The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…again

Enfield Town 2 Lewes 1 – The Queen Elizabeth II Stadium – Saturday 13th February 2016
OK – let’s start with the positives.  We all got a free pint to drink during the first half thanks to a great gesture by Enfield Town, a thank you for our support in their campaign for justice at the end of last season.  Not just your run of the mill fizzy-pop either.  A fine pint of Redemption’s Rock The Kazbek no less.  And boy did we need it in a first half where the pre-match instruction from our management team to “make sure Whitely doesn’t cut inside onto his right foot” lasted approximately 200 seconds when Whitely cut inside onto his right foot and scored.

FullSizeRender (6)The goal came as a bit of a shock to be honest, even though a) Enfield Town had won their last four home games, b) We have the second worst away record in the league, conceding on average 2.3 goals per game and c) We hadn’t gone behind in a game this year.  Could we have another beer voucher?

The scars of last season’s debacle have been forgotten by most at the club, although the initials FA certainly don’t mean the Football Association in these parts.  It’s fair to say that our governing body didn’t come out of the whole affair very well, and even at a meeting before Christmas with the chairman of the Ryman League, looked to deflect blame from their failings.  Fortunately, plans are afoot at our league level to change rule 6.9 which would now mean the Ryman League could handle the situation very differently if it occurred in the future.  How difficult was that?  Well as simple as changing the word “shall” to “may” in terms of how the league penalise clubs.  It took 30 seconds for the votes to be counted back in December’s League Meeting for that to progress.

Anyway, back to the action.  We always looked like we would concede another in the next thirty minutes but somehow we didn’t.  Then we started to remember how we had beaten Dulwich Hamlet, Canvey Island and Merstham.  We started passing the ball, stretching Enfield’s midfield and defence.  We had a great chance for Laing to run in on goal in the last-minute of the half.  However, the ball never reached him as the Enfield Town full-back decided to play basketball with the ball in front of the linesman, who tried to justify the fact he wasn’t looking by pointing to his chest.  The Enfield player walked off at half-time hardly able to contain his laughter.

FullSizeRender (5)We kept pressing in the second half, chipping away at the back four, looking for a way through.  Laing had a great shout for a penalty turned down when he was pushed to the floor.  No penalty, yet no card for “simulation”.  So what was it then ref? Jonte Smith’s far post header was turned around the post by an Enfield leg and with seconds left we could sense something was going to happen.

Laing again bamboozled the defence and his cross struck and outstretched arm.  Referee points to the spot.  Could it be?  Smith stepped up in the most languid of ways and rolled the ball into the corner of the net.  We’d take a point our jumping around on the terraces said.  We’d hardly had time to tweet using the hashtag “unbeatenin2016” before we’d conceded again.

FullSizeRender (4)Back in August we took the lead at home to Harrow Borough with a penalty in the 87th minute.  67 seconds later we conceded after switching off and had to settle for a draw.  Today our point lasted marginally less.  Enfield Town were given a free-kick on the left-hand side, pumped it into the box and someone (later identified as full-back Doyle) headed it in.

It’s hard to smile and share pleasantries post match in the boardroom when you lose like this.  Enfield Town’s hospitality was second to none and whilst the conversation, according to the unwritten boardroom protocol, completely avoided the a) result, b) the last gasp goal, and c) the fact we were still bottom, you couldn’t help thinking what could have been.

The positive was that other scores down at the foot of the table didn’t work against us.  We will pick ourselves up, regroup and refocus on three points next Saturday against Grays Athletic.  Perhaps it was the beer after all?  Yep..*makes note to turn down free beer*

Merstham Tanned in Battle of M25 Junction 8 and 9

Since 1965 Christmas football has been the preserve of Boxing Day. One of the most eagerly anticipated days of the season, where crowds are bumper, especially in Non-League football.  This is despite the complete lack of public transport.  Take Brighton & Hove Albion’s trip to Brentford for a 1pm kick off.  The Seagulls fans had to set off around 8am, get three trains and a rail replacement bus to arrive by 12.30pm for the 60 mile journey.   Then, of course there is the weather.  Fortunately, the South had been spared, for now, the torrential rain that had caused widespread flooding in certain areas.

Every December there is a call from various Premier League managers that they play too many games and that there should be a winter break. This nearly always comes from manager’s who have just lost (again) and need to blame something other than the fact their team was actually crap.  The BBC News reported that “Even Premier League players had to train on Christmas Day”. So , someone who is paid up to £500k a month (and the rest!) has to work on Christmas Day? How is that a story? Policemen, nurses, firemen and soldiers also had to work. Did they get a mention? No of course not.

With an impending trip to the North and the need for a bit of intel on our opponents next week, I navigated around the shopping traffic, or as the BBC said “Millions braved the Boxing Day sales” (no hype there then) to take in the South M25 derby.  To sum up the game in five phrases – Muddy, End to End, Howling misses, No burgers, Late chested winner.

Merstham 1 Leatherhead 2 – Moatside – 26th December 2015

Economic Theory explained by Football – The Concept of Marginal Gains

Just down the road, 2 1/2 hours before Lewes kick off in their game against Farnborough, The Football League Championship’s two clubs go head to head.  Brighton & Hove Albion are the last remaining unbeaten team in the top 10 divisions of English football, a remarkable turnaround from last season where they avoided relegation in the last few weeks of a season characterised by dull, scoreless football.  Back in the Summer, Chris Hughton brought his first team squad down the A27 and could count themselves lucky to go back with a 0-0 draw.  Confidence was high from the Lewes camp, whilst the draw against a team five divisions lower hardly increased the membership of the Hughton Appreciation Society.

Six months on and the situation could hardly be more different.  Hughton is being hailed a messiah by the North Stand faithful whilst Lewes are still looking for their first home win and are looking up the skirts of every other team in the Ryman Premier League.  We could spend hours debating why, but it is more important to touch on what the future holds in my opinion.

In the last few days I’ve read a couple of interesting pieces about the finances of The Seagulls.  The superb Swiss Ramble analysed the numbers in detail on his website last week, There can be no denying the investment by owner Tony Bloom in the club, both on and off the pitch, and for the sake of their loyal fans I hope they do reach the promised land of the Premier League, not only because they deserve a crack at it, but to also give Bloom some financial return on his huge investment.  Footballing history has given us plenty of examples as to where the single investor model turns sour at some point, and whilst Brighton fans may say “It’ll never happen to us with our Tony around”, I’m sure that is what Bolton Wanderers fans said when Big Phil was splashing the cash for Big Sam at the Reebok.

FullSizeRender (16)But what about Lewes?  We don’t have the ownership model that means we are indebted to one person.  However, we are bottom of the league.  In such situations managers tend to grab at any straw going.  How often will you see them bring in a raft of new players to try to solve an issue, normally expelling a fair few out the back door.  It is very rare that the financial situation in such cases ends up with the club making a profit on the dealings or paying less wages.  We all deep down know that, unfortunately, Chelsea will not get relegated this year.  Whoever comes in in the short-term will be given some patience and will make small changes that turn defeats into draws, and draws into wins.  Before you know it they will be knocking on the door of the top seven.  Why?  Because in most instances, teams do not become bad teams overnight or even over a pre-season.  If you can keep the same core of players then with small adjustments they will become better gradually.

This is the theory of marginal gains.  The concept is that if you improve in every variable underpinning or influencing your performance by just 100% then cumulatively you get a significant performance improvement.  The Performance Director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford is often quoted as the biggest proponent of the theory, but it was actually Sir Clive Woodward to first openly admitted to using the concept in the preparation for the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia, that England would ultimately win.  “Winning the World Cup was not about doing one thing 100% better, but by doing 100 things 1% better” he said post tournament.

So what does that actually mean for a grass-roots club like Lewes?  It means working with the management team to make sure when the team step onto the pitch they are 100% prepared.  Kit may seem a small issue, but for one player having a pair of shorts that aren’t too tight could be that 1%.  Energy drinks – another 1%.  Ensuring the showers are hot – 1% and so on.  That’s obviously not going to be the reason why Chelsea improve but their 1% gains may come from preparation patterns, pre-match meals, warm up routines as well as personnel changes.

Lewes manager Darren Freeman has been used to winning both as a player and a manager.  He has a formula as to the type of player that he wants to see pull on the red and black shirt each week.  Coming into the club where it was already in the bottom four and three months into the season, his marginal gains are a lot tougher to deliver. But that doesn’t stop him trying.  There’s not going to be one single event that can turn the current situation into a rosier one – unless half a dozen teams all play ineligible players for 5 or 6 games in which they win and get 15 point deductions.  So the club has to look at improving marginally, and more importantly, within budget, in a multitude of areas.  Obviously, players will come and go such as this week where a new winger and a new centre-forward have come in, replacing an existing proven scorer.  Unusually, the net effect of the transfer dealings is financially positive.  Two for the price of one – a marginal gain in terms of squad numbers.

Fans obviously play a part as well.  Any Brighton & Hove Albion supporters heading back to Lewes that could be enticed in, irrespective of the price they pay should lead to a marginal financial gain.  The cost of admitting one extra fan is essentially zero.  There is a stewarding cost, but you can only set that prior to the game based on what you think the crowd would be.  If an additional 1,000 fans turned up today it would cost the club nothing extra but we would gain from whatever they pay through the turnstile and then food/drink/merchandise and so on.  That revenue would then boost the budget which would then be re-invested in different aspects of the club and thus delivering that marginal gain.

PastedGraphic-2-page-001It’s fair to say that the biggest marginal gain from today’s game though would be three points.  In fact, anything less than three points would be a significant blow to the club.  Farnborough’s off the field problems are well documented, falling from being just one game away from the Conference Premier four years ago to facing expulsion from the league.  We’ve been there and know how the fans pain feels, knowing that their fate is often out of their hands.  But for today it would be all about the Lewes win.  Still without a home win this season, Lewes could at least look to Farnborough’s away record of drawn one, lost ten as a positive omen.

The marginal gains philosophy and approach is  hardly rocket science. It’s a simple idea, but with many simple ideas, takes some energy, commitment and discipline to see the positive results.  Alas those three words are often lost on fans who want immediate results.  As a club we have to balance both.

Lewes 1 Farnborough 0 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 19th December 2015
It has only taken 269 days but finally we have a home win to celebrate.  25th March was the last time we really got to dance a silly jog of delight on the Philcox at the full-time whistle but yesterday we got that winning feeling again.  In terms of marginal gains the result was huge. We got 3 points, 3 more than the six teams above us.  In the grand scheme of things it makes little difference to the table or the threat of relegation, but we came out of the day the winner at the bottom end.

FullSizeRender (15)Farnborough were poor.  They lined up with a 5-3-2, failed to get one shot on goal, picked up five bookings and the only threat they posed was when Estonian striker Vastsuk threw himself to the ground in the penalty area and picked up a caution – interesting that we normally only see antics like that from players with league experience, and Vastsuk is no different, on loan from Reading.  Good to see the professional game teaching players the importance of ethics.

Lewes were good.  They started strongly and could have had a couple of goals (and at least one penalty) before Phil Appiah’s 25 yard blockbuster on the stroke of half-time put The Rooks in the lead.  By then the curse of the new striker had struck as George Landais limped off on his debut.  His replacement Trevor McCreadie was denied a penalty in the second half by yet another poor performance by the officials, being tripped in exactly the same spot as last week in the area.  OK, it wasn’t a vintage performance, probably not as convincing as last week’s draw against Leiston BUT you could see the 1%’s.  Winger Junior Ogedi-Uzokwe beat his man more frequently, the two centre-backs blocked more shots on the edge of the area, James Fraser looked a little more match fit.  Marginal gains.

So we danced all night to the best feeling ever.  Three points can make or break your weekend.  Hopefully the couple of dozen Brighton fans who decided to stick around after their painful first defeat of the season will have enjoyed a pint of Harvey’s, a slice of Christmas Pie and a goal worthy to win any game.

Economic Theory explained by Football – The Doom Cycle

In the last year I have written a number of articles trying to explain some common Economic Theories using football as a reference point.  Up until now they have all been hypothetical but today there is a real link between the theory and the reality that Lewes are currently experiencing.

The “Doom Cycle” is a phrase often used to refer to the current boom-bust-bailout structure of the financial sector that leads to economic crises.  The pain of the last few years is still too real for many people to have forgotten.  The Doom Cycle has been defined by The New York Times as: “a virtueless circle in which banks take ever-greater risks to boost returns”

In footballing terms, it means trying every possible variable to try and break a cycle of bad results.  Just like Lewes’s current run which has seen us exit all four cups and take just one point from the last fourteen Ryman Premier League games.  I think you could say that was a bad run of form.  Yet within that sequence there have been many positives.  Alas, football is a cruel game and failure to take chances when presented, or convert possession into something meaningful.  The virtueless circle where you try anything different, whether than is a formation, personnel, preparation or set pieces to find a win.  It is fair to say that you get to a point somewhere along the line where you will take any win, irrespective of how it comes.

“You can’t buy any luck when you are at the bottom” said someone to me at a League meeting last week.  Every club has sympathy with teams at the bottom (well, at least to your face), saying platitudes such as “your luck will turn” or “It will turn out alright”.  To those 23 other teams in our league they will hope we stay down at the bottom – after all it is one less position for them to worry out.  Last week at East Thurrock we felt the full effect of fate – three players ending up in hospital, one of which with a long-term injury just days after signing a contract plus a sending off that embarrassed the basic rule of refereeing about being impartial and not influenced by the actions of the teams.

CaptureAs results continue to be poor, crowd numbers fall.  Football fans are either unconditionally loyal (circa 20% of the fan base) or are results driven (70%) with 10% sitting somewhere in between.  When times are good, the crowds come and watch and spend money in the ground.  When scores go against you, those results-driven fans decide to spend their time and money elsewhere on a Saturday afternoon.  That is totally understandable.  Alas, when budgets are set at the start of the season you do not factor in being bottom of the league – you set realistic targets for average gate revenue and yield per spectator.  You can’t factor in those 2 or 3 big games that provide some extra insurance being postponed or being moved.  Today we were supposed to be welcoming Dulwich Hamlet and their army of beer-thirsty fans.  Instead they are in FA Trophy action.  With no disrespect to Leiston, but their dozen or so fans will not make up for the hundred or so from Dulwich.

So as results decline, so do the crowds and match day revenue.  To keep a balanced budget that means having to cut spending in other areas, which potentially impacts the performance of the team even further.  And so on – the club enters a Doom Cycle or a virtueless circle of short-term decline.  I think we have dispelled the myth now that the answer to any problem is to “increase the budget”.  Most fans understand that we are not in a position to do that.  We have our cloth, cut to size and we have to wear it.

Some fans have questioned the commitment and focus of the club, even suggesting that there is foul play at work on the board in how we manage the club’s finances.  It’s tough to have the answer the same questions time and time again, especially those around the budget.  There is no secret fund, piggy bag or plastic bag full of cash.  Sure, we could take money from elsewhere – not paying our electricity bill or income tax, but we’ve been there, done that.  Still some think that the responsibility of the individual board members is to constantly put their hand in their pocket.

The game would also see the launch of our new 12th Man scheme – a different approach to adding to the first team budget.  Launched at 12:12pm on the 12th of the 12th (clever, eh?) the concept has been used with some success elsewhere but even this initiative was scorned upon by some fans on Social Media – suggesting that the move was an admission of failure and neglect from the board for not putting in money the club didn’t have into the budget. Sometimes I truly wonder whether the stress is really worth it.

Of course, all of the pressure would be worth it if we could grab that first win at home this season.  It would be nice for once to head home with a smile on my face.

Lewes 1 Leiston 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 12th December 2015
This was one occasion when a draw felt like a win to the 370 Lewes fans in the ground (plus 25 Dulwich Hamlet ones – more on that later).  Seven minutes into injury time and Lewes launched a final ball into the box, looking for a goal that their pressure deserved.  The ball must have hit every player, bar Lewes keeper Winterton in the box before James Fraser got a final touch and the ball trickled over the line.  The outpouring of emotion was clear to see.  There was no time to restart the game, alas as I genuinely thought we could go onto win the game.

For 93 minutes of this encounter The Rooks had dominated play.  Unfortunately, the same old issue haunted the team in the opening few minutes – a failure to clear the ball, a missed tackle and an opponent left unmarked.  The result? 1-0 down after 4 minutes 43 seconds.

image1The strong wind certainly played into Lewes’s favour in the first half but no matter how many times the ball went into the box, there was never a head or a foot on the end.  Last week a fellow Ryman League chairman made a valid point.  “The reason why week after week we have poor officials is that anyone with any potential is fast-tracked up the leagues, so we are left with those who will never get any better” Those words echoed around the terrace when the officials failed to see a clear push on Pacquette in the first half when he looked to get on the end of a Redwood cross, and more clear-cut, failing to see that McCreadie was fouled in the box in the second half, despite the marks in the turf, giving a free-kick a yard outside.

The Rooks pressed in the second period, but once again the goal was leading a charmed life.  At the other end Winterton was an almost spectator.  This had been the story of the season – playing well for long periods but failing to convert possession into goals.  That’s not down to us being a community club, the beach huts or our match posters.  That’s down to not being able to find an out and out goalscorer.  In fact, that is something the club have been missing for years – someone who could score us 20 goals a season and probably win us 15/20 additional points.

I’m sure we all felt we had run out of time, but it was actually our opponents who gave us the goal.  Despite Leiston having a goal kick, one of their players decided to make a comment to the referee.  Cue long lecture and a yellow card, allowing us the additional time to score.  Thanks for that!

The whole crowd appreciated the point – even the 20-odd fans from Dulwich Hamlet who had come down for a stag do, arranged before their club’s progression in the FA Trophy and consequently the cancellation of our game with them.

Perhaps that goal was the tipping point for our season? The one moment where our luck changes.  We know that we are still in Intensive Care but for the first time in weeks we had a faint heartbeat.  Has the Doom Cycle been broken? Well, we will see in 7 days when fellow critically ill patient Farnborough arrive in East Sussex.

Ten out of ten

Words have been hard to come by in recent weeks.  I’ve not let up in the number of games I have been watching, although for once my work trips haven’t coincided with any games (they’ve wised up to my little games perhaps?)I’ve just been short of motivation on what to write.  Being a fan of a team who go through a poor run isn’t much fun.  Being in a position of accountability of a team who go through a poor run is even less fun. Match days become longer and longer as you examine every little detail to see what you can do to end the run.

Today’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of mid-table Leatherhead marked the tenth consecutive defeat for Lewes in all competitions. The game, as the scoreline suggests, was pretty decent – five of the seven goals coming in the opening quarter of the game no less.  But I’m no longer able to walk away at full time as a neutral or even a fair-weather fan and have simply enjoyed the thrilling game.  I have to analyse where we as a club went wrong both in terms of preparation but also execution.  Whether we lost 4-3 or 7-0, we came away from the game with the same number of points – zero and our league position worsens.

FullSizeRender (8)You look for crumbs of comfort in this situation.  We’ve lost seven of those ten games by just one goal.  Seven different bounces of the ball, seven shots that the keeper could fumble, seven crosses we head to safety.  Seven different decisions could have given us seven points we don’t have today.  There’s no satisfaction in scouting a team, documenting their yellow belly but then falling foul to the sole threat they offer.  You can draw positional play diagrams to your hearts content, play videos of set-pieces all night or write detailed notes on tactics but if the players don’t take it on board then there is little you can do.  Leatherhead’s star man Karagiannis scored two superb, almost identical goals yesterday.  He’s a left-footed player who plays on the right. He hugs the touchline then runs inside the full back and shoots from distance. He’s done that twice in games I’ve seen.  Yesterday he did it twice in a few minutes and scored on both occasions.

Someone recently wrote on the club’s forum “Being a director isn’t about being popular.  It is about doing the right thing.” Yes, we are all fans but that doesn’t make us immune from not being accountable.  You need a thick skin at times – every decision is open to scrutiny.  Football fans at all levels see the game through different eyes and are satisfied by different things.  Growing up as a West Ham game I was always told it was better to play the “West Ham way” and lose 4-3 than to play direct and win 1-0.  I saw exciting players such as Alan Devonshire, Ray Stewart, Alan Dickens, Frank McAvennie and Paolo Di Canio. But some of the most memorable games were those where Julian Dicks, Martin Allen and David Cross were at their best.  They weren’t “flair” players – they played with their hearts and had a “win at all cost” mentality.  However, when you are deep in the relegation myre you will take a win at all costs.  We can all comfort ourselves that we lost whilst still playing some good football, but we still lost.

FullSizeRender (7)Earlier this year we took a tough decision to change our management team.  We were on a bad run and whilst we could have potentially scraped through without making a change, there was enough of a risk that we could be relegated for us to take the tough decision.  The majority of the fans backed the decision and we brought in someone who had managed at a higher level but limited knowledge of football in Sussex.  We battled and won games at all costs.  We retained our place in the division without any outside intervention yet some still questioned the style of play.  Our sole objective was to stay up yet some expected that “West Ham way”.

Lewes may be very different from other Non League Clubs in that we think about the future as much as the present.  The past is gone – we cannot change it BUT we can learn from it.  Coming within a whisker of not having a club at all is a sobering situation.  That near death experience will never be forgotten by those who went through it.  Thinking about the future means ensuring that we need to live within our means, not mortgaging today for something that will almost certainly not happen in the future.  Football is littered with the casualties of this blinkered view.  Leeds United, Coventry City, Blackpool, Portsmouth, Torquay United, Hereford United – the list goes on of clubs who have ignored the lessons of the past.  Some, such as Portsmouth and to an extent Coventry City now think in a very different way.

I would like to think that in five or ten years time we have a very different board at Lewes than we have today.  Change is good – a fresh perspective, new ideas not encumbered by the past. But none of the existing board will renegade on their responsibilities today.  Nobody tells you what the “right thing to do” actually is.  What is right to me may be wrong to one, two, ten, two hundred others.  Our frame of reference is and will continue to be until we are 100% self-sustaining “what impact will this decision have on the club tomorrow?”  The club has been criticised from some quarters that we concentrate too much on the off the field activities – the posters, the beach huts, the 80’s band as a shirt sponsor.  Without these things we would almost certainly be playing at a much lower level than we are today.  We are very good at creating media interest and consequently more revenue that can be invested on the pitch because we have that expertise within the club.

Fans come to football for a number of reasons.  Escapism, to meet up with friends, to be entertained, to play our their dreams.  You can fall out of love with football if you start seeing the game as a millstone around your neck, knowing that someone decisions made by 11 men on the pitch are your collective responsibility.

Yesterday could have ended up 5-5 or more.  Lewes created more chances in one game than they had done in the previous five or six.  Less than sixty seconds after we drew the score back to 2-2 the Leatherhead keeper made a save that he knew nothing about, keeping the ball out with his cheek.  At 4-2 our centre-back found himself with the ball at his feet with only the goal keeper to beat and poked the ball wide. Alex Laing hit the post.  That in itself brought some of that love back.  It made me realise the team did care, that the ten defeats to them meant something too.  For some fans it still wasn’t enough.  They wanted a win, a win at all or any cost.  I can understand that too.  But going back to something I said earlier, we didn’t lose because the club promotes its beach huts, its posters or its catering.  Likewise when we win (and we will do very soon) it has nothing directly to do with those things either.

When teams win every week, everything is right.  The team and the club can do no wrong.  But then when things do start to falter they are blown out of all proportion.  Chelsea’s start to the season has been average in comparison to other Premier League sides.  But they aren’t considered to be “another” Premier League side.  The media prefix their name with “reigning Premier League Champions” all the time.  The past is past.  There is no sense of entitlement in football.  West Ham’s win over Chelsea yesterday was down to the referee, goal line technology and Mourinhio’s half time spat.  Bilic’s tactics or the performance of players such as Payat become irrelevant.  Chelsea lost the game rather than West Ham winning it apparently.  According to the loyal fans, Chelsea’s predicament is down to the manager not getting the players he wanted to sign in the summer.  The fact that other teams have invested their smaller resources in a better way is irrelevant.

So back to football in East Sussex and our losing streak.  Defeats hurt, especially when you are hopelessly second best.  For the first time in quite a while I saw hope yesterday.  Hope that the players are caring as much as I do, hope that we can create chances and more importantly take them, hope that come what May (or April) that we will be looking down the table rather than up it.  Football should come with a health rather than a wealth warning at our level

67 seconds of joy

Football can be a cruel game sometimes.  Often you try to do the right thing, even though you know the end result may not work in your favour.  There are few football fans who don’t love to see players that have grown up with a club pull on the shirt and play their heart out.  Badge kissing in these circumstances is allowable.  But few players these days are one-club icons.  In the Non-Leagues where money is less (I stress “less” rather than “not”) of an issue, you will often get some club loyalty.  On Wednesday night when Met Police were visitors to the Dripping Pan, their manager Jim Cooper was celebrating his 12th year in charge of the club.  Whilst he may have masterminded his team’s victory over Lewes, how much of his preparation focused on the inexperience and youth of our team?

FullSizeRender (1)Faced with a reduced budget, managers have two choices – cut their cloth accordingly, or move on.  Lewes boss Steve Brown is certainly in the former camp – in fact he positively encouraged us to invest in the youngsters, and the future development of them.  “Some weeks they will get battered out there, but on the other side some weeks they will have the crowd purring”.  Whilst you can’t read much into pre-season games, there was certainly evidence of the latter in those games.  There was also evidence of the former in the first game of the season at Leatherhead.

We want to be a progressive club, so we have embraced Social Media as too have many other clubs at our level.  That includes having our games recorded and shared across the excellent Football Exclusives platform.  For those fans unable to get to a game, the ability to access highlights is fantastic.  It’s also very useful for opposing teams in terms of scouting, especially as they can pause and rewind the action to take notes.  Was there any surprise that Met Police played lots of high balls into the area in the first half on Wednesday night when they know we have a 17-year old making his full debut? No, but even at this level of the game you will try everything to get a slight competitive advantage.

So whilst you may feel that pride of seeing the players you have developed come through to make their first team debut, you also know that opponents will try to exploit that inexperience.  But on the other hand, every minute these young players is a minute’s more experience.

Of course I wouldn’t be writing these notes if we had got off to a flyer in our opening two games and were sitting top of the league.  Alas, we were propping up the 23 other teams (albeit on alphabetical order).  Our visitors Harrow Borough were up there with the teams of the season in the Ryman Premier League last year out.  Whilst they finished in the bottom eight, they were effectively dead and buried with a dozen games to go.  Then they found some guts, passion and a will to win.  Those final twelve games resulted in 25 points and safety assured with their win at the Dripping Pan in early April.

Just 24 hours after the visit of Harrow Borough to The Dripping Pan I would be heading north to take in the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round game between AFC Emley and Parkgate.  There was no footballing reason for this one – no player to have a look at or team to scout.  It was a bit of a jolly.  But what did make me smile was the message on the Emley website that defined their mission:-

“We are a small club with very little money but what we can do, we try to do well and do “the right way”. On the playing side our vision is to develop the best local talent who want to succeed for the club and community we serve. The emphasis is on development of players who want to succeed for OUR club. This vision is underpinned, on and off the pitch, by the values of communication, respect, responsibility and solidarity.”

Who can not agree with that at our level, yet how many clubs and their owners are prepared to compromise those principles at the slightest whiff of some money? But back to today and the search for our opening points of the season.

Lewes 1 Harrow Borough 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 15th August 2015
For 67 glorious seconds we had a taste of victory.  That’s how long we held the lead for after opening the scoring in the 87th minute.  It was a tad harsh on the Rooks who built on their second half on Wednesday with an assured if unspectacular performance today.  Whilst the visitors will point to a goal disallowed midway through the second half, they rarely put young Stroomberg’s goal under threat.

Despite dominating first half possession it took Lewes until the final minute of the half to create a chance when the tireless Jimmy Muitt broke free of his marker on the half-way line, accelerated away, rounded the keeper but took the ball too wide.  He got his shot in which was cleared off the line, picked up the rebound which was cleared off the line again.

FullSizeRender (3)Lewes came close to taking the lead on the hour mark when Lovett’s snap shot was smartly saved by the Boro’ keeper, then the visitors thought they’d taken the lead when Page headed home at the far post from a well-worked free-kick but was deemed to have been offside.  The main talking point came in the 79th minute when Peacock’s clumsy challenge on Muitt saw the young Lewes striker leave the field on a stretcher.  Peacock, booked in the first half somehow escaped a second yellow despite taking out the Lewes forward in the air.

Muitt’s replacement Nathan Crabb won a penalty when his quick feet tied the Harrow defenders in knots and he was tripped.  No complaints and no mercy shown by Leon Redwood’s spot-kick.  The relief that spread across the ground lasted just over 60 seconds before Lewes were undone at the far post again and Taylor headed home unmarked.  The drama wasn’t over as in the final minute keeper Stroomberg pulled up with what looked like a hamstring problem.  Fortunately, the ball stayed up the other end long enough for the referee to blow the final whistle.

The point lifted the Rooks out of the bottom four, although the table really means nothing at this stage.  The crowd – a disappointing 372.  We can look for mitigating circumstances such as the Summer Holidays, a small travelling support or the travel chaos around the ground due to the bridge repairs and college car parks closed.  Football fans are impatient.  They want success right here, right now.  As a fan I understand that, as someone invested in developing something special here at Lewes I’d hate to see fans missing out when this squad start to click and injuries withstanding, that could be just around the corner.

Getting our backsides Tanned on the opening day

3pm on the opening day of the season and everything is good.  The sun is shining, the beer tastes good, even the dubious looking food tastes fantastic.  You see the group of fans that for the next nine months will be your second family, sharing pain and pleasure, hope and despair, joy and agony.  In some cases that feeling will disappear within minutes as a defensive slip will lead to that all too familiar sinking feeling and the look of “it’s going to be a long long season” passes from fan to fan on the terraces.

For those involved off the field then the opening day comes with a sense of relief.  Work started on preparations the day after the season ended, often with a number of challenges, none more so than trying to ensure you have a squad ready and raring to go when the season starts.  Fans often vent their frustration on forums that there appears to be no activity with the team.  On the contrary, things are so fluid and change all the time that if we updated every movement of a player in or out the fans would soon get bored.  A player agreeing to sign today could be playing for another team tomorrow.  And bear in mind it is not just about the willingness of a club to offer players deals, the player’s circumstances may change and thus club X albeit one offering less money may be more practical for them.  As my learned colleague Mr Bazza Collins said this week “It’s not a question of finding players to play on Saturday but rather who to leave out”.

Non League doesn’t have the same transfer restrictions as the professional game.  Come 1st September and we can still sign players, right up until the morning of a game in fact.  The whole Enfield Town debacle at the end of last season will make club secretaries more cautious when they register a player now, although with Club Sec Kev at the helm for Lewes we know that he double and triple checks anything as it is, treating player registrations the same way as he treats the freshly ironed ten pound notes in his wallet every time it’s his round, his diligence again would prove valuable come 2pm today when the team sheet needed to be submitted.

Then of course we have the kit issues – you go online, choose what you want and it just arrives in the post right?  Alas, if it was only that simple.  A lot of it comes to the UK via lorry, who have to use the Channel Tunnel.  So delays such as the ones we have seen have caused issues for many clubs, the most ironic being Folkestone Invicta who can probably see the delivery lorry in question with a good pair of binoculars.

19784718544_28aae8ff56_kThe Rooks traveled to Leatherhead with some confidence.  The doom and gloom that sat over the club for most of last season appeared to be lifting and manager Steve Brown and new assistant Jay Lovett have built a squad on a smaller budget that looked impressive in pre-season, holding a virtual full-strength Brighton & Hove Albion side to a goal-less draw and running an impressive Crystal Palace development team close last weekend.  Youth is the order of the day at The Pan this year, with some impressive young players ready to make their mark on the Ryman Premier League.  Of course we still need the old, wise heads and between our three centre-halves we have plenty of that, with a combined age touching 100 years.

At least as that whistle blows at 3pm we can all sign in unison “We are top of the league”…for how long, well that’s anyone’s guess.

Leatherhead 3 Lewes 0 – Fetcham Grove – Saturday 8th August 2015
About 4 minutes 53 seconds to be precise.  That’s how long it took Kiernan Hughes-Mason to take advantage of a lapse in concentration in the Lewes defence and lob the ball over Dan Hutchins. The first goal of the new season seems to exaggerate the pain and pleasure for both teams and to be honest it felt awful.  Five minutes later Leatherhead hit the bar, then doubled the lead when a wickedly deflected free-kick saw Hutchins scrambling across his line only to get fingertips on it. Fifteen minutes into the new season and how we all wished we could hit the rewind button.

20219020708_32d0d8473a_kCould it get any worse?  Well how about your keeper being knocked unconscious making a save?  Yep, let’s throw that one in before half-time too with 17-year old Nathan Stroomberg coming on for his debut.  Our line up ending the half featured five players under the age of 23, with our bench consisting of two 18 year olds and a 20 year old.  We would have also had 17 year old Jack Rowe-Hurst on the bench but a minor error on his registration forms from Brighton was spotted by Club Sec Kev on arrival at the ground so he was withdrawn as a precaution.

20219009168_3cfbc17679_bThe second half saw Lewes have more of the play but fail to create any real chances until the dying minutes of the game.  The third Leatherhead goal came against the run of play in injury time but was meaningless, the only real impact was seeing The Rooks drop to the bottom of the league on goal difference on day one.  Well, I suppose the only way is up from here.

Football can be a cruel mistress.  The traveling fans left with an air of doom and gloom, those months of anticipation and hope wiped away in 90 minutes.  But we will go again, 45 more times before April is out and a lot can happen.  Alan Hansen may be right all along, we may win nothing with kids but we will certainly give it everything we’ve got.