The Sands of time


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master of none


What happens when you get a bit lippy and suggest to one of your colleagues that their job on a match day was “easy”? It seemed I was just about to find out the hard way as our beloved club secretary Barry was heading off on a business trip 24 hours prior to our final game of 2016.  To make matters worse, we also had no kit man for the game.  First rule behind the scenes in Non-League football is “Be prepared to do it yourself” which is why I was wandering into the Dripping Pan four hours before kick off against Three Bridges with a bag full of assorted sock tape.

Lay the kit out, pump up a few balls, write out the team sheet and shake hands with the referee right?  What’s so difficult about that?  Alas, it if was that simple I would have been enjoying a beer or two an hour before the game rather than worriedly looking for instructions about how to use Football Web Pages live system and trying to find the season ticket list for Gate 3.

img_2255The first issue on arrival was the fog.  The previous evening has seen the game at The Amex postponed due to it and it appeared that overnight the problem hadn’t got much better in these parts. There was not a lot I could do about that bar man the phones and let people know that I could see both goals from the office and we “should” be OK for 1pm.

Before Barry headed off to try to increase our 12th Man Fund in Las Vegas, he left some instructions for me in terms of the Club Secretary duties for a match day.  Even by Barry’s very organised standards, I wasn’t expecting a four page document for each role (plus attachments), all colour-coded and in chronological order.  According to his list, by 1:45pm I should have been collecting biscuits from the Referees room.  Or was it giving them biscuits and taking their expense claims?  Of course, Barry had forgotten we had moved the kick off forward to 1pm so I was either 2 hours early or 2 hours late.  I’m not sure which.  The biggest worry was the fact if I didn’t do something to someone on the Internet at 1pm/3pm then Kellie Discipline, the League Secretary, would be straight on the phone giving me a dressing or a fine.  Or perhaps both.  Oh, and the fact it said “5:30pm – relax and have a beer” – that was three hours away.

img_2136So here I am thirty minutes before kick off trying to sort out a kit issue (one of those strange cut-off under socks has gone missing), whilst re-printing forty team sheets that had a big spelling mistake on (Thee Bridges may have been popular in Shakespeare’s time but not today apparently) on a printer that will only allow me to print one at a time due to a cartridge “issue”.  Oh and sorting out the play list which has all of a sudden started playing Isabella’s Disney Princess mix from 2008.  The phone rings and someone from the local paper wants to come along and watch the game and would like a pass for the 3pm game which he then goes into a panic over when I say it is a 1pm kick off as he has just arrived as “Monkey Biz” with his daughter and “there was no way he could get her out of the ball pool in 15 minutes’.  First world problems.

A normal pre-match for me involves a pint, chatting with some of my fellow fans, an in-depth discussion with Darren on our opponents and where the strengths/weaknesses are before preparing myself for any tricky names to read out on the team sheet.  Today I’m having to find the charger adapter for the substitutes board (The League donated one to each club but when we opened the package it had a European plug on), that should have been on charge an hour ago whilst ensuring that the referees assessor was put on the guest list.

I’d already had the dilemma of how to lay out the kit.  The home dressing room only has 24 pegs up – we have a squad of 20 arriving, but should the 1-11 get two pegs (one to hang the kit and one for their stuff) or does everyone get one each?  I’m mildly concerned that we have two slightly different sets of socks and my OCD kicks in by unravelling every pair to ensure that at least each pair matches.  Then there is the TV – it should be showing BT Sports but it has QVC on.  The signal comes from the bar, which is currently locked.

img_2256Best of all, our superb Groundsmen have arrived to use a fancy new machine on the pitch but they are unaware it is a 1pm start and so are trying to ride this contraption up and down the grass, avoiding the players now warming up.

Sounds like fun?  Too right it is.  I love being part of the magic that is match day.  Huge amounts of work goes into making sure that everyone gets to try to enjoy ninety minutes of football.  Whilst we can’t influence the result directly, the preparation that is necessary before every game should be aimed at giving Darren’s side the best opportunity possible to win the match.

I started this year sitting in the stands scouting at Peacehaven & Telscombe and would end it clearing up the detritus from the home team bench. That’s the beauty of the game at this level – you make a difference, as too does every other volunteer that gives up their personal time to help the club.

So how has 2016 treated us?  With all the doom and gloom around in the past few weeks you’d be mistaken to think that our relegation at the end of last season automatically made 2016 a bad year for us.  Actually, we probably made more progress this year on and off the pitch that any year in the past five including winning the Sussex Intermediate Cup.  2015 saw us avoid relegation technically on the last day of the season (although events elsewhere meant we couldn’t be relegated even if we had lost to Bury Town on the final day), get hammered in the Sussex Senior Cup Final and then start the 2015/16 season poorly.  The first half of the 2015/16 was no better as we started poorly and got worse.  It wasn’t until last December that things began to improve on the pitch.  Since January performances have been stronger and there is more of a settled feel in the squad as the stats below illustrate.

In the previous year we played 50 Ryman League games, gaining just 37 points and conceding a mammoth 93 goals in the process.  We won just 10 times, whilst tasted defeat on 33 occasions.  It is fair to say that was relegation form.  Prior to today’s game we’d played 43 Ryman League games in 2016 and gained 65 points, winning 17 and drawing 14.  We had scored 69 goals and conceded 70.  If we think back to that period between the start of March and the end of the season where we drew eight out of our ten games, losing just once, what might have happened if we would have not conceded late equalisers (Grays Athletic and VCD Athletic at home anyone?).  Extrapolate the 43 games into 46 and we have a 70 point season, enough in recent years to be in the top third of the table.

img_2257Unbeaten at home since early October, we hoped to finish the year off with a win against a Three Bridges side who have just two wins on the road (although they have been in their last trips away).  But football can be as unpredictable as the playlist I had put on before the match.  Just because the last two songs have been by the Killers, there’s no guarantee song three will not be something by The Cheeky Girls, or that Apollo 440, lined up as the walk-out song for the two teams actually turns out to be the Jive Bunny.

Lewes 4 Three Bridges 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 31st December 2016
Well, we’d got to the point where the referee had kicked off so we must have got most things right.  I checked Football Web Pages and saw that our starting XI was remarkably similar to last week’s, which wasn’t right so had to quickly amend that, not the easiest thing to do on a mobile.  Seven minutes gone and The Rooks were in front as Jonté Smith turned in the ball from close range.  Five minutes later I remembered that not only did I have to announce the goal but also add it onto Football Web Pages.

It wasn’t the best of halves to be honest although we were playing some nice football and never looked under threat.  Jamie Brotherton added a second in the 35th minute after a neat exchange of passes with Jonté and we should have had a penalty on the stroke of half-time when Conlon was bundled over.

The Lewes side emerged for the second half but there was no sign of our opponents or the officials.  The referee, showing that he is human, had not put enough change in the parking meter and so had to dash out to top it up, meaning nobody called the Three Bridges side out.  The additional time sat in the warm hardly did them any favours as Ronnie Conlon curled a beauty into the top corner within 46 seconds of the restart to make it 3-0.  Game over.  The fans in Philcox started singing “You’ve got more bridges than fans”, winning the chant of the year competition.

Or not quite.  We still have this ability to try to let victory slip out of our fingers.  It’s nothing new, especially here at The Pan.  Last season we gave up four points in two games by conceding injury time equalisers and all of a sudden in this game it went from 3-0 to 3-2.  There was an audible hum of discontent around the ground.  If we are to have any thoughts of breaking into the play-offs then we need to be winning games against teams at the wrong end of the table.

One magic substitution later and it was all smiles again as Charlie Coppola spanked home a loose ball in the area to make it 4-2.  In the two games between these sides this season there have been 14 goals.  Undoubtedly there could have been half a dozen more had it not been for the fine form of former Rook Kieron Thorp in the Three Bridges goal who kept the scoreline respectable in the final ten minutes.

At the final whistle I can enjoy that long overdue pint.  Alas it is not for relaxation – I just need to wait for the players to get changed so I can start sorting the kit and cleaning the dressing room so that come 1pm on Monday when they walk back in for the game against Horsham.  I’m not sure that 20 individuals could purposely make more mess if they tried.

With a game on Monday there would be no time for our usual kit washing or dressing room cleaning routine.  Duncan (Ops Manager) and I grabbed the brooms, buckets and mops and got to work whilst Jane (Director) picked up the kit to deliver to Carol (Director) to wash and dry all of the kit – the happiest of happy new year eve’s I’m sure with 21 shirts, 22 pairs of shorts (not quite sure why there were more shorts than shirts!), 22 pairs of socks, 11 pairs of cut-off socks, 24 warm up t-shirts, 18 warm up jacket and a random pair of Pringle pants for company as Big Ben struck twelve.

img_2262I’d read earlier in the day that the reason why it was a 1pm kick off was so that the directors had time to get ready before going up to London.  I wish that was the case.  The two hours we gave everyone back to enjoy the last night of the year was taken up for me by cleaning and then sitting in a traffic jam on the M25.  Did I mind?  Not one bit.

The afternoon summed up all that was good with the club.  I’m sure a few will grumble about the queue for food (a solution is in the pipe, or should I say pie, line) whereas I heard of a few others who missed the game because they didn’t know it was a 1pm kick off despite us promoting it through every available channel.  But a team effort on and off the pitch saw us end 2016 with three points and a smile on everyone’s faces.

Same again tomorrow everyone?

Northern Soul


Despite the fact we drowned our sorrows on a season to mostly forget last Saturday, there was still a fair amount of business to be decided in other leagues up and down the country.  Not only was there the small matter of deciding who would be moving up from the Ryman North and South but the National Leagues were also heading into their final games.  A sensible decision by the Conference meant that the final games in the Premier league would kick off at 5.30pm, meaning that if you picked the right games, you could see an earlier and a later game.

Never one to need an invitation to get involved in something like that I packed up the car and drove 252 miles north through rain, hail, sleet and snow to Harrogate to watch their final game of the season against Corby Town.  I could have lied to the Current Mrs Fuller and said this was a scouting trip; to some extent it was – a visit to a new ground means looking at their facilities, having a chat with officials and trying to get under the bonnet of the workings of their club – but this was purely down to having a rare opportunity to spread my wings and go for a wander, being a Football Tourist for the day.

Harrogate Town 5 Corby Town 0 – Wetherby Road – Saturday 30th April 2016
Harrogate Town had already sealed their Conference North Play-off spot and were hosting already relegated Corby Town.  The winter weather had passed over the Pennines and the sun was shining as crowds built up down Wetherby Road to get in.  An old chap behind me in the queue moaned that if this was what it would be like if they did go up to the Conference Premier, he wouldn’t be coming again.  He also said if they lost in the Play-offs he wouldn’t be coming again – you can’t please everyone!

26140376933_f671c8b014_kHarrogate have a decent ground with three of the four sides with good-sized structures.  There was also a hospitality area with a decked “porch” with nice tables and chairs set out.  There was a real family atmosphere feel around the ground, with kids having space to play their own games of football adjacent to the pitch.  Their 1919 hospitality area was doing a roaring trade before the game as well as the food van which was serving the staple in these parts, pie, peas and mint sauce plus a huge home-made sausage roll that would have made Katie Price blush.

26140279633_afa0f8ccfa_kThe difference between the two sides was evident within the first few minutes as Harrogate raced to a 3-0 before I’d finished said sausage roll.  Chatting to one of their officials it seems that to compete in this league you need a budget in the region of £5,000 per week, although Champions Solihull Moors have managed to win the league on a smaller budget.  Travel is a major issue for clubs with teams like Lowestoft Town, Gloucester City and Worcester City having to play against Barrow and Harrogate.  Whilst there isn’t one team who appears to have tried to buy their way to the league, next season the league will feature Darlington and Salford City, both of whom have significant resources behind them.

The club have a decent, vocal support though, who kept encouraging the team throughout the game.  In truth they could have scored double figures – whether that was simply the fact that the visitors had already given up for the season or that everything clicked over the 90 minutes.  One of the biggest cheers of the day was on the news that Leeds United had lost to doomed Charlton Athletic at Elland Road.  Whilst only being 20 miles down the road, the club didn’t seem to suffer in terms of attendances – in fact with the club still facing so much off-the-field turmoil, it has actually benefited Harrogate with a number of fans shunning the professional game for the beauty of the Non-League variety.

Could they cope with life at a higher level?  They certainly have the facilities in place and hopefully more locals, like today, would come and give the club a try.  After all, clubs of a similar size such as Boreham Wood, Welling United, Braintree Town and Guiseley had managed it for more than a season.  Good luck to Harrogate.

Guiseley AFC 4 Torquay United 3 – Nethermoor Park – Saturday 30th April 2016
My choice for the later game turned out to be inspired.  Just twenty minutes away on the other side of the runway of Leeds-Bradford Airport, is the small town of Guiseley, famed for being the birthplace of Harry Ramsden and Harry Corbett (he of Sooty and not of Steptoe fame).  They would be hosting Torquay United in a must-win final game of the season.  Even if they could gain a victory, results across the moors at Halifax could still see them relegated.

26138079974_c44c4ab0bd_kIt is fair to say that nearly 2,000 squeezed into the tiny Nethermoor Park ground on the edge of the town, making enough noise to be heard in Lancashire.  They raced into a 3-0 lead in the first half, with Torquay, already safe, mentally on the beach, but then just before half-time Halifax scored.  With Boreham Wood also winning, Guiseley occupied the final relegation spot.  The Torquay fans took to reminding the home fans of the fact that they would be relegated even if they won which pleased the locals no end.

Torquay finally realised they were here to play football in the second half and pulled two goals back, with veteran centre-half Exodus Geohaghon’s long throw-ins causing no end of issues for Guiseley.  The nerves of the home fans were eased when Macclesfield equalised at Halifax but with Torquay always looking dangerous, Guiseley simply had to try to score.  They did but back came Torquay to make it 4-3.  Every time a Guiseley player went to take a throw he’d ask someone in the crowd what the score was at Halifax..”1-1” came the reply. The final whistle blew and the fans invaded the pitch, but there was no cheering just yet.  It was a good two minutes before the cheer hit the stands.  Halifax had drawn, Guiseley had escaped.

26650810632_83abfd584a_kEven as a neutral it was hard not to be caught up in the celebrations.  Having been in this position myself I know the relief it brings, as well as those promises of “never again”.  The fans, the players and the whole club can celebrate for a day or two before the planning has to start on making sure the same thing doesn’t happen again next year.

I’m sure the footballing authorities would much rather have more “traditional” clubs in the Conference Premier such as Kidderminster Harriers, with their nice Football League ground, but it is clubs like Guiseley and Braintree Town who demonstrate you can upset the odds on modest budgets and give every club in the leagues below that you can have the dream.

Football is nothing


E5C6DC2D-F1C5-44C4-970B-D8A1426B8C24Being a football fan means having to take the rough with the smooth.  You often hear manager’s bemoan their luck when decisions don’t go their way, or when a break in a game goes against them.  “Over the course of the season, these things even themselves out” is a line straight out of the David Pleat Talking Bollocks guide – they don’t.  Football has a habit of building us up with hope then cruelly knocking us down.

After our last minute defeat to Tonbridge Angels on Tuesday, The Rooks fell to the bottom of the league.  It has now become irrelevant on how others are doing – it is all about us.  100% focus on preparation for each game, with a no-lose mentality.  As fans we have unconditional love for our team.  Some fans may show signs of weakness when times get tough – although if you listen to a Chelsea fan of a certain age they will swear blind that they stood back in the day on the crumbling Shed when the team battled against relegation to the third tier of English football.  Amazing how they were the best supported team back then, eh!

Each game brings a new challenge.  As a fan you look at the stats, trying to find some crumb of comfort from recent form or head to head results against our opponent.  For the visit of Kingstonian there wasn’t anything particularly warming about either.  It’s now been 240 days since we last won a home game, whether that is a league, cup or friendly.  Since our last win against Enfield Town we’ve seen a new government elected, One Direction split up and England win the Ashes – global events that have shaped our world, yet still The Rooks can’t find that win at home.

Everyone I bumped into at the ground when I arrived at 1.30pm told me “we’re going to win today”.  I had that same confidence.  The performances in the last two games against Hailsham Town and Tonbridge Angels had been encouraging to say the least.  A win today and all would be well with the world, enough to warm even the coldest heart on a freezing afternoon.

Lewes 1 Kingstonian 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 21st November 2015
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It all started so well.  Four minutes in and a smart move saw Henry Muggeridge slot the ball home.  The sense of relief both on the and off the pitch was palpable. Some teams in a similar position would have immediately retreated but Lewes kept the tempo up, trying to find a second.  Whilst the half ended more on a whimper than a bang, we went in ahead for the first time in sixteen games.  Darren Freeman’s half-time teamtalk revolved around not sitting back.  So what did we do?

We sat back and allowed Kingstonian to come into the game.  It could have been all over with twenty minutes to go when Richard Pacquette’s shot across the keeper bounced back off the bar.  Two-nil would have been game, set and match.

One of the soft underbellies of Lewes in recent years has been conceding late, crucial goals.  Tonbridge Angels (lost 1-0), Hampton & Richmond Borough (lost 2-1), Billericay Town (lost 3-2), Harrow Borough (drew 1-1) this season alone. So when Kingstonian threw on veteran striker Ricky Sappleton in place of a centre-back with five minutes to go, the sense of foreboding swept across the terrace.  It took him 90 seconds to score the equaliser and a further 3 minutes to grab the winner.  Words couldn’t descibe the feeling as we saw all 11 Kingstonian players, bench and fans celebrate the goal in the far corner.  To give the players credit they pressed for an equaliser.  Laing ran into the box but was scythed down.  Penalty!!!  Not if you are a referee who is 20 yards behind play it isn’t.  Free-kick a yard outside of the box.  Thanks for that.

Not all defeats are the same.  When you are truly beaten you need to hold your hands up and say “fair do’s”.  But when you lose in such a manner, time after time you are simply lost for words.  Whilst Bill Shankley said football was more important than life itself it isn’t.  It hurts when you lose, deeply when you in a situation like ours.  But what can you do?  You can’t change the past only the future.  So we go back to the drawing board and plan for 3 points next week at Staines Town.

We may be in the gutter but we are looking up at the stars


 It’s not been the best starts to a season down here at The Dripping Pan. A cracking pre-season, with our young squad passing the ball on the ground and scoring goals lured us all into a false sense of optimism that disappeared after 45 bruising minutes in our first league game at Leatherhead. Seventeen league games on and we are still in the bottom four, on our second manager of the season and were dumped out of both the FA Cup and the League Cup in the first rounds. You have to endure a lot of rain to see a small rainbow supporting Lewes.

But in the past few weeks we seen little slithers of light among the dark clouds hovering over East Sussex. Losing by one goal in seven last week, then gaining a point and a clean sheet on the road on Tuesday was encouraging from a performance if not a pure points point of view. New faces have been brought in who seem to want to play for the manager rather than for money and that spirit is starting to shine through. Whilst we don’t yet have to climb Everest to retain our place in the division, Kilimanjaro is still a challenge, but knowing that my 60 year old neighbour managed it with the right preparation gives me hope.

This week we held our first ‘meet the manager’ session along with our AGM. It’s fair to say that the club has taken a bit of a battering on social media and the fans forum this season on a number of topics. These of course escalate when we lose, with the world and their wife having their say – which is quite right. The fans forum should be a place to air concerns, criticism and comments. But disappointingly, when given the opportunity to direct questions specifically at the manager and more importantly the Board and executive management of the club, only a dozen or so turn up. For those who did attend I’m sure they got a greater insight into the time, effort and resources that go into making the club work towards financial stability. Nobody shy’s away from the fact that football on the pitch has been, in the words of my learned colleague Mr Ramsden, “relentlessly mediocre and conspicuously awful” in recent years and that’s what brings people through the gates. But likewise without the activities that take place off the pitch the club would be no more.

imageWe may be unusual from a Non-League budgeting point of view that we never include any potential cup revenues when we draw up the financial plan for the year. Every club starts the season with dreams of what could be with a bit of luck in the draw and a couple of decent performances. Our feeble exit from the FA Cup at the hands of Phoenix Sports back in September in from of less than 150 saw us earn about £5 from the cup this year whilst Staines Town, the last Ryman League representative left in the competition can look forward to travelling to East London next Saturday and taking on Leyton Orient, having already pocketed £25,000 in prize money and will get a 50% share of a very decent gate next week. So today’s tie against Hampton & Richmond Borough becomes significantly more meaningful with a bit of cash on offer. Should we win it will essentially provide an extra week’s wages for the squad.

Sounds easy right? Especially when we have already taken four points off The Beavers this season, or in other words, 57% of our total points. Back in mid-September we went to The Beeveree and came away with an impressive 4-0 win that gave us all hope that the tide had turned. Lewes then went on a ten game losing streak, only arrested, with no pun intended, at Met Police on Tuesday whilst our visitors today have ascended the table to arrive at The Pan in second place in the table.

The FA Trophy is an incredibly tough competition to progress in for clubs at our level. The financial gap between us and even teams in the league above is huge. Last season we know that Maidstone United were spending in the region of £9k per week, Margate potentially more or in other words up to five times the amount we spend on our playing budget. I would guess that both have increased that amount for this season yet Margate sit just above the relegation zone. Factor in that almost fifty percent of the Conference National have relatively recently played in the Football League and you can see how tough it is to progress.

imageThe other issue any club that has a good run in the competition faces is fixture congestion. Back in 2012 Wealdstone reached the semi-finals of the competition, the last time a team from the Ryman League reached that stage. Their reward was to have to play 3 or 4 games a week at the back end of the season because of the rules stipulated by the league. That ridiculous concentration of games ultimately saw them lose any hope of automatic promotion.

I think we all echo the words of manager Darren Freeman in “I’d rather be playing someone else” today, but perhaps this is just the test we need to see how far we have progressed I a short period of time before we return to base camp and preparation for our league table ascent. Cover your ears Ed but it’s not about the money, it’s about the performance.

Lewes 0 Hampton & Richmond Borough 0 -The Dripping Pan – Saturday 31st October 2015

Cup football in the middle of a run of league games can be a help or a hindrance for a team. In some ways this game was a free role of the dice for the rapidly reforming Rooks side – ninety minutes to gel as a team rather than focusing on the result. With injuries and player ineligibility the Rooks certainly started as the underdogs but left the field after ninety minutes feeling that a draw was a bit harsh on themselves.

Not only were key players missing from the Rooks line-up but the ridiculous FA rules meant that no-one could have a beer on the terraces. Yep, this is the same tournament that for seasons was sponsored by Carlsberg. Still, chips with curry sauce were back on the menu at the Chuck Wagon – in my mind we were already in the next round.

imageDespite the absences Lewes put in their best performance of the season, bar the last time they played Hampton & Richmond. Players knew their roles, played to their strengths, won 50/50 balls, timed the last ditch tackles and adopted a ‘attack is the best form of defence’ mindset. The only thing that was missing was the winning goal, although not for the want of trying.

Two consecutive scoreless draws do not make a season, but when you’ve had the run of form we’ve had recently gone through its a massive step in the right direction. We go again on Tuesday with our eye still on that big cheque.

The forgotten little brothers


Ferdinand, Wilkins, Rooney, Terry.  Legends in their own way I am sure you will agree.  But what if I was to tell you I was talking about Anton, Graham, John and Paul?  The siblings of Rio, Ray, Wayne and John?  Not quite in the legends bracket are they?  The same can be said for some clubs as well.  Whilst some towns and cities can boast two (or more) clubs playing at a professional level, other places in England have a definite big brother v little brother arrangement.

Norwich City v Norwich United
Last season was a good year for the two teams from Norwich.  Whilst City triumphantly returned to the land of milk and honey, beating Middlesbrough in the Play-off final at Wembley, United stormed to the Eastern Counties League Premier Division Title, finishing 26 points above 2nd place Godmanchester Rovers.  However, for a number of reasons the club declined promotion to the Ryman League.  United were originally formed as Poringland back in 1903, playing at the superbly named “The Gothic”.  They were renamed in 1987 and moved to their current home, Plantation Park back in 1990.  With United’s best run in the FA Cup coming last season when they made it to the Second Qualifying Round it may be some time before they meet in a competitive match.

Cambridge City v Cambridge United
Just a couple of seasons ago the two teams from Cambridge were separated by just one division as United were playing in the Conference Premier and City in the Conference South.  Today they are separated again by three divisions as United have returned to the Football League whilst City suffered enforced relegation in 2008 when their Milton Road ground failed a FA Inspection.  Worse was to come for City as they became embroiled in a legal battle over the ownership of the ground, which has now been demolished, forcing City to first groundshare with Newmarket Town, then Histon and now as of this season with St Ives Town. There will be playing in the Southern Premier League this season.

Oxford City v Oxford United
In recent times Lewes have actually played both City and United in competitive games, although few Rooks fans will want to remember our visits to the City of Spires as we lost in the Conference Premier back in 2009, then crashed out of the FA Trophy in November 2014 to Oxford City now playing in the Conference South as of this season after being shunted across from the North Division.  Last season City’s experiment of importing La Liga cast offs almost paid off as they finished just outside the playoffs, although the locals didn’t appear to warm to the experiment with crowds at Marsh Lane rarely broke the few hundred mark.  City were once managed by Bobby Moore, with Harry Redknapp as his assistant.

Lincoln City v Lincoln United
Whilst both Lincoln City and United play Non-League football, they are light years apart in terms of facilities.  Conference National City have the 10,000 capacity Sincil Bank with four almost new stands, perhaps a permenant sign of the excessive spending that caused their downfall out of the Football League, twice.  As each season passes, climbing out of the Conference becomes a harder and harder job, with last season’s 15th place finish a hard pill to swallow for many fans.  Travel West from Sincil Bank for a couple of miles and you will reach the leafy tranquillity of Ashby Avenue (or the more impressive Sunhat Villas & Resorts Stadium), home of The Amateurs, Lincoln United.  Currently played three levels below City in the Northern Premier League Division One South, their local derbies are against the likes of Goole AFC and Rainworth Miners Welfare in front of a hundred or so fans.

Ipswich Town v Ipswich Wanderers
In May 2013 Ipswich finally got their hands on a trophy in front of an excited crowd at Portman Road.  Ipswich Wanderers that it, not Town.  Wanderers won the Suffolk Senior Cup in that year on penalties in front of a crowd of 1,000.  Whilst The Tractor boys have been stuck in the Championship ploughed field for a decade, The Wanderers are on the up.  They were promoted back to the Eastern Counties League Premier Division in 2014 and finished last season in 9th place.  Their chairman is a familiar name to some – Terry Fenwick – the man who decided not to tackle Diego Maradona when he scored “that” goal in the 1986 World Cup Quarter-Final.  If only he did perhaps he could have now been chairman of Ipswich Town.

There are others of course.  Swindon Town may consider their local rivals to be Oxford United or Bristol City but Swindon Supermarine, the original works team from the Supermarine airplane company, will have a different opinion.  Southend United fans may think that their local rivals are Colchester United but what about Essex Senior League Southend Manor?  There was a story a few years ago about a disillusioned Newcastle United fan deciding to turn his back on St James’ Park and support Newcastle Town.  The only problem with this one is that the teams play 191 miles apart – Newcastle Town are based in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

The Christian way


Living in a hot-bed of Premier League and Championship fans (oh, and Millwall), Non-League football sometimes doesn’t get a look in.  It’s all Chelsea, Charlton Athletic, Arsenal and West Ham in these parts (oh, and Millwall), yet on our doorstep there are some grassroots clubs who are doing quite nicely too.  Of course they’d all like more fans, but it is hard to move the Soccer Saturday crowd from their comfy sofas.  Just down the road from TBIR Towers is Badger’s Mount (yes, I know it technically should be Set), home of Cray Valley Paper Mills, a club who currently play at step five of the Non-League pyramid, or in words that a Premier League fan may understand, eight promotions underneath them.  They’ve built up a nice set up, with a tidy ground, new well-appointed club house and thriving youth football.  They also share their facilities with fellow South Eastern Counties League side Erith Town, and it was the tenants rather than the landlords that I was wandering down the road to watch in the FA Cup Preliminary Round.  Doing my bit for the environment you could say, by walking.  The fact that The Park Tavern enroute had a beer festival had no bearing on my mode of transport at all.

20998353722_a806bd3e75_kThe clubhouse was heaving when I arrived, not due to an influx of Groundhoppers, although there were a fair few of them too clutching their plastic programme wallets and discussing the merits of Britain’s smallest Wetherspoons (The Banker’s Draft up the road in Eltham apparently).  There was a wedding reception on.  South East London’s finest with 50 shades of orange, had taken over the club. I would imagine when they booked that they had no idea they’d be sharing their big days with a bunch of Dockers of Erith and Christians from Horsham. However, with a decent crowd for yesterday’s cup game against big-spending Hasting United and the profits from the function, it will have been a “nice little earner” for the club over the weekend.

The winner of this tie could look forward to hosting Burgess Hill Town in the First Qualifying Round as well as a cheque for £1,925.  At this level, with most players on sub-£100 per week wages, that is a decent boost to the budget. Horsham YMCA, not that long ago of the Ryman League, came into the game as favourites at kick off, sharing a five-way lead in the Southern Combination League and still unbeaten whilst Erith had two wins from three games in the league.

The Dockers of Erith used to have their own stadium, in Erith, called bizarrely, The Erith Stadium.  A relatively impressive multi-use facility owned by the council. And therein lay the issue.  The club used to turn up to find grass unmowed, goal posts absent and huge holes in the pitch from shot put competitions.

Happier times indeed here and within touching distance of welcoming The Hillians.  All that stood between them and a potential £3k in prize money was the Young Man’s Christian Association of Horsham.  Not that you’d have known that’s who they were judging by the language from their bench during the game, which included an impressive three-hyphenated swear word at the linesman at one point.

Erith Town 2 Horsham YMCA 4 – Badger’s Mount – Sunday 30th August 2015
And so to the action.  First thirty minutes it was all square with little to write home about.  Then Horsham took the lead when midfielder struck from close range. Erith’s response took ten minutes when Tom Garrick beat the offside trap, dance round the keeper and slotted home.  Horsham should have gone in at half-time in front but for Sullivan’s powerful goal bound shot hitting an Erith player on the line squarely on the chest, knocking him into the net in the process.

20385635374_fde5b94f53_kTen minutes into the second half Horsham took the lead from one of the many free kicks awarded on the edge of the box.  Dan Evans strike clearing the wall and the keeper.  Number three arrived soon after, centre-back Matt Crane headed home from a free-kick then Brown made the tie safe with his second and Horsham YMCA’s fourth.  Despite a late Garrick goal for the Dockers, poor discipline in the second half in conceding so many free-kicks had been their undoing.

20820186050_5170df7dc0_kWith rain looming overhead and an approaching bus that run to the end of my road it was just too tempting.  Of course I hopped off one step early and stepped up the pace so I arrived home all of a fluster.  My reward for my healthy afternoon, a beer or two “because I’d earned it”.  Who doesn’t love the FA Cup?