On the sixth day of TBIR Christmas – The Best Non League Day out


So we announced the best International (well, Yorkshire want to be independent) day out yesterday, so what about the grass-roots game?  What places offer the best day out for those who don’t give a stuff about the over paid pre-madonnas and who realise that more often than not, the ninety minutes of the game are often the low point of a day out.

3rd Place – Bromley
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Hayes Lane is home to two teams, the landlords Bromley and the Tenants, Cray Wanderers.  The ground, now the Fortress Stadium is going through some improvements, including a new bar/restaurant and retains a rural feel despite sitting 15 minutes from the centre of London.  But it’s the proximity to decent transport links and some great pubs that has it in our top 3.  The Partridge, Barrel & Horn and Bricklayers Arms all prove the sustenance for a day out in Bromley.

2nd Place – Matlock
14824252268_da93451cac_zMatlock has already scooped the Best New Ground award but the town itself is a great pre-cursor to the game itself.  Opposite the ground is Hall Leys Park, which throbs with family entertainment in the summer, whilst just down the road, The Heights of Abraham provide some spectacular views of the stunning scenery.  Fancy a beer?  Who doesn’t! So head to the MoCa bar, the CAMRA Pub of the Year or the Buxton Brewery. It’s just a shame we don’t play in the Northern Premier League.

1st Place – Lewes
14579184744_2eed47d812_hOK, so I may be slightly biased on this one but the whole reason why I became involved in the club (and decided to stand for a second 3 year term as a Director) was because it is the best day out in Non-League football.  Not just my thoughts either.  Every other week we play at home, we get away fans coming just because they can come to Lewes.  It’s not all about the football club, albeit a top vista, Harvey’s beer on the terrace, superb match day food, a great PA announcer and an award-winning match day programme are compelling reasons, it is about the local pubs, the picturesque town centre, the fact that within 10 minutes you can be drinking in Brighton – the whole package.

Tomorrow, it’s time to reveal the best game we have seen in 2014

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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.

Don’t believe the Hyypia


It’s always nice to build up to a climax in your season, knowing that those cold Tuesday night away trips to the corners of Suffolk when the last train leaves before you have entered injury time have not been in vain.  The thought of a cup final or a final play-off push gets everyone behind the club, pushing attendances up and general adding to the club’s bank account.  But for many Non-League clubs, that cup final often happens before the season has started in earnest.  The visit of a Premier or Football League club can have a massive boost to the season ahead as well as re-engaging with some fans who may have drifted out of love with the game or the club.

14394319070_170dcc6795_zThis is especially true for clubs who sit in the long shadows of bigger teams, having to stand by and watch glumly as hundreds of fans park up outside their grounds, only to walk on by, tucking their real team colours in their jackets as they head for their slice of Premier or Football League action.  We see this frequently down at Lewes.  The fight that Brighton & Hove Albion fans endured to a) come back to the city and then b) have a home of their own has been well documented in hundreds of places.  Three years ago they were finally given the keys to the superb Amex Community Stadium and since then, things on the pitch haven’t been too bad with two consecutive play-off spots.  All should be rosy in the Tony Bloom garden? Well, not quite.  In the last two seasons the club has dispensed with the services of their head coaches, Messrs Poyet and Junyet after the play-offs for differing reasons, so to try to make it third time lucky they have employed former Liverpool defender, Sami Hyypiä.  No sooner had he brought the players back for pre-season than he was off down the A27 to visit the Dripping Pan.

So this is our cup final.  There is no shame in admitting it (unlike Spurs fans who lost their cup final three times last season to West Ham).  Bar four or five of the Premier League teams, a game against Brighton & Hove Albion is probably as big as we could hope for, especially one where the Seagulls would bring down the whole first team squad.  Two years ago they came, weathered a Lewes early battering and left with a 3-0 victory in front of just over 2,000 fans.

We are fortunate that we do not have many fixture clashes with Brighton & Hove Albion.  When there has been conflicts in the past, we have tried to change our kick-off times so that we can try to accommodate those fans who support both clubs.  Unfortunately, it is not always possible – we have to have the agreement of the League and our opponents.  Whilst we may see the merits of a 7:45pm Friday night game, or a 12pm Sunday kick off, they normally don’t, so we have to play at the same time, knowing our car park will be full of Seagulls fans heading for the station for the 5 minute train journey to Falmer.

New Picture (84)We decided to make the game all ticket.  There were a number of reasons for this.  Our capacity is limited, although due to changes in the whole health & safety, ground grading and licencing laws, we have never got to a point where we can say we are “full”.  Secondly, we did not want to have to try to deal with hundreds of fans trying to pay at the turnstile five minutes before kick off.  And finally, we wanted to not have to worry about having thousands of pounds floating around the ground. Two thousand two hundred tickets went on sale two weeks ago and yesterday the last one was sold.  The game was officially a sell out.

You’d think everybody would be happy, right?  Alas no.  Putting aside the fact he is a Scotsman, our manager Garry Wilson wasn’t best pleased.  He broke the news about securing this valuable friendly along the lines of “the good news is that I’ve got us a friendly against Brighton here….the bad news is that I am on holiday.”  After a few minutes he broke our excited babble with “you are still thinking of the good news aren’t you?”.  Cheer up Garry, I am sure Danny Bloor will do an excellent job…but what happens IF we win??

Oh, and have I mentioned the beer?  Well, once again, ridiculous football laws in this country mean that alcohol couldn’t be consumed in sight of the pitch.  FFS – it is a friendly.  All the rule does is create absolute chaos and a very packed club house, leading to a more dangerous situation than if those having a beer could take it outside. Football authorities + logic = foreign language.

So after a few days of temperatures officially hotter than Greece (Gravesend 28 degrees at 12pm on Friday, 27 degrees Mykonos), the start of the 2014/15 season started with….rain.  Lots of it.  “It’s good for the garden” my Mum told me on the phone…but not particularly good for the 1,000 or so fans who would be without a cover this afternoon.  Fortunately, an hour before kick off the sun was shining on the carpet-like Dripping Pan surface, Sky Sports News were capturing the mood of the afternoon and the ground was filing up nicely.

14580955765_80e6a4bcc5_bOur excitement so far had been around our new signings.  We had somehow sneaked into the Tonbridge Angels Big Brother house this summer and came away with the signatures of a few of their players.  Attack would be the best form of attack this season with three (THREE!) new strikers joining the club. Messers Wilson and Bloor had obviously been reading Kevin Keegan’s coaching manual during the summer, finally binning Otto Rehhagel’s 2004 Greek tactic book.  Alas, being Non-League football, it wasn’t only Garry Wilson who was absent overseas – our new hot-shot centre-forward Terry Dodd was also enjoying his Club 18-30 holiday.

Having co-edited the world-famous, award-winning programme for this game (a sell out long before kick off I am pleased to say), it was time to not only grab the mic for this game but also to slip into twitter mode as a substitute for Orlando-bound Rookmeister.  And where better to situate myself than between the two dugouts.  If there was going to be 20-odd substitutes then I needed to know what was going on.

Lewes 0 Brighton & Hove Albion 5 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 5th July 2014
Rule number 1 of pre-season.  It is all about the performance and not the result….assuming that you lose or draw to a team lower than you.  Did we seriously think we could beat the Seagulls?  In our hearts, yes.  But our brains are in our heads and logic says that a team playing six levels above should win and potentially win with ease.  And that is exactly what happened.  Over 2,400 saw Brighton & Hove Albion win with ease, with football and the club’s bank balance the winners today.

14579184744_2eed47d812_hThe media hype was all about Hyypiä with Sky Sports bringing their cameras down.  When you haven’t the rights to the World Cup, Wimbledon or the Tour de France then live coverage of headline sports is a bit difficult.  Their loss was our gain. For the first thirty minutes the main talking point was how many times the new Brighton manager would jump up from his seat in the dug out and hit his head on the roof (five times in the first half).

Lewes certainly held their own during the opening period and could count themselves unlucky to go 1-0 down just after the half hour mark when Calderon turned in the ball at the far post after corner had eluded the 18 players in the penalty area.  If that was unlucky, then LuaLua’s strike a few minutes later from distance to double the score certainly wasn’t.

The half-time whistle was the signal for a complete 11 man substitution by the Seagulls, which as the announcer made it a relatively straight forward second half for me.  Less than a minute after the restart Craig Mackail-Smith scored a third (his father-in-law Barry Fry was in the crowd btw) and that killed off the game.  Whilst Lewes toiled, the absence of graft players such as Walder and Nathan Crabb meant that it was always going to be a mountain to climb to get back into this game.

14601068993_767f533128_kTwo further goals from Goodwin put a one-sided gloss on the final score but there were no sad faces from the Lewes fans or management.  Today was raising the profile of the club, and some kind words to the TV cameras from the new Brighton manager helped the cause no end.  Our season starts in earnest when we finally get to see our opening fixture…or if we beat Hassocks on the 16th July.

Football is back…we’ve missed you.  Don’t leave us again.

A knee jerk reaction


Footballers don’t have the best reputation out there. I say that whilst watching Luis Suarez clearly handle the ball in the process of scoring against Mansfield Town, prompting even the commentator on ESPN to remark “Once a cheat…” . Whilst a star at one club will be idolised by his own fans (in most instances – even some Liverpool fans are embarrassed by his antics now, ditto Balotelli at Man City), anyone outside of that bubble will need no invitation to abuse or ridicule a player should any misfortune befall him. The irony of this is that most of the abusers, if they saw one of these players, would fall over themselves to get an autograph or a photo with him (assuming they are wearing the “right” brand, of course). And of course you have the whole international parody where a player from your biggest rival can be a star one day wearing his national colours, but the biggest villain the next when he returns to club duties.

Few players are genuinely loathed universally. I’m not sure there is an El Hadj Diouf or Robbie Savage fan club anywhere, unless of course they created it himself. I do not think there is anything he could do which will put him in a good light so late in his career. The toxic twins are still loved down at The Bridge but for how much longer? Both have shown over the years their repugnant side, preferring to live their lives on the front rather than the back pages.

rioOver New Year Rio Ferdinand tweeted to his 3.7 million followers that we should feel sorry for him spending the night alone in a hotel room in preparation for a game, whilst the rest of the world was out partying. Was that a sensible move? Of course not. Someone who earns five times the average annual salary IN A WEEK is in no position to ask for pity in such a circumstance. Misguided Rio and only fuels the fire of people who believe there is an us and them culture between players and fans.

Few players genuinely want to be around fans. Once the first big pay cheque arrives, the camouflaged Bentley is ordered and the mansion shaped like a Nike logo is built in Essex, they want a new set of friends, normally blonde, with significant amounts of silicon already built in. Fans are an annoyance. I’ve seen in first hand from my travels with England, where fans who have spent thousands getting to the likes of Tel Aviv, Baku and Skopje have been contained in remote car parks at airports just so they cannot “bother” the players as they leave.

But surely the Non Leagues are different? Surely these are all good guys, right? Well on the whole most of the people I have met in my capacity as a fan and a club official are good people. They play football for the love of the amateur game and not because they believe football owes them anything. Fair assessment? Most players and managers will socialise in the bar after the game, even happily putting their hand in their pockets to buy complete strangers a drink (thumbs up to Thurrock management team for that gesture last Saturday). If they are not playing they will readily come to games and stand with the travelling support. Autographs and photos? No problems, irrespective of what brand you are wearing Continue reading

Bad, Thriller? Beat It MJ – this was Off The Wall


“The demons squeal in sheer delight
It’s you they spy, so plump, so right
For although the groove is hard to beat
It’s still you stand with frozen feet
You try to run, you try to scream
But no more sun you’ll ever see
For evil reached from the crypt
To crush you in it’s icy grip.”

Sixty years ago, the second domestic game played at Wembley Stadium each season featured the likes of Willington, Pegasus, Crook Town and Walthamstow Avenue. Today, these teams can be found in the backwaters of the lower divisions of the English Non Leagues (in Walthamstow’s case they actually went through various mergers and can now be said to be part of Dagenham & Redbridge FC) but in the 1950’s they were responsible for filling our national stadium with crowds of 100,000.

Let me take you back to 1953 when Sir Winston Churchill was smoking his cigars and giving his ‘V’ signs on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Just eight years after the end of the war, football was going through a boom period. The British public simply couldn’t get enough of the beautiful game. Fortunately it was still considered to be the people’s game and so admission was affordable for all, and not just those who liked a prawn sandwich or two (in those days hospitality would have been a pint of Mild and a Woodbine, possibly with a banana thrown in). With just two competitions for professional clubs to play in (The League Cup was still seven years away, whilst European competition would not feature until 1955), Non League, or amateur football had a huge following. Back then, the second biggest cup game in England was the FA Amateur Cup Final. Continue reading

Lewes stung by the last gasp Hornets


The world changed for Lewes FC in July 2011 when Brighton & Hove Albion moved into the American Express Community Stadium, located just one train stop or 4.7 miles from The Dripping Pan.  We always knew that there would be an exodus of fans to the new stadium and hoped that the fixture computer would be kind to us and not arrange any major fixture clashes.  The first half of the season saw just two such clashes, which had around a 20% impact on the gate.  So we (the board of directors don’t you know) decided to experiment with the game on Bank Holiday Monday with Horsham when the next clash was due to take place and decreed it would be a midday kick off.

The reasons for this were plentiful.  A local derby against one of Lewes’s oldest rivals, and one just 30 minutes away by car was always going to attract a large crowd.  Coupled with Brighton’s “local” game versus Southampton at 3pm, the fact that Lewes has become the place to “park and ride” for the Amex, as well as the local licencing laws meaning the pubs couldn’t open until midday anyway.  Finally,  Plumpton racecourse was hosting the Sussex Grand National no less (Many thanks to Eddie The Shoe for the tip on Double Dizzy) so a few of the crowd may be planning to head up to the estate of Lord Plumpton and lay a bet or two and keep him in fine wines and cigars for another year. So we (the board) voted overwhelmingly to move the game. Continue reading

No Cray fishing at the Pan


Who wanted a trip to Wembley anyway?  I mean have you seen the price of the burgers there, and you cannot have a beer whilst watching the game.  Oh no, a trip to Wembley is soooo not Non League.  Give us a decent league campaign any day of the week.

That’s what we have been telling ourselves all week since the embarrassment of Chertsey.  It has been the elephant in the room for the past week but now it is time to move on.  We would all swap a playoff spot, or fingers cross automatic promotion for a potentially embarrassing exit in the FA Cup 1st round to a League side.  Anyway there is still the Ryman League Cup to concentrate on isn’t there?

So who is up next at the Pan?  Well here comes Cray Wanderers.  Ask a million people where Cray is and I bet you will get nearly a million blank faces.  Even James Boyes, the man with the magic trousers, emailed me and asked and he knows everything.  Well I have a bit of local knowledge on this one, and you know what they saw about power and knowledge don’t you. Continue reading