Non League Club

The Silent H

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on February 24, 2013

Looking around for a game to go to on Saturday morning I took inspiration from my daughter, who was happily playing with her Moshi Monsters (21st century version of Weebles in my view) singing to herself about her Heart Skipping a Beat.

8501817584_2f35b1ab3f_b“Where should I go today, Bella?”

“I know, let’s all go to Witam!”

I had no idea where she was talking about, unless she was referring to Witton, which of course we all known is just a part of Northwich and home to Witton Albion. So I asked her why she had suggested such a strange thing.

“Oh my Goodness, me and you – the Army of Two – let’s go to Witham! I know you are Busy, and you know I am a bit of a Troublemaker but Please Don’t Let Me Go to Ikea with Mum. I’m wearing my Heart on My Sleeve and I want to go with you”

At this point my eldest daughter came in the room and gave her little sister a round of applause. It appeared that they had a childish competition to see who could get the most song titles from one artist in one sentence. I mean, what a ridiculous game. Who on earth would play a game like that, especially in a national newspaper report (let’s move on quickly). I Still had no idea who she was trying to refer to.

“Dad, you are so square. She is talking about Olly Murs”

Of course, Olly Murs, I said, pretending I knew more about the cheeky chap than the fact he wore a silly hat everywhere. Apparently her little speech had six of Olly’s “greatest hits” in and I am proud to say I knew none of them. It seemed that Littlest Fuller was a bit smitten with Olly and was keen to go to where he lived to see if he was about. Not as much as some chap from One Direction mind. It seems the latest trend in the life of a 9/10 year old girl is to change your surname to the boy band member you “love” the most. So my daughter was currently referred to by her friends as Mrs. Tomlinson. Honestly, kids of today.

Of course I initially said “no” to such a flight of fancy, but then I realised that she was talking about Witham (but with the slient ‘h’ of course) and not Witton. Hmm….Witham. Home of Witham Town. Ryman League North. Never been there. And they are at home. Could I? Should I? Would I? Oh yes.

To be most famous for the birthplace of an X-Factor run up didn’t fill me with much hope that a cultural afternoon in Witham was high on the agenda. It does, of course, have the River Brain (one of my favourite British River’s along with the Mint and the Biss) and is the home to Britain’s 150th busiest train station, but nothing to really amuse a nine year old. However, I had a trump card up my sleeve for my Olly Murs-loving daughter.

“Why don’t we go and see where he used to play football?” She hates football but I had pushed her into a corner. She wanted a tour of Olly’s haunts, and Witham Town was one of those. Apparently, according to Wikipedia anyway so it probably isn’t true, Olly played for “The Town” before he made the, ahem, “big time”. Sometimes I am a bad bad Dad.

So in the TBIR Taxi we climbed and down the A12 we went, pulling up outside the Spicer McColl Stadium. “Oh look, what a co-incidence. There is a game on! Let’s go in to see if Olly is watching. He loves football”. Of course he wouldn’t be there but I think I could buy myself at least an hour of her checking every single one of the 100 or so fans who would be watching the game versus AFC Sudbury before she realised she had been tricked. And when that moment came I had armed myself with 3 (three!) Kinder eggs for her to have. As I said, sometimes I am a bad, bad Dad.

8501953964_56f1cfd2dd_bSo what can I tell you about Witham Town? Well, they have had a bit of a yo-yo existence between the Isthmian and the Essex Senior Leagues in the past decade. Last season they were promoted again as Champions of the County and took their place once more in the Ryman League, reforming their triangle of local derbies with Heybridge Swifts and Maldon & Tiptree. This is a hotbed of Non League football, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise and whilst Witham can boast Olly Murs as a former player, Heybridge could boast Dean Holdsworth as one of their Alummi. They also have dug outs situated the furthest apart I have ever seen, essentially level with each penalty area. Any fourth officials working here must hate it, having to cover more distance than most of the players.

The season so far for Town had been relatively positive. Seventh place coming into the game, but probably too far away from the top five (ironically with Maldon & Tiptree and Heybridge Swifts in there already) for a play off push. This was almost a local derby for visitors AFC Sudbury. Despite being “over the border” in Suffolk, relatively local matches are few and far between and so they were sure to bring a few fans to cheer on their side, who a few years ago would have hoped to have been seriously challenging for promotion themselves instead of a mid-table position.

The Spicer McColl Stadium was easy to find. Round the back of the town centre, once you see Asda, turn left and its next to the railway line. In fact any trains passing by could have an excellent view of the game. Handy to know if there is ever a big cup game here and they can simply park the train, rather than the bus, on the railway lines and watch the game from there. It was also freezing. Really freezing. Ten pounds later (admission, golden goal, raffle) and we were in. Functional sums up the ground. Certainly no lack of cover from the rain and a small main stand, featuring a fantastic glass press box that could seat 2 people at best.

8500835577_538b73fc29_bDog in ground (tick), man with radio pressed to ear (tick), player’s Mum telling her son to “wrap up warm out there” (tick). Almost time for kick off then. One lone Witham Town fan was behind the goal, standing with his own proud display of flags. He was the loudest fan I think I had ever heard. He never gave up supporting his team through the game, despite feeling a bit isolated. Cometh the hour, cometh the referee and the players. Showtime.

Witham Town 1 AFC Sudbury 1 – The Spicer McColl Stadium – Saturday 23rd February 2013
The game was a tale of penalties. Ones that were given, ones that were scored, ones that were missed and ones that were blatantly ignored by an inept official. It is interesting to watch games like these where I have absolutely no clouded allegiance to see how bad some referees are. This chap had 45 minutes to forget.

It started as early as the second minute when a home player was hit from behind in the area by a Sudbury player quite a few seconds after the ball had been played. Commentators would say to an incident like this “it was too early in the game to give it”. Bollocks. Time is irrelevant. It was a penalty, pure and simple. To make matters worse AFC Sudbury went up the other end and a softer challenge on one of their players in the area led to the referee pointing to the spot. These decisions do not “even themselves” out.

8500840589_519dc4c59b_bHowever, the Sudbury player struck the penalty against the post, and then the rebound was also struck against the same post, with a reassuring thud that could be heard at the other end of the ground. Had justice been served? Probably.

Just five minutes later we had another penalty decision. This time the referee saw a challenge in the Sudbury box that was marginal and gave the home side a penalty which they didn’t make any mistake from. 1-0. The Witham fans behind the goal went into overdrive.

The remainder of the half was played out in a relatively bad tempered way. The officials simply had no idea how to control a game that was full of niggly tackles and dissent. Consequently both teams felt like they were trying to physically beat each other rather than play a game of football, and the officials were powerless to do anything about it. Time and time again players from both sides confronted the officials yet no action was taken. This is where the League’s focus on the whole Respect campaign and the associated league tables they publish falls down. Some referees I have seen this season would have sent players off for less than I saw here, yet here was one who was not prepared to take any action.

With half time approaching Sudbury drew level. A free-kick from the right was headed on to the far post and Cowley nodded into an empty net. Offside? Quite possibly but that would need an official to be up with play, which he wasn’t. Certainly when the initial ball was delivered the Sudbury players were onside.

After a brief respite from the cold in the bar we returned for the second half. I had hoped that the referee may re-assess his approach to the game to allow it to improve but alas he didn’t. With just over an hour gone and with a dinner date with the Current Mrs. Fuller to keep I departed.

Well, I say dinner date. I had agreed to meet her at Ikea in Thurrock at 5pm. Hang on…Thurrock….That is near East Thurrock, no? And Lewes were at East Thurrock. What a co-incidence! Perhaps we could catch the last 15 minutes there….and perhaps a brief drink in the boardroom.

8500702417_edddfca50e_bTwenty minutes later we pulled up in Corringham, home of East Thurrock. It seemed cheer was very thin on the ground here too. Lewes were losing 1-0. In fact there was really little point in actually coming here at all. We always lose 1-0 here. Twice last year (once in the cup) and always due to a contentious penalty. Today, once again, it appeared that the officials had got it all wrong, with Lewes keeper Thorp being penalised for a foul that even the home keeper said he saw was yards outside the area.

The fifteen minutes I saw was not pretty. In fact Lewes had played ten times better on Monday in their 6-1 defeat at Wealdstone. These are worrying times for the Rooks and with the game against second bottom Carshalton Athletic on Tuesday now bigger than ever. Full time in Corringham, and a quick peak at the scores elsewhere saw that we had missed nothing else at Witham. A trip to Ikea had never seemed so exciting!

In a Nutshell

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on August 13, 2012

After two weeks of Olympic drama, our Greatest Show on Earth had come to an end. Despite frantic F5’ing on the official London 2012 website no further tickets came up that would have fitted our schedule so we had to be content with a Decathlon of watching – 10 different events in 10 different venues. But now it was time to put the football hat on. The Olympics had kept the football off of the back pages for once at it almost slipped out of sight and out of mind. But reality bit hard at my first board meeting of the “new season” and talk came around to the opening of the nPower Championship this weekend. This weekend! Where had the summer gone. I shared my dismay with CMF but she did rightly point out that I had already seen twelve games since my official season start of the 1 July.

I needed to prepare, plan my strategy. It’s not as simple as picking a game and then turning up. Oh no…a 100 game season needs stamina, energy, cunning and above all determination. There was only one thing for it – a pre-season training camp. And I knew just the place. Somewhere free from the trappings of the modern world. No telephone reception, no wi-fi and no cars (In truth based on my recent experience of using T-Mobile that could apply to anywhere in Central London). A complete break to study the form, examine real old fashion maps, have a few beers, run around a lake and then jump in an ice bath.

Our country retreat was perfect. Miles from the main road, surrounded by woodland and with my family. Within an hour of arriving we had seen deer, geese, ducks and rabbits all hopping around our patio. Unfortunately they didn’t stay long. I forgot to add that at Centerparcs you are never more than 1.7 metres from another human being and so our “neighbour” decided to try and catch the duck to put on his BBQ that was filling our villa with acrid smoke.

<a href=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/sam_3010.jpg”><img class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-18507″ title=”SAM_3010″ src=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/sam_3010.jpg&#8221; alt=”” width=”584″ height=”299″ /></a>After an afternoon of research I headed to the bar, not being able to last more than two hours without some kind of link to the outside world. I wandered into the Parc Market and picked up the local paper. On the back page, just above a picture of Jess Ennis was an advert for Bury Town. They were playing their final friendly, on this very night in a local derby against AFC Sudbury.

I had to go. I had three reasons/excuses to give to my girls who were patiently waiting for their Starbucks. One – It was ONLY 12 miles away. Two – It was the only ground in the Ryman Premier League that I didn’t get to last season (and would have been one of three “unvisited” ones this) and Three – I was going on a scouting mission for Lewes. The third wasn’t technically true but as a football club Director I am always on the look out for new players, as well as good ideas that other clubs have adopted. I bought a gingerbread man to soften the blow and after the usual exasperated look to the heavens I had the right level of accreditation.

<a href=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/index-01.jpg”><img class=”alignright size-medium wp-image-18485″ title=”index-01″ src=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/index-01.jpg?w=214&#8243; alt=”” width=”214″ height=”300″ /></a>So I headed off down the roads of Suffolk into the heart of Ruddles County. Bury St Edmunds, the home of Greene King and their world famous IPA. The town is a classic Market Town, the ancient hub for the local area. I parked the car and had a wander. Eddie The Shoe had given me a tip. Now normally his tips involve animals with four legs (and pretty good they are too) but in this instance it was one to refresh the parts other venues cannot reach. “Head for <a href=”http://thenutshellpub.co.uk/&#8221; target=”_blank”>The Nutshell</a> – Britain’s smallest pub”. If it wasn’t for the huge sign outside I would have missed it. Like an attraction at Disneyland they had an efficient queuing system outside to ensure there was no overcrowding inside. They were queued one deep at the bar, and as soon as I had my turn I triumphantly raised my Abbot Ale above my head in triumph before moving aside to let someone else reach the bar.

A few minutes walk through the cobbled market square, passed the impressive cathedral and I was walking into Ram Meadow, home of Bury Town. The club had risen through the regional leagues, before being accepted into the Southern League.  A transfer request to the Ryman was granted in 2007 and since then their progress had been mirrored by fellow Suffolk rivals Lowestoft Town, and over the past couple of seasons both had reached the Ryman Premier League, and almost one step further, losing in the last two end of season play offs. Suffolk was fast becoming the hotbed of Non League football. As well as the two “giants”, they will be joined this season by Leiston Town (basically Sizewell Nuclear Reactor FC) who have also shot up the leagues, Needham Market and tonight’s visitors, AFC Sudbury.

<strong>Bury Town 2 AFC Sudbury 2 – Friday 10th August 2012 – Ram Meadow</strong>
<a href=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/sam_3015.jpg”><img class=”alignleft size-medium wp-image-18505″ title=”SAM_3015″ src=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/sam_3015.jpg?w=300&#8243; alt=”” width=”300″ height=”221″ /></a>Ram Meadow is a fantastic Non League ground. Standing behind the north goal the view of the cathedral in the background is one of the best in English grass roots football. It just oozes character, the main stand looking like a relic from a bygone era yet still functional today. The modest crowd were enjoying football being back on the agenda, as well as the cold Greene King IPA. Hopes were high that this season Bury Town could go one step further than their previous two seasons Play Off spot, although I am sure the likes of Lowestoft, Carshalton Athletic and of course, the mighty Rooks would have a say in that.

The first half was a pretty even affair. Both teams had the ball in the net in the first thirty minutes, but the assistant referee on both occasions had the final say. Bury looked to play the ball up to their big centre-forward whenever they could and he was a constant thorn in the side of the Sudbury defence. However, whilst this was only a friendly, it was difficult to see who the higher placed team in the league structure was.

The opening goal came in the 40th minute and was scored by a real blast from the past. Sudbury’s number 10 took the ball into his stride, beat his man and hit the ball across the Bury keeper into the corner of the net. He had been doing this for nearly fifteen years since I first saw him as a raw 16 year old playing for West Ham’s impressive youth team alongside the likes of Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard. Lee Boylan is his name and he was burdened with the tag from an early age as being the “new Tony Cottee”. Unfortunately he never got the chance under Harry Redknapp who preferred to bring in unknown, untried and basically useless foreign players. His “United Nations” side of the mid to late 1990’s may well have been entertaining to watch but it stifled the growth of the young players coming through and ultimately cost him his job in circumstances that still have never been fully explained today (although Tom Bowers in his book Broken Dreams does a good job).

Half time saw the fans head into the bar for some Olympic action. Those who had sneaked in early would have seen Team GB make a complete pigs ear of the 4 x 100m relay, which was then followed from a complete masterclass by the US women who smashed a world record that has been held for so long that the previous holders do not exist as a country anymore (East Germany).

Pint of IPA in hand I ventured out for the second half.

Both teams had made changes and it was unsurprising that the first ten minutes or so were cagey, with both sides holding onto the ball. But it was Sudbury who doubled the lead on the hour mark when that man Boylan again scored, poking the ball home at the near post from a Webb cross.

<a href=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/sam_3020.jpg”><img class=”alignright size-medium wp-image-18506″ title=”SAM_3020″ src=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/sam_3020.jpg?w=210&#8243; alt=”” width=”210″ height=”300″ /></a>Bury looked wounded and with local pride at stake they pushed forward. Sam Reed was unlucky with his shot that hit the crossbar with the keeper well beaten. Finally they got their goal when Hall seemed to walk straight through the Sudbury defence and had time to pick his spot. Three minutes later they had an equalizer when Billy Clarke took advantage of defensive indecision.

For those of you older than 45 you may remember an incident from the 1970’s when George Best “tapped” the ball out of keeper Gordon Banks’s hands and tapped the ball home. Debate raged for ages about the incident as Banks appeared to only have one hand on the ball and thus Best could go for it (A similar incident happened in the 1990’s with Andy Dibble and Gary Crosby in a Man City v Forest game). With just three minutes to go something similar happened here. The Sudbury keeper Danny Gay appeared to have the ball in his hands before Bury’s Clarke kicked it out and then tapped it in. The referee certainly didn’t see it, and neither did his assistant. After some consultation they gave the benefit of the doubt to the defending team.

<a href=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/sam_3013.jpg”><img class=”alignleft size-medium wp-image-18508″ title=”SAM_3013″ src=”http://stuartnoel.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/sam_3013.jpg?w=300&#8243; alt=”” width=”300″ height=”225″ /></a>I didn’t want to push my luck too much, so dead on 90 minutes I headed back to the pre-season training camp and the bosom of my family. It seemed that swimming in my absence was a success and I was welcomed back with a freshly poured London Pride on the table and a smile on their faces. Pre-season training was going well!

From the peace and relaxation of our Suffolk training base we move onto serious heavy duty football season conditioning training next weekend as we head down to Nord Rhein Westfalon. What better way to get really in shape for the season than a trip to the land of beer, sausages and general mirth and mayhem at the hands of <a href=”http://twitter.com/aitinpot&#8221; target=”_blank”>Kenny Legg</a>, <a href=”http://twitter.com/therealstoffers&#8221; target=”_blank”>The Real Stoffers</a> and <a href=”http://twitter.com/dannylast&#8221; target=”_blank”>Danny Last</a>. Of course, it is always Danny Last.

The heart of a king but the body of a woman

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on March 25, 2012

Back in the days of Henry VIII when the boat was the only method of continental travel, Tilbury was THE place to be. It was like the Las Vegas of England. It was the hotbed of sin, and the home of the finest culture. Quite simply, everyone who was anyone would at some point be seen in Tilbury, or Tilberia as it used to be known. Its fame and fortune came because of its strategic location on the Thames Estuary. Even today it has an important place in everyday commerce as one of the first or last (depending on how you view it) deep water docks on the river.

On the 19th August 1588, just as the rest of England was preparing for the start of another season of ye olde football, Queen Elizabeth (obviously the first but she was never known as the first as she would not have known there would be a second 400 years later) made a surprise visit to Tilbury. War was in the air with the Spanish (what were the odds on a Spanish victory back then I wonder?  Same as for them winning Euro2012?), and any day soon it was expected that an Armarda would sail up the Thames, stopping at Margate for a visit to Bembon Brothers Amusement Park, before continuing to London where they would buy a day pass to rape and pillage. Lizzy was obviously a tad concerned so she wanted to rally the troops at Tilbury. Her speech is one of legend today and it included the immortal lines:-

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”

Rousing stuff indeed and it seemed to do the job as today we can still call the settlement Tilbury and not El Tilburia. But the river still dominates the daily life of the town. The fort that was build to protect the Thames is still in existence, the landing stages now welcome more paper for newsprint than anywhere else in Europe and cruise goers get their first taste of London with a view of Tilbury power station when they alight at the London International Passenger Terminal here. (more…)