Mine’s a tale that cannot be told


When do we ever learn? On the weekend before Christmas last season virtually every game south of the Watford Gap was postponed due to torrential rain.  Throughout the Non-Leagues  the cries rang out for more 3G pitches to prevent such occurences happening again.  Twelve months later and once again I faced a blank weekend.  Despite the heroic efforts of Joe and Jack at the Dripping Pan, we had to admit defeat against the forces of nature, and for the second time in four days, we had a postponement on our hands.  The Saturday before Christmas, when clubs would be hoping for a bumper attendance of disillusioned men, Christmas shopping refugees who would spend their hard-earned cash with us rather than the retail Gods.

photo 1 (2)Every year we expect bad weather, but it seems that as the years progress, the season of postponements is getting longer and longer.  So far this season we have had three cancellations due to the weather.  We have already played (or supposed to have played) two games a week for the past six weeks, and face a similar story in the next six.  So what does the League say about that?  Well, nothing, as usual.  Their insistence on an early deadline to the end of the season (26th April) means virtually all clubs will be playing two or three games a week at a time in March and April.

Few who don;t follow the Non-League game will understand the pressure this puts on clubs.  Clubs at our level do not have income streams from commercial deals or TV revenues.  Our revenue comes from gate money and the subsequent spend in the bar, on food or at the club shop.  Alas, fans disposable income isn’t postponed when the match is – so if a fan was going to spend £30 today at a game, they wont save the cash for when the game is replayed, they will spend it on something else.  So if the game is re-arranged for when there is two or three games a week, they may not have the cash to attend, or if they do, spend less when they attend.

You can see the pattern in Lewes’s games this season.  We have played four midweek league games this season (excluding the Bank Holiday game in August) with an average attendance of 380.  Compare that to our Saturday home average league attendance of 633.  Our average yield (average spend per attendee) is £5.38 – so that means a difference in revenue between a home game and a midweek game is £1,360.  Sounds nothing, right?  Well, let’s say a club loses 4 Saturday games a season, that’s over £5k, and to a Non-League club £5k can be the difference between living and dying.

It’s at these times when the 3G argument is wheeled out.  “Why don’t more clubs install 3G pitches?” Is the cry we hear, citing the example of Maidstone United.  Alas, it’s not as simple as people think.  Take out of the equation the ridiculous FA rulings on which leagues can and can’t use the artificial surfaces, there are a number of considerations you have to bear in mind.

Firstly, the cost.  The pitches are not cheap.  Half a million or so to install, fifty thousand a year to maintain.  They have a live expectancy of ten-fifteen years, so they need to be depreciated like any other asset.  Of course, there are additional revenue opportunities from being able to use it and grants from the Football Foundation et al, but the initial investment is prohibitive to virtually every club.

Secondly, just because the pitches are artificial doesn’t make them immune to the bad weather.  I’ve seen two games at Maidstone United where the rain has been so bad that the completion of the game has been in serious doubt.  You can’t keep stopping a game to sweep the rain away.  Also, the artificial surfaces can be easily damaged by excessive sweeping.

Thirdly, games can still be postponed due to bad weather if the away team or the local authorities or police deem the surrounding area is dangerous or roads are impassable.  You need two teams to play a game so if one cannot arrive or fans cannot safely watch the game, it will be cancelled.

photo 2 (2)Finally, there is still some magic in watching a game played on a heavy pitch and will the rain or snow falling.  And that is exactly what I expected when I pulled into the car park at Leslie Fields, Burnham-on-Crouch yesterday.  My options A to F had all fallen by the wayside, but in the deepest, darkest corner of Essex, one of the newest Ryman League teams had manage to keep their game versus Waltham Abbey on.  Of course, the majority of the male fraternity of Essex would be here – after all it was the only game within a twenty-mile radius.  Quite how this had survived the monsoon-like conditions was beyond me.  As I waited at the Dartford Tunnel tolls there was a brief wobble when Twitter told me that there was a 2pm pitch inspection but the hoards of oldish men with their carrier bags getting out of their cars at the ground told me that it was on, and the pre-Christmas meeting place for Groundhoppers United.

Burnham Ramblers 0 Waltham Abbey 2 – Leslie Fields – Saturday 21st December 2013
It didn’t seem that all those other Non-League fans had the same desire to watch a game this afternoon.  Only 75 watched this very entertaining game, seven souls down on average.  Perhaps they felt there was no way this game would go ahead, or perhaps Lakeside proved to be a better draw.  Burnham-On-Crouch is not a bad place to spend a Saturday afternoon, with 22 pubs (at the last count) for a population of just 7,500 although there was little time for any pre-match hospitality today.

This was a great advert for Non-League football and the only disappointment was the small crowd.  Burnham’s groundstaff had worked miracles to get the pitch playable and it held out, just, with the continuing downpour during the afternoon.  Both keeper’s played a blinder both in terms of reading the conditions and the unpredictable nature of the ball.  If truth be told both sides should have scored a couple of goals apiece by half-time as it became impossible to play with any finesse – attack became the only option.

photo 3 (1)After a goal less first half it was the away side who took the lead with fifteen minutes remaining when Christian Wheeler somehow forced the ball over the line after a scrambled corner.  Did the ball go over the line?  The Assistant Referee signalled it did, although the reaction of the home players suggested they didn’t agree.  Fifteen minutes later as the match entered its final minute the game was put beyond doubt when Ayrton Coley finished off an excellent move which saw Waltham Abbey break from a corner and have a 4 to 1 overlap.  Did they deserve it?  On the whole they probably did.

If ever there was an afternoon when football was the winner, then this was it.  I had escaped the Christmas shopping chaos and seen some football to boot.  Heck, sod football, I was the winner.  Take that rain and all the talk of a 3G revolution.

Abbey Well..


The great thing about the snow and ice we have been plagued with in England this winter is that when games are postponed, they tend to end up being shoe horned in during the midweek towards the end of the season.  And when they fall on a day when I am in the UK it is too hard to miss……

Waltham Abbey 0 Aveley 2

But Tuesday night is normally a CMF girls night out and so I feel obliged that as I am away for work so often I really should let her go and discuss all the finer things in life such as “Would boobs like Jordan’s help in a car crash as air bags”, “How many Mulberry handbags count as an obsession” and “how wonderful my husband was for Valentine’s day”.  But with a will and a fair wind if I went to something localish I could still get back in time for her to make last orders.

So at 6.30pm I picked the girls up from the Nanny, and headed north through the Blackwall Tunnel, up the M11 and down the hill on the M25 to one of the easiest grounds in the Ryman’s league to find – Waltham Abbey FC – turn right once you cross the M25 (not literally as that may get quite messy) and follow the entrance road before the cemetery.

Waltham Abbey are one of the smaller teams in the Ryman’s Premier.  Promoted last season from the Northern division after a play off win on penalties against Concord Rangers from Canvey Island back in May.  This is the first time they have played at this level, the highest in their history, and whilst the club are enjoying the increased attention, results hadn’t been great.  A few weeks ago relegation looked a certainty but recent results had seen the club climb up a few places and give themselves a shout in terms of survival.  A real six pointer away at Margate on Saturday had seen the Abbotts return with all three points, and now with the visit of Aveley round around the M25 (clockwise) there was an opportunity to climb even further away from the drop zone.

Welcome to Waltham Abbey

Waltham Abbey is probably more notable for the reputed grave of Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, brought here after his death at the Battle of Hastings.  The town takes its name from the Abbey itself.  A substantial part of Waltham Abbey survives from the Middle Ages, and it now used as the parish church. In addition there are a few other remains – the former Gatehouse, a vaulted passage and Harold’s Bridge all in the care of English Heritage.  Enough culture for one paragraph, lets get back to the football.

The club were formed in 1944, and under a number of names, played in leagues such as the London Spartans League and the Essex Senior League.  In 2005/06 the club finished runners up to Burnham Ramblers, they were promoted to the Rymans League One North.  After two seasons of consolidated of finishing 10th and 14th they entered the 2008/09 season with some confidence, which eventually saw them finish in 4th place and qualify for the play offs.  Billy Holland was the hero for the home side as his penalty took the Abbotts into unchartered territory.

Confidence in the squad was high and this was echoed by striker Ricci Crace, who had recently rejoined the club in an interview he gave for NonLeaguenews24.com:-

“Staying up is definitely do-able.  Apart from the top five or six teams, anyone can beat anyone in this league, so we have as much chance as the rest of staying up”

The quiet away end

I wasn’t expecting the San Siro when I arrived.  After all the club’s record attendance could fit into our conference room at work, and their average was just over one hundred.  But what I did find was hospitality.  People proud of the club they had built and genuinely pleased to welcome a “new fan”.  Honorary Secretary, Programme Editor and generally Mr Waltham Abbey Derek Bird had been trying to slot in an article or two in the matchday prorgamme for a while, but the weather had thwarted him.  He gave Lolly and me a potted history of the club and the ground and some of the ambitious plans they have.  The club have come a long way in a short period of time, and whilst some visiting fans may be dismissive (Dartford’s hordes will be visiting next month), steady progress and living within their means are the key words here.  With so many fixtures to fit in before the end of the season, essential work on the ground simply cannot be completed.   I am not going to start my rant here about the fixture pile up on clubs, but lets just say it makes people like Derek’s job almost impossible.

Waltham Abbey 0 FC Aveley 2 – Capershotts – Tuesday 9th March 2010

Its very chilly down here

I love football at this level.  Why?  Because everyone involved cares.  Everyone is in this for the love of the game.  Whether it is the fan who has paid is £8 (cheapest in the league btw), the players, the managers, the officials and the referees.  Sure the standard of play may not be up to the level you see on TV but I would much rather be at Capershotts on a Tuesday night watching the Rymans League rather than sitting at home watching Sky show Sunderland v Bolton Wanderers.  I was disappointed not to hear the famous “Captain Pugwash” theme when the teams ran out, and Derek promised to berate the ground announcer for his lapse.

Waltham came into the game with the poisoned chalice award of “Ryman’s Team of the Month for February” after their excellent recent form.  Aveley had also been on a bit of a roll too, with three wins in the last four.  We had seen them last week against Canvey Island and I had been impressed with their strength in midfield, and from the first minute that was clearly their strength again.  They made all the early running and if it wasn’t for a couple of good saves from Harry Ricketts in the home goal the deadlock would have been broken earlier than the 27th minute.  And what a decent goal it was too.  An Aveley corner is headed clear but falls to full back Ryan Doyle who volleyed the ball into the net from around 25 yards.

Waiting for Lolly to fetch the ball

While we are on the subject of nets, have you read Danny Last’s Football Guilty Pleasures yet?  If not read it here.  He talks at length about nets, and remembers the classics at the Dell which were so shallow that the ball often pinged back into play quicker than it went in.  Well the nets at Waltham are cavernous.  You could have a party in these ones.  Rumours are the Horsham keeper is still lost in there somewhere, trying to find the ball from last week.  And balls?  The Yellow Ball, so discussed now on the BBC forums was in favour again.  Let me tell you me a little secret, which I promise to tell you dear reader if you promise not to tell anyone else.  Next weekend (20th March) to celebrate Comic Relief, the Rymans League games will be played using, wait for it…..Red Balls!  Red, orange, yellow and white all in one season!  I also noticed this morning that this weekend all games in the Premier League, Spanish La Liga and Italian Serie A will use a one off Nike Red Ball.

Referees often get a back press on my blog, but Mr Flanagan did a good job.  There was some passion and commitment on display and it often resulted in a couple of late challenges but on the whole he did a good job, calming things down when he needed to and ignoring the clamours from the respective benches for the decisions to go their way.  Half time came and a cup of tea was in order.  And if there is one thing to bring the neutral to Waltham it is the quality of the tea – top draw indeed.

Lolly moves with the speed of a gazelle

The second half was similar to the first.  Waltham huffed and puffed but they could not get anything past Ollie Morris-Sanders (a Sandhurst name if ever I saw one) in the Aveley goal.  Lolly had a whale of a time fetching the ball on nine occasions.  Good old Wolfie would have died of excitement at such a level of activity.  The second goal was always going to come, and it was our old friend from last week Sherwin Stanley who duly obliged in the 67th minute, putting the game out of reach of the home team, and sending them back into the relegation zone thanks to other results from around the league.

With a minute to go we headed for the exit to avoid the car park chaos that dogs all football grounds, even at this level and we were back in TBIR towers before Arsenal had scored their fourth.  Full marks to Waltham Abbey for not forgetting where they have come from and what football means at this level.

About Capershotts
Capershotts is definitely a work in progress.  The club have grown in stature and position over the past few seasons and that means due to the ground grading work,  alterations need to be made all the time which does give the ground a slight unfinished look.  However, surrounded on three sides by trees you would be hard to image one of the busiest roads in Europe passing a few yards close by.  There is a small (but growing) Maine stand (called such as the seats came from Maine Road!) and a covered terrace behind the goal.  Apart from that it is simple standing.  The pitch used to slope significantly and you can see by what extent on the height of the path around the pitch.  On the far side from the Maine Stand you can get an excellent view above the dugouts due to this situation.  Floodlights came from Walthamstow Park Avenue, and the club are always looking for a few bits and bobs from other grounds.

The clubhouse is on the far side of the car park, and fans simply give a nod and a wink to the turnstile operator as they leave and come back in at half time.  There is a tea bar behind the terrace at one end.  Built for joy rather than comfort.

How to get to Capershotts
A very easy ground to find by car.  Simply exit the M25 at junction 26 and then take the 2nd exit if you are coming Anti-clockwise around the M25 into A121 Honey Lane, or 3rd exit if you are coming around the other way.  At the next roundabout take the 3rd exit into Sewardstone Road and pass over the M25.  The ground is the first right BEFORE the cemetary.  If you pass the Nissan garage you have gone too far.  Parking is free of charge.  Nearest train is Waltham Cross where you can catch a bus to the ground from the bus station opposite the station exit.

How to get a ticket for Capershotts
With a capacity of 3,500 and a record crowd of less than 500, getting in on the day is never a problem at Capershotts.  Prices are Adults £8, Children just £1 – absolute bargain for Ryman’s football and something the club are very proud of.