Non League Club

Bulls create FA Cup history in the sun Shine

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on August 21, 2016

CqN87_iWAAAabgoThe was the top FA Cup tie in the Preliminary Round.  That was undisputed as AFC Mansfield were first in alphabetical order.  It was also another first for AFC Mansfield as this would be their first ever home tie in the world’s oldest cup competition.  In fact, this would only be their second ever FA Cup tie, after last season when they lost 2-1 to today’s visitors, The Shiners from South Normanton.

It has only been four years since they were formed as a community club by a splinter group of Mansfield Town directors, who were unhappy with the direct that the Stags were going.  They found a home at The Forest Town Arena, a cycling track 2.5 miles north-east of Field Mill.  Since then they have won promotion twice, taking their place in the Northern Counties East Premier League, or step 5 of the Non-League pyramid to me and you and reached the 5th round of the FA Vase two years ago.

Whilst The Bulls will probably never gain the same profile as other “protest” clubs such as FC United of Manchester or AFC Wimbledon, their progress so far has to be admired.  Funds are tight in the grass-roots of the game but focusing on the community aspect will win them friends and enable them to find their level.  Oh, and their manager is called Rudy Funk which makes them a winner in my book.

I’d manage to escape from Centerparcs for a couple of hours, leaving the Fuller girls high up some trees, tied very tight to some ropes.  A few weeks ago when I looked at potential “diversions” the one that stood out was a potential tie at Clipstone.  Alas, they lost at Brigg Town and I had a moment of panic where I thought I may have to spend the whole afternoon in some sub-tropical biosphere carnage, without a game within a “reasonable” distance.  By reasonable I had been told I could go AWOL for three hours maximum.  “Why don’t you go to AFC Mansfield?” Suggested Lolly.  “What? Why do you say that? I scoffed, after all what does she really know about the East Midlands Non-League scene?  “Well, they are the first game on the list and Mansfield is just *there* on the map”.  Whilst I didn’t let on, she was onto something.  Clever girl my eldest daughter sometimes.

So at 2.30pm I headed out of Centerparcs, passing the Workshop Van Hire Stadium home to Clipstone FC, the headstocks of the former Clipstone Colliery that dominate the skyline, a boarded up pub called The Olympic Spirit and a pet grooming parlour (I think) called Doggy Style.  A couple of miles down the B6030, take a left and there was the Forest Town Welfare with the Arena behind it.

29011184182_fc9c5632a5_kWithin two minutes I had spent £10.50 on admission, a programme, a beer and a chip “cob”.  Ten Pounds Fifty.  That wouldn’t even buy a programme these days at Wembley on Cup Final day. Ah yes, The Emirates FA Cup, two organisations that have pots of cash have come together.  What interest do they really have in these early rounds?  Zero really.  736 clubs enter the club, £30 million was the reported fee the FA have received yet the level of prize money on offer in the early rounds of the club has not changed since last season.  Today’s winner would receive £1,925.  The prize money on offer in the latter stages of the tournament means almost nothing to be big clubs.  I’m sure that the £1.8m Man Utd won by beating Everton in last year’s final was a footnote in the bank account, whereas the prize money in the early rounds really means something for the little clubs.

So here is a suggestion.  Reduce prize money for Premier and Football League clubs by 50% and use that as a pot for the losing teams in the Qualifying Rounds to soften any blow of elimination.  Or perhaps use the money to fund a “kids go free” scheme in the cup for all Step 7 and below clubs?

So armed with food, drink and programme I took my seat on the concrete steps of the Arena, watching the teams warm up.  To my right Mansfield’s substitutes and a man dressed as a bull peppered the reserve keeper with shots, with the Shiners subs tried to boot the ball as high in the air as possible.  Ah yes, the South Normanton Athletic nickname.  Up there with the best in my view.

29116468405_34ff130dd5_kThe nickname ‘Shiners’ derives from the mid-1750s when South Normanton was at the heart of the ribbed stocking industry. The people involved in this craft worked long hours sitting at their windows on wooden stools, so much so that the backsides of their trousers became very shiny making them instantly recognisable as coming from the South Normanton area; since then local people have been referred to as ‘Shiners’.  Not my words, but those of Wikipedia so it must be true.

AFC Mansfield 2 South Normanton Athletic 0 – The Forest Town Arena – Saturday 20th August 2016
They were certainly dancing in the streets of Forest Town after AFC Mansfield won their first ever FA Cup tie, easily beating the conditions and The Shiners thanks to two second half goals from Gary Bradshaw and earning a big cheque for £1,925 in the process.  Wouldn’t it be more fun if at the end of the game they got a small FA Cup (one that gets bigger depending on the round you are in) and a cheque (again getting bigger in size depending on the round) presented on the pitch?  They could even have someone by the side of the pitch engraving their name in the trophy, just like at Wembley, but perhaps using a compass or a large safety-pin.

The strong wind caused both teams issues but it was the home side that always looked the more comfortable as they created a number of first half chances but a combination of the bobbly pitch, the strong wind and comical attacking somehow kept the game goal less.  The club offer a strange twist on the golden goal where you can buy two tickets, one for each half.  The chap next to me saw his luck wasn’t in when he drew minute 1 and 90.  I was relatively happy with my 73rd minute ticket though.

The Welfare Club was relatively full as the crowd ventured in a half-time to escape the rain.  Sky Sports on the TV’s, decent bar and a couple of snooker tables.  Years ago the locals would have been protecting their pints of mild.  Today it was all bottles of rosé in ice buckets on the tables and talk of  The Great British Bake Off.

29011200432_cec726563c_kThe second half saw the home side take a more direct approach, with the wind behind them.  Finally the deadlock was broken when striker Gary Bradshaw poked home in what I thought was the 73rd minute.  Alas, the official time-keeper ruled me a minute out.  My career record of winning the golden goal still stands at one (Cray Wanderers v Lewes in April 2012 if you ask).  The South Normanton manager was not impressed with his defence, nor the officials a few minutes later when his centre midfielder was flagged offside.  It seemed that he had done his homework and was quoting chapter and verse on the new regulations to a bemused linesman.  He was right too.

AFC Mansfield wrapped the game up with ten minutes to go as that man Bradshaw picked up on sloppy defending and rounded the keeper to slot into an empty net.  The Shiners would be heading back to Derbyshire empty-handed whilst The Bulls would be able to look forward to another home tie in two weeks time as they would be hosting Stratford Town.

The magic of the FA Cup had come to Forest Town.  It’s just a shame that the powers that be still aren’t taking the qualifying rounds seriously.  Good luck to AFC Mansfield and let’s hope that the prize money they earn will help them build on and off the pitch.

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Holm from Holm

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on May 8, 2016

It’s been two weeks since the Lewes season finished with the home draw against East Thurrock United and already I, like many of my fellow Rooks fans, have Non-League withdrawal symptoms.  Fortunately, some leagues don’t end before snow has finished falling in London, even understanding that football + good weather often = big crowds.  After last week’s Northern roadtrip today’s adventure was a little closer to home with the final game in the history of the Kent Invicta League takng place on the Isle of Sheppey as Glebe were facing Sutton Athletic in the League Cup final.

I often rode my bike around the lanes of Sutton-at-Hone as a kid.  I never knew it had a football team until a few years ago whilst Glebe are now based just a couple of miles away from TBIR Towers – in fact they play next to the Littlest Fuller’s school.  They are an ambitious club who currently run over a dozen teams and want to build links with the local community.  They finished 3rd this season in the Kent Invicta League and will hope to go one (or two) better next season.

The Kent Invicta League was introduced back in 2011 as Step 6 in the Non-League pyramid but sat uncomfortably between the old Kent League and the new Kent League, which had now become the Southern Counties Eastern League so it could include teams from South London (dare I say it, Surrey).  As of next season the league would officially become the SCEFL Division 2.  Champions Bearsted and Runners-up Sheppey United would be taking their place just one step below the Ryman League South.

26838482526_bb63437209_z With little or no other football action in the area, and decent support from both teams it was encouraging to see a crowd of over 300 turn out on an initially sunny afternoon at the impressive Holm Park, home of Sheppey United.

The Isle of Sheppey boasts a population of over 40,000 and with the nearest club at the same or higher level being over 15 miles away they have a captive audience.  The club have built some impressive facilities for the local community and are now starting to reap the benefits as they climb the leagues.  Holm Park certainly wouldn’t look out of place at the Ryman League Premier Division level.

Glebe 2 Sutton Athletic 1 – Holm Park, Sheppey – Saturday 7th May 2016

All cup finals should be settled by a spectacular winner and that was certainly the case in this one.  Glebe, having finished just a couple of wins off a promotion place came into the cup final as favourites but it was Sutton Athletic who dictated the early play, getting their reward in the 10th minute when Jonny Murray scored.  The turning point in the game came five minutes later when a miscommunication between the Sutton keeper, Dean James, and one of his centre-backs saw him way out of position and the Glebe forward with an open goal.  The defender took one for the team and hauled down the centre-forward, earning a red card that few people could ever complain about.

Whilst Glebe couldn’t make anything of the resulting free-kick they started to make the man-advantage pay.  They threw on more attacking options at the break but simply couldn’t find a way through the resolute Sutton defence until the 86th minute when James Alderman struck the ball through a crowd of players and in via a post to take the game to extra-time.

With a man advantage Glebe always looked like they would win whilst Sutton were trying to hold on for the penalty-kick lottery.  With six minutes left, Glebe forward Ryan Golding defied gravity for such a big man and scored a superb overhead kick (captured majestically here by Alan Coombes) that saw the trophy head to Chislehurst.

Both teams gave a great account of themselves and the rude state of health in the Non-Leagues in Kent, whilst Sheppey United’s impressive off the field progress underlined what can be achieved through the community effect.

Northern Soul

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on May 8, 2016

Despite the fact we drowned our sorrows on a season to mostly forget last Saturday, there was still a fair amount of business to be decided in other leagues up and down the country.  Not only was there the small matter of deciding who would be moving up from the Ryman North and South but the National Leagues were also heading into their final games.  A sensible decision by the Conference meant that the final games in the Premier league would kick off at 5.30pm, meaning that if you picked the right games, you could see an earlier and a later game.

Never one to need an invitation to get involved in something like that I packed up the car and drove 252 miles north through rain, hail, sleet and snow to Harrogate to watch their final game of the season against Corby Town.  I could have lied to the Current Mrs Fuller and said this was a scouting trip; to some extent it was – a visit to a new ground means looking at their facilities, having a chat with officials and trying to get under the bonnet of the workings of their club – but this was purely down to having a rare opportunity to spread my wings and go for a wander, being a Football Tourist for the day.

Harrogate Town 5 Corby Town 0 – Wetherby Road – Saturday 30th April 2016
Harrogate Town had already sealed their Conference North Play-off spot and were hosting already relegated Corby Town.  The winter weather had passed over the Pennines and the sun was shining as crowds built up down Wetherby Road to get in.  An old chap behind me in the queue moaned that if this was what it would be like if they did go up to the Conference Premier, he wouldn’t be coming again.  He also said if they lost in the Play-offs he wouldn’t be coming again – you can’t please everyone!

26140376933_f671c8b014_kHarrogate have a decent ground with three of the four sides with good-sized structures.  There was also a hospitality area with a decked “porch” with nice tables and chairs set out.  There was a real family atmosphere feel around the ground, with kids having space to play their own games of football adjacent to the pitch.  Their 1919 hospitality area was doing a roaring trade before the game as well as the food van which was serving the staple in these parts, pie, peas and mint sauce plus a huge home-made sausage roll that would have made Katie Price blush.

26140279633_afa0f8ccfa_kThe difference between the two sides was evident within the first few minutes as Harrogate raced to a 3-0 before I’d finished said sausage roll.  Chatting to one of their officials it seems that to compete in this league you need a budget in the region of £5,000 per week, although Champions Solihull Moors have managed to win the league on a smaller budget.  Travel is a major issue for clubs with teams like Lowestoft Town, Gloucester City and Worcester City having to play against Barrow and Harrogate.  Whilst there isn’t one team who appears to have tried to buy their way to the league, next season the league will feature Darlington and Salford City, both of whom have significant resources behind them.

The club have a decent, vocal support though, who kept encouraging the team throughout the game.  In truth they could have scored double figures – whether that was simply the fact that the visitors had already given up for the season or that everything clicked over the 90 minutes.  One of the biggest cheers of the day was on the news that Leeds United had lost to doomed Charlton Athletic at Elland Road.  Whilst only being 20 miles down the road, the club didn’t seem to suffer in terms of attendances – in fact with the club still facing so much off-the-field turmoil, it has actually benefited Harrogate with a number of fans shunning the professional game for the beauty of the Non-League variety.

Could they cope with life at a higher level?  They certainly have the facilities in place and hopefully more locals, like today, would come and give the club a try.  After all, clubs of a similar size such as Boreham Wood, Welling United, Braintree Town and Guiseley had managed it for more than a season.  Good luck to Harrogate.

Guiseley AFC 4 Torquay United 3 – Nethermoor Park – Saturday 30th April 2016
My choice for the later game turned out to be inspired.  Just twenty minutes away on the other side of the runway of Leeds-Bradford Airport, is the small town of Guiseley, famed for being the birthplace of Harry Ramsden and Harry Corbett (he of Sooty and not of Steptoe fame).  They would be hosting Torquay United in a must-win final game of the season.  Even if they could gain a victory, results across the moors at Halifax could still see them relegated.

26138079974_c44c4ab0bd_kIt is fair to say that nearly 2,000 squeezed into the tiny Nethermoor Park ground on the edge of the town, making enough noise to be heard in Lancashire.  They raced into a 3-0 lead in the first half, with Torquay, already safe, mentally on the beach, but then just before half-time Halifax scored.  With Boreham Wood also winning, Guiseley occupied the final relegation spot.  The Torquay fans took to reminding the home fans of the fact that they would be relegated even if they won which pleased the locals no end.

Torquay finally realised they were here to play football in the second half and pulled two goals back, with veteran centre-half Exodus Geohaghon’s long throw-ins causing no end of issues for Guiseley.  The nerves of the home fans were eased when Macclesfield equalised at Halifax but with Torquay always looking dangerous, Guiseley simply had to try to score.  They did but back came Torquay to make it 4-3.  Every time a Guiseley player went to take a throw he’d ask someone in the crowd what the score was at Halifax..”1-1” came the reply. The final whistle blew and the fans invaded the pitch, but there was no cheering just yet.  It was a good two minutes before the cheer hit the stands.  Halifax had drawn, Guiseley had escaped.

26650810632_83abfd584a_kEven as a neutral it was hard not to be caught up in the celebrations.  Having been in this position myself I know the relief it brings, as well as those promises of “never again”.  The fans, the players and the whole club can celebrate for a day or two before the planning has to start on making sure the same thing doesn’t happen again next year.

I’m sure the footballing authorities would much rather have more “traditional” clubs in the Conference Premier such as Kidderminster Harriers, with their nice Football League ground, but it is clubs like Guiseley and Braintree Town who demonstrate you can upset the odds on modest budgets and give every club in the leagues below that you can have the dream.