Non League Club

Lose your pounds or lose your club

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on February 2, 2013

We all know that Non League football is going through a tough time.  At the top end of the pyramid, clubs like Luton Town, Wrexham and Grimsby Town are operating almost as League clubs still, whilst the “upstarts” of Forest Green Rovers and Newport County have wealthy owners who are gambling on the next step.  The crowds are comparable with their Football League cousins as too are the wage bills.  But even in the top division there exists the “have” and “have-nots”.  This season the Blue Square Bet Premier features ten clubs who have Football League experience in the past.  Most of these still retain a Football League business model.  But at the other end of the spectrum the Conference hosts teams such as Braintree Town, Hyde, Nuneaton, Alfreton and Tamworth.  Clubs who survive on crowds as low as 600 in the case of some of these, competing with full-time outfits.  Even in the Premier League the comparison between the likes of Man City and United and Fulham and Wigan Athletic is not so stark.

8436784684_1952d040f1_bMany clubs reach the Blue Square Bet Premier, but soon slide back down, with the financial burden simply too much.  The season Lewes spent in the top-level of non league football some five years ago almost cost the club its very existence.  Forced to put in additional turnstiles, segregation and other ground-grading criteria, the clubs fail to see additional fans come through the turnstiles to prop up the other side of the balance sheet.  No investment on the pitch soon sees a season long fight against the drop, and with four going down it is hard to escape.  Some clubs are simply too good for the regional Blue Square Bet North/South but not able to compete in the league above.  One such club is Ebbsfleet United.

Last weekend the Chairwomen of the club made a dramatic appeal to the fans:-

“In all seriousness and joking aside, now is the time to stand up and be counted. Whether you are MyFC, Fleet Trust, both or one of our loyal supporters who just enjoys watching the Fleet, please lose your pounds now!

The unfortunate timing of the weather and home fixtures being cancelled has really left the club strapped for cash and the coffers are bare!

LOSE YOUR POUNDS OR LOSE YOUR CLUB!!!!!

The Football Club is asking EVERY MyFootballClub member, EVERY Fleet Trust Member and EVERY Supporter near and far to donate a minimum amount of £30.00 or as much as you can afford to save the club.

Please do not ignore this plea, it is very real and has been decided as a last resort today here at the club.”

Crowds have rarely broken the four figure mark, apart from the two thousand who came to see the long-awaited return of the Dartford “A2” derby.  With Charlton Athletic back in the Championship and still running their coach travel from Gravesend, as well as the High Speed rail line to St Pancreas, and thus almost on Arsenal’s doorstep, fans are choosing alternative Saturday afternoon destinations.  The bad weather had caused postponements, which means the club, like many others, has no income to pay the expenditure of club wages and other bills.  Will such stark appeals work?  In most cases no.  Fans already feel they contribute enough by attending games and buying a beer, or a pie.  The emotional attachment in non league football simply isn’t as strong as we like to think, especially if at £15 for entry when economic times are still tough, other entertainment options are more appealing.

Despite trying various tactics to get Brighton fans along to Lewes this year, our crowds have fallen slightly.  Fans, whilst they may have an “affection” to a non league club, their hearts lie elsewhere.  A short-term cash injection may starve off the wolves today, but unless a club fundamentally changes the way it runs, they will be back,, hungrier than ever in a few months time.  One aspect that has helped boost attendances has been the kids go free scheme.  I still find it amazing to see the amount some clubs in the Non Leagues charge for the next generation of football fan – Borehamwood charge a whopping £6 for an under 12 for instance.

8435699769_04e7b6d2e9_bA Friday night game was a different approach.  The visitors were going to be Macclesfield Town, a club who have got their share of back page headlines this year for their remarkable FA Cup run.  Of course there was a common interest for me.  Town’s manager was none other than Steve King, who up until a year ago was in the hotseat at Lewes.  Since parting ways, King has changed virtually the whole squad at The Moss Rose in an attempt to get them back in the league at the first attempt.  Whilst their league form has been patchy to say the least, his cup exploits have kept the detractors off his back.  Despite the rallying call from the club, there appeared to be little effort to try to get more people through the gate.  No special promotions, no “kids go free”, no “Premier League/Football League Season Ticket Holders get 50% off”.  Whilst this would reduce the revenue per head, it would increase the total revenue as more people who come through the gates.  Logical?

This game couldn’t have been more perfect for me.  My weeks now end with a trip to our French office.  Whilst it’s not Copenhagen, with its fine food, fine location and even finer local scenery, Paris is growing on me.  Eurostar is a civilised way to travel and with my train arriving into Ebbsfleet at 7:15pm it would have been very rude not to walk across the car park and pay my £15 to watch the game against Macclesfield Town.  Unlike the fools at South Eastern railways I could rely on Eurostar to deliver me on time, which they did, and even allowed me to park free (technically not free but a football match loophole meant I didn’t have to pay to park for the whole day).

Ebbsfleet United 0 Macclesfield Town 4 – Stonebridge Road – Friday 1st February 2013

Shall we start with the positives? The club had done well to get the game on, especially with the wet weather in these parts in the last few days.  The pitch looked good although was wearing badly by the end.  The official attendance of 799 (which seemed high compared to eyeballing the crowd) couldn’t complain they didn’t see any action although apart from the 50 or so Macclesfield Town fans they wouldn’t have been best pleased at where it all came.

I’d only just walked through the turnstiles before Town took the lead.  Kieran Murtagh lined up a free kick on the edge of the box and drilled the ball through the wall and into the net.  A big sigh went around Stonebridge Road and the regulars in the Liam Diash Stand though “here we go again”.  But to give them credit Ebbsfleet battled in the first half, and could have equalised had the ball been played into the box earlier.

8435706945_7cd57ebe10_b (1)Just before the break I bumped into “Game a Day” John.  You can be sure if there is a game on any midweek night around London, John will be there.  He say’s it’s all about research (he works for one of the High Street betting companies) but I have a sneaky feeling he is addicted to football.  Always pleasant to chat to him though and we discussed the major issues of the day whilst Macclesfield flattened Ebbsfleet in the second half with some powerful counter attacking.  First Fairhurst scored from close range in an almighty scrap and then Mackreth finished a fine move with a Messi-esque finish.  The fourth, almost on the final whistle again summed up the difference between the two sides in attacking abilities, again scored by Mackreth.

So what can we take away from this game?  Ebbsfleet do seem to be in that state of limbo.  Probably too good, and dare I say it, too big for the Blue Square Bet South, but not quite able to cut it in the Premier.  Travelling costs, as Lewes found, in the Conference National are massive – away trips to far-flung places such as Barrow, Gateshead and Hyde are not cheap days out.  Many clubs are now taking the full-time plunge and that means the opportunity for clubs like Ebbsfleet to make a challenge towards the top of the table is very limited indeed.  They must be looking on with envious eyes at the progress local rivals Dartford are making.

Thumbs up for the Friday night football, but perhaps a few more incentives to get more floating fans through the gates wouldn’t go amiss in future.

CHRISTMAS COMES TWICE A YEAR? Lewes 0 Ebbsfleet United 3

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on February 24, 2011

Why let the pesky weather get in the way of your Christmas?  Well in the case of Lewes FC it doesn’t.  We were all very excited in the extended Fuller household at Christmas to be making the trek down to the Boxing Day game with our Northern cousins (aka Northern Steve and young Liam) for their first ever visit to The Dripping Pan.  But then the weather got in the way and we were forced to watch a complete box set of Glee instead – hardly a fair trade.

The game against Ebbsfleet was duly re-arranged for mid February and 99% of clubs would just have republished the programme with a photocopied insert and be done with it. But this is Lewes we are talking about so we like to be different. And so the directors decided that Christmas would not be cancelled and simply shifted it by nearly two months.  All were welcome, Santa hats certainly obligatory.  The club even went as far as making a promotional video to encourage people to attend.  My only concern was whether the mince pies may have fermented since being kept from Boxing Day?

This was to be my seventh game in just ten days.  Was I bored with football yet?  Not a chance and as I battled my way through the rush hour gridlock on the M25 I thought that this game could be a defining moment in the Rooks season.  A win tonight and it was possible to leapfrog over a number of teams and into safety.  But as we know, “if” and “and” make odd bedfellows (like Eddie Murphy and Scary Spice I always feel).

Lewes 0 Ebbsfleet United 3 – The Dripping Pan – Wednesday 23rd February 2011
Baaah Humbug.  Ebbsfleet became the Grinch that stole Christmas, taking all three points in a game played with swirling mist all around the Christmas decorations.  Three nil flattered them but they took their chances, whilst Lewes didn’t build on the possession they had, especially in the second half.

Lewes faced a bit of an onslaught in the first half and the long ball game employed by Ebbsfleet meant that the Lewes defence had little respite although David Wheeler was a constant thorn in the side of Ebbsfleet’s keeper.  However, despite Lewes’s strong backbone, and attacking flair with Noel and Taylor it was Ebbsfleet who took the lead in route one fashion.  A long punt upfield by keeper and Ashley Carew squeezed between Chris Breach and Sonny Cobbs to slot an angled shot past Chris Winterton.

It was strange that Lewes attacked the Jungle in the second half, as in all my times of watching them this had never happened.  The crowd on the terrace was swelled with at least one Santa Claus (because kids there is only one, right) and in truth Lewes took the game to the visitors with Ebbsfleet riding their luck during a couple of goal mouth scrambles.  ToSH wanted at least a point so took off Anthony Barness and introduced a more attacking formation.  It had two effects.  Lewes peppered the Ebbsfleet goal mouth but simply could not find a way through, whilst they looked more exposed to the counter attack.

And it was this shortage of numbers that led to two late goals by Ebbsfleet as first Calum Willock took advantage of another route one approach with a fantastic finish and then as the game entered injury time Carew scored again to send Ebbsfleet into 2nd place in the table and to leave the Rooks clearing up the wrapping paper and putting Granny’s jumper back in the draw.

A set back to the fight that is all, no more, no less.  Bring on Woking on Saturday is what I say!

More photos from the evening can be found at our Flickr stream here.

 

 

ABBEY NOT WELL – Cambridge United v Kidderminster Harriers

Posted in Uncategorized by stuartnoel on February 20, 2011

We’ve all seen those American movies immortalising the road trip, that carefree adventure on the open road, punctuated by freedom, adventure and hilarious consequences normally involving accidentally driving into “no go” areas, visiting churches dressed as strippers (or strip joints dressed as Nuns) and setting fire to hotel rooms. Well occasionally we get the opportunity to go on a road trip of our own. Who needs strippers and alcohol fuelled conceptual pranks when you could go to Cambridge, Mansfield, Hyde and Gainsborough all in the space of five days. We are really living the dream here I can tell you.

And who needs a convertible to cruise Route 66 when you can have a 6 year old Zafira with crappy air conditioning cruising up the A1? It was of course Half Term and thus that means time with the family and football. The two go hand in hand right? Well, they do in the TBIR book and so we were heading up north to spend time with the extended CMF family, meaning some jolly japes with Northern Steve. And he had lined up quite a feast of football fun for us. A Evostik Premier League double header with Glapwell versus Stamford followed by a trip to see Gainsborough Trinity versus Gloucester City with the Blue Square Bet North game sandwiched in the middle between local Manchester rivals Hyde United and Stalybridge Celtic? Jealous yet? Well how about if I tell you they would be book-ended by Cambridge United versus Kidderminster Harriers and Lewes versus Ebbsfleet United. An 800 mile road trip encompassing five games in five counties. Green with envy now?

Non League football is important to me, and it should be to you dear readers too. Because if Non League football dies, then eventually so will the game at the highest level. I love nothing better these days than heading off for some new grass roots destination and feeling the history ooze through the pores of a ground with real history. Attendances in all levels of football are falling on the whole. Premier League, Championship, Football League and Non League. Some fans are being priced out, but in general we are now reaping the reward of the lost generation of fans, the teenagers and young adults who were priced out of attending games in the past decade. And the situation is just going to get worse. Unless clubs start to encourage Dads and Sons back onto the terraces/shiny plastic seats those seats will sit empty in ten years time.

Non League clubs are doing their bit to grab this space. Many clubs at the Blue Square Bet level offer free admission for children, others charge a nominal pound or two. So I was going to do my own research as to how five different clubs were approaching the situation, starting with a Friday night visit to The Abbey Stadium to watch Cambridge United host Kidderminster Harriers in the Blue Square Bet Premier league.

A few weeks before the game there was some doubt if there was actually be a game on at all. Despite a decade ago this game being a Football League clash, Kidderminster had come into the game in a whole world of financial trouble. On Sunday 6th February The Non League Paper had led with the headline of a potential move into administration for the club, the result of trying to chase the dream back of the Football League.

Cambridge United themselves were hardly out of the financial woods. They too had invested in trying to get back in the league, and went into the Play Off Final in 2009 against Torquay United as favourites, only to see the Seagulls win 2-0 on the day.  Manager Gary Brabin was announced as the Conference manager of the season and was then promptly sacked by the board for not getting them back into the lead.  Nothing like a dose of realism from the men in charge.

He was replaced by ex-Leyton Orient manager Martin Ling, who lasted just 8 days, resigning over “irrecoverable differences of opinion with owner George Rolls”.  Rolls then left and a new board was appointed and guess who they chose as new manager?  Martin Ling.

Cambridge finished Ling’s first season in 10th place. This season, with the club sitting again in 10th place in early January the club’s owners put the club up for sale citing the need for new funds to take the club forward. Despite interest being expressed from a number of parties, no new owner has yet been found. The club’s landlords Grosvenor Group revealed the plans for a new community stadium, including potential new locations both within the city and outside it.  As if this wasn’t enough for the long suffering fans, Martin Ling left the club and has been replaced for the time being by Jez George. Who needs stability in football eh?

Our last trip to The Abbey Stadium had been in September 2009 in an eventful game for more than one reason. On that sunny day we had seen the home team take a 3-0 first half lead against ten-men Luton Town, only to end up losing 4-3 in a game that ended with riot police on the pitch. On that day we had been guests of Luton Town manager Mick Harford and after the game we sat down with him and discussed his tactical genius and what he said in the dressing room at half time. Harford was a hero to the Luton faithful and so hundreds, if not thousands of fans were amazed that just four days later he was sacked by the club as they sat in 5th place after just a handful of games into their first game since relegation from the Football League. And where did they finish eight months later? In 5th place of course. Football madness at its best.

Cambridge United 1 Kidderminster Harriers 2 – The Abbey Stadium – Friday 18th February 2011
I simply cannot get my head around some of these ground names.  Earlier today I read an excellent blog post on European Football Weekends about the Hamburg derby, which was being played at the Intech Arena.  Where?  Well apparently HSV’s Volksparkstadion had been renamed AGAIN this summer.  AOL Arena, HSH Nordbank, Colorline, Mighty Mouse Arena – it’s all the same to me.  So forgive me Cambridge fans for not saying I visited the R Costings Stadium for this game.  It is the Abbey, and will always be the Abbey.  Rant over.

There was a time not long ago when Cambridge United won an award for the best League ground to visit(a scoring matrix from a book written by Jon Ladd) primarily due to their bacon rolls.  Unfortunately the bacon was not as I always remembered it and so I headed for a drink instead.  After a quick beer in the Green King portable pub in the car park (a portakabin done out with a bar inside) I headed Stand behind the south end goal at The Abbey and you can feel the history seeping its way from the old Main Stand or the covered terrace, in a time when John Beck played it long, and Dion Dublin well was simply long.  On a cold February night with the TV cameras from Premier Sports in attendance the locals had come out to support their team.

Ah Premier Sports.  Now that is a strange deal.  Picking up the pieces from the collapse of Setanta, Premier Sports are showing 30 games this season on a pay per view model.  So far they have not released any subscription figures but I would not imagine many nationwide fans would have paid their £6.99 for this one.  So it is unclear who is the winner in this deal.

The game started with a flurry of open play with both teams on the front foot.  Both keepers were called into action during the opening twenty minutes and a goal looked imminent, ruining my 8/1 on a goalless draw.

Almost on the stroke of half time Kidderminster opened the scoring, perhaps against the run of play.  A long cross from the right was missed by the Cambridge defence and found its way to Sean Canham who drilled the ball home.  Just two minutes later Cambridge were almost level when a free kick from the edge of the box was headed off the line by a Kidderminster defender.

The main talking point in the half was the five yellow cards shown by the referee.  Was there a bad tackle anywhere?  No, but he fell into the trap of booking one player so early on that any similar tackle had to result in a booking.  Shame really as it spoilt an attacking half.

Oh, I forgot to mention that one the way I heard a cringeworthy advert on the radio on the way up.  “A right old cockney knees up” can be had by all on Monday night at Upton Park for the game versus Burnley.  For ONLY £49 you get a pie and mash supper, a pint, a programme, a padded seat and “much much more”…well based on the fact a ticket is £15, a programme £3.50, a pint the same and pie and mash is lets say a £5 it must be more than £23 worth of “much more”.  Desperate measures from an increasingly desperate club.  Back to the Blue Square Bet Premier…

How’s your luck! Five minutes in, Cambridge break and Kidderminster full back Vaughan who has already been booked hacks down the Cambridge forward.  The referee calls him over, and it appears he is going to get a second yellow.  Harriers captain Briggs protests, the referee sees the linesman’s flag up for offside and so cannot book Vaughan for the tackle but books Briggs instead for his protest!

The game ebbed and flowed after that.  Both team had chances and with the last throw of the dice Cambridge used up their substitutes.  With the first minute of injury time played Adam Marriott looked to have rescued a point for the home side as he scored from a free kick some 25 yards out.  But when the luck isn’t with you, it really isn’t with you and two minutes later Kidderminster’s substitute Jamille Matt headed home the winner from Matty Blair’s excellent cross.

The defeat meant that Cambridge had now gone eight games without a win and slid further down the table, whilst three points game the Harriers a vital boost upwards towards the playoffs.

The roadtrip was well underway…next stop Glapwell, or so we thought!

More pictures from the evening can be found at our Flickr stream here.