Tales from a Non-League Chairman – Part 9 – The magic of the Parafix Sussex Senior Challenge Cup


It’s been three weeks since we went to Suffolk on that hot and sunny glorious April afternoon and secured Ryman Premier League football for another season.  The fans celebrated, the players celebrated and we celebrated, albeit in on a slow train back to London.  Since then football should have taken a back-seat.  It should have been a time to re-acquaint ourselves with our families, bring the garden out of its winter slumber and even cook Sunday lunch.  But we had the small matter of a cup final on our minds.

At the start of each season all Non-League teams plan their objectives for the nine months ahead.  Promotion push, consolidation, maybe the play-offs, survival and so on.  But rarely will they say “some silverware” like you hear in the Premier League.  It is very rare these days for there to be a surprise pairing in a final of any major competition.  Last season’s League Cup Final between Bradford City and Swansea City was probably the first, and maybe last genuinely surprising final in respect of the two sides that got to the final.  Whilst the neutrals all wanted to see the third-tier side win (bar Leeds and Huddersfield fans), Swansea rarely got out of second gear to record a 5-0 win.

17551079518_1b42d2f3e8_zWe know that our greatest hope in the FA Cup is a spot in the First Round Proper.  We’ve achieved that three times in our 130 year history. It takes the luck of the draw and the luck on the day for clubs at our level to get that far.  Likewise, the FA Trophy has only been won twice in twenty years by a team outside the Conference Premier – the last of whom North Ferriby United did so this season thanks to some significant funding from the family that also owns Hull City.  Take the funding away (as it appears will now happen) and the club are considering their position in the Conference North.

So that leaves the Isthmian League Cup and the County Cups.  The former is seen by many as an unnecessary burden, played at the wrong time of the season.  Many clubs would like this seen scrapped altogether – in fact it is optional as to whether a club actually takes part at all.  This season we made the decision to use it for our more promising youngsters.

17738981701_7417e33195_zAnd then there is the County Cup, which represents our best chance of glory.  It is not unfair to say that we should be in the top five clubs in the County.  Brighton & Hove Albion, Crawley Town, Whitehawk and Eastbourne Borough all play at a higher level with Bognor Regis Town, Peacehaven & Telscombe and ourselves at the next level down (of course that will change with Burgess Hill Town replacing Peacehaven next season).  It would take some warm balls to avoid meeting one, let alone three of those four higher placed clubs and thus win the trophy, but recent finals where both Peacehaven and Whitehawk have won the Sussex Senior Cup show that the underdog can still claim the silverware.

Our run to the final had its ups and downs.  We were taken to extra-time by Brighton & Hove Albion and Eastbourne Borough, arguably our two greatest rivals, before we beat them by the odd goal in three.  Sandwiched in between those two ties was a last kick of the game victory against county league Horsham YMCA before a convincing win against another county league side, Loxwood in the semi-final.  Nine years is a long time in football, but that’s how long it has been since The Rooks were last in the final.

Four years ago when the American Express Community Stadium opened, it was announced that the premier tournament in the county would be hosted there.  For clubs like Lewes and Whitehawk an opportunity to play at a superb stadium like the Amex doesn’t come around very often.  In fact, checking the record books (Club Sec Kev’s Non-League brain) this would be the biggest stadium that The Rooks had ever played in.  We knew we were massive underdogs coming into the game.  If results in the last few weeks had been different, it could have been a Conference Premier team playing a Ryman League South side.  But, ninety minutes of football wouldn’t spoil the day out for most of the 1,500 or so Lewes fans.

Arrangements for such events are fraught with issues whether it be ticketing arrangements, hospitality or player availability.  With the final taking place three weeks after the end of the season we had to find a solution as to how we would play the players – our budget runs for 37 weeks, so an additional few weeks meant the re-jigging of finances.  How about players who had already booked holidays? (Fortunately, Chris Breach’s trip to Vegas didn’t overrun and he arrived back in time).  Our hands are tied on arrangements and facilities on the day.  The stadium belongs to Brighton & Hove Albion and is leased to the Sussex FA.  We have very little say in what happens apart from on the pitch.

17738650545_27fa067703_zAs Chairman I was expected to give a speech before the game in the hospitality area.  Around 600 people would be present, split roughly 1/3rd Lewes, 1/3rd Whitehawk and 1/3rd invited guests by the Sussex FA.  I was more concerned about having to wear a tie (normally the reserves of funerals and court appearances) than what to say.  A couple of Harvey’s did the trick though, and despite the heckling of the Whitehawk guests, it seem to go down very well.  A quick good luck speech to the players and it was show-time.

Lewes 0 Whitehawk 5 – The Amex Stadium – Saturday 16th May 2015
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The subplot here of course was the Return of the King.  Steve King, arguably Lewes’s most successful manager was in charge of our opponents and no doubt an element of revenge was in his mind.  Which manager doesn’t want to beat their old clubs, especially in a high-profile game.  Pre-match King and Steve Brown were in a relaxed mood, no doubt discussing the merits of their respective owners rather than the gleaming silver trophy in front of them.

The game went according to form.  By the end it had the feel of a testimonial game, with Lewes defending with every last ounce of energy whilst Whitehawk picked their attacks.  Part of me felt that at any moment King would strip off and come on himself.  Three weeks without a game certainly showed on the Lewes side, although you have to admire the style of play that Whitehawk adopted – crisp passing and always looking for the ball behind the centre-backs.

Both sets of fans made themselves heard, with Lewes outnumbering the Whitehawk fans 2:1.  Some strange stewarding decisions saw some unnecessary chaos at kick off, with one set tells fans “sit where you want” and others rigidly saying fans had to sit in allocated seating which led to some tense moments, likewise the decision to only open one refreshment window on the concourse led to unnecessary overcrowding and ridiculous queues – it’s hardly as if the stadium doesn’t know how to handle crowds.

Nobody from Lewes begrudged Whitehawk’s moment in the sunshine, celebrating with the cup.  Of course we all looked on and wished it was us, but the day had given us all a taste of what it would be like to play at the top table.  Was it fun?  Well, I’d hate to have to dress and act so formal at every game that’s for sure.  Football for me is about enjoying the whole day and not just 90 minutes.  Of course an event such as the cup final is one to enjoy, but give me a beer in one hand, my PA mic in the other standing on the Jungle any day of the week.

17115980744_3fc6a18f10_zSo the curtain comes down on a mixed bag of a season.  I would say that most fans will class this one as “must do better”.  I agree to an extent – after all I am a fan and I had hoped we would do better.  But did we set out at the start of the season to finish it here at the Amex?  Nope, so there’s a bonus, as too is the progress the club has made off the pitch.  Six years ago it was touch and go whether we would have a club to watch at all – that is the context we need to remember.  Whilst the players headed off after the game, planning their summer holidays, the hard work for those behind the scenes at the club are only just about to start.

 

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We can see you sneaking out


Come on, we’ve all done it.  Assumed that nothing will happen if we sneak out a few minutes early to beat the traffic or get to the train station.  Later we will sit at home or have got a round in before the crush at the bar, feeling very smug with ourselves.  “Did I miss anything?” you’d ask, knowing full well that nothing had happened bar one side lumping the ball into the corners, protecting their lead.

Euro2000I used to think like that until 21st June 2000 at around 8pm CET.  The venue?  The Jan Breydel Stadion, Bruges.  The occasion?  The last round of games in Group C in the European Championships.  Group leaders Yugoslavia knew that unless Norway won in their game versus Slovenia, they could afford to lose to Spain, who had to win and hope that Norway didn’t. But a Slovenia win could still take them through.  In a nutshell, anyone could go through and the two sets of fans in Bruges would have to keep a close eye on events in Arnhem.

When the 4th official held up the board saying there would be four additional minutes, Spain were dead and buried.  Losing 3-2 to Yugoslavia, and with Norway’s game finishing goal less meaning that they were in the runners-up spot they threw everyone forward.  But I didn’t know that – with a ferry back to Ramsgate to catch from Ostende, our little group had left to try to beat the traffic.  Five minutes later we were back at the car.  With a favourable wind, we were able to tune into BBC Radio Five Live who were reporting live from Arnhem.  The Norwegians were on their knees on the pitch, unable to believe what had just happened.  Not only had we missed Gaizka Mendieta score from the spot but 90 seconds after that, Alfonso Perez scored another, meaning Spain won 4-3 and the group, eliminating Norway in the process.

1078768_1541762016070199_1777799447471449438_oOnce bitten and all that.  Fast forward fifteen years and Lewes are hosting the Kings of the County, Brighton & Hove Albion.  It is Sussex Senior Cup time, a competition that Lewes last won over ten years ago.  The dilemma you have in the County Cups is that you want a decent run, meaning that you want easier ties but on the other side you want games like this where the crowds will be four or five times as high than any other game.  You wouldn’t expect league sides like Brighton to field their first team, but every player that pulls on a blue and white striped shirt is a professional footballer who trains every day (in Brighton’s case at one of the most impressive and modern training facilities in this country). Three consecutive wins meant that the hope was there of a famous victory.

Lewes 2 Brighton & Hove Albion 1 – The Dripping Pan – Wednesday 12th November 2014
Somewhere in East Sussex there will be one or two people this morning in the same boat.  With the 9:50pm from Lewes to London Victoria waiting for no man, a few fans sneaked out of the Dripping Pan just as Sam Piper held up the 4 minute board.  Lewes trailed Brighton & Hove Albion 1-0, having thrown everything at the Seagulls and having nothing to show for it apart from a cross-bar still rattling and two players being treated by paramedics.  Then the referee gives the Rooks a free-kick on the edge of the box.  Tom Davis stands over the ball and is told by the referee this will be the last kick of the game.  Win or bust.  Extra time or inglorious defeat.  Three steps, clean contact and the ball is in the back of the net.

64761_10152757416120202_1885479251637112931_nDue to an issue with the PA system I’m having to watch the game from the office, which doesn’t quite afford views of the goal line at the Philcox Stand end.  So I see Davis strike the ball, the wall jump, the ball go under them and then…..the cheer.  I high-five Club Sec Kev, do a little dance around the room and then remember I am supposed to do the announcement.  I’m using the emergency speaker system, meaning an airport style “bing bong” every time I have to say something.  It’s pointless really, the crowd are still bouncing up and down and wont hear a word anyway (Great picture capturing the moment from the genius that is James Boyes)

Five minutes later and extra-time was underway.  I’d given up on trying to announce anything and headed onto the Jungle to watch with the masses….OK, with Deaks, Cynical, Dave Lamb, Terry and Barry – the hardcore LLF.  Idle chatter of penalties had already permeated the air when all of a sudden we saw a glint in the eye of Davis some 30 yards out.  He looked up, aimed directly at Deaks and hit the ball as true as his free-kick from a few minutes previous.  The Brighton keeper didn’t move but the net did.  BBC Sussex described the goal as the best they have ever seen at the Pan.  Babies born all over the County will forever be called Tom and the piece of turf that he hit the ball from will sell on eBay for thousands. You could say it was a beauty.

Unsurprisingly, Lewes played for time in the last fifteen minutes although Brighton, having withdrawn their biggest attacking threat, Fenelon, rarely troubled the makeshift Lewes back four.  Finally, the referee blew for full-time. Veteran striker fell to his knees in exhaustion, before throwing off his shirt and fist pumping the air.  Griffiths has played for 20 clubs in his 15 year career, yet he celebrated as if it was his first ever win as a player.

A famous victory?  In the grand scheme of things, probably not.  But for sheer drama it was up there with that day in Bruges, the FA Cup Finals of 1979 and 2005 and the 1970 Watney Cup semi-final.  So whilst we can raise a glass to the beauty of the game, we should also think of those poor souls who probably still think it finished 1-0 to the Seagulls.

Last Minute .com again


After the cup exploits last week against AFC Sudbury, it was back to earth with a very big bang, complete with a “Kiss Me Quick Hat” on Saturday as five second half goals sunk the Rooks at Margate.  The journey back from a day out at the seaside on a normal trip is depressing enough, but one in the middle of January when you have been spanked 5-1 is possibly up there with a trip to the dentist or one of those “can we have a quick word in the cubicle” conversations with customs at the airport.

However, all was not lost.  The Rooks had to chance to show their “bouncebackability” with another home cup tie.  And not just any old cup tie.  One against Eastbourne Borough, sworn enemies, deadly rivals and pretenders to the title “Best Non League team in Sussex”.

The Sussex Senior Cup is a strange competition.  The bigger clubs (i.e Crawley Town and Brighton & Hove Albion) rarely take it seriously, yet every year it is the same story.  The former seem to be eliminated early, the latter in for the duration despite fielding essentially a reserve team.  Last season Lewes lost in the quarter finals at home to Brighton & Hove Albion, thus denying themselves the chance to reach the final, which was played at The Amex.  This year, wins over Wick and East Grinstead had sent up a mouth-watering tie with Eastbourne Borough.  The winners would join Crawley Down, Whitehawk and the winner of the BHA v Bognor Regis Town game in the draw for the semi-final. Continue reading

Six on the Ley Lines


East Grinstead is a strange old place. Sitting on the border of Kent and Sussex it has been home to many famous people, drawn to the town by the peace and quiet, the sweeping South Downs and the country pubs with roaring fires. Winston Churchill retired here, purchasing the impressive gaff Chartwell, Winnie-The-Pooh set up his pad in the nearby Ashdown Forest and talking of joke characters, Peter André lived here too.

But what draws such strange people to the area like Plastic Peter, or the ridiculous Right Said Fred (currently singing weekly at Saracens Rugby Club with their version of “Stand Up for the Champions”)? Some suggest it is not for the slice of Daily Mail inspired middle England, but because of Ley Lines. Ley Lines are alleged alignments of a number of places of geographical and historical interest, such as ancient monuments and megaliths, natural ridge-tops and water-fords. So is this the explanation for the presence in the town of organisations such as The Mormons, The Church Of Scientology, The New Life Church as well as your regular old religious denominations.

So why congregate on East Grinstead? The Scientologists arrived when founder L Ron Hubbard bought a big old pad in the town back in 1959 and since has welcomed celebrity followers such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Katie Holmes, Kirstie Alley and, er Peaches Geldof to their mansion on the outskirts of the town. Tom and Katie love a trip down to the Co-Op when they are in the shack, whilst John can park his Jumbo at Gatwick nearby.

With so many celebs wandering around town how could there be room for a football team? Last time I saw Tom Cruise at a game it was watching David Beckham playing in the Bernabau. So where does he get his fix of “soccer” in this part of East Sussex? East Grinstead Town obviously. The Wasps were formed back in 1890 and have probably seen a fair few Mormons and Scientologists tucking into a cup of tea and a burger in the GEC Stadium over the years. The Sussex League team have floated along without causing too much of a kerfuffle in the town during the last 120 years unlike the various religious sects and their moment of glory came one hundred years ago when they reached the final of the Sussex Senior Cup, losing to those legendary St Leonards Amateurs in a snow storm. Ironically with winter weather threatening to take hold of South East England, I was watching the Wasps take on the Rooks in the same competition one hundred years later. Continue reading