubs, who play in the North Division, are around the same distance away.  Rather make those short journeys, they have away trips to Peterborough Sports, Alvechurch, Market Drayton Town and Corby Town, all 200 mile plus round trips.

However, they were once again challenging towards the top of the table and a win over Loughborough Dynamo (named after the great Dynamo Moscow should you want to know) then they could climb up to 2nd place and into the automatic promotion places behind runaway leaders Basford United.

Stocksbridge Park Steels 4 Loughborough Dynamo 3 – Bracken Moor – Saturday 25th November 2017
In terms of value for money, you cannot complain about a seven-goal thriller, with a last-minute winner.  Except we didn’t realise it was a) a seven-goal thriller or b) there was a last-minute winner.  In fact, we missed four of the seven goals through a variety of reasons.

As the teams emerged down the steep steps and into the mini-blizzard, we finished up our cup of tea in the boardroom, zipped up the coats and made our way outside.  As I did the gentlemanly thing and held the door open for a lady coming in, the home side scored.  Fifteen seconds had elapsed since I put down my cup but in that time the home side and won a free-kick 30 yards out.  Jack Poulton sent his ball into the box and it fooled everyone and ended up in the back of the net.

The game was a relatively cagey affair, with both sides trying to make the best of the conditions.  Just as the referee was about to blow for half-time the home side grabbed a second as Matt Reay’s shot eluded everyone and trickled into the corner.

We took refuge from the cold in the bar, which positioned in the corner of the ground and on the first floor, offered outstanding views of the action.  Unsurprisingly, the window seats were at a premium – why wouldn’t they with Bracken Moor Smooth on draft and Jeff Stelling updating everyone in the corner (not literally Jeff).  The second half was about six minutes old when we headed downstairs, stopping for a toilet break.  I heard a muffled cheer whilst I was in there but thought nothing more of it.

The tide seemed to be turning and the visitors grabbed a couple of goals through Riley to level the scores (at this point we assumed it was 2-2).  The final fifteen minutes were as action-filled as you could ever hope to see.  Bodies were being thrown on the line at both ends to keep efforts out and there was a real cup tie feel about the game with both sides wanting a winner.  However, it was the home side who prevailed, scoring in the first minute of four in injury time when Litchfield bundled in from close range after the mother of all scrambles.

Full time and Stocksbridge’s fans celebrated the win with reserved confidence, a win that took them back to third place in the table.  As we waited for the players to make their way off the pitch a fan shouted at the ref: –

“7/10 for that today ref”

The ref looked at the fan and responded “If you knew my wife then you’d know that would be a good assessment of my performance at any time especially in the cold”

We ducked into the boardroom, thanked our hosts for their hospitality and started our long journey south, still in complete ignorance of the two goals, one for each side we missed on our comfort break in the second half.

I’d urge any fan of football, whether they lived in South Yorkshire or not, to make a trip to visit this wonderful club.  Like hundreds of others up and down the land, they survive thanks to the efforts of their volunteers rather than the numbers that come through the turnstile.  If ten percent of the regular fans who go to Bramall Lane and Hillsborough came to watch just one game a season at Bracken Moor it would more than double their average attendance.  And that, could be the difference between having a community club for years to come or not.