The turkey tastes just a little bit better this Christmas


Winners know that the hard work starts when they’ve achieved their greatest goal. Whilst some have greatness thrust upon them, the vast majority of outstanding sporting individuals and teams go through years of preparation and perspiration before they can rightly call themselves a champion.

Football is no different. It is incredibly rare that a team will upset the odds on a consistent basis. There’s a few examples of Cup giant killings, but in most of those instances Lady Luck plays a factor. Longer competitions also require an element of luck as well as other sides creating a path to glory. Take the Greek side that won the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. They went into the tournament as one of the outsiders but ended up as champions. Were they the best side in the competition? Absolutely not, but they played to their strengths and others weaknesses as well as seeing other sides who were more highly fancied beat each other. But they weren’t a flash in the pan. They worked on a game plan and everyone in that squad executed it to perfection across the whole tournament – take Manchester City’s unbelievable performance this season.  They have a great squad but it’s not head and shoulders above the rest. Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have spent tens of millions in the past year, like City, but they’ve found a level of consistency that is above and beyond what we’ve ever seen in the Premier League.  The club leaves nothing to chance and will be working even harder to keep the run going off the pitch.

Many may cite Leicester City as another example. 5000/1 outsiders for the Premier League title at the beginning of the 2015/16 season, with a manager at the helm who had won almost nothing in his career. Two magical things aligned in the next nine months – a squad of players who almost to a man performed at the top of their game plus their main rivals all seemingly in a season of “transition”. However, there’s also an oft overlooked element to the Leicester City dream – the role behind the scenes of Steve Walsh and Craig Shakespeare who assembled the squad, not Claudio Ranieri, and a huge focus on the preparation for each game.

The 2003 English Rugby World Cup Champions revolutionised the way teams should prepare, a methodology copied by the massively successful British Cycling Team at the last two Olympic Games, using a common approach of marginal gains – improving a high volume of multiple things by small amounts rather than focusing on high levels of improvement in a small number of things.  Take one look at the huge army of people who work behind the scenes at the top Premier League clubs and you will understand the concept of marginal gains even better – A soft tissue therapist may sound like a strange role, but to Pep Guardiola, employing one could be the difference between getting a player Aguero fit a game earlier, which could be three points closer to a time.

As we pass the halfway mark in the season, Lewes still remain top of the Bostik League South, a position we’ve held, bar one week, since the end of September.  It’s not all been plane sailing and we’ve had our fair share of injuries and suspensions as this last week will testify but the hard work off the pitch by dozens of volunteers means we have gone into virtually every game as prepared as we could be.  We don’t have the luxury of a soft tissue therapist or a head of sports nutrition but we do do everything we can to help the players.  Our marginal gains can actually be far more impactful than those in the highly competitive, money-focused Premier League.

As we sit down and enjoy our Christmas I’d like to thank everyone, not only at Lewes but across every football club who gives up their time freely to try to make a difference for their club.  We know that the second half of the season will be even tougher – everyone raises their game against the teams at the top but that’s just going to make us more determined to get things right off the pitch.  Happy Christmas one and all.

The Blueprint for the Future of Non League Football – Let’s shake up the FA Cup


Any series about changes to Non League football wouldn’t be complete without an opinion from the chaps at The Real FA Cup. So here is Damon Threadgold’s radical idea as to how to breathe life into the world’s most revered cup competition.

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The 2013 final saw one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history, but that’s an outlier – you could use this bet365 bonus code to back any of the top 6-7 Premier League teams winning the cup for the next 20 years and come up winners 20 times.

English football is geared towards benefitting the top teams – but there is still plenty of work that can be done to change football for the better.

The FA Cup is, arguably, a tarnished bastion of English professional football in times where the collection of wealth has become a greater priority than glory. League status and European qualification is more lucrative than the kudos of a cup win or run, so priorities have been adjusted accordingly. As a consequence this oldest of cup tournaments is now not taken seriously by the vast majority of clubs in the top two tiers of the English pyramid. The majority of Championship clubs have their eye on the main prize of promotion to the cash cow, the majority of lower Premier League clubs are too busy sucking nervously at the udders to bother with the Cup*, and the top Premier League sides are more interested in getting in to, or retaining their place in, the top four.

That’s life, and the lure of cold hard cash is not just the preserve of the elite, it is also a driver for those in the lower and non leagues, it’s just the figures are lower and the need is greater. That lucrative promise of a tie against higher opposition focuses the mind of the lower league sides. While some non-league teams view the early Preliminary/Qualifying rounds in similar ways, the revenue that can be generated just by winning a few games might mean the difference between the club house getting a lick of paint and it being pulled down for houses. But the kudos does also play a part, ask the Giuliano Grazioli’s of the world, taking the tournament seriously can invigorate your career.

So, my proposal for improving non-league football is to shake up the FA Cup to give more non-league sides a shot at a league side.

There is an appetite for the Cup in the non-leagues like at no other level. To many it’s still the oldest and best loved cup, players can say they played in it despite never playing above the amateur game and a spot in Round 1 is coveted as much as the odd pro covets a Wembley date. The fans feel the same, just look at the (admittedly slightly selective) stats. Southern League Cambridge City got to Round 1 this year and it took them 5 games to get there. In those 5 games, four of them were attended by significantly more than their average league gate of 333. Given they largely played teams in or around the same level in the pyramid, that says a lot about their fans’ view of the tournament itself, especially when you consider the attendance drop off when similarly ranked PL or Championship teams are drawn against each other.

The story was even more marked for Hastings United, who got to the dizzy heights of the 3rd Round. Until they got there, they only played fellow non-league sides. In the 2nd Round they played Harrogate Town, who were only one tier above them in the pyramid and a club of similar stature. Hastings’ crowd for the home replay was a mind-boggling 4,028, ten times their average league gate of 404. Similarly to Cambridge City they only had one home FA cup attendance below their league average gate – and even in that very 1st Qualifying Round game the attendance was actually higher than their league average at that time of the season, despite playing a team further down the pyramid.

That’s not to say that this applies across the board, of course, some ties turn out to be damp squibs and, as implied above, getting back into pro football can turn higher placed Conference sides off the FA Cup temporarily. And, due to regionalisation of the early rounds, the very smallest teams often find themselves pitted against their fellow league sides, which is a bit dull for fans. A bit like if Norwich were to face Stoke in the 3rd Round, the world and indeed both sets of fans would shrug with indifference. But, that appetite of NL clubs/fans should be embraced, it could invigorate both the non leagues and the FA Cup. Which brings me to the proposition for improving non league football:

Firstly, change the names of the rounds to be more inclusive. The current 1st Round is actually the 7th round of the competition, let’s not pretend it isn’t. This separatism suggests non league sides don’t count and are playing in a different competition just to get into the real competition, a feeling exemplified by the exclusionist colloquialism for the 1st Round onwards, the ‘propers’. The football league is now an open shop to non-league teams, why not make the FA Cup seem like that too and start the thing off at Round 1 and be inclusive?

8730131244_7aae835fe5_b (1)Secondly, bring forward the time when professional clubs enter the competition. Why should these teams be treated so favourably when so many treat the competition with such disdain? Top-two-tier sides have to win less games to win the Cup than many non league sides currently have to win to even get a chance to play those big sides. This seems very unfair. The pot is skewed as it is, why not even it up a bit, make the league sides work harder to win it and make the non league sides feel further included in their national cup?

Three, (in fact a consequence of the second one) increase the number of non league sides with the potential to draw a league side. At present only 36 non league sides have a chance to draw a league side in the 1st Round. The chances of those sides being from outside the Blue Square system are extremely low, due to the fact that the Conference Premier sides only have to play one game to get in to the main draw and often they only have to beat a side further down the pyramid. When the Conference is full of professional ex-football league sides, the chances for the lower non league sides to progress to the current 1st Round are further distorted. Under our proposals the league clubs would enter with all of the Blue Square leagues sides. Under this system, what would become the 5th Round would comprise 256 teams – with 92 of them from the Football League and Premier League and, therefore, 164 non league sides get the chance to draw a plum tie instead of 36.

OK, so in this system a club in the top 2 tiers drawing a minnow won’t field their strongest side but, then again, the vast majority don’t field their strongest side in the FA Cup anyway. Also. many pro sides send development or reserve sides to play local non league sides in pre-season now anyway – and those games attract larger than normal crowds at those non league grounds. So, in a competitive match, who is to say that number won’t be even larger.

Finally, as happens in France, the lower league side in any tie always plays at home. Many big clubs won’t relish this but it makes perfect sense and means they get forced to put something back into the lower leagues.

At present, the trickle down of cash to the lower leagues is minimal, this system would arguably widen the spread of income around the pyramid.

Simple Plan:

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1st Round – Effectively the Qualifying Round, to even up the numbers – There are usually about 600 clubs below the Blue Square leagues who enter the FA Cup so the lowest will play-off to whittle down to 384.
2nd Round – 384 NL Clubs
3rd Round – 192 NL Clubs
4th Round – 256 Football Clubs (96 NL CLubs from 3rd Round, 68 Blue Square Clubs + 92 League Clubs)
5th Round – 128 Clubs
6th Round – 64 Clubs
7th Round – 32 Clubs
8th Round – 16 Clubs
QF – 8 Clubs
SF – 4 Clubs
Final – 2 Clubs

*Couldn’t let this pass without commending Wigan, they pretty much sacrificed their league status for Cup glory. TOP NOTCH. Time won’t pay much heed to their league position in 2012-13, their ‘honours’ section, though, will say “FA CUP WINNERS”, you can’t take that away.

You can follow the antics of the Real FA Cup from late July here.

The Blueprint for the Future of Non League Football – Financial Fair Play part 1


Great minds think alike, so they say.  So whilst I was half way through writing my final piece in this year’s series of Blueprints for the future of the non league game, in pops a suggestion from Jenni Silver, the Goddess of Gloucester City FC which couldn’t have matched my thoughts any better.  

How much does it cost to run a non-league team? You could argue, with two Conference South teams entering administration last season and numerous others across the pyramid struggling for cash to pay their bills that perhaps it is beginning to cost too much.

8646608550_6ff25e77bd_bDespite the perpetual argument that there is no money in non-league it seems clubs are still spending wildly, rarely on infrastructure but usually on wages, which continue to rise against a backdrop of unsteady gate numbers, recession and supporter apathy which stalks the lower leagues.

The haves and the have nots are growing further apart – one look at the Conference Premier shows some teams towards the top half of the table spending more on the wages of single players than some teams in the league below spend on their entire squad. Full time teams now exist in the Conference North and South yet some Step three teams can still turn players’ heads with an offer of an extra £20 or so a week than teams in the league above can afford. Continue reading